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Sixteen weeks of stirring provincial rugby action will be kick-started on Friday evening when South Africa’s favourite domestic competition, the Currie Cup, presented by Nashua and Direct Axis, kicks off in Bloemfontein, where the Toyota Free State Cheetahs, will start the defence of their crown against the Cell C Sharks.

This tightly contested Premier Division affair at the Toyota Stadium on Friday will be followed on Saturday when two former champions, Tafel Lager Griquas and the Vodacom Blue Bulls, front up in Kimberley at Tafel Lager Park. The weekend’s action will be concluded Sunday in Nelspruit, where the Steval Pumas will host the Xerox Golden Lions in the scenic Mbombela Stadium.

DHL Western Province start with a bye.

The 2017 edition of this iconic tournament will see these seven teams contest the Premier Division, playing each other twice on a home and away basis, with the semi-finals on 21 October and the final a week later on 28 October.

Both winners in the last two seasons, the Xerox Golden Lions (2015) and Toyota Free State Cheetahs (2016), came through those respective campaigns undefeated and it will be a unique triple should the 2017 champions be crowned without losing a match.

After an undefeated 2016 season, the Toyota Free State Cheetahs, will look to start strong again. They added some serious strike power to their attack this season, with the inclusion of three Springbok Sevens players in their match day squad. Rosko Specman will start on the wing, while Cecil Afrika and Chris Dry will add punch off the bench.Incidentally, three more backline players, Clayton Blommetjies, William Small-Smith and Shaun Venter, also represented the Blitzboks earlier in their careers. The Free Staters already boast three Springboks in Francois Venter, Raymond Rhule and Uzair Cassiem and will be coached by Rory Duncan, who takes over from Franco Smith.

The Cell C Sharks have a good mix of experience and potential in their starting fifteen, with two Currie Cup centurions (and former winners) Odwa Ndungane (133 matches) and Keegan Daniel (110 matches) in their midst. Daniel will lead the side on Friday.

Ndungane made his provincial debut 17 years ago – he has won the Currie Cup three times before and will be a valuable sound board to the next generation of Cell C Sharks players coming through this season. One of those will be 20-year-old winger, Ilunga Mukendi, who has shown good form in recent months and is expected to take over the mantle from the former Springbok wing.

Newcomers to the 2017 squad include Ross Geldenhuys, Mzamo Majola and Tyler Paul, who represented the Southern Kings in Vodacom Super Rugby.

Losing finalist in 2016, the Vodacom Blue Bulls, will have a new captain in Ruan Steenkamp, while the impact of their new Executive of Rugby, John Mitchell, will be keenly watched. Boom Prinsloo will lead the side in Kimberley, as Steenkamp battles with a hamstring injury.

The side will be coached by Nollis Marais again, with Mitchell assisting with the attack for now. The likes of Springboks Jamba Ulengo, Rudy Paige and Piet van Zyl will provide some punch, with most of the squad well experienced, having played in the Vodacom Super Rugby competition. The try-scoring momentum brought by Warrick Gelant and Duncan Matthews will also stand the team in good stead.

Tafel Lager Griquas will rely heavily on the squad that took them to the final of the recently completed SuperSport Rugby Challenge, but also welcome back Clinton Swart, who had a storming season with the Toyota Cheetahs in Vodacom Super Rugby, as well as Poerie van Rooyen, who played at the Southern Kings. Swart will start at centre and Van Rooyen off the bench.

They have proven to be a tough nut to crack at home, losing only once in Kimberley in last year’s competition. AJ Coertzen will again lead the side into battle and coach Peter Engledow will be quietly confident of his charges chances to make it into the final four.

The Steval Pumas also have a new coach, following the disappointing performances in 2016, when they only managed one win. Brent Janse van Rensburg has joined the union from Boland and the team already showed good endeavour in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge.

They have Chris Cloete, one of the stand-out flankers in Vodacom Super Rugby, back from Southern Kings duties, while prop Pieter Scholtz moved east from the Xerox Golden Lions, where he represented them in last year’s campaign. Cloete is injured at the moment though and was not considered for selection.

The visitors will have some challenges to overcome early in the competition, as a number of the players expected to play in the Currie Cup are still busy with Vodacom Super Rugby commitments. The performances of the Xerox Golden Lions team that played in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge will be of comfort though, as they have beaten the Steval Pumas three times in that campaign. The Johannesburgers will become tougher to beat as their big name players’ return, but have the depth and talent to stay unbeaten till then. Former Springboks, Springboks Sevens and Cell C Sharks player, Ryan Kankowski, will captain the side, with highly influential lock Marvin Orie to add experience to the pack.

