Sharks makes history with Challenge Cup triumph

Hollywoodbet Sharks’ Phepsi Buthelezi celebrates scoring a try during the EPCR Challenge Cup final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London. | BackpagePix

Hollywoodbet Sharks’ Phepsi Buthelezi celebrates scoring a try during the EPCR Challenge Cup final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London. | BackpagePix

Published May 25, 2024


IT WAS only two months ago that the Sharks were on life support in the United Rugby Championship but they have pulled themselves up by their boot laces to become the first South African team to win a European Cup competition, defeating Gloucester 36-22 in last night’s Challenge Cup final at the magnificent Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium.

Silverware is coming home from London to Durban and Sharks fans will scarcely believe it given that it was not long ago that their team had lost 10 of their first 11 URC games.

But all along coach John Plumtree has said that he has been working on getting his players and fellow coaches aligned in how he wants them to play.

We have seen that now in vivid technicolour and it suggests the Sharks are going to flourish next season, notably in the Champions Cup that is their big reward for winning this final.

This was the Dance of the Desperates given that both teams had sunk without trace in their respective leagues but had found a lifeline in the Challenge Cup, the European knockout competition that runs concurrently with the United Rugby Championship and the English Premiership.

In the former competition the Sharks are 13th out of 16th while Gloucester finished second last in England, so this final was about redemption.

The opening ten minutes was an avalanche of attacks from the Cherry and Whites and it was a miracle that they did not score. The nervy Sharks were all over the place and they conceded four penalties in six minutes, including a yellow card to fullback Aphehele Fassi who was pinned for a high tackle.

Gloucester, cheered on by the vast majority of the 65 000 crowd, looked assured of a try and in one instance, centre Louis Hillman-Cooper stretched to within a millimetre of the line only to be thwarted by the sweeping arm of Eben Etzebeth, who scooped the ball away.

The Sharks hung in and the momentum turned in the 13th minute when their scrum scorched forward to earn the first of what would be a series of scrum penalties.

The confidence of the Durbanites soared through the London air and the wind sunk from the sails of the Englishmen as their worst fears were confirmed — they had no answer to the World Cup winning front row of Vincent Koch, Bongi Mbonambi and Ox Nche.

Siya Masuku, the find of the season for the Sharks, nailed the penalty with wobbly curvy kick that ultimately bisected the posts, and the Sharks were away.

It was a telling moment — the Sharks had been on the ropes and taken the best that Gloucester could dish out and then hit back and scored the first points of the match.

The Englishmen equalised a few minutes later via a mammoth 50m penalty by scrumhalf Caolan Englefield but it was shrugged off by the Sharks in magnificent fashion

It was in the 25th minute that Phepsi Buthelezi threw his hat into the Springbok ring for the vacant No 8 position when he stormed through the Gloucester defence from 40m out to score an outstanding try.

The scrum penalties kept coming and by half time the unerring boot of Masuku had converted that dominance into a healthy 16-3 lead.

It had been a half from the Sharks that confirmed they have one of the best packs in the world when they are at full strength and memorable moments included Koch celebrating his scrumming prowess with a an open field kick that earned his team a 50-20 lineout throw-in, plus brilliant breakdown turnovers by loose forwards Vincent Tshituka and James Venter.

Unsurprisingly,Gloucester changed their front row at half time but they were like a lost boy whistling in the wind.

The second half saw the Sharks score tries by Fassi and Mapimpi, who was on th end of a wonderful cross kick from Masuku.

Gloucester showed their class with two tries at the end but it was too little too late.


Sharks — Tries: Phepsi Buthelezi, Aphehelle Fassi, Makazole Mapimpi. Penalties: Siya Masuku (5). Conversions: Masuku (3).

Gloucester —Tries: Albert Tuisue, George McGuigan, Freddie Clarke. Penalties: Caolan Englefield. Conversions: Englefield(2).