Sharks shake up Springbok structure with Euro success



Published May 26, 2024


Mike Greenaway

THE Challenge Cup final presented a golden opportunity for the Sharks players to showcase their skills to Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, and he would have liked what he saw at flyhalf and No 8 and, to a degree, fullback.

A world-class tight five provided a platform for the Sharks loose forwards and halfbacks to thrive, and there were also benefits further down the backline.

Erasmus has seen his depth eroded at fullback by an injury to Damian Willemse and that put Aphelele Fassi under the spotlight, but it is unclear whether the Bok coach discovered anything he doesn’t already know.

Gloucester applied the blow torch in the opening 10 minutes of the final at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday night and the Sharks fullback had some skittish moments. Later in the game, when the Sharks were on top, Fassi was exceptional on attack, as he often is.

His 13 carries were the most by a Sharks player and the 60 metres he made was also more than any of his teammates. We know that Fassi is brilliant on attack, but can he take the heat in the inferno that will be a Test match against Ireland or New Zealand?

Once again, flyhalf Siya Masuku had his praises sung far and wide after a 21-point haul in the 36-22 win.

It is phenomenal how quickly he has risen from nowhere. It is mostly because he has the priceless quality of Big Match Temperament, and on the big stage of a European final, it was a case of “unto the manor born” for Masuku.

The Player of the Match award understandably went to tighthead prop Vincent Koch, who at times looked like he was impersonating Masuku’s kicking skills, but the award could easily have been given to the latter.

Masuku’s captain Eben Etzebeth was effusive in his praise of the flyhalf.

“In the dressing room he’s a quiet guy, but on the field he's a different animal,” Etzebeth said.

“He is so composed, his goal-kicking is exceptional, and his general kicking is great, but the biggest thing is his warrior mindset.

“It doesn’t matter who is running into his channel, he won’t back down. He's a warrior for us, and he puts his body on the line.

“He’s not the biggest guy on the field, and I have a lot of respect for him.”

The position of No 8 is another where Erasmus has lost key players. Duane Vermeulen has retired and Jasper Wiese has been suspended for the first six games of the Springbok calendar.

There is a lot of talk about Cameron Hanekom of the Bulls and Evan Roos of the Stormers, but Phendulani Buthelezi has thrown his hat into the ring.

His brilliant solo try was the Sharks’ first and it signalled the end of Gloucester’s bright start to the game.

Koch made the try with a deft pass that put Phepsi into space, but he had a mountain of work to get through to score.

Buthelezi said: “I just asked for the ball from Vincent and I told myself to run as strongly as I could.

“They didn't tackle my legs, so I kept on pumping. I was fortunate that I got through at the end.

“I actually wanted to pass the ball to Vincent Tshituka, but the last defender shot onto him, so I kept on going and was lucky to get the try.”

The Sharks have one game remaining in the current season. This weekend they host the Bulls in the final round of the United Rugby Championship.