Currie Cup

Ruan v Ross: Which brain decides 'Bloem' final?

Ruan Pienaar (Gallo Images)
Ruan Pienaar (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - If the Currie Cup has become more and more of a vehicle these days for often raw players to sharpen their teeth for Super Rugby, perhaps somebody forgot to tell the scrumhalves opposing each other in Saturday’s showpiece in Bloemfontein.

The battle at No 9, you see, will be conspicuously - with apologies to PJ O'Rourke - a case of age and guile beating youth, innocence and a bad haircut.

Between Ruan Pienaar, senior statesman of host team the Cheetahs, and the Lions' captain Ross Cronje, there aren't too many follicles to compare ... one imagines it’s a simple, economical job at the barber's saloon in each instance every few weeks.

Pienaar, an 88-cap Springbok between 2006 and 2015, very much reminded in the dramatic semi-final triumph over the Sharks last weekend that he's still "got it" at first-class level - even to the point that some observers were noting that he wouldn't let down the national cause had he cracked the nod for the RWC 2019 squad in Japan.

At 35, he has understandably lost some - but not all - of his athletic prowess, but that bamboozling Carel du Plessis-like swerve when he is on the run hasn't changed a great deal and his vast experience in tactical awareness and sheer anticipation of play still makes him an extremely useful rugby package indeed.

Pienaar will be revisiting a Currie Cup final for the first time in 11 years, considering that he was part of the successful Sharks team of 2008, who saw off the Blue Bulls 14-9 in the Durban showpiece - the franchise’s first domestic title success in a dozen years.

He had scored one the final's only two tries (both to Sharks) in the 22nd minute, and his sprightly partnership with French No 10 maestro Frederic Michalak that day was widely deemed a major key to their success.

But if the old, much-travelled warrior will be expected to exert a significant calming influence on the many, much younger Cheetahs colleagues around him on Saturday, much the same will apply to his opposite number.

As with Pienaar for the home cause, Cronje will be relied upon for crucial "BMT" and major string-pulling to the Lions' quest to make it a rare three years running in which the away team snatches glory in the annual showpiece.

He is a little less of a noticeable veteran than his direct rival, considering that he is only a couple of months past 30, but that still makes him one of the most streetwise of the visiting players in Bloemfontein and also just shifting a little beyond his prime, more reliant on cerebral qualities for his continued effectiveness in 2019.

Cronje, with 10 caps during the bumpy Allister Coetzee era as Springbok coach, will also be the lone Lions back-liner with full international experience.

He has never been the nippiest of scrumhalves around - current Boks like Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach comfortably eclipsing him off the mark in that area - and that naturally won't improve from this point in his career.

But he will still probe a gap cunningly, especially if there is a spirited support runner to offload the "pill" to when he is reined in by a defender, and is renowned for his box kicks and sound success rate in decision-making at vital times.

Remember that the Lions, at Super Rugby level for three seasons up to 2018, reached the final each time and their up-tempo style of play was often thanks in no small measure to the crisp way Cronje and Elton Jantjies dovetailed as the halfback pairing on attack.

Cronje is increasingly drawing out the best qualities in this year's Currie Cup flyhalf in the red and white jersey, Shaun Reynolds, who also enters the final as leading points-scorer (85) so far.

Expect Pienaar and Cronje to be particularly valued conduits for their respective causes in what could be a rousing Free State Stadium showdown despite the first-time level of pressures for many involved.

Stage-fright? A highly unlikely occurrence from either No 9 ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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