Sharks set the pace as Currie Cup semifinal spots begin to take shape

Sharks set the pace as Currie Cup semifinal spots begin to take shape
Aphelele Fassi of the Sharks during their Currie Cup, Premier Division match against the Cheetahs at Kings Park in Durban on 19 May 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

The Sharks are on a six-match winning streak thanks in large part to astute coaching by Joey Mongalo.

With only two rounds of Currie Cup action left before the semifinals, the competition for the available spots is heating up.

The table-topping Sharks are currently the only side qualified for the knockout stages after winning nine of their 12 round-robin matches – which includes an ongoing six-match winning streak.

Much of the Sharks’ recent success in the Currie Cup can be put down to consistency and stability, elements that were sorely missing in their United Rugby Championship (URC) campaign.

Head coach Joey Mongalo – who was the Bulls’ defence coach last season – has been instrumental in ensuring the Sharks have been at the top of their game by trusting and selecting a core group of players, albeit not the stars of the URC.

“There probably never was an intention to make big changes,” said Mongalo.

Dylan Richardson of the Sharks on the attack against the Cheetahs during their Currie Cup clash at Kings Park on 19 May 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

“It’s a principle we decided on a long time ago. In order to gain buy-in and trust from this group of men, we had to make agreements with them in the beginning that they’re the Currie Cup group and that we’ll be sticking with them for the duration of the campaign.

“For us to go back on our word now just because of the temptation of a few URC players being available is something that would possibly dismantle this team.

“It’s about us staying true to our word and the dream we sold to them.”

The Sharks’ URC fringe players such as Dylan Richardson, Yaw Penxe and Murray Koster, as well as youngsters Jeandre Labuschagne and Nevaldo Fleurs, have all been given an extended run in the Currie Cup where they have had time to gel as a unit.

“The thing that I’ve learnt is that anyone can coach technical stuff, teach the players attack and defence. But group dynamics are what makes or breaks a team,” added Mongalo, who has a master’s degree in organisational psychology.

“If the tightness of the group isn’t established, there are difficulties.”

WP bank on youth

Stormers coach John Dobson promised to follow a similar path to Mongalo’s – by not having his URC players flooding the Western Province Currie Cup side – after his side’s close-fought 19-14 loss in the URC final on Saturday.

“I think we will give guys like Marcel (Theunissen) and Willie (Engelbrecht), who haven’t had much time, a run. (Leolin) Zas was injured for a long time. I am not just going to flick and bump all the Stormers down there now, no,” Dobson told the media after the final loss to Munster.

The Sharks’ Fez Mbatha in action against the Cheetahs at Kings Park on 19 May 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

Tiaan Fourie of the Sharks during their Currie Cup match against the Cheetahs at Kings Park on 19 May 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

“Some of the guys, like Conor Evans and Adré Smith, were awesome against the Lions. It’s not fair on them to go, ‘okay, URC season is over, here comes Ruben van Heerden’. It will be a bit of a mix.”

Western Province lost 32-12 to the Golden Lions at Athlone Stadium the day before the URC final. The loss leaves WP scrapping to hold on to fourth spot on the log, with six victories and an equal number of losses from their 12 matches.

The Lions and Blue Bulls, like WP, are also on 31 points, with two round-robin games left.

It is likely to take two victories in those two remaining matches by either one of the Golden Lions, Blue Bulls or Western Province to secure a spot in the semifinals.

Semifinal spots

The Cheetahs and reigning champions the Pumas currently occupy second and third place respectively on the Currie Cup log. One victory in either of their last two matches will all but secure both their spots in the knockouts.

Five points separate the two central country franchises as they prepare to face off in Mbombela this weekend.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Brains trust of officials and players is solving SA rugby’s player management problems

Meanwhile, last year’s finalists, the Griquas, have an outside chance of qualification. They’re second from bottom on the log but trail the two Highveld teams and WP by just one point.

The Griffons, who were promoted to the Currie Cup last year after an unbeaten run in the First Division, look set to be relegated once more after only clinching one victory in their opening 12 matches – their solitary win was an impressive 32-28 trouncing of the Blue Bulls at the end of March. DM


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