The fine print of the European Challenge Cup draw that was announced on Wednesday has perhaps added a bit of extra motivation to the two protagonists in Saturday’s Carling Currie Cup final in Bloemfontein.
The Toyota Cheetahs, who will host the domestic decider following their comprehensive semifinal win over the Vodacom Bulls last weekend and their top of the log finish in the regular season, were part of the Challenge Cup this past season. But they were not listed among the participants when the draw was made, with instead there being place made for Invitation team 1 and Invitation team 2.
Who will those invitation teams be. It is no secret that there is a big drive to have a team included from Georgia, but it does appear there is still potential for South African participation. Just how excited the Cheetahs will be about the possibility after they struggled with running costs when participating last season only they will know, and them being based in Parma didn’t really sell the competition to the people of Bloemfontein like might have been the case had they played some games at home.
But still, participating in a European competition does bring extra prestige and could be a good selling point for players who are either weighing up moving to the Cheetahs or considering moving away.
The same can be said for the Airlink Pumas, who are the reigning champions and would surely nudge someone into considering them for a European gig were they to win the Currie Cup for the second year in succession. The costs would appear to preclude them, but then their coach Jimmy Stonehouse did complain about the lack of draw for potential major sponsors after his team beat the Cell C Sharks 26-20 in last week’s semifinal in Durban. A run in the Challenge Cup could just be what the Nelspruit union needs in their quest for greater recognition and funding.
Either way, it is another potential subtext to add to the narrative of Saturday’s final, where the Cheetahs will start strong favourites to avenge their semifinal defeat to the same opponents last year. But the Pumas can’t be written off as they have shown a Munster-like fortitude and hunger that has seen them win two difficult away games to get where they are.
They will make it three in a row if they win the Bloemfontein decider, which doesn’t quite match the Munster feat of winning six away games on the trot in clinching the Vodacom United Rugby Championship trophy, but would still be quite an achievement and make them worthy champions.
The Pumas were excellent against the Sharks in most aspects of the game, but the one area where they struggled was in the set-scrums. Indeed, the Sharks can kick themselves for not making proper use of the telling advantage they had in that phase, and it was what let them back into the game after they trailed 12-0 early doors.
Many a Currie Cup final has been decided by the scrums, and it is a key area the Pumas need to rectify before Saturday if they are to stand any chance of retaining the golden trophy. Pumas coach Jimmy Stonehouse is confident he has a plan that will make his team’s scrum less vulnerable and was quite confident about it when he went in front of a press conference earlier this week.
“We did struggle a bit in the scrums against the Sharks, that’s for sure but we’ll be fine against the Cheetahs. We know how to fix it, so it’s not really a concern for us,” he told reporters.
Stonehouse is an experienced and wily coach and he knows how to win a final after last year’s experience in Kimberley, which is about 160 kilometres away from Saturday’s venue.
“We are working on a few things. You have to bring a little something new to a final. Every guy has something up their sleeve,” he said.
His biggest weapon though, on the evidence of recent weeks, will be his team’s determination, tenacity and simple refusal to lose.