Phepsi has a winning recipe for Sharks
CURRIE CUP FINAL BUILD-UP: Phendulani Sikhizane Hendrick Buthelezi may only be 22, but on Saturday he hopes his team can emulate the legendary Natal team of 1990.
That year, 1990, a team of underdogs, captained by Craig Jamieson, arrived from Durban and upset the much-vaunted Northern Transvaal in the now-famous and historic Final – the first-ever Currie Cup triumph in 100 years by Natal (now Sharks).
The Northern Transvaal (now Bulls) captain Naas Botha famously claimed it would take Natal another 100 years before they win their next title.
Since that inglorious and misguided statement, the Sharks have won seven more titles – the most recent in 2018.
Buthelezi, affectionately known as Phepsi, will lead the Sharks into battle against the much-fancied Bulls at Loftus Versfeld – a venue where they have not had much success in recent years.
Since Jake White, the Bulls’ Director of Rugby, arrived in Pretoria, the Sharks have visited Loftus four times – falling short every time.
Their victories over the Bulls have all been in Durban, including a Currie Cup win on August 6 – 35-28.
In fact, the Bulls have lost only once since White’s arrival – when a severely depleted Bulls team got beaten by Western Province (48-24) in the opening round of the competition on June 19.
On that day Jake White and more than 30 of his frontline players were in Treviso for the Rainbow Cup Final and the Bulls fielded a mainly club team in the Currie Cup fixture.
With White in the coaching box and thei frontline players available, the Bulls have not lost at Loftus.
However, just like when the Sharks beat the Bulls (35-28) in their league fixture in Durban on August 6, the Bulls’ impressive track record at Fort Loftus will count for nothing on Saturday.
* (Article continues below highlights package of 1990 Final …)
“We know what we are capable of,” Buthelezi told a virtual media briefing, adding: “We know what we are going to deliver there.”
The Sharks skipper admitted their losing run at Loftus is something they want to change, but more importantly, is that they go and play the type of game they are capable of.
“In finals in the past teams tended to play ‘Test match’ rugby,” he said.
“We want to go out there and play Sharks rugby. We want to win the Currie Cup playing our rugby.
“They have a big pack, a big team in general. We will look to move them around and just play our game.”
Since their 19-26 loss to the Bulls in the 2020-21 Currie Cup Final in January – when the Bulls scored the winning try in the last minute of extra-time – the Sharks have improved in leaps and bounds.
“We have learned from the mistakes we made,” Buthelezi said, adding: “We are in a good place now and confident ahead of this one.”
He said the way to counter is “really simple”.
“You have to stop their momentum.
“When you do that – first phase, second phase, third phase – after that they don’t really know what to do.
“They will just kick the ball away.
“The main focus for us is to stop their momentum.”
He readily embraced the underdog tag, but added that they believe they have what it takes to cause a similar upset to the Class of 1990 – the first Sharks team to win the Currie Cup, doing so against all odds against a much-fancied Bulls team at Loftus.
“Everyone believes – from the coaching staff, to the administrators and the players – that we can go up there and win this,” he said.
He also dismissed altitude as a ‘factor’, pointing out that their squad has played in Pretoria and Johannesburg often and are comfortable with the venues.
In fact, in July the Sharks face the British and Irish Lions twice in one week – At Ellis Park (1750 metres above sea level) and Loftus (1350 metres).
“We believe we have the fittest team in the competition, so altitude for us is not much of an issue.”