Sport

It's Bok to the provinces

Andy Capostagno

Following a Test match season that failed to ignite for South Africa, the domestic year draws to a close over the next month in schizophrenic fashion.

Out to cement his place in the Springbok team. (Gallo)

Hitherto, the provinces have ambled along without the benefit of current Springboks, but that will change this week when Heyneke Meyer's charges return to their unions.

At the end of 2011 the South African Rugby Union decided to slash the Currie Cup from eight teams to six. In a return to strength versus strength, each side plays the five others home and away.

This has led to a crisis for two teams with a great history: the Cheetahs and the Blue Bulls. Both sides need to win this weekend to have a chance of making it to the semifinals. More importantly, however, each is desperate to avoid the bottom spot that will demand a promotion-relegation match for the honour of remaining in the premier division in 2013.

The Cheetahs look as though they have the sterner task of the two. They fly to Cape Town to play a Western Province team stiffened by the return of no fewer than seven Springboks, including national captain Jean de Villiers. By contrast, the Cheetahs will have just two returnees in Adriaan Strauss and Coenie Oosthuizen. It would have been three, but 20-year-old flyhalf sensation Johan Goosen is out for the rest of the season with knee-ligament damage.

Goosen's injury may or may not have been sustained in the first quarter of last week's Test against New Zealand in Soweto. It looked suspiciously as though the youngster began the match with the heel injury he had been carrying for a fortnight or more.

Compromised
What was clear was that Goosen could not contribute from about the 20th minute onwards. He should have been replaced there and then, but the coach patently does not trust Elton Jantjies. So the defensive line was compromised and in the 10 minutes that Goosen soldiered on in obvious distress the All Blacks scored two soft tries that in effect won the game.

Jantjies's chance should come when the Boks go on tour to Ireland, Scotland and England at the end of the year. Some have dared to suggest that the tour will be used to rehabilitate Morné Steyn in the flyhalf position, in which case it will be an opportunity wasted.

Steyn might be thrust into action in Johannesburg on Saturday when the Lions play the Bulls, but it is more likely that he will only play again this year only if the Bulls are forced into the promotion-relegation match.

The trans-Jukskei derby gives Jantjies a chance to prove his mettle once again, although quite why he should need to is a mystery.

The Lions flyhalf is an instinctive player with a sublime passing game and a kicking method as good as most. He lacks experience at the highest level and only the national coach can give him that.

The same might be said of Juan de Jongh, who must have thought his chance had come when injury ended the season for Frans Steyn.

Elephant in the room
Instead, the coach called up Jaco Taute, who is a fine counterattacking fullback, but he lacks the pace to play at outside centre at international level.

In the eyes of the coach, Taute's size and strength trumped the elusiveness of De Jongh.

This is an issue that seems to have been the elephant in the room for the majority of South African coaches down the years.

When push comes to shove, the player who can hold the ball is preferred to the one who can use it. Brent Russell was chased away to Europe and it was intriguing to hear another exile, Ruan Pienaar, commenting on Pat Lambie this week.

Pienaar said Lambie had to decide which position he wanted to play and make sure that the Sharks give him game time there.

"I learned a lot in my time there from Brent Russell and you can remember how he was shifted around in several different positions. When you are young you just want to play, but at some point you have to make a decision as to where you want to play," he said.

Afterthought
Right now, of course, Lambie would just like to play as more than an afterthought.

Once again he was cheered to the rafters when he came on at Soccer City for the princely sum of 16 minutes' game time. In all likelihood, he will slot in at flyhalf for Friday night's encounter between the Sharks and Griquas in Durban. And in all likelihood he will appear somewhat ring-rusty.

The Sharks hold their destiny in their own hands, thanks to last week's bonus-point win in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs. A win will ensure them top spot and a potential home final.

The Lions cannot be ousted from second spot, but they could condemn the Bulls to the basement by beating them.

It is hard to see the Cheetahs beating Western Province and the bottom two places are likely to be decided by bonus points and the points difference.

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