THE final round of the Absa Currie Cup Premier Division is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing in years, with the spectre of possible relegation hanging over the same four teams who are still in the running for the two remaining semi-final places.
In an unprecedented scenario, even DHL Western Province, currently in third, could find themselves last on the six-team log by the end of the weekend, should they lose at home to the Toyota Free State Cheetahs on Saturday and the results of the other two matches conspire against them.
In contrast, the Sharks, on 30 points, and the second-placed MTN Golden Lions, on 28, are guaranteed of hosting home semi-finals in Durban and Johannesburg next weekend, but who their opponents will be is impossible to predict – as is the identity of the wooden-spoonists, who will have to fight for their Premier Division lives against the Eastern Province Kings in a promotion-relegation battle.
Only two points separate WP (20) and the bottom-placed Vodacom Blue Bulls (18) heading into the final round. And such is the range of permutations that not even a win for the Blue Bulls, or the fifth-placed Cheetahs for that matter, will guarantee that they don't finish last.
The Sharks will want to seal top spot on the log – and a possible home final, should they get that far – when John Plumtree's men host Griquas in Durban on Friday night. For the visitors, tied on 20 points with WP but with a poorer points differential, victory will tie up one of the remaining semi-final slots, leaving WP, the Cheetahs and Blue Bulls to fight it out for the other on Saturday.
A win for Griquas, coupled with a victory for WP against the Cheetahs in Saturday's first game, in Cape Town, will confirm the four semi-finalists but leave the final match, between the defending champion Lions and Blue Bulls in Johannesburg, as a possible battle to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon.
But the above is but one of a number of scenarios, with a Cheetahs or Blue Bulls victory – or both! - leading to a completely different outcome. And if this season's matches to date are anything to go by, nothing is certain and no team is safe.
Vodacom Blue Bulls flyhalf Louis Fouché tops the Premier Division point-scoring log after Round 9, with 135 points made up of 12 conversions, 35 penalties and 2 drop goals. Behind Fouché in tied second place on 110 is GWK Griquas flyhalf Francois Brummer, with Sharks centre Meyer Bosman third on 106.
Cheetahs wing Raymond Rhule tops the try-scoring table after Round 9 with eight touchdowns, with Sharks wing Odwa Ndungane and Griquas wing Rocco Jansen tied for second place, with seven tries apiece.
This weekend's fixtures – Round 10:
Sharks vs GWK Griquas
Date: Friday, 12 October
Venue: Mr Price Kings Park, Durban
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistants: Ben Crouse, Reuben Rossouw
Television Match Official: Shaun Veldsman
Last meeting: 8 September in Kimberley (First round): Griquas won 22-15
DHL Western Province vs Toyota Free State Cheetahs
Date: Saturday, 13 October
Venue: Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
Assistants: Marius Jonker, Linston Manuels
Television Match Official: Deon van Blommenstein
Last meeting: 8 September in Bloemfontein (First round): WP won 29-22
MTN Golden Lions vs Vodacom Blue Bulls
Date: Saturday, 13 October
Venue: Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistants: Lourens van der Merwe, Stefan Breytenbach
Television Match Official: Johan Greeff
Last meeting: 8 September in Pretoria (First round): Lions won 32-23