It’s for the Sharks to lose
If there is someone we should feel sorry for on the eve of the Absa Currie Cup final between the Sharks and Western Province at Mr Price Kings Park in Durban, it’s the Cape under-21 team’s coach John Dobson.
The victorious WP Vodacom Cup coach goes into his final on Saturday against the Blue Bulls without six players who would be eligible for his team were they not already playing senior provincial rugby. Well, okay, maybe we shouldn’t list Eben Etzebeth in that group because he is already a Springbok, but Dobson could reasonably have expected at the start of the year to have the services of Damian de Allende, Frans Malherbe, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff and Wilhelm van der Sluys.
And that, the fact that their team is so clearly building, is the thought WP fans should console themselves with as their teams head into a final in which the Sharks start as overwhelming favourites. In a way WP have got themselves into a situation they might have envied before one of their previous playoff games as the Stormers in Super Rugby or Province in the Currie Cup.
For once they do not start as favourites, not even in the eyes of the notoriously arrogant and over-expectant Cape media. And it is for good reason that they are the underdogs. If there is anyone who disagrees with that view, just go through the respective teams and try pick out the areas where WP may be superior.
Perhaps second row, where the Super Hero proportioned Eben Etzebeth has done well in his first season of senior rugby to give the impression that he might just be more of a rugby great in the making than Bakkies Botha was. But even there, with Steven Sykes back and Anton Brelser rapidly growing in stature for the Sharks and Andries Bekker out for WP, you can’t really risk your house on a bet that the visitors will come out on top in the head-to-head confrontation.
Starting at fullback, where Louis Ludik is looking every bit the Springbok that some would like him to be, the Sharks just have better players than WP, and crucially they also have more depth. Ludik, JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo make up a formidable back three, Tim Whitehead and Paul Jordaan are happening as a centre combination, and Pat Lambie and Cobus Reinach don’t have any peers, at least not in this country, as halfbacks.
The Sharks could probably select two different loose-trios that might be, on paper at least, better than the one that WP will send into the field.
Certainly it’s hard to imagine that if Jean Deysel lived in Durbanville rather than Durban, he would be playing this final off the bench. And then we come to the front-row, where the Sharks boast grizzled, gnarled old veterans against a trio that in rugby terms pack a lot of promise but are only just coming out of puberty.
Top that all off with the impression that the Sharks, since the middle stages of the Super Rugby season, have looked more comfortable with their game-plan, and their ability to adapt that plan to suit different conditions, and you understand why it can be said that even if someone handcuffed all the Sharks players together, Province would still have to play well to win.
Unlike the Sharks, WP are heading into this game looking under-strength.
While this is a full-strength phase of the domestic competition, injuries have seen to it that they start on Saturday looking more a development team than the one that you would expect to start next year in Super Rugby.
Jean de Villiers, Dewaldt Duvenage, Siya Kolisi, Schalk Burger, Nizaam Carr, Rynhardt Elstadt, Bekker, Tiaan Liebenberg…do you need any more names to be convinced of the point?
And yet, for all that, while you wouldn’t expect WP to win when faced with those facts, even the most passionate Sharks fans are having their enthusiasm tempered by the thought that they just might. For a start, the world-class WP winger Bryan Habana has been a party pooper at Kings Park before, with the surreal silence that engulfed the stadium after his winning try for the Bulls in the 2007 Super Rugby final being remembered in Durban in the same way that the 1987 Helderberg air-crash is.
Gio Aplon can also hurt an opposing team if the game is close going into the final 10 minutes, and ditto for Juan de Jongh and WP’s feared driving maul. Just ask the downcast Lions about the latter.
And if you want a pointer on how Province can win, you don’t need to look any further than the Super Rugby match at Loftus between the Bulls and Stormers back in May. The Bulls dominated that game, but the Cape team’s simple refusal to lose, plus Habana’s magical finishing ability, ended up triumphing against a side that made too many mistakes.
It can happen, but I don’t expect it to. The smart money has to be on the Sharks adding a third Currie Cup title to the two that John Plumtree’s coaching team have already snared. And while WP can be expected to be competitive for much of the way, it would be a surprise if in the end the hosts don’t do it with something to spare. This one really is the Sharks' to lose.
Sharks: Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Tim Whitehead, Lwazi Mvovo, Patrick Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Keegan Daniel (capt), Willem Alberts, Marcel Coetzee, Anton Bresler, Steven Sykes, Jannie du Plessis, Craig Burden, Beat Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Jandre Marais, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Meyer Bosman, Odwa Ndugane.
DHL Western Province: Gio Aplon, Gerhard van den Heever, Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Demetri Catrakilis, Nic Groom, Duane Vermeulen, Don Armand, Deon Fourie (capt), De Kock Steenkamp, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Deon Carstens, Brok Harris, Wilhelm van der Sluys, Jebb Sinclair, Louis Schreuder, Marcel Brache, Joe Pietersen.
Referee: Jaco Peyper.
Prediction: Sharks by more than 7.