The race to qualify for SARU's elite tournament for non-university clubs, the 2014 Cell C Community Cup, is heating up in a number of provinces as the various premier leagues continue to produce surprise results.
There are no guarantees that the 20 open clubs that competed in the inaugural Community Cup will return again next year, with only champions GAP Despatch assured of taking part in the second edition of the World Cup-style club tournament that saw 52 matches being played across the country over six weeks earlier this year.
Champion clubs in a number of provinces have found the going tough since the start of the provincial leagues, with their rejuvenated rivals all keen to get in on the action and secure one of the 15 automatic qualifying slots available for the 2014 tournament.
In the Blue Bulls' Carlton League, defending champions Pretoria Police have it all to do after suffering a surprise 27-23 defeat to Centurion last week. The Carlton has been shortened to a single round of seven matches this season to accommodate the much-anticipated new cross-border Predator league, involving the top clubs from the Bulls, Lions, Valke and Leopards, in the second half of the season.
What this means is that the Bobbies, with 15 points from their four matches, have just three rounds remaining to reel in leaders Tukkies and Centurion, who both have 17. Making life more difficult for Police is the fact that they must still play the Varsity Cup champions next week, albeit at home, while Centurion have already met the Pretoria students and came away with an invaluable 26-all draw in the process.
This weekend sees Police away to seventh-placed TUT, while Centurion will look to move one step closer to possible Community Cup qualification when they host another resurgent and ambitious club in fifth-placed Oostelike Eagles on Friday night.
Things are just as tight in, amongst others, the Golden Lions' Pirates Grand Challenge, Griquas Super League, Mpumalanga Buscor League, SWD Premier League, Eastern Province Grand Challenge and Western Province Super League A.
Just five points separate the top five sides in the Pirates Grand Challenge, with Wits and Roodepoort ahead on 15 points, followed by Community Cup wild cards Raiders on 14, Randfontein on 11 and Pirates on 10.
The results of this weekend might go a long way towards deciding who will represent the Lions in the 2014 Community Cup, with Roodepoort travelling to Randfontein and Pirates, who turn 125 years old this year, hosting Raiders at their Greenside base.
Just a single point separates Upington, Aveng Moolmans Sishen and Kimberley Police in Griquas, with champions Sishen hosting Upington in a top-of-the-table clash in Kathu this Saturday and Police at home to fourth-placed Kuruman, who have struggled of late and will want to make up some lost ground.
Middelburg and Witbank Ferro's look to be the teams to beat in Pumas country this year, with Community Cup side White River finding themselves at the bottom of the seven-team log at the halfway point. Middelburg, a regular presence at the old Club Championships, will look to increase their lead in the standings when they host third-placed Malelane on Saturday, while fourth-placed Nelspruit will look to stay in semi-final contention when they host White River.
Barbarians have come out blazing in the SWD Premier League, the Mossel Bay side leading the 12-team log with 31 points after six wins and a draw in their opening seven matches. Pacaltsdorp Evergreens, who finished eighth in the Community Cup, are also unbeaten but trail Barbarians by five points having played one match fewer.
Community Cup champions GAP Despatch have carried their rich run of form into the EP Grand Challenge, where they are unbeaten at the top of the log with 30 points after six matches to hold an eight-point advantage over their nearest open club rivals, Crusaders. NMMU Madibaz and African Bombers both have 21 points.
And in the WP Super League A, UCT, who endured a forgettable Varsity Cup campaign, lead the standings as the league approaches the halfway mark, the in-form Cape Town students, with 27 points from seven matches, lying two ahead of Victorians and three ahead of Maties. Leading the charge of the open clubs are a familiar trio of Community Cup sides Durbanville-Bellville and SK Walmers as well as 2009 national club champs Hamiltons – three quality sides playing for the single automatic place on offer for 2014.
This weekend sees a number of intriguing tussles, with the Ikeys at home to sixth-placed SK Walmers and Vics hosting fifth-placed Hammies, while dark horses Belhar, currently in seventh, welcome fourth-placed Durbell in what is a crucial encounter for the northern suburbs side, who have been inconsistent since finishing the Community Cup on a high last month with a fifth-placed finish.