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The underdog fight

It's interesting to see coaches squabbling about who is the underdog.

Naas Botha said many times that it was not the size of the dog in the fight that mattered but the size of the fight in the dog. It seems, too, that it is being underdog that matters. Not that it applied to the Currie Cup Final.

There was no doubt that the people of the Western Province believed that their team was the topdog – best, fastest, fittest. "It's ours to lose." The team may well have believed it too. And in the meantime the Sharks put their heads down and came up with a clever plan that worked. It produced a victory even bigger than the 33-19 score. It is by no stretch the only victory for the underdog.

Overconfidence may not have been the reason for the Western Province defeat but it has forever been the besetting sin of South African rugby. Doc Craven believed that of his own days as playing Springbok. In fact his last Test was a case in point.

The British and Irish Lions were touring in 1938. at a time when Springbok rugby was at its zenith, without doubt the best team in the world. In the Thirties they won a grand slam in the UK and Ireland, won series home and away against the Wallabies and became the first team ever to win a series against New Zealand in New Zealand.

The 1938 tourists were not a great side. They lost seven matches on the tour. Two of those defeats had been at Newlands and they were to play the third Test at Newlands. They had lost the first 26-12 at Ellis Park and the second 19-3 in Port Elizabeth. A week after that PE defeat they played the Springboks at Newlands.

Both teams sailed on the same ship from PE to Cape Town and the Springbok psyche was not fixed on rugby. They were put up at the St James Hotel on the False Bay coast and threatened a strike if they were  not moved to the Metropole in the city centre, where the action was. The lost 21-16 at Newlands. Craven was the captain and it was his last Test, a bitter memory for the rest of his life.

The French came in 1958 and the Springboks had not lost a home series since 1896. The Springboks believed that they could bash the French forwards to smithereens. But Lucien Mias and company fought back and the French, although losing three and drawing one of their eight matches, won the series.

It is not always just a South African problem. In 1970 the All Blacks toured South Africa. That year the Springboks had ended their tour of the UK and Ireland without winning a single Test. Now came Brian Lochore's All Blacks, sitting on a record of 17 successive Test win, cutting a swathe through the country, winning their first 10 matches, scoring 276 points to 81.

South Africa's nerves were ajangle as the first Test was due at Loftus Versfeld. Astonishingly, the Springboks, captained by Dawie de Villiers, won 17-6 with tries by De Villiers and Syd Nomis to a try by the great Brian Williams, the most charismatic player to tour South Africa since Tony O'Reilly in 1955. Williams was part Samoan as for the first time the All Blacks were allowed to pick their own team. The door was opened to the Maori. That Test was certainly a victory for the underdog.

In 1982 the Springboks played the touring Jaguars, really Argentina in disguise with a couple of Uruguayans, a couple of Chileans and a Paraguayan. The Springboks beat them 50-18, eight tries to one, in Pretoria and then went to Bloemfontein for rest and recreation and a second match against the Jaguars. Hugo Porta scored in all four ways and the Jaguars won 21-12.

That was the last time Wynand Claassen captained the Springboks but he was the leader of an underdog victory of note in 1984. The Currie Cup had two sections that year. The top teams were in the A Section and the rest in the B Section but for the look of the thing the B Section had a chance to play for the Currie Cup. The top two teams played the top two A Section teams. Free State went gaily down to Durban to fulfil their duty, their allotment of Final tickets already sent up from Newlands. Natal beat them 26-15. There was a scramble in Bloemfontein to get the Final tickets together and down to Durban.

In 1986 Transvaal were the favoured side. They had not won the Currie Cup since 1972 but in 1986 they had beaten Northern Transvaal and Western Province. They had won the Lion Cup. They came down prepared for a celebratory return. Hugo van As scored first and expectations were on the way to reality but Faffa Knoetze scored a try and Goggie van Heerden two tries, and Western Province won 22-9.

In 1987, the next year, too, things went awry for Transvaal. This time they were playing Northern Transvaal at Ellis Park on a day when there was rain, hail and lightning. Jannie Breedt's Transvaal were favourites. After all they had twice beaten Northern Transvaal. At half-time they were leading 15-6 after tries by Hempas Rademeyer and Schalk Naudé. At half-time Northern Transvaal captain, Naas Botha said: "Gee die bal vir my", and that is what Northern Transvaal did, and it worked. Botha kicked four penalty goals and four drop goals in the hail and rain and Northern Transvaal won 24-18.

In 1995 the Springboks were the victorious underdogs – certainly against Australia in the opening match and probably in the Final against the Lomu-fired All Blacks.

In 1999 there were two victories for the underdogs at the Rugby World Cup.

South Africa played England in Paris. Read the British press and learn that all England had to do was to pitch up and win. But Jannie de Beer kicked dropped goals and the Springboks won 44-21.

The other was a semifinal. In his preview of the match Stephen Jones of the Times wrote in praise of the All Blacks and how they would beat France. His last sentence said, memorably: "Of course, France may win, and pigs may fly." His prediction seemed to be coming true when New Zealand led 24–10 in the second half after Jonah Lomu had bashed over for a try. But then the French got going and won 43-31 in perhaps the greatest World Cup match of them all.

It may just be that the Currie Cup final of 2013 falls into that category, the proud underdog biting the topdog. Western Province were unbeaten. They had beaten the Sharks home and away. They were at home with the whole of the Cape on their side, 48 000 people in their stadium supporting them. They had, it seemed,  the full recipe for success, and yet it was not enough. The cake was a flop. The Sharks on the other hand, proud but underdogs, sat planning carefully and careful planning won. If you add on the 14 points that Pat Lambie's boot missed and the 14 points from two disallowed tries and you probably are closer to the size of the victory.

There is no doubt that, all things being equal, it is safer to be the underdog if you have the skill and courage to work hard. But then it is also understandable that complacency/overconfidence would enter the topdog's mentality. The underdog is challenged; the topdog is less challenged. Something goes wrong early in the match and overconfidence gives way to self-doubt, and once self confidence goes victory ebbs away with it. It's not new.

By Paul Dobson


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