Their sequence of important away wins isn’t yet close to what the Irish province achieved, but the Airlink Pumas do go into Saturday’s Carling Currie Cup final suggesting themselves as South African domestic rugby’s version of Munster.
It was a six away match unbeaten run at the business end of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship season that saw Munster defy the odds and lift their first major silverware in 12 years. Like the Pumas will have to this coming weekend, they played their final away, in their case in Cape Town against the DHL Stormers.
They overcame the away disadvantage in the decider, and so can the Pumas, who have evolved themselves into a battle hardened mini Munster by showing great tenacity and unconquerable spirit in overcoming concerted away challenges from first Windhoek Lager Griquas and then the Cell C Sharks in their last two games.
Like Munster were after beating Leinster in their URC semifinal, the Pumas were buoyant after their HollywoodBets Kings Park win over a Sharks team that, it has to be said, played dumb rugby at times and were rightly jeered by their own fans for persisting with a kick it back at them routine when they were chasing the game and should have been holding onto the ball.
The Pumas almost gifted it back to the Sharks when they kicked out on the full from outside their 22 with less than three minutes to go. That period though where they resisted everything that the Sharks threw at them before eventually shepherding the desperate but sustained and prolonged Sharks attack out into touch could end up defining the Pumas if they go all the way.
WINNING AWAY FINAL A MIGHTY TASK
Make no mistake, beating the Toyota Cheetahs on their home ground in a match which could be so meaningful for Bloemfontein is going to be a mighty task for Jimmy Stonehouse and his team. The Cheetahs were impressive in overpowering a tired and listless Vodacom Bulls outfit that has been overplayed and, let’s not mince words, mismanaged.
It is hard to fathom how Bulls coach/director of rugby Jake White can justify the way he threw all his playing resources at the Currie Cup when earlier in the season he was resting his top players from the far more important Heineken Champions Cup clashes. It was a selection policy that surely carried a double whammy for the Bulls - their top players ended up being overplayed because of the commitment to three different competitions, while those players who should have been given the platform of what has effectively become a development competition were denied playing opportunities.
CURRIE CUP WINS MEAN A LOT TO SMALLER UNIONS
Mention of the Currie Cup as a development competition cues the reason neutrals should be pleased it is the Cheetahs and Pumas playing in the decider, and not two teams representing the URC franchises. Somehow the thought of say the Sharks winning the competition with a second or third string team, which was what the Sharks’ Currie Cup team was, seemed a recipe for a hollow, anti-climactic feeling at the conclusion of the tournament.
Pronouncing the KwaZulu/Natal province as Currie Cup country because of a win in a watered down competition wouldn’t have had quite the same catch as it did in 1990, when Natal won for the first time in an era where all the top Springboks participated in the big match on the local calendar.
Perhaps it won’t do quite as much for Bloemfontein or Nelspruit as Craig Jamieson’s men did for Durban 33 years ago with their triumph in Pretoria, but the emotional scenes from after their final win last year showed how important the triumph was to the people of Mpumalanga. It will be the same for the Free State, a union that is desperate to prove that it belongs at the top table of South African rugby, and not just a forgotten entity that is only useful for the production of young talent the other franchises then employ.
YOU CAN’T BE SUCCESSFUL AT BOTH COMPETITIONS
The two teams will be going all out, and the winner will have a right to celebrate, but with all due respect for the Cheetahs and Pumas fans, Saturday’s game isn’t about identifying South Africa’s top team. That was already done when the Stormers so emphatically won the local Shield in the URC.
And in that sense, maybe it is telling that for the second successive year we are having a domestic final that does not feature a URC franchise. Last year the Pumas beat Griquas, this time around they are going to Bloemfontein. The so-called top four provinces/unions will be watching on television.
It isn’t a coincidence that the URC franchises never made it, for the message that has been drummed out not just by the semifinal round but by the decisive last round of the league phase before that is about the folly of thinking you can be successful in both the URC and the Currie Cup.
The 44-5 hammering they inflicted on the Sharks in their last game when they welcomed some URC players back suggested WP would have won the Currie Cup had the Stormers not been involved in the URC for three weeks longer than the other local teams.
WP were stretched when it came to the period that the business end of the Currie Cup and the URC coincided. Not that John Dobson, who coaches in both competitions, will look back at the Currie Cup as a failure. He was using the campaign to grow the Stormers’ depth. If you consider how a clutch of new and fringe players used the competition as a platform to grow experience and show their potential, then he succeeded.
SHARKS GAINED, BULLS DIDN’T
The Sharks were disappointing when they made their exit at the semifinal stage but that was mainly because of how poor they were tactically. In reality the fact they made it to the top two of a competition they made no secret of using primarily as a development tool was a huge win for the Sharks. Like the Stormers, they can feel they got something out of the competition in terms of growth of depth.
You can’t say the same for the Bulls, who had to win the competition to justify their selection policy, which engaged the top URC players at every gap in the URC season when there was a Currie Cup game. Had the Bulls won the Currie Cup it might have justified an argument that the end justified the means, but even that is debatable.
Weekend Carling Currie Cup results
Toyota Cheetahs 39 Vodacom Bulls 10
Cell C Sharks 20 Airlink Pumas 26