The Airlink Pumas will be appearing in their second successive final and will start it as the reigning Carling Currie Cup champions, but for their coach Jimmy Stonehouse this season’s quest hasn’t just been about chasing one of the oldest trophies in rugby.
The Pumas will go to Bloemfontein at the weekend to play the domestic final with their opponents, the Toyota Cheetahs, sure to be installed as clear favourites. However, it is a position the Pumas are used to being in. They were underdogs when they won the final in Kimberley last year, they were underdogs when they beat the Cheetahs in the semifinal of the 2022 competition, and they were underdogs in both the crucial games they have played over the past two weekends - the final all-or-nothing league game away to Griquas, and then the semifinal in Durban against the heavily favoured Cell C Sharks.
TOUGHNESS IS A KEY
With grit and determination, and a simple refusal to die that puts them in a similar bracket to the new Vodacom United Rugby Championship champions Munster, the Pumas have triumphed in the face of much adversity away from home. And on Saturday they will just have to do it again as they take their status as tournament champions into the final week of competition.
“I think it's the toughness. We really train hard, but it's also the discipline," said the Pumas’ charismatic coach Jimmy Stonehouse when he was asked what was behind his team’s continued success in the Currie Cup.
Tough is what he believes his players have to be, as he feels his union does get the short end of the stick when it comes to the battle for sponsorship and attention. He believes the Pumas deserve to be playing rugby for more than just the months of the year that the Currie Cup is being played.
“It's tough for the guys sometimes at the Pumas, and what we're doing here (by winning these games) is to say to SA Rugby: 'Just give us an opportunity’,” said Stonehouse after his team’s brave 26-20 win over the Sharks.
“We cannot play in the URC or those competitions because we don't have the money, but just give us something - another competition - so that we don't have another seven months of pre-season and so that we can get another sponsor to invest in us. That's what we're trying to create.”
DESPERATE TO MAKE A POINT
In many ways the Pumas are in what has now become the perennial position of their final opponents. The Cheetahs have been desperate to make a point ever since they were omitted from what was the Guinness PRO14 when the top four South African franchises switched allegiance from Super Rugby to morph that competition into the URC.
They didn’t manage it last year, thanks mainly to the Pumas’ come-from-behind win in the semifinal. But at least they did get something subsequent to that - they were included in the Challenge Cup, the secondary tournament to the Heineken Champions Cup. So the Cheetahs do have rugby outside of the Currie Cup and that acts as a lure to players interested in joining the union.
For the Pumas, their domestic competitiveness has had one negative spinoff in the sense that their players are constantly being courted by the bigger unions/franchises, and their stocks plundered just like the Sharks used to do to the Cheetahs a decade or two ago. Not that Stonehouse sees that as a negative - he says the Currie Cup is being used as a platform for recognition for his players.
“It is about showing out there as a team that we belong somewhere. I practice and preach this with the players and I tell them that if the Pumas win, they will go somewhere,” said Stonehouse.
“If they have a belief that they’re brilliant and want stuff on their own, they will go nowhere. I think that’s the greatest thing. At the end of this season, Tinus de Beer is going to Wales, Ali Mgijima is going to the Cheetahs, and Diego Appolis is going to the Sharks. Everybody is going, just like last year.”
Some of those who did leave last year have demonstrated what a solid grounding can do for players who come out of the Pumas, with the Stormers’ consistently performing looseforward Willie Engelbrecht shining in the URC. Last year Engelbrecht was the Pumas captain when they won the Currie Cup.”
DEPARTURES HAVEN’T IMPACTED ON TEAM CULTURE
Perhaps because the Pumas have continuity in the area where it could matter the most, the coaching, they’ve retained their team culture despite the departures. In the end they had to dig deep just to make the semis, but the Pumas started the season strongly and were frontrunners for most of the first half of the competition.
Now that it gets to the business end of the season, their temperament and singular focus on their goal of retaining the trophy they won amidst such emotional scenes a year ago is coming through and it is the biggest threat the Cheetahs will face on Saturday.
“We've got the belief to win, and it doesn't matter if it's home or away,” said the coach.
“It's just the supporters and spectators that don't give us a chance, because we're a small union. But we come in week in and week out and play a good brand of rugby, and it's just amazing.”
It is amazing and a second successive Currie Cup title would be an astounding achievement for Stonehouse and his charges should they achieve it.