The Leopards, Griffons and SWD Eagles will be engaged over the coming fortnight in a three-way tussle for two spots in the Absa Currie Cup First Division semi-finals, after a weekend in which defending champions the Regent Boland Kavaliers were finally eliminated from the title race.
The Eastern Province Kings cemented a home semi-final after thrashing the Griffons 60-19 in Port Elizabeth on Friday night to move to 55 points – a result which keeps the unbeaten Kings eight points ahead of the second-placed Ford Pumas with just two rounds remaining.
The Pumas, on 47, are almost certainly assured of the other home semi after they thumped the Border Bulldogs 41-10 in Nelspruit on Saturday to move nine points clear of the third-placed Leopards and fourth-placed Griffons, who both have 38 points.
The Leopards beat the Valke 57-22 in Potchefstroom on Friday night to move one step closer to the play-offs, while the fifth-placed SWD Eagles kept their hopes very much alive after coming away from Wellington with a full haul of five points thanks to a 42-38 victory over the Kavaliers.
The result leaves the men from George just two points adrift of the Leopards and Griffons as the season enters the final straight.
Regent Boland Kavaliers (17) 38 SWD Eagles (36) 42
The SWD Eagles stayed in the hunt for a semifinal spot and eliminated defending champions the Regent Boland Kavaliers from the competition with a victory at Boland Stadium.
In a match of contrasting halves, the visitors dominated the first – scoring all five of their tries – before a strong showing by the hosts in the second threatened a remarkable recovery.
But despite the efforts of the Cape team, they came up five points short of staying alive in the competition and bow out with two round-robin matches remaining.
For the Eagles, their quest for a semi-final berth is still alive after they moved to 36 points and closed to within two points of the Leopards and Griffons above them in third and fourth place respectively.
At the start, Boland came out with a bang, scoring a try inside the opening two minutes when winger Cornal Hendricks went over for a try converted by Elgar Watts, who scored 18 points in total.
But the visitors hit back when Dumisane Meslane went over in the fifth minute, followed by scores from Wilhelm Koch and Ghafoer Luckan in the 16th and 19th minutes respectively.
Flanker Lyndon Hartnick added another converted score after 26 minutes, before Johannes Kitshoff received a yellow card two minutes later. With the hosts down to 14 men, Grant le Roux added a fifth try on the half-hour mark, before Boland captain Bolla Conradie’s converted score moments before the interval cut the gap to 19 points.
After the restart, Boland dominated and they were rewarded with two tries inside the first 22 minutes by PJ van Zyl and Nolan Clark. With SWD realising which way the momentum had swung, they turned swiftly to the boot of Van Vuuren with two quick penalties, taking the lead back to 11 points.
And despite a late try by flyhalf Watts, the visitors held on.
Kavaliers – Tries: PJ van Zyl, Nolan Clark, Elgar Watts, Cornal Hendricks, Bolla Conradie. Conversions: Elgar Watts (5). Penalty: Watts.
Eagles – Tries: Wilhelm Koch, Grant le Roux, Grant Kemp, Ghafoer Luckan, Dumisane Meslane. Conversions: Elric van Vuuren (4). Penalties: Van Vuuren (3).
Ford Pumas (24) 41 Border Bulldogs (3) 10
The Border Bulldogs were no match for the Ford Pumas, who thumped the East London side at the Mbombela Stadium on Saturday.
The scoreline certainly did not lie in terms of the Pumas' dominance as their powerful pack took firm control in damp conditions and their backline had more pace and precision than their Bulldogs counterparts.
The bonus-point win maintained the Pumas' challenge for top spot, although the EP Kings are still in prime position with an eight-point lead over the Mpumalanga side with two rounds of league play remaining.
The Pumas took a little while to settle in front of 14 305 people, but they opened the scoring in the 15th minute as star fullback Coenie van Wyk crossed for a thrilling try.
Border flyhalf Reinhardt Gerber pulled three points back for the Bulldogs with a 22nd-minute penalty, but the rest of the half was a cruise for the Pumas as they comfortably adapted to the wet conditions, thanks to their gritty forwards.
Scrumhalf Shaun Venter, who sparked numerous attacks, went over for the Pumas' second try two minutes later and centre and captain JW Jonker showed his experience as he glided over three minutes later.