Currie Cup Round 1 fixtures:

Friday, 21 July

Toyota Free State vs Cell C Sharks

Toyota Free State Cheetahs: Clayton Blommetjies, Rosko Specman, Francois Venter (captain), William Small-Smith, Raymond Rhule, Niel Marais, Shaun Venter, Henco Venter, Uzair Cassiem, Neil Jordaan, Reniel Hugo, Carl Wegner, Aranos Coetzee, Joseph Dweba, Charles Marais. Replacements: Ox Nche, Reinach Venter, Rynier Bernado, Chris Dry, Zee Mkhabela, JW Jonker, Cecil Afrika.

Cell C Sharks: Courtney Winnaar, Odwa Ndungane, S’bura Sithole, Marius Louw, Ilunga Mukendi, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Rowan Gouws, Keegan Daniel (captain), Jacques Vermeulen, Khaya Majola, Hyron Andrews, Wian Vosloo, Ross Geldenhuys, Kerron van Vuuren, Mzamo Majola. Replacements: Andrew du Plessis, Thierry Kounga, Tyler Paul, Bandisa Ndlovu, Cameron Wright, Brandon Bailing, Inny Radebe.

Venue: Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein

Kick-off: 19h00

TV: SS1

Referee: Cwengile Jadezweni

Assistant Referees: Jaco Pretorius & Jaco Kotze

TMO: JJ Wagner

 

Saturday, 22 July

Tafel Lager Griquas vs Vodacom Blue Bulls

Tafel Lager Griquas: AJ Coertzen (captain), Ederies Arendse, Tertius Kruger, Clinton Swart, Koch Marx, André Swarts, Christiaan Meyer, Jonathan Janse van Rensburg, Sias Koen, RJ Liebenberg, FP Pelser, Mzwanele Zito, Ewald van der Westhuizen, AJ le Roux, Liam Hendricks. Replacements: Marius Fourie, Nicolaas Oosthuizen, Jonathan Adendorf, Wendal Wehr, Poerie van Rooyen, George Whitehead, Enver Brandt.

Vodacom Blue Bulls: Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel, Franco Naude, Burger Odendaal, Duncan Matthews, Tony Jantjies, Piet van Zyl, Nic de Jager, Jannes Kirsten, Boom Prinsloo (captain), Abongile Nonkontwana, Ruben van Heerden, Conraad van Vuuren, Jaco Visagie, Pierre Schoeman. Replacements: Jan-Henning Campher, John-Roy Jenkinson, Freddy Ngoza, Shaun Adendorff, Andre Warner, Tinus de Beer, JT Jackson.

Venue: Tafel Lager Park, Kimberley

Kick-off: 19h30

TV: SS1

Referee: AJ Jacobs

Assistant Referees: Jaco Pretorius & Darren Colby

TMO: JJ Wagner

 

Sunday, 23 July

Steval Pumas vs Xerox Golden Lions

Steval Pumas: Gerrit Smith, Jerome Pretorius, Hennie Skorbinski (captain), Ryan Nell, Ruwellyn Isbell, Justin van Staden, Stefan Ungerer, Carel Greeff, Nardus van der Walt, Francois Kleinhans, Hugo Kloppers (captain), Jeremy Jordaan, Pieter Scholtz, Mark Pretorius, Mona Kwezi. Replacements: Frank Herne, DJ Terblanche, Marne Coetzee, Jannie Stander, Lambert Groenewald, Reynier van Rooyen, Sias Ebersohn.

Xerox Golden Lions: Ashlon Davids, Madosh Tambwe, Stokkies Hanekom, Jarryd Sage, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Shaun Reynolds, Marco Jansen van Vuren, Ryan Kankowski (captain), Jano Venter, James Venter, Rhyno Herbst, Marvin Orie, Andrew Beerwinkel, Pieter Jansen, Sti Sithole. Replacements: Mike Willemse, Nico du Plessis, Bobby de Wee, Hacjivah Dayimani, Fabian Booysen, Bradley Thain, Jan-Louis la Grange.

Venue: Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit

Kick-off: 14h30

TV: SS1

Referee: Stuart Berry

Assistant Referees: Ricus van der Hoven & Marnus Meiring

TMO: Willie Vos

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