If you were a rugby supporter who left earth to take up residence on Mars for a couple of years and returned this weekend you’d think the world had gone mad or there was a joke being played out - Toyota Cheetahs against Airlink Pumas in the Carling Currie Cup final? Try another one.
Yet that is what we have this weekend in Bloemfontein, and while it isn’t quite on the level of some of the match ups of the past in terms of Galactica players, no-one who has seen either team play this season will expect to be disappointed by the quality that will be dished up. And there is plenty of jeopardy too, for while the Cheetahs must start as favourites, the Pumas have made a habit of confounding the critics and expectations.
They did it last year against a Griquas team that had trampled all before them in their march to the decider. The emotion we were witness to on our television screens after the game spoke of how much it meant to both the coaches and the players in the winning team, as well as the supporters of the winning team.
Nelspruit and its environs dined out on being Currie Cup champions for the first time, and at the start of this season the crowds that pitched at Mbombela Stadium advertised the leap in rugby interest that the Kimberley triumph inspired.
WIN OVER GRIQUAS SHOWED VISITORS THE WAY
Can it happen again? Three weeks ago you’d have said no. After a good start to the competition, the Pumas had dropped away. When they went to Kimberley for their last Currie Cup league game, they were rank underdogs. And the first half of that game showed why they were outsiders. Griquas had all the ball and all the territory.
But that’s where the Pumas’ biggest strength, their never-say-die attitude, came to the fore. They defended like Trojans, worked incredibly hard when they scrambled and grappled for the loose ball. Somehow they managed to be just seven points behind as the halftime hooter neared, and then they got their second wind and scored a crucial time that levelled the scores at 10-all.
After that, it was the Pumas’ game, and in the second half they were as dominant as Griquas had been in the first. They only wrapped it up with a try a few minutes from time, but in truth they should have put their opponents away long before that. Griquas weren’t short of determination either, and it is those qualities and ingredients that still makes the Currie Cup so watchable and so absorbing when it gets to the business end of the season.
HOSTS WILL LOOK TO CARRY THROUGH LAST WEEK’S DOMINANCE
So what of the Cheetahs? Well, they are the team with momentum. The Vodacom Bulls were in the fight in the first half of last week’s semifinal, and came close to scoring on a few occasions. But as has been the case so often for the Bulls this year, they couldn’t convert their visits into the Cheetahs 22.
After halftime it was all the Cheetahs, as the end winning margin of 29 points indicates, and of the two finalists, it is they who have the momentum. While the Pumas had to defend like their lives depended on it at the end of last week’s game against the Cell C Sharks in Durban, the Cheetahs were firing on all cylinders. Give that game another five minutes and they would have topped the half century mark.
Both teams have players who can play a big role in determining who lifts the trophy. It is a pity Tinus de Beer is heading overseas at the end of the season as he is a fine flyhalf who makes good decisions and provides a calm head in times of crisis. Devon Williams at fullback has a good boot, and Diego Appolis has shown in the closing stages of the season why he will be on the Sharks’ books after this game.
The Cheetahs have the most experienced flyhalf in the country playing for them in the form of Ruan Pienaar. The former Sharks and Ulster Springbok is ending his career in the position many feel he should have played all along, and which former Bok coach Peter de Villiers initially selected him in for the 2009 British and Irish Lions series. And he’s enjoying it so much that he’s signed to play on for another season.
There are other players of course in both teams that will have a say, but it is the forwards and halfbacks that decide finals. The Pumas will have to improve their scrumming but their mauling is formidable. The Cheetahs were just good all round last week and are playing at home. On that basis they start as favourites. But don’t bet your house on it.
One thing the Cheetahs will know for sure is that they can’t relax if they take a lead. Last year they were swanning their way into the final when the Pumas ignited and stole it from them. With a win meaning so much for both regions, there’s lots to play for and it is a game that matters.
The battle within the war ??
It’s going to be a fascinating contest as Hawies Fourie and Jimmy Stonehouse try to outwit each other on Saturday ??#CurrieCup #WhereLegendsRise pic.twitter.com/Aonsk6haMm— The Currie Cup (@TheCurrieCup) June 23, 2023
CARLING CURRIE CUP FINAL
Toyota Cheetahs v Airlink Pumas (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein, Saturday 16.00)
Teams to be announced
Prediction: Cheetahs to win by 8