Champions Cup Preview: Pressure on Bulls to defend the frontier

rugby08 December 2023 07:00| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Elrigh Louw © Gallo Images

A column by former England and British and Irish Lions flyhalf Stuart Barnes on the eve of the Investec Champions Cup clash at Loftus between the Vodacom Bulls and Saracens has neatly encapsulated why it is so important for the home team to win.

Writing in The Times, Barnes wrote that beating the Bulls at altitude would trump any of Saracens’ Champions Cup titles (they’ve won the competition three times).

“If Saracens start their European Cup campaign this weekend with a win, it would constitute one of their finest European efforts. The English club have won the trophy on three occasions but an away game against an in-form Bull team is something else again. It’s a true test,” he said.

To some that might seem a bit over the top as while the Bulls have won all their games at home this season with some ease, Loftus hasn’t exactly always been an impregnable fortress to visiting teams in recent seasons. The DHL Stormers, who hail of course from the coast, having won their last two Vodacom United Rugby Championship games there.

But Barnes does make a good point if you look at how overseas teams have fared at Loftus since South African rugby switched to the northern hemisphere competitions. There is a frontier that needs crossing by Saracens, England’s champion team, and at this time when the European media seems so divided over the South African inclusion in Europe’s elite competition, the longer the Loftus aura can be retained so much the better for this country’s participation.

Sports people need challenges, and English lock Maro Itoje summed it up well earlier this week - “The more quality in the competition, the better. It’s a great occasion and something we’re looking forward to. We are excited.”

It’s a night game, which at Loftus means it isn’t quite as difficult a challenge for Saracens from a weather and altitude perspective as an afternoon game, such as the one the Sharks played last week, is for a visiting team. But this opening game of the competition is still a formidable obstacle for the three time champions and it is incumbent on the Bulls to ensure that a visit to their corral continues to be seen like that.


Home ground advantage is even more significant in the Champions Cup than other competitions and that was one of the learnings for the South African teams in their first season of participation. None of the Bulls, Stormers or Sharks lost a home game last season. And there were only two away wins for South African teams - the Stormers beat the now defunct London Irish at their former home ground shared with English football team Brentford in a game where the hosts were down to 13 men at the end, and the Sharks scored a good win against the Bordeaux Begles.

Which sums up why in this first weekend of the competition, of the two South African teams in the Champions Cup, it is the Bulls who are under the initial pressure. The Stormers are heading to Welford Road to play a powerful Leicester Tigers team more in hope than expectation as much of their focus is on next week’s home game against the reigning champions, LaRochelle.


The Stormers team hadn’t been named at the time of writing but their coach John Dobson has made it pretty clear that the logistics will dictate to him that most of the key men needed against LaRochelle won’t be in action in the English Midlands city. There’s just a six day turnaround before the LaRochelle game, which the Stormers have been building towards, a game that will also coincide with the home team’s first taste of their new hybrid pitch at the DHL Stadium.

What last season told us is that away bonus points are like gold, however, and it will be the Stormers’ mission to come back with at least something from their trip. Regardless of whether they manage that or not, and of course a shock, unexpected victory would change this, the pressure will be squarely on them next week.

This week it is the Bulls who face the pressure of having to win, and Saturday night does promise to be quite a game, particularly as it appears Saracens have brought all their top players. It will also arguably be the biggest test that the Bulls have experienced at home so far in what is looking like a renaissance season for a franchise that struggled last year.

With the big URC Christmas derby against the Stormers in Cape Town now just a fortnight away, White is likely to mix up his selection for next week’s trip to Lyon in the same way as it appears Dobson has done for the trip to Leicester, so if his men want to advance again to the round of 16, they do need to win.


The Bulls are arguably better positioned of the two South African teams to go deep into the competition this season as their Pool looks easier than the one the Stormers are in. The Pretoria side are in Pool A, with Bristol, Saracens, Connacht, Bordeaux and Lyon being the other teams. A top four place in the six secures progress to the round of 16.

The Stormers are in Pool D and that includes both of last year’s finalists, LaRochelle and Leinster, plus Stade Francais, the Sale Sharks and of course the Tigers. In other words, no slip ups will be allowable if Dobson’s men want to repeat last season’s feat of reaching the quarterfinals.

The Bulls are also the team in the best form currently, although the Stormers have only just welcomed back their Boks so that needs to be factored in as a reason why they haven’t really hit the straps. If the Cape team are looking for confidence, referring back to their away URC game against Munster, where they should really have grabbed at least a share of the spoils at a difficult venue where their opponents had their Irish internationals back and they were under-strength, might be helpful.


The Bulls though have increased their threats with their off-season business, with Willie le Roux offering an extra angle to their attack and Wilco Louw and Akker van der Merwe effectively shoring up their front row depth. All three of those players have also played for foreign teams in Europe, and that should be helpful too.

There's plenty of class in the Saracens outfit, and experience, with Owen Farrell and Itoje headlining the visitors if Farrell, as expected, does get to play. Farrell is a different beast when he wears the Saracens jersey to when he plays for England. The Bulls are going to have to be wary of his tactical nous as well as his field kicking and pinpoint accuracy from the tee.

The Stormers too are up against an array of internationals on Sunday, and they are not just England players like Ben Youngs, Freddie Steward and Mike Young, but some Springbok World Cup winners too in the form of flyhalf Handre Pollard and No 8 Jasper Wiese. Looking at those names, it is clear that the Stormers will need to rise to a big challenge in the aerial battle.


There are only two South African sides in the Champions Cup this year because the Sharks didn’t make the cut in the URC last season. The Durbanites will have to content themselves with Challenge Cup action, and that starts for them on Saturday with a home clash against the French club, Pau.

John Plumtree has yet to name his team but we’re hearing that Lionel Cronje has been running at flyhalf with Curwin Bosch at fullback. The Emirates Lions, who look like they are treating the Challenge Cup as a depth building exercise, which is probably the right way to go for them, are off to France to play Perignan on Sunday while the Toyota Cheetahs are in Parma, their home city in last year’s competition, to play Zebre on Saturday.

An interesting addition to the Challenge Cup this year is the Black Lion, who host Gloucester in their first match.

Weekend Investec Champions Cup fixtures


Connacht v Bordeaux-Begles (22.00)

Glasgow Warriors v Northampton Saints (22.00)


Toulon v Exeter Chiefs (15.00)

Bath v Ulster (17.15)

Toulouse v Cardiff (17.15)

Vodacom Bulls v Saracens (19.30)

Munster v Bayonne (19.30)

Bristol Bears v Lyon (22.00)


Sale Sharks v Stade Francais (15.00)

Leicester Tigers v DHL Stormers (17.15)

LaRochelle v Leinster (17.15)

Racing 92 v Harlequins (19.30)

Investec Challenge Cup fixtures

Clermont Auvergne v Edinburgh (Friday, 22.00)

Zebre v Toyota Cheetahs (Saturday, 15.00)

Black Lion v Gloucester (Saturday, 15.00)

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Pau (Saturday 17.15)

Castres v Scarlets (Saturday 17.15)

Ospreys v Benetton (Saturday 19.30)

Dragons v Oyonnax (Saturday 22.00)

Perpignan v Emirates Lions (Sunday 15.00)

Newcastle v Montpellier (Sunday 17.15)