Absa Currie Cup History of The Sharks
The Kwa-Zulu Natal Rugby Union (KZNRU) may have been formed as far back as 1890,
but it took 66 years for the union to enjoy its first Currie Cup final. In the
interim, the province did produce its fair share of quality players, including
Springboks Bill Payne, Wally Clarkson and Philip Nel, who led South
Africa on the country’s unbeaten tour of New Zealand in 1937. But the
1940s, 50s and 60s weren’t successful years for the province, although
legendary coach Izak van Heerden did manage to fashion two unbeaten
seasons in ’61 and ’63, when the Currie Cup competition wasn’t held.
The 1956 final saw Natal up against Northern Transvaal and even though
it was contested at Kingsmead, 9-8 was the score in favour of the men
from Pretoria. That defeat, however, was to go
straight into the memory banks and avenged many years later.
With so many Springbok test matches in the early 1960s, the Currie Cup
was contested only four times in that decade. Natal failed to make an
impression, despite being able to call on the likes of Springboks Ormond
Taylor and Keith Oxlee. But the province did succeed in building its own
unique style of exciting rugby, thanks to the foresight and genius of Van
Heerden. Van Heerden, who coached Natal from the late 1950s into the
‘60s, was ahead of his time, fostering a brand of rugby that placed so
much emphasis on ball retention and the interplay of forwards and backs
to produce try-scoring opportunities.
Nonetheless, Natal saw very little success in the 1970s, until the arrival
of Wynand Claassen from Pretoria in late 1979. What followed was a rare
third-place finish in the Currie Cup in 1980, with Claassen receiving inspirational
support from Welshman Roger Gardner and former Wallaby Mark
Loane. The standout result was a 22-19 defeat of Northern Transvaal – Natal’s
first win over the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in 41 years.
The Bulls went on to win the Currie Cup again that year, but Natal were
the only side - apart from the touring British Lions - to get the better of
them. During the 80s, Natal could call on players of the calibre of Gawie
Visagie, Henry Coxwell, Rob Hankinson and Mort Mortassagne, but relegation
to the B-Section followed in ’81. The side made up for this in
1984 by qualifying for the Currie Cup final, despite plying their trade in
the B-Section. That was after a stunning semifinal victory over Free State,
thanks to two tries from Des McLean and one each from Derek la Marque
The “Banana Boys” gave a good account of themselves in the 1984 final,
but Western Province were too good, winning 19-9 at Newlands in Cape
Town. For much of the 1980s Natal were written off as a B-Section team
punching above their weight. It wasn’t until the arrival of legendary
coach Ian McIntosh from Zimbabwe and the return to the A-Section in ’87
that they started to lay the foundations for success in the 1990s.
After arriving in 1986, McIntosh quickly made his mark in Durban and
spent the late ‘80s building a squad and recruiting players he felt would
serve the greater good of Natal Rugby. That culminated in a dream 1990
Currie Cup season, which saw Natal sweep aside just about all before
them, with only a heavy round-robin defeat to Northern Transvaal playing
on their minds as they travelled north to face the same opponents in
Despite Natal’s great season, the men from Pretoria were heavily favoured
to win, particularly in front of a partisan home crowd that had
become accustomed to Currie Cup success. And with match-winning
flyhalf Naas Botha at the helm, it was widely accepted that Northerns
just had to show up to win. But, in one of the biggest upsets in the history
of the competition, McIntosh’s side turned the tables and edged out
their more-fancied opponents 18-12, after a match-winning try from flying
winger Tony Watson.
The victorious side was captained by scrumhalf Craig Jamieson, who led
the team on a ticker-tape parade through central Durban later in the
week. The victory was especially poignant for being both Natal’s first,
and for occurring in the union’s centenary year. Players from that history-making
team included fullback Hugh Reece-Edwards and centres Dick
Muir and Jeremy Thomson.
But the hard work was done up front by Gerhard Harding, Tom Lawton
and Guy Kebble in the front row, backed up by the lock pairing of Andre
Botha and Rudie Visagie, flank Wahl Bartmann and eighth man Andrew
Aitken. McIntosh produced a masterstroke by naming regular lock Steve
Atherton on the flank just minutes before kick-off. It resulted in what was
arguably Natal’s heaviest-ever scrum and laid the platform for the Durban
side to put the required pressure on Northerns scrumhalf Robert du
Preez and Botha.
That 1990 victory was the catalyst for further Currie Cup success, as McIntosh
set about ensuring continuity that culminated in Natal being labelled
the “team of the ‘90s” a decade later. During this time, the province also
recruited wisely, with the likes of Du Preez, fullback Andre Joubert, flyhalf
Henry Honiball, centre Pieter Muller and prop Ollie le Roux all making
the trip to Durban to seek greater fortune. Another shrewd acquisition
was tireless flanker Bartmann from Transvaal, and 1992 saw him lead Natal
to a second Currie Cup triumph – this time away from home.
