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Johannesburg – The unfamiliar look about the make-up of the Currie Cup teams starting their 2012 campaign on Saturday suggests that predicting the outcome will be a hazardous occupation.
The four teams will field largely untried combinations due to injuries as well as Springbok call-ups while many debutants will be blooded in the new-look six-team competition, designed for a strength versus strength feel.
Last season's champions, the Golden Lions, host Free State Cheetahs in Johannesburg and both teams will be led by new captains in JC Janse van Rensburg and Robert Ebersohn respectively.
The Lions have seasoned campaigner Butch James at flyhalf and he could dictate the course of the match, given his well-known tactical kicking acumen and subtle variations in directing attacks.
He has a promising midfield pairing of Lionel Mapoe and Waylon Murray outside him as these two showed increasingly good form towards the end of the Super Rugby season.
James' effectiveness could be determined by the performance of the Lions' pack in which, interestingly, Derick Minnie has switched roles with Josh Strauss.
Minnie will be at No 8 and Strauss at No 7. Minnie has been hugely impressive at breakdown play in the past and, since the Cheetahs are still without the injured Heinrich Brussow, he could prove a factor, both as a fetcher and by slowing down opposition ball.
The Cheetahs have named a strong bench which includes the Waratahs scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius, Kabamba Floors and Sias Ebersohn. They offer the kind of impact later in the game that can sway the result.
Given the flair in the Cheetahs' backline, which will be marshalled by flyhalf Riaan Smit, the Lions' defence will be hard-pressed to keep their defensive lines intact, more so from broken play situations.
Western Province host the Sharks in Cape Town where the unusually large number of Currie Cup debutants should not detract from the customary physical battle that ensues when these traditional rivals clash.
Province have abandoned their usual running style of play in favour of a defence-based playing pattern, based on the perception that attack-minded teams don't win trophies.
As a result, the Deon Fourie-led home side will be all defence and scavenge for turn-over ball to spark their attacking sorties into opposition territory.
The Sharks' makeshift pack in the absence of Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira, still have a formidable look and could prove decisive.
The Durban side have called up Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Steven Sykes and Craig Burden to stand in for the Boks and, as a forward unit, they appear to be the strongest in the competition presently.
They offer the prospect of plenty of go-forward ball which, if allowed to go unchecked, could cause havoc across the park.
Riaan Viljoen is a surprise choice for the Sharks number 10 berth, and his booming upfield kicks will be deployed to keep play in the opposition half. – Sapa