The Cheetahs will need a strong performance to fight off the experienced Golden Lions in the semi-finals in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
A victory for the log-leaders would take them one step closer to a fairy-tale season, as it would extend their unbeaten run to nine matches – only two victories short of their 11-match winning record which they set in 2007. The last time the Bloemfontein men featured in the Currie Cup Final was in 2009.
They are, however, expected to face tough competition against the Golden Lions, who will be hunting their third successive final berth.
The Free State Cheetahs and Golden Lions also met in the Currie Cup semi-final last season in Johannesburg where the hosts won 43-33.
History, however, suggests that it could be hard-fought clash, as the Bloemfontein side have won only two of their last five matches against the Golden Lions at home in the competition. Their last victory before this year’s pool rounds was in 2013. Adding to this, the Cheetahs’ five home victories amongst the sides between 2007 and 2010 were decided by six points or less.
Free State Cheetahs head coach Franco Smith said selecting the team was an incredibly tough part of their preparation.
"It (the selections) gave me a big headache," Smith told OFM.
"Rayno (Benjamin) has done really well, although Sergeal has got something special about him.
"We all know that he has the X-factor and that’s something that may be needed.
"From my experience I know that semi-finals are about moments and Sergeal has the ability to do something special.
"I took a long time to make this decision and my heart really bleeds for a guy like William Small-Smith and everybody else that has trained so hard. Michael van der Spuy is another one."
Lions coach Johan Ackermann spoke about how valuable the return of his experienced Springboks are.
"They bring leadership, they bring experience, playoff experience and they have just played rugby at the highest level. In our view those are positives and in the past it was difficult to make these substitutions because they can upset your rhythms but if you look at the positions, Malcolm played for us a week or two ago and he is part of the setup," Ackermann told Supersport.
Julian played for us when he came back from injury and with SA Rugby announcing that it is 23-man squads, there are four props and that is perfect for us.
"Faf obviously comes at a great time because Dillon Smit failed his injury test and is out of the game, we couldn’t select him anyhow."
"It will definitely count. There are players who started in the 2014 Currie Cup final, then last year’s Currie Cup and this year’s Super Rugby tournament."
Ackermann denied that playing in Bloemfontein would hinder their chances.
"Although we are playing away, the guys had their back against the wall against the Kings and the Sharks," he added.
"It was almost a playoff mentality from then and hopefully that works for us, but we must acknowledge the brand, the style and the way the Cheetahs play. It is a quality side."
Team news: The Lions have made five changes to his starting line-up. In the back-line, Jacques Nel, who played on the wing against the Sharks, moves to outside centre where he replaces the injured Howard Mnisi while Koch Marx comes in to the run-on side to wear the number 14 jersey. The other changes are all in the forwards with Fabian Booysen coming in at number eight to replace Ruaan Lerm who drops to the replacements bench. There's also a new front row with Julian Redelinghuys and Jacques van Rooyen taking over from Ruan Dreyer and Dylan Smith, who is injured, as the starting props and Malcolm Marx replaces Robbie Coetzee at hooker.
Free State have made two changes starting line up with Sergeal Petersen replacing Ryno Benjamin on the wing while Paul Schoeman comes in for Henco Venter on the openside flank, with the remainder of the side unchanged.
The last time these teams met: The Cheetahs registered a 37-29 victory in Bloemfontein in the Currie Cup pool stages over the Golden Lions. The home side were able to score five tries through Raymond Rhule, Reniel Hugo, Shaun Venter, Ryno Benjamin and Tian Meyer.
Prediction: The Lions will be ferocious in their endeavor to claim a semi-final berth but the Cheetahs' winning formula should pull them through. Cheetahs by seven.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francios Venter, 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten vsn Jaarsveld, 1 Tshego Nche
Replacements: 16 Jacques Du Toit, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Armandt Koster, 19 Henco Venter, 20 Tian Meyer, 21 Fred Zeilinga, 22 Ryno Benjamin, 23 Conraad Van Vuuren
Golden Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Koch Marx, 13 Jacques Nel, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Fabian Booysen, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith (c), 5 Bobby de Wee, 4 Ruan Ackermann, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Ruaan Lerm, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Stokkies Hanekom, 23 Sylvian Mahuza
Date: Saturday, October 15
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Kick-off: 15:00 local (13:00 GMT)
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge
Assistant Referees: Quinton Immelman, Rodney Boneparte
TMO: Marius Jonker