Durban - Remember the good old 1980s, or so went the lyrics of an old Electric Light Orchestra hit, but when it comes Currie Cup clashes between the Sharks and the Lions, it would be the 1990s that people would hark back to as a particularly memorable time.
While it was against the Blue Bulls (Northern Transvaal) that Natal (Sharks) broke their long Currie Cup drought and got off the mark, and in their centenary year to boot, it was the Lions (Transvaal) that challenged them for the right to be recognised as the team of that decade. And out of some of the memorable, and often spiteful, tussles between the two unions, grew an intense rivalry.
When it comes to knock-out games, the two unions should feel they both owe each other one when it comes to spoiling what should have been memorable, feel-good farewell occasions for long-serving stalwarts.
Lions agony (1992)
Natal started it by ruining Johannesburg’s party in 1992. The Ellis Park final was supposed to be the stage for a rousing farewell to Jannie Breedt, the No 8 who had led a Transvaal revival through a couple of seasons where they kept their fans mesmerised with a thrilling brand of rugby. Coach Harry Viljoen, who also bade farewell to the Lions that September afternoon, called it “Total Rugby”.
But while the team had played great rugby both that season and the previous year, and scored many tries, Transvaal were in those days dealing with a Currie Cup title drought that stretched back to 1973, when they beat Eastern Transvaal (yes those were weird days!) in the decider. They’d been heavily favoured in 1991, only to lose to Naas Botha’s Bulls in the final, and although Natal topped the log in 1992, everyone thought this would be the year that Transvaal would stop being “the nearly men”.
Ellis Park really was a place to be that day, and it is doubtful that the pre-match atmosphere of that final has ever been exceeded. Viljoen, fond of little psychological plays and morale boosters, had adopted the Tina Turner hit “Simply the Best” as the anthem of his team. So for the hour before kick-off, the big screen showed us Ms Turner and the song reverberated around the stadium.
The home team weren’t the best on the day. Not for the first hour anyway. Gary Teichmann scored an early try as Natal, determined to prove Naas Botha wrong after he’d predicted in 1990 that it would take another 100 years for the then Banana Boys to win another trophy, took control.
But although they enjoyed early possession and territorial dominance, and were in the lead by more than a converted try for much of the way, the Natalians just couldn’t land the killer blow. Almost inevitably, back came Transvaal in the last quarter, and for most of that period Natal were just hanging on.
A few minutes from time, with Natal leading by a solitary point, Transvaal were gifted their chance to win it. Theo van Rensburg, the home team place-kicker, was presented with a gettable opportunity, and he lined it up in an atmosphere of unbearable tension for those Johannesburg rugby fans who had sat through almost 20 years of frustration.
Natal coach Ian McIntosh recalls wanting to leave the stadium at that moment, such was the tension he felt, and he did do that a year later when Van Rensburg, then playing for his Springbok team, lined up a similar match-winning opportunity. Alas for the Transvaal fullback, he missed on both occasions, and there are some who will still probably remember him in the same way as old-timers used to remember the unfortunate Jack van der Schyff, who missed a kick to lose a match to the British Lions at the old Ellis Park in 1955.
Natal, on the balance of play, probably deserved their second Currie Cup title, and after all they had topped the log, but much of the attention afterwards was on Transvaal falling at the final hurdle once more (apart from 1991, they’d also lost to Northerns in a memorable 1987 final and to Western Province the year before that) and Van Rensburg’s role in their demise.
So it wasn’t a happy departure for either Breedt or Viljoen, with the latter heading off to Durban the following year to replace McIntosh when ‘Mac’ went to the Boks. That year perhaps provided the most memorable of all Lions/Sharks Currie Cup play-off games, but let’s go first to 1999, for that was the year that the Lions got the Sharks back for ruining their 1992 party.
Ruining the Durban farewell (1999)
McIntosh, who had returned to coach the Sharks after his Bok stint ended prematurely, was saying farewell as the union’s most successful ever coach when the Lions, coached by Laurie Mains, visited King’s Park for the 1999 final. Under McIntosh’s coaching, the Sharks (they became that in 1996) won the golden trophy four times, and McIntosh was effectively at that point the Sharks’ only Currie Cup-winning coach.
Also saying goodbye that day were three other notable Sharks stalwarts - the Rolls Royce of fullbacks Andre Joubert, Teichmann and Henry Honiball. The last mentioned was involved with a Springbok training camp in Plettenberg Bay at the time so did not take the field - remember that was in the prelude to the 1999 World Cup, and Nick Mallett’s axing of Teichmann as his Bok captain only added to the emotion of the occasion.
It didn’t go well for the Sharks on the day of the big goodbye. Hennie le Roux, who was another controversial Mallett omission from his World Cup squad, cooked for the Lions, and so did AJ Venter, who was later to become a Shark. The Lions won comfortably, Mains had a Currie Cup title on his CV (there are now two former All Black coaches who have won a Currie Cup if you add John Mitchell), and thus ended a decade of intense and often ill-tempered rivalry by the two unions separated by the 550 kilometres of the N3 highway.
Blood, punches and some tears (1993)
Ill-tempered would have been an understatement when applied to the 1993 battles between the teams. In those days provincialism was far more rife than it is now, and the Bok friendships across provincial lines, such as that between Victor Matfield (Bulls) and the Stormers duo of Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers didn’t really exist.
In some cases, there appeared to be real animosity between players. In a Currie Cup league game in Durban in early 1993 the two hookers, Uli Schmidt and John Allan, went at each other hammer and tongs, and we are talking fists, for much of the game. It was the same every time the two teams met that year, and yet they had to tour together as Boks to Australia.
