It was one of the funniest experiences I’ve had covering the Currie Cup, and it happened far from the field of play…
The year was 2001 and the setting was the Sharks team bus, shuttling the away finalists from Cape Town International Airport on the N2 highway. Suddenly, an enormous roadside billboard came into view, and it read: “Welcome to WHINE country!”
The sneering Sharks erupted into laughter at this advertising space bought by a Durban BMW dealership that had a keen wit and an exceptional eye for a marketing opportunity, and the fire of retribution that captain Mark Andrews had been stoking in his team all week was given another blast.
The Sharks had lost the 2000 final they had been heavily-favoured to win in Durban and they were now on a bus headed for Newlands to take their broadsword to the dainty rapiers of the “Province poofies”, as the gung-ho Sharks of that era perceived matters.
Heavy-hitting Butch James and flame-tempered AJ Venter were in the vanguard and they were intent on avenging the shock-loss by hoisting the trophy in Cape Town.
But how did this delightful backdrop to a Currie Cup final come to pass? Well, it had a lot to do with two rival captains in Corne Krige and Mark Andrews that were as competitive as they were robust; you did not want to meet either of them in the dark alley of a loose scrum!
The bad feeling in fact dated back to a league match in Durban not long before the 2000 final, a spiteful encounter in which the Sharks clobbered Province, on and off the ball, for an emphatic victory.
In the words of Andrews at the time: “I was building up a head of steam to cover-tackle Breyton Paulse when he flicked the ball inside (to a support runner) and I thought: ‘F..k this, I’m not pulling out now after all this effort’, and I milled him about five seconds late…”
The Sharks’ outside centre that day, Trevor Halstead mimicked his captain with a similar offence on Paulse. The bad feeling between the teams festered through the 2001 season and it led to Krige hatching a plot to unhinge the “bully-boy Sharks” ahead of the final.
He later said: “We decided that in media interviews we would bait the Sharks by saying they were a dirty team and that Andrews should control himself and his players better. And we got the message out to the match officials that they needed to watch out for the Sharks punching off the ball.
“It was a bit below the belt but it achieved its objective because, when we played the match, we noticed that the referee and the touch judges were watching the Sharks intently. That meant they couldn’t play their normal physically intimidating game, and that undoubtedly inhibited them.”
Earlier in the week, Andrews had been so riled by the Province stirring in the press that he took the highly unusual step of calling his rival captain to take him to task. This only a few days before Cup final battle…
Krige recalls how he smirked when he heard Andrews on the line: “He demanded to know what our ‘whinging’ was all about. That told me our plan had worked. They were rattled. We had got to them!”
It truly was a bad week for Andrews. In fact they hardly get worse for a rugby player. Just a few hours after the glee of the Whine Country billboard, Andrews pulled a calf muscle in the captain’s practice at Newlands. And the next day he sat in the stands watching his team get beaten.
Seldom has there been a more colourful case of the proverb, ‘he who laughs last, laughs loudest’.