Western Province are “proper Currie Cup champs”, said a beaming Allister Coetzee after his team had broken an 11-year trophy drought by bringing the Currie Cup back to Cape Town.
It was like an old horror movie re-run for Province in the first half at Kings Park, with the Sharks running out into a 12-3 lead within the opening half-hour. That has been the problem in many previous playoff games for the Stormers and WP – allowing the opposition to build a lead, which makes it extremely difficult to come back by playing “catch-up rugby”.
But this Cape side have been through it all this season. There was the heartbreak of the Super Rugby semi-final defeat to the self-same Sharks at Newlands, the loose forward crisis ... in fact, one huge injury crisis after the other.
It continued during the last few weeks, with first Andries Bekker and Tiaan Liebenberg going down, and then captain Jean de Villiers the Wednesday before last week’s semi-final.
All those experiences have steeled Coetzee, skipper Deon Fourie and the players, and they called on that tenacious spirit to come back and win Province’s first Currie Cup title since 2001.
“It was about having been in a similar position before – trust yourself, back yourself. We lost 26-20 in the league game here, and we came back in the latter stages of the game. It was just perhaps a few 50-50 calls that didn’t go our way, so we felt that we shouldn’t force it or look for turnovers. Just do the basic things better,” Coetzee said about the comeback, sparked by Juan de Jongh’s stunning try just before halftime.
“Later in the first half, we had a bit of ball and put some phases together, and we saw that we put them under pressure with ball-in-hand. Halftime in the change room, the whole feeling was that ‘This is ours’. It is an old cliché – go out, it’s 0-0 and 40 minutes left to play. Just do the basics right, and c’mon boys, let’s be more accurate.”
An injury disaster had struck once more during the final, when Bryan Habana went off with a knee injury. “I don’t want to sound clever and say that we’re used to that, but we lost Jean on the Wednesday already, and Tiaan and Andries. In Super 15, we lost top players, and just the fact that we’re backing the youngsters. We’ve got a plan and they know their roles and responsibilities, so they must just play,” Coetzee remarked.
It was a thrilling finish at the end, with the Sharks running from their own 22 in the final minute, going all the way to Province’s 22. Replacement hooker Kyle Cooper lost the ball as the Durban side desperately tried to force the game into extra time, but it was not to be this time for Keegan Daniel’s team. Coetzee also finally won his first tournament as coach since moving to Cape Town in 2008.
“The most important thing was taking the opportunities. Last week, we stood in a circle and said ‘That wasn’t the final. There’s something missing here’. We were in a little huddle, and the cup was still missing. So, we didn’t celebrate too hard, as there was one big one up at Kings Park. The commitment and obviously brotherhood ... You talk about families and those kinds of things, but if you don’t trust your players and they don’t trust each other, then there’s no family,” Coetzee said.
“That trust again came out strongly – trust in Demetri, the trust in little Nic Groom, the trust in Damian de Allende, who’s been written off. How can you play a youngster at 12 in a final? And all these youngsters, with an average age of 23, and 21 in the pack, would never survive ... But one thing is that when you trust players, and they are committed to the cause, they produce at the end of the day.
“We knew our desire would definitely be much more in the final. The big thing is that we are proper Currie Cup champs. We’ve been number one in the (Super Rugby) conference, then they say ‘No, that’s not the Currie Cup’. And now we’ve won the Currie Cup with a young side!”
Province adopted a more attacking mindset during the Currie Cup, and played some wonderful rugby. With the wet conditions on Saturday in Durban, they kept it tight with the forwards for long periods, but did try to make use of their backs.
Coetzee said he was satisfied with the progress of Province’s attack, as well as their discipline despite referee Jaco Peyper making a number of debatable decisions. “We had to make our own luck. Instead of waiting for (the referee’s decisions to go your way), keep grafting. Don’t wait for the ref, or for 50-50 calls to go your way. You’ve got to continue playing – that’s what our okes did very well. We were not in the ref’s face about calls; we left it for Deon to do that. Eventually, the bounce of the ball, the right decisions were taken at the right time,” he said.
“It is special to win the trophy. Every team needs to do that at some stage, just to kick on and get over the tipping point. We were made out to be a bunch of individuals the last time we were here; and also against the Lions (in 2011), we were a bunch of individuals. But we showed as a team how special it can be.
“I would say yes, we are very pleased with (the attack). All finals are normally won on strong defence still, and a great territorial mindset, but we knew that the Sharks would out-kick us in terms of distance. That’s why we kicked contestable kicks, and the plan is in our DNA – you okes give us hell in Super Rugby for kicking and defending, and just winning and winning and no bonus points!
“But when you come out here and it’s wet conditions, it’s not something you need to adjust to. We also knew that you cannot win top games just by kicking and defending. Somehow, you have to put pressure on the opposition with ball-in-hand, and I thought that we did that. We were just a bit unlucky not to get more penalties in that attacking zone.
“And using our advantage is one area we need to take a step forward in. Once you get the penalty advantage, you need to keep attacking until you score the try. But they transgressed again, and there I felt a different ruling could’ve been made. I think the balance was quite good in this game.”