CAPE TOWN – Western Province and the Pumas will have absolutely everything to play for on Friday. Both teams need the win. Simple as that.
After a tough start to the Currie Cup - having lost their first three games - the Pumas beat the Sharks (27-20) for the first time since 2015 at the weekend, producing a result that sounded the sirens as far as the defending champions’ title hopes are concerned. It’s not over for the Sharks, though, and they’re pretty much in the same position as Province when it comes losses from here on - there can be no more.
The Sharks have lost two of their three matches, WP likewise, but the latter sits in fourth position on the standings, followed by the Pumas - who upped their defence after conceding 100 points in their last three matches - in fifth spot and the Sharks in sixth position.
The 2018 champions would have been the favourites going into last Friday’s fixture in Mpumalanga, thanks to reputation more than current form, as they were also humiliated by Griquas in their opener, before narrowly beating WP at Kings Park. The Sharks were tactically inaccurate in the wet against Griquas, and against the Pumas they blew a 17-9 halftime lead.
WP had a decent start against the Blue Bulls, beating them 20-5 at Newlands, and while it’s against the Sharks and the Golden Lions that last year’s finalists came short, their game against the Pumas could be their most important one yet.
The Pumas can be seen as the “smaller” team in the Currie Cup compared to the rest, but Jimmy Stonehouse & Co cannot be underestimated this weekend.
They weren’t exactly thrashed in their three losses, and if they targeted their game against the Sharks, you can bet they’ve circled the WP game as well.
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WP need to win all three of their remaining games to stay in the race to make the semi-finals, the Pumas have to win all of theirs to join that race. So, a win is a non-negotiable for both teams.
Again, the Sharks’ second-half performance negated the one they produced in the opening half which gave them that halftime lead against the Pumas, much the same as WP’s second-half display against the Lions before their bye, although they could pin their second-half stutter on a couple of questionable decisions as opposed to shockingly poor play per se.
After the Pumas, WP face Griquas and the Free State Cheetahs away - two opponents who can easily be flagged as the toughest ones yet, thanks to the former’s Rugby Challenge-winning continuity and the latter having their PRO14 players available for the first time since joining the European competition.
WP are yet to emulate the stunning form they showed last season, when their sheer, almost too-easy dominance (bar that start) carried them into the final unbeaten.
They are still to find that all-round power this year, but based on their last three performances, it’s their decision-making, opportunities created - and finished - and that general zest of the last two years the Cape side would have hopefully rediscovered during their break, while carrying the positives shown so far into the second half of the competition.
Yes, WP’s away games against Griquas and the Cheetahs can be expected to be tough, but their performance against the Pumas on Friday (3pm kick-off) will be the ultimate precursor to those fixtures.