CAPE TOWN – Where did it all go wrong for Western Province?
If you had to conduct a Currie Cup survey earlier this season to determine who everybody’s money was on to reign supreme in the domestic contest, Province would surely have had the most bucks behind them. By an overwhelming mile. It was their year, again.
John Dobson’s unit racked up the most points in the league stage (276) and conceded the least (113) - giving them an unmatched points difference of 163, while they scored 38 tries before they headed into the play-offs and leaked 16 - the lowest number in the competition.
Their attacking play - characterised by a pure and visible enjoyment of the rugby they had played up until they met the Blue Bulls at Newlands two weeks ago - was the most powerful fuel behind the massive success they achieved in the six league games. And another aspect at the core of all the good they did this season was their pack.
They just hit that balance perfectly.
They gave rugby traditionalists no scope to chuck in a negative comment or two about all the “sexy” rugby they played, because when it came to laying the platform with strong set-piece performances and getting the upperhand in the physical exchanges, they did that too. There was no BIG shortcoming.
They did it all.
Until it mattered.
Throughout the season, there was freedom and spark on attack, but there was no sign of those inspiring productions, or even the will to want to replicate it, in the final. Dobson said after the game they had perhaps lost their way, which was evident.
They were also bullied by the Sharks pack - something which would of course make any attempts with the ball just so much tougher.
Their lineout malfunction was a disaster on its own, and if anybody needed any explanation as to just why securing the ball from the set-piece is so important, they just had to look at WP on the day. They just couldn’t get going.
Defensively, that failed lineout performance also opened up the pressure valve even more, and the 2017 winners paid for it.
Throughout the season, Province were superb under the high ball, and a guy like Sergeal Petersen was especially lethal in terms of securing those kicks and following it up with devastating work. It was another flawed area at the weekend, and the decision to boot the ball - sometimes getting very little hang time and no distance in behind the defence - cost them dearly in terms of possession.
Some of the selections didn’t work either, particularly the decision to start Josh Stander at flyhalf and Damian Willemse at 12. Their most dangerous attacking weapon seemed confined to a physical, defensive and primarily distributing role in the most important game of the season for them.
The arrangement with the Springbok players didn’t help the hosts much. Playing in a final only hours before half of your run-on side have to hop onto a plane...how can this be beneficial to those who are supposed to be focused on the Currie Cup final, and that alone?
I’m not saying the End of Year Tour departure situation contributed to Province’s loss, they did enough on their own to ensure failure.
But to at least some extent it would have taken up some mental space. Again, Province were their own worst enemy. They should have stuck to the approach which made them the most dominant team of the 2018 season.
Their forwards should have manned up. They should have done way better at the lineouts. They should have respected the ball. And so you can go on...
But hopefully the 2018 final produced some lessons for the Cape side, lessons which will help them combine a scintillating season with the ultimate prize in 2019. After all, the pressure might have got to them, but they showed they sure can play the kind of rugby which doesn’t only look good, but is effective as well.
Next time they just need to stick to it