Sharks unleash big-stage Boks in ‘home’ semi-final

MAKAZOLE Mapimpi and Ox Nche’s experience on the big stage will be important for the Sharks against Clermont in their Challenge Cup semi-final. Shutterstock

MAKAZOLE Mapimpi and Ox Nche’s experience on the big stage will be important for the Sharks against Clermont in their Challenge Cup semi-final. Shutterstock

Published May 4, 2024


THE beauty of sport is that the difference between success and failure is as thin as a razor blade. Ask the Sharks before their Challenge Cup semi-final against Clermont today (1.30pm kick-off).

If the Sharks get past the French Top 14 side and then clinch the final against the winner of the Gloucester-Benetton play-off on the same day, the 2023/24 season will be regarded as a great one in Sharks history.

But if they perish in the Challenge Cup, this season will be seen as an epic failure for a squad packed with World Cup winners finishing in the nether regions of the United Rugby Championship and not winning a cup competition that is a poor relation to the Champions Cup.

Also, the Sharks would be condemned to another season in the Challenge Cup and adrift of Europe’s top table.

Will they be heroes or villains? Two wins and the Sharks will be in the former category and The Tank will have its first silverware since 2018 when the Currie Cup was won.

That is a long time between celebration drinks for the proud Durbanites, but if you look at their line-up for today’s game, you have to back them to come right.

Clermont will be looking at the Sharks pack and thinking, ‘This is not far off the lot that beat our national team in the World Cup quarter-final’.

Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, Vincent Koch and Eben Etzebeth are colossal players and have enormous big-stage experience.

And in the backline there are two key double World Cup winners in skipper Lukhanyo Am and wing Makazole Mapimpi, as well as a squad member from the most recent World Cup triumph, scrumhalf Grant Williams, slotting into the No 9 jersey.

Unfortunately, another Springbok scrumhalf, Jaden Hendrikse, has not been considered because of injury.

The same goes for Coenie Oosthuizen, Curwin Bosch, Dylan Richardson and George Cronje.

Opposite the Sharks is a composite team of international stars. You could call them the Harlem Globetrotters. They have Wallabies lock Rob Simmons, Tonga international George Moala, France flyhalf Anthony Belleau, Argentine internationals Tomas Lavinini, Bautista del Guy and Marcos Kremer, plus burly Fiji wing Alivereti Raka, whom Mapimpi will mark.

Sharks coach John Plumtree says he is hopeful that the neutral territory of The Stoop in London will diffuse some of the bang packed by Clermont.

“They can be unplayable at their home ground,” Plumtree said.

“They love continuity in their game and they do it by winning collisions and off-loading skilfully. They can butcher teams when they get a good flow in the game.

“It is the level of challenge you expect at the semi-final stage,” the coach continued.

“But we have a have a lot of confidence in our pack and we are hoping the neutral ground will take out some of their sting.”

Plumtree joked that Hollywoodbets Kings Park would be the “first prize” for hosting the French side, but he added that the Sharks’ marketing team had put a lot of work into drawing a crowd to the London venue.

“Win or lose, we fly home a few hours later after a three-week tour and we are looking forward to that, but first we have a job to do. There is a massive carrot to winning this game, and the next one.

“It is encouraging to see how our senior players are getting excited about the opportunity to play in a final. They are stepping up and the other players are following them.

"We left them – Etzebeth, Mbonambi, Nche et al – at home for the first week of the tour with the idea of them being fresh for this week, and they are. They have been excellent in getting the team prepared as best as it can be. And if your prep is 100 percent, the result usually takes care of itself.”