The reliable boot of flyhalf Naas Olivier accounted for all three conversions and the well-travelled 30-year-old also kicked a penalty in the 34th minute to ensure the Pumas reached the break in firm control.
Olivier also began the second-half scoring with a penalty, stretching the lead to 27-3 and, just two minutes later, the Pumas quickly spread the ball wide and wing Wilhelm Loock, who gave a typically passionate display, crossed for the try.
Despite looking all at sea for the last half-hour, the Bulldogs did manage to score a try of their own through centre Neill Jacobs, with Gerber turning it into a seven-pointer with the conversion.
But the Pumas rounded-off an action-packed display as Venter punched his way through for his second try and Mpumalanga's fifth overall.
Pumas– Tries: Wilhelm Loock, Shaun Venter (2), JW Jonker, Coenie van Wyk. Conversions: Carl Bezuidenhout, Naas Olivier (4). Penalties: Olivier (2).
Bulldogs – Try: Niell Jacobs. Conversion: Reinhardt Gerber. Penalty: Gerber.
Leopards (29) 57 Valke (3) 22
Allister Kettledas blazed his way to a hat-trick but the loose trio were the leading lights as the Leopards hammered the Valke at Profert Olen Park on Friday.
While Kettledas, the competition's leading try-scorer, cut through the Valke defences like a laser to score his three tries, the Leopards' loose trio of Juan "Spanner" Pretorius, Robert Kruger and Morne Hanekom were superb, showing great penetration with ball in hand and being incisive at the breakdowns.
A large and enthusiastic tight five also had much to do with the Leopards' victory and they were seldom in any danger of losing as they built up a sizeable 29-3 lead at halftime.
Veteran former Springbok flyhalf Andre Pretorius is also clearly enjoying his new life in Potchefstroom as he kicked superbly in the gusting wind and also showed great vision at times.
The Valke made a lively start, but seemed to have the stuffing knocked out of them by a yellow card to prop Stefan Bezuidenhout for illegally disrupting a rolling maul close to his own tryline.
The power and skills of eighthman Juan Pretorius saw him charging over the tryline soon afterwards and the superb support play and pace of Kruger set up the second try, for centre Adriaan Engelbrecht.
The vision of Pretorius, who pouched an interception and then sent a long pass out wide to wing Kettledas, set up the Leopards' third try and, with a 22-3 lead after half-an-hour, the home side were already obvious winners.
Kettledas tapped and dived over for his second try just before halftime and the Leopards were soon swarming on to attack again from the second-half kick-off, adding another 28 points to run out comfortable victors.
Leopards – Tries: Morne Hanekom, Juan Pretorius, Gerhard Nortier, Allister Kettledas (3), Adriaan Engelbrecht (2). Conversions: Andre Pretorius (6), Nortier. Penalty: Pretorius.
Valke – Tries: Sandile Ngcobo, JW Bell, Anrich Richter. Conversions: Karlo Aspeling (2). Penalty: Juan Kotze.
EP Kings (29) 60 Griffons (0) 19
A hat-trick of tries to EP Kings eighthman and skipper Luke Watson set up the platform for a comprehensive victory over the Griffons at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
EP flyhalf George Whitehead was also a standout performer, scoring 20 points by way of a try, six conversions and a penalty as the home side kept their unbeaten record intact against the competition's early pace-setters.
The writing was on the wall by halftime, the Kings going into the break 29-0 in front thanks to tries from wing Paul Perez, fullback SP Marais, flanker Cornell du Preez and Watson, with Whitehead slotting three conversions and a penalty.
The second half saw the Griffons hit back with three tries, but the men from Welkom leaked another 31 points to the competition's leading team in the process with Whitehead opening the floodgates as early as the 47th minute with a try he converted himself.
Thereafter further scores to inside centre Tiger Mangweni, Watson and replacement Siyanda Grey kept the scoreboard ticking along merrily, although the Griffons did have the final say when hard-working loose forward replacement Nicky Steyn went over in the dying seconds.
EP Kings – Tries: Tiger Mangweni, SP Marais, Siyanda Grey, Paul Perez, Luke Watson (3), George Whitehead, Cornell du Preez. Conversions: Whitehead (6). Penalty: Whitehead.
Griffons – Tries: Nicky Steyn, Hannes Snyman, Cameron Jacobs. Conversions: Hansie Graaff (2).