When Jake White sits down to watch this evening’s Currie Cup final at Newlands, it won’t be surprising if he does so with a big smile on his face as he contemplates the prospect of coaching this group of Sharks players.
After this season, White will take over from outgoing director of rugby Brendan Venter, who has had the desired effect in refreshing the Sharks during his brief tenure. He has also added some new dimensions to their playing style.
This campaign has also seen the emergence of highly talented youngsters, such as Fred Zeilinga, Heimar Williams and Stephan Lewies, but the Sharks’ primary pre-season goal was always to win the Currie Cup.
The KwaZulu-Natal side are just one step away from exceeding many expectations by doing just that, and their chances of clinching what would be a famous victory have been significantly increased by their ability to field what is virtually a full-strength line-up.
Top national players such as “Beast” Mtawarira, the Du Plessis brothers, Willem Alberts, François Steyn and Pat Lambie will all have key roles to play, as will potential future Springbok stars Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marcell Coetzee.
But even though White will be licking his lips at the prospect of moulding a formidable Super Rugby side around this core of talent, the Sharks still head into this evening’s Currie Cup final as underdogs.
A well-balanced Western Province side who have gone unbeaten this season have also been bolstered by the return of some key Springboks, and they will be playing in front of a partisan crowd at a packed Newlands.
However, when discussing the match on SuperSport’s Boots&All rugby programme, former Sharks captains Stefan Terblanche and Gary Teichmann said it wasn’t always easy going into a final as home-ground favourites.
“The underdog tag takes quite a lot of pressure off the Sharks,” said Terblanche.
“Last year the Sharks were huge favourites at home, and that does add some extra pressure. You’re in front of your home crowd, you’ve done well all season, and you’re expected to win. Western Province are now carrying that tag of favourites at Newlands. They will be very tough to beat, but it can be done.”
Teichmann agreed that it was a massive, but not insurmountable, task for the Sharks.
“Looking back to the ‘90s, we went to Loftus and Ellis Park as underdogs and won there, so if they look at it like that and accept the challenge, then anything can happen in a final. The Sharks have done very well to get this far.”
Both the Sharks and Province boast particularly formidable packs, and it is the team that comes out on top in terms of the physicality stakes and battle up front that could well be the one lifting the historic golden trophy by the end of tonight.
However, if the packs achieve parity and lay down a solid foundation for their backs, a lot will revolve around the performance of flyhalf generals Pat Lambie and Demetri Catrakilis.
“Pat celebrated his birthday week with a man-of-the-match performance against the Cheetahs in the semi-final,” said Terblanche.
“We know what he is capable of, although unfortunately this year he has spent a lot of time on the bench for the Springboks. But to come into a semi-final and perform like that says a lot about the player and his big-match temperament.
“And in the final, the Sharks will be relying hugely on him, whether it’s to kick for the corners, kick the penalties, or whether it’s to guide the backs and forwards, and bring them all together.”
Opposite number Catrakilis has also proven himself to be a player for the big occasion.
“The one thing with Catrakilis is that you don’t want to give away any penalties, because he doesn’t miss,” Teichmann said.
“He may not give you the running option that Lambie does, but finals are about taking those opportunities. Whether it be three points or five points, you can slowly build up the pressure. That’s where he’s very dangerous.
“Province have just had a fantastic season, they’re a very well-balanced side with exciting backs that can turn a game on its head. They deserve to have the final at home, they’ve been good throughout the season.”
Terblanche, though, quite aptly summed up what it would take for the Sharks to win today’s final.
“One thing Brendan won’t do this week is leave any stone unturned. The Sharks will be well prepared and ready, but they have a proverbial mountain to climb, and we all know how high Table Mountain is…
“I’m saying this with my head, certainly not with my heart, but if you look at it from a rugby point of view, there is no reason for the Sharks to win this game, other than sheer determination, guts and a willingness to play for one other.” – Independent on Saturday