GARETH DUNCAN analyses Saturday’s Currie Cup final between the Sharks and Western Province.
WHY THE SHARKS WILL WIN
Most of the odds lie in the Sharks’ favour: home ground advantage, they have the better team on paper, they have settled combinations and the stronger pack. Let’s not beat around the bush, the Sharks are overwhelming favourites to claim the title.
The Sharks have not lost against any South African team at home during Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. Kings Park has been a fortress against their local rivals, and they will carry that confidence into the title-decider. WP will also go into this match knowing they only won once in the last five against the men from Durban in all competitions. The bashing they received in the Super Rugby semi-final at Newlands must still haunt them.
A key advantage for the hosts will be their expected ascendancy among the heavies. While the Golden Lions boasted the strongest pack for most parts of the domestic competition, the Sharks forwards won that reputation during the latter league rounds and in the semi-final win over the Blue Bulls as their Springboks returned.
The Sharks boast brute strength up front, which has been central on attack and defence, their scrumming performances and setting a quality platform for in-form flyhalf Pat Lambie and his dangerous backline. There’s a 60% chance of rain in Durban on Saturday, highlighting the importance of dominance among the forwards.
Kudos must be given to head coach John Plumtree, who mastered the management of his Test players after they came back from Rugby Championship duty. The Kiwi learned his lesson the hard way last season when he rushed all seven of his internationals into the starting line-up when they jetted back from the World Cup in New Zealand. They struggled to make an impact in the 2011 Currie Cup final at Ellis Park, which saw the Lions ease to a 42-16 win. Plumtree will get the best out of his Boks on Saturday.
Lambie’s most outstanding individual performance came in the 2010 Currie Cup final. He’s yet to eclipse that memory over the last two years, but the signs he’s shown over the last fortnight in the No 10 jersey indicate he’ll be an important player on the pitch on Saturday. Even though he struggled to get game time with the Springboks this season, he’s looked confident at flyhalf and will play a vital role with the boot and in marshalling his team-mates on his outside. A strong run this weekend will force Bok coach Heyneke Meyer’s hand in picking him at pivot (and not fullback) during the end-of-year tour.
If the Sharks gain ascendancy, their backline will thrive. Young scrumhalf Cobus Reinach has been Plumtree’s find of the season, the young centre combination of Paul Jordaan and Tim Whitehead has gelled really well (to think Frans Steyn will still jump into the midfield equation next season), and wing JP Pietersen and fullback Louis Ludik are enjoying a purple patch of form.
This is the Sharks’ final to lose.
WHY WP HAVE A CHANCE
It doesn’t look good for the visitors.
They shocked the Lions by scoring a late try for a 21-16 comeback win in Johannesburg last weekend. But the final against the Sharks should be a step too far.
However, head coach Allister Coetzee and optimistic Province fans will say: ‘never rule out the underdogs’.
The main targets the Cape side will aim for are the lineouts, the breakdown battle and the tactical kicking game. If WP can achieve any ascendancy in these facets of play, they’ll have hope.
The Sharks have been poor at the lineouts in recent weeks, while Province have excelled at the set piece throughout the domestic campaign. Province will miss their injured lineout kingpin Andries Bekker, but if they can continue their impressive showings, they have a platform to attack from. Their driving maul has beaten most defences from close range.
The individual performances of No 8 Duane Vermeulen and flank Deon Fourie will be very influential. Both players have been consistent throughout the year, and their team will need big contributions from them. They’ll be key in the breakdown assault and as ball carriers. Fourie will also need to keep a cool head and not concede needless penalties.
The halfback combination of Nic Groom and Demetri Catrakilis will need to fire. The two players know each other well as they’ve played alongside each other ever since the 2011 Varsity Cup with UCT.
Groom provides quick service and will keep the defenders around the fringes on their toes, which takes some pressure off Catrakilis. The Kings-bound pivot has impressed with the boot when his forwards hold their own up front, but he’s known to falter when defences give him no space or time with the ball. The Province pack need to play their part, as Catrakilis will be a vital part of their tactical kicking game.
If WP can achieve this, they will have the chance to win favourable field positions. If they can milk kickable penalties off the Sharks, the visitors have a sharpshooter to rely on. But I stress, this will be a tough task.
It will be interesting to see how Coetzee’s gamble of starting rookie Damian de Allende at inside centre pays off. Marcel Brache has been inconsistent and many feel JP du Plessis (who’s with the U21s) should’ve been given a go, but Coetzee seems confident De Allende can provide a physical presence. Province can’t afford him to falter.
WP don’t have much running for them, but if they can put the Sharks under pressure in the aforementioned areas, they could find themselves in the position to pull off one of the most unlikeliest upsets of the year.
Sharks – 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Jandre Marais, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Odwa Ndungane.
WP – 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Don Armand, 6 Deon Fourie (c), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Deon Carstens, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 19 Jebb Sinclair, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Marcel Brache, 22 Joe Pietersen.
Gareth’s prediction: Sharks by 15