GARETH DUNCAN watched Western Province break their 11-year Currie Cup drought with a famous 25-18 final win over the Sharks at Kings Park.
Everyone loves an underdog story. And this match was one of the greats in South African domestic rugby.
The pre-match odds laid heavily in the Sharks’ favour. They had home-ground advantage, the strongest pack of the competition and the best team on paper, one loaded with Springboks. The Sharks had the confidence of beating the Stormers and WP four out of five fixtures earlier in the season, and they never lost to a South African team in Durban all year. The stats also proved they were the best attacking and defensive side of the Currie Cup.
However, what stats can’t measure is heart, mettle and determination. And WP, who were missing the likes of Jean de Villiers, Andries Bekker, Tiaan Liebenberg, Siya Kolisi and Schalk Burger, had bucket loads of this on the day.
The Sharks started off strongly and created several try-scoring opportunities, but they unraveled against a gritty WP outfit that failed to tire. The men from the Cape might have come off second best at the collisions and scrums for most parts of the match, but their breakdown assault, superior lineout efficiency and accurate tactical kicking game was crucial in their surprising triumph.
Man of the Match Deon Fourie was a star at openside flank, while Eben Etzebeth, Juan de Jongh and Demetri Catrakilis also deserve special mentions for their individual contributions in a top team performance.
But it took a while for the visitors’ ascendancy to emerge.
The opening quarter was dominated by the Sharks, who exposed the usually resilient Province defence on several occasions. Conversely, the hosts’ guard was resolute.
If it wasn’t for a sensational cover tackle from Bryan Habana, which denied opposite number JP Pietersen a clear run to the whitewash in the seventh minute, the Sharks would’ve held a comfortable lead.
However, Habana’s moment of defensive brilliance came with a sacrifice. The Springbok speedster struggled to gather to his feet after that hit and was taken off the field moments later because of a knee injury. Big blow for Province, and to those who were hoping to see more from the face-off between the two in-form wings.
While the Sharks were denied try opportunities, flyhalf Pat Lambie punished most of the penalties the visitors conceded. The 22-year-old found the target on four occasions to give the Sharks a 12-3 lead by the half-hour mark. Catrakilis nailed one three-pointer during this period.
Then came the unexpected Province fightback.
The biggest damage was done by Juan de Jongh, who executed a telling break shortly after Joe Pietersen’s 32nd-minute penalty.
From a scrum in centre field, the outside centre ran a perfect angle off Catrakilis to expose a gap in the Sharks’ defensive line. His explosiveness saw him beat three defenders in Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee and Lwazi Mvovo on his way to the chalk. Catrakilis converted.
The pivot also added his second penalty on the stroke of half-time, which saw WP lead 16-12 at the break.
The Sharks regained the ascendancy in the second stanza and jumped back into the lead thanks to Lambie’s fifth and sixth penalties.
But Catrakilis landed three vital shots at goal thereafter. First a penalty to regain the lead, which was their only reward after applying relentless pressure on attack against a solid Sharks defence in the opposition’s red zone. Then he nailed two drop goals to add to the buffer. The second drop goal was an important score as it forced the hosts to search for a converted try in order to level the scores.
The Sharks created late drama as Louis Ludik broke down the sideline during the closing stages, with Charl McLeod on his outside. He only had Pietersen to beat, but he passed the ball too early and the defender guessed right to tackle McLeod. The reserve scrumhalf then tried to offload to Lambie, but he lost the ball in contact.
The Sharks also won possession after the final hooter, but again, they lost the ball in contact – this time 10m from the tryline.
Province held on to complete an excellent victory. What an amazing underdog story.