By Andrew Hollely
Both Frans Ludeke and Heyneke Meyer - coaches of the Lions and Blue Bulls respectively - were able to name unchanged starting line-ups on Thursday for the Currie Cup final showdown at Ellis Park on Saturday. This was despite injury concerns to a number of leading players in the build-up to season's finale.
Bulls skipper Joost van der Westhuizen, lock Victor Matfield and flank Johan Wasserman have all been passed fit. In the Lions camp, Bok prop Lawrence Sephaka's hip healed sufficiently for him to be included in the front row, while loose-forward Joe van Niekerk was included on the bench after missing out completely with a groin injury last weekend.
This season's Currie Cup competition has dished up its fair share of high scoring games and exciting running rugby, but don't expect the final to be more of the same.
As is traditionally the case, finals of any kind are tight affairs with both teams wary of making mistakes early on that will let their opponents seize the initiative.
"The basics are very important, especially in a final," said Ludeke on Thursday. "You can only play as well as your opponent lets you, but the team that wants it the most will come out on top."
Both teams - and coaches - have put disastrous Super 12 campaigns and indifferent form in the Currie Cup series behind them to emerge top of the local pile this year, so it would be logical to assume that the desire in both camps will need no stoking.
The difference between the two teams on Saturday therefore could come down to a moment of individual brilliance, and there are a number of players in both teams capable of producing them.
While the tight fives of both teams - arguably the form packs in this year's competition - are expected to slug it out for the full 80 minutes, both teams have powerful, exciting backs capable of turning the match on its head.
Players like Andre Pretorius, John Daniels and Jacque Fourie for the Lions and Derick Hougaard, Joost van der Westhuizen and Dries Scholtz for the Bulls have shown this year that they can produce that magic.
The Bulls have the psychological edge, having won against the Lions earlier this year, but the Lions have home ground advantage at a packed Ellis Park Stadium.
"The only thing that counts is how we play on Saturday - the game starts at 0-0 - and we have been playing well in the past few weeks," said a confident Ludeke.
Matfield's inclusion in the Bulls team is also a boost for his chances of touring with the Boks to France, Scotland and England next month.
The towering Springbok lock was a major injury concern after aggravating an ankle injury in the semifinal win against the Sharks in Durban, but after undergoing intensive treatment all week will have an important role to play for the visitors.
The bulky second rower should feature prominently on Saturday and will be keen to prove a point to all the team detractors who have labelled them serious underdogs against the resurgent Lions.
"I see in the newspapers we are still the underdogs. That is how we prefer it though. We have nothing to lose and will be going out there to enjoy it," he said.
"We have an unbelievable team spirit going and, after a win like the one we had in Durban on Saturday, we have no choice but to be optimistic about the final," he enthused.
Whatever the outcome on Saturday, this season (since the Super 12 anyway) has proved that South African rugby is emerging from the depths of the past few years, and hopefully the new life breathed into the game will be illustrated in the final.
The 26-man Springbok squad for the European tour will be announced after the final.
Teams for Ellis Park:
Lions: Jacque Fourie, John Daniels, Grant Esterhuizen, Jorrie Muller, Jaco Booysen, Andre Pretorius, Bennie Nortje; Russel Winter, Andre Vos (captain), Wikus van Heerden, Jannes Labuschagne, Kleinjan Tromp, Willie Meyer, Delarey du Preez, Lawrence Sephaka.
Reserves: James van der Walt, Pietman van Niekerk, Willem Stoltz, Joe van Niekerk, Deon de Kock, Louis Koen, Jaco Pretorius.
Blue Bulls: Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Wylie Human, Dries Scholtz, Tiaan Joubert, Gavin Passens, Derick Hougaard, Joost van der Westhuizen (captain); Anton Leonard, Johan Wasserman, Pedrie Wannenberg, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Richard Bands, Danie Coetzee, Wessel Roux.
Reserves: Gary Botha, Sias Wagner, Geo Gronje, Ruan Vermeulen, Norman Jordaan, JP Nel, Johan Roets.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (Sarfu).
Touch judges: Andre Watson and Mark Lawrence (both Sarfu). Television match official: Steve Strydom.
Other matches: Lions A v Blue Bulls A, kick-off 10.15am (Provincial A final).
Lions u-21 v Blue Bulls u-21, kick-off 12.45pm - Sapa