A coveted trophy is at stake tomorrow night

2010-05-13 00:00

NOT many people know this, but the Sharks and the Western Force, down at numbers nine and 12 on the Super 14 log, will be playing for a coveted trophy at King’s Park tomorrow night.

The big prize up for grabs is the Hawera Cup and the two coaches, the Sharks’ John Plumtree and John Mitchell of the Force, are desperate to get their hands on it.

“This,” says Plumtree, tongue firmly in his cheek, “is the most important game of the season, no doubt.”

The Hawera Cup has a long history, but little is known about it, possibly because the competition involves two New Zealand-born coaches rather than a host of rival teams.

The 45-year-old Plumtree and Mitchell, who is a year older, were both born in the small town of Hawera in Taranaki, New Zealand.

“John left Hawera when he was nine,” says Plumtree, “but I stayed until I was 21 and it was only much later that we became really good friends.”

Plumtree, a New Zealand trialist while playing for Taranaki, finally opted for the bright lights and moved to Durban — where he met his future wife — in 1988. Coach Ian McIntosh quickly selected him on the flank and he played 80 games for Natal, won two Currie Cup medals (in 1990 and 1996) and was selected for the Springbok Sevens side that played in Hong Kong in 1994.

Plumtree took up coaching and moved to Wales after retiring from the game in 1997 and won a string of trophies in his five years with Swansea before returning to New Zealand in 2001.

Mitchell, meanwhile, was following a similar career path. A tall loose forward, like Plumtree, Mitchell was a prominent member of Waikato provincial team, and led them from 1991-95 before starting his coaching career in the UK. In 2001 he was appointed All Black coach and he had Plumtree and current Wallaby coach Robbie Deans on his staff.

Mitchell was forced to walk the plank when New Zealand failed, again, at the Rugby World Cup in 2003 and was appointed the Western Force Super 14 coach in 2005. With Plumtree taking over the Sharks’ job from Dick Muir in 2008, the two were back in direct competition.

“We have coached teams against each other in New Zealand, the UK and now the Super 14,” says Plumtree. “And so we have our Cup and it is very real. We are good mates, but that just adds to the rivalry.”

Plumtree says that after the Sharks had beaten the Stormers last Saturday he had told his players to keep their feet on the ground.

“I told them no celebrations, no beers, early night. Big game on Friday, I said. Hope they listened.”

Plumtree is the current holder of the Hawera Cup after the Sharks beat the Force 22-10 last year and he could hold the bragging rights for many years if his Sharks win tomorrow.

Mitchell has resigned from his difficult Perth job after five years and this Durban game will be his last in charge of the Force. The clash tomorrow night might well be the last time that Plumtree and Mitchell play for the sought after Hawera Cup.

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