All the focus may be on Bloemfontein as the defending champions, the Vodacom Free State Cheetahs, take on the Vodacom Blue Bulls in a crucial Absa Currie Cup clash on Saturday night, but somebody should also keep an eye on the happenings in Wellington when the Xerox Lions take on the Boland Cavaliers earlier in the day.
And one man that will certainly be keeping more than just an eye on things is Xerox Lions coach, Eugene ‘Loffie’ Eloff, who is more than happy to “keep under the radar” as the Absa Currie Cup semifinal race hots up.
“That’s how I am,” the popular Lions coach told the the SA Rugby website. “I like flying under the radar.” The Lions have certainly kept a low profile in 2008, slowly creeping up the Absa Currie Cup log without making too much of a fuss. After losing their opening two matches – to the Blue Bulls and the FS Cheetahs – the men from Johannesburg have suffered just another two defeats in their next nine games.
As things stand now, with all teams having played 11 matches, the Lions are in third place on the Absa Currie Cup standings with 36 points. The Blue Bulls are just four points ahead of them in second place, with the first-placed Sharks on 42 points. “All we can do at this stage is worry about our own performances, starting with Boland this weekend,” said Eloff, when presented with the latest Currie Cup log.
“Any possible permutations won’t have an affect on us if we win all our matches and get bonus points along the way too.”
Possible play-off permutations aside, the Lions were handed a massive boost this week when World Cup-winning centre Jaque Fourie was passed fit after suffering a fractured cheekbone whilst on Test duty for the Springboks in a one-off Test against Argentina in August. “Jaque will play off the bench for us this week,” revealed Eloff. “We’re hopeful that he will be ready to start for us against Western Province at the start of next month. It’s great having him back; we all know his qualities as an attacking force, but his experience at this stage of the season is an even bigger boost for us.”
The Boland-Lions match kicks-off at 3pm on Saturday afternoon, so Eloff will be forgiven if he rushes straight to the nearest television set afterwards to watch the ‘Battle of Bloemfontein’ between the Cheetahs and the Bulls at 5pm. After all, there is plenty riding on that match for the Lions. If the Lions collect a bonus point victory over the Bolanders, and the Cheetahs beat the Bulls and deny them a bonus point in the process, Eloff’s team will move into second place on the Absa Currie Cup log.
“It’s a difficult one to call,” said ‘Loffie’ when asked to make a prediction for the match at Vodacom Park. “The Bulls are in the midst of a good run and even though the Cheetahs have lost a few games of late, they’re a different team in Bloemfontein. “Either way it’s going to be a cracker… and a close one at that.” Elsewhere in the competition, the star-studded Western Province team will continue their late bid for a semifinal place when they host the Wildeklawer Griquas at Newlands on Friday evening. After smashing the Valke 92-15 last weekend, the Capetonians will be looking for another big victory against a team that beat them away from home during the first round of league fixtures earlier in the season.
But their sparkling recent form aside, WP coach Allister Coetzee cautioned against under-estimating the men from Kimberley, who are able to call upon in-form wings MJ Mentz and Bjorn Basson, the duo having scored 13 tries between them in the Absa Currie Cup thus far.
“Griquas are a good team with a very good pack. We are going to have to earn our respect out there in the rucks and in the scrums,” said Coetzee. “We won’t be short of motivation having lost the previous fixture in Kimberley,” he added at this team’s weekly press conference. “We’ve also looked at how they beat the Valke and Boland; they are not to be taken lightly.”
The weekend’s other match will see the Valke host the high-riding table-topping Sharks at 3pm on Saturday – not at their regular Brakpan venue, but at Kempton Park’s Barnard Stadium. The Valke have conceded a massive 175 points in their last two outings -suffering big losses to the Lions and WP – but there is still the small matter of them staying off the bottom of the Absa Currie Cup log ahead of next month’s promotion/relegation matches.
The Valke and the Cavaliers are both on 13 points (the Cavaliers are ahead on points’ difference), with Griquas safer in sixth place on 19 points. At this stage, even one losing bonus point could make all the difference when it comes to securing automatic participation into next year’s Premier Division, with the seventh- and eighth-place teams playing promotion/relegation matches against the two top teams from the First Division.
But despite their precarious position on the log at present, the Valke are always a dangerous unit, as WP found out in mid-July when the men from the East Rand beat them 38-32. Not even an in-form Sharks team, boasting good wins over the Bulls and the Cheetahs during the past fortnight, can afford to relax against the Valke. “That’s the challenge for the players: to get up mentally for the game,” said Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford on the Sharks website, “(and) we’ve spoken about it, we just must make sure we don’t let ourselves down. “If we’re professional and mentally prepared, we should be ok. If we go there to fulfill the plan, the result will take care of itself.”