THE 2014 Cell C Community Cup qualifying race continues to hot up in a number of provinces, with arguably three of the biggest club matches of the weekend taking place in places as geographically diverse as Cape Town, Kathu and Uitenhage.
Three of the 20 slots for the 2014 edition of SARU's elite tournament for non-university or so-called 'open' clubs have already been filled, with provincial premier leagues the battleground for the remaining places over the coming months.
As defending champions, GAP Despatch will be assured of their place should they not qualify automatically as the top open club in Eastern Province at the end of the 2013 season.
The reigning Grand Challenge champions suffered their first defeat since the opening round of the Community Cup in February when they were beaten 49-25 last Saturday by Varsity Cup semi-finalists NMMU Madibaz at the students' Port Elizabeth campus – a result which would have given their rivals plenty of encouragement.
Bloemfontein Crusaders made history when they became the first wild card in the short history of the Community Cup to re-qualify by right, as Free State's top open club, while Centurion are the first new faces for 2014 after they finished second on the final Blue Bulls Carlton League log following a draw with league winners and Varsity Cup champions Tukkies, and a surprise victory over Pretoria Police, who finished sixth overall in this year's Community Cup and whose absence from next year's line-up will count as a major surprise.
Centurion will now want to show that their qualification was no fluke by winning the coveted Carlton Cup for only the second time in their history. They face another resurgent club in Oostelikes on Saturday in the first Carlton semi-final, at the LC de Villiers Stadium in Pretoria (kick-off 14h50).
In the second semi-final, defending Carlton champions Police, who eventually finished fourth after a defeat at the hands of Oostelikes last weekend, will want to put their recent disappointments behind them and retain the trophy, but they will need to bounce back strongly if they want to challenge student arch-rivals Tukkies in the second semi.
Down south, Community Cup wild cards SK Walmers must beat neighbours Hamiltons on Saturday at the Green Point Track if they are to have a realistic hope of finishing the season as the highest-placed open club in the Western Province Super League A.
Hamiltons and Durbanville-Bellville, who finished fifth overall in George earlier this year, are currently neck and neck in the qualification race and a win for Hammies over their fierce Green Point rivals on Saturday will take the country's oldest club, and 2009 national club champions, one step closer to their goal.
There's an equally fierce battle brewing in Griquas country, where the Super League's two unbeaten sides, Aveng Moolmans Sishen and Kimberley, meet at the Sivos Stadium in Kathu on Saturday (kick-off 16h00) in what is a potential league and Community Cup qualifying decider.
Giving the two sides added motivation is the fact that the iconic Gold Cup will be travelling to the Northern Cape mining town from SARU's headquarters in Cape Town, on the next leg of a nationwide journey as part of the build-up to next year's Community Cup. The priceless Gold Cup has been around for nearly a century and is the most valuable trophy in South African rugby after the Absa Currie Cup.
And in the Eastern Cape, a capacity crowd is expected at the Rosedale Sports Ground outside Uitenhage for one of the biggest rivalries in South African club rugby, as Gardens host Progress.
Both teams are still in the running for a Community Cup slot in what is proving to be a fiercely fought Grand Challenge competition. With NMMU leading the standings on 31 points and Despatch in second place on 30, Gardens are tied third with Harlequins six points back in a chasing bunch of seven clubs separated by just three points.
Gardens (24) however have the luxury of having played one match fewer than Harlequins (24), Crusaders (23), African Bombers (21) and Park (21), which means their main competition in any possible breakaway from the main bunch may well be fifth-placed Spring Rose (23), who, like Gardens, have a match in hand.
But such is the nature of Grand Challenge rugby that not even ninth-placed Progress, who have 18 points, are out of contention just yet as the competition reaches the halfway stage, and a victory over Gardens in the Uitenhage derby will make for an intriguing second half of the season.
Progress have never quite reached the lofty heights of 2006, when, as a wild card, they beat Maties at the Danie Craven Stadium in the old national club championships, but they have shown signs of revival this year by reaching the final of the increasingly popular and prestigious pre-season Eastern Cape Super 12 competition, which is sponsored by the Eastern Cape government and which feature the the top six clubs from EP and Border.
Gardens, meanwhile, have never quite fulfilled their potential but will be realistic title contenders should they beat Progress on Saturday and then Despatch and NMMU in the coming weeks.
