Makazole Mapimpi of the Cheetahs challenged by Warrick Gelant and Piet van Zyl of the Bulls during 2017 Currie Cup match. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

It's the defending Currie Cup champions, the Cheetahs, up against arguably the strongest and most successful union in the country in the last two years, the Lions.

Except today when the teams meet in Bloemfontein (5.15pm) the hosts have one eye on their first time participation in the Europe-based Pro14 competition, starting next weekend, and the Lions are far from being at full-strength, with up to 19 first choice players missing. It’s anyone’s guess who’ll come out on top in this encounter.

What we do know is the Cheetahs, in spite of coach Rory Duncan making changes across the team with a view on keeping some players fresh for their Pro14 debut, are on a high after going top of the Currie Cup table last weekend with a 41-40 win against the Bulls at Loftus.

Also, they’re a team with massive X-Factor; especially when you consider such dangerous runners like Sergeal Petersen, Rosko Specman and Makazole Mapimpi make up the back three.

On the flip side, the Lions are a work in progress, with new coach Swys de Bruin handing starts to several new men in the last two weeks and again today. Ashlon Davids at flyhalf and James Venter at flank have yet to play Currie Cup rugby. They’re a team missing several big-name stars who’re either with the Springboks, playing club rugby in Japan, are injured or suspended and they go into the game with just one win from five matches behind them.

De Bruin knows his team will again be up against it, as they were against Western Province at Newlands (39-3) last weekend and before that against the Sharks, Bulls and Pumas.

“The Cheetahs are the defending champions, they’re coming off a big win at Loftus and there will be lots of hope in them in anticipation of their debut in the Pro 14. But we want it to be tough, and that’s exactly what it’s going to be. We’re going to have to be at our best in this one,” said De Bruin.

Indeed. The Lions have struggled for rhythm up to now and failed to score a try in Cape Town last weekend, while conceding plenty. But an out of the ordinary “get-to-know-each-other-session” in midweek will hopefully pave the way for a better performance.

“I don’t think we must worry too much about the winning and losing at this stage,” said De Bruin, “but rather getting our processes back in place and for the younger players to get used to our culture. There are a lot of new guys in our system, and they need to fit in.”

With both teams favouring an open, expansive style of rugby expect a good number of tries to be scored during the 80 minutes. Whether it’s the much-changed Cheetahs - who’ll certainly have a few other things on their mind other than the Currie Cup - or the under-pressure Lions who get on the right side of the result will depend on who clicks as a combination the quickest.

Saturday Star

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