Sharks on course for title No 7
The Lions’ parting gift before departing competition rugby until next August may have added some interest to the grand finale of what up to this point has been an Absa Currie Cup season that has struggled to attract interest.
There was rain about as a mitigating factor, but it was not enough of a reason to hide the concern at the fact that the crowds that turned up for both semifinals this past weekend were what you would have expected for league matches in previous years.
Instead of the old capacity crowds, the stadiums were not even half full.
That though did not detract from the quality of the rugby produced, and while there were plenty of errors given the wet conditions, there was also some skillful rugby played, some brilliant individual performances and, in Johannesburg, the excitement of a close finish as the lead changed four times in the last minutes of the match between the Lions and Western Province.
You have to feel sorry for the Lions, who were significantly the better team for most of the 80 minutes at Coca-Cola Park.
But they had only themselves to blame for the defeat, for they simply – to use the phrase so often used by the late Springbok and Transvaal coach Kitch Christie – left too many points on the table.
And then came that gift in the final minutes, when Jaco Taute kicked directly into touch after the ball had been carried back into his 22.
It meant WP had a lineout throw-in some 17 metres from the Lions' line, and it was all the opportunity a hungry Province team needed to maul their way to a winning try that was scored on the hooter.
There’s that word – hungry. And it is one of the reasons why the Johannesburg result has added intrigue to Saturday’s Durban final against the Sharks.
The quest for much-needed silverware has perhaps got in the way of common sense for a WP coaching staff who have selected in the full-strength phase in such a way that makes all their talk earlier in the year about the domestic tournament being about building depth for Super Rugby sound hollow and contradictory.
Allister Coetzee said last week, once Jean de Villiers was officially ruled out, that he backed Marcel Brache to play in a semifinal.
But he gave the opposite impression when he allowed De Villiers to spend the entire build-up week to the final league match against the Cheetahs on the sidelines before playing him in the starting team.
Arguably, given the season he had enjoyed in the blue and white hoops, the same argument could have been forwarded for Scarra Ntubeni – he should have been rewarded by being used when it mattered.
As it turned out, both he and Brache were used in the end, but only because of injury, and it all ended up working out for WP in the sense that they had their rugby education furthered by being part of a winning semifinal effort.
GREAT RESOLVE AND FORTITUDE
Now comes the big one, and the memory of the defeat in the 2010 final, plus the more recent anguish of being outplayed in a Super Rugby semifinal in Cape Town, should add to the Province resolve.
One thing that would have worked for them and added to their confidence for this week would have been the way they won the semi – to come back and snatch it showed great resolve and fortitude, and it should give them some belief ahead of the decider.
Make no mistake, belief is something they are going to need plenty of, because there can be no denying that the Sharks have been the form team in the domestic season, and the Sharks' coaches are a good couple of levels above all their competitors when it comes to both selecting and managing their players and being able to adapt their game-plan to suit conditions.
Their win over the Bulls was undeniably the performance of the weekend, and 20-3 may well have been 40-6 had it been a dry day in Durban.
The players that got their team this far were backed to start and they repaid coach John Plumtree’s faith, while the Springboks more than did their bit when they came on.
They will start overwhelming favourites to clinch their seventh Currie Cup title, and Plumtree’s third.
But WP, with Boks such as Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen playing so well and the better newcomers such as Don Armand, Ntubeni and Brache now having benefitted from the Coca-Cola Park experience, might just be more competitive opponents than the Lions might have been away from Johannesburg.
And you get the sense they will relish the status of underdogs, a reversal of what was the case when the Sharks visited Newlands for the Super Rugby play-off three months ago.
The individual performance of the weekend was that of Sharks flyhalf Patrick Lambie, who, now that he is back in the No 10, is reminding us of why so many of us backed him to be the Bok starting flyhalf ahead of Morne Steyn as long ago as the 2010 November tour to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.
Unless he was wearing blindfolds when he watched the game, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer must surely have been convinced of Lambie’s all-round worth, as well as being nudged one more time about the failings of the predictable game-plan of the team he used to coach.
The Bulls were thrashed and are going to have to seriously rethink their approach if the glory days of a few years ago are to be revisited.
Talking of thrashed, that’s what happened to the EP Kings in the promotion-relegation game, and while that result was probably as predictable as the Bulls’ game-plan, it did add to my “It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack” theme from Friday – the Lions, who will not be part of Super Rugby next year, showed against WP that they have a contribution to make and can mix it with the bigger teams.
They did everything but win the game and set up a second consecutive appearance in a final.
Of course that they are so good at Currie Cup and struggle so in Super Rugby underlines the chasm between the competitions, but that they are going to have to let so many of their players go, and won’t be playing in any meaningful competition in the first half of 2013, is a crying shame and South African rugby is set to be the ultimate loser.
Sharks 20 Vodacom Blue Bulls 3
MTN Golden Lions 16 DHL Western Province 21
Toyota Free State Cheetahs 53 Eastern Province Kings 14