There's a reason it's called ‘finals’ rugby – and the naivety of the Golden Lions lost them the Currie Cup final more than Western Province won it, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The Lions have been the most popular team this season because of their ball-in-hand approach. They’ve been great to watch, but context to the competition in which they have thrilled us with their flamboyance and boyish charm.
It gets harder in Super Rugby, which explains their struggles. It gets even harder at Test level.
Some have described the 19-16 win as one of the best-ever Currie Cup finals. I don’t share the feeling. I felt it was easy on the eye but it was as if one team was trying to appease those who believe we should be playing more like New Zealand teams and one team was a mix between what Australia and New Zealand teams do.
Why can’t we be proud of the South African way? Why is the belief that if a team takes the ball through multiple phases and moves laterally (even if going back in metres) then it is good rugby, and a spectacle.
WP were the more experienced of the two sides and played accordingly in the first 30 minutes. They played for field position, tried to avoid the scrum and surprised the Lions with the pressure they put on the Lions' lineout ball.
The Lions, from the moment they took the field, all grins and high fives and cuddles, looked like youngsters trying too hard to show they were not going to be overawed by the occasion.
All week the Lions coaches and players had insisted they would not change their way of play. What worked for them in the league system was how they would play.
It was a naive approach but one that will get heralded in certain sectors of the media and among the rugby public. I thought their approach to be as ignorant as it was innocent. This is not to be confused with arrogance because the Lions players are schooled more in humility than misplaced ego.
The Lions scrum was very powerful all season. They were superior to Western Province and their lineout should have been a pillar of attack and not a coincidence in the first 30 minutes when WP led 13-0 and did just enough to give the home crowd comfort that it may just be enough to win a home final.
You can’t compare Western Province’s implosion against the Sharks at Newlands in last year’s final to the performance of Saturday because apples can’t be compared to oranges.
The Sharks were a unit made of several experienced Test players and it was WP’s naivety that allowed the Sharks an early intercept, a 10-point lead and a front foot match position from which a youthful WP was never good enough to recover.
The neutral would have enjoyed the match as it seemed inoffensive. It all seemed so nice and the quality was some way off Super Rugby’s final of earlier this year.
The pace of the game was also secondary and the incredible support for the Currie Cup as a domestic competition should not be confused with the standard of the competition and the intensity that goes with a standard that is very much a feeder to Super Rugby.
The romance of the Currie Cup is to be enjoyed and nurtured, but it’s a development competition for Super Rugby and with the country’s leading Test players not participating it naturally lacks something.
New Zealand’s domestic competition is similar in quality and standing. The only difference is 48,000 didn’t watch Taranaki beat Tasman.
The Lions were good enough to beat Western Province if they had applied the principles of strength within their game, played field position, built pressure and then earned the right to use the ball in a manner which has so pleased everyone this season.
They lost against a team that enjoyed a wonderful home support and an outstanding goal-kicking display from a flyhalf who many didn’t want in the starting team for the final.
SuperSport analyst and former Bok coach Nick Mallett was among those who felt Kurt Coleman should start and that WP would only be an attacking threat with Coleman at 10.
However, Demetri Catrakallis, who had kicked 46 from 50 penalty and conversion attempts in the league stages, didn’t miss with five kicks at goal, set up WP’s only try with a quick offload to Jaco Taute and defended like a Trojan. He was named Man of the Match.
The Lions applied the basic to their game only in the second half and when they did they reduced the 13-point deficit. But the naivety of playing too much rugby in their half proved costly, as did the unforeseen misfiring of Marnitz Boshoff’s golden boot. Rarely has the marksman’s radar so misfired.
The Lions missed five kicks at goal. That was a contribution factor, but it was more their approach that cost them because WP were never consistently put under pressure in those areas of vulnerability.
Finals are about field position and building pressure. The Lions never did this. It's unfortunate because as popular as they are, no one remembers a losing finalist in years to come.
The Currie Cup, once South Africa’s premier domestic advertisement, would always produce Test-like environment finals.
The landscape has changed because of Super Rugby, even if the support base hasn’t.
Don’t confuse the Stormers with WP and WP with the Stormers. They are two different teams that play in two different tournaments and the measurement of South Africa’s domestic strength is no longer one determined in October.
Province were more considered and more practical in their approach and got the rewards for understanding a final is not a league game. They also got plenty reward from the amazing Newlands turnout.
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images