Currie Cup 2017: Season Preview

Currie Cup Season Preview
Our rugby scribe takes a look at this year’s Currie Cup format as well as individual team analysis.

The fan fare surrounding the 2017 Currie Cup will be rather watered down with the extended Super Rugby season, the Rugby Championship and Cheetahs venture into the Pro 12 – soon to be known as the Pro 14 – diluting a once potent product.

While this is a rather tough blow for your average rugby fanatic, it does provide a brilliant opportunity for shrewd punters to get one over the bookies – who will find it extremely tough to price up on what is becoming a very unpredictable tournament. Last year’s winners, the Free State Cheetahs, opened up at a crazy 14/1! Which goes to further substantiate my above claims.
We'll take a look at the 2017 format below as well as run through each team and look at who could be their talisman for the season.

To Win Outright 
Lions 2/1 | Western Province 5/2 | Sharks 4/1 | Bulls 9/2 | Cheetahs 11/2 | Griquas 40/1 | Pumas 66/1

Format
Seven teams will contest this year’s tournament with the format reverting back to the home and away match system. The Pumas and Griquas were the two sides who qualified alongside the ‘Big 5’, who are automatically entered into the tournament via virtue of their standings over the past five years.

Each side will play one another home and away with the top four teams on the log qualifying for the semi-finals. The top two-placed sides will qualify for home semi-finals, with the top ranked side enjoying the hosting rights to the final should they win their semi-final.

The tournament runs concurrently with the final three rounds of the 2017 Super Rugby season, as well as the Rugby Championship. This means a lot of the bigger unions will be missing their Springboks for large swathes of the campaign.

The final few rounds of the tournament also run congruently to the first month and a half of the European rugby season, which means the Cheetahs will field a significantly weakened side for the final two months of the Currie Cup.

Schedule
This year’s Currie Cup gets underway on Friday the 21st of July with the defending champions, the Free State Cheetahs, taking on the Sharks. The competition will run until late October with semi-finals scheduled for the weekend of the 21st and the final set to be played on Saturday the 28th of October.

The schedule is rather annoying for purists with midweek games as well as Sunday fixtures set to take place. Another bugbear for rugby fans, particularly those whose teams will have made the Super Rugby play-offs, will be that the start of the Currie Cup coinciding with the start of the Super Rugby play-off rounds, which could lead to the likes of the Lions and Western Province fielding under-strength sides for the opening three rounds.

Round 1 (21-23 July)
Cheetahs v Sharks | Toyota Stadium | Friday 21 July | 19:00
Griquas v Bulls | Tafel Larger Park | Saturday 22 July | 14:30 
Pumas v Lions | Mbombela Stadium | Sunday 23 July | 14:30
Bye: Western Province

Round 2 (29 July – 30 July)
Lions v Griquas | Emirates Airline Park | Saturday 29 July | 12:00
Sharks v Pumas | Growthpoint Kings Park | Saturday 29 July | 17:00
Cheetahs v Western Province | Toyota Stadium | 14:30
Bye: Bulls

Round 3 (4-5 August)
Sharks v Griquas | Growthpoint Kings Park | Friday 4 August | 19:00
Western Province v Pumas | DHL Newlands | Saturday 5 August | 15:00
Blue Bulls v Golden Lions | Loftus Versfeld | Saturday 4 August | 17:15
Bye: Griquas

Round 4 (9 August)
Griquas v Western Province | Wednesday 9 August | Tafel Lager Stadium | 13:00
Pumas v Cheetahs | Wednesday 9 August | Mbombela Stadium | 15:15
Bulls v Sharks | Wednesday 9 August | Loftus Versfeld | 17:15
Bye: Lions

Round 5 (12 August)
Cheetahs v Griquas | Saturday 12 August |  Toyota Stadium | 15:00
Western Province v Bulls | Saturday 12 August | DHL Newlands | 17:15
Lions v Sharks | Saturday 12 August | Emirates Airline Park | 19:30
Bye: Pumas

