The key to the Sharks’ 2018 Currie Cup success was not how they played in the final, but in what happened four weeks earlier at Newlands on 29 September. On that grim night, the Sharks were spanked 50-28 by a rampant Western Province and given a sharp reminder of how quickly things can go belly up in sport.
Up to that point, the Sharks had been living up to their billing as competition favourites, finding ways to unlock defences and bully opposition packs. But on that miserable night in Cape Town, they unravelled. “We were sitting in the changing room afterwards, and Robert [du Preez Jr] stood up and told us to remember this moment,” coach Robert du Preez Sr recalled.
That it was Du Preez the fly half, whose Sharks career is still less than a year old, who stood up was telling in itself. The eldest of the Du Preez clan of rugger brothers, with twins Dan and Jean-Luc also in the team, had spent the previous year plotting the Sharks’ demise in Province’s blue-and-white stripes. Now he sat in the visiting shed at Newlands and looked to rouse his teammates in black and white.
“Remember this moment, because we will come back here in four weeks, and that Currie Cup will be here in the middle of the changing room,” he roared defiantly. It’s easy to be gung ho when the tide is with you, but the confidence within the Sharks of 2018 was not misplaced by Du Preez. He had already been elected as one of the leadership core, a unit decided by the rest of the team – featuring Chilliboy Ralepelle, Louis Schreuder, Jeremy Ward and Lwazi Mvovo. They all led in their different ways, on and off the field, each man consumed by the dream to bring a smile – and a snarl – back to the Shark Tank.
‘Brother for brother’
There had been rumours of discontent at King’s Park, especially after some tough lessons in Super Rugby. Those same players resolved to adopt the motto “brother for brother”, challenging one another to be like brothers on and off the field. The results, as Du Preez Sr attests, were astounding. There was optimism all around, with each player knowing they were pulling in the right direction.
“That culture allowed a youngster like Aphelele Fassi to come straight in and feel comfortable. We had youngsters calling the line-outs, and all these guys looking out for each other. They were brothers, and that sense of camaraderie counts on the field.”
It certainly counted in the semifinals, when the Sharks met a desperate Lions side and were forced to find another gear. At one stage, the Lions looked like they wanted to derail months of planning in one predatory afternoon. “Semifinals are such fucking hard things for players,” said Du Preez Sr with a sigh.
“It just takes one bad day and an entire season can suddenly be over. It’s hard on guys when that happens, because we know how much they have put in to get to that point. The Lions came hard at us, but the boys showed great composure.”
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The spectacles that both semifinals provided were a reminder to any doubters out there that the Currie Cup is still relevant. The tears that flowed, in defeat and delight, showed what it still means to players who grew up with the day of the Currie Cup final marked clearly on their calendars.
You don’t need to remind Du Preez Sr how much the oldest domestic competition in the world matters. As a Sharks legend himself, he played in seven finals, winning five and drawing one. He knows what winning this grand old trophy does to a city and, more than that, to a team.
“It is massive. Go to Griquas or Free State – when you’re not on the ball, they will turn you over. It’s flipping tough to go to those places because they’re always up for it,” he said of the enduring challenge of the competition.
“Winning the Currie Cup is great for the franchise as a whole, and it boosts season tickets for next year. But it also gives great self-belief to the boys. When you look at South African franchises that have gone on and done well in Super Rugby, their journey started with the Currie Cup.”
All work and some play...
He has a point. Domestic bliss opens the door to duelling with the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights. It’s a shot of adrenalin that cannot be overestimated, even in these days of so much rugby on the calendar.
The Currie Cup is a rite of passage to bigger things. The Lions went that route, as did the Bulls at the height of their glory days. The Sharks are hoping to steal a page from the same playbook. Du Preez Sr, already plotting what needs to happen, is excited by what 2019 might bring.
“Of course it is exciting. Winning breeds confidence, and you have to have confidence going into the Currie Cup. We have a squad with experience, but also youngsters who have gone through a Currie Cup campaign and know what they can achieve.”
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They also know how to have fun. Just before the Currie Cup playoffs, the Sharks unveiled a series of music videos starring the players. It was karaoke gone bonkers, but the players had a ball. They shot the videos long before the trophy was within reach. They did it for the laugh, for team spirit, for brothers. But try as they did, they couldn't convince their coach to join the party. “Jeez, they tried hard! That is not for me. I leave that kind of stuff to the players,” a mortified Du Preez Sr said, backpedalling hurriedly.
He conceded, though, that he learned something from that comical episode. He might not have sang and danced, but the players put a spring in his step. “We take our jobs very seriously. We work hard for almost the whole year, and they reminded me that it is good to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. It is healthy, because it shows that you still have some perspective.”
One for all and all for one
Perspective is something Du Preez Sr has to have, perhaps more than most coaches. He is in the unusual position of coaching his sons in a high-profile team. The obligatory flak is never too far away, but there was a poignant moment when he and his boys stood together at Newlands with the Currie Cup between them. “That was special. Of course, I am very proud of what they have done. First and foremost, I am still their father,” he admitted, taking off his coaching cap briefly.
It is a beautifully bizarre thing to have not one, not two, but three sons playing for a side coached by their father. “We don't even talk about those things, really. Even now [early November], I haven't had time to let it soak in. I know how hard it is for them, some of the stuff that they have to hear, but they have done really well. I never thought something like that would happen,” he smiled.
The three Du Preez brothers have found a whole band of brothers at the Sharks, and it is that family the coach wants to see prosper this year. The loss to the Crusaders in the Super Rugby quarterfinal showed the chasm between the sides, but he is hopeful they can close the gap in next year’s Super Rugby slog. Even as the ink dried on the headlines declaring the Sharks Currie Cup champions, Du Preez Sr was already looking forward to the next mission.
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His players, meanwhile, closed their season with a small ceremony. They took chairs out to the middle of the Shark Tank and sat in a circle. It was the same circle they had used to pick their leadership core, and in which had resolved to return to the middle of the field with the Currie Cup as a drinks holder.
So there, on the last Tuesday of an October they will never forget, with the towering stands around them silent, the Sharks belted out their team song and revelled in a job well done. They embraced as brothers, and committed to doing their utmost to recreating that happy moment – sooner rather than later.