Durban - South African rugby has a brand new Currie Cup champion in the Pumas after the men from the Lowveld pulled off an epic raid on the City of Diamonds to beat Griquas 26-19.
It was the Pumas’ first time ever in a Currie Cup final and they were very much the underdogs even though matches between these sides are historically tight affairs.
The sentiment was with Griquas, though, probably because they had lasted hosted a final in 1970 and they were desperate to add to their three Currie Cup titles of 1899, 1911, and indeed, 1970 when the legendary Mannetjies Roux led them to a famous win over Northern Transvaal.
Roux was in the stands but there was nothing the great Springbok could do to prevent the team formally known as South Eastern Transvaal from at last having their day in the sun after over 100 years of non-achievement.
Perhaps the man most responsible for this stunning success is Jimmy Stonehouse, the veteran coach and one-time Mr South Africa bodybuilding champion, who each year has to start from scratch after losing players to the bigger unions.
CHAMPIONS, CHAMPIONS, CHAMPIONS!🏆— Carling Currie Cup (@TheCurrieCup) June 25, 2022
Let records show that destiny prevailed, Jimmy Stonehouse and the Airlink Pumas have won the #CarlingCurrieCup for the first time in their history! 💜👏#ReachForGold #TheChampionWithin @blacklabelsa pic.twitter.com/NR3YOAYyJJ
Prior to the match, Stonehouse profoundly said that” the pre-match butterflies must not turn into ostriches”. In other words, he wanted his team to give it a crack regardless of the occasion, and they did just that.
Just two minutes into the game Griquas were penalised for a tackling infringement and Eddie Fouche calmed his nerves with a sure strike but coach Stonehouse’s head was in his hands when from the restart his team was penalised, and the prolific George Whitehead made no mistake.
Stonehouse had stressed that discipline would be key but his team conceded five penalties in the first 20 minutes and Whitehead was able to put his team into a 6-3 lead as the first quarter lapsed but the Pumas then exploded into spectacular action.
The forwards created the space with a series of rampages up the field and then the ball was spread wide by flyhalf Tinus de Beer for fullback Devon Williams to score at the corner flag, and Fouche managed to add the extra points from the touchline.
Yet another penalty against the Pumas allowed Whitehead to close the gap to 9-10 but the Pumas replied with a fine break by centre Sebastian de Klerk. They could not get over the line after a long period of pressure but they did win a penalty for Fouche to kick over.
In a massive moment just before half-time, the visitors turned down a kick at goal in favour of the punt to the corner flag and they were handsomely rewarded when hooker Eduan Swart was driven over and his team had a handy 18-9 lead.
And that neatly became a match-winning advantage just two minutes in the second half when Williams looked like he had scored a sensational try only for the TMO to pick up a forward pass from De Klerk to Williams.
But they did get three points a few minutes later when another commanding passage of play won them a penalty.
Again the Pumas committed the cardinal sin of giving away a penalty from the restart but as Whitehead lined up the kick, the referee got word of Griquas foul play and the penalty was reversed.
It was a hugely key moment because instead of three points for the Griquas, the ball was kicked deep into their half and seconds later captain Willie Engelbrecht scored in the corner and it would be extremely difficult for the home team to come back from 26-9.
Griquas have a reputation as the Currie Cup’s comeback kids, though, and when they won a scrum penalty and got into the Pumas’ 22, they attacked fiercely but were kept out by heroic defence and when hooker Swart won a turnover on his own line, the home crowd went silent.
Swart then undid his good work by making the schoolboy error of balking his lineout throw, and Griquas took a quick tap penalty and before the Pumas could wipe the frustration out of their eyes wing Munier Hartzenberg had scored and Whitehead’s conversion made it a ten-point game with a quarter of the match to go.
It was now Griquas’ turn to make a shocker when the clearance from the restart was charged down and then Whitehead carried the ball back over his line to give the Pumas an attacking scrum. The Pumas threw everything into clinching the match only for De Klerk to be held up over the line.
Two minutes from time, Whitehead kicked a goal to make it 26-19 but that is where the comeback ended.
Griquas: Try: Munier Hartzenberg. Penalties: George Whitehead (4). Conversions: Whitehead.
Pumas: Tries: Devon Williams, Eduan Swart, Willie Engelbrecht. Penalties: Eddie Fouche (3). Conversions: Fouche.