Currie Cup Final: Free State Cheetahs v Blue Bulls Preview

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The Cheetahs take on the Bulls at Toyota Stadium this Saturday with 2016 Currie Cup honours on the line. 

So it comes down to a battle between Franco Smith’s unbeaten Free State Cheetahs and Nollis Marais' Blue Bulls. The hosts have played a mesmerizing brand of rugby this term which reaching their zenith against the Lions in last week’s semi-final. The Bulls have produced some decent rugby but have been more reliant on brute strength and territorial kicking to get them to the showpiece final.

So who will come out on top in this clash of styles? Let’s see if we can find out.



Cheetahs v Bulls | Saturday 22 October | Toyota Stadium | 16:00

To Win (80 Mins)
Cheetahs 7/20 | Draw 22/1 | Bulls 22/10
Handicap
Cheetahs -7.5 (9/10) | Bulls (+7.5) 9/10
To Lift Cup
Cheetahs | Bulls
*To be added upon release
Cheetahs
I still can’t believe the Cheetahs were 12/1 to win the tournament before a ball was kicked. Even more unbelievable, is the fact that I only put R300 on them winning it. I mean all the signs were there. Out of the big unions, the Cheetahs were going to lose the least amount of players to Springbok call-ups and overseas clubs. They also have one of the most astute coaches in the Currie Cup and have some of the hottest prospects among their ranks.

Anyway, that’s enough dwelling in the land of missed opportunities, let’s swiftly move onto the meat of this piece, and boy do the Cheetahs have some solid meat in their squad. If Francois Venter and Nico Lee are the prime cuts – capable of scything their way through any opposition pallet – then Ox Nche is that two and a half kilogram lazy aged steak, capable of taking out any unfortunate soul brave enough to take him on.

Perhaps that isn’t an apt description for the Bloemfontein-native. I mean the bloke is a rather trim prop, weighing in at just over just over 105 kilograms. But his raw power and appetite to dominate his opposite number at scrum time, see him come out of most set pieces as the victor. He also has a pair of wheels on him that his halfway line breaks attest to.

Ox isn't the only Cheetahs front ranker to really make a mark during the competition. His partner in crime Torsten van Jaarsveld has also enjoyed a standout campaign. Where Ox is a more modern sort of prop, Van Jaarsveld is a throwback to an old school hooker. You may not see the Namibian international galavanting down the touchline ala Dane Coles, but you know you’ll get a solid shift out of the big man. You also know you’re going to win the majority of your own put in with Van Jaarsveld feeding the lineout. The hooker is also a mean tackler as Springbok prop Julian Redelinghuys will attest to – Van Jaarsveld was the man who broke Redelinghuys neck last Saturday.

At this point you may be wondering why I'm paying so much attention to the Cheetahs heavies, especially considering the Free Staters have the best-attacking stats in the tournament. There is some method to my madness, as I believe this is where the game will be won or lost. Look, as much as Nollis Marais' men have proved that they’re capable of scoring tries, I just can’t see the Bulls taking a “keep the ball in hand” approach to this one.

Marais knows his side will be outgunned in a loose and high-scoring game – that is the Cheetahs forte after all. So with the Bulls likely to go the conservative route and look to play the percentages, a lot is going to hinge on how the Cheetahs front up at the set piece as well as at ruck time. While Cheetahs sides of the past may have crumbled in front of a heavier and more physical pack, this Free State pack seems to have a lot more physicality to it.

One Free State forward I’ve yet to mention who really deserves a few lines written about him is Uzier Cassim. The flanker has enjoyed a stellar season and really stood out in last week’s semi-final victory. His hard running and tackling will be crucial to the Cheetahs negating the threat posed by the Bulls physical back row.



Bulls
The Bulls were made to work for it but managed to pull off a win at Loftus last week. Having trailed by a point with only two minutes of the game remaining, things looked rather glum for the Loftus faithful. A moment of brilliance from South African under 20’s scrum-half Ivan van Zyl would send the crowd into raptures, however.

The nuggety number nine, who would not have even been part of the Bulls match day 22 had it not been for Piet van Zyl sustaining a concussion the week prior, picked up from the base of a ruck inside the Western Province five meter line and went over for the all-important five-pointer. The kick was converted by pivot Tian Schoeman, and that was that.

The Bulls will have taken a lot of heart from last week’s display. Dramatic comebacks often spur rugby sides on to great things. Nollis Marais will need to use last week’s win as a mechanism to galvanize his team as they really do have the odds stacked against them. Not only do they have to take on a rampant Cheetahs side but they also have to do it in front of a vociferous Free State crowd.

The only way I can see the Bulls winning this one is if they turn it into a battle of attrition. This would require the weather gods to play ball and produce a bit of poor weather.  This scenario looks highly unlikely at the minute with the South African weather bureau forecasting clear skies for Saturday.

There is some good news for the Bulls though as lock RG Snyman, who had been given no chance of playing only 24 hours ago, is said to have a 60 percent chance of being available for the match. The 21-year-old suffered an eye socket fracture in the semi-final. Team doctor Herman Roussouw stated that the young lock had “a minor procedure on Monday” and could be back “sooner than expected”.

One man who won’t turn out for the Bulls is impressive fullback, Ulrich Beyers. The former Pumas man fractured his shoulder last week and has no chance of making the matchday 22. Luckily for the Bulls, Duncan Matthews has just returned from injury. The Tuks old boy has impressed when given a chance this year and should soften the blow created by Beyers' absence.  Beyers has also made a miracculous recovery and is now set to retain the fullback jersey. One man who will miss out this week is last week’s match winner Ivan van Zyl. With Piet van Zyl now recovered from his concussion, the young scrum-half will be the one to drop out.

Road to The Final
Cheetahs
Boland 16 – 44 Cheetahs | Cheetahs 43 - 20 Bulls | WP 25 – 32 Cheetahs | Cheetahs 57 – 25 Kings | Sharks 30 – 38 Free State | Cheetahs 37 – Lions 29 | Pumas 10 – 52 Cheetahs | Cheetahs 55 - 17 Lions (Semi-Final)

Bulls

Bulls 45 – 26 WP | Cheetahs 43-20 Bulls | Bulls 49 – Kings 35 | Sharks 26 – 19 Bulls | Bulls 31 – 17 Lions | Pumas 14 – 41 Bulls | Bulls 57 – 20 Griquas | Boland 26 – 48 Bulls | Bulls 36 – 30 WP (Semi-Final)

The Stats That Matter
This will be the ninth time these two sides meet in the final of the Currie Cup. The Bulls have a much better head to head record having won seven of the fixtures -  five of these victories came when the Bulls were playing under the Northern Transvaal banner, however.

The Cheetahs only finals victory over the Bulls came back in 2005 in one of the most dramatic finals in the history of the Currie Cup. Having trailed by 22-9 with just over 35-minutes left to play, the Cheetahs staged one of the most dramatic comebacks rugby has ever seen to run out 29-25 victors.

This year’s round robin clash between the two sides saw the Cheetahs run out 43-20 victors. That was the Cheetahs only Currie Cup victory over the Bulls in the past three years with the Pretoria union winning five out of the last six Currie Cup encounters.

Verdict: Cheetahs 7/20 (80 Mins)
They may have a poor finals record against the Bulls but this Cheetahs side has a lot more mental fortitude than previous incarnations. Get on the Free State win at 7/20. 

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets.net!

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