Second tier Cup can launch the Sharks

rugby07 May 2024 07:00
By:Gavin Rich
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Hollywood Sharks © Getty Images

“Don’t be distracted by Gloucester’s cup runs - their season is a failure”. That was the headline on an article penned in The Times (London) after the weekend’s round of EPCR semifinals by Stuart Barnes. Seeing the Hollywoodbets Sharks are the Gloucester opponents in the Challenge Cup final, it got me thinking.

First up, let’s be clear that what the former England and British and Irish Lions flyhalf says makes a lot of sense and I wouldn’t differ at all with his points. Everyone does know that the Challenge Cup is a second-tier competition. Some compare it with soccer’s Europa League, but you have to finish sixth in the Premier League to make it into the Europa League.

The Challenge Cup is for any professional team in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship nations, England or France that doesn’t finish eighth or higher and therefore qualify for the prestigious Investec Champions Cup.

You’d hesitate to call the URC a domestic league because it is spread across two hemispheres but it, like the French Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership, is the bread and butter league for those teams. It is the one that qualifies them to play in the Champions Cup.

There is no argument against Barnes when he questions whether Gloucester fans should be getting excited about their so-called double - they won the Premiership Cup earlier in the season - when their team again languishes in ninth position in the Premiership proper. He points out that to get to the final against the 13th ranked URC team, the Sharks, Gloucester had to beat the currently eighth ranked URC team, Benetton, in their home semifinal.


The Clermont-Auvergne side that the Sharks edged out at the Stoop this past weekend was arguably the first really top opponent the Sharks have played in the Challenge Cup this year. They had a loss to the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and beat Edinburgh, currently ninth in the URC and outside of Championship Cup qualification, in their quarterfinal.

Otherwise they’ve been fed a diet of second rate opponents, a bit similar to the fish they are named after being fed sardines in an aquarium. To the watching audience watching a big shark chomping a small fish just wouldn’t cut it, and the Challenge Cup shouldn’t cut it for a star studded and monied franchise like the Sharks. Which is why they need to get out of there.

But while I don’t know enough about Gloucester and their history, or the reaction of their fans to the relative successes they have experienced in the cup competitions compared to the Premiership, I would argue that for the Sharks the final on 24 May at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is an important stepping stone for them.

And not just for the obvious reason that lifting the Challenge Cup will be a passage for them back into the Champions Cup that is currently blocked for them through the traditional URC route by their low log standing. A trophy, something that the Sharks haven’t won since they lifted the Currie Cup at Newlands in 2018, is also important.


More than that, the pressure of playing for a trophy and playing in the knockout games deep in a competition, and winning them in the manner they did this last Saturday, is also an important learning experience that can contribute to it being a launch pad for bigger things.

The Glasgow Warriors might be an example of the above. They did finish high up on the URC log last season, but making the Challenge Cup final, which they lost to a Toulon team that used that win to get into the Champions Cup, appears to have been their launch pad. Among other things it whet the appetite of the players and coaches to be in semifinals and finals. Glasgow are now first on the URC log and looking good to secure themselves home ground advantage at least until after the semifinal stage.

The Sharks this season haven’t been nearly as good as Glasgow were last season. But then maybe that’s the point. After a really tough start to the season and, let’s not deny it, their results in the URC have hit crisis levels at times, they have a lifeline offered to them to at least salvage something from the wreckage.

I’d agree with Barnes when he says winning the Challenge Cup does not make your season a success if you bombed in your bread and butter competition, but a trophy would nonetheless be good reward for the turnaround that appears to be happening now at the Sharks.

Clermont are only 10th in the French Top 14 at present, but they did provide the Sharks with an acid test of temperament in the semifinal. The first 50 minutes of that game is what happens when you combine a group of French and Argentine players, plus a smattering of Fijians, Tongans and Australians, into one team and that team hits form.


The challenge that the Sharks faced was a massive one when they were 13 points down early in the second half. And while the event might have felt a bit overhyped beforehand, because after all the Sharks were only making history because they failed to make it into the Champions Cup, the emotion and passion showed the commitment of both teams to what they saw as an important cause.

They experienced the high pressure atmosphere of a semifinal, and for someone like the Sharks’ match winning flyhalf Siya Masuku, who showed massive BMT in his first major playoff game, the experience of getting his team home will be like gold for him and his teammates if they win against Gloucester and go deep in the Champions Cup next season.

In 1997 Western Province, a year before the Stormers came into being, failed to qualify for the Super 12 and were condemned to play in a secondary local competition known as the Bankfin Nite Series instead. Coached by Harry Viljoen, they won that competition against not particularly high ranking opposition, with from memory the final being against Boland.

When they lifted the trophy though it was the first of two occasions they would do it that season. Later in the year they broke a long Currie Cup drought (11 years) by winning a close final against the Cheetahs at Newlands, and they attributed their Nite Series success as their launch pad. Don’t bet against the Sharks looking back on the Challenge Cup as a launchpad if they are playing for a much bigger prize 12 months from now.