Johannesburg - The Sharks come to Newlands for Saturday’s eagerly anticipated Currie Cup final as a well-balanced and determined team, but Western Province’s biggest challenge may well be how they deal with the pressure that sometimes comes with playing the competition decider at home.
Playing the decider at Newlands is a massive advantage for WP, and the Province assistant coach Dawie Snyman has spoken about the need for the players to go out and enjoy the moment they have worked so hard through the season at setting up, according to SuperSport.com.
The Cape side, perhaps more so when wearing Stormers colours in Super Rugby than in the domestic competition, has at times succumbed to the pressure of playing at home in the past, and the recent WP/Sharks finals show an interesting trend.
There have been seven finals between the two teams since the start of the professional era in 1995, with WP winning four and the Sharks winning three. In 1995 the home team (the Sharks) won, but in 2000 it was the visiting team (WP) who walked away with the golden trophy.
WP defended their title by beating the Sharks at home the following year, representing a rare back to back sequence in recent times (could that be an omen?).
In 2010 it was again the turn of the home team to win, meaning that in the first four meetings everything was quite ordered and went according to what would have been expected - just one away win in four games.
Since then though that has changed dramatically, with the away team winning all three games.
In 2012, when an understrength WP team won in Durban, and in 2013, when the underdog Sharks avenged that loss in Cape Town, the results were unexpected.
Maybe last year’s win for WP, which was achieved in a game where they started as underdogs but not by much, was less so, which prompted Snyman to suggest that playing at Kings Park did not necessarily mean there was less pressure than there will be for WP at home this weekend.
“I really don’t think there was any less pressure on us in Durban last year,” said Snyman.
“Yes, we were underdogs going into the Durban game last year, and the Sharks did top the log, but we had beaten them at Kings Park in the round robin game just a few weeks before that.
So it wasn’t as if we went into that final without any hope or expectation. We knew we could win and that knowledge did create pressure. It was not as if there was nothing on the game for us.”
So it was not as if WP went to KZN 12 months ago with the mind-set that they could just go for broke and chance their arm in the hope that it would come off.
According to Ruhan Nel, who as a former Blitzbok of long standing knows a lot about pressure and the constricting influence of nerves, the biggest challenge on Saturday will be to ensure that the nerves don’t impact on the adventurous rugby WP have produced en route to the final.
“A big challenge to confront is going into a final with absolute freedom,” said Nel during the build-up week to Saturday’s decider.
“In a final, when the pressure is on, you can get into a box, stifle your freedom to safety first tactics. The coaches have empowered us players with the responsibility to take charge ourselves, coaches like Dawie have inspired us to play what is in front of us.
“We need to continue to rely on what we did to get to the final, which is expressive, attacking play. If you start changing stuff now just because it is a final you are changing what you are as a team.”
Snyman agrees, and said WP would stick with what has worked.
“Play-off rugby can be a little different, but I think we will stick to our strengths. The play-offs bring a different kind of pressure, that is true, but we must just get our balance right. That is something we got wrong at the weekend in the semi-final against the Bulls. There were stages when we attacked when it was not on to do so. And when we kicked we didn’t kick well.
“One of our strengths this season has been the balance that we bring, our ability to mix good attack with good kicking, but we didn’t mix it up well this past weekend and that was one of the reasons that our performance wasn’t great. It is something we have discussed and focused on in team meetings and hopefully we will get it right against the Sharks.”
Both Nel and Snyman agree that to win the trophy they are going to have to deal with a team that is well balanced and which, if it has weaknesses, they are hard to pinpoint.
“They have a good set piece, they are physical and there forwards like to offload and are good at it. They keep the ball alive, and then Louis (Schreuder), Rob (Du Preez) and Curwin (Bosch) boast great kicking games. They have hard running centres, strong and quick wings - they are a tough team to prepare against and play against. We will have to be at our best.”
Snyman does not believe the Currie Cup league game between the sides, in which WP posted 50 points, should be used as a reference point by his team.
“We know we put 50 points on them last time but it was a tight game. We were up just 31-28 at a stage of the second half and the Sharks had momentum then. There are a few take-outs we can take from that game, but this will be a different game, and we know that.”