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It's the same old South African story for the Sharks

By Daniel Gallan
Marcos Kremer of ASM Clermont Auvergne with Gerbrandt Grobler of Hollywoodbets Sharks have a chat during the EPCR Challenge Cup Semi Final match between Hollywoodbets Sharks and ASM Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham Stoop on May 04, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

The line outside the South African Food Stand inside the Stoop was already 20 deep an hour and a half before kick-off. The space in front of the two stalls on either side – selling burgers and Yorkshire pudding wraps – were empty. It was the sort of day where only a boerewors roll would do.

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Under radiating sunshine a small corner of south-west London took on a very South African feel. The Sharks and their seven World Cup winners had arrived with great expectation, but also a sense of responsibility.

In the midweek build-up Eben Etzebeth, Makazole Mapimpi and Vincent Koch were among the big hitters who argued that the importance of this Challenge Cup semi-final against Clermont carried beyond the Sharks’ own base. That it would matter to everyone connected to South African rugby. Looking at the number of green Springboks jerseys mixed in the black of the Sharks among supporters, this rhetoric was more than mere marketing guff. Even Siya Kolisi and his family made an appearance to add a sense of occasion to the affair.

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Leinster’s attack coach Kieran Hallett defends the decision to send a two-bit squad to South Africa

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Leinster’s attack coach Kieran Hallett defends the decision to send a two-bit squad to South Africa

Of course the Sharks had more parochial objectives. For a team as star-studded as theirs, with financial muscle behind them, this campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. They began the United Rugby Championship with eight losses from their first nine league games and still languish in 13th despite a recent revival. This tournament is all they had left. Silverware, a place in next year’s Champions Cup and a whole lot of pride was on the line.

Sharks Clerrmont
Siya Masuku of Hollywoodbets Sharks is hoisted into the air by team-mates after landing a match-winning conversion after the EPCR Challenge Cup Semi Final match between Hollywoodbets Sharks and ASM Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham Stoop on May 04, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

It didn’t exactly go to script. Or did it? Clermont’s poor discipline in the opening 20 minutes gave the outstanding future Bok, Siya Masuku, four shots at goal, but incisive running and accurate passing saw the rangy Joris Jurand score two tries. The Sharks’ rush defence was reminiscent of the Boks in everything but execution as holes in the line were ruthlessly exposed beyond the 13 channel.

From the restart after that second try, Clermont gave away a penalty for taking out Gerbandt Grobler in the air. Referee Luke Pearce kept his cards in his pocket which prompted an inquisition from the Sharks captain Lukhanyo Am who was told to mind his manners by the man with the whistle. It was then that blue skies gave way to grey clouds. A team with so much international experience was starting to show signs of frailty. They had the ball ripped off them and were then torn apart on defence as Alex Newcombe dotted down a third try.

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Many observers have wondered throughout this season how a team stacked with double World Cup champions could play so far below their potential. Those still in the dark now had their evidence. Even with Etzebeth, they lost two consecutive line-outs to gift away possession. Even with an all-Springboks front-row they were consumed in the scrum to hand Anthony Belleau another three points. Seconds into the start of the second half, Francois Venter instinctively grabbed a loose ball in an off-side position and the score read 31-18 in Clermont’s favour.

Whenever a Springbok or one of the national coaches present over the last six years is asked to identify the reason for their success, they almost always cite abstract concepts. Before they mention their indomitable scrum, their conveyor belt of world class loose forwards or Handre Pollard’s right foot, they talk about hunger and desire. The poverty that Mapimpi overcame and the political unrest back home are woven into the Springboks’ tactics. They tell us, and themselves, that what they’re doing has meaning.

Fixture
Challenge Cup
Sharks
32 - 31
Full-time
Clermont
All Stats and Data

It’s easy to dismiss the role that narrative plays in elite sport. Did the Springboks win three consecutive World Cup knockout games by a single point because that fits the self-perpetuating mythology? Perhaps so. And perhaps it is narrative, and not anything to do with rugby, that explains why the Sharks for so long have been less than the sum of their parts.

With eight Currie Cups, they’re the least successful of all the South African unions in the URC. They were beaten finalists in four Super Rugby finals and have twice been eliminated in the URC quarter-finals. Every sport, every league, is littered with teams that, for all sorts of reasons, just can’t deliver. Maybe the Sharks are just one of those teams?

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The game was done when Jurand had his hat-trick off the back of the umpteenth gaff from a man in black. But the try was chalked off after review and with that the Sharks finally woke up.

Now they moved the ball with fizz and purpose. Werner Kok, reduced to a static mannequin by Jurand in the first half, was blitzing upfield. So too was Etzebeth and Nche. Phephsi Butelezi was finding space in the loose and Am was gathering Masuku’s flat passes on the gallop. And when Bautista Delguy was sin-binned just before the hour mark for a deliberate knock-on, a way back was plotted with the first cobble laid down by Koch’s burrowed try.

How quickly things were turning. But the pendulum hadn’t swung far enough though momentum was with the Sharks. Even when Aphelele Fassi was shown a yellow card the incident carried a degree of good fortune. On another day his wipe-out of Jurand could have seen a penalty-try awarded. On another day Belleau might not have scuffed the chance to make it a nine-point game.

Match Summary

6
Penalty Goals
4
2
Tries
3
2
Conversions
2
0
Drop Goals
0
115
Carries
140
6
Line Breaks
8
15
Turnovers Lost
16
7
Turnovers Won
7

With that miss a familiar tingle could be felt down the spine. Something old and deep and visceral. These fans had been here before. Senior players had been here before. Was it fate? Was it destiny? Were those black jerseys starting to take on a greenish hue?

With ten minutes left Etzebeth plucked the ball from the heavens and set a move rolling. Then Vincent Tshituka unfurled the most magnificent off-load to unleash Am who set up Mapimpi for a try down the left. Masuku’s conversion from the touchline took his own tally to 22 and nudged his team in front.

Am to Mapimpi. A one-point lead. A scrum-half box-kicking for territory. Desperation on defence. Tired bodies smashing anything that moved. A nerve-shredding finish. Shosholoza ringing from the terraces. A famous victory. Nche’s arms in the air. Etzebeth lifting a teammate in shocked jubilation. This was a South African story. And some stories, no matter how many times you tell them, just never get old.

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Comments

8 Comments
B
Brandon 75 days ago

Nice piece of writing. And yes the Sharks pulled a rabbit from the hat and were a little lucky with that penalty try that wasn’t given… however the Sharks (with their resources) should be way more consistent and should be putting teams like Claremont away for breakfast. I expect more from them and hope they kick on now.

C
Craig 75 days ago

Just what the Sharks needed to get things going in the right direction
Defence on the outside really creates havoc for the whole team and needs to be addressed.

F
Flankly 75 days ago

Sharks deserved to be far further back by the last quarter. Their tackling was awful, their set pieces were disappointing, their defensive organization was poor (especially on the Kok side of the D line), they kept making unnecessary errors, and they never looked like cracking the Clermont defense during those first 60m. Masuku kept them in touch, with some help from the Clermont generosity on penalty opportunities.

Agree with the writer of this article. It was belligerence, and ability to raise their pressure game just enough, that turned the last quarter into a Bok-style shutout. Clermont have a reputation of not playing the full 80m, and there was a bit of that for sure. But, quite often when the intensity of a team drops off in the last quarter credit is due to the opponent for tiring them out.

At 60m, with the Kok try, you thought that just maybe the game was on. At 70m, with the Mapimpi contribution, one felt that Clermont were fading, while facing a team that would maintain the pressure game through the final whistle.

Good win in the end, but the Sharks are still playing way below their potential. And with their resources, and a coach that has had enough time to figure things out, they are running out of excuses.

P
PDV 76 days ago

Just came back from the game and the atmosphere was amazing. Players stayed afterwards for more than a hour to sign stuff and take photos with fans. Great day out.

b
bob 76 days ago

A great game.

The Sharks without Etsebeth are a shadow of the team compared to when he plays.

The limitations of Some of the expensive Sharks players are being exposed.

Credit to Clermont for some exhilaration play at times.

J
JPM 76 days ago

Starts to be overdone and oversold this systematic SA narrative…which nevertheless has the merit in this case to recognise blatant refereeing mistakes in their favor

J
Joseph 76 days ago

Nice article. Shades of Steinbeck.
They can win the final if they take the game seriously; but only if they take it seriously.

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finn 8 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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