Sport

RUGBY

Currie Cup stage set for SA’s two most ambitious sides

The last time the Bulls won the Currie Cup, Jacob Zuma was a year into pillaging the country from the highest office, Instagram hadn’t been invented and Barack Obama was only nine months into his first term as US president.

On Saturday the Bulls will host the Sharks in the first January Currie Cup final at an empty Loftus Versfeld. Different date, different conditions, different world but the same goal – winning South Africa’s premier domestic competition.

The two most deserving sides, in this most trying of seasons, will meet in the final for the fifth time in history, with each having won two of the previous encounters. They are currently the two sides with the most forward-thinking boardrooms and the two teams with squads filled with experience and raw talent.

Flyhalf Morné Steyn steered the Bulls to their last Currie Cup title nearly 12 years ago – their fifth in the eight years at the time. Steyn scored 21 points as the Bulls beat the Cheetahs 36-24 in 2009. It’s almost impossible to imagine that the Bulls have only appeared in one final (2016) since.

Steyn has since travelled the world and seen just about everything, but his return to Loftus after the Bulls came calling again, has been a revelation.

It’s finals rugby and Steyn’s metronomic boot, especially at Loftus, will be critical. There might be no adoring fans to will his kicks on, but for Steyn it will be like playing in his backyard.

Since rugby resumed in October 2020 after the Covid-19 lockdown, the Bulls have not lost a match at Loftus. Despite no fans, the ground remains a fortress for the men from Pretoria.

The Bulls also have the experienced Jake White as coach. He has steered sides to major play-off wins at the World Cup with the Springboks, in Super Rugby with the Brumbies and European and Japanese club rugby with Montpellier and Toyota Verblitz respectively.

White understands the pressure of knockout games and also understands that his side will go into the match as favourites. That pressure sits comfortably with him, and it’s something he will expect his team to embrace.

“We have to go out and enjoy it, we’ve worked really hard for a home final, and we’ve shown we can beat these sides,” he said. “But in a final there’s always pressure, never underestimate that. But we need to embrace the situation and believe the work we’ve done during the year is good enough to get a result.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a few finals and play-off games, and the pressure of these matches never goes away, but it’s also really exciting. To host a Currie Cup final in our first year together as a group is something special, and it’s been the first Currie Cup for me as a coach.

“I can tell you I feel pressure, but it’s a nice pressure, it’s what you coach and play for.”

The Bulls won the Super Rugby Unlocked title in November. That was a hastily formatted tournament to fill the hole left after Covid-19 ravaged the 2020 season. The Bulls were the best team in those early post-lockdown days, and they carried that momentum into the Currie Cup.

But the Sharks, who were South Africa’s pacesetters in Super Rugby 2020 before that tournament was culled due to the pandemic, have slowly regained their form after an indifferent Super Rugby Unlocked.

Like all teams, the Sharks haven’t reached the same level of consistency as they demonstrated before the pandemic struck in March 2020. At that stage the side had won six of their seven Super Rugby matches and were riding high.

Given the invasiveness of Covid-19 protocols, no team, not even the Bulls, have performed at the level the Sharks were only 10 months ago. But these two teams are slowly improving as they eye the future and competition in the northern hemisphere, in the Rainbow Cup, in 10 weeks’ time.

The Sharks are less experienced but they have a spine of Springboks and World Cup winners in captain Lukhanyo Am, wing Sbu Nkosi and prop Thomas du Toit in their ranks.

Flyhalf Curwin Bosch has been excellent in the tournament and his three 55m-plus kicks at goal against Western Province in the semifinal at sea level last week won’t have gone unnoticed by the Bulls. They will need to be disciplined all over the park or the Sharks pivot will hurt them.

“We came together as a new coaching staff and got a new squad of players together,” Sharks coach Sean Everitt said. “We have five 21-year-olds playing in the final on Saturday. So, we have brought youngsters through and have grown our squad. We have rotated our squad and created depth.

“The pressures of Covid have enabled us to use the majority of our squad in games and those players have come through with flying colours.

“You have to look at the culture we have created and the diversity that’s been created in our group. We have also been unbeaten at home and have faced massive challenges, but have come through them unscathed.

“Here we are sitting at the peak of South African rugby, representing the Sharks in a final. That’s a massive privilege and a reward to everyone involved. Win or lose on Saturday, the Sharks have been successful in my eyes. That’s what counts. It’s not only about winning one game of rugby.”

White made only one change to the Bulls’ starting team that beat the Lions 26-21 in the semifinal last weekend, with Johan Grobbelaar starting at hooker, while Schalk Erasmus will provide cover on the bench.

Duane Vermeulen will again lead the team from No 8, alongside his fellow Springbok loose forward, Marco van Staden, and the exciting Elrigh Louw.

Two more Springboks, Trevor Nyakane and Lizo Gqoboka, will pack down on either side of Grobbelaar in the front row, while the backline features three Boks, the experienced Steyn (flyhalf), Ivan van Zyl (scrumhalf) and Cornal Hendricks (centre).

Former Junior Springbok star scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse will start in a settled Sharks team in the only change to Everitt’s starting side.

Everitt named the same 23-man squad who defeated WP 19-9 in the semifinal, with a rotational switch at scrumhalf, where Hendrikse moves up from the bench in place of Sanele Nohamba – who, in turn, is named among the replacements.

Am will again lead the team, which features six national players, into battle. The other Boks are Nkosi (wing), Bosch (flyhalf), Sikhumbuzo Notshe (No 8), Du Toit and Ox Nché (both props).

Notshe relished the opportunity to play in the final and said: “We’re thrilled to have secured a place in the final but we accept that we have a massive assignment at Loftus on Saturday afternoon.

“But it’s an assignment we’re really excited about, especially as not a lot of players in our squad have been in finals, so this is a very special occasion.” DM

Teams:

Bulls – 15 David Kriel, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Marco Jansen van Vuren, 12 Cornal Hendricks, 11 Stravino Jacobs, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Duane Vermeulen (captain), 7 Elrigh Louw, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Sintu Manjezi, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Lizo Gqoboka. Replacements (from): 16 Schalk Erasmus, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Mornay Smith, 19 Jan Uys, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Marnus Potgieter, 24 Nizaam Carr, 25 Gerhard Steenekamp, 26 Keagan Johannes, 27 Jade Stighling.

Sharks – 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am (captain), 12 Marius Louw, 11 Yaw Penxe, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Henco Venter, 6 Dylan Richardson, 5 Ruben van Heerden, 4 JJ van der Mescht, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Fezokuhle Mbatha, 1 Ox Nché. Replacements: 16 Dan Jooste, 17 Mzamo Majola, 18 Michael Kumbirai, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Thembelani Bholi, 21 Sanele Nohamba, 22 Jeremy Ward, 23 Manie Libbok.

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