DURBAN - In the colourful history of Currie Cup finals between the Sharks and Western Province one thing is evident - you are labelled favourites at your peril. And a look at the six finals since 2000 reveals that it is perhaps best not to win the last pool game between these teams because the loser has invariably gone on to win the final.
Prior to the dawn of professional rugby in 1996, there were two matches between Natal and Province, matches that were won by the favourites. In 1984, a B-Section Natal team captained by Wynand Claassen exceeded expectations when they narrowly lost 19-9 to a near-Springbok laden WP side; and then in 1995 Gary Teichmann’s team won in the rain at Kings Park.
But it was in 2000 that the rivalry between these sides exploded into life. That year, and in 2001, there were spiteful clashes between Rudolf Straeuli’s Sharks and Gert Smal’s WP, with the latter coach triumphant both times, first at Kings Park and then at Newlands.
In that first clash the Sharks forwards smashed their opposition but the fleet-footed WP backs did the damage on the scoreboard, with wings Pieter Rossouw and Breyton Paulse scoring three between them. The rival captains, Corne Krige and Mark Andrews, both of them tough warriors, got stuck into each other and until Andrews retired in 2003 the two had an entertaining war of words in the press before Super Rugby and Currie Cup matches.
But it often got ugly on the field. In those days, WP had a set plan (Krige years later admitted) to rile the Sharks on and off the field, in particular hot-headed forwards such as Andrews, Ollie le Roux and Chris Rossouw. It worked. It unsettled the Sharks.
In 2001, the Sharks had to play the final at Newlands without Andrews, who had pulled a calf muscle in his Captain’s Practice on the Friday. It was a pity from an entertainment point of view because the Bok lock was in a foul mood leading up to the match.
Finals footy at #DHLNewlands on Saturday and @Kumbby can't wait to get out there and soak up the vibe. Tickets from @Computicket. #wpjoulekkerding #TheFaithful #finalsfooty 🔵⚪️ pic.twitter.com/edj7zq9nx4
Not long before, the teams had met in a league game at Kings Park and Andrews had smashed Paulse about two minutes after he had passed the ball. Trevor Halstead did the same on the unfortunate wing.
WP were not amused and the Sharks were (quite rightly) accused of bully-boy tactics in the press. The Sharks countered with accusations of whinging, and the ill feeling got worked up to such an extent that a Durban BMW dealership bought advertising space on a huge highway billboard just outside the airport. It read: “Welcome to whine country!” But WP had the last laugh.
The Sharks had to wait eight years for their revenge and much of it was due to a brilliant man-of-the-match performance by a teenage Pat Lambie. His goal-kicking was immaculate, and there was the cheeky hand-off of Schalk Burger on his way to a try under the crossbar.
WP, captained by Jean de Villiers and boasting a number of Boks, were hot favourites to win that one, particularly after their form in the pool games and a big win over the Sharks. Sound familiar?
In 2012 there was a very different scenario going into the final. A powerful Sharks team had swept all before them in the league and were pretty much in the position WP were last week going into their semi-final against the Bulls.
WP really had no right to win given they were horribly under-strength because of injuries. And the Sharks dominated the first 30 but it was Juan de Jongh who suddenly turned on the flair and scored a brilliant try, while Demetri Catrikilis at flyhalf was nothing short of brilliant, especially with his place kicking.
In 2013, the Sharks had lost in Durban to WP in a pool match and had no price going to Cape Town for the final. That was the first year following the John Plumtree era and Brendan Venter coached the Sharks in a one-off arrangement. He master-minded a clever kicking strategy involving grubbers and chips that threw off the home team and the Sharks scored two intercept tries.
Incidentally one of them saw WP scrumhalf (and current Sharks captain) Louis Schreuder throw a pass intercepted by Charl Macleod, who scored a spectacular 70m try. Which bring us to 2017, and yet another final where the favoured home team lost to the visitors. So if you are a betting man and study trends, you would have to have a flutter on the underdog Sharks upsetting WP on Saturday...