WP 'revival' losing steam?
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Durban - If they reach the Absa Currie Cup final again this year, defending champions the Sharks may well look back on their narrow win against Western Province at a wet Newlands as a defining moment of their drive to the important, home showpiece.
Although there are several credible candidates to go all the way to the October 29 date - even the sluggish Blue Bulls may just have turned a little corner at Mbombela Stadium on Friday night - a repeat of last year’s final, when the Sharks thumped Province at Mr Price Kings Park, can hardly be ruled out.
But with the halfway mark in the competition now only two matches away for most sides (log-leaders the Lions host the Cheetahs in a Saturday night affair after the Springbok Test match to end this weekend’s programme) some danger signs have presented themselves anew for a WP side desperate to end a 10-year major trophy drought in Cape Town.
For if the Cheetahs win in Johannesburg, which would not come as a surprise of especially staggering proportions, Allister Coetzee’s charges, fourth as this is penned, would drop out of the “semi-final” slots to fifth.
They have a few things to chew on, because after playing sometimes quite brilliantly above themselves to thrash the Bulls 35-7 a fortnight back, they have since lost twice on the trot to give their long-suffering supporters heart flutters all over again.
There have been tangibly positive developments at Newlands and environs in the last two or three years, in which undoubtedly smart minds like Rassie Erasmus, Coetzee himself and a few others have gone a long away to patiently engineering a return to self-respect at the major union, at both Super Rugby and Currie Cup level.
But despite reaching the finals of both competitions last year, and being South Africa’s best-performing Super Rugby side in 2011, Newlands fans are fully entitled to ask the question once more: “When are we actually going to see either trophy enter the musty cabinet?”
Is it enough for the hierarchy to enthusiastically tout the volume of fresh-faced talent in their fold - from U19 level and upward - ad nauseam?
Is it sufficient comfort to the Newlands faithful to see the U21s romp to a five-tries-to-one triumph over their Sharks counterparts in the Friday evening curtain-raiser, as did happen?
The trouble, I think, is that they’ve heard all these promises before of “building from within”.
Let’s not forget that a few seasons ago, when Nick Mallett was basically the Erasmus-like overseer and Kobus van der Merwe the coach, WP Rugby similarly believed it was in renaissance mode.
But no material gain came from that particular drive, when you think about it: in fact, it is amazing to consider how many of that campaign’s supposedly key elements disappeared elsewhere or, in some cases, into relative anonymity.
Captain Luke Watson went to Bath, before later returning to aid the Eastern Cape “revolution”, second-rowers Francois van der Merwe and Ross Skeate sought new pastures abroad, as did Robbie Diack and the admirably versatile Joe Pietersen, while the nippy, crowd-pleasing wing Zhahier Ryland - admittedly a bit lightweight for top-flight rugby - also drifted off the first-class radar.
In a nutshell, I reckon there’s a case for saying WP Rugby doesn’t have quite the true “depth” it kids itself it does: there’s a bit of an imbalance between a host of significantly inexperienced youngsters, who are probably two or three years away yet from genuine fulfilment of talent (if it actually occurs, mind you) and near-veteran, often unavailable Springboks.
In the latter category obviously fall names like Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger, all of whose best days in the game are now very close to the downward slope - and in certain cases evidently even on it.
There just isn’t enough steel left “in the middle” ... and here WP enthusiasts will feel quite justified in forcefully questioning the union’s willingness to offload perfect players, frankly, for a Currie Cup thrust like Francois Louw, Anton van Zyl and also Peter Grant, who continues to punch mysteriously below his flyhalf weight in Japan while our premier domestic competition runs its course.
In fairness, maybe there are times when you simply can’t stop certain determined, rolling stones from bouncing off elsewhere.
And here’s the trouble when a union is perceived to have an enviable barrel of up-and-coming players: many of them get poached. The clearly exciting outside back Johann Sadie, soon Bulls-bound, is a very strong case in point.
Just looking at the respective team sheets, I always felt Province would do really well to get past a Sharks side still sporting something like 10 internationals in their match-day 22.
Province? Just two - and neither of Conrad Jantjes or Hilton Lobberts has come close to a Springbok dressing room in quite a while.
The Sharks’ superior street-wisdom and tactical nous on the wretched night went a long way to explaining their precious triumph.
It is true that when the likes of Duane Vermeulen and Rynhardt Elstadt are fit again, WP will take on a rather sturdier look once more.
But to arguably compound Province’s present predicament, a glance at the long-range weather forecast suggests that Friday night’s appealing home game against the in-form Lions may be played once more in heavy-underfoot, rain-lashed conditions as the Cape’s unusually sunny winter produces another wee sting in its tail.
Might a no-nonsense, physical Lions eight thus give a frankly limited WP pack further “issues” to grapple with?
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Next week’s Currie Cup fixtures:
Friday: WP v Lions, Cape Town; Blue Bulls v Griquas, Pretoria; Sharks v Leopards, Durban.
Saturday: Cheetahs v Pumas, Bloemfontein.