Better to be underdogs

2013-10-26 00:00

THE heavy artillery has been rolled out in the nick of time and provided the Sharks with a flicker of hope ahead of the Currie Cup final against fancied Western Province (WP) at Newlands this evening.

There are any number of reasons why Province are the firm favourites to retain the title they won as underdogs at King’s Park last year when they stunned the Sharks 25-18.

WP have a settled outfit, a strong set piece, a stingy defence, two of the Springboks’ more talented and combative forwards in Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen, the composed Jean de Villiers in midfield and elusive game-breakers out wide in Gio Aplon and Cheslin Kolbe. They have yet to lose in the Currie Cup this year and they beat the Sharks home and away by building on their superior scrum and lineout.

The Sharks, in contrast, have had a disrupted season with sweeping management changes off the field and players constantly rotated on it. Six days ago they suddenly had five Springbok forwards in doubt for the Newlands final and gleeful Province supporters were licking their chops.

But the gloom over King’s Park has lifted this week with three of the Bok forwards (Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira) passing through the medical tent on the way to rejoin the team. A fourth, influential hooker Bismarck du Plessis, somehow persuaded a judicial hearing that his tap dance on the chest of a Free Stater was an accident.

The Sharks now look formidable but the key to the final is whether their walking wounded are battle ready and can immediately play like Springboks.

Willem Alberts, big and powerful but back from a neck injury, will collide head-on with Vermeulen on the gain-line while prop Jannie du Plessis has to forget about the broken hand in his battle with Steven Kitshoff. The Sharks’ Test front-row, embarrassed by the Province laaities in Durban just a fortnight ago, have to impose themselves at scrum-time.

While the Sharks pack has been strengthened through the week, the mood in Cape Town remains upbeat and the media talk is that Province will win and in some style.

Which is exactly the way the Sharks would want it. Former Springbok captain Gary Teichmann said this week that the Sharks were always more of a threat when they were written off in Currie Cup finals.

The last time they won the trophy was in 2010 when they were the underdogs against Springbok-loaded Province. Rookie flyhalf Pat Lambie dominated the final and Alberts was in a rampaging mood in a 30-10 win.

Conversely, the Sharks have been at their worst when heavily favoured, shocked by the Golden Lions in the 2011 final and then Province in Durban last year when coach Allister Coetzee spoke of the mental advantage his players had enjoyed.

“It was beautiful, man. I really loved being the underdogs. The only ones who believed we could win this final were the players. We knew we had more desire than the Sharks,” he said.

Today, the roles are reversed and crowds will fill Newlands in anticipation of a Province triumph. The Sharks coaches are delighted and veteran flank Jacques Botes, playing off the bench this evening, said he hoped they could take advantage.

“We’ve been in that situation where people think you just have to turn up to win. I’m sure Province will be concerned about it and we’ll draw energy from that. The last two years we have been the favourites and it hasn’t always worked in our favour.”

The Sharks, under Brendan Venter, have played a far more tactical, territory-based game this season but the tactical kicking of halfbacks Lambie and Charl McLeod will have to be on the button tonight if they are not to be punished by the counter-attacking Aplon and Kolbe.

While there has been much hype about WP’s attack, it is their organised defence, and the boot of Demetri Catrakilis, which has kept them on the winning road. Indeed, Province are fifth in the number of tries scored (23) in the competition and only Griquas (17) scored fewer. The Sharks scored 28 tries and, together with Province, conceded the fewest (21).

The Sharks, if they are to prevail, have to shake up Province at forward, play in their faces, apply pressure, cut their space and make their tackles while ruthlessly taking their scoring chances.

Most of the advantages lie with hosts Province but the Sharks, as long shots, still have the tools to do the job — if the heavy machinery up front is in good working order.

TEAMS

Western Province: 15. Gio Aplon, 14. Gerhard van den Heever, 13. Jean de Villiers, 12. Damian de Allende, 11. Cheslin Kolbe, 10. Demetri Catrakilis, 9. Louis Schreuder, 8. Duane Vermeulen, 7. Siya Kolisi, 6. Deon Fourie (captain), 5. De Kock Steenkamp, 4. Eben Etzebeth, 3. Pat Cilliers, 2. Scarra Ntubeni, 1. Steven Kitshoff

Replacements: 16. Frans Malherbe, 17. Brok Harris, 18. Michael Rhodes, 19. Schalk Burger, 20. Nic Groom, 21. Kurt Coleman, 22. Juan de Jongh

Sharks: 15. SP Marais, 14. Odwa Ndungane, 13. Louis Ludik, 12. Francois Steyn, 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Patrick Lambie, 9. Charl McLeod, 8. Keegan Daniel (captain), 7. Willem Alberts, 6. Marcell Coetzee, 5. Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4. Peet Marais, 3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. Tendai Mtawarira

Replacements: 16. Kyle Cooper, 17. Wiehahn Herbst, 18. Stephan Lewies, 19. Jacques Botes, 20. Cobus Reinach, 21. Fred Zeilinga, 22. Heimar Williams.

Kick-off: 5.30 pm. Referee: Jonathan Kaplan.

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