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Rugby | Currie Cup

Don’t let Cup become a poisoned chalice

The Sharks should have arrived back in Durban on Sunday feeling satisfied with a job well done.

They set themselves the task of avenging last year’s defeat in the King’s Park final, a game that lingered on in the memories of Sharks players longer than most over the past 12 months, and they duly did it. They were tactically better than Western Province on the day, and just as the WP scrum won them the title last October, so it was the Sharks’ lineout that did the trick this time.

It was a deserved win and even though WP topped the log, the Sharks are worthy champions. Like WP, they only lost once this season, which was the league visit to Cape Town four weeks before the final. The win in the decider cancelled out that loss. Like Province 12 months ago, winning a final away from home was an achievement.

It was arguably also a result that was better for South African rugby than had WP won it. The Sharks have largely struggled since John Plumtree was unceremoniously dropped as coach in 2013, and the waning interest has been reflected in King's Park attendances. Maybe this win will inject interest and be a selling point when the union gets around to the sale of season tickets during the off-season. South African rugby does need the Sharks to be strong, both on the field and financially.

The big challenge though for Sharks coach Robert du Preez and perhaps for the decision makers who work above him in the Sharks administration, is to be realistic and keep the feet firmly rooted to the ground and to quickly move on from the elation that would have engulfed the squad on Saturday.

For while the Sharks were worthy winners of the golden trophy, they must not let it become a poisoned chalice in the way it has for some previous winners. For a glance at the stats will confirm that winning the domestic competition is seldom a good thing for a union when it comes to the real deal of modern rugby, which is their challenge in the following year’s Super Rugby competition.

Apart from the Golden Lions in 2015/2016, this decade has not seen Currie Cup success being backed up by a strong Super Rugby showing. And there should be less likelihood of that happening now than there ever was, as the Currie Cup just isn’t the competition it used to be.

The demise of Free State as a perennial strong challenger is one factor that has made it much easier for a top union to qualify for a final, and of course this year we saw the league phase played over only one round.

It was WP, and not the Sharks, who produced the stand-out excellent performances in the regular season. Their 50 point win over the Lions in Johannesburg was sheer class, their annihilation of what was then a full strength Cheetahs team in horrendous wet conditions in Cape Town, and again the Bulls in like conditions in Pretoria in the final league game, were also a level above.

The question was asked while WP were ramping over everyone: Are WP really that good, or has the competition just become weak? Perhaps the final provided an answer. The Sharks, once they got Jean-Luc du Preez back and Bok coach Rassie Erasmus started ignoring their front-row forwards, were the one team in the Currie Cup that resembled their Super Rugby team.

Andre Esterhuizen and Ruan Botha are contracted at this time of the year to Japanese clubs and of course they never had Beast, but otherwise you’d struggle to find areas where the Sharks’ Super Rugby side is stronger than their Currie Cup team. You could even argue that Marius Louw is a better fit at inside centre in some ways than Esterhuizen is.

Compare that with the phalanx of Boks that WP didn’t have available: Pieter-Steph du Toit, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Steven Kitshoff, Damian de Allende…and let’s not forget either players such as the injured Cobus Wiese. Provided the Stormers have all their players available, which of course for them is the million dollar question, they will have a very different pack playing Super Rugby to the one that played the final at Newlands.

And yet they were good enough to get to the final with fringe players, good enough in fact to dominate the competition up until the play-off phase. That means that although they didn’t win the trophy, they did gain a lot from this season.

They grew their depth. They have Ruhan Nel now in addition to EW Viljoen (remember him?) and JJ Engelbrecht as an outside centre option; Josh Stander grew as the alternative flyhalf until he fluffed his lines in the final; Sergeal Petersen confirmed that he wasn’t a bad buy; Juarno Augustus got in most of the Currie Cup season and is a star of the future who should probably have played in the final; Salmaan Moerat has now played senior rugby and been involved in a final; Ernst van Rhyn is now more than just a budding age-group star, and Herschel Jantjies is a promising new addition to the scrumhalf stocks.

That is probably not an extensive enough list, for you could also add Ali Vermaak’s confidence booster after doing well in the final - remember he will be playing behind Kitshoff in Super Rugby. If you tried to draw up a similar list for the Sharks, you could make a start - Jeremy Ward was excellent, Marius Louw has arrived as a provincial level player, Aphelele Fassi was one of the finds of the competition.

But it’s not as extensive as the WP one when you talk about testing depth and growing newcomers. And if you look at what may have cost Province the final, which was the changing of the linkage from 8 through to 12 by experimenting with Damian Willemse at inside centre, you may also inadvertently stumble across what makes the Sharks coach different from WP coach John Dobson.

There is a view, and it has merit, that Dobson got it wrong. You don’t change things for a final. But perhaps a little more of the Dobson type adventurousness when it comes to selection in the regular season would increase the Sharks’ options and perhaps open up potential new pathways.

One of the remarkable features of the Sharks performance in the final was how they got the little things right, and one of those was the kick-offs of Curwin Bosch. The youngster is a special player, and there is a growing lobby in Durban to see him back at flyhalf.

Robert du Preez, who was good in the final and has now won two domestic trophies with different teams, started all but one game at flyhalf for the Sharks this year. If Bosch is going to progress, if he is going to develop in the position where surely his future lies, then surely he should have been used in the No 10 more often?

A lot has been written and said about Bosch’s defence, and this time last year this space was taken up by an examination of his weaknesses. But if you speak to opposing coaches, they are scared of the X-factor that the Sharks could pack into their backline attack if Bosch was given a chance to establish himself there.

In short, what the Sharks mustn’t do is allow themselves to think that because they won the Currie Cup it means that all is well and that it vindicates the selections and their onfield strategies. It might sound blunt and even unkind, but they perhaps need to recognise that they won the final mainly because it was such a dreadful game.

Had it been quicker paced and less error-ridden, the Sharks’ suspect staying ability would have been more severely tested. Which is another thing that needs to be looked at - over-training can be a problem, particularly in the humid sub-tropics. Sessions that last for longer than two hours in the warm months of the year can come back and bite you later on, and perhaps the Sharks management should remember the words of former All Black coach Laurie Mains when he was coaching the Lions: “The Sharks possibly don’t realise what a disadvantage they are put under by training in those conditions”.

The modern trend is for shorter and more intense sessions, an acknowledgment that you don’t train for marathons by running marathons. The point isn’t that the Sharks are doing it wrong, but that they shouldn’t allow the Currie Cup final victory to stop them from doing a good audit of every bit of their approach, including their training methods.

The presence of the Currie Cup in the King’s Park trophy cabinet mustn’t be seen as an excuse to ignore the serious introspection that is needed before next February rolls around. Realistically, if you looked at the squads at the start, there were always only two teams that could win this year’s Currie Cup. Super Rugby is not like that.


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