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EURO BOOST

Sharks’ Challenge Cup win a victory for South Africa’s northern hemisphere presence

Sharks’ Challenge Cup win a victory for South Africa’s northern hemisphere presence
Ox Nche of the Sharks is tackled by Mayco Vivas of Gloucester during the Challenge Cup final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on 24 May 2024. (Photo: Gaspafotos / MB Media / Getty Images)

South Africa’s integration into European rugby enjoyed a boost with the Sharks’ 36-22 Challenge Cup win over Gloucester.

The sight of Eben Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi, Vincent Koch and Ox Nche beaming with pride as they gazed at their European Challenge Cup winners’ medals underlined how much this meant. 

The quartet of World Cup winners, in Sharks colours, were ecstatic after their side beat Gloucester 36-22 at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday to take the secondary European title. 

It might not be the biggest prize in the sport, but try telling that to Etzebeth and company. They looked as happy as if they had just won the Rugby World Cup

Yes, it may have “only” been the Challenge Cup. But this was a win in an international competition, achieved thanks to a dominant performance. 

South African teams have been part of the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) system for only two seasons and already there is a title. 

Eben Etzebeth of the Sharks clatters into Mayco Vivas of Gloucester during the Challenge Cup final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on 24 May 2024. (Photo: Gaspafotos / MB Media / Getty Images)

Sharks

Adam Hastings of Gloucester passes the ball as the Sharks’ Eben Etzebeth challenges during the Challenge Cup final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on 24 May 2024. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Despite carping from sectors of the northern hemisphere fanbase and media about South Africa’s place in European rugby, there was no escaping how much it meant. 

And it underlined that South Africa is in Europe for the long haul and in the competition to win it. It will almost certainly lead to another round of “Why are the Saffers playing here?” griping. 

Victory for the Sharks came with the bonus of qualification for next season’s Investec Champions Cup, the premier continental prize, which was also a reason for the smiles. 

But it was clear from those four decorated warriors that winning a trophy after such a taxing — and until their heroics at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, underwhelming — season was a mammoth achievement. 

Shudderingly physical 

It was a shudderingly physical performance in which Gloucester, outside of the first and last 10 minutes, were played off the park. 

The English club could not cope with the power of the Sharks’ scrum, their monstrous defence, physical breakdown work and skilful finesse. It’s no wonder that South African sides are not welcome if this is what the country’s fourth-best team is capable of doing. 

Few gave as much as Etzebeth, who captained the Sharks on the night. The Bok legend produced another world-class display and his winning mentality was surely a major factor in performance and outcome.
“The motivation [to win] was more within the team,” Etzebeth said. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pesky Saffas are in European club rugby to stay, despite grumbles from the North

“To turn things around the way we did after where we were four or five months ago was fantastic. There was a big drive to win the Challenge Cup as a silver lining to our season, which hasn’t been great. 

 “If you told us at the start of the season that we would win the EPCR Challenge Cup and qualify for the Investec Champions Cup, we would have taken it. 

“The victory was special, and it felt as though we left our best performance for last. The guys were just incredible, and the physicality was great. 

Sharks

Vincent Koch makes a break for the Sharks during the Challenge Cup final against Gloucester in London on 24 May 2024. (Photo: Paul Harding / Getty Images)

“At club level, this is by far the best memory. The last championship I won [at club level] was the Currie Cup in 2012, so it’s been 12 years. 

“This is the first international trophy the Sharks have won and to become the first South African to win in Europe is definitely one of my best memories ever.” 

Eben Etzebeth and Ox Nche celebrate with Sharks teammates after winning the Challenge Cup final against Gloucester at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on 24 May 2024. (Photo: Paul Harding / Getty Images)

Coach John Plumtree, who has shouldered the pressure of a difficult season, was happy and relieved. 

“We wanted to apply a lot of pressure upfront because we knew it would probably be their strength, so by taking that away, we knew we would have a good chance. 

“I thought the scrum was outstanding, and the front row’s drive was very good and they earned the rewards for it. So was the pressure game from our kicking game. 

“A lot of it was based around scoreboard pressure, which we had to keep building on, and credit to the guys for sticking to the plan.” DM

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