Bulls fly the flag but Stormers shouldn’t be unhappy

rugby08 April 2024 05:43| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Kirt-Lee Arendse © Gallo Images

The Vodacom Bulls showed imperious form in booking themselves a trip to England for Saturday’s Investec Champions Cup quarterfinal where they will try to become the first South African team to reach the semifinals of the elite competition by beating Northampton Saints.

For almost an hour of Sunday’s clash between the Saints and Vodacom United Rugby Championship title holders Munster it looked possible that the Bulls might get to host their quarterfinal at Loftus. Had that been the case, they would have had an excellent chance of advancing to the last four as they showed against Lyon just how good they have become at their home fortress.

However, with Munster due in Pretoria the week after the Champions Cup quarterfinal for a crucial URC game, a trip to Franklin Gardens is a much less preferable outcome for the Bulls, and it will be interesting to see what squad White takes to the northern hemisphere for the game given that they will only be back in South Africa on the Tuesday.


At this stage of the competition coaches feel duty bound to go with full strength teams out of respect for the standing of the Champions Cup, but with the semifinals due to be played in Europe regardless of the opponent, and that opponent set to be one of Leinster or La Rochelle, the odds are strongly against the Bulls going all the way.

As they would have been on the DHL Stormers too had the Cape team pulled off what would have been an heroic win over La Rochelle in the later of the two games played on South African soil this past Saturday. As expected, Leinster won their game against Leicester Tigers, so had Manie Libbok succeeded with his attempted last gasp winning conversion into a treacherous and freaky wind at the DHL Stadium, the Stormers would have been on the way to Dublin this week.

Leinster, who are an Ireland shadow team, showed in their most recent URC game against the Bulls just how formidable they are on their home field of the RDS Arena, and Saturday’s game is booked for the much bigger Aviva Stadium, where Leinster are sometimes known to grow an extra arm and a leg in knock-out games.

Even at full strength the Stormers would be hard pressed to challenge Leinster in Dublin, but the attrition rate in their dramatic and exciting face-off with La Rochelle meant that they would be travelling without several crocked first choice players.

By halftime the Stormers had lost both starting flanks, Deon Fourie and Ben-Jason Dixon, something that had a role to play in the momentum shift that started to take place in the last 10 minutes of a half where the Stormers had been dominant as they started out with the strong wind at their backs.

Wing Leolin Zas also left the field injured halfway through the game and is expected to be out for some time, and then in the second half skipper Salmaan Moerat and replacement loose-forward Hacjivah Dayimani followed the others to the sidelines. Three of the injured players failed HIA assessments, which means they could be back for the Stormers when they host the Ospreys in an important URC game in just under a fortnight.


However it would have been unlikely they’d have gone to Dublin with those key players and it would have even further lengthened the odds on a Stormers win. As Dobson admitted on Saturday night, the manner of defeat was agonising for his team, but he felt they’d wake up on Sunday morning feeling better about life and that they’d dodged a bullet.

The Stormers can now take some time off to recover for the incredibly bruising clash with La Rochelle as they head into consecutive home games against the Ospreys and Leinster before heading immediately after that on a tour which will see them play the Dragons and Connacht.

The Stormers’ poor tour last November has left them in a touch and go position in their quest to secure a top four position that will secure home ground advantage in a playoff and Dobson admitted that had his team won, it would have potentially compromised their URC challenge. The URC is the bread and butter competition at this point for South African teams, and as the Sharks found out last season, you don’t make the Champions Cup if you don’t do well in the URC.

Talking of the Sharks, the number of marquee players on their books, something that will be boosted further next season by the arrival of World Cup winners Andre Esterhuizen and Trevor Nyakane plus Springbok capped former Bulls lock Jason Jenkins (from Leinster), arguably does make them the kind of potential Champions Cup specialists that La Rochelle are.

That is said in the sense that the Champions Cup is always played at full strength, and there is a big difference between the Sharks’ Bok laden first choice side and the team they are able to field in the under-strength phases of the URC.

To that end, it should be more than just Sharks supporters who root for the Durbanites to follow up Sunday’s good EPCR Challenge Cup win with another against Edinburgh in their quarterfinal this weekend.

Of course, by going toe to toe with La Rochelle and winning one game and losing the other by just a solitary point across two games, one in the pool phase and the other in the round of 16, the Stormers made a massive statement on behalf of South African rugby. But it needs to be noted that both the December game and the one at the weekend were played at home, and there’s never been any debate about the Stormers’ ability to beat any team on a given day at the DHL Stadium.


Playing a team on the level of La Rochelle away might be an entirely different challenge, as the Bulls discovered in Dublin 10 days ago. What the Stormers did against La Rochelle was to show that the South African challenge in the Champions Cup will come, but as Dobson says, a local team actually being able to win the trophy may be two or three seasons away still.

White, who often talks of the wide disparity in the wealth of the French clubs and South African franchises, might agree with that. Right now it is the Sharks who come closest to having the financial muscle to compete with the top European teams, but they need to get back into the Champions Cup and winning the Challenge Cup is the only route left for them to do that.

Only two of the five South African teams playing in the first knock-out round of the European cup competitions won this weekend, but that was largely expected. The Toyota Cheetahs did really well to come back from a big deficit to eventually lose by five points and be pressing for the win in the final minutes of their game at Clermont, which is considered a particularly tough venue to visit.

The Emirates Lions hit their second false note after their good URC win over Connacht two weeks ago by going down to Benetton in Treviso but while it was frustrating to see them fail to take advantage of the red card shown to a Benetton player, realistically they were always going to be up against it away against a team that is helping drive Italy’s rugby resurgence.

Weekend Investec Champions Cup round of 16 results

Harlequins 28 Glasgow Warriors 24
Vodacom Bulls 59 Lyon 19
Exeter Chiefs 21 Bath 15
DHL Stormers 21 La Rochelle 22
Bordeaux Begles 45 Saracens 12
Leinster 36 Leicester Tigers 22
Northampton Saints 24 Munster 14
Toulouse 31 Racing 92 7

Quarterfinals (home teams first)

Bordeaux Begles v Harlequins (Saturday, 16.00)
Leinster v La Rochelle (Saturday, 18.30)
Northampton Saints v Vodacom Bulls (Saturday, 21.00)
Toulouse v Exeter Chiefs (Sunday, 16.00)

EPCR Challenge Cup round of 16 results

Pau 30 Connacht 40
Hollywoodbets Sharks 47 Zebre 3
Montpellier 17 Ulster 40
Ospreys 23 Sales Sharks 15
Edinburgh 33 Bayonne 15
Benetton 27 Emirates Lions 17
Clermont Auvergne 27 Toyota Cheetahs 22
Gloucester 30 Castres 25

Challenge Cup quarterfinals

Gloucester v Ospreys (Friday, 21.00)
Hollywoodbets Sharks v Edinburgh (Saturday, 13.30)
Clermont Auvergne v Ulster (Saturday, 13.30)
Benetton v Connacht (Sunday, 13.30)