Triumph for determination, youthful energy
There was plenty of mention of class and depth in the build-up to the weekend’s Absa Currie Cup final in Durban, but what quickly became apparent from the middle stages of the match was the role that determination, a strong thirst for revenge and good old fashioned guts can play in deciding the result.
What was also neglected was the role that youthful energy is playing in driving success in decisive games in modern rugby. It happened last year when a more experienced Sharks team were comprehensively outplayed by the Lions in Johannesburg, and as this more recent game was played in Durban, the result was as big a shock, particularly as the hosts did not have the excuse this time that their Springboks were smarting from a World Cup exit.
Sharks coach John Plumtree admitted that his team were out-passioned and for once the suggestion that the opponents, Western Province, just wanted it more, was not just another hoary old cliché.
“They had the intensity for the full 80 minutes and we didn’t so full marks to Western Province,” said Plumtree after watching his team lose 25-18 in the latest in a line of famous upsets in the domestic decider.
It wasn’t as if Plumtree had been completely oblivious to the possibility of such a result. He had departed from his usual script in his pre-match speech of building the players up by bluntly reminding them that they hadn’t won anything yet and of what had happened when he was part of a Natal team that beat a heavily favoured Northern Transvaal team at Loftus in 1990.
But being forewarned doesn’t always mean you’re forearmed and his team may not have been helped by the way the final played out in the first 30 minutes exactly how it was expected to. The Sharks led 12-3, and were dominant in most aspects of the game, with just determined, dogged defence preventing them from putting WP away.
WP's refusal to lose though was something we had seen before this season when they played as a depleted Stormers team against the Bulls in Pretoria in Super Rugby and those of us who remembered that started to foresee the possibility of one of those weird results. What no-one could have foreseen, however, was how emphatically WP took control of the game once moment of sheer individual brilliance had swung it their way.
Suddenly, in the space of 10 minutes, a nine point Sharks lead was a four point deficit, and even with a full 40 minutes to go the way that WP appeared to have grown an extra arm and a leg made the prospect of an upset a strong one.
WP simply applied the time-worn methods that have won finals down the years, and by attacking the Sharks in the set-pieces, they dished out the medicine that they had been given in a Super Rugby semifinal just three months previously.
“We just couldn’t win any lineout ball and that just made it impossible for us to get any momentum. They took us on in the set-pieces and it prevented us from getting the platform we needed to launch for victory. It was bitterly disappointing as we have now lost three finals in a row,” lamented Plumtree.
And yet the Sharks have also won two Currie Cup finals in the last four years, something that WP hadn’t done for a long 11 years, and that whole aspect of one team having a monkey on the back and the other not proved significant.
WP were driven by the hurt of an abjectly disappointing semifinal defeat to these same opponents that was fresh in the memory, as well as what they interpreted to be some ill-advised public pronouncements from the Sharks after they were defeated in the 2010 final at the same venue.
Not that this was the same WP team that lost then, and while Province coach Allister Coetzee was right afterwards to laud his team’s family spirit, trust in one another and sense of togetherness, one thing he got horribly wrong at the post-match press conference and no-one checked him on was his facts.
“Three years ago we also brought three teams here (for finals day) and we all lost,” said Coetzee.
Wrong. Three years ago the only team that actually lost was his one. The under-19s and under-21s both won their respective finals against the Bulls, and a significant proportion of Saturday’s winning senior team were part of those victories.
So the monkey on the back that might have weighed down more experienced players who were absent didn’t do so for Scarra Ntubeni, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Wilhelm van Sluys, Louis Schreuder, Nic Groom, Steven Kitshoff and Damian de Allende, all of whom have flown to Durban and won deciding games before.
Coetzee’s team showed in winning that they had learned from previous playoff defeats, but he also won’t be foolish enough to read too much into the victory. The victory was a good Currie Cup effort from a good domestic quality side, but ultimately the reason it was such a shock was that the vanquished team is undeniably of Super Rugby quality.
What happened to the much vaunted Sharks pack when the challenge was laid down to them? Why is it that in the midst of great winning runs they keep stumbling against teams that they should easily beat, as they did when they lost to the Lions in a crucial Super Rugby match in Johannesburg?
Figure that one out and Plumtree would have found the key to winning Super Rugby, for his team has the depth to do that, and Saturday’s result doesn’t change that.
If you look at the list of domestic winners in South Africa and New Zealand in the past 16 years and compare it to the winners of the main event, Super Rugby, you will notice there isn’t much correlation. And this defeat should get rid of any Sharks complacency and make them more determined. If it means they come out at the start of Super Rugby in February with more intensity, this defeat may be a good thing.
Plumtree has some important players to absorb back into his system before then, and Ryan Kankowski was missed for his lineout yeomanship, Bismarck du Plessis for his aggression and Frans Steyn for his X-factor. They will all be there in Super Rugby.
Coetzee though has a different challenge to face -- he does need his senior players because the unit that won the Currie Cup can’t be expected to do the same a level up, but he should also be wanting to retain aspects of the culture that has been developed by the young players who went through an important barrier for him two days ago.