Some years later Schmidt, after his retirement, covered a Bok tour of the UK and Ireland as a commentator for SuperSport. We became quite friendly during that tour, and obviously I knew Allan quite well from my days on the Natal Mercury. I was with Schmidt when we bumped into Allan, who was on tour as a supporter, at a pub in Dublin.
The expectation was that they would embrace each other warmly and let bygones be bygones. Not a chance! It was cold, not warm, and let’s just say that my chances of spending the evening in the company of two ex-hookers were reduced to nil. Schmidt later had to deal with a Sharks fan who accused him of being the guy who “…..d up Tony Watson”.
That happened that year too - the clash between the then-Transvaal hooker (he had moved from the Bulls to play for Kitch Christie) and the flying Natal winger, with the physical contact leaving Watson prone on the touchline suffering what appeared to be convulsions. It wasn’t pretty, and I’d go with Schmidt if he said it was accidental, but tell that to some hard-bitten Sharks fans who only saw everything through black and white lenses. Watson never played serious provincial rugby again.
There were many behind-the-scenes sideshows that added to the heated temperature when the two best teams in the country squared up that year. While Natal were the domestic champions, the Lions had been the inaugural winners of the Super 10, beating Auckland in the final, and there was resentment from the Durbanites, who felt the Johannesburg players thought they were the bees knees.
Their coach, the late Christie, was also heavily favoured for the Bok coaching job occupied by McIntosh, and of course the Sharks coach, Viljoen, had been in charge of the Lions the year before. There was certainly no love lost between Viljoen and the Lions president, Louis Luyt, who accused Viljoen of selling the union out.
To add further to the rivalry between the sides, one of the Transvaal star players, James Small, had followed Viljoen to Durban, and Wahl Bartmann, though into his fourth season with Natal, was a former Transvaal player too and still lived in Johannesburg.
There wasn’t just the Currie Cup in those days, but also the Lion Cup, which was a knock-out competition that was supposed to be South African rugby’s equivalent of the FA Cup. It never really caught on, but the final was always taken seriously, and the Lions and Sharks met in that year’s decider a month or two before they were to clash again in the Currie Cup final.
Dick Muir probably doesn’t remember this because he was in a daze for much of the game, but the tone for the Lion Cup final was set by Transvaal lock Kobus Wiese landing a pleasant little “hello there” tap on the Natal centre’s chin. It wasn’t spotted by the referee but it was spotted from the press box. Muir didn’t look like he knew where he was after that and Transvaal won fairly comfortably.
That win, and an earlier win in a Currie Cup league game at King’s Park, established Transvaal as favourites for the big final - with one caveat, which was that the game was being played in Durban. Natal had won two Currie Cups in the space of three years, but this would be their first home final.
The then Natal Rugby Union went all out, perhaps over the top, to make it a big occasion, and it was. But perhaps the hype got to the Natal coach and his players. Some who played in that final related later that Viljoen wasn’t himself, he didn’t treat the final as just another game, and it may have contributed to a nervousness in the build-up that wasn’t there when McIntosh was coach.
Be that as it may, the hosts did start well, and might have put the visitors away were it not for scrumhalf Kevin Putt’s decision to drop for goal - it was missed - when he had an overlap waiting outside him metres from the line.
It was a tempestuous game, there was some blood, much of it coming from the head of Transvaal skipper Pienaar, but somehow the Lions dug deep, held on, and withstood Natal's Bartmann-driven onslaught. The Natal captain was used as a battering ram, perhaps overly so, and the home team took too long to figure out that they were being too one-dimensional for the well-coached and captained Transvaal team.
Eventually the tide turned, and those who were at the game will probably remember Uli Schmidt making sure of the win by picking up a bouncing ball in front of the nose of Natal’s long-haired wing Cabous van der Westhuizen and running in the try.
Rugby writers used to love the teams they covered in those days and were sometimes even made to feel part of the group. So it wasn’t surprising to hear that the late veteran rugby scribe from The Star, Barry Glasspool, was in tears when he embraced Christie after the game. It was understandable, for Barry would have covered most of the 20 barren years that preceded that win.
Consistently during the season I’d written up Natal as the best team in the country, but Barry got a jibe in at my expense.
“I guess that proves who is who in the zoo,” he said as we bumped into each other while leaving the stadium.
The best chirp though came from the sharp Kiwi, Putt. The morning after the final, on a plane heading to Johannesburg ahead of his involvement in a South African A tour overseas, and with Transvaal and Natal Springboks also on board as they started their journey to Argentina, Putt was asked by an air hostess where he was headed.
Thinking short term, and not of the journey that beckoned beyond Jo'burg, he responded: “I guess I am going to Currie Cup country.”
Welcome back to Currie Cup country (1996)
The most one-sided final was the 1996 clash between the Sharks and Lions that said farewell to Francois Pienaar’s South African rugby career. The legendary Bok captain had been unceremoniously dropped by Andre Markgraaff, a decision even more controversial and attention-grabbing than Mallett’s axing of Teichmann three years later, and was determined to go out on a good note.
However, McIntosh, the Sharks coach, also had a point to prove and had not forgotten Louis Luyt’s role in his own axing as national coach in 1994. The Sharks had won the Currie Cup the year before and were looking for their first back-to-back win, and had been the best team by some distance for most of the year.
They went to Johannesburg expecting to win, and with Andre Joubert in particular playing the game of his life, that was what he did. For a while at least KZN definitely was Currie Cup country.