Round 6 (18-19 August)
Western Province v Lions | Friday 18 August | DHL Newlands | 19:00
Bulls v Cheetahs | Saturday 19 August | Loftus Versfeld | 14:05
Griquas v Pumas | Sunday 20 August | Tafel Larger Stadium | 14:30
Bye: Sharks

Round 7 (25-26 August)
Pumas v Bulls | Friday 25 August | Mbombela Stadium | 19:00
Western Province v Sharks | Saturday 26 August | DHL Newlands | 15:00
Cheetahs v Lions | Saturday 26 August | Toyota Stadium | 17:15
Bye: Griquas

Round 8 (1-2 September)
Bulls v Griquas | Friday 1 September | Loftus Versfeld | 19:00
Lions v Pumas | Saturday 2 September | Emirates Airline Park | 15:00
Sharks v Cheetahs | Saturday 2 September | Growthpoint Kings Park | 17:15 
Bye: Western Province

Round 9 (8-9 September)
Griquas v Lions | Friday 8 September | Tafel Larger Stadium | 19:00
Pumas v Sharks | Saturday 9 September | Mbombela Stadium | 17:15
Western Province v Cheetahs | Saturday 9 September | DHL Newlands | 19:30
Bye: Bulls

Round 10 (15-16 September)
Pumas v Western Province | Friday 15 September | Mbombela Stadium | 19:00
Lions v Bulls | Saturday 16 September | Emirates Airline Park | 17:15
Griquas v Sharks | Saturday 16 September | Tafel Larger | 19:30
Bye: Cheetahs

Round 11 (23 September)
Cheetahs v Pumas | Saturday 23 September | Toyota Stadium | 15:00
Western Province v Griquas | Saturday 23 September | DHL Newlands | 17:15
Sharks v Bulls | Saturday 23 September | Growthpoint Kings Park | 19:30
Bye: Lions

Round 12 (29 September–1 October)
Sharks v Lions | Friday 29 September | Growthpoint Kings Park | 19:00
Griquas v Cheetahs | Saturday 30 September | Tafel Lager Stadium | 14:00
Bulls v Western Province | Sunday 1 October | Loftus Versfeld | 19:00
Bye: Pumas

Round 13 (6-8 October)
Cheetahs v Bulls | Friday 6 October | Toyota Stadium | 19:00
Pumas v Griquas | Saturday 7 October | Tafel Lager Stadium | 14:00
Lions v Western Province | Sunday 8 October | Emirates Airline Park | 14:30
Bye: Sharks

Round 14 (13-14 October)
Bulls v Pumas | Friday 13 October | Loftus Versfeld | 19:00
Sharks v Western Province | Saturday 14 October | Growthpoint Kings Park | 15:00
Lions v Cheetahs | Saturday 14 October | Emirates Airline Park | 17:15Bye: Griquas

Semi-Finals (TBA)

Final (TBA)

Bulls
To Win Outright: 9/2

This will be Nollis Marais final salvo at the helm of the Bulls and the majority of the Loftus faithful could not be happier. Marais tenure has coincided with some piss poor performances from a union that was the South African standard bearer in Super Rugby during the end of the last decade.

The men from Pretoria now look like lost little boys who are in desperate need of a strong coach. Mitchell will actually act as the attack coach for the Bulls during this campaign, which should see the Men in Blue look a lot better with ball-in-hand.

Player to Watch: Duncan Matthews
I’ve really been impressed by Matthews. He’s looked a solid player at Super Rugby level and I think he’ll dominate this year’s Currie Cup. He’s got some exceedingly happy feet, a sharp turn of pace and a solid rugby brain on his shoulders. His versatility could also come in handy for the Bulls as he can play right across the back three.

Predicted Finish: Semi-Final Exit
They’ll smash the minnows but they’re going to struggle against the big boys. I can see last year’s defeated finalists scraping their way to the semi-finals but I doubt they’ll go any further than that. Next year will be their season, however.

