Jacques van der Westhuyzen

By Jacques van der Westhuyzen

Head of Sport

Challenge Cup final: After trying season, Sharks have shot at glory

After struggling in the URC, the team from Durban have a big opportunity to end their season with a major trophy.

It might not fully erase the pain of the 2007 Super Rugby final defeat to the Bulls in Durban, but winning this season’s Challenge Cup trophy will go some way towards bringing cheer to the Sharks and their supporters.

John Plumtree’s team take on England’s Gloucester at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on Friday night (9pm), aiming to win one of Europe’s biggest rugby trophies – and become South Africa’s first winner of such a title since joining up with the north after leaving Super Rugby a few years ago.

The Sharks have struggled somewhat to live up to their hype in the last few years, and last won a big rugby trophy in 2018 – the Currie Cup.

This season has not gone well at all for them, but winning the Challenge Cup and qualifying for next season’s top-tier Champions Cup would certainly bring smiles and a boost for the union.

Coach, player challenges

Plumtree’s team fell away early in this season’s United Rugby Championship, losing a number of games that put them out of the running for the quarter-finals, and then questions started to be asked about the re-appointment of the New Zealander as coach for a second stint.

Also, the Sharks have invested heavily in player recruitment in the last few years, bringing in the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi, Siya Kolisi, Vincent Koch and others, raising the pressure to perform and win, with expectations higher than ever before.

Fortunately, the Sharks were able to perform well in the Challenge Cup competition, beating Pau, Oyonnax, Dragons, Zebre Parma, Edinburgh and Clermont en route to the final.

With new No 10 Siya Masuku leading the way, the Sharks’ Springbok World Cup-winning contingent have also upped their game and Plumtree and his men are now just 80 minutes away from glory.

Challenge Cup final

Gloucester are something of an unknown entity, a team who have also struggled domestically this season, finishing ninth out of 10 teams in the Premiership with just five wins from 18 matches.

But, like the Sharks, the “Cherry and Whites” have enjoyed a good European cup run, winning all their games, including victories against Clermont, Edinburgh, Castres and Benetton.

The one player the Sharks men will have some idea about is former Lions loose forward Ruan Ackermann, who joined the team when his dad, Johan, became coach of Gloucester in 2017.

The Sharks will be without key players Lukhanyo Am and Jaden Hendrikse for the match, but still have plenty of experience to carry them through the match, with Masuku at No 10 the key man for the Durbanites.

After an up-and-down season the Sharks now have a golden opportunity to finish 2023/24 with a major trophy in the cabinet.

But as director of rugby Neil Powell said this week, they will, for once this season, need to play for the full 80 minutes to get the job done. If they don’t, it could be another major final that ends in tears for all involved in Sharks rugby.

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