A Currie Cup final in the middle of summer

The Bulls being favourites to win the Currie Cup in January is a sign of the times. The season was hampered by Covid-19, resulting in bland rugby with teams not having much time to train.

There’s a story that does the rounds about when Bulls director of rugby Jake White held that position at the Sharks in 2014.

The Sharks were facing the might of the Crusaders in Christchurch and White, having surveyed the opposition’s star-studded cast of coaches, apparently turned to his own staff and despondently said something like: “Look at all the guys they’ve got in their coaching team, and all I have is you guys.”

One of his support staff was current Sharks coach Sean Everitt, who White may or may not have described as an Under-10C coach from his days at Durban High School.

Everitt was the backline coach at the time, and he and White had a running debate over a move the former was fond of and the latter couldn’t stand. Things sort of came to a head in that game against the Crusaders, as not only did the Sharks beat them (30-25) for the first and only time in New Zealand but one of the tries was courtesy of the disputed move.

Apparently the awkward silence that ensued in the Sharks’ coaching box when that try was scored was broken by Everitt mumbling cheekily: “Not bad for an Under-10C move.”

Battle of the schoolteachers

By all accounts, White and Everitt – whose teams will contest a rare January Currie Cup final as a result of Covid-19 at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday 30 January – are very much on cordial terms. But the Sharks mentor wouldn’t be human if he didn’t want to stick it to the former Springbok coach.

The simmering one-upmanship the two former teachers take into the final is a theme that courses through every aspect of an encounter that has come to represent a culture clash, between the “hicks” from up north, for want of a better phrase, and their “beach bum” cousins.

As a result of winning the most and second most Currie Cup titles, respectively, conventional wisdom in South African rugby circles suggests that Western Province versus the Bulls is the greatest rivalry in domestic rugby. But since the Sharks rocked the rugby establishment with that upset victory over Northern Transvaal for their first ever Currie Cup win as Natal in 1990, their clashes with the Bulls have passed the bitterness test consistently in terms of rivalry.

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Such is the ill feeling – manufactured or real – that there was talk that some of the motivational chatter from the Bulls’ coaching staff included imploring their charges not to lose to “these Englishmen” in the two sides’ last encounter last year, which they duly did.

The two franchises will also forever be inextricably linked by history, having contested the first ever Super Rugby final by South African teams in that 2007 epic stolen by the Bulls long after the final hooter had gone off.

The fact that the Sharks never managed to win a Super Rugby championship in the end (the competition was disbanded last year), while the Bulls went on to win two more and be the only South African side to do so, probably still rankles the Durban-based franchise.

There are other peripheral but no less resonant factors that should feed into the desire for the two teams to show each other up in this final.

Having given majority stakes to billionaires Johann Rupert and Patrice Motsepe (Bulls), and American consortium MVM Holdings (Sharks) as their private equity partners, there’s a frantic race off the field to establish each franchise as the leading rugby brand in South Africa.

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The battle to set the tone extends to the two Eds – Eduard Coetzee (Sharks) and Edgar Rathbone (Bulls) – the young and forward-thinking chief executives leading the franchises with unusual vision in these parts.

While they get on and enjoy working together, as was evidenced by their speedily resolving a kick-off issue – the kind of thing that can be politicised needlessly in South African rugby – ahead of the last game between their teams, make no mistake that they’ll be keen to get one over each other this weekend.

Babalaas rugby

The great thing about the animosity, if you will, between the two sides is that it translates into great viewing, the contest as blood red as it has been vibrant.

Whether the standards of this Currie Cup final, the fifth in the history of these two sides (they have split the first four) can live up to those of the past depends on if they can raise their levels above the mediocrity that has gripped the competition this season.

Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions have wreaked havoc with the standard of the local game. There have been complaints about players being in terrible physical condition, teams being disjointed and ball-in-play time falling off a cliff.

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South African Breweries, who took on the sponsorship of the oldest domestic rugby competition via their brand Carling Black Label this season, may be a bit concerned that the beer in question’s reputation for causing a severe hangover may have contributed to the babelaas rugby we’ve seen, not only from the players but also the officials.

But there are mitigating circumstances for the players. Training – be it for conditioning purposes or working on coherent playing patterns as a team – has been hampered by Covid-19 protocols, especially when you consider that teams have frequently only started training for weekend games on Wednesday because of coronavirus testing taking place on Tuesdays. Throw in the novelty of playing in stifling summer heat for most of the teams and you have the perfect cocktail for the underwhelming rugby we’ve witnessed.

David vs Goliath: Part Two

Going into the game, there are shades of 1990 for the Sharks as they are the clear underdogs. The Bulls, a team going nowhere slowly under Pote Human before lockdown, have been transformed miraculously into something resembling the blue juggernaut of old under White.

The miraculous bits come from the fact that White was appointed in the same week the country went into lockdown. Yet, in the ensuing months, he managed to recruit and release the kind of players who have seen the Bulls emerge from that break as the form team in the country, which won the Super Rugby Unlocked competition and are now in contention for a Currie Cup title.

Even more impressive than recruiting players in the relative dark of highlights reels and word of mouth is how White got them playing to his philosophy from the very first game under him.

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The broad strokes of what make the Bulls formidable opponents is a massive pack that scrums well, no-nonsense in the lineout and belligerent at ruck time.

That’s half the job done, and when you follow it up with a halfback pairing (Ivan van Zyl and Morne Steyn) that knows how to direct traffic, inventive centres (Cornal Hendricks and Stedman Gans) and the raw power and speed of Stravino Jacobs and Kurt-Lee Arendse on the wings, you have a team that can hurt you in many different ways.

In contrast, the Sharks – who had gone backwards from the outfit that had turned something as off-the-cuff as counter-attacking into a clinical and structured pursuit before lockdown – have been hampered by an inferior pack.

But with 130kg Thomas “The Tank” du Toit back at tighthead prop, Ox Nche doing his best Beast Mtawarira impersonation on the other side of the scrum and man-child JJ van der Mescht lending his considerable weight (127kg) at lock, Everitt’s men should feel better placed to scrap for parity up front. This is what they needed to do in their 32-29 win the last time the two teams met.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the final is the Bulls’ to lose, but the same feeling hung in the air in 1990. And the Currie Cup wasn’t won in January.

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