Gloucester v Sharks preview: Rugby World Cup winners to inspire Durbanites to historic maiden Challenge Cup title

Dylan Coetzee
Split with Gloucester's Adam Hastings and Sharks Siya Masuku.

Split with Gloucester's Adam Hastings and Sharks Siya Masuku.

The time has arrived as only two teams remain in the quest for European glory in the form of the Challenge Cup; it is Gloucester facing the Sharks at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

For both sides their league performance was below par as Gloucester finished the Premiership comfortably in second last and only ahead of the winless Newcastle while the Sharks didn’t shower themselves in glory either with only four wins from 17 games.

However, the teams found a safe haven in the Challenge Cup where they put in some of their best shifts and the competition now presents itself as a unique opportunity for both silverware and a spot in next season’s Champions Cup.

Interestingly the final takes place in London at Spurs’ high-tech spaceship of a stadium that can only be an advantage to Gloucester, who will be far more accustomed to English conditions than their Kwa-Zulu Natal rivals. Even though the Sharks did successfully use Twickenham Stoop as their home ground in the semi-finals against Clermont, the support in the stands on Friday will likely be against them.

There is no questioning the quality of both sides and in particular the Sharks’ big gun Rugby World Cup winners that they will be desperate to lean on in the play-off pressure that the likes of Eben Etzebeth seem to thrive on.

It’s all set up for a thrilling final as the two outfits are eager to use the trophy to transform the outlooks of their seasons and in turn, set up a positive season coming ahead.

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Where the game will be won

Like most knockout games discipline will be key, especially with the pinpoint goal-kicking of Gloucester’s Argentine Santi Carreras and Sharks pivot Siya Masuku. Staying on the right side of the law will be vital and the Sharks are likely to try to leverage penalties through their blockbuster scrum, consisting of five Rugby World Cups in total in the front-row alone in the form of Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Vincent Koch.

The Durbanites successfully used their scrum to bankroll the scoreboard against Clermont in the semi-finals and they will be looking to do that again. Gloucester will need to find a way to achieve parity in that department and try to get under their skin in the line-out. In addition to that is winning the collision, another facet that will be telling in the result.

Ultimately the Sharks have some serious firepower across the board and even though they have not hit their straps this season there is a real chance they could find rhythm if Gloucester let them play.

What they said

Gloucester boss George Skivington is under no illusions of the threat the Sharks pose and expects a big challenge.

“They have got a lot of guys who can change a game in a moment, and we have to be ready for that. They are a big opposition with lots of household names,” he said.

“Like us, their league campaign hasn’t gone to plan, so both teams have a lot to play for.

“There is no getting away from the physicality with the Sharks. Guys like Etzebeth are very big, powerful men, and if you are not ready for that physicality battle it is going to be a long day.

“We pride ourselves on our set-piece and we work really hard on it, and so do they. It is a South African trait to have a very strong set-piece, so I expect that to be a very competitive area of the game.”

Meanwhile, Grant Williams exclusively spoke to features editor Jared Wright about how far the Sharks have come this season.

“There were a lot of things that didn’t work, but at the backend of the season, you’re seeing that it is working, and it’s evident how far we have come that we are in the final,” he said.

Players to watch

Chris Harris is an experienced centre with impressive defensive nous and has lodged himself in as a key star in the Gloucester set-up. So too is Santi Carreras, who is not only a goal-kicking threat but dangerous in open play and should bring the likes of Jonny May and Ollie Thorley to the fore – the latter likes to come in and look for work anyways.

Skipper Lewis Ludlow is a top-quality player and will inevitably empty his tank while expertly contributing to the line-out. His combination with the blockbuster Zach Mercer and Ruan Ackermann could well have a telling impact on this game. The Sharks cannot afford to let the back-row dictate play.

For the Sharks their hard-working back-three of Werner Kok, Aphelele Fassi and Makazole Mapimpi can change a game in a heartbeat which is why Gloucester scrum-half Caolan Englefield will need to keep his box kicking on the money. Another backline star to keep an eye on is the youthful Ethan Hooker who has taken his chances with both hands this season and will do his best to test everyone on the pitch.

The pack has quality everywhere but that Bok front-row with the likes of Etzebeth in the mix will be massive. If the forwards dominate Gloucester it could be half the job done already. It’s a big game for these players to prove they can inspire their club side to greater heights.

Main head-to-head

The match-up to watch for the final is between the generals, it is the battle of the fly-halves. 

Adam Hastings has been solid for Gloucester this season, kicking very well out of hand and controlling where they play with authority for the most part. The Scot is a very talented player and in this one, he is going to have to be very neat in everything he does and importantly kick well. If Gloucester are loose with their kicking game that Sharks back-three could do damage. It’s a big game time for Hastings. 

For the Sharks Siya Masuku’s introduction to the team has been a real saviour this season. The fly-half is on point with his goal kicking, loves a cross-kick and is not afraid to take the ball to the line. He is a great example of how a reliable pivot can settle a team. His rise in stature has been spectacular to watch and has led to calls of a Springbok call-up and this final offers him the perfect audition to prove his worth on a very high stage.

Prediction

It will be a tight game and one where both sides are desperate to fix their season. Expect the clash to be attritional and for set-piece to be absolutely critical. Ultimately the Sharks have too much fire-power and the quality of experience in their World Cup-winning Springboks will show. Sharks to win the Challenge Cup by five points.

The teams

Gloucester: 15 Santi Carreras, 14 Jonny May, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Seb Atkinson, 11 Ollie Thorley, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 Caolan Englefield, 8 Zach Mercer, 7 Lewis Ludlow (c), 6 Ruan Ackermann, 5 Arthur Clark, 4 Freddie Clarke, 3 Fraser Balmain, 2 Seb Blake, 1 Jamal Ford-Robinson
Replacements: 16 Santi Socino, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Kirill Gotovtsev, 19 Albert Tuisue, 20 Jack Clement, 21 Stephen Varney, 22 Max Llewellyn, 23 Josh Hathaway

Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Werner Kok, 13 Ethan Hooker, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Siya Masuku, 9 Grant Williams, 8 Phepsi Buthelezi, 7 Vincent Tshituka, 6 James Venter, 5 Gerbrandt Grobler, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ox Nche
Replacements: 16 Fez Mbatha, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Hanro Jacobs, 19 Lappies Labuschagne, 20 Dylan Richardson, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Eduan Keyter

Date: Friday, May 24
Venue: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London
Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
TV coverage: TNT Sports / France TV / beIN SPORTS / ITV / SuperSport / RTE / epcrugby.tv

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