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Cup to spend Christmas in Durban

My newspaper preview on the morning of the 2010 Currie Cup final ended with a prediction that the trophy would spend Christmas in Durban. This year, it isn’t necessary to leave such predictions until match day. Like me, the Currie Cup is set to spend December gathering rust in the KZN humidity.

Maybe there is just the slightest hesitation now that Western Province, and not the Lions, are playing in the decider. The Lions, as they showed last year, can win a home final, but I wasn’t sure they would be competitive against the Sharks in Durban. To be honest, I am not sure WP will be competitive either, but I just think they may have more chance to be, given the experience they have in their team.

And then there is the strong drive that WP must have to break their trophy drought. The Currie Cup isn’t what it used to be, and it is farcical to end with a full-strength play-off round when 90 percent of the league phase was played under-strength, but it is important to a Cape rugby fan-base that has started to develop an inferiority complex (they try to keep it hidden by bravado, but don’t be fooled!).

Last year the reaction to WP’s defeat in the semifinal was disproportionate to the event. It was a World Cup year, after all, and WP provided more World Cup players than most. But the outcry reflected the desperation of WP fans, and that desperation is going to be there until such time they can at last boast a meaningful trophy locked away in the Newlands cabinet.

So there will be a lot of drive from WP’s side, and if anyone is going to beat the Sharks on their home ground in a final, it is them. But it’s highly unlikely to happen, and to be truthful, I don’t want it to happen either. I have two reasons for that – one of them being the converse of what made me want the Stormers to win the Super Rugby semifinal between the same teams.

Firstly, the Sharks hadn’t even finished in the top four of Super Rugby, while the Stormers had topped the log. Having the top team knocked out by a middle-of-the-table finisher made a mockery of the 16-match league season. But now the roles are reversed, and it is the Sharks who are not only the form team of the Currie Cup, they are also the best team. They showed that by convincingly topping the final log, while WP could only finish third. Province also lost as many games as they won during the league phase of competition, which to me is not the making of a champion team.

The second reason why I would like to see the Sharks cap off their season with a deserved trophy comes down to coaching and player management. John Plumtree has clearly learned from mistakes in past years and the way he has phased his Springboks back in has been spot on.

WP coach Allister Coetzee last week spoke about how much he rated Marcel Brache and Scarra Ntubeni and trusted them to do the business for him in a semifinal. But they were only playing because of injuries, and he did not display the same confidence when he rushed Jean de Villiers into playing ahead of Brache even when it was clear that the national captain was struggling with a hamstring injury.

There have been whispers that Coetzee might be hoping that De Villiers has made a miraculous overnight recovery that will enable him to line up on Saturday, but hopefully those are just baseless rumours. It would make no sense, given the risk it would entail and the WP line, repeated often until suddenly it was forgotten a few weeks ago, that the Currie Cup is about building for Super Rugby.

WP can gain more from having Brache get the experience of playing in a final than they would from having De Villiers – who has played in umpteen tests and big games – in the team.

And that’s where Plumtree has got it completely right. When he said he was backing the youngsters he had brought through in the Currie Cup, there was nothing hollow or contortionist about what he was saying. He has selected almost every one of his newcomers into the starting team for the semifinal win over the Bulls, and if you consider the money the Sharks risked losing if they didn’t host this final, that’s quite a lot of faith.

That didn’t mean the Sharks’ Boks were ignored completely. Those, like Patrick Lambie, who did not play that much in the Rugby Championship, went straight back into the starting line-up. But Jean Deysel’s strong contribution for the Sharks in the Currie Cup was rewarded by him wearing the No 7 ahead of Willem Alberts, and ditto Dale Chadwick ahead of Beast.

Instead of just talking about Currie Cup being a stepping stone for Super Rugby, Plumtree has backed up his words with his selections, and on that basis he deserves to end this domestic season with his third Currie Cup title.

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