PRETORIA – It will be a re-enactment of last year’s Currie Cup final and even though there will be no trophy at stake, the Blue Bulls and Free State Cheetahs will have a lot to play for at Loftus Versfeld this afternoon.
The Bulls may have lost out on domestic honours in that final at the hands of a better and ruthless Cheetahs team last year, but they now find themselves at a crucial crossroads in their campaign as to whether they will remain title contenders or quietly fall out of contention.
As good a start as they may have enjoyed in the opening two rounds of the Currie Cup with wins over Griquas and the Golden Lions, they have been derailed by losses at the hands of the Sharks and Western Province, causing a major dent in their title aspirations.
So today is a day of reckoning for Nollis Marais’ men as they look to assert revenge for last year’s defeat as well as get back on the horse before the conclusion of the first round of the competition.
To be fair, the Bulls have not played badly in their defeats against the Sharks and WP but instead have failed to put up an 80-minute performance worthy of securing them victory.
They have shown creativity and intent with ball in hand but at the heart of their failings has been a doubtful defence.
“I think at the moment all teams in the Currie Cup are struggling to play for 80 minutes," said Marais.
“In their matches against the Pumas and Griquas, the Cheetahs were leading by a huge margin but those teams managed to close the gap.
“I think any team can beat any side on the day and I believe it'll be a very close competition. Once teams find the right balance between attack and defence, they will be very hard to beat."
The Bulls will have to continue to grow with ball in hand and even be more accurate especially when it matters the most as they have been guilty of not capitalising on all of their opportunities when within striking distance of the opposition tryline.
If they can get that right and man up on defence then they are in with a shout against a Cheetahs side still smarting from last weekend’s shock defeat at the hands of Griquas in Bloemfontein.
While the Cheetahs will still be wondering how it is that they lost that game after the good start they had built, the Bulls will be looking at eradicating the poor start that saw WP run in 42 points in 40 minutes last weekend.
Marais, admittedly, is still haunted by what may have been of that Currie Cup final had they exploited their chances.
But what will be of immediate concern to him today will be the lessons that his team can draw from that game and what has unfolded in their past two matches.
“It is a bad start and we don’t want that again. We are giving away too many early points, making it difficult for us to catch up and that happened on Saturday. We had ample opportunities to win in the last 15 minutes but we couldn’t convert,” Marais said.
For the Cheetahs, it will be all about getting back to the top of the log and proving last week’s defeat was nothing but a minor bump in the road as they look to strength their position before casting an eye on the upcoming PRO14 competition.