The Sharks' desire for revenge, Western Province looking to make history and playing for two of their greatest players, and the presence of 19 Springboks between the two squads makes for one of the most appealing Currie Cup finals at Newlands on Saturday. By KEN BORLAND.
The Sharks and Western Province are playing against each other for the third time in the last four finals, so there is plenty of history between the two teams.
The KwaZulu-Natalians were shocked in last year’s final in Durban when a far more inexperienced Western Province team snatched a 25-18 victory, partly atoning for the Pat Lambie-inspired 30-10 walloping they received in the 2010 final at the same venue.
Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers both played in 2010 but missed the 2011 triumph, and the Western Province team have openly said they are desperate to win so that two of their greatest players can enjoy being Currie Cup champions for the first time.
And, if the home side triumph tomorrow, they will win the Currie Cup at home for the first time since 2001, when they beat Natal 29-24, and they will also complete an unbeaten campaign for the first time since 1936. In the last 30 years, only the Sharks vintage of 1996 and the 1989 Northern Transvaal side have gone through a Currie Cup season unbeaten.
But apart from both teams having plenty of reasons to win, there are some fascinating individual contests that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will no doubt be keeping a close eye on.
The Springbok starting front row of Tendai Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers will come up against a much-improved Western Province outfit, Pat Cilliers, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff and replacements Frans Malherbe and Brok Harris having dominated the Sharks scrum two weeks ago in Durban.
Western Province number four Eben Etzebeth is an immense physical specimen and, apart from his lineout presence and ability to steal opposition ball, will be crucial in stopping the big Sharks ball-carriers from getting across the advantage line. Sharks lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, a Springbok hopeful, will want to measure himself against Etzebeth.
An epic clash in midfield awaits with Damian de Allende and De Villiers up against Francois Steyn and Louis Ludik; two under-rated non-Springboks against two international veterans.
The Sharks also boast an all-Springbok loose trio in Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee and Keegan Daniel; but their Western Province counterparts are no less august, even though their captain, Deon Fourie, has never worn the Green and Gold.
But Fourie will probably be the best fetcher on the field, giving Western Province tremendous balance in their loose trio as Siya Kolisi is the all-action tackling flank and Duane Vermeulen is a powerful ball-carrier but also one of the better pilferers in the rucks.
Coetzee and Alberts are pretty much like-for-like in comparison with Kolisi and Vermeulen, while Daniel is more the traditional linking eighthman, with wonderful ball-skills and pace.
So the Sharks loose-trio lacks a real scavenger, but they’re okay in that department thanks to the presence of Bismarck du Plessis at hooker.
Bismarck brings immense physicality to the rucks and collisions and is also most adept at forcing turnovers.
The Sharks can, in fact, count themselves as most fortunate to have both Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis available for the final.
Bismarck was yellow-carded for stamping in the semi-final against the Cheetahs and Jannie missed that match with a hand injury that was serious enough to warrant a cast being put on it.
Bismarck clearly made contact with the chest of Free State flank Lappies Labuschagne and, with the incident happening in open play, had a clear view of what he was doing, but Advocate Andre Oosthuizen inexplicably ruled the foul play to be accidental and the 29-year-old was cleared to play in the final.
Jannie had the cast cut off and practised for the first time in midweek and was named in the Sharks starting line-up yesterday in what can only be described as a gamble by their team management.
Given the presence of all those Springboks in the Sharks team, it is difficult to understand why they are being written off as underdogs with such vigour in the Cape. The implosion of their lineout was the main reason they lost last year’s final, but the experienced Bismarck du Plessis should ensure that is less of a factor this time around.
A sparkling individual try by Juan de Jongh was anothey key reason why Western Province won and the Sharks will await his appearance from the bench – and that of the hard-hitting Burger – with some trepidation.
It is the dazzling counter-attacking skills of Gio Aplon and Cheslin Kolbe though that will be demanding the most attention from the Sharks’ defence, who will also have to cope with De Allende punching the ball up powerfully in midfield channels.
It is in Currie Cup finals and semi-finals though that Lambie shines brightest and it should be remembered that it is a Currie Cup final and there probably won’t be much room for backs to razzle-dazzle.
The Sharks should probably back themselves to win by dominating territory through the boots of Steyn, Lambie and Charl McLeod, defending stoutly and using their forwards to try and keep Western Province on the back foot.
But the Western Province pack should also not be understimated and there is precious little to choose between the two sides.
Because of that, the side making the least errors should be triumphant, however cliched that is.
There will be another crucial rugby match on the go in Nelspruit this evening as the Pumas host Griquas in the second leg of their promotion/relegation series.
The Griquas will be taking the narrowest of two-point leads to the Mbombela Stadium and will need to be far sharper for 80 minutes than they were last weekend in Kimberley if they are going to be assured of a Premier Division place next year.
The pace and vision of Springbok star Willie le Roux will be a key weapon for Griquas, but his effectiveness is, to a large extent, predicated on the ability of his forwards to secure front-foot ball.
The Pumas have some talent of their own with centre Stefan Watermeyer having previously shone for the Bulls and eighthman RW Kember having played for the Lions.
With such a precious prize at stake, Griquas can brace themselves for a ferocious challenge from the Pumas. DM
Currie Cup final teams
Western Province: 15-Gio Aplon, 14-Gerhard van den Heever, 13-Jean de Villiers, 12-Damian de Allende, 11-Cheslin Kolbe, 10-Demetri Catrakilis, 9-Louis Schreuder, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Siya Kolisi, 6-Deon Fourie, 5-De Kock Steenkamp, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Pat Cilliers, 2-Scarra Ntubeni, 1-Steven Kitshoff. Replacements – 16-Frans Malherbe, 17-Brok Harris, 18-Michael Rhodes, 19-Schalk Burger,20- Nic Groom, 21-Kurt Coleman, 22-Juan de Jongh.
The Sharks: 15-SP Marais, 14-Odwa Ndungane, 13-Louis Ludik, 12-Frans Steyn, 11-Lwazi Mvovo, 10-Pat Lambie, 9-Charl McLeod, 8-Keegan Daniel, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Marcell Coetzee, 5-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4-Peet Marais,3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – 16-Kyle Cooper, 17-Wiehahn Herbst, 18-Stephan Lewies, 19-Jacques Botes, 20-Cobus Reinach, 21-Fred Zeilinga, 22-Heimar Williams. DM
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.