Sport

CURRIE CUP WIN

The Pumas’ slaughtering of the Bulls underlines how South African rugby’s strength is in its depth

The Pumas’ slaughtering of the Bulls underlines how South African rugby’s strength is in its depth
Diego Appollis of the Pumas during the Currie Cup, Premier Division match between Vodacom Bulls and Airlink Pumas at Loftus Versfeld on 12 March in Pretoria. (Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

The Pumas’ proved their Currie Cup title last year was no fluke after their crushing 63-15 win over the Bulls on Sunday. After humiliating the Bulls at Loftus this past weekend, they should perhaps be leading the conversation on the country’s incredible rugby depth.

When the conversation around South Africa’s extensive rugby talent rolls around, the Pumas would likely not be brought up in many sporting circles.

But after being crowned Currie Cup champions for the first time in their history last year and humiliating the Bulls – at Loftus Versfeld – this past weekend, they should perhaps be leading the conversation on the country’s incredible rugby depth.

Although obtaining the Currie Cup trophy remains a coveted achievement in South African rugby, in recent years the importance of the tournament has dwindled with other competitions such as the United Rugby Championship (URC), European Champions Cup and Super Rugby before that, attracting a bigger, global audience.

The Currie Cup has mainly been used as a building block for local teams in the other aforementioned tournaments.

Nonetheless, Bulls Currie Cup coach, Edgar Marutlulle still chose a menacing team to take on the Pumas at Loftus Versfeld on Sunday, 12 March.

The team consisted of six Springboks in Cornal Hendricks, Lizo Gqoboka, Lionel Mapoe, Sbu Nkosi and Morne Steyn.

Keagan Johannes of the Vodacom Blue Bulls holds on to try-scorer Andre Fouche of the Airlink Pumas during the Currie Cup match between Vodacom Bulls and Airlink Pumas at Loftus Versfeld. (Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

Still the victors 

Yet, the Pumas still came out 63-15 victors at the Bulls’ home stadium. Despite the Pumas’ last match – at a similar competitive level – being their Currie Cup final win over the Griquas in June last year.

“The other teams: the Cheetahs, the Lions, Western Province, all of them started in September with the URC and we didn’t,” said Pumas coach Jimmy Stonehouse.

“That was the biggest challenge for us, to ensure the tempo and intensity at practices were at the same level as the match situation.

“When we prepared for this, we knew the Bulls were going to pick a strong side because they had two [consecutive] losses and they needed a win urgently.”

Francois Kleinhans of the Pumas during the Currie Cup match between Vodacom Bulls and Airlink Pumas at Loftus Versfeld. (Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

On-field dominance

The Pumas looked like they had carried their momentum on from their historic 37-29 win over Griquas, despite that match happening almost nine months ago.

Their interplay was slick, the nine tries they ran in were all entertaining and they outplayed the Bulls – who have been playing in both the URC and Champions Cup competition for the past six months.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Stormers surge way ahead of Bulls and Sharks in hectic rugby season climax

The Pumas don’t have many “big name” stars, instead playing with a wholehearted squad who put everything into their on-field performance, thanks to their astute coaching setup, led by Stonehouse.

Stonehouse has taken a number of players who have been turned away from the bigger unions, and turned them into diamonds in Mbombela.

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Fullback Devon Williams came through the ranks at Western Province, loose-forward Khwezi Mafu is a former Bulls prospect, while domestic rugby journeyman Tinus de Beer – who played for the Bulls for three years – was the star on Sunday with 16 points.

Some players moved in the opposite direction, such as their captain Willie Engelbrecht, who lifted the Currie Cup trophy last year, and signed a two-year contract with the Stormers at the beginning of the current season.

“We lost a number of guys, but we also gained new players. It wasn’t easy to get the new players to the same standard as the rest,” said Stonehouse after his side’s famous win.

Kwanda Dimaza of the Airlink Pumas claims the high ball during the Currie Cup match at Loftus Versfeld. (Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

Financial troubles

The Pumas have provided a home for many lost professional rugby players in South Africa, and supplied a springboard for others. Yet despite the Pumas’ recent incredible success, Stonehouse acknowledged that his team urgently needs sponsors to stay afloat. 

“Except for the motivation [winning the Currie Cup, and a result like Sunday’s brings], we hope there’s a big, big sponsor that will come aboard,” he said.

“But we’re really grateful for the guys helping us currently. Just bringing the community, Mbombela, together [since last year’s title win] has been fantastic. Winning last year and a result like this really helps the team with their belief.

“It’s very important because it’s not just something you can assume. The players need to believe that they can win a competition like the Currie Cup because it helps with their aspirations of going to a bigger union and making it there.”

Stonehouse has once again pleaded for international exposure for the team from Mbombela, who currently only compete in domestic tournaments.

“I told the players [on Sunday morning]: if you can beat the Bulls here in their own backyard, people sit up and take notice. The bigger unions notice you because you’re competing at their level.”

“As a union, we have our sponsors, who are happily on board, and we always hope we can convince others to experience the value we can offer to them.

“But we’ll always struggle in terms of keeping our players [and sponsors] if we aren’t participating in an international competition where we can present ourselves. That’s one of our biggest issues.” DM

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