DHL Western Province booked themselves a place in the Absa Currie Cup semi-finals, and in so doing prematurely ended the Vodacom Blue Bulls’ season, when they beat the Pumas 43-18 (halftime 24-8) at Newlands on Saturday to squeeze into the last four.
The result meant that WP finish the regular season on 41 log points, one more than the Bulls. Province will now face the MTN Golden Lions in Johannesburg in next Saturday’s semi-finals.
The home side began the match knowing that they had to win with a bonus point, or by 14 points should they not score five tries, in order to pip the Bulls to a semi-final spot.
It might have been against the lowly Pumas in front of 14,305 fans instead of 60,000 at Eden Park for what should have been a World Cup semi-final, but Springbok centre Jean de Villiers nonetheless threw himself into the contest with vigour and was rewarded with the game’s opening try after just four minutes.
Flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, who would have pinched himself had you told him a few months ago that he’d be sharing the streeptrui with the likes of De Villiers, Bryan Habana, Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie, Gio Aplon and Juan de Jongh, added the extra points.
WP doubled their lead seven minutes later when hooker Deon Fourie burrowed over from close range to take his side to within two tries of the knockout rounds.
But the Pumas weren’t about to become pushovers in what is likely to be their final match in the big time.
Their impressive flanker Jaco Bouwer scored next, diving over a ruck on the Province line after a good break by scrumhalf Shaun Venter from a five-metre scrum.
Flyhalf Carl Bezuidenhout couldn’t convert, but he made no mistake after 25 minutes with a penalty that reduced the deficit to just nine points after Catrakilis had succeeded with his own penalty in the 19th minute.
Centre De Jongh, who enjoyed precious little game time at the World Cup, showed his willingness to seek space shortly afterwards when he ran well off De Villiers’ shoulder to sidestep the defence for a try underneath the posts.
Catrakilis’ trusty boot did the rest, and WP, even though they were one try short of the all-important bonus point, did at least increase their lead to more than 14 points.
The second half saw the Pumas continue to harry WP at the breakdowns and their doggedness paid dividends when Bezuidenhout kicked a second penalty in the 52nd minute to make it 24-11.
At this stage, and with WP appearing unnecessarily impatient in trying to get the fourth try they so craved, coach Allister Coetzee decided that the calm head of Bok flanker Schalk Burger, surely one of the leading candidates for South African rugby player of the year, was required.
But Burger’s entrance was soon balanced out by Catrakilis’ exit through injury, with fullback replacement Conrad Jantjes moving to the last line of defence and Aplon assuming the pivot role.
The plan proved profitable almost immediately, Aplon helping switch play to the right after a number of rucks close to the Pumas’ line, and putting flanker Siya Kolisi over for probably WP’s most important try of the season to date.
Now all WP had to do to keep the Blue Bulls out was to ensure they didn’t suffer a calamitous collapse in the final quarter and squander an 18-point lead.
They needn’t have worried, winger JJ Engelbrecht taking an inside pass off Aplon to bulldoze through four Pumas defenders on an angled gallop to dot down near the posts for WP’s fifth try.
Replacement RW Kember dived over in the left-hand corner with 10 minutes to go to give the Pumas their second try, converted by Bezuidenhout from the touchline.
But by far the biggest cheer of the evening was reserved for the final minute, when a relieved Habana, who endured almost as frustrating a time on a balmy Newlands evening as he did at times during the World Cup, finally crossed the whitewash after being freed down the left-hand touchline.
WP 43 – Tries: Jean de Villiers, Deon Fourie, Juan de Jongh, Siya Kolisi, JJ Engelbrecht, Bryan Habana. Conversions: Demetri Catrakilis (3), Conrad Jantjes (2). Penalty: Catrakilis.
Pumas 18 – Tries: Jaco Bouwer, RW Kember. Conversion: Carl Bezuidenhout. Penalties: Bezuidenhout (2)