Rugby Watch

Lions the favourites at Newlands despite history

Newlands, set for an epic battle

History and home-town advantage will heavily favour the most decorated of all Currie Cup-champions, Western Province (WP), but the Xerox Highveld Lions’s impressive and emphatic 50-20 win against the defending champions, the Sharks, in the semifinals might just give them the edge in the final on Saturday.

Western Province, who earned the home semi-finals by finishing at the summit of the log with 39 points, secured their place in the finals thanks to excellent use of turn-over possession by their elusive backs, notably Cheslin Kolbe, Kobus van Wyk and Siabelo Senatla.

Western Province ran out 31-23 winners, despite being pressed by the Bulls in the second half.

The hosts looked slightly out of sorts in the first phases against the Blue Bulls, who squeezed them in the scrums and also held the edge in the line-outs.

The execution of the Bulls was poor. Their decision-making skills were mediocre. They opted too many times to employ the aerial tactic to donate possession to WP.

And sometimes they should have counter-attacked with the ball in hand when they were on the front foot. Instead, they kicked ahead and botched potential try-scoring opportunities.

Their poor attacking play as well as sub-standard goal-kicking by Jacques-Louis Potgieter was at the heart of their demise.

WP opted to beef up their pack in order to counter the driving play by the Bulls. They used Rynhardt Elstadt at flank with Michael Rhodes.

They also preferred Demetri Catrakilis to Kurt Coleman at flyhalf. But these decisions robbed them of a vital component of their superb build-up to the semi-finals – their fluent attacking play.

Catrakilis is traditionally a kicking flyhalf, while Coleman is more attacking.
Perhaps WP must opt for Coleman in the starting berth against the Lions.

That’s simply because the hosts will need to get their sensational three-quarters in the game and use Kolbe to dazzle with his mesmerizing runs.

If WP doesn’t defend with the ball in hand, but rather kick possession away, they can expect a test of character from the Lions.

The Lions

The Lions were simply magnificent in dismantling the defending champions, the Sharks, at Ellispark and their six tries don’t even reveal the full truth.

Their expansive approach, their off-loading in the tackle, their high tempo, enterprise and the clever use of width on the attack, had the Sharks in disarray.

The Lions also completely dominated the Sharks in the scrums. Schalk van der Merwe and Ruan Dreyer had Thomas du Toit and the former England-prop Matt Stephens back-paddling.

If WP found the going tough in the scrums against Dean Greyling and Werner Kruger, their misery might be deepened by Dreyer and Van der Merwe.

The Lions don’t have any Springbok-pedigree amongst the back, except for Marnitz Boshoff. Yet, some of their backs possess the X-factor to elude defenders. Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Combrinck, Ross Cronjé, Lionel Mapoe and Howard Mnisi all have the ability to be match-winners.

Mnisi was particularly brilliant against the Sharks, and his deft grubber to bamboozle the Sharks was a reminder of his skills. He also challenged the defensive walls with several penetrating runs on Saturday.

Western Province has won the Currie Cup 32 times, and their most recent celebrations with the coveted silverware in their hands, were in 2012. The Lions have won it ten times.

The visitors must be favoured to win it simply because of their style of play, which is almost reminiscent of the All Blacks at their best, and the Springbok team in the latter half of the 2014 Castle Larger Rugby Championships.

Unlike the Bulls, they show attacking intent from almost everywhere. Their intelligent distribution and clever utilization of the grubber have added to their offensive quality.
WP can do worse than to insert Sikhumbuzo Notshe with Nizaam Carr and Rhodes amongst the loose forwards.

Province will have to win the battle on the ground if they hope to win the Cup a 33rd time.

Jaco Kriel, Warren Whiteley and Derick Minnie not only secured vital turn-overs in the lop-sided win against the Sharks, they also set up tries or scored them with their penetrative runs.

Kriel crossed the whitewash thanks to a superb dummy run before half-time. He also set up the try by Cronjé by brushing off four defenders.

If Allister Coetzee, the WP coach, makes a tactical blunder by opting for Elstadt and Catrakilis, the Lions will make him pay in the finals.

The Bulls erred on Saturday by showing faith in Potgieter at flyhalf for 60 minutes instead of moving Handré Pollard from inside centre to flyhalf at half time.

With the perfect science of hindsight, if the Bulls had make that tactical change earlier, they could have sneaked in through the proverbial back door (despite a 25-3 cushion by Western Province at a stage).

The error-prone Bulls were stuck in reverse gear with Potgieter and the fullback Ulrich Beyers. Both were intent on using the outdated and old-fashioned kicking game.

Ultimately, there is nowhere to hide for WP in the Currie Cup final. They will have to attack in order to beat the irrepressible Lions, who have embraced an exciting high tempo style of rugby-football since 2011.

by Fanie Heyns

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