JOHANNESBURG – The domestic rugby scene will move up a gear from Friday as the Currie Cup begins.
The opening clash of the 2018 season will be in Nelspruit, where the Pumas will host Griquas at 5pm, while the Free State Cheetahs and Blue Bulls will meet in Bloemfontein at 7pm.
Defending champions, Western Province, 2017 runners-up, the Sharks, and the Golden Lions have byes this weekend. But all the teams are fully aware that every match will count this season, as they battle it out in a gripping single round, which will culminate in the semi-finals and final on consecutive Saturdays, on October 20 and 27 respectively.
The Pumas and Griquas, who were involved in a pulsating SuperSport Rugby Challenge Final recently, have met in the Currie Cup Premier Division 22 times dating back to 1997, with the Nelspruit side winning only eight of those encounters. But they will be determined to make the most of their home ground advantage on Friday.
The last three clashes between the sides were closely-fought, with the biggest winning margin six points, which will set the scene for a gripping battle at the Mbombela Stadium.
The Pumas team will feature Marnus Schoeman, who was a member of the Lions Vodacom Super Rugby squad, in what will mark his 30th match for the side and his first appearance in the jersey in 20 months. Stefan Ungerer and Chris Smith will dictate play in the halfback pairing.
The Griquas named a settled squad featuring several experienced campaigners, including George Whitehead, Ederies Arendse and AJ Coertzen, while Godfrey Ramaboea (wing) and Kwezi Mkhafu (hooker) will make their debuts at this level, along with Junior Springbok scrumhalf Zak Burger, if he takes to the field from the bench.
In Bloemfontein, the Free State Cheetahs will look to make a strong opening statement after losing out on a semi-final berth last season. This is a replay of the 2016 final, which the Free Staters won 36-16.
But the Blue Bulls will draw inspiration from their 64-36 victory against the Free Staters in Bloemfontein last season, and the fact they have won three of the last six outings between the teams at that venue.
The Free State Cheetahs team feature three Springboks, Oupa Mohoje, Rudy Paige and Ox Nche, while replacement hooker Jacques du Toit will play his 50th match for the team.
The Blue Bulls also named a squad featuring several Vodacom Super Rugby players and capped Junior Springboks, which will be led by Hanro Liebenberg.
Thembelani Bholi (flank) will make his Blue Bulls debut in the starting team, while Theo Maree and Earll Dowrie could make their Currie Cup debuts off the bench.
Currie Cup Premier Division Round 1 fixtures
Pumas v Tafel Lager Griquas
Venue: Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge
Assistant Referees: Ricus van der Hoven and Des van Wyk
TMO: Shaun Veldsman
Free State Cheetahs v Blue Bulls
Venue: Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Dan Jones
Assistant Referees: Ben Crouse and Jaco Kotze
TMO: Lourens van der Merwe
African News Agency (ANA)