JOHANNESBURG – The 2018 edition of the Currie Cup kicks off on Friday. It is a one-round shoot-out between seven teams over 10 weeks so there is no room for mistakes. IOL Sport’s rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen previews the 80th staging of the competition by assessing the seven teams involved.
The Pretoria-based team won five out of their 12 matches last year and finished fourth overall, but lost in the semi-finals. They will be confident going into the competition, having enjoyed some good form in Super Rugby.
The experienced Pote Human will coach the side, which will include a number of seasoned men, like Jamba Ulengo and Boom Prinsloo, but also some exciting prospects, like Manie Libbok and Ruan Steenkamp.
They will, however, not be able to call on last year’s top try-scorer Warrick Gelant (10), who is injured and would be part of the Springbok squad anyway.
The Bloemfontein-based team have lost a plethora of players following their axing from Super Rugby last year and will again have to spread their resources between the Currie Cup and the Pro14 competitions.
Franco Smith is back to coach the team, but his focus is expected to be more on the Europe-based competition than the Currie Cup.
Ox Nche and Oupa Mohoje are the only Springbok players in the extended squad, which includes several new names. The Cheetahs finished fifth on the log table last year and will have done brilliantly if they better that performance this year.
With an expected new head coach at the helm (Ivan van Rooyen), and Swys de Bruin and Rudolf Straeuli offering input from the sidelines, the Lions are looking to develop new players and their coaching team over the course of the next few weeks.
They will be a confident bunch after reaching a third Super Rugby final and will have seasoned men like Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan, Howard Mnisi, Harold Vorster and Kwagga Smith to call on.
The Lions will certainly have aspirations of finishing higher than third, after winning six of 12 games last year. They’ll be among the favourites.
Last year’s weakest team – who finished the competition with just four wins from 12 – retained their Premier Division status after beating the Griffons 59-26 in a promotion-relegation match last October.
They’re a team though who have the ability to beat anyone on their day and if things go well could be surprise semi-finalists this year. Peter Engledow will again coach the side, which played in the final of the SuperSport Challenge not too long ago.
They were runners-up to the Pumas, and wing Enver Brandt was the top try-scorer with 11 tries. They’ll be a team full of hope and hunger.
The SuperSport Challenge winners have been pushing hard for greater recognition for some time and in 2018 it might finally come their way.
The men from Nelspruit will put out a formidable, fairly experienced, side, and in coach Jimmy Stonehouse, who is back in Mpumalanga after a stint in Japan, they have a leader who knows a thing or two about rugby and winning.
They went unbeaten in the Challenge and will be confident of winning more than the four out of 12 they registered last year. Flank Marnus Schoeman, who starred for the Lions recently, will be one to watch.
The men from Durban were the favourites going into last year’s final at home, but Western Province upset them 33-21 so it’s a case of unfinished business for Robert du Preez and his men this time.
With a strong coaching team behind them, including having former England international Nick Easter in the ranks, the Sharks look like they could be the team to beat.
Chiliboy Ralepelle will lead them from hooker and he’ll be supported by senior men like Dan du Preez, Rob du Preez, Tera Mtembu and Hyron Andrews. The Sharks will hope to build on their good showing in Super Rugby.
Last year’s champions will again be one of the favourites. They have warmed up for the competition by going to France to play two matches and will be battle-ready when they get going next week.
Coach John Dobson will have a strong squad to pick from, which includes seasoned men like Jano Vermaak, JJ Engelbrecht, Dillyn Leyds, Scarra Ntubeni, Sergeal Petersen and SP Marais. But there are also some promising youngsters in the squad, among them No 8 Juarno Augustus.
They’ll be desperate for a good showing after a poor Super Rugby campaign earlier this year.
The Currie Cup 2018 fixtures are:
Friday August 17
Pumas v Griquas Nelspruit 5pm; Free State v Blue Bulls Bloemfontein 7pm
Friday August 24
Lions v Griquas Joburg 7pm
Saturday August 25
Sharks v Blue Bulls Durban 3pm; WP v Free State Cape Town 5.15pm
Friday, August 31
Pumas v WP Nelspruit 7pm
Saturday, September 1
Blue Bulls v Lions Pretoria 3pm; Free State v Sharks Bloemfontein 5.15pm
Friday, September 7
Sharks v Pumas Durban 7pm
Saturday, September 8
Griquas v Blue Bulls Kimberley 3pm; Lions v Free State Joburg 5.15pm
Saturday, September 15
Lions v WP Joburg 3pm; Griquas v Free State Kimberley 5.15pm; Blue Bulls v Pumas Pretoria 7.30pm
Saturday, September 22
Free State v Pumas Bloemfontein 3pm; Sharks v Lions Durban 5.15pm; WP v Griquas Cape Town 7.30pm
Saturday, September 29
WP v Sharks Cape Town 2pm
Friday, October 12
Pumas v Lions Nelspruit 7pm
Saturday, October 13
Griquas v Sharks Kimberley 3pm; Blue Bulls v WP Pretoria 5.15pm