Francois Pienaar’s powerful Transvaal unit were defeated 14-13 in the final at Ellis
Park. A 21-15 Currie Cup final defeat to the same opponents followed in
1993 – a loss that was made all the more difficult because it took place in
front of an expectant home crowd at Kings Park.
But Natal were back in the winner’s circle two years later. By now, players
such as locks Mark Andrews and Atherton, hooker John Allan, eighth man
Gary Teichmann, prop Adrian Garvey, wing Cabous van der Westhuizen
and scrumhalf Kevin Putt were all household names and either current or
future Springbok stars.
Making the most of a memorable World Cup year which saw the Springboks claim an historic first world title, McIntosh also recruited Frenchmen Olivier Roumat and Thierry Lacroix to bolster what
was already a highly talented squad. It proved a masterstroke, with the
big lock and flyhalf playing important roles in the 1995 final victory over
Western Province in Durban. The final score was 25-17, with Natal able to
celebrate a third Currie Cup success in six years.
With the likes of legendary fullback Joubert now entering their prime,
along with a new crop of Sharks heroes in the form of flank Wayne Fyvie
and prop Robbie Kempson, further success followed in 1996 with Natal
securing their first back-to-back Currie Cup titles. Such was their dominance
in that year that McIntosh’s side were able to travel away to Ellis
Park and convincingly beat Transvaal 33-15, with Joubert grabbing the
man-of-the-match award with a stunning two-try performance.
It was surprising, then, that the Durban team had to wait until 1999 to contest
another final, with the likes of Western Province, Free State and Northern
Transvaal once again coming into their own towards the end of the ‘90s.
But it was to be Transvaal that would cause Natal Currie Cup heartache,
as they pitched up in Durban and handed the four-time champions a 32-9
hiding in the 1999 final, with Transvaal fullback Thinus Delport scoring
twice in a match-winning performance.
That signalled the end of an era, with McIntosh, inspirational captain Teichmann, Honiball and Joubert all
announcing their retirements. Nonetheless, with Rudolf Straeuli now at
the helm and future Springbok captain John Smit at the forefront of a
Sharks revival, they were able to overcome those huge losses and qualify
for the 2000 final. But Western Province were too strong at The Absa
Stadium Durban, as The Sharks went down by 25 points to 15. It was a case of
deja vu just 12 months later, but this time at Newlands in Cape Town. The
score was 29-24 on that occasion, as Province enjoyed a period of dominance
over their coastal rivals from Durban.
The Sharks bounced back to feature in the 2003 final, but a heavy 40-19 Currie
Cup final defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria followed and that was to signal
the start of a barren period for the province. It wasn’t until 2008, with
New Zealander John Plumtree in charge, that The Sharks were able to
break the curse and once again claim Currie Cup glory.
The Bulls were their opponents in the final, and this time The Absa Stadium Durban faithful
were treated to a gutsy Sharks performance that culminated in an
edgy 14-9 victory. It was the fifth Currie Cup title, and like the 2005 final, a French-connection in the guise of Frederic Michalak would again be involved for The Sharks and, with
quality young players such as Ruan Pienaar, Rory Kockott, Beast Mtawarira,
JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis, Keegan Daniel and Ryan Kankowski in their ranks, the portents for success are clearly present.
Many of the above-mentioned players, along with some of the stalwarts like John Smit, Stefan Terblanche and Jacques Botes, together with a few new recruits like Willem Alberts and Louis Ludik, and new talent coming through the Sharks Academy made good in 2010 as The Sharks regained the Absa Currie Cup trophy after another successful domestic season.
Having finished the pool stages of the tournament at the top of the log, they dispatched of the Blue Bulls in the semi-final and then comprehensively beat Western Province 30-10 in the final - both matches taking place in front of home crowds at The Shark Tank.
Young Patrick Lambie was the star of the show, earning the coveted Absa Man of the Match with his 25 individual points' haul and he, along with Keegan Daniel, Lwazi Mvovo, Willem Alberts and Charl McLeod all went on to gain Springbok honours at the end of the year.
The Sharks reached their third final in four years when they finished second on the log in 2011, with the Lions finishing top. The Lions had not won a trophy since beating the Sharks in the 1999 Currie Cup Final. Despite the odds, a fired-up Lions side emulated the feat of their predecessors of 12 years previously (interestingly enough, The Sharks too had suffered a 12 year drought, winning in 1996 and then again in 2008) and ran out winners at a packed Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg.
The Sharks had an uphill battle, missing a number of their players who were away on national duty, in the Tri Nations and then the Rugby World Cup which was held in New Zealand. To their credit, they finished second overall behind eventual winners the Lions who they met in the final at Coca-Cola Park. A fired-up Lions side broke a 12 year drought to defeat The Sharks and emerge 2011 Currie Cup champions.
It was a similar scenario in 2012 when The Sharks managed, again, to reach the Currie Cup Final, hosting it again as they had successfully in 2008 and 2010. All the signs suggested that they would emulate those feats, but sadly it was Western Province who broke their own 11 year trophy drought in a tight final at Mr Price Kings Park.