DURBAN - Whatever the detractors have to say about the quality of the Currie Cup these days, nobody can argue that the correct protagonists have won through to Saturday’s final.
The Sharks and Western Province finished one and two on the standings after three months of campaigning between seven teams, hosted semi-finals and are deserved participants in what is shaping up to be a classic final.
The teams have taken markedly different routes to the final at Kings Park, and while Province will be underdogs, they bring with them the psychological advantage of being the only team to have beaten a full-strength Sharks team, and that happened to be just two weeks ago at the same venue.
Even in that game, the visitors seemed to be dead and buried after half an hour’s play but showed remarkable resilience (at a time when the Sharks mentally went to sleep), to easily win in the end, proving that anything can and sometimes does happen in a game of rugby.
The Sharks lost their very first game of the Currie Cup, but would not have been overly perturbed given that they were still playing Super Rugby back in July and sent a B team to Bloemfontein to play a full-strength Free State Cheetahs side, and were walloped 47-12.
Thereafter the Durbanites did not lose, racking up 10 wins in a row and getting incrementally better as the competition wore on.
It helped the Sharks’ cause that they were not crippled by national call-ups, but nothing should be taken away from the industry and commitment they put in on the training field, and in the matches in just about perfecting a game plan that suited them - a mixture of old school Sharks direct rugby delivered with bone-shaking physicality and a modern desire to use the ball when opportunity presented itself.
The Golden Lions never had a realistic chance given that their Currie Cup team bore almost no resemblance to their Super Rugby team and featured up to eight Under-21 players at one stage.
The Cheetahs were also doomed once the PRO14 kicked off and they had to field different squads in two competitions, while the Blue Bulls were always on the back foot after a disastrous Super Rugby campaign that continued into the Currie Cup and culminated in the sacking of coach Nollis Marais midway through the competition.
New coach John Mitchell did an excellent job in quickly transforming the way the Bulls attacked, but they are clearly a work in progress and whatever success Mitchell enjoyed in the second half of the Currie Cup was a bonus as he looks to make a decent fist of the Bulls in Super Rugby.
Griquas and the Pumas were willing and entertaining competitors, but ultimately did not have the depth to be much more than nuisance value towards the business end of the competition.
WP themselves did not have it all their own way over the last three months and at one stage where fighting for their lives in mid table.
They had to do this without key Super Rugby forwards in Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit, and have had more than their fair share of injuries, but they rallied and battled their way up the standings, eventually securing second place, thanks to that great win in Durban on 14 October.
The Capetonians have shown the fortitude and desire that is the hallmark of champion teams, but will that be enough to overcome a powerful Sharks side that has momentum on its side, self-belief and home-ground advantage?
We have two teams that play contrasting styles of rugby, two markedly different roads to the final, and each worthy of a place in the showpiece event.
WP will throw the kitchen sink at the Sharks on attack, while the home team will look to overpower the visitors up front to allow the composed Curwin Bosch to call the shots with his impressive game management.