Cape Town - For the first time in two decades, NEITHER of the Currie Cup's traditional "big two" in history, Western Province and the Blue Bulls, have cracked the knockout phase.
Between them, Province (34 titles) and the Bulls/Northern Transvaal (23) have hugely monopolised the trophy in the time-honoured premier domestic competition.
While Pote Human's charges not making the cut in 2019 has been on the cards for a while - they ended sixth, just one point clear of the basement Pumas - WP were still in very realistic contention ahead of their closing league fixture against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
But John Dobson's team somehow contrived to turn a hugely promising 33-12 lead after 46 minutes into a costly 38-33 reverse as the Cheetahs heroically bounced back with four unanswered tries, outlasting the Capetonians in an often breathless encounter.
Soon to be turning their attention to the Pro14, beginning in late September, simultaneously the central franchise turned the rising threat of not making the last four at all into dramatic top-dog status on the final table, meaning rights not only to a home semi against the Sharks next Saturday (17:15) but also hosting the potential Bloemfontein showpiece a week onward.
The second-placed Lions, who pipped hitherto pace-setting Griquas 27-26 with a late penalty in Kimberley, now entertain the very same foes in Johannesburg in the earlier kick-off (15:00).
It must have been a gut-wrencher for Brent Janse van Rensburg's largely unsung, superstar-shy outfit to be deprived of one home knockout fixture, at least, at the eleventh hour.
But at the same time, they should not travel to the Big Smoke feeling they have very little chance of toppling the bigger union: some of their best results this year have been on the road, including a 37-13 first-round thumping of the Sharks in Durban and 37-15 triumph over the Bulls in Pretoria.
The Lions, for their part, have been strangely fallible at home, losing two of their three Ellis Park games (to the Bulls and Sharks), while earning a perfect three-out-of-three record away -- so we could still see a humdinger in that semi.
A lot of neutrals are likely to throw their weight behind Griquas for nostalgic reasons, considering that the rather more minnow outfit last won the Currie Cup in their iconic year of 1970, and not been so much as runners-up since.
Whilst the Cheetahs, winners for the last time in 2016, will feel confident about the visit of the Sharks, it must be remembered that the Durban team are defending champions, and finalists in each of the last two seasons; many of their players will be well-versed in knockout pressure.
But the absence of both Province and the Blue Bulls from the knockouts is still a conspicuous feature: the first time both have been shoved to the margins at that level together since as far back as 1999.
In a much more expanded, 14-team competition that year, the Bulls finished fifth on the table and WP as low as 11th; the Golden Lions were the eventual champions, trouncing the Sharks 32-9 in the Kings Park final.
Province failing to make the last four serves as a reminder of how important it will be that the cash-challenged union hold onto as many of their senior Springbok squad personnel as possible for 2020's Super Rugby campaign, Dobson's first as head coach at that level.
As for the Bulls, this Currie Cup failure serves as a nasty comeuppance after their side in the broader southern hemisphere competition this year had been the best-performing strictly South African one (the Jaguares won the conference), and plucky losing quarter-finalists - but a raft of quality players have since moved on and a painstaking rebuilding phase has been necessary.
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