The Sharks, with a dozen Springboks in their squad and form and momentum on their side after topping the Currie Cup log, were expected to enjoy a stroll in the park against a young and injury-hit Western Province side that had lost their last four matches against the Natalians.
But sport is such wonderful entertainment exactly because of the sort of upset Western Province dished up on Saturday. The new Currie Cup champions also delivered a timely warning that, no matter how flashy or skilful your side is, you ignore the set-pieces at your peril.
Hooker is a position where the Sharks have enjoyed tremendous depth in the past, with John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis battling it out for supremacy up to last year and Craig Burden becoming a fast-rising star.
But Burden is a re-treaded wing, and a hooker’s core skill is throwing into the lineout. Unfortunately for the Sharks, his throwing was wayward in the final and, under immense pressure from the magnificent Eben Etzebeth, the home side could only win two of their eight lineouts, which fatally stymied their game plan.
The Burden was replaced on the hour mark, but things did not go much better for substitute Kyle Cooper and it was he who dropped the pass after the hooter as the Sharks launched a desperate last-ditch effort to level the scores.
Having almost single-handedly dismantled the Sharks’ lineout, Etzebeth was also massive on defence, carrying the ball up and even chasing kicks – it is difficult to think of a more destructive force in South African rugby at the moment.
Etzebeth turns 21 on Monday, but he came of age in a rugby sense a long time ago and is surely a shoe-in for the SA Rugby Player of the Year award next month.
On a national level, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is currently under pressure to choose flashier players but, as we saw in the Currie Cup final, if these fan favourites cannot deliver the goods in their primary roles, whether that be in the set-pieces, servicing the backline or defending, then they will be exposed in the cauldron of high-stakes rugby.
Sharks scrumhalf Cobus Reinach had been impressive in helping his team into the final, but fickle fans who were saying he should be in the Springbok squad on the basis of a couple of months of good play had their views rammed back in their faces, as the 22-year-old was another to be exposed. The son of late rugby and athletics Springbok Jaco Reinach struggled with the quality of his service and was poor on defence, the inexperienced error he made in the 36thminute leading to Juan de Jongh’s try that shifted the momentum the way of the visitors.
The final seemed to be going according to script before then, as the Sharks took a 12-3 lead courtesy of four Pat Lambie penalties. The Sharks had been dominating the scrums, but the home side was also helped by the referee, Jaco Peyper, who inflicted a string of poor decisions against Western Province in the second quarter, denying them crucial momentum.
But the character of the young Cape team was the outstanding feature of the final. The way they dominated a Sharks pack full of top stars says much for the work of coach Allister Coetzee – who has now taken them to three major finals – has done between their ears.
Credit, too, must go to captain Deon Fourie, a hooker playing on the flank, who kept driving his team on and was a major frustration on the ground for the Sharks.
Western Province was also thoroughly committed on defence, with the try-saving tackle Bryan Habana made on fellow Springbok wing JP Pietersen in the seventh minute setting an early benchmark.
In the final minute, the Sharks had broken free and looked set to score before the heroics of fullback Joe Pietersen and flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis spoilt the move.
Catrakilis, the unsung number 10 who was meant to be outshone by Lambie, had earlier kicked the two drop goals that stretched the lead to 25-18 – the final score – and the 23-year-old will now head to the EP Kings as a Currie Cup-winning flyhalf.
The Johannesburg-born Catrakilis will certainly be delighted with the way the career choices he has made have turned out. A highly promising footballer who was a member of the Moroka Swallows junior squad and toured with a South African invitational team, the St John’s pupil chose rugby at the end of high school.
The picture of a young Catrakilis in a winning junior football team that hangs in a Johannesburg car dealership can now be replaced by one featuring South Africa’s most iconic sporting trophy. DM