Unforgettable finals

GAVIN RICH, writing in the Weekend Argus, takes a personal look at the previous Currie Cup deciders between Western Province and the Sharks.

When Natal and Western Province first met in a Currie Cup final it was 1984, the year that two tropical cyclones, Demoina and then Imboa, followed me home from a family holiday in Mauritius to flood Zululand.

Back then no one would ever have imagined that the singer George Michael would one day spend time in jail, for he was the lead singer of Wham back then, and they were immensely popular. So for obvious reasons was George Orwell’s prophetic book, 1984, which we matric pupils at Northlands Boys High (now Northwood College), had to dissect and mull over as a set-work.

Considering the dire theme of the book, it was fitting that for those of us fanatics who called ourselves the Kings Park faithful, it was another of those bleak winters which our team spent in the doldrums of the B Section of the Currie Cup.

To be fair, they played well enough that year to extricate themselves from rugby’s equivalent of purgatory – only it just so happened that the promotion-relegation game was in Welkom, their hoodoo ground, against their hoodoo team, Northern Free State, better known to Durbanites as the Purple People Eaters (a nickname given them by former Natal captain Dick Cocks in his popular Natal Mercury column, Cocks and Bull).

But if Natal in the B Section era had problems when asked to play against teams made up of miners and farmers, they tended to go much better against teams made up of students, lawyers, doctors and, OK, the occasional maize farmer.

And so it was that in the semi-final the week after the failed promotion attempt, Natal entertained Free State in the semi-final – in those days A Section and B Section teams played off – and they won 26-15.

Natal were helped that day by a positional switch for Gawie Visagie, who moved to flyhalf to make place at scrumhalf for a young law student whose official name was Craig Jamieson but who we knew as the Cabbage Patch Kid because of the unruly mop of hair that made him look like he might live with his surfboard in an old panel-van somewhere on the south coast and perhaps also be a Wham groupie.

WP had the stars, but Natal had a giant waterpolo star on the flank, Derek LaMarque, who was the forerunner of Wahl Bartmann and Jean Deysel as a ball carrying loose forward. Visagie always played better when out of position, and flyhalf suited his gift for putting over drop goals, which accounted for Natal’s first-half lead in the Newlands final.

As last man in a cricket match in Westville it was with great reluctance that I left the radio commentary behind in the pavilion, with Natal leading 6-3. There was no chance of us winning and playing for a draw would require over an hour of stoic straight batted resistance that was beyond my mediocre batting talents, besides which it would mean missing the rest of the final. So I lofted the first ball to mid-off, only for the catch to be dropped – and has any batsman ever banged the pitch so hard in frustration at being given a life?

By the time the cricket was ended, the final was into the second half, and WP, with Rob Louw playing a blinder, had taken control. They eventually won 19-9, but if ever there was honour in defeat, it came for Natal that day in what was to be Wynand Claassen’s last game as captain.

And so on 11 years to 1995, the season after my move to Cape Town after three years covering Natal rugby for the Natal Mercury.  The Natal players found it quite amusing that I was now, in their minds anyway, in the Province camp, and before the final at Kings Park, Gary Teichmann chided me: ‘Remember, you are either for us or against us, you can’t be in between’.

WP arrived in Durban with a behemoth pack anchored by Garry Pagel and the late Tommy Laubscher. Forwards normally come into their own in wet conditions, so when it rained the night before, it seemed good enough reason to predict a WP victory.

But what have rugby writers ever known? The slippery field actually ended up suiting Natal, who had a hooker in John Allan who was a wily old veteran. Allan has always talked a good game, but he also used to play the odd good one too, and that day he was the heart of a Natal front row that outwitted their stronger opponents. World Cup-winning flyhalf Joel Stransky, then playing for WP, did not help matters for the Cape team by going walkabout behind a well beaten pack as the Sharks won 25-17.

The next two Currie Cup finals between the coastal provinces were the back to back 2000 and 2001 clashes. The first was in Durban, and there is a fresh recollection of a prominent Sharks official thanking me as a representative of the Cape media for helping drive interest for the game. That after Sharks coach Rudolf Straeuli had locked the Durban media out of his training sessions and had refused to speak to anyone from the Fourth Estate for two weeks.

The Sharks started as favourites, and dominated the forward battle, but WP scored three breakaway tries within the first half hour to effectively win the match, which WP took 25-15 before heading off to the old Bourbon Street night club to celebrate into the early hours of the morning.

The following season saw the final in Cape Town, and in some ways it was the reverse of this year in that WP had to play the Sharks in the last league match in Durban having already secured to spot on the log table.

With nothing to play for, WP were beaten easily, in much the same manner as the Sharks, who were this year’s Percy Frames trophy winners (for the team that wins the league stage), were outplayed at Newlands a few weeks ago.

In the 2001 decider WP reversed the result of the final league game, and were more comprehensive victors than the final scoreline might have suggested. Is that perhaps a good omen for the Sharks ahead of the fifth instalment of the coastal final saga set to be staged in Durban next Saturday?

The people of KwaZulu-Natal will be hoping so, for the same Sharks official who had thanked me 12 months earlier informed me on the eve of that 2001 final that ‘the Sharks have to win for the people of Durban, the city really doesn’t have much else going for it anymore’. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, at least Capetonians will still have their mountain …