Durban – The final piece in the Sharks’ jigsaw puzzle for Saturday’s Currie Cup final at Newlands fell into place when Springbok prop Jannie du Plessis passed a fitness test and was included in the starting line-up to complete an extraordinary recovery from a broken bone in his hand.
The team is arguably the strongest the Sharks can muster with only injured Jean Deysel not available for selection, but when his replacement is a current starting Springbok of the calibre of Willem Alberts, it becomes just about irrelevant.
It is a formidable line-up that includes 10 Springboks, with six of them having been part of the recent Rugby Championship squad.
Four of the pack started in the Boks’ last match, against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, and Du Plessis’s inclusion means the Sharks boast the Boks’ starting front row.
By comparison, the host team have just five Boks, but they have form on their side, are playing before a packed Newlands, and they know how to win tight games.
If you include the Stormers’ run of wins in the latter stages of Super Rugby, the Cape team has won its last 16 matches, with the Currie Cup incarnation unbeaten in the competition.
In Currie Cup games, Province have won three in a row against the Sharks, going back to last year’s win in the final in Durban.
But it’s a different ball game now.
The Sharks are packed with players who have been tested in the white heat of Test rugby and know how to handle the pressure of a big game.
They certainly have the firepower up front to match the Province pack – only young locks Peet Marais and Pieter-Steph du Toit have not been capped at international level, although the latter was a member of the latest Bok squad.
The Sharks have been in a similar position before.
They had more or less the same side in 2011 when they were shocked by the Lions in the final, but the Bok players in the Sharks side were clearly jaded from their World Cup experience in New Zealand, which had ended just a week before.
The word from the Sharks camp is that it is a very different scenario this year, and the hunger of the senior players to upset the pundits who have written them off is well captured by Du Plessis’s desire to play in the final despite having a bone in his hand that is probably not fully healed.
He could easily have stepped back and saved himself for the Boks’ end-of-year tour.
His brother, Bismarck, is another who clearly wants to get stuck in on Saturday.
He declared himself “raring to go” after escaping a suspension in a judicial hearing earlier this week.
The Sharks have the big artillery to soften up Province, and if they can indeed match or beat the hunger of the home side they can upset the bookies, who have Province as favourites.
Cape Town is gripped with Currie Cup final fever.
The last time there was a final at Newlands was 12 years ago, when they beat the Sharks, funnily enough, 29-24.
They famously won at Kings Park last year with an under-strength team, and now they want to repeat the act in front of a sold-out Newlands.
In last year’s final, and indeed in the recent pool game at Kings Park, Western Province flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis ran the show, and it is up to the Sharks’ pack to ensure he does not get the front-foot ball to unleash his backs or to show off his quality kicking skills.
Similarly, Patrick Lambie hit sensational form for the Sharks in last week’s semi-final against the Cheetahs in his second game back from too much bench duty with the Boks, and he will relish quick ball from his forwards.
As Sharks forwards coach Brad Macleod-Henderson put it: “Rugby is a physical sport and winning the collisions is vital.
“Western Province have a quality, experienced pack, and some electrifying backs out wide. But we’re worrying about them as a team rather than individuals. “We just need to make sure that physically we will be up for it – no doubt we will be.”
If the desire is there deep down in their guts, the Sharks have the ammunition to fashion their own famous victory.