The Sharks are favoured in Saturday’s Currie Cup final, but a strong Western Province second row and inclement conditions could prove a leveller. KEN BORLAND previews the match.
While the Sharks may be overwhelming favourites for Saturday’s Currie Cup final against Western Province in Durban, the memory of silly lapses that have cost them past finals in similar positions at the same venue will still be on the minds of the KwaZulu-Natal faithful.
The most famous of those was in the 2007 Super Rugby final against the Bulls, when a repeated failure to kick the ball out and a defence that was caught flatfooted allowed Bryan Habana to score one of his most celebrated tries and bring the Sanzar trophy to Pretoria for the first time. The deafening silence at King’s Park after victory was snatched from the Sharks at the death was something for the ears to behold.
Western Province will be hoping for similar magic from Habana on Saturday, as well as that other marvellous game-breaker Gio Aplon, while Coach Allister Coetzee has also gambled by choosing the penetrative Damian de Allende alongside Juan de Jongh for his first Currie Cup start.
With the Sharks undoubted favourites on paper – Coetzee has had to call up six players from the U21s to cover for injuries – Western Province will almost certainly be trusting in their celebrated defence to ensure the Natalians do not get too far away from them, and then try to strike in the final quarter as they did against the Lions in the semi-final.
While many are predicting the star-studded Sharks squad, with a dozen Springboks, will simply swat Western Province aside, finals are not often like that and expected rainy weather in Durban may also be a leveller.
The visitors, denied a major cup for 11 years, are certainly going to be up for the game and nothing fuels motivation quite like being written-off as no-hopers.
But common sense suggests the Sharks should have too much power, skill and experience and only mental errors can deny them their seventh Currie Cup title.
Up front, Western Province have two animals (in an entirely complimentary sense) in Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen, but for the rest, the Sharks should have the edge in the forwards.
The Sharks’ Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis anchor the Springbok scrum, while the loose trio have all played for South Africa this year. Willem Alberts is the type of hard man who sends players to hospital, Marcell Coetzee is everywhere on the field at once and Keegan Daniel has the uncanny ability to pop up exactly where needed at the right time, as well as being a pinpoint link with his backs.
The second row is an area where Western Province may enjoy more parity, although Steven Sykes has functioned at a high level for several years for the Sharks and Anton Bresler is increasingly coming into his own as well.
Sharks half-backs Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie may be small, but they can cause as much damage as those little Gremlins in the famous 1984 horror comedy film. Lambie, in particular, is a very clever player, using his boot well but also having sleight of hand and deceptive ability running with the ball.
He will be the home side’s general on Saturday and was instrumental in the Sharks’ 2010 Currie Cup triumph, scoring 25 points, including two tries, against the same opposition. It was probably the most complete performance by a fly-half in a Currie Cup final since Naas Botha’s heyday.
The rest of the backlines are fairly evenly matched, but Coach Coetzee was revealing his knowledge that Western Province will need something special to win the final by choosing De Allende, who was impressive at the end of the semi-final, instead of Marcel Brache, who was one of their stars through the Currie Cup campaign.
The entire Sharks back three of JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo and Louis Ludik deserve to be part of Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s end-of-year touring squad and their ability to both dictate with the boot as well as counter-attack is an obvious strength.
In fact, the Sharks as a whole are the one team who seem to have perfected the art of mixing a territory-based game with one that demands a greater proportion of possession being kept in hand.
The all-round skills of the Sharks team, including the forwards, are also a notch above the rest of the teams in the Currie Cup.
The final might have come a year or two too early for what is undoubtedly a highly promising Western Province team, but on the day, with the pressure of finals rugby and the expectation of the crowd, the Sharks might, just maybe, toss it away. Especially if Western Province can summon the same sheer bloody-minded refusal to lose they showed in the semi-final against the Lions and earlier this year, as the Stormers, in the Super Rugby match against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
The smart money is surely, however, on the Sharks having the skills to turn the same amount of dominance as the Lions and Bulls enjoyed into the points that will clinch the oldest trophy in provincial rugby anywhere in the world. DM
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí