Durban – Nothing short of “daunting”. That is the word the Sharks’ coaching staff have used to describe the magnitude of the challenge ahead of them in Saturday’s Currie Cup final against Western Province at Newlands, and it is clear the visitors will happily cultivate the underdog tag in the build-up to the season finale.
Privately, the Sharks will back themselves to upset the unbeaten home team but publicly will be happy for the weight of expectation to rest with the hosts. Province are unbeaten this season, have won their last three Currie cup matches against the Sharks, and will have a full-house Newlands roaring them on.
The Capetonians famously won last year’s final against the Sharks in Durban and this season beat the Sharks home and away, the last victory being just two weeks ago and with that win in Durban came the handsome reward of topping the log and winning the right to have the final at Newlands.
“We had a chat in the changeroom after the Cheetahs game and the feeling is that while we are obviously delighted to have made the final, going to Newlands is a daunting task and we are going to have to improve in all aspects of our game,” said forwards coach Brad Macleod-Henderson.
There will be a full evaluation of the fitness of the players on Monday but it does not look good for blockbusting flanker Jean Deysel, who came off 20 minutes into the semifinal with a hamstring injury. He was replaced by Jacques Botes, who is half his size and plays a different game to the momentum-creating Deysel. Botes, the most experienced Currie Cup player of all time, would be likely to retain his place and would give the Sharks different options in the loose exchanges.
Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira is almost certain to be back, though, after having been a late withdrawal last week because of a bruised thigh muscle. Fellow prop Jannie du Plessis will not be as fortunate. The tighthead broke a bone in his hand in training last week and the hand is in a cast.
This week the Sharks cannot afford to start as slowly as they did against the Cheetahs and Macleod-Henderson said the lack of urgency in the first half an hour was a concern that had to be decisively addressed.
“We kicked too much ball away, we didn’t attack as we would have liked,” he said. “I’m not sure if the hesitancy was because we had been expecting rain all week, only for it to end up being quite a nice day for rugby.
“Whatever the reason, we started the game a bit flat, and that cannot happen in the final.”
Springbok back Patrick Lambie, who scored 23 points in total, was a key figure during a 10-minute period against the Cheetahs when he went over for a clever individual try and slotted over a conversion and two penalties.
“That (spell before half time) was crucial or us,” Macleod-Henderson said.