Fairytale finish for Cinderella side

JON CARDINELLI writes the Cape side may have missed out on Super Rugby honours but the winning of the Currie Cup will mark 2012 as a year to remember.

The domestic season has concluded, and we’re still in that period where the winners of the Currie Cup are celebrated for what they have achieved in isolation. There is a lot of history attached to that trophy, and while it is no longer the Cup to win, it is still a coveted title.

There was a lot of romance associated with the Golden Lions’ victory in 2011, a win that marked their first domestic title since 1999. Today, we should be acknowledging Western Province’s achievement for ending a similar trophy drought.

There will be a great deal more romance associated with this latter victory if one takes into account which players Province were missing, and what the team were up against just two weeks previously.

Success is measured by trophies, and in years to come many will forget that WP did not enjoy a great run during the league stage of the 2012 Currie Cup. The side was hit badly by injuries in the Super Rugby season, with some of those having a knock-on effect in the subsequent domestic competition.

They went into the Currie Cup with few recognised combinations and lacking experience in key positions, so it wasn’t a surprise to see them fighting for a play-off position in the very last week of the league stage.

Indeed, a loss in that final league fixture may have seen them relegated to the First Division. But they managed to pull through, avoiding relegation and also guaranteeing their place in the final four.

Most would have been writing their epitaph during the early stages of that semi-final showdown in Johannesburg. But again, they managed to pull through, overturning a 10-point deficit in the second half.

Considering this team was missing Springboks of the quality of Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Andries Bekker, and Tiaan Liebenberg; that they were also without other important players such as Siya Kolisi, Rynhardt Elstadt, Nick Koster and Dewaldt Duvenage, how could they be considered anything but underdogs when they were playing a final away from home against a Sharks side of such quality?

WP may be a big entity in South African rugby, but the team that played against the Sharks in last Saturday’s final resembled a lower level side in terms of experience.

They were also up against a Sharks team stacked with Springboks and seasoned provincial players. The Sharks may have been without Bismarck du Plessis, but that pack was almost identical to the one that started the Super Rugby final in Hamilton. And the backline, with Pat Lambie running the show at flyhalf, was far better equipped, at least on paper.

Province had no right going to the Shark Tank and knocking over the best side in South Africa. It was an unlikely victory, and perhaps that’s what will make it all the sweeter.

The self-belief was evident in their semi-final win against the Lions, and somehow Allister Coetzee got his young charges to believe a win was possible in the final; that the venue, the Cape side’s poor record in play-off matches, and their own lack of experience simply didn’t matter.

It’s a belief that has been building for some time. Rassie Erasmus initiated the culture change when he arrived in Cape Town in 2008, and over the past five seasons, Erasmus and Coetzee have taken that culture to the next level.

In 2012, they have finally started to achieve more than just an excellent win/loss record; they have started to win trophies.

It started with a win away from home in the Vodacom Cup final, where John Dobson’s WP showed terrific character to clinch the title with an injury-time try.

The Stormers then won the South African conference title in the Super Rugby tournament, a good return considering their injury situation.

Despite a similar problem in the Currie Cup, WP did enough to qualify for the decider and eventually win a trophy they haven’t won since 2001.

It’s a special effort considering the circumstances, and that signifies a special underlying belief.

The Lions’ Currie Cup win in 2011 meant nothing in the context of Super Rugby, as they went on to finish dead last in the 2012 competition. Similarly, WP’s success in the 2012 Currie Cup doesn’t automatically suggest that the Stormers will dominate next year’s Super Rugby tournament.

It will, however, alleviate some concerns about their ability to win championship games. There have been several reasons why recent Stormers’ teams have failed in play-off matches, and chief among them has been the absence of belief.

There was very little pressure on Coetzee’s Cinderella team to win in Durban last week, and that counted in their favour. Ironically, it was the lack of pressure that allowed them to get the monkey off their backs as far as the greater trophy drought is concerned.

They will finish the year with the Vodacom Cup, the Currie Cup U19 trophy, the Currie Cup and the South African conference trophy in the cabinet. It’s a good return. It’s a good reason to mark 2012 as an unforgettable, if not completely successful, year for Western Cape rugby.

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