Franco Smith © Gallo Images
There are two C’s in the wording of the Currie Cup but it is a different two c’s that the Vodacom Blue Bulls need to overcome if they are to upset the odds by beating the Toyota Free State Cheetahs in Saturday’s final in Bloemfontein.
Continuity and confidence, as was the case with the Golden Lions last year, are at the heart of the Cheetahs’ success thus far in the domestic season. Those two words actually go hand in glove. When a team has played a long time together, and starts to win, confidence grows from that continuity that breeds familiarity and that feeling that everything just fits together.
If Franco Smith’s team does what most are expecting them to do by annexing the famous trophy for the first time since 2007, it will be a different kind of South African success story. Or at least one with a new script. For the core of this Cheetahs team actually started out playing under Smith playing for the local university in last year’s Varsity Cup.
A resounding first win in that competition led to former Springbok player and well-travelled and experienced coach Smith being appointed as the Cheetahs coach in place of Naka Drotske. After an initial flurry which featured a surprisingly one sided win over the Bulls in Super Rugby, the initial progress could be described as middling or even unspectacular – but the point was the team was playing together and the component parts of that team were growing.
Last week’s astoundingly good win over an admittedly understrength Lions side in Bloemfontein was built around a strong defensive effort and well organised transition between defence and attack. Defence was the weakness during Super Rugby, there has never been that much wrong with the Cheetahs attack, so they are moulding into a well-rounded unit that plays the type of rugby that combines the old South African strengths with the new attacking dynamic that the public wants to see from local teams.
The Bulls of course have also embraced change and under Nollis Marais they have grown since they started out under him last year. There has been greater continuity at the Bulls from Super Rugby into the Currie Cup than there was at the Lions or Western Province, but not quite as much as the Cheetahs. Although they deserved to win, they also had to leave it late to win their semifinal against WP at home.
The Cheetahs comprehensively outplayed the Bulls in their league match early in the season, and what will be key on Saturday is what the Bulls learned from that experience. If the memory is accurate, that Cheetahs win was the one where they served notice that they’d upped their physicality, and the old advantage the Bulls used to enjoy against these opponents may have been nullified and even reversed.
What is appetising about this game is the abundance of talented youngsters who have been strutting their stuff out wide to good effect in both teams, and all four wings – Sergeal Petersen and Raymond Rhule for the Cheetahs and Travis Ismael and Jamba Ulenga for the Bulls – have it in them to produce the moment of individual brilliance that could swing the game and determine the destination of the trophy.
The Bulls’ big runners will have to be stopped, and the Cheetahs will feel they are equipped to do so. The Bulls will have to watch out for the Cheetahs’ ability to punish the mistakes they force through their line speed and commitment on defence.
The Cheetahs, based on the evidence of their recent performances in Bloemfontein, should win. But it is a final, and the nerves of the occasion can always have an impact. So you cannot bet against the Bulls with total conviction. They could make the game close like the WP did to them the previous week. It’s unlikely though that the orange tidal wave that hit South Africa’s judicial capital last week will be stopped.
Currie Cup final: Toyota Free State Cheetahs v Vodacom Blue Bulls (Bloemfontein)
Free State Cheetahs: Clayton Blommetjies, Sergeal Petersen, Francois Venter (captain), Nico Lee, Raymond Rhule, Neil Marais, Shaun Venter, Neill Jordaan, Uzair Cassiem, Paul Schoeman, Reniel Hugo, Justin Bassonn, Johan Coetzee, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Charles Marais. Replacements: Jacques du Toit, Ox Nche, Armandt Koster, Henco Venter, Tian Meyer, Fred Zeilinga, Rayno Benjamin, Conraad Human.
Blue Bulls: Ulrich Beyers, Travis Ismael, Dries Swanepoel, Burger Odendaal, Jamba Ulenga, Tian Schoeman, Rudy Paige, Arno Botha (captain), Jannes Kirsten, Roelof Smit, Marvin Orie, Jason Jenkins, Jacobie Adriaanse, Jaco Visagie, Lizo Gcoboka. Replacements: Bandise Maku, Martin Dreyer, Pierre Schoeman, Nic de Jager, Hanro Liebenberg, Ivan van Zyl, Joshua Stander, Bjorn Basson.
Prediction: Cheetahs to win.