Champions DHL Western Province pulled off the rare feat of completing the entire league phase of an Absa Currie Cup season unbeaten as they beat the Sharks 17-13 in a tightly fought wet weather log decider at Growthpoint Kings Park on Saturday night.
The win ensured that WP have now put themselves in with a great chance of hosting their first final since they beat the Sharks at Newlands in 2001, although they will need to tread wearily as their semifinal opponents are the unpredictable Lions. They beat the Lions in a tight semifinal in Johannesburg last year but came unstuck against the same side when they were expected to win the play-off game the season before that.
WP started the final league game with a one point lead on the Sharks and there was seldom a point in the match where it looked like they would relinquish that advantage. The weather played a big role, and it was actually quite a high quality match all things considered, although by the time the second half arrived neither team had much option but to play a tactical game heavily accented on kicking.
The Sharks played into the elements in the first half, but were unable to make up an eight point halftime deficit when they had the wind behind them in the second. They weren’t helped by the fact that their kickers took turns at missing kicks at goal – Fred Zeilinga missed a penalty and two drop-goals, while Patrick Lambie missed two kickable penalties in the last quarter hour when the Sharks were desperately trying to cut a four point deficit.
Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen stood out like a brightly lit beacon on the dark Durban night for WP. He marked his return to Currie Cup rugby from international duty with some strong carries and robust play in the collisions, but it was his ball scavenging on the ground that earned him the man of the match award.
In particular, three vital steals towards the end of the game, when the penny had dropped for the Sharks and they were finally starting to carry the ball impressively, sealed the win for WP, who fronted the Sharks’ Bok front row impressively in the set-scrums, where Steven Kitshoff is growing in stature with every game he plays.
Not only is the youngster starting to settle in the dark arts of the scrum at this level, he is also starting to blossom as a strong ball carrier. Hooker Scarra Ntubeni and Pat Cilliers also contributed handsomely, with the former also shining in a dominant lineout performance. While the Sharks struggled to win their own ball under pressure, WP had no such problems, and the controlling influence of another returning Bok, Eben Etzebeth, at the front of the Province lineout made a big difference for the visitors.
Both teams started the game with different combinations to the ones that were advertised beforehand. Jacques Botes led the Sharks after Keegan Daniel had to pull out shortly before kick-off due to what was reportedly an accident in the final warm-up. However Daniel did make an appearance after halftime and scored the try that brought the Sharks back into the game in the second half.
Lambie also came on in the second half, and although he missed those crucial kicks, he did make a difference with his allround game. Unfortunately for the Sharks though the territorial ascendancy they enjoyed couldn’t be converted into points against a WP side that was more efficient in the conditions and just made fewer mistakes, while also being arguably stronger in the conditions.
And when Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger came on to add extra composure and presence with half an hour to go, you always got the impression that somehow it would be the Cape team that would win through in the end, which proved to be the case.
WP kicked an early penalty and drop-goal through Catrakilis to take a 6-3 lead after 11 minutes, but it was the 25th minute try to skipper Deon Fourie, with Vermeulen featuring strongly in the build-up with his carry and pinpoint pass after the Sharks had coughed up the ball following a Louis Schreuder kick ahead, that set WP on the road to victory.
When Catrakilis landed another penalty a few minutes later to take the lead to eight points – the halftime score was 14-6 – it set the Sharks the unenviable task of trying to play catch-up in wet conditions against the best defensive team in the competition. They were back in it when Daniel went over in the corner and Lambie cut the deficit to one with a well struck conversion with more than half an hour to play, but they were just unable to get the momentum needed to really pressurize a team that, if you take the last five Stormers games into account, hasn’t lost now for 15 matches.
That’s a massive amount of confidence to take into the semifinal phase and with Juan de Jongh, who was the WP player not to start even though he was in the match programme as the starting No 13, set to return and De Villiers and Burger also in the selection mix, plus Rynhardt Elstadt, there is plenty going for the Cape team right now.
That Sharks though will console themselves with the thought that the boot was on the other foot this time last year going into the play-offs, and it was the underdogs WP who won the final. It makes for a fascinating last fortnight, and this last league match was close enough to add to the intrigue. Although WP deserved to win, it was one of those games decided by 50/50 situations that on another day might go another way.
What both teams will be hoping if they do get through next week's semifinals - the Sharks host the Cheetahs in the other play-off game - is that on final day they will have dry conditions.
WESTERN PROVINCE 17 – Try: Deon Fourie; Penalties: Demetri Catrakilis 3; Drop-goal: Catrakilis.
SHARKS 13 – Try: Keegan Daniel; Conversion: Patrick Lambie; Penalties: Fred Zeilinga 2.