Picture: 123RF/RADUTUTA
Picture: 123RF/RADUTUTA

Free State are primed and ready to be crowned unofficial Craven Week champions for the first time since doing the double in 2011.

The tournament hosts boast 17 players from Grey College, who are unbeaten this season against all-comers and ranked No 1  in the country.

The 57th edition starts on Monday with four matches on the schedule, the final one being the main game between Free State and the Sharks. The Natalians, who have finished runners-up for the past two years, will be chasing a first crown since 1990 and third overall.

But it is going to require something special from the East Coast boys to get the better of their Bloemfontein rivals. Free State have not contested the final game of the tournament for seven straight years and much of the same if they start with a defeat — lose game one and it becomes also-ran status for the beaten lot.

The fact that Free State is basically a Grey College team spells danger for opposition forces. Having watched College dismantle the best the country has had to offer this season, including the likes of Paarl Gymnasium and Paarl Boys’ High (second and third in the national rankings), leaves one in little doubt that this could be their year for bragging rights.

There seem to be few weaknesses in their armory, but maybe the weight of expectation that comes with being the host team could prove to be a mentally negative factor rather than a positive one.

College head boy and captain Ian Small-Smith is a utility back who is small in stature but more than able and ready to punch above his weight. His reading of the game is spot-on and his eye for the gap backed up by raw pace make him one of the players to keep an eye out for.

The same can be said of rightwinger Sonwabo Sokoyi, one of the standout College players.  

Defending champions  Western Province tackle Boland in the penultimate game of day one as the Cape side bids for top honours for a third year in a row.

Seven Paarl Boys players made it into the 23-man squad made up of players from eight different schools, which is a rare occurrence.

Bishops (four caps) and Rondebosch (two) make the grade in numbers for a change, and expect to see plenty of flair from the former’s halfback pairing of Sacha Mngomezulu and Liam Kloosman, who both need no invitation to open up defences with their flair and skill, be it at scrum and ruck time or in open play.

WP will also field a WP XV for the second year. Former senior KwaZulu-Natal player Clint van Rensburg (now WP Craven Week assistant coach) coached the class of 2018 to an unbeaten run.

Who will challenge Free State and WP for a place in Saturday’s showpiece game is up in the air.

The Golden Lions and  Blue Bulls have taken top honours on more than one occasion in the past and will want to add to their tally, while surprise 2014 winners Eastern Province, Boland (1976 champs) and South Western Districts (2001 and 2008) could be the party spoilers on any given day.