Sharks heavy final favourites
Patrick Lambie (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - A formidable array of signs point to a Sharks success in the Currie Cup final coastal “derby” against Western Province at Mr Price Kings Park next Saturday.
Evidence from this weekend’s semi-finals alone suggests that the home side will be far likelier to hoist the domestic trophy after botching the showpiece rather spectacularly last year, when the Lions whipped them 42-16 at Coca-Cola Park.
The Sharks were full value for their victory over the Blue Bulls on Saturday, a game punctuated by several Springbok incumbents in the visiting camp being quite thoroughly outplayed by fired-up home-town positional rivals.
Topping that list was flyhalf Patrick Lambie
, who admittedly had the benefit of a dominant pack in front of him, but eclipsed an impotent Morné Steyn (many believe he is set for an end-of-year-tour recall) in just about every facet of play.
It was a powerful plea for Bok coach Heyneke Meyer
, who has seldom entrusted Lambie with decent game-time this year, to consider him his first-choice pivot on the three-match tour, especially as another Young Turk, Elton Jantjies
, had an erratic day in the Lions’ late 21-16 reverse to Province in the later semi in Johannesburg.
Further illuminating - or should that read worrying? - aspects from a national perspective of the Sharks’ clear-cut 20-3 win in a soggy Durban included Louis Ludik bossing a predictable Zane Kirchner in the fullback duel, and No 5 lock Anton Bresler particularly overshadowing a lethargic Juandré Kruger in their second-row scrap.
In the Big Smoke, the Lions-WP battle was different in that the home side dictated matters for pretty long periods, but came up short on the scoreboard as Province’s unrelenting spirit and a remarkable second wind late in the final quarter swayed things in a nail-biter.
Certainly there would have been many tired, aching bodies in the away dressing room at Coca-Cola Park, despite the jubilant buzz.
Once again a WP pack (you might extend that to say Stormers, too) played second fiddle for front-foot status in a high-stakes, knockout-phase encounter, forcing the team collectively into plenty of tackling and scrambling.Allister Coetzee
’s charges are down to bare bones for “grunt” factors up front at present, as there is little doubt they are missing absent gladiators like Tiaan Liebenberg
, Andries Bekker
, Rynhardt Elstadt and Schalk Burger
Their scrum, featuring a plucky, hard-grafting but still noticeably greenhorn front row of Steven Kitshoff, Scarra Ntubeni and Frans Malberbe, took strain against the Lions again, and that is ominous when you consider the Bok stalwarts in the boiler room they will potentially be up against next Saturday.
Not that there is no reason at all for hope among fans of the blue-and-whites: the WP rolling maul remains a device of great majesty - especially when some of its participants have their shorts reassuringly stationed in the correct, raised position! - and against the Lions the lineout was also a strong department with Eben Etzebeth
and the fast-emerging Don Armand to the fore.
Speaking of Etzebeth, the rookie Bok must have a quite remarkable engine because even after such a murderously long and highly successful maiden first-class campaign thus far, he continues to ooze iron-willed commitment and muscularity.
He reserved some of his most inspired and forceful rugby for the closing minutes of the semi, and it was crucial.
One factor that will fuel Province in the final is their desperation to claim a major trophy. Many pundits, at least partly understandably, still pooh-pooh the Super Rugby conference spoils, and WP’s last Currie Cup success was as far back as 2001, when the now long-retired Braam van Straaten landed 24 points in a 29-24 Newlands triumph over the very Sharks.
All that said, the Sharks will certainly find heavy favour this week with the bookies for the showpiece.
Coach John Plumtree has very shrewdly rotated players since the return of several Boks to the Currie Cup picture, leaving him with a bit of an embarrassment of riches and a greater array of fresh legs to mull over in terms of his final line-up.
Recent statistical ammunition also points powerfully to a Sharks conquest next weekend: for starters, they have won both round-robin tussles (25-23 in Cape Town and then 43-27 in Durban).
Then in 2012 Super Rugby, the Sharks convincingly won the semi-final meeting at Newlands 26-19 - the Stormers pack was arguably stronger on paper than today’s WP one then - and also the Durban conference clash 25-20.
The Stormers did squeeze out the Cape Town conference game 15-12, but it was a truly ding-dong battle.
Another handy ally for the Sharks is the memory of their 30-10 grilling of Province the last time these foes met in the Currie Cup final at Mr Price Kings Park, as recently as 2010.
Still, WP’s determined “David” bracing themselves for the collective home-town “Goliath” is bound to keep the pot boiling nicely in anticipation of Saturday’s domestic showdown...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing