URC PREVIEW: Singular focus should help SA teams

rugby19 April 2024 06:40| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Bulls training © Gallo Images

This coming weekend and this stage of the Vodacom United Rugby season in general is set to provide an interesting microcosm of the interesting angles that competing in the northern hemisphere offers to South African franchise teams and their supporters going forward.

One day there might be a debate, like there is every season in English soccer when the sharp end of the Premier League season coincides with the knock-out phase in the Champions League and Europa League, about how being committed to two battles at the same time might impact the respective teams’ quest for silverware.

But not this year. While all of them might have wanted to do better over two fronts, all four local teams have hit the business end of the season with a clearly distinct and singular focus.

The Vodacom Bulls are gunning for a top two spot on the final URC log, or maybe if luck goes with them even No 1, the DHL Stormers have a top four or maybe even a top two finish in their minds, and the Emirates Lions are part of a bun fight for a top eight finish.


The Hollywoodbets Sharks? Well, their failure in the first two thirds of the URC has left them with a distinct focus too, one that was reflected in coach John Plumtree’s decision to make 15 changes to his starting team for Friday night’s game against Glasgow Warriors at the Scotstoun.

With a top eight finish in the URC beyond them, they are going all out to win the EPCR Challenge Cup, which will give them Investec Champions Cup status next season.

They are the only local team still in an EPCR competition and it was with their semifinal in a fortnight from now in mind that Plumtree elected to rest his top players.

The Sharks will want to retain some semblance of momentum, and a “Plucky Sharks go down” headline would be a kind of win for them, but the result is largely irrelevant from the Sharks’ league position viewpoint. Put another way, they really have nothing to lose.


The Bulls and the Stormers have plenty to gain and also to lose in this round 14 of what has become their domestic competition even though it is played across hemispheres, and also the Lions.

And there’s a lot of interconnection too, all of which makes for an absorbing weekend for those who want to spend it tuned into rugby.

Former Bulls and Springbok legend Victor Matfield told a URC media round table this week that he believes his former team can finish top of the URC log.

That means he holds out some hope that the Lions will help out on Saturday, and the Stormers next week, by beating Leinster.

But the two South African teams upsetting Leinster will only help the Bulls if they win what could be a tough game against a Munster team that showed their mettle and ability to triumph over the odds when they won the URC Grand Final in Cape Town last year.

If the Bulls lose, they can forget about a top place finish, and even a second place will be a tough task for them.

If the Bulls do win and the Stormers pick up full points against the Ospreys, the Cape team will be into the top four with four games to be played.

And the Lions will be wanting the Stormers to win too, for an Ospreys defeat will make more space for a top eight finish. The Ospreys are currently seventh, but just one point ahead of the Johannesburg team.


With the exception of the Sharks, who don’t care much about the URC right now anyway, all the South African teams face two two week blocks of action followed by a bye and then another two weeks and another bye.

That is because they won’t be involved in the EPCR semifinals or finals.

That easier run in, and ability to focus on the URC, would have been the consolation for the Bulls, Stormers and Lions when they exited their respective Cup competitions. T

his weekend they need to make that count for them.

All of the intrigue around the different goals their teams are pursuing is an improvement for South African fans on the Super Rugby era, where for much of it at this stage of the season there was often at best just one local team still in the running.

And the rest were just playing for pride. The conference system did change that later on by extending the playoff phase but there was a falseness to it and it was also confusing.

Mercifully, for the Sharks in particular this season, there is no relegation, but otherwise this competition does align with the myriad different interest points that make England’s main soccer league interesting even when the league winner has long since been decided - apart from home advantage in the playoffs, there are places in the main European competition to play for etc etc.


The interest in the Sharks will resume when they get to The Stoop a fortnight from now on a weekend where they will be the only South African team playing, but in the meantime it’s intense for the other sides as they fight their own battles on separate fronts.

With each round that passes in the URC, the sands of time run out for teams chasing their specific goals.

While Matfield is bullish about the Bulls’ chances of finishing top of the URC log, in other words passing Leinster, there is a lot more space between first and fourth on the log (11 points) than there is between fifth and 11th (just five points).

That means there’s a bun fight for top eight places, and of course the possibility of the Sharks winning the Challenge Cup means you’d actually need to win seventh to qualify for the Champions Cup.


Ulster v Cardiff Rugby (Belfast, Friday 20.35)

Ulster, currently lying eighth, have a new caretaker coach following the sacking of Dan McFarland in mid-season and so far it hasn’t gone well for him.

The team Steven Kitshoff will leave at the end of the season to return to the Stormers does though still have a chance of a top four finish, and will be expecting to beat a Cardiff team that is now 10 points off the top eight and in so doing maintain the pressure on the teams ahead of them.