Cheetahs
To Win Outright: 11/2
The defending champions will be hard tasked to claim back-to-back titles as they will be significantly weakened from September onward, due to their Pro 12 commitments. I expect them to start the campaign like a house on fire and they could well be leading the standings come September but a sharp drop off is inevitable with the majority of their squad participating in the expanded Pro 12.

Player to Watch: Ox Nche
It’s absolutely criminal that this young man is yet to earn a Springbok cap. He’s been nothing short of sensational for the Cheetahs over the past two years and his performances for the SA A side showed he can mix it up at international level. Also, keep your eye out for talented young guns Joseph Dweba and Marco Mason as both of these guys have huge futures ahead of them.

Predicted Finish: 5th
They’ll just miss out on the semi-finals due to their focus on their European campaign.

Griquas
To Win Outright: 40/1
I really didn’t get into the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, so I haven’t seen much of the Griquas this year. I did watch the final of the aforementioned tournament between the
Griquas and the all-conquering Western Province side though, and their performance in that game pretty much encapsulated their last 10 seasons in the Currie Cup; they were good for large segments but ultimately just didn’t have the fire power to compete with the big boys.

The Griquas will once again be reliant on their heavyweight forward pack to get them a foothold in their fixtures. The big men are likely to cause the competition’s glamour sides all sorts of problems out in Kimberley but their inferior fitness levels will leave them chasing shadows at Emirates Airline Park and DHL Newlands.

Player to Watch: Eric Zana
It’s quite sad that Koch Marx is returning to the Lions as he had a stellar SuperSport Challenge and added a lot to the Griquas back division. With Marx returning to his parent club, fullback Eric Zana will have to fire if this Griquas backline is to provide a threat with ball-in-hand. The 30-year-old is capable of providing fireworks with his electric footwork and incredible turn of pace.

Verdict: Sixth-Place Finish
It’s going to be a hard year for the ugly step siblings with all of the bigger unions seeming to have finally got their academy set-ups right. As such, the Griquas are likely to slug it out with the Pumas in the battle to avoid the woodenspoon.

Lions
To Win Outright: 2/1
This will be newly named head coach Swys de Bruin’s first competition at the helm of the Johannesburg outfit. And while some Lions fans will be disappointed by the departure of Johan Ackermann, they can rest assured that in De Bruin they have one of the most intelligent rugby men in the world.

The Lions will probably be the team most impacted on by the remaining rounds of Super Rugby. As such, they will have to field a weakened side for the first three rounds should they progress to the Super Rugby final.

De Bruin’s men will also have to contend with Springbok call-ups come the Rugby Championship, which gets underway in mid-August. The Championship will leave the Lions without stalwarts such as Malcolm Marx, Andries Coetzee and Courtnall Skoshan while Warren Whitely, Elton Jantjies and Jaco Kriel would have been unavailable regardless of their involvement with the national side due to their club commitments in Japan.

With a large amount of their big guns set to be M.I.A, the Lions Currie Cup campaign success could hinge on the large shoulders of inside centre, Rohan Janse van Rensburg. The big man made his Springbok debut last year but is unlikely to feature for the ‘Boks during the Rugby Championship as Jan Serfontein is in sensational form at present. And while I think Van Rensburg will make the Springbok number 12 jersey his own before the turn of the year, there’s no point in rushing him back to the international fold.

Van Rensburg isn’t the only Lions player with Super Rugby experience who will turn out for the Lions during the Currie Cup, as Sylvan Mahuza and Kwagga Smith are also unlikely to make the Springbok squad. The latter has been in sensational form since he departed the Springboks Sevens set-up while the former is one of the hottest attacking prospects in the game.

Player to Watch: Madosh Tambwe
The Kinshasa born Tambwe only made four appearances – three of them off the bench – for the Lions Super Rugby side but still managed to bag two tries. He was one of the standout players during last year’s Under-19 Currie Cup, where he bagged a staggering 16 tries. While Tambwe has all the hallmarks of a fantastic winger, it’s his ability to read the game that has impressed me most. He’s certainly a young man to keep your eyes on!

