Cape Town — The knockout rounds in the new-look Gold Cup have arrived a week early, with all 16 clubs still in the running for the eight quarter-final slots going into Saturday's final round.
SA Rugby's flagship national championship for non-university clubs, championed by 2007 Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok captain John Smit, delivered a number of surprise second-round results, including defeats for a number of pre-tournament favourites.
Durbanville-Bellville, who famously won the 2015 Gold Cup in fairytale fashion having been seeded last among 20 teams, and 2017 finalists College Rovers, are among the big guns who face early elimination after following up comfortable opening-weekend wins with narrow defeats in last weekend's second round, to Rhinos (37-33) and Gardens (30-28) respectively.
Rustenburg Impala, champions in 2014 and 2016, might have found themselves in the same boat had they not recovered from a 15-point half-time deficit to run out 38-36 victors at home over Swallows, whom Impala coach Nico le Roux afterwards said were the most physical team his side had encountered in three years.
Conversely, the competitiveness and sheer unpredictability of this year's tournament, which has played out to capacity crowds from all walks of life, has put a number of teams who tasted defeat in round one just one win away from the last eight.
In Pool B, Gardens' 19-14 opening-day defeat to Secunda was all but forgotten at a packed Derrick Ferreira Stadium in Uitenhage when the EP champions kicked a late penalty to sink Rovers, the KZN champions, who had beaten wildcards East Rand United in round one.
And in the pool's other match, East Rand Utd bounced back from their defeat in Durban to beat Secunda 34-22 at The Graveyard in Reiger Park, leaving all four sides with one win apiece. Saturday's matches therefore are effectively knockout affairs as ERU host Gardens and Rovers travel to Secunda.
The same scenario will play out in Pool A, with SWD champions Progress George and Boland title-holders Villagers Worcester still in playoff contention.
Progress must however undertake an arduous journey by plane and bus from George to Setaria, near Thabazimbi, to face Limpopo champions Rhinos, whose win over Durbell in Cape Town has given the platinum miners the self-belief that they are not merely making up the numbers this year.
Durbell have a much shorter away journey this weekend but it is arguably even tougher than that of their Western Cape neighbours: they must travel up the N1 to Worcester, where another 10 000-plus crowd awaits them at Boland Park, where victory for the home side may yet see them into a first-ever Gold Cup playoff match.
Pools C and D are no less intriguing, with a number of hitherto unfancied teams having also suddenly sniffed the opportunity to sneak into the last eight.
In Pool C, Free State clubs Bloemfontein Police and Welkom host Naka Bulls and Sishen respectively, with defeat for any club likely to signal the end of their campaign.
And in Pool D, bottom-placed Springs will need a full haul of five points against Impala at Olympia Park in Ekurhuleni if they are to have any chance of making the playoffs. In the other match, Roodepoort must travel to Mdantsane outside East London to face up to Swallows.
Both teams are level on log points and a victory for either side will likely see them through, regardless of the result of the other match.
"Amateur club rugby is where rugby and communities are built from the ground up," said Smit, the acting CEO of SSG Holdings and the face of this year's tournament. "The unsung heroes in these communities need to be given the opportunity to be celebrated and the Gold Cup is one of the ideal platforms to achieve this.
"The Gold Cup's vision of building communities and providing opportunities is shared wholeheartedly by SSG Holdings, Blu Approved and M4Jam," Smit added. "We are proud to be associated with the grassroots game and we look forward to seeing the tournament grow from strength to strength."
Saturday's eight fixtures all kick off at 16:00. The results and quarterfinal lineup will be publicised shortly after the matches on the tournament's Twitter (@GoldCupRugby) and Facebook (The SSG Gold Cup) platforms.
ROUND 3 FIXTURES:
Saturday, March 23 (all matches to kick off at 16:00):
Rhinos v Progress George (Setaria Recreation Club, Limpopo)
Villagers Worcester v Durbanville-Bellville (Boland Park, Worcester)
East Rand United v Gardens (The Graveyard, Reigerpark)
Secunda v College Rovers (Sasol Recreation Club, Secunda)
Welkom v Sishen (Griffons B field, Welkom)
Bloemfontein Police v Midas Naka Bulls (Bobbies Park, Bloemfontein)
Swallows v Roodepoort (NU1 Stadium, Mdantsane)
Springs v Rustenburg Impala (Olympia Park, Springs)