Freddie Clarke: Gloucester’s final against Sharks almost season-defining

Gloucester lock Freddie Clarke believes that Friday’s EPCR Challenge Cup final against the Sharks is “pretty close” to being a season-defining game.

Clarke and company underachieved in the Gallagher Premiership this term, winning just five of 18 league matches and finishing ninth.

A nine-game Premiership losing run between late October and early January prompted a shift of emphasis to the knockout competitions, and Gloucester already have the Premiership Rugby Cup in their trophy cabinet.

Victory at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium would give them a third Challenge Cup final success, equalling the record number of tournament wins held by Harlequins and Clermont Auvergne.

Champions Cup qualification next season would also be secured, with Gloucester taking the eighth and final English place at Leicester’s expense.

“There have been some really tough periods this season, there is no hiding from that,” Clarke said.

“But this cup competition has been a great way to get momentum, and we’ve had our best performances in it.

Eben Etzebeth
South African star Eben Etzebeth is a key performer for the Sharks (David Davies/PA)

“It is not a season-defining game, but it is pretty close to it.

“Key injuries in key positions haven’t helped us, but there is no point dwelling too much on that.”

Like Gloucester, the Durban-based Sharks have struggled during their league campaign and currently lie 13th in the United Rugby Championship.

That position contradicts a powerful squad that includes players like South African World Cup winners Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am, Ox Nche, Vincent Koch and Eben Etzebeth.

But Gloucester’s Pretoria-born flanker Ruan Ackermann knows exactly what is coming from a team that knocked out French heavyweights Clermont in the Challenge Cup semi-finals.

Ackermann said: “I am good friends with some of them, and as the season went on we were making jokes that if we kept winning and they kept winning we were going to see each other in the final.

“They have got some big names, players who have won World Cups. They will be confident.

“It has been a few years since I last played against a South African team, so on a personal note it is something I will look forward to.”

George Skivington
Gloucester rugby director George Skivington has masterminded two cup final appearances this season (Mike Egerton/PA)

Gloucester rugby director George Skivington added: “The objective is to bring more silverware to Gloucester. You get to a final and then you have just got to throw everything at it.

“We put our eggs in the basket of going for these two cups, which is why it makes it a big week for us.

“There is no getting away from the physicality with the Sharks. 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.”