South Africa's premier domestic competition is open for business with six teams set to battle it out for the Currie Cup trophy.
The action gets underway on Friday when the Blue Bulls host Griquas at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, and rounded off at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday when Western Province are at home to last year's beaten finalists, the Sharks.
Blue Bulls v Griquas Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Dewald Potgieter will lead an inexperienced Blue Bulls team against Griquas in their Currie Cup season opener at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Friday.
Although playing in their own backyard, the Blue Bulls can expect a difficult encounter against the men from Kimberley who are on a high after narrowly losing to Western Province in the Vodacom Cup Final earlier this year.
The home side's coach Pine Pienaar will be without the services of eleven of his regular first-team players after they were included in Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer's squad for the inaugural Rugby Championship.
However, with Springboks Potgieter, Akona Ndungane and Deon Stegmann named in his run-on side - and Werner Kruger on the replacements bench - Pienaar does still have some experienced heads in his starting line-up.
Griquas are an unpredictable team who enjoy playing expansively and despite being the poorest union in the Premier Division, are worth their status in South Africa's leading provincial competition.
Their dangerman on attack will be Willie le Roux, who impressed for the Cheetahs during the recent Super Rugby tournament. Another player who caught the eye for the Cheetahs in that competition is Justin Downey who enjoys the physical nature of the game.
His battle with Stegmann for the loose ball could be one of the highlights of this clash and could have a bearing on the end result.
The Bulls won the corresponding fixture 44-20 in Pretoria last year but Pienaar will remind his troops of last year's clash in Kimberley when Griquas won 48-44.
Prediction: Although they have a young side, the Bulls are always highly motivated on their home turf and should just edge out the visitors. Blue Bulls by five!
Blue Bulls: 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Ulrich Beyers, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Clayton Blommetjies, 10 Louis Fouchè, 9 Ruan Snyman, 8 Dewald Potgieter (c), 7 Arno Botha, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Cornell Hess, 4 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 3 Frik Kirsten, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Dawie Steyn. Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 CJ Stander, 20 Lohan Jacobs, 21 Lionel Cronjè, 22 Jan Serfontein.
Griquas: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Luzuko Vulindlu, 13 JP Nel, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Rocco Jansen, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Jacques Coetzee, 8 Leon Karemaker, 7 Jonathan Adendorf, 6 Justin Downey, 5 Martin Muller, 4 Rynard 'Ligtoring' Landman, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Ryno Barnes, 1 Steph Roberts. Replacements: 16 Matt Dobson, 17 Janro van Niekerk, 18 Frikkie Spies, 19 Jaco Nepgen, 20 21 Marnus Hugo, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 22 Wilmaure Louw.
Referee: Rasta Rashivenga
Golden Lions v Cheetahs Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
The Golden Lions open the defence of their Currie Cup title on Saturday against the Free State Cheetahs at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg.
The hosts go into their opening round clash with a reasonably established side, with all but two members of their Super Rugby squad missing from their line-up.
With fly-half Elton Jantjies and prop Pat Cilliers on Bok duty, last year's pride of Johannesburg are still boosted with 2007 World Cup-winning fly-half Butch James in the number 10 jersey with his former Bok team-mate CJ van der Linde on the bench. Another ex-Bok Waylon Murray lines up at centre after regaining full fitness following a long injury lay-off.
James' effectiveness could be determined by the performance of the Lions' pack in which, interestingly, Derick Minnie has switched roles with Josh Strauss. Minnie will be at number eight and Strauss at seven.
Minnie has been hugely impressive at breakdown play in the past and, since the Cheetahs are still without the injured Heinrich Brussow, he could prove a factor, both as a fetcher and by slowing down opposition ball.
Given the flair in the Cheetahs' backline, which will be marshalled by fly-half Riaan Smit, the Lions' defence will be hard-pressed to keep their defensive lines intact, more so from broken play situations.
South Africa U20 wing Raymond Rhule will start at left wing for the Cheetahs after playing a pivotal role in helping the Baby Boks win the IRB Junior World Championship title earlier this year.
Free State have named a strong bench which includes Waratahs scrum-half Sarel Pretorius, Kabamba Floors and Sias Ebersohn. They offer the kind of impact later in the game that can sway the result.
It will be a match where conversion of opportunities could make the difference.
Prediction: James at fly-half, a scrum that dominated in the latter Super Rugby matches and a resolve to keep their best up for 80 minutes perhaps make the Lions marginal favourites. Lions by seven!
Golden Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 JR Esterhuizen, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Waylon Murray, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Butch James, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Derick Minnie, 7 Josh Strauss, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Hendrik Roodt, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg (capt). Replacements: 16 Francois du Toit, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Willie Britz, 19 Warren Whiteley, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Guy Cronje, 22 Ruan Combrinck.
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn (c), 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Riaan Smit, 9 Pieter van Zyl, 8 Davon Raubenheimer, 7 Lappies Labuschagné, 6 Boom Prinsloo, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Waltie Vermeulen, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Hercu Liebenberg, 1 Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: TBA
Referee: Marius Jonker
Western Province v The Sharks Newlands, Cape Town
Two of our picks for possible Currie Cup glory meet in the final fixture of the opening round when the Sharks travel to Western Province on Saturday.
Western Province will be looking for revenge following their Super Rugby exit to the men from Durban at this same venue so expect a physical game.
Ahead at half-time and on 80 minutes, the Sharks produced an impressive performance to send the Stormers to their first home defeat of the campaign at just the wrong time. Whether the visitors can repeat that result two weeks later remains to be seen as both these side have been hit hard by call-ups for the Rugby Championship.
In truth it is tough to go all-out and back the Sharks in this season's competition due to the absence of three of their back-row members. Keegan Daniel and Marcell Coetzee were quite simply superb in Super Rugby this year and both fully deserve another call-up to the Springbok squad while Willem Alberts is unique.
Not considered for this match, but available over the course of the campaign, were Anton Bresler and Charl McLeod who have carried a heavy workload and should slot back into the team from next week, while the injured Tim Whitehead and Pieter-Steph du Toit are likely to miss the first five or six games. Their arrivals will be a boost.
Western Province meanwhile are still without back-row duo Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen while lock Andries Bekker continues to struggle for full fitness. The absence of Peter Grant, who returns to Japan before another Super Rugby comeback in 2013, means Burton Francis must direct traffic at fly-half after waiting patiently on the bench.
Prediction: This should go the way of the home side. Western Province by 6!
Western Province: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 JP du Plessis, 12 Marcel Brache, 11 Gio Aplon, 10 Burton Francis, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Jebb Sinclair, 7 Tyrone Holmes, 6 Deon Fourie (captain), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Don Armand, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Deon Carstens. Replacements: 16 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 17 Brok Harris, 18 JC Kritzinger, 19 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Gary van Aswegen, 22 Damian de Allende.
The Sharks: 15 Gouws Prinsloo, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 S'bura Sithole, 10 Riaan Viljoen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Tera Mtembu, 7 Jean Deysel (capt), 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Jandre Marais, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Dale Chadwick. Replacements: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Julian Redelinghuys, 18 Peet Marais, 19 Francois Kleinhans, 20 Conrad Hoffmann, 21 Marius Joubert, 22 Rosko Specman.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe