Coach praises victorious Sharks for sticking to the plan

rugby25 May 2024 08:45
By:Gavin Rich

The Hollywoodbets Sharks have attained their target of making it into the elite Investec Champions Cup and now we have to wait to see if the Emirates Lions can make it four South African teams in the upper echelon of European competition next season.

The Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers had already qualified for the Champions Cup with one round to go in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship season before the Sharks produced the perfect example of finals rugby in dispatching Gloucester 36-22 in Friday night’s EPCR Challenge Cup final played at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The Lions can make it if they beat the Stormers in Cape Town in their final URC game and the other results conspire in their favour to nail down the seventh spot. Now that the Sharks have the Challenge Cup in their trophy cabinet, finishing eighth will no longer be good enough.

The fact that the venue in London was scarcely half full won’t bother the Sharks, who always knew that their game was really the curtain-raiser for the main event of the weekend, which is Saturday afternoon’s seismic Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse. The Sharks know that is the competition they need to be in, and now they are following a win that was more comfortable for them than the scoreboard indicates and was built around forward dominance and a pinpoint kicking game.


The Sharks had shown that their culture was coming right when they came from behind to beat Clermont-Auvergne in the semifinal at the Twickenham Stoop three weeks ago and an important switch was flicked when Siya Masuku became their first-choice flyhalf two months ago.

Given their form when at full strength and the names on the team list, there shouldn’t ever have been any doubt that they would beat a Gloucester team that finished second last in the Gallagher Premiership and which suffered nine consecutive defeats in that competition earlier in the season.

But while the Sharks, with most of their Springbok World Cup winners playing, had the more star-studded team and started as overwhelming favourites, there’s always a nervy element in a one-off final and in that sense, the Sharks were brilliant as they systematically shut their opponents out of the game. Hardly surprisingly, it was their forward pack, with four Springboks in the tight five, that paved the way for the win.

“We wanted to apply a lot of pressure up-front because we knew it would probably be their strength, so by taking that away, we knew we would have a good chance,” said an elated Plumtree afterwards.

“I thought the scrum was outstanding, and the front row’s drive was very good, and they earned the rewards for it. So was the pressure game from our kicking game. A lot of it was based around scoreboard pressure, which we had to keep building on, and credit to the guys for sticking to the plan.”


Skipper for the night Eben Etzebeth, twice a Rugby World Cup winner, hasn’t experienced as much success at franchise or club level as he has at Springbok level so he was understandably chuffed with the win. And make no mistake, there was a lot riding on the game, which doubled as a final and promotion-relegation game for both teams as it wasn’t just the trophy on the line, but also Champions Cup qualification.

“At club level, this is by far the best memory. The last championship I won at this level was the Currie Cup (with Western Province) in 2012, so it’s been 12 years,” said the reigning two-time South African Rugby Player of the Year.

“This is the first international trophy the Sharks have won and to become the first South African team to win in Europe (in an EPCR competition) is definitely one of my best memories ever.”

The triumph comes off the back of a disappointing URC season, with the Sharks forced to switch their focus to the Challenge Cup quite early as they quickly fell out of the race for a top eight spot in the league season and the Cup competition was their only remaining route back into the URC. There was a pleasing touch of realism in Etzebeth’s post-match comments, for now that the

Sharks are in the Champions Cup, they no longer have the Challenge Cup as a safety net to get there should they fail in the URC again.

“To turn things around the way we have after where we were four or five months ago, was fantastic,” said Etzebeth.

“There was a big drive to win the Challenge Cup as a silver lining to our season, which hasn’t been great. If you told us at the start of the season that we would win the Challenge Cup and qualify for the Champions Cup, we would have taken it. The victory was special, and it felt as though we left our best performance for last. The guys were just incredible, and the physicality was great.”


Given that the road to the Challenge Cup win came against teams that are languishing in their leagues, with even Clermont low down in the Top 14 when the sides met, there is one more important step left in the season for the Sharks - they need to produce a top performance against the Vodacom Bulls in their final URC match to confirm their improvement.

Ulster are the only team in that competition’s top six that the Sharks have beaten this season and a win over the currently second-placed Bulls will show that the progress they have shown in the past few months is not a mirage. It adds an exciting angle to the last league match to be played on SA soil next Saturday.