Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Sweet as honey for WP, Sharks
Johannesburg – It was the day when the Sharks were stung into action and Western Province pitched up with an impressive bee in their bonnets.
And now you might feasibly venture that there will be a proper buzz about the place when these coastal rivals meet in the Absa Currie Cup final in Durban on October 30.
Saturday’s semi-finals, marked by delays to both matches – the later Newlands one only slightly to cater for live television needs after the bizarre Absa Stadium swarm-of-bees intrusion – fittingly saw the first and second-placed sides from the round-robin phase advance to the domestic showpiece.
The Sharks staved off the Blue Bulls 16-12 in an uncompromising struggle which saw the visitors’ monopoly on major silverware – last year’s Currie Cup and successive Super 14 crowns – come to an abrupt halt.
Meanwhile, in an altogether faster-paced and more open encounter played out in contrastingly idyllic conditions in Cape Town, Province operated with enviable zest, thrust and intelligence to flatten the Cheetahs’ aspirations by an unexpectedly wide 31-7 margin.
So in a fortnight’s time this weekend’s victors will cross swords for the first time in a final since 2001, when WP earned their last hold on the Currie Cup with a 29-24 win in unusual sultry conditions at their home ground and with a rumble of thunder overhead as they hoisted the spoils – perhaps it was an omen reflecting their many lean years to follow?
Then, Corne Krige had led a come-from-behind Province effort in which they were significantly outgunned in the first half but a moment of solo magic from flyhalf Chris “Kleintjips” Rossouw sparked their wake-up and Braam van Straaten, in his last outing before heading overseas, registered a record-equalling 24 points in a final.
The Streeptruie had also won the cup in Durban a year earlier (25-15) and have triumphed on three of the four occasions these sides have met for the prestigious spectacle.
But history will count for little in two weeks: bookies will probably be scratching their heads as we speak over which team to install as favourites.
Home advantage quite obviously works in favour of the Sharks, but countering that is the fact that Schalk Burger and company knocked over these foes 33-21 only seven days ahead of the semis, and appear to have hit a vibrant new “peak” at a very good time.
Then again, the ease with which Stefan Terblanche’s troops prevailed in the Durban round-robin meeting (27-16) may also carry some weight in assessing prospects, so the old saying “it’s anybody’s game” could hold credibility once more.
The Sharks are under slightly less pressure from their own faithful to secure the trophy, as they held it aloft as recently as 2008, having beaten the Bulls, the very team they kept at bay on Saturday, 14-9 at home.
But the elation and emotion with which many Sharks players greeted the final whistle of this knockout game, which ended in lashing rain, leaves no doubt as to their steely intention to recapture the domestic bragging rights.
It was a remarkable match in the sense that the hosts bossed possession and territory so emphatically for long spells that they really ought to have put the Bulls out of their relative misery much earlier.
Yet never did the scoreboard reflect a gap bigger than one converted try, which kept spectators on the edge of their seats even if fleet-footed three-quarter play was in short supply.
What became of the Bulls’ supposed big guns? Household Springbok names like Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Morne Steyn struggled to impose themselves – and Botha flirted dangerously once or twice with late-barge illegality – as the men from Pretoria were forced into energy-sapping, grim defence for the most part.
Instead the muscle and belligerence on this occasion came more from Sharks forwards like the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, and Willem Alberts, who put in a juggernaut performance as a ball-carrier and was rightly rewarded with a call-up to a Bok training camp.
He is exactly the sort of player to unleash on the northern hemisphere winter, where every yard gained in driving play makes a difference and healthy field position is a priceless ally.
Keegan Daniel’s pace to the breakdown and in general play was also influential, until Deon Stegmann made a belated appearance off the Bulls bench for the last quarter to help level things up a bit.
There is one thing you must give the Bulls credit for: they threw the kitchen sink in the last few minutes, and had they stolen this match – unjustly or not – we would have been singing their praises, no doubt, as a team well-versed in the art of tilting vital, end-of-tourney fixtures their way.
Things were way more clear-cut at Newlands, where a sun-soaked and delirious near-capacity crowd revelled in WP’s vitality against the plucky but ultimately powerless Cheetahs.
Province’s all-round game purred like a just-serviced engine, with the pack working as a cohesive unit, doing their “basics” splendidly and also combining thrillingly at times in attacking raids with such elusive, multi-dimensional figures as Jean de Villiers, Gio Aplon and an encouragingly resurgent Bryan Habana.
Why, even the supposedly robotic Willem de Waal was beginning to join in the fancy-stepping party as WP increasingly turned the screws, while doing his usual prolific thing off the kicking tee.
Roll on October 30 …