CHALLENGE CUP: It’s the stakes that make the final so important

rugby23 May 2024 14:39
By:Gavin Rich
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Players of Hollywoodbets Sharks © Gallo Images

Those who know the EPCR Challenge Cup was created just for the purpose of giving European also-rans something to play for will have thought Eben Etzebeth was stretching it when he said Friday’s final is his biggest ever club game, but he is 100 per cent correct.

Etzebeth will lead the Hollywoodbets Sharks in their competition decider against Gloucester at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the absence of the injured Lukhanyo Am.

The Springbok World Cup winner was still two years away from his Stormers debut when that team played the 2010 Super 14 final at Orlando Stadium, so he said that this game is his biggest ever at club/franchise level.

While it certainly doesn’t rank alongside a Super Rugby final, with the magnitude of the competition being summed up by the fact that it sees the team positioned 13th in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship pitted against the second last team in the Gallagher Premiership, it is the fact it doubles as a promotion/relegation fixture that brings the gravitas.

What is at stake is not just the trophy, and the Sharks’ right to be recognised as the first South African winner of an EPCR competition, but participation in next year’s much more prestigious Investec Champions Cup.

And you just have to look at the Gloucester team that lines up against the Sharks on Friday to understand why a win should be seen as a non-negotiable and why, while the Sharks coaches are understandably trying to talk down the pressure, this is as high pressure an occasion as you can get.

The Clermont-Auvergne team, 10th in the French Top 14 league at the time, had a smattering of stars and provided by far the most formidable opposition the Sharks have encountered in the Challenge Cup.

Gloucester are a step up from the lower ranked French teams that sent virtually academy strength combinations to Hollywoodbets Kings Park earlier in the campaign, but the lack of real known star quality in their side is reflective of where Gloucester stand currently in England.

The Sharks are not a reflection of their current standing in the URC.

At full strength, they may well be the best equipped South African team for the Champions Cup.

When you have players like Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche, Vincent Koch, Jaden Hendrikse, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and next season Andre Esterhuizen and Trevor Nyakane on your books, you need to see those teams being tested by the quasi international teams like Leinster, Toulouse or La Rochelle.

The bun and coke brigade that make up most of the Challenge Cup field, given that many teams just don’t seem to take it seriously and play their games understrength, just doesn’t get the pulse up when they play a team as star studded as the Sharks side is.


So if we don’t see the Sharks in the Champions Cup next season it is a disaster, and not only for the Durban franchise but for South African rugby as a whole.

Not everyone in Europe is crazy about this country being included, and while that looks like it is set in stone as SA Rugby will soon complete the buying-in process, it does require a big performance from this country to capture the imagination over there and make us feel like we belong.

Of course the Bulls and Stormers are developing quickly and they have players on their books that in a season or so will be as big as the Sharks’ name players.

But it is the Sharks who have the most World Cup winners, and in that sense they should be competing for the big prize.

Put another way, they don’t want to be where they are now this time next year - playing in another Challenge Cup final.

The stakes are as high for Gloucester as they are for the Sharks, and a headline that appeared somewhere earlier this week was apt - “The Dance of the Desperates”.

In the sense that this is not a game like most finals where you get two top performing teams who have won much more than they have lost playing each other.

Gloucester did win the Premiership Cup earlier in the season, but if they don’t follow up with a win on Friday, there will be much more focus on what is starting for them to become a perennial finish down the table in their primary league.

Lose on Friday and the Premiership Cup may be a partial salve for the wounds, like the Caraboa Cup was for Liverpool, but not really - their season will be seen for what it is, which is another failure.

And ditto for the Sharks who in their quest to prioritise this game sacrificed two more results over the last fortnight and who sit with a played 17, lost 13 and won just four synopsis from their URC season.

Add in the Pool loss to the Cheetahs in the Challenge Cup and the Sharks have lost a lot more than they’ve won.

That will remain the case regardless of the result of the London final, but if they win they will at least make it into the Champions Cup.

Which Etzebeth agreed he and his teammates would have been happy to settle for at the start of the season.

Even more so a few months ago when it became apparent they were going to struggle to make it through the conventional route of finishing in the top eight of the URC.


Talking of the top eight, if Edinburgh lose to Benetton in Treviso in their final URC game and drop out of playoff qualification, Ulster, who are currently sixth, would be the only top eight side the Sharks have beaten this season.

Which is why regardless of Friday’s result, the Sharks’ final URC game against the Bulls might be a better measuring stick of their recent progress than the one against Gloucester.

There is no denying the Sharks have improved, and the way they dug in to win their Challenge Cup semifinal when all appeared lost showed that their culture is coming through.

Clearly the Sharks players are playing for each other and they are playing for their coaches.

But beating a top four team will provide confirmation of growth that a win over the ninth ranked team in England can’t.

What having the Challenge Cup in their trophy cabinet will do though is pave the way to the Champions Cup and that is where the Sharks need to be.

So this game is huge, and frankly if the commitment shown in the final parts of the Clermont-Auvergne game, and the Bok dominated Sharks tight five play to their potential, this final should not be a race.

With so much at stake, we should see the best of the Sharks at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and that should be way too good for their opponents.

Plumtree said he is hoping to give the long suffering Sharks fans something to smile about after Friday night.

It shouldn’t be so much a hope as an expectation. The Sharks were given a scare in the semifinal but they should be too good in the decider.


HOLLYWOODBETS SHARKS TEAM: Aphelele Fassi, Werner Kok, Ethan Hooker, Francois Venter, Makazole Mapimpi, Siya Masuku, Grant Williams, Phepsi Buthelezi, Vincent Tshituka, James Venter, Gerbrandt Grobler, Eben Etzebeth (captain), Vincent Koch, Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche. Replacements: Fez Mbatha, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Hanro Jacobs, Lappies Labuschagne, Dylan Richardson, Cameron Wright, Curwin Bosch, Eduan Keyter.

GLOUCESTER: Santi Carreras, Jonny May, Chris Harris, Seb Atkinson, Ollie Thorley, Adam Hastings, Caolan Englefield, Zach Mercer, Lewis Ludlow (captain), Ruan Ackermann, Arthur Clark, Freddie Clarke, Fraser Balmain, Seb Blake, Jamal Ford-Robinson. Replacements: Santi Socino, Mayco Vivas, Kirill Gotovtsev, Albert Tuisue, Jack Clement, Stephen Varney, Max Llewellyn, Josh Hathaway.

REFEREE: Mathieu Raynal (France)

KICK-OFF: 21.00 SA time

PREDICTION: Sharks to win by 12