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Hot and cold through the ages

It was a sultry sub-tropical spring afternoon in 1984 and many of the Kings Park patrons thronging around the open air pub behind the stand at what was then known as the Umgeni End were both shirtless and in good voice.

The liquid was flowing and there was an atmosphere of anticipation. It made two elderly gentlemen dressed in Free State socks jerseys nervous. The one turned to the other as they started the climb back to their seats as the curtain-raiser headed towards its conclusion: “Ek het die gevoel iets eienaardig vandag kan gebeur” (my Afrikaans isn’t great but I understood that to mean “I have the feeling something strange is going to happen today”).

And it did. Natal, then languishing in the B Section of the Currie Cup and having had that status confirmed seven days earlier by a big defeat in a promotion/relegation game in Welkom, were imbued with the spirit of their supporters. They rose above themselves to thrash Free State 26-15 in a semifinal the visitors were expected to dominate.

It was one of the biggest shocks of that era of South African domestic rugby, so much so that it caused a crisis at the Western Province headquarters. WP were hosting the following week’s final and such was the expectation of a Free State win that the Newlands tickets had already been printed with the Free State name and emblem on them.

How did Natal, the forerunners of the Sharks, get to smash the A Section form team when just a week earlier they’d been thrashed comprehensively by the A Section wooden spoonists? There’s a television quiz show where one of the options that participants can choose when answering questions is “Nobody knows”. Nobody did know, and Wynand Claassens' Natal team pushed WP quite hard in that final too.

But that might not have been the most famous time that the Sharks (Banana Boys then) of that era pulled off the sort of turn-around in a week that the Proteas cricketers have just managed at Trent Bridge. In 1990 Craig Jamieson’s team were thumped 28-6 by Northern Transvaal (Blue Bulls) in Pretoria in their final Currie Cup league game.

They’d also been well beaten by the Bulls in Durban earlier in the season, so no-one gave them a chance in the final. That was particularly so because the Bulls had been so dominant in the one area of Natal strength, the set-scrums. But at the very first scrum of the game it became clear the game wasn’t going to go to script. The Bulls were pushed backwards and Natal ended up scoring their most famous win in their history as they clinched the Currie Cup for the first time in their centenary year.

Times have changed, identities have changed, and to some extent cultures have changed, yet the Sharks continue to hold onto their status as the team that blows hot and cold. It is the reason why Lions fans should perhaps be a lot more nervous about what might happen in Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby quarterfinal than they might think they should be. For if the Durban team does win, it will just be another in a long line of examples of them turning cold into hot and confounding the critics. Perhaps the most recent example was 2013, when they lost to WP in the final Currie Cup league game at Kings Park. They were playing the final in Cape Town so no-one gave them a chance. And yet the unpredictable happened, and their victory was by some distance.

It happened twice in different ways the year before that, 2012. In the Currie Cup final of that year WP benefited from the other side of the Sharks’ hot/cold dynamic when they won in Durban. Province were severely depleted and shouldn’t have come close against the Springbok-laden form team.

A few months before that though, in Super Rugby, the Sharks travelled back from a quarterfinal in Brisbane to win a Newlands semifinal no-one expected them to win. They had finished well down on the log that year and were sixth to the Stormers’ first. The Stormers had lost just two games in 14 in the regular season, whereas the Sharks had lost six. The Stormers were at home, the Sharks were playing away.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s not completely unlike this week. I doubt those two elderly Free Staters I observed at Kings Park in 1984 are still alive, but it is playoff time and if they were still around they might say “Iets eienaardig kan gebeur”. Like they did three years ago when they won in Christchurch with 14 men, the Sharks have often shown that anything is possible.

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