The Currie Cup kicks off this weekend and there are some massive clashes in store as South Africa's premier provincial competition clicks into gear around the country.
The Golden Lions host the Pumas on Friday and they will be keen to avenge the defeat they suffered in Johannesburg when the two sides met last year. The Pumas will bring a side including four Springbok Sevens players to Coca-Cola Park as they attempt to run the Golden Lions off their feet.
Pumas coach Jimmy Stonehouse is confident that his team has what it takes to improve on last season.
He commented: "We're excited by our backline this year. In 2010 we didn't have too much experience at the back, but this year it's different. Our set phases have always been good and I'm excited to see how this backline goes.
"We've had a good break since the end of the Vodacom Cup and have worked hard at eradicating the mistakes which cost us last year. The Golden Lions will come into the game with the momentum they gained from Super Rugby, but we'll be travelling to Johannesburg confident and positive that we can prove a point against our partners in the Lions franchise," he promised.
The Griquas have a history of getting out of the Currie Cup blocks fast and last year's runners-up Western Province will have to be wary of the Men from Kimberley when they host them at Newlands this weekend.
According to Griquas assistant coach, Pote Human, the fact that Western Province will be without a number of front line players, will not make the trip to Cape Town any easier.
"There is no such thing as a weak Western Province side and it's always tough to play at Newlands. Myself and head coach Abré Minnie are also new in our roles here at Griquas, so it won't be easy, but we're looking forward to the challenge," he said.
The Leopards may not have been able to win a single game last season but they are confident that they can rectify that this year under coach Leon Boshoff who helped to keep the side in the Premier Division in the play-off matches against the South Western District Eagles.
They travel to Bloemfontein on Saturday where they will meet a Free State Cheetahs team that will be hungry to start their Currie Cup campaign on a positive note. The Cheetahs are always competitive in the Currie Cup and they will fancy their chances of going all the way this year, but coach Naka Drotske is aware that they cannot afford to take anything for granted.
He said: "In the Currie Cup Premier Division there will not be any easy games. We'd like to get a good start to the season and it's always very important to win your home games, but we're also backing our attacking structures and would like to chase a bonus point for scoring four tries. Any team can surprise, but we'll be putting pressure on ourselves to do well."
The headline act of the opening weekend will be the match between the Sharks and the Blue Bulls in Durban. These two teams played out a brutal semifinal at the same venue last year and fans at Kings Park can look forward to another physical clash on Saturday.
The Blue Bulls' style of play may not be much of a secret, but it will be interesting to see what influence new coach Pine Pienaar has on the team.
"We have a few new combinations and didn't have a lot of time to prepare, like the Sharks, but we'll be focused on our own game this weekend in what promises to be a tough encounter," said Pienaar.
"It's never easy in Durban – we last won a Currie Cup game there five seasons ago – and the Sharks are the reigning champs, so it's a difficult game to start the season with, but we have confidence in our structures," he added.
The teams both won away from home in the Super Rugby season, with the Sharks victory at Loftus Versveld a few weeks ago knocking the defending champions out of the competition, so it really is difficult to give one team the advantage.
Looking ahead to the challenge posed by the Blue Bulls Sharks assistant coach Hugh Reece-Edwards explained: "You always know what you're going to get with them, there are few surprises about them.
"They've changed their coach for the Currie Cup, Pine Pienaar has taken over, but whether they are going to change their structure completely… probably not. We know what to expect, but if anything, they might move the ball a little more, so we just have to be ready for it," he added.
All the weekend's fixtures, predictions and teams:
Friday, July 15
Golden Lions v Pumas
(Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off 19.10 - 17.10 GMT)
Prediction: The Pumas will throw everything they have at the Golden Lions, but the Men from Johannesburg have only lost their two flyhalves - Butch James and Elton Jantjies - to Springbok call-ups so they have named a very strong team. With most of their Super Rugby guns at their disposal the Golden Lions should have too much for the Pumas and will win it by about 20 points.
Lions: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Dylan Des Fountain, 13 Alwyn Hollenbach, 12 Doppies La Grange (captain), 11 Lionel Mapoe, 10 Burton Francis, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Joshua Strauss, 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Wikus van Heerden, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Pat Cilliers.
Replacements: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Johan Snyman, 19 Dries van Schalkwyk, 20 Michael Bondesio, 21 Hein Cronje, 22 Michael Killian.
Pumas: 15 MJ Mentz, 14 Deon Scholtz, 13 JW Jonker, 12 Pieter Engelbrecht, 11 Ashwin Scott, 10 Ricardo Croy, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Christo le Roux, 7 Jaco Bouwer, 6 Corne Steenkamp (captain), 5 Marius Coetzer, 4 Rudi Mathee, 3 Ashley Buys, 2 Marthinus van der Westhuizen, 1 Dawie Steyn.
