The legendary Naas Botha came up with a few memorable quotes back when he was in his pomp as flyhalf for the Springboks and captain of Northern Transvaal (Bulls), and one of those that has endured in the memory was “The Currie Cup is not won in May”.
That statement was made during one of those rare patches early in the season where his team was struggling. Back then, winning the Currie Cup was the pinnacle of achievement for South African players, it was the one thing everyone played for. And Naas was right, the decisive month was October, when the decider (there were no semifinals back then) was played.
Much has changed since those times, and South African rugby at professional level is now aligned to the northern season so that the local franchises can participate in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship as well as the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. As it turns out, this year the Currie Cup will be won in June, with the final set for 20 June, but everything else will be won in…wait for it, yes, everything else is won in May.
The DHL Stormers will argue, possibly correctly, that they have already won something. They held up the South African URC Shield after they beat Benetton in Stellenbosch in their final league game. The Cape side has been the high performing franchise again this year, there is no debate about that, and it will take one of the Vodacom Bulls or the Cell C Sharks to actually win the URC for that perception to change.
STORMERS’ JOB ISN’T FINISHED
There were 15 points separating the Stormers from the second placed Bulls on the Shield log. That’s a big gap and a clear indication that the Stormers are top of the pops locally. Their third place finish on the overall log meant they were the only local side to finish in the top four and thus secure a home quarterfinal. And they finished on the same number of log points as second placed Ulster, so if there has been a slip from the previous season, when they did finish second, it is only marginal.
But while nothing that happens from here should blow down the house that John Dobson has built, with the Stormers coach succeeding in his objective for the season of comfortably retaining Champions Cup status as well as confirming that last year’s resurgence wasn’t a one-off, they won’t feel their job is finished.
The most meaningful trophy is still to play for, and having sipped from the Cup of success after beating the Bulls in last season’s inaugural URC final, the Stormers would love to do it again. And Steven Kitshoff in particular would love to do it again as he continues his career with Ulster after this year’s World Cup.
As luck would have it, or maybe they’d agree they conspired against themselves with the mistakes that cost them victory against Munster, they now find themselves playing the team they’d probably least like to face this early in the play-off phase of the competition - their arch north/south rivals, the Bulls.
THE GAME THEY DIDN’T WANT
Dobson wasn’t complimenting the Bulls, or for that matter the Sharks, when he said a few weeks back that he’d prefer not to play a South African team in the quarterfinal round. It is just logic. The teams that have to cross the equator to get to their quarterfinal, like the Sharks do in going to Dublin this week, are just at much more of a disadvantage.
And then there’s the hype. Saturday’s game is just a quarterfinal but it could well become the “Hype Final” because that is just the way it is when these two teams meet each other, and yet they’ve met so many times recently that the narrative that precedes these games is becoming tired and one of the reasons so many hoped these teams would avoid each other.
“A north/south derby is always personal and we will be getting ourselves up for a big game.” Maybe that quote, or one like it, hasn’t been circulated yet, but it will be. Probably several quotes like it. Certainly, there will be more fighting talk from the two teams and possibly both coaches than there’d have been if the Stormers were hosting Connacht, which they would have been had they held their nerve and edged out Munster and thus finished second.
THERE IS SOME PRESSURE ON BULLS TOO
On the face of it, it is easy to say which team should be under more pressure. By finishing third, the Stormers have proved their consistency across the season. In fact, you do have to question a system that gives the team as low as eighth a chance to win the trophy after a league season that lasts 18 matches.
Imagine if the URC system was applied to the English Premier League. Liverpool were eighth a few weeks back after what for them has been a horrible season, but you’d say they still had a chance of winning one-off games against Manchester City or Arsenal and thus knocking them out of the competition they have been leading for most of the way.
Most South Africans will be hoping the Sharks can do the business by knocking out Leinster, as the Bulls did last year, but is it really fair that Leinster, after dominating the competition and losing just once, find themselves in a position where they can be knocked out by the team that finished eighth and lost several games along the way?
Obviously there is an economic imperative governing it, but it doesn’t really make sense, and that is why you’d imagine the Stormers should feel pressure. They played well to get where they are, now they can lose it all on one bad performance.
But maybe it isn’t true that there is no pressure on the Bulls. Yes, in contrast to the Stormers they have had a poor season, and they’ve lost twice to the Cape team during competition play. Yet maybe that, and the knowledge that they’ve lost five in a row now to their bitter rivals, brings its own kind of pressure.
Western Province comfortably won their Currie Cup game last weekend against a Bulls team that had several URC players in it and some saw that as seven in a row with the two domestic wins, home and away, added in. That the Cape franchise/union might have a hold on the Bulls right now can be ascertained from the fact that in both Currie Cup games Dobson fielded what looked like Currie Cup teams, whereas the Bulls were almost at URC strength when they lost at Loftus.
WHITE’S MEN MAY HAVE GOT SOMETHING FROM CAPE TOWN VISIT
The decision by Bulls director of rugby Jake White to go in with so many URC players in the latest match was risky and some might say it backfired. His team didn’t get the momentum they would have been looking for, and a 31-7 defeat has at least partially halted the narrative that it is the Bulls who bring momentum into Saturday’s game.
Having said that though, what White did get out of the trip to Cape Town was letting his players get a feel of the stadium, and with the turf at the stadium in a state of disrepair following a recent event there, that could be particularly useful. And while none of the players who will start for the Stormers on Saturday played in the Currie Cup game, the domestic clash did give White’s men a taste of the Stormers’ defensive system that they have struggled with in recent times.
Bulls assistant coach Hugo van As agreed afterwards that his team didn’t kick enough in the game, so that for a start is one correction we should see in the URC quarterfinal. For that reason, if there is any temptation in the Stormers camp to believe the URC game will be easy for them, they need to think again.
On the form they have shown this season, the Stormers should win, but derby games can be a leveller. Maybe to put it another way, the Bulls can’t beat the Stormers if the Stormers are at their best, but nerves can beat the Stormers. A quarterfinal is always a game where nerves jangle regardless of who you are playing against.
LEINSTER WILL BE HARD TO BEAT
The task of a South African team actually winning the competition was put into perspective at the weekend when Leinster so comfortably beat Toulouse in their Champions Cup final and whoever wins in Cape Town will probably need the Sharks to do the nigh impossible by knocking over Leinster in the later game in the Saturday afternoon double header.
The URC, like the Champions Cup, will be won in May, and right now it looks like Leinster will be holding up both trophies provided they can hold their nerve over what for them will be an intense five match run. The Sharks of course will want to ensure their interest is only in the Champions Cup after this weekend.
Vodacom United Rugby Championship quarterfinals this weekend
Ulster v Connacht (Belfast, Friday 20.35)
DHL Stormers v Vodadom Bulls (Cape Town, Saturday 15.30)
Leinster v Cell C Sharks (Dublin, Saturday 18.00)
Glasgow Warriors v Munster (Glasgow, Saturday 20.35)