Sharks to seal the deal

2012-10-27 00:00

THE cards are heavily stacked in favour of the Sharks in the Currie Cup final at King’s Park this evening, but coach John Plumtree has warned his players and a buoyed rugby public that Western Province will prove the most dangerous of opponents.

Home ground advantage, recent history, current form and team personnel all suggest that the Sharks will prevail and that tonight Plumtree and his charges will be celebrating their third Currie Cup title win in five years. The table-heading Sharks’ recent Currie Cup record is remarkable. They have topped the final log four times in five years and have lost just one Currie Cup match in Durban in three years.

This year they have beaten all South African opposition in Super Rugby and Currie Cup games in Durban and a week back they advanced to this final with an emphatic 20-3 win over the Blue Bulls.

Western Province have see-sawed through the Currie Cup season and squeaked into the final with a last-gasp try against the Golden Lions. And, as they are painfully reminded at every turn, they have not won any silverware in 11 years.

They have also been decimated by injury with as many Springboks among their walking wounded as there are taking the field today. Coach Allister Coetzee has turned to the youth to plug gaps and he has six U21 players in his match day squad.

Plumtree, in contrast, has had the luxury of adding Springboks, and experience, to his potent mix and at his own pace. He has 13 internationals in his squad, with nine of them starting. This week he beefed up his pack with prop Tendai Mtawarira, hooker Craig Burden, lock Steven Sykes and flank Willem Alberts.

What is extraordinary is that after a marathon campaign of Super Rugby, the Currie Cup and, for some, nine Test matches, Plumtree has close to a full-strength squad, with only Springboks Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn sidelined by injury.

This all sounds ominous for Province, but Coetzee would have pointed out that rugby matches are decided in 80 minutes, between four lines and on grass (or in King’s Park slush) rather than on paper.

Coach Coetzee has all week been happy to promote the Sharks as the overwhelming favourites.

Indeed, he has milked the situation, knowing that being dismissed as no-hopers provides his young side with their best possible chance of rattling the Sharks’ cage and causing a major upset.

The young Province side will arrive at King’s Park loaded with enthusiasm, but little expectation. With little to lose, they know can turn their season around and make a piece of history with an 80-minute, guts-and-glory display.

And, interestingly, Coetzee yesterday changed his tune, talking up the inclusion of the young and powerful Damian de Allende at centre and adding that he was quietly confident of an upset win.

“We back ourselves to win,” he said. “It’s about getting the preparations spot-on and sticking to the game plan. The only thing that counts in a final is what happens on the day, so we see it as a 50/50 game.”

The pressure will certainly be on the Sharks. Loaded with World Cup Springboks, they were heavily favoured to beat the Golden Lions last year, but went down limply in the final. Tonight the odds are even more in their favour and they are on home turf. Defeat would be devastating.

Province certainly have strengths which will bother the Sharks. They have a superior lineout, drive effectively and Springboks Duane Vermeulen and Eben Etzebeth add a hard, physical edge to their pack.

Plumtree also warned that WP are loaded with “X-factor” players like Bryan Habana, who can turn a tight game with a flash of brilliance or an interception.

Still, most of the advantages lie with the Sharks. They have a Springbok-dominated scrum and backrow, the composed Pat Lambie at flyhalf, a settled backline, a resolute defence, an influential bench and a coherent, astute game plan which exploits the talents of JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo and Louis Ludik rather than ignoring them.

The rain refuses to go away and that could prove a leveller with another wet night reducing the contest to a tactical kicking battle. But, either way, the Sharks appear to have all the bases covered. The Sharks have enjoyed an excellent year, laced with positive rugby, and the reward of the Currie Cup would be no more than they deserve.

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