Sharks make history with Challenge Cup crown as sorry Gloucester season reaches disappointing end

Gloucester 22-36 Sharks: The Sharks became the first South African side to lift the Challenge Cup, beating Gloucester at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to leave George Skivington’s future in doubt

Harry Latham-Coyle
at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Saturday 25 May 2024 08:00 BST
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The Sharks made history as the first South African side to win the Challenge Cup
The Sharks made history as the first South African side to win the Challenge Cup (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The invading raiders of the south have plundered their first silverware. It never felt like it was likely to be long until a South Africa side got their mitts on one of Europe’s most precious prizes – they may not yet be Champions Cup challengers but the Sharks will take the Challenge Cup spoils back over the equator in just their second season since arriving on this stage.

A late Gloucester surge left the final margin closer than it should have been but this was a final that their opponents controlled. The Premiership side were dismantled by the brawn of a World Cup-winning front row and the boot of Sharks fly-half Siya Masuku; this may be the more minor of the continent’s two prizes yet it mattered little to the smiling South Africans as captain Eben Etzebeth hoisted the trophy aloft at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“The victory was special, and it felt as though we left our best performance for last,” Etzebeth said afterwards. “The guys were just incredible, and the physicality was great.

The Sharks announced their arrival in Europe at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
The Sharks announced their arrival in Europe at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (Getty Images)

“At club level this is by far the best memory. The last championship I won (at club level) was the Currie Cup in 2012, so it’s been 12 years. This is the first international trophy the Sharks have won and to become the first South African to win in Europe is definitely one of my best memories ever.”

Gloucester had arrived in search of salvation after a sorry season. It has been a horrid campaign for George Skivington and his men, reduced to also-ran status in the Premiership before the New Year was seen in and finishing only above Newcastle in the end. A domestic cup win meant that they would have silverware of some sort to perch on the shelves in the Shed, but victory here was a must to give the supporters reason to smile.

Their fans travelled in good number, stripes of red and white an unusual sight in this particular postcode but on the backs of most of the 34,761 crowd as Gloucester sought a third Challenge Cup crown. The English club spent most of the first ten minutes building barracks in the Sharks’ 22, launching a series of offensives from close-range.

The Sharks controlled a one-sided final to secure silverware
The Sharks controlled a one-sided final to secure silverware (Getty Images)

Five penalties in eight minutes against the South Africans eventually cost them Aphelele Fassi, shown yellow after being deemed offside. With their full-back in the sin bin, it seemed a certainty that the Sharks would succumb to the next Gloucester assault, but Chris Harris’ reach for the line was denied by a sliding Etzebeth.

A stony-faced Skivington sighed, several chances to go ahead having been squandered – his side were soon behind to a Siya Masuku penalty. Though Caolan Englefield answered impressively from beyond halfway, it felt like Gloucester were likely to pay for their profligacy before the half was out.

So it proved. Phepsi Buthelezi is one of the Springboks-to-be in the Shark tank, moving quickly up the loose forward pecking order. The number eight’s try was a beauty, wrestling off two defenders and fending off one more before producing the most devilish of dummies to finish it off.

Phepsi Buthelezi fought through four tackles to score an impressive try
Phepsi Buthelezi fought through four tackles to score an impressive try (Getty Images)

The Sharks smelt blood. With their scrum increasingly dominant, Masuku twice extended the advantage from the tee. A half-time switch of front rowers brought initial rewards for Gloucester but Ox Nche and Koch soon exerted themselves, allowing their fly-half to push the lead out beyond two scores. When Fassi strolled under the sticks 25 minutes from time, the trophy was just about sewn up.

Albert Tuisue, Santiago Socino and Freddie Clarke crossed late on to give the Gloucester faithful something to cheer, but a well-weighted Masuku crosskick had already allowed Makazole Mapimpi to put it beyond doubt. The Sharks have been no great shakes in the United Rugby Championship this season but they always felt likely victors at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The big-game pedigree of Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi and co. is not in doubt, while newer faces like the composed Masuku and rock-solid Buthelezi only underline the talent apparent beneath the World Cup-winners core.

For Gloucester, though, there are tough questions ahead. Skivington and his staff had essentially thrown in the towel in the Premiership run-in to target this trophy, a foolish endeavour best evidenced in a damaging 90-0 humbling at the hands of Northampton a fortnight ago. Confidence appears low in the ranks, while the exit of Jonny May – who had expressed a desire to end his career at the club – feels peculiar.

Jonny May’s final game for Gloucester ended in disappointment
Jonny May’s final game for Gloucester ended in disappointment (Getty Images)

Skivington is highly enough regarded as a young coach to have been entrusted with the duty of overseeing England A for their game against Portugal in February, but there would be little surprise if Gloucester look elsewhere this summer.

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