Scrumhalf Charl McLeod scored a brace of tries as the Sharks maintained the recent trend of underdogs winning Absa Currie Cup finals as they out-thought and out-played Western Province on their way to a 33-19 win in the domestic season showpiece in front of a packed Newlands.
The Sharks, who led 19-13 at halftime, were never headed in the game and on the day thoroughly deserved the win that secures the Durban union its seventh Currie Cup trophy. In terms of the achievement, with the Sharks having changed their coach only a few months ago and having to travel to win the final, this was one of their most famous wins.
Most of the 46 000 people who pitched up to watch a game played in a real Cup final atmosphere were WP supporters hoping to see their team go back to back after they shocked the Sharks in their own backyard the year before. But the favourite tag proved too burdensome for the hosts, who again fluffed their lines in a big play-off match on their home ground.
The Sharks, well led by Keegan Daniel but also quite clearly cleverly coached by director of rugby Brendan Venter and his support staff, were just too clever for Province. While the hosts relied heavily on the so-called X-factor of their backline players and their mainly diminutive back three, the Sharks just played typical intelligent finals rugby, varying their play with short kicks behind the breakdown that constantly had WP scrambling as well as longer kicks onto the players at the back.
They played the territory game they have played all season, and against a WP team that was happy to play in its own half and thus make mistakes that could be punished, the approach worked a charm for the visitors.
WP did do well in the early scrums and their only try, scored in the ninth minute, came as the result of the pressure applied on the Sharks at a scrum near their own line. Big centre Damian de Allende made it look all too easy as he capitalised on the confusion in the Sharks ranks by scything between two would be Sharks defenders to go over near the posts.
But by then the Sharks had already scored an intercept try through McLeod, who ran two thirds of the field to score as he broke up a WP attacking foray that followed an early Patrick Lambie penalty that had put the Sharks 3-0 ahead. So it was 10-0 to the Sharks after just a few minutes, and WP were on the back foot.
Perhaps it was the conceding of that early try that conspired against WP, but they never showed the composure that their coach Allister Coetzee had spoken about during the build-up week. They somehow always just looked a little too frenetic, and in that sense it was a repeat of the early part of the 2010 final in Durban, a game that the Sharks won 30-10.
Lambie missed three kicks at goal in the first half, but was brilliant in the other aspects of game management. Last year it was Demetri Catrakilis who slotted over drop-goals that kept Province ahead, this time it was Lambie who uncharacteristically turned to the field goal as a method of scoring. He kicked two of them.
But it was really the field kicking of both him and fullback SP Marais, plus McLeod, that turned the game against WP, not to mention of course WP’s inability to deal with it. And let it be said that as some had feared it would, the supposed attacking threat posed by the diminutive members of the WP back three turned into the home team’s Achilles' heel.
The Sharks won the aerial battle hands down, and while there were a few occasions where the WP back three threatened when the Sharks' kicks weren’t accurate and allowed them time on the ball and space to weave their magic, those were few and far between.
For the most part WP were under constant pressure, and when Gio Aplon was caught in the 47th minute inside his own 22, it summed up the dangers of having small players running from the back. When it works it is wonderful, but when it doesn’t it poses danger for your own team. The try the Sharks ended up scoring from that situation was eventually disallowed because Bismarck du Plessis was adjudged to be offside when producing a tackle that put WP flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis out of the game. But it should be a lesson for WP all the same.
In some ways it was a reversal of last year’s final, particularly in the way that the Sharks disrupted the WP lineout. There were three poaches in the first half, more in the second, and it was off this platform that the likes of McLeod and Lambie were able to control the game.
Both teams were poor in their receipt of the restarts, but WP were by some distance inferior to the Sharks in this regard. Every time it looked as though the Sharks might be fighting back from that early 10-point deficit by scoring points of their own, it seemed the Sharks would immediately be gifted points that would enable them to retain the deficit.
The Sharks were clinical and efficient in everything they did, the key though being that they ensured they played the game in the WP half. And with WP making so many mistakes, the Sharks found it easy to capitalise.
The fact that they won by 14 points on a day when Lambie missed three place-kicks at goal summed up their dominance. They were that much better than Province on the night.
But it was nip and tuck until the 58th minute, which is when the Sharks made up for the earlier disallowed try when a sustained build-up eventually led to McLeod completing his brace and putting the Sharks into an 11-point lead that was never going to be turned over by a WP team that looked well beaten by then.
Western Province - Try: Damian de Allende. Conversion: Demetri Catrakilis. Penalties: Catrakilis (2), Kurt Coleman.
Sharks - Tries: Charl McLeod (2). Conversion: Pat Lambie. Penalties: Lambie (5). Drop goals: Lambie (2).