CAPE TOWN – Last year, the Sharks topped the Currie Cup log and were unbeaten until Western Province overcame them in Durban during the round-robin stages before going on to beat them in the final at Kings Park as well. This year, it’s Province who are the team to beat and who will host the final on Saturday, and they’re also one-up on the Sharks after downing them 50-28 in Durban a few weeks ago.
So, as the two top teams from 2018 prepare for the ultimate rematch, we look at the two teams from then and now and, ultimately, what it’ll take to celebrate in Cape Town this weekend.
Battle of the 10s
While both teams will look very different to the ones that battled it out last year, the biggest change will be at No 10. Last season, Robert du Preez started at flyhalf for John Dobson’s team while Damian Willemse donned the No 15 jumper. And this time, Willemse is likely to pull the strings for WP (with SP Marais taking charge of the goal kicking) while Du Preez will be the Sharks’ chief decision-maker.
In their semi-final thriller against the Blue Bulls at Newlands, the Bulls’ linespeed did well to pile the pressure on WP, and Willemse’s attacking chances were also kept to a minimum thanks to the Pretoria side rushing up. It will be crucial that Province’s forwards provide the young pivot with front-foot ball to work his magic, while Du Preez will aim to ace his kicks at goal after an imperfect record in last year’s final.
Besides, if Marais’ eight-out-of-nine stat last weekend is anything to go by then the Sharks 10 won’t want to make any mistakes this time.
First-time tackles and set-piece supremacy
The Sharks, who were in the lead at half time in last season’s final, will need no reminding of the importance of making those first-time tackles and putting up a shove at the scrums. And given the quality both sides boast, slipping off tackles could be a very costly mistake.
Province’s scrum has been an absolute gem this season, and it’s also an area where they destroyed the Durbanites last year. More of that is an obvious must for Province, besides, they’ll want to produce a scrummaging performance to forget about their last pack-down against the Bulls in that semi...and an improved effort at the lineout as well to maximize their attacking chances.
The Sharks are no rookies when it comes to the set-piece either. If Wilco Louw just keeps doing his things then it could very well be another dominant performance from the defending champions.
The forwards that pack the biggest punch
Following their 35-32 semi-final win over the Bulls, Dobson said that the gainline battle will be a big factor in the final, especially given the Sharks’ big ball-carriers and their ability to get over there and keep the ball moving with offloads.
And while Province didn’t have the best time in that regard (gainline battle) against the Bulls, it will be interesting to see what tactics - and personnel - Dobson employs to allow his men to be the masters of the Du Preez twins. And then there’s the all-important breakdown battle.
Fire at the back ... And in the air
It’s well known what WP can do with ball in hand and the damage they can cause on the counter-attack. Aphelele Fassi has launched himself right up there with the Sharks’ other attacking threats with his brilliant chase-down on Aphiwe Dyantyi in their semi-final win against the Lions. But how the aerial contest goes will be another key difference.
Will Dillyn Leyds and co pass what could be an aerial onslaught? And will the Sharks be able to stop WP’s danger men in broken play?