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Rugby | Currie Cup

Trophy 'massive' for new Sharks era

There have been good times and there have been bad times but Sharks wing Odwa Ndungane believes he is bowing out with the union that he has served so loyally since 2005 on an upward curve.

After featuring in a strong Super Rugby challenge that ended in injury time to a freakish Bryan Habana try in the 2007 final against the Bulls and a couple of successful Currie Cup campaigns, the time dating back to the departure of John Plumtree as coach halfway through 2013 wouldn’t have fitted into the general order of things that Ndungane would have become used to in Durban.

Yes, there was that epic Currie Cup final victory when Brendan Venter was playing an invisible (to the public) but guiding role behind the scenes in October 2013. That was the moment that Ndungane singles out as a career highlight as no-one gave that Sharks team much chance at Newlands. But even then the Sharks hadn’t achieved what they had before that. They went to Cape Town as underdogs after coming second on the Currie Cup log, whereas for a good couple of years before that they had ended top.

Subsequent to that there have been no trophies and very few appearances in any play-off games. Appearances in Super Rugby play-off fixtures have come about only because of the change to an extended play-off system that sees the top eight teams in action and a quarterfinal round being played. In the Currie Cup, the Sharks have struggled to even make the top four, and have fallen short over the past few seasons.

But that has changed and Ndungane, now 36 and 249 games on from making his debut for the Durban union after arriving from Border via a season with the Bulls, is signing off his career with the team back on an upward curve. Not only have they topped the log for the first time since 2012, they did it by some distance, with this week’s final league game, which doubles as Ndungane’s tribute match, effectively being a dead rubber fixture.

“If you look at the talent coming through, the likes of Curwin Bosch, the Du Preez twins, Sbu Nkosi, Jeremy Ward, there are so many young players coming through who can carry the baton forward,” said Ndungane.

“And if you add in a few older heads like Keegan Daniel, Tera Mtembu, Ruan Botha and Michael Claassens, there is a really good mix. The future looks bright and the big thing is to keep this group together as long as possible. The Currie Cup is massive for us. If we can win it and take momentum into Super Rugby it will be a massive boost.”

It would indeed and the domestic competition was long ago targeted by Sharks coach Robert du Preez as an important stepping stone towards emulating what the Lions have done by rising from despair to become a top player in the southern hemisphere again. In 2015 the Lions won the Currie Cup as a prelude to two consecutive top-two finishes on the Super Rugby log and two consecutive appearances in the final. Du Preez would like to do something similar.

However, Ndungane is too experienced a player to get deflected from the process of taking each game as it comes, and while Saturday’s clash with Western Province will not mean anything for the Sharks’ log position, it is still being regarded as an important game.

“We want to go all the way this year and the last thing we want is to go into a semifinal having lost a game,” says Ndungane. “Fortunately we are in a unique position on the log in that we are under no pressure to make the semis so we can focus very much on improving on our last outing. We must keep on getting better and keep the momentum going.”

A Currie Cup trophy would be a fitting way for Ndungane, who has played nine times for the Springboks, to end a career that started with the Sharks when Kevin Putt, the then coach, asked him to move to Durban as long ago as 2005.

“I needed no second invitation,” recalls Ndungane. “The Sharks were my team when I was growing up in the Eastern Cape. In the first years of Super Rugby they had an alliance with Eastern Province, so they were the team I supported.”


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