A second successive Currie Cup final between the Bulls and Sharks is no coincidence. It’s a reflection of two franchises that are holistically in especially good health, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
As South Africa’s four leading franchises head into the United Rugby Championship, there is no doubt that both the Bulls and Sharks would have been earmarked by opponents up north as serious contenders to watch out for.
First, though, there is still the historically meaningful matter of a Currie Cup final between these two teams for the second season in a row, which has once again demonstrated how the South African rugby landscape has shifted considerably towards Pretoria and Durban dominance.
The turnaround at the Bulls has been quite remarkable over the last 18 months. When the 2020 Super Rugby season was brought to a halt, the Bulls dwindled down in 12th place, having managed just one win from six games.
A plan of action was required, and the recruitment of Jake White proved to be a masterstroke. Equally so, the appointment of dynamic Edgar Rathbone as the new CEO has worked wonders. Passionate president Willem Strauss has completed the triumvirate of leaders with a shared vision on how to turn the Bulls’ fortunes around.
The squad has been overhauled, with a number of high-profile players opting to make Pretoria their home in order to form part of a professionally run franchise that has a history of success, and that is once again racking up winning results.
The Bulls have already added the Currie Cup and Rainbow Cup SA to their trophy cabinet, while they are currently on a stunning 21-match unbeaten streak at Loftus.
It’s been a fascinating case study at the Bulls, with White clearly making his presence felt, and proving to be the best man for the job in the current environment.
It is somewhat ironic in the sense that White enjoyed just a one-year stint at the Sharks in 2014. His time at the Durban-based franchise was prematurely cut short, and while it was a relatively amicable parting of ways, it was clear that he simply wasn’t the right man for that job at that time.
What followed was a period where the Sharks couldn’t quite settle on a head coach to fit into the unique culture of the team and to bring the best out of the players.
The turnaround at the Durban-based franchise has been considerably accelerated by the appointment of CEO Eduard Coetzee, who is nothing if not highly ambitious. Crucially, he also had a definitive understanding of the values that needed to underpin the Sharks’ vision.
It led to the appointment of long-serving coach Sean Everitt, who had served his dues through various coaching ranks in Durban for the better part of a decade before stepping up into the head coaching gig.
Everitt lives, breathes and sleeps Sharks rugby, and his impact was immediate when the coastal side shot to the top of the overall Super Rugby standings before the competition was prematurely halted in 2020.
Behind the scenes, the Sharks adjusted their approach to recruitment, bringing through a host of talented youngsters, but the recent investment of MVM Holdings has again changed the landscape.
Along with the big-name signings of Siya Kolisi and Bongi Mbonambi, they have widely and wisely bolstered their squad ahead of entry to the United Rugby Championship, with the likes of Lionel Cronje, Gerbrandt Grobler, Eduan Keyter, Ben Tapuai and Joaquin Diaz Bonilla among a host of newcomers either already in Durban or heading that way.
The Sharks have also strengthened their coaching staff, formed a partnership with Roc Nation Sports that will undoubtedly have commercial spin-offs, and just this past week announced an astute cooperation agreement with the Cheetahs that will allow a player like Ruan Pienaar to be available for the URC.
There is no doubt that the Bulls will head into this Saturday’s Currie Cup final as favourites, but it’s already been impressive to see the Sharks reach the title decider despite a list of Springbok call-ups that runs into double figures.
The Bulls and Sharks are both benefiting from sound governance structures that run throughout the organisation, while continuing to reap the rewards that come with private investment.
The two franchises are setting up for long-term success, and a second successive Currie Cup match-up is just a continuation of that.