Elsewhere around the country, Roses United will want to maintain their unbeaten record in the Boland Premier League when they travel to Wellington, Border champions Broubart Old Selbornian are at home to Police in a keenly anticipated East London derby, and Roodepoort and Wits will clash in a top-of-the-table Golden Lions Pirates Grand Challenge match at the Rand Leases Sports Ground.
Crusaders will host Durban Collegians in the KZN Moor Cup on Friday night in what is possibly a tussle to see who finishes second behind College Rovers in the league, although both teams still have realistic ambitions of lifting the historic trophy at the end of next month.
Up north, Springs host Community Cup bronze medallists Brakpan in the Valke Peregrine League while log leaders Ferro's will want to continue their purple patch of form when they welcome Nelspruit to Witbank on Saturday in a Mpumalanga Buscor League match.
This weekend's nationwide Premier League club fixtures (as supplied to SARU by its provincial unions):
Blue Bulls – Carlton Cup, Saturday (Semi-finals):
Tukkies vs Pretoria Police
Centurion vs Oostelikes
Blue Bulls Limpopo – Boet Fick Senior League, Saturday (Round 3 of 10):
Noordelikes vs Messina?
Pietersburg vs Louis Trichardt?
Letaba vs Loskop
Boland – Premier League, Saturday (Round 8 of 18):
Ceres vs Villagers Worcester?
Saldanha vs Vredenburg?
Black Leaves vs Wesbank?
Wellington vs Roses Utd?
Border – Premier League, Saturday (Round 7 of 9):
Breakers vs Young Leopards?
Buffalo vs Berlin Tigers?
Ntlaza Lions vs All Blacks?
Swallows vs Africans?
Wallabies vs Winter Rose
King Brumbies vs Ready Blues?
Ngculu Zebras vs Fort Hare Blues?
Ocean Sweepers vs Evergreen?
Old Collegians vs Cambridge?
Old Selbornians vs Police
EP – Grand Challenge, Saturday (Round 8 of 16):
Gardens vs Progress?
Crusaders vs Brumbies?
Orlando Eagles vs Kruisfontein?
Utd Barbarians vs St Marks?
African Bombers vs SAPS?
Park vs Spring Rose?
Harlequins vs NMMU
Free State – 1st League, Friday/Saturday (Final round):
Irawas vs Shimlas
Crusaders vs Ixias?
Police vs Tjisas
Golden Lions – Pirates Grand Challenge/Predator, Friday/Saturday (Round 8 of 11):
Diggers vs UJ?
Roodepoort vs Wits?
Wanderers vs Pukke?
Raiders vs Alberton?
Randfontein vs Union
Griffons – 1st League, Friday (Round 9 of 12):
Welkom vs Welkom Rovers?
Henneman vs Kroonstad
Griquas – Super League, Saturday (Round 10 of 14):
Aveng Moolmans Sishen vs Kimberley Police?
Upington United vs Kuruman?
Upington Dorp vs Postmasburg
KZN – Fidelity Security Moor Cup, Friday (Round 9 of 14):
Crusaders vs Durban Collegians?
Harlequins vs UKZN Impi?
PMB Collegians vs Varsity College?
Zululand Rhinos vs College Rovers
Leopards – Neser A League, Saturday (Round 9 of 10):
Matlosana vs Potch Dorp?
Leeudoringstad vs Lichtenburg?
Hartbeesfontein vs Vryburg
Mpumalanga – Buscor Super League, Saturday (Round 10 of 14):
Witrivier vs Sasol?
Middelburg vs Lydenburg Rooikatte?
Witbank Ferros vs Nelspruit
SWD – Premier League, Saturday (Round 11 of 22):
Uniondale vs Bridgton?
Progress vs Bonnievale Utd?
Barbarians vs Blanco?
Groot-Brakrivier vs Crusaders?
Evergreens vs Silver Stars?
All Blacks vs Swellendam
Valke – Peregrine Super League, Saturday (Round 8 of 10):
NWU Vaal Pukke vs Kempton Wolves?
Springs vs Brakpan
WP – Super League A, Saturday (Week 10 of 24):
Durb-Bell vs Belhar?
SK Walmers vs Hamiltons?
Helderberg vs Bellville