There will plenty at stake when the Free State Cheetahs and the Blue Bulls face each other in Bloemfontein on Friday.
Both sides are yet to fire on all cylinders in this year’s competition and are keen to secure victory which will enhance their play-off ambitions.
While the Cheetahs are in fifth place, level on points (19) with the fourth-placed Pumas, the Bulls are in a precarious position on the table six points adrift of their host in sixth spot.
Both sides have played seven games and with just three matches of the league stage of the competition left the Pretoria-based outfit know that another defeat could spell the end of their semi-final hopes.
Blue Bulls coach Frans Ludeke is aware of this match’s significance to his team’s fortunes and believes it is the most crucial one of their Currie Cup campaign.
“We cannot afford to lose and even a good win might not be good enough. We managed to get back on track earlier in the season, but again allowed ourselves to be side-tracked,” he said.
“We cannot afford it to happen again.”
Captain Deon Stegmann, who returns to action after serving a one-match suspension, echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“We owe it to ourselves, the coaches and the supporters out there to deliver a quality performance,” he said.
“We have let ourselves down too many times this season. We must now run our own race and finish strong. We still have something to play for and we must use the opportunity.”
The Cheetahs are on a high after beating the Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth last weekend. Despite that win, they came off second best in the battle up front and their coach Rory Duncan expects another huge physical onslaught from the Bulls.
“We know it is going to be very physical,” he said.
“That is the way the Bulls play their rugby. But we have some good momentum going into the game and we want to use that to our advantage.
“We aren’t focusing on the semi-finals, but are taking it game for game.”
The home side have been boosted by the return of Springbok prop Coenie Oosthuizen as well as number eight Jean Cook and full-back Clayton Blommetjies which gives Duncan reason to be optimistic.
“Guys like Coenie and Jean bring another dimension to our game,” he added.
“And of course their physical presence will also be very welcome. From the back guys like Clayton, Rayno Benjamin and Raymond Rhule can come into play if our forwards produce good quality ball.”
Predicition: The Bulls are like a wounded animal and will not go down without a fight. The Cheetahs are at home, however, and will not disappoint their fans. Cheetahs to win by six points!
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Rayno Benjamin, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Joubert Engelbrecht, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Willie du Plessis, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Jean Cook, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Tienie Burger, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Henco Venter, 3 George Marich, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld (c), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Werner Lourens, 19 Neil Claassen, 20 Shaun Venter, 21 Pieter-Steyn de Wet, 22 JP du Plessis.
Blue Bulls: 15 Ulrich Beyers, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Sampie Mastriet, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Jono Ross, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann (c), 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Morne Mellet, 18 Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, 19 Wiaan Liebenberg, 20 Rudy Paige, 21Tian Schoeman, 22 Jesse Kriel.
Date: Friday, September 26
Kick-off: 19:10 local (18:10 BST, 17:10 GMT)
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Referees: Lourens van der Merwe, Francois Pretorius
TMO: Willie Vos