CAPE TOWN – Is it premature to say that the 2018 Currie Cup is not only Western Province's to defend, but also theirs to lose?
After their brilliant display against the Pumas at Mbombela Stadium in the third round on Friday evening, I hardly think so.
Province were in command for the most part of the game, and they ran in eight superb tries to the hosts' four.
In the first half it was WP's potency when it came to turnovers that really hurt the Pumas, but their overall clinical approach and their strong defence - which proved worthy against a determined side - was also a pleasant sight, while the skill level and X-factor in their backline was put on show in a fantastic way.
The SuperSport Challenge champions should be given credit for the way they kept on fighting even when the scoreboard suggested that there probably wasn't much of a point to it. They also scored a few good tries of their own.
But Province were simply sublime.
Province scored the opening try through flanker Kobus van Dyk after showing patience with ball in hand, good decision-making and hitting their gaps to get into the hosts' 22 before Van Dyk finished things off. SP Marais hit his target with the conversion and took the score to 0-7.
Their second came when WP capitalised on the opposition's mistake and struck from the turnover after scrumhalf Jano Vermaak pounced on the loose ball before spreading it away from the contact point and playing his part in the proceedings out wide. The way the visitors again utilised space and their open man allowed wing Sergeal Petersen to do what he does best as he sprinted down touch to score (0-14).
Shortly afterwards, the Pumas were again punished for conceding a turnover when Petersen caught the lost ball, drifted out wide while drawing his defenders with him, before he passed the ball to outside center Ruhan Nel to do his part and score (0-21). Before Petersen got his hands on the oval, he also did brilliantly when he chased down Dillyn Leyds' kick before the Pumas pounced on the isolated Petersen and turned it over.
They were sloppy, however, and the former Cheetahs speedster got right back in there and snatched up the loose ball before setting his try-creating play into motion.
A switch in the direction of play and a floating pass before the half-hour mark made things really unpleasant really quickly for the hosts as Marais got his chance to visit their in-goal area (0-26).
The Pumas finally got on the scoreboard when right wing and former WP player JP Lewis sniped over in the right-hand corner after Chris Smith showed incredibly slick hands and opened up just enough for his outside man (7-26).
It was as if that first try sparked something in the Pumas as they kept it tight when they got into Province's red zone before lock Le Roux Roets powered over (14-26).
Marais added a penalty kick just before the half-time hooter to take the score to 14-29.
WP's forwards got another try-scoring chance in the 50th minute when replacement lock Ernst van Rhyn got the ball after another great kick chase by Petersen and ran straight up the middle to score (14-36), and openside flanker Sikhumbuzo Nothse scored a stunning one when he ran right through the lineout on the five, secured the throw and crashed over for their sixth of the night (14-43).
Petersen's second try of the night should have done enough to show just what a quality player he is. And as much as Damian de Allende should be given credit for that little dink into space (he also produced a top pass in the build-up to Marais' try, while his general display was a promising visual for WP and the Boks), the way Petersen shot up, made that pick up look ridiculously easy and outsprinted two defenders stole the show (14-50).
The winger's razzle dazzle wasn't all that stood out, though. He made a few hard tackles, his kick-chases were superb and his lethal finishing ability was properly put on show in Mpumalanga. That Man-of-the-Match award couldn't be argued. Not at all.
No 8 Juarno Augustus' performance was a much-anticipated one, and he started on a high as he proved a menace at the breakdown and seemed eager to show his power when he carried, which he did.
Marais aced his time on the tee and also contributed his fair share in open play. Notshe was impressive when he had to be physical and just as good when he showed his guile. Van Rhyn was a workhorse.
But it probably isn't fair to single out individuals after a performance like that. Each and every player did his part.
With eight minutes to play, the Pumas got a chance to score from a turnover when replacement back Jerome Pretorius ran one in (21-50). The hosts scored another from deep in their own half when Smith, who kicked four out of four on the night, contributed points in a different form.
WP replacement scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies wouldn't let the opposition have the last say, however, and his try - which showed the skill the defending champions possess - made their score an even more impressive one (28-57). And although the Pumas saw more of the ball in the second 40, it was a massively dominant performance by John Dobson's team.
And given the high-pressure competition format, those big points will always be appreciated.
Western Province 57
Pumas: Tries: JP Lewis, Le Roux Roets, Jerome Pretorius, Chris Smith.
Conversions: Smith (4)
Western Province: Tries: Kobus van Dyk, Sergeal Petersen (2), Ruhan Nel, SP Marais, Ernst van Ryn, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Herschel Jantjies
Conversions: Marais (7) Penalties: Marais (1)