There was ample evidence on the opening weekend of the expanded Absa Currie Cup First Division to suggest that the new eight-team competition – with the addition of the Platinum Leopards and Ford Pumas – will be one of the most competitive and unpredictable in years.
In the tournament opener on Friday, the Regent Boland Kavaliers opened their title defence with a 25-20 home defeat to the side they beat in the 2011 final, the EP Kings.
On Saturday, the Platinum Leopards held out against the Ford Pumas (32-23 in Potchefstroom) and the Griffons came away with a valuable away win over the Valke (37-27 in Kempton Park), with the weekend's only one-sided encounter being the SWD Eagles' impressive runaway victory (46-8 in George) the night before against Southern Kings franchise partners the Border Bulldogs.
REGENT BOLAND KAVALIERS 20 (7) EASTERN PROVINCE KINGS 25 (15)
The Eastern Province Kings needed a late try from fullback SP Marais and the boot of FNB Tuks' Varsity Cup-winning flyhalf, Wesley Dunlop, who came on as a replacement in the final quarter against the Boland Kavaliers in Wellington.
EP's starting flyhalf, George Whitehead, scored the opening 10 points via converted try and penalty as the visitors pulled ahead on a cold and wet Boland afternoon, only for the Kavaliers to reply with a try to fullback Jacquin Jansen, converted by last season's top point-scorer in the competition, flyhalf Elgar Watts to spark a cheer from the crowd of 600.
The Kings scored again before the break, loose forward Cornell du Preez going over from a rolling maul, but the men from Port Elizabeth produced a lethargic second half, which allowed the home side back into the game through a second try to Jansen.
Marais came on in the final quarter and, with his side trailing 17-15, dived over for what proved to be the match-turning try.
BOLAND KAVALIERS – Tries: Jacquin Jansen (2). Conversions: Elgar Watts (2). Penalties: Watts, Ricardo Croy.
EASTERN PROVINCE KINGS – Tries: SP Marais, George Whitehead, Cornell du Preez. Conversions: Whitehead, Wesley Dunlop. Penalties: Whitehead, Dunlop.
SWD EAGLES 46 (27) BORDER BULLDOGS 8 (8)
The Border Bulldogs were no match for their Southern Kings franchise partners the SWD Eagles at Outeniqua Park in George on Friday, the home side scoring six tries and new flyhalf Kurt Coleman kicking 16 points in front of a 1 000-strong crowd on a clear evening.
Veteran wing Alshaun Bock scored in the opening minute to set the alarm bells ringing for the Bulldogs, who found themselves 27-0 down before winger Chrislyn van Schalkwyk got his team onto the scoreboard with a try after 35 minutes.
A penalty cut the deficit to 19 points at the break, but the Bulldogs would not trouble the scorers again in the second half as the Eagles wrapped up a comfortable victory with further tries to flanker Dumisane Meslane, scrumhalf Johan Herbst and replacement loose forward Kempie Rautenbach.
SWD EAGLES – Tries: Alshaun Bock, Elric van Vuuren, Jean Jacques Rossouw, Dumisane Meslane, Johan Herbst, Kempie Rautenbach. Conversions: Kurt Coleman (5). Penalties: Coleman (2).
BORDER BULLDOGS – Try: Chrislyn van Schalkwyk. Penalty: Ntabeni Dukisa.
VALKE 27 (24) GRIFFONS 37 (11)
The Valke threw away a 13-point advantage at halftime in their match against the Griffons at Barnard Stadium in Kempton Park, with replacement flyhalf Tertius Maarman the star of the show for the visitors.
Maarman crossed for two tries in the final 10 minutes as the men from Welkom completed an unlikely come-from-behind victory after the Valke had seemed to be in complete control at the break, thanks to tries from wing Sandile Ngcobo, flanker Marcel Kotze, fullback JW Bell and evergreen eighthman Reg Muller.
But the home side's indiscipline cost them dearly in the second half, a couple of yellow cards to hooker Shone van der Walt (for a dangerous tackle) and Muller (repeated infringements at the breakdown) contributing to their downfall.
The Griffons set about their task of reeling in the deficit with vigour, prop Charles Marais and No 8 Willie Britz going over to make it a one-point game before Maarman's cameo provided the visitors with a try that put them into a 30-27 lead.
But Maarman wasn't done, his second score late in the game sparking wild celebrations by a Griffons team for whom winning has become somewhat of a rarity in recent times.
VALKE – Tries: Sandile Ngcobo, Marco Kotze, JW Bell, Reg Muller. Conversions: Karlo Aspeling (2). Penalty: Aspeling.
GRIFFONS – Tries: Hansie Graaff, Charles Marais, Willie Britz, Tertius Maarman (2). Conversions: Graaff (3). Penalties: Tiaan van Wyk (2).
PLATINUM LEOPARDS 32 (10) FORD PUMAS 23 (13)
An impressive hat-trick of tries from right wing Danie Dames made all the difference as the Platinum Leopards got their campaign off to a winning start in front of their home fans at Profert Olen Park in Potchefstroom.
The Leopards scored five tries and would have won by a bigger margin had it not been for a number of missed kicks by flyhalf Gerhard Nortier. The result wasn't always so certain, with the visitors holding a slender 16-15 lead with just half an hour left of a hard-fought battle between two sides who had been playing Premier Division rugby in 2011.
With the home side trailing 13-5 in the first half, Dames showed just how dangerous his backline could be when given good first-phase possession when, from a scrum near the Pumas' 22, the ball went through a number of pairs of hands until finding its way into the hands of the strapping winger, who cut inside to wrong-foot the cover defence.
Dames completed his hat-trick after an hour with yet another impressive display of power running, before centre Adriaan Engelbrecht's penalty made Jaco Bouwer's late try for the Pumas nothing more than a consolation score.
PLATINUM LEOPARDS – Tries: Danie Dames (3), Allister Kettledas, Ernie Strydom. Conversions: Adriaan Engelbrecht (2). Penalty: Engelbrecht.
FORD PUMAS – Tries: JW Jonker, Jaco Bouwer. Conversions: JC Roos (2). Penalties: Roos (3).