Replacements: 16 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17 Brett Nel, 18 Willem Serfontein, 19 RW Kember, 20 Tian Meyer, 21 Tiaan Marx, 22 Carl Bezuidenhout.
Saturday, July 16
Western Province v Griquas
(Newlands, Cape Town - Kick-off 15.00 - 13.00 GMT)
Prediction: The Griquas will be out to make a big statement right at the start of their campaign by taking down one of the big teams and the injury-hit Western Province team provide them with a great opportunity to do so on Saturday. The Province team is youthful but full of talent, and if they click in front of their home crowd then they will be hard to stop. This one will go right down to the wire but Western Province will edge it by less than five points.
Western Province: 15 Conrad Jantjes, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 JJ Engelbrecht, 10 Gary van Aswegen, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Nick Koster, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Wimpie van der Walt, 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Hilton Lobberts, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Deon Fourie (captain), 1 Wicus Blaauw.
Replacements: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Frans Malherbe, 18 Adriaan Fondse, 19 Rohan Kitshoff, 20 Nick Groom, 21 Demetri Catrikilis, 22 Marcel Brache.
Griquas: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Richard Lawson, 13 Wilmaure Louw, 12 Barry Geel, 11 Rocco Jansen, 10 Monty Dumond, 9 Shannon Rick, 8 Jonathan Mokuena (captain), 7 Davon Raubenheimer, 6 Justin Downey, 5 Martin Muller, 4 Hendrik Roodt, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Ryno Barnes, 1 Steph Roberts.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Dobson, 17 Jean Botha, 18 Frikkie Spies, 19 Jaco Nepgen, 20 Matthew Rosslee, 21 Earl Rose, 22 Fabien Juries.
Free State Cheetahs v Leopards
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off 15.00 - 13.00 GMT)
Prediction: The Cheetahs are a tough team to beat in the Currie Cup and the Leopards will have to play out of their skins if they are to upset them in Bloemfontein this weekend. The visitors failed to win a single game last season and it is hard to see them making an impression on a Cheetahs team that will be hunting the bonus point at home. The Cheetahs will take this one by over 25 points.
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Riaan Smit, 13 Corné Uys, 12 Andries Strauss (captain), 11 Rayno Benjamin, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Tewis de Bruyn, 8 Boom Prinsloo, 7 Pieter Labuschagné, 6 Johan Wessels, 5 Waltie Vermeulen, 4 Francois Uys, 3 WP Nel, 2 Michael van Vuuren, 1 Marcel van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 PW van Vuuren, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Izak van der Westhuizen, 19 Pieter Myburgh, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Philip Snyman, 22 Philip Burger.
Leopards: 15 George Tossel, 14 Danie Dames, 13 Joubert Engelbreght, 12 Charl Weideman, 11 Vainon Willis, 10 Clayton Durand, 9 Wesly Moolman, 8 Morne Hanekom, 7 MB Lusaseni, 6 Renaldo Bothma, 5 Ruan van Heerden, 4 Brendon Snyman, 3 Stefan Bezuidenhoud, 2 Gavin Williamson, 1 BG Uys.
Replacements: 16 Stoffel Duvenhage, 17 Berend Botha, 18 Thabo Mamojela, 19 Christo van Niekerk, 20 Theo van Wyk, 21 Walter Venter, 22 Hoffman Maritz.
Sharks v Blue Bulls
(Kings Park, Durban - Kick-off 17.00 - 15.00 GMT)
Prediction: Both of these teams have been hit hard by Springbok call-ups and this will be a serious test of the depth at both unions. Despite the fact that most of the big names will be missing, another highly intense battle can be expected. The Blue Bulls have an experienced pack while the Sharks have plenty of experience in their backline so this one really could go either way, we are going to go with home ground advantage and back the Sharks to scrape this one by less than five points.
Sharks: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 Marius Joubert, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Mark Richards, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Keegan Daniel (captain), 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Ross Skeate, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Eugene van Staden.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Jan Andre Marais, 19 Francois Kleinhans, 20 Jacobus Reinach, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 Sibusiso Sithole.
Blue Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Stephan Dippenaar, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Akona Ndungane, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Dustin Jinka, 8 Gerrit-Jan van Velze, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Derick Kuün, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Fudge Mabeta, 3 Rossouw de Klerk, 2 Gary Botha (captain), 1 Corné Fourie.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Okkie Kruger, 19 CJ Stander, 20 Lohan Jacobs, 21 Marnitz Boshoff, 22 Francois Venter.
By Michael de Vries
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