Ice cold revenge

2008-10-24 00:00

REVENGE, we are told, is a dish best served cold, but the Sharks will take it any way they can when they face the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup final at King’s Park this evening.

It has been 12 years since the Sharks last won a trophy and four Currie Cup final losses between 1999 and 2003 — which earned them the label of chokers — were followed by defeat in the climax to last year’s Super 14.

The players, captains and coaches of both teams claim that the Super 14 final is now irrelevant, but try telling that to the Bulls and Sharks supporters.

That dramatic contest underlined the unpredictability of a final, particularly one played between two powerful, well-matched teams crowded with potential match-winners.

Sharks supporters, if they can turn their back on recent history, have reason to be optimistic.

Their team is astutely, sensibly coached and selected by John Plumtree, they have a coherent and logical game plan, there is a healthy mix of experience and burgeoning youth, and they are playing at home.

They are also capable, if they can secure quick ball from the breakdown, of playing a high tempo game needed to release such talented, sniping backs as Ruan Pienaar, Francois Steyn and JP Pietersen. Front-foot ball will also bring the big runners, loose forwards Ryan Kankowski and Jean Deysel, into play.

The form of the Sharks, since they turned the corner late in July, has also been encouraging with 10 successive victories, but it is their direct style, involving backs and forwards running on to the ball, that has lifted hopes.

As Loffie Eloff, the Lions coach, remarked after their semi-final defeat at King’s Park, the Sharks are a team for all seasons, one capable of mixing it up front or playing the ball wide. They have a kicking game and they can defend.

Still, Eloff believes the Bulls’ structured play and experience in winning finals will prevail in a close final. And so does Saracens’ Eddie Jones, the itinerant Australian coach, who helped the Springboks at the World Cup last year and has now been advising the Blue Bulls.

“My money is on the Bulls to win it by eight. They have adapted really well to the ELVs and with Wikus van Heerden in the side, Victor Matfield controlling the lineout and Morne Steyn at flyhalf, I think they will have the edge.”

The bookies, who are tipping the Sharks to win by four points, are among the many who disagree.

But only the foolish would be adamant in a contest this tight.

The Sharks have 16 internationals spread through their ranks, four of them on a formidable bench, while the Bulls have eight players capped for the Springboks.

What, of course, is in the Bulls’ favour is the genuine quality of lock and captain Victor Matfield, scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and wing Bryan Habana. Exactly a year ago they played pivotal roles in the Webb Ellis Cup triumph and would have been a shoo-in for a 2007 World XV. While they have struggled at times with their form this year, the three are consistently at their best on the big occasion and it does not get much bigger than today’s sell-out final.

The strengths of the two teams have been analysed. The Bulls will be stronger in the lineouts, the all-Bok front-row should give the Sharks the edge in the scrums and the battle at the breakdown will be physical and decisive as the teams seek either to apply pressure or absorb it.

The accuracy in the kicking, both tactically and at goal, could also prove critical but, in the end — and as we saw in last year’s Super 14 final — a tight contest can turn abruptly on a defensive error, a missed opportunity, the bounce of the ball or a referee’s decision.

The Sharks have the desire, the talent, the right coach and the home crowd’s backing; the Bulls possess a well-drilled, confrontational pack, several world-class performers and experience in winning finals.

Expectations are high and the pressure is certainly on the Sharks to end a long run of failures. If they can keep their focus from first to last, this really should be their day.

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