Prediction: Ulster to win by 10

Glasgow Warriors v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Glasgow, Friday 20.35)

Glasgow are in a close battle with the Bulls for second on the log but the chances of the Sharks helping out their South African compatriots evaporated when the Durbanites announced a completely changed team for the game at the Scotstoun.

It is though an interesting Sharks team, and with parts of the URC played under-strength, this is a game that could tell the Sharks coach a lot about the depth he has available.

Expect the Sharks to be plucky, but the bookies expect the Sharks to go down by 18 and they are probably on the money with that.

Prediction: Glasgow to win by 18

Benetton v Dragons (Treviso, Saturday 15.00)

A month ago the Italian team was being praised for the way they were competing in the top four, and the improved performance by Italy in the Guinness Six Nations was attributed to the Treviso based team’s greater competitiveness.

But then they lost a few games and dropped out of the top eight, only to recover in their last game and make it up to their current position of sixth.

They should bank five points against the Dragons on Saturday, so if the Stormers and Munster slip up, Benetton will be right back in top four contention.

Prediction: Benetton to win by 20

Emirates Lions v Leinster (Johannesburg, Saturday 15.00)

The teams haven’t been announced yet but with Leinster set to play a Champions Cup semifinal a week after their second tour game against the Stormers, the smart money should be on the log leaders targeting this game, with several top players and some of the coaches returning to Dublin afterwards to focus on the semifinal.

The Lions are still very much in the bun fight for a place in the top eight and while they are 10 places below Leinster on the log, you can’t write them off - it just depends which Lions team pitches.

The Lions team that destroyed Connacht in Galway can certainly push any team, particularly on their home field and with altitude as an ally.

But it was a different kind of Lions performance when they lost to the Ospreys in Swansea the following weekend.

The praise that had been heaped on them turned to criticism, the hope turned to dismay.

Yet that is the beauty of how the URC is playing out this year, every round can bring about a seismic shift in log position and outlook.

Prediction: Leinster to win by 12

Vodacom Bulls v Munster (Pretoria, Saturday 17.05)

This is arguably the big game of the round, and the result will have impact not just on the Bulls, but on the Stormers too.

If the Bulls win, they are still in the hunt for a top two finish, if they lose they will be vulnerable to the aspirations of the current champions Munster, and even maybe the previous champions, the Stormers.

It was his focus on this game, as much as concerns about injury niggles, that prompted Bulls director of rugby Jake White to go under-strength in last week’s Champions Cup quarterfinal.

That’s how important this game is to the Bulls.

It is important to Munster too, which is why they’ve come to South Africa with a fully loaded team, meaning with Peter O’Mahoney and the other Irish internationals in tow.

Munster scored two gutsy wins in South Africa against the Stormers last season and were also the better team in a draw with the Sharks in Durban.

So they are not a team that will be easily beaten, even at altitude. But the Bulls, who were boosted when Cameron Hanekom was cleared by a DC hearing on Thursday, should have their Boks back and their full team and should be strongly favoured to win.

Prediction: Bulls to win by 8

DHL Stormers v Ospreys (Cape Town, Saturday 19.15)

The Stormers’ narrow defeat to La Rochelle in their Champions Cup round of 16 game meant they have been able to refresh by having a week off and they will be hoping to use that to their advantage against an Ospreys team that is dangerous.

The Stormers are currently fifth, four points outside of the top four placing they covet, so a win with a try scoring bonus point at the DHL Stadium coupled with the Bulls doing the business against Munster will be perfect for them.

It will be interesting to see what team coach John Dobson comes up with.

He said a few weeks ago he was on the cusp of a situation where the number of players who haven’t seen action recently might become a negative, but he had to go full strength in the games against Ulster and La Rochelle.

This is an important game and a loss would seriously hurt the Stormers but Dobson might have little option but to mix up his selections to give his many strong fringe players some much needed game time.

Prediction: Stormers to mix up selections and win by 12

Edinburgh v Scarlets (Edinburgh, Saturday 20.35)

Edinburgh’s two match tour of South Africa lost them a lot of ground as they failed to pick up so much as a losing bonus point against first the Sharks and then the Stormers.

It saw them drop from fourth to ninth, so they need a full house of log points against the Scarlets to get back on track.

Prediction: Edinburgh to win by 16

Connacht v Zebre (Galway, Saturday 20.35)

Connacht are 11th but they are just one point behind the top eight and five behind the fifth placed Stormers, so they are still in the race to match their achievement of last season by making it into the playoffs, where they shocked Ulster to make it into a semifinal, and into the Champions Cup.

They have much tougher games ahead than this one.

Prediction: Connacht to win by 20