Berliner Tageblatt - Sharks star Koch relishing 'surreal' European rugby final

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Sharks star Koch relishing 'surreal' European rugby final
Sharks star Koch relishing 'surreal' European rugby final / Photo: © AFP

Sharks star Koch relishing 'surreal' European rugby final

Springbok front row Vincent Koch believes it will be a "surreal moment" when South Africa's Sharks face Gloucester in Friday's European Challenge Cup final in London.

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Both the Sharks, the first South African side to reach a European club rugby union final, and English Premiership strugglers Gloucester will be looking to put poor domestic seasons behind them at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The Sharks, despite a squad featuring several Springbok World Cup winners in Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am, Eben Etzebeth, Ox Nche and Koch, are languishing in 13th place in the 16-team United Rugby Championship with one round of the regular season remaining.

But victory for either the Sharks or Gloucester in the second-tier European final would guarantee the winners a place in next season's elite Champions Cup, replacing the eighth-ranked team in their league.

"If we do win this, then, I won't say the season then looks better, but it definitely looks a little bit better, you know,"? said Koch.

"It doesn't reflect what we did in the first half of the season, but how we fixed it and how we finished the season, so for us, it's very important," added the 34-year-old prop, twice a Champions Cup winner with Saracens.

"Playing in Europe is amazing. I've been there with Saracens, but there for a South African club, it's a surreal moment."

Koch, asked to pinpoint the gap between the Sharks' URC and Challenge Cup form, refused to blame the effects of long-distance flights in what are primarily two Europe-based competitions.

But the dual World Cup-winner said the team had suffered from their Test stars being unavailable in pre-season ahead of South Africa's ultimately triumphant title defence in France.

"The Springboks joining a bit later, we didn't really know what the culture was until we joined, then we knew exactly what coach (John) Plumtree wanted us to do and how he wants us to play."

- 'Massive' -

Just as South Africa won all their last three games of the World Cup by a point apiece, including edging arch-rivals New Zealand 12-11 in the final itself, so too did the Sharks defeat French club Clermont 32-31 in the last four of the Challenge Cup.

"The Sharks, haven't won anything internationally yet, and for us that's massive," said Koch.

"And then of course playing on an international level, it's for South Africa once again. We want to walk away and lift the trophy and say that it was again for South Africa, and for the family, and for the fans, and for everyone, and the brand as well."

Gloucester have twice won the Challenge Cup, in 2006 and 2015, with Friday's match their fifth appearance in the final.

They finished ninth in this season's 10-team Premiership, winning just five of 18 games.

Gloucester also suffered a humiliating 90-0 loss to Northampton on May 11, having reached the Challenge Cup final the week before with a 40-23 win over Italian side Benetton Treviso.

Their poor league form turned the Challenge Cup into a priority but Gloucester director of rugby George Skivington knows how hard it will be to give Jonny May a winning send-off in what is set to be the former England wing's last game before he leaves the club.

"They (the Sharks) have got a lot of high-profile players, a lot of guys who can do things out of nowhere, which goes from back-line players to Etzebeth in the second row and World Cup-winning front-rowers," said Skivington.

He added: "Like us, their league campaign hasn't gone to plan, so both teams have a lot to play for."

S.Keller--BTB