Rugby: Sharks seek NZ inspiration in Currie Cup final

By James Whitmore

DURBAN - South Africa is bracing itself for one of the most thrilling domestic Currie Cup rugby finals in years when the Sharks host the Blue Bulls here on Sunday (NZT).

The match is a repeat of the 2007 Super 14 final when, with just seconds remaining, Bulls winger Bryan Habana scored a converted try to give his team their first Super rugby title, winning 20-19.

South Africa's two premier provincial sides last met in a domestic final in 2003, with the Bulls winning convincingly 40-19, one of four titles won by former coach Heyneke Meyer, who is now in charge of English club Leicester.

For new Bulls boss Frans Ludeke, it has been something of a fairytale season with his team winning 11 of their 14 matches.

After a somewhat disastrous spell as coach of the Golden Lions and Super 14 Cats, Ludeke is on the brink of winning his first piece of important silverware.

But while the Bulls have dominated domestic rugby in South Africa for a good number of years, it is the Sharks who are desperate to claim the honours this weekend.

The Durban team, under New Zealand-born coach John Plumtree, have not won the Currie Cup for 12 years, their last triumph coming in 1996.

Since then, they have been runners-up three times in Super rugby finals and also played in three semifinals.

In the Currie Cup, they have been runners-up four times since 1996 and fallen out at the semifinal stage on a further six occasions.

While there has been talk in the local media that the Sharks "choke" in the big games, Plumtree has rubbished such statements.

"When the first whistle goes on Saturday, all the stuff that has been talked about is completely forgotten and it is about the intensity and accuracy with which you play each minute," Plumtree told the Durban-based Mercury newspaper.

"It is the same with all this talk of the pressure building on us because of what happened in past finals. It is just irrelevant and a waste of time.

"When the whistle goes, no player on either side is thinking about the past."

Plumtree's team have been instilled as favourites after losing just twice this season and because they will field no less than 16 internationals in their match-22, including France first five-eighth Frederic Michalak.

The Bulls, while having plenty of experience playing in finals, do not have as many Springboks in their ranks.

Plumtree, 44 and a former championship winning coach of Swansea in Wales as well as Wellington in New Zealand, is a former Sharks loose forward, having donned the famous black and white jersey for 10 seasons between 1988 and 1997.

He won the Currie Cup as a player in 1990 and 1996 and before moving to South Africa represented Hawke's Bay and Taranaki in his native New Zealand.

In one of Plumtree's last games for the Sharks in 1997, he shared a spot on the replacements bench with current Springboks captain John Smit, who made his debut against Western Province on the day.

Plumtree took over the head coaching job from current Springboks assistant coach Dick Muir last year.

He has brought a physicality to the Sharks pack, whom many feel now have the arsenal to match the aggression of the Bulls, and drawn on his experiences of having played and coached in New Zealand.

- AFP


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