Durban – It is fitting indeed that the very last game of the Currie Cup before the semi-finals is shaping up to be an absolute cracker between the two teams that have been a cut above the rest over the three months of the competition.
And with so much at stake for both the Sharks and Western Province, the game is assuming the status of a final before the final, although both sides would never take it for granted that they will win the home semi-finals that they have already earned.
The Sharks will play either the Lions or the Cheetahs next week, and they need no reminding that both those teams have upset them in semi-finals in fairly recent history.
The Sharks know better than to get ahead of themselves, and all the focus will be on ending Province’s unbeaten run and finishing top of the log, and then they can concentrate on winning the semi-final to reap the handsome reward of a home Cup final.
The problem is that Western Province are playing for precisely the same stakes and they would love nothing more than to give the Newlands faithful a home final after having done the business last year in Durban, when they were ranked underdogs and physically dominated the Sharks to secure a famous title win.
The reigning champions have still not lost a Currie Cup match since that win, and although the Sharks lost to them in September at Newlands, they topped the log for most of the competition, in fact until last weekend, because they have been picking up more bonus points than Province.
But bonus points will be the furthest thing from the minds of both sides.
All that matters is the win to secure No 1 spot on the table in the match that ends the programme after the other teams play earlier in the day.
By the 7pm kick-off, third and fourth places on the log would have been finalised after matches between the Lions and Griquas at Ellis Park, and the Bulls and Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
Interestingly, there is still a mathematical chance that the Bulls could squeeze into fourth place. They are five log points behind the Cheetahs, and would need a full house of five points from the game while denying the home team a bonus point.
They would also need to win by eight or more points to go ahead on points differential.
It is an unlikely scenario and it is almost certain that the Cheetahs will go through along with the Lions, who are unlikely to slip up at home to last-placed Griquas, who have nothing to play for.
The Sharks have won five of their last eight matches against Western Province, but lost the last two, including that infamous slip-up in the 2012 final.
In that match, the Sharks’ set pieces were destroyed by the rampant Province pack, and according to the coaching staff, lessons have been learned, and the return of five Springboks to the home pack will go a long way to addressing a set piece that has been inconsistent this year.
“The Boks will give us a major boost, but our playing structures won’t change now that we are getting to the business end of the competition,” said coach Sean Everitt.
“We want to retain continuity, and we have kept Fred Zeilinga at flyhalf (despite the availability of Pat Lambie) so that we have a smooth transition, although Pat will start next week (when he is more up to date with the plays).
“For both teams it’s extremely important to try and get the opportunity to host the final, so I doubt either side will use this week as preparation for the semi-final when so much is at stake,” Everitt said.
“We owe some success to Durban and this province, and likewise WP would love a home final. So I think they will feel the same way we do. They’ll feel they owe something to Cape Town.”