URC SCENE SETTER: SA collision course sub-plot to penultimate round

rugby16 May 2024 06:52| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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© Gallo Images

There’s plenty to play for as this edition of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship goes into its penultimate round but if you were to put money on the current positions remaining the same until the end of the competition there’d be a fair chance of winning your bet.

Given who meets who in the final derby round, and the number of teams currently battling out for log position who are set to meet each other over the remaining two rounds of competition, the DHL Stormers are likely to remain in their current fifth position. For them, the best case scenario might well be that the Vodacom Bulls finish fourth.

Yes, that might sound illogical if you consider it means the Cape side then has to go to altitude to face the Bulls, who are now a much better team than the one that lost last year’s quarterfinal at the DHL Stadium. And there is always so much extra tension around a Bulls/Stormers game, particularly when it happens in the playoff rounds, something both teams know well as they have played each other in the knockouts in both previous seasons of the URC.

But if the Stormers go into the Finals Series needing to win three games away to regain the trophy they won by beating the Bulls in the inaugural final, they’d rather start that sequence on South African soil. The Bulls did win the most recent game between the teams at Loftus, but although it was a comprehensive winning margin, there were stages in that game when the Stormers looked like they had recovered from a poor start and were capable of winning it before two late breakway tries made it safe for the hosts.


They won their two previous meetings with the Bulls at Loftus in the URC and some of the Stormers fringe players had experience of beating an almost full strength Bulls side in a Currie Cup game at that venue last season. Stormers coach John Dobson said after his team’s win over the Dragons last weekend that there is no team or venue that his team fear, and given their record there and their familiarity with it, Loftus is possibly the least feared for the potential away venues.

It would certainly be more palatable to them than going to the RDS Arena or AVIVA Stadium to play Leinster, which is likely if they finish seventh, or an in-form Munster at Thomond Park if they finish sixth.

But the Stormers, provided something miraculous doesn’t happen in the remaining rounds and they sneak a home playoff, will be alone among South Africans in thinking of that as a best case scenario. Jake White and his Bulls will be hoping to avoid the Stormers for precisely the same reason the Stormers would want a Pretoria game - they’d have a better chance against a team that has to cross hemispheres to play the quarterfinal than one that just has to fly two hours to a venue where they’ve experienced relatively recent success.

And South Africans in general would surely want to the Bulls and Stormers in separate parts of the Finals Series draw so that there is a chance of two local teams making it through to the semifinal round.

In that regard, there are two different outcomes to hope for over these final two rounds, which see the Stormers away to Connacht before hosting the Emirates Lions, and the Bulls hosting Benetton on Saturday before ending the league phase with a potentially tricky derby in Durban.

The first is, and it is entirely possible given that third placed Munster are away to Edinburgh before finishing with a tough derby against Ulster, that the Bulls climb the log to third, or even second is possible if Leinster falter this weekend against Ulster, who beat them in the first round derby clash during the festive season.

The second is that the Bulls hold onto fourth but the Stormers slip a place, which could be the case if they lose one of their two remaining games. They can’t afford to lose both, for that might see them go to eighth, which will put their Investec Champions Cup status in jeopardy if the Hollywoodbets Sharks win the EPCR Challenge Cup final.


Either way, this weekend’s round will go a long way towards telling us how likely a north/south derby quarterfinal on 8 June is, with the big Irish derby in Dublin and Munster’s trip to Edinburgh being big determinants of the finishing order in the top four.

The Stormers might hold hopes of still making the top four themselves, but with the Bulls and Munster both needing to win just once more to ensure the Cape side has to travel in the playoffs, their tough fixture against Connacht in Galway on Saturday evening is really about holding onto fifth.

If they lose and drop back, the Bulls might find themselves in a difficult position when they go to Durban on 1 July as moving up the log to third would put them back on a collision course with their arch local rivals. By then they should be assured of at least fourth as they will be strong favourites to beat Benetton. It all adds to the intrigue of what has become a compelling end to the third season of URC.