/ 26 October 2012

Currie Cup final: The Sharks smell blood

Benched by the Boks but valued by the Sharks
Benched by the Boks but valued by the Sharks

In an increasingly congested season, the Currie Cup final is not what it used to be. Less than a decade ago, when the Bulls were at their peak, some of the die-hard Loftus faithful refused to go home after a semifinal, choosing instead to bed down at the head of the queue for finals tickets. By contrast, there is a real possibility that this week’s final between the Sharks and Western Province will not be sold out.

That is partly due to resistance to a R350 ticket price, but it also speaks about the way provincial rugby has been forced to play second fiddle to Test and franchise rugby.

When the celebrations have ended on Saturday night, the many Springboks involved will begin packing for duty ahead of the end-of-season tour. The rest will have a few weeks off before buckling down to training for the 2013 Super Rugby season.

Notwithstanding all of the above, there is no reason to damn the Currie Cup final with faint praise. It remains the oldest and best provincial competition in the world and the final will be a showcase for the vast talent that South Africa possesses. Those prepared to take the long view might even argue that the competition is simply in a mild trough and that there will be peaks sooner rather than later.

It is not impossible, for instance, that South Africa’s participation in Super Rugby will terminate at the end of the current contract in favour of a cosier relationship with the northern hemisphere. If that should come to pass, the Currie Cup will re-emerge, blinking into the sunlight.

History demanded that the competition was at its best when Western Province were strong, so there is much for the visiting team to prove on Saturday. Several of their marquee players have won everything there is to win in the game but have never lifted the Currie Cup high in triumph.

Prodigiously talented
Indeed, you have to go back to 2001 for the last time the trophy was in residence at Newlands. The team that beat the Sharks that day included Robbie Kempson, Pieter Rossouw and Braam van Straaten, all of whom are now well-known coaches. The technical adviser was Hennie Bekker, whose prodigiously talented son Andries was still some years away from representing the province.

The press will make much of the 11 intervening trophyless seasons, but players tend not to care much for history. They will believe they have a chance in Durban, but even the most confident will know that they will have to be at the top of their game. Some may even accept that it has not happened since about a month before the end of log play in this year’s Super Rugby competition.

The Stormers ended at the top of the log, but they were toppled in the semifinal by the Sharks. It was a harsh reckoning for a team that genuinely believed it had the makings of a championship side. They were dismissed from the competition by a team that found its form at the important time.

It is hard to accept now that the Sharks looked jaded and lacklustre in April and May. Coach John Plumtree was being linked with jobs back in his native New Zealand, principally, it seemed, because he had no more to give to the Sharks. Instead, his team found its mojo and reached the final in barnstorming fashion.

The frenetic travel that accompanied that success inevitably had its effect on both players and coaching staff.

At the beginning of the Currie Cup, Plumtree said he was in need of a rest and would be stepping down for a few weeks in mid-competition. It did not happen and it seems that the resurgent play of his team had much to do with the coach’s decision to hang around.

Emergence of young players
The return of a few Springboks and stiff competition for places among the rest of the squad has made the Durban side the hot favourites for a third title in five seasons.

Pat Lambie’s form, in particular, has made a mockery of the national coach’s decision to keep him benched for most of the year. Lambie’s manifest gifts have also been complemented by the emergence of young players such as Cobus Reinach and Paul Jordaan.

Rain has been an almost constant companion for the Sharks at home in the Currie Cup and more is expected on Saturday.

One of their most impressive displays was against Western Province in mid-September when they scored four tries despite the dire conditions. It was a game that ended with the farcical situation of the visitors defending desperately with just 12 men on the field. Two red cards and a yellow card contributed to a final quarter that Province fans will want to forget.

It is hard to believe that the final will be as one-sided as that game. For one thing, Province are a much better side now with their Springboks back. But the smart money will be on another home win for a side that looks set to dominate South African rugby for a few seasons to come.