Verdict: Beaten Finalists
The Lions have the talent to get to the final but my gut is telling me this just isn’t their year. While I can’t see them lifting the Cup in October, I can see them once again being the most entertaining team on show.

Pumas
To Win Outright: 66/1
I’m going to be completely honest here and tell you that I haven’t even seen a minute of the Pumas in action this year. They seemed to have a decent if not spectacular SuperSport Rugby challenge, finishing third on the Northern Log with five wins from their eight fixtures. Their squad is made up of journeymen and a few young guns, who are yet to break into one of the bigger unions’ set-ups.

The Pumas had a torrid time of it in the 2016 Currie Cup season and only managed one victory from their eight games. They also finished with a negative points differential of 143, which could well be exceeded this term.

Player to Watch: Hennie Skorbinski 
The former Pukke representative is a solid centre who runs great angles and is ferocious in the tackle. Despite only being 26, the Framesbury High graduate is highly experienced, having played in the Varsity Cup, Vodacom Cup and the Currie Cup.

Verdict: Stone Last
They are in for an absolute hammering this year.

Sharks
To Win Outright: 4/1
Calling the Sharks last two Currie Cup campaigns sub-par would be the understatement of the century. The Natalians missed out on the semi-finals in both 2015 and 2016 which has seen Kings Park become a place of disharmony. The union has tried to address the issue by hiring Sharks and Springbok legend Gary Teichman as CEO and appointing former ‘Bok nine Robert du Preez as their new head coach. And while Du Preez has made some inroads during his fledgling tenure, there’s still a mountain of work for him to get through before the Sharks can again claim to be a real force in South African rugby.

I feel a bit like I’m playing the role of Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’ as last year I stated, in the same preview, that this would be a year of development for the Natalians. This is going to be the case again in 2017 with the Sharks nowhere near primed to launch an assault on the title. It’s not all doom and gloom for Sharks fans, however, as there are a few youngsters coming through the ranks who will impress this season.

Player to Watch: Marais Louw
You’re probably sick of centres being named as my player to watch but you really need to keep an eye out for this young man. Marais Louw really looked the part during the SuperSport Rugby challenge. The combative centre does not hold back one bit and was involved in quite a few scuffles. He’s a smart young lad who leads from the front. Expect him to make a big impact for the Natalians this term.

Verdict: Semi-Finalists
The Sharks will be the side that profits from the Cheetahs jaunt in Europe. They’ll make the semi-finals but I can’t see them getting further than that.

Western Province
To Win Outright: 5/2
Province come into the Currie Cups second favourites with the bookies mainly due to their domination of the SuperSport Rugby Challenge. The men from the Western Cape were sensational during the recently concluded tournament, winning all eight of South Pool fixtures and amassing a staggering 312 points from their eight pool matches. They were tested in their semi-final against a solid Bulls outfit but managed to run out 28-24 victors, while their 28-19 score line over the Griquas in the final sort of falters their opposition as John Dobson’s men always had their opponents at arm's length.

The reason a cite Province’s SuperSport Rugby Challenge campaign is that it underlines just how much squad depth they have, which will be key during the Currie Cup with Springbok call-ups significantly weakening the bigger unions. The men in Blue and White will actually be one of the unions who won’t be drastically affected by the Rugby Championship as they are only likely to lose a handful of players.

Player to Watch: Damian Willemse
This young man has seen his stock go through the roof over the last month. A solid campaign with the Baby Boks was followed by an impressive Super Rugby debut. So impressive was the 19-year-old that he has now become the incumbent ten for the Stormers. Willemse’s slick distribution skills and an eye for a gap make him one of the most promising pivots in South Africa.

Verdict: Champions 
This Province side really does look lethal. They have changed their brand of rugby and have gone the Lions route; attack from all quarters and at any time in the game. They have a nice blend of experienced campaigners and promising youngsters. My money is on the 2017 Currie Cup being dominated by the men who call DHL Newlands home. Get on at a moderately decent price of 5/2!

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets.net

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