High stakes in local derbies as URC returns
The break in the Guinness Six Nations this weekend means the Vodacom United Rugby Championship will resume from its early year hiatus and the stakes will be high across the board in the first games to be played in the competition since the New Year clashes.
Benetton will be travelling to Leinster on Saturday evening for what has become a top of the table clash, and Leinster will be hoping to do to their opponents what Ireland did to Italy on Sunday (the national team won 36-0 at the Aviva) to ease ahead at the summit.
However, it is the local derbies in Johannesburg and Durban that will grab most of the attention in South Africa, with two eagerly awaited match ups having significant implications for the log and the teams’ chances of hitting target from the league phase of the season - be that the top eight position that secures Investec Champions Cup and playoff qualification or the top four position that will mean a home playoff.
The Vodacom Bulls, courtesy of their last gasp win over the Emirates Lions in Pretoria a few weeks ago, are the best placed of the South African teams as they head into a fortnight of matches which sees the return clash with the Lions this week and then the huge home derby against the DHL Stormers in Pretoria two weeks later (2 March).
The URC Shield is decided only on clashes between the teams in the group this season, and the Stormers are ahead in that, but Stormers coach John Dobson himself said before Christmas that it would feel a bit flat if they win the Shield but the Bulls are ahead on the overall log.
JUST FOUR POINTS SEPARATING THEM
The Bulls are currently fourth to the Stormers’ sixth but there are just four points separating the two teams. That could change in either direction between now and the end of the round due to be played in the first weekend of May, with the Hollywoodbets Sharks no doubt supremely motivated to turn their season around by beating the Stormers in Durban on Saturday.
Dobson’s men did well to turn their URC season around in December. They returned from a tour where they lost every game wallowing deep in the second half of the log, but wins over Zebre in Stellenbosch and the Bulls and Sharks over the festive week in Cape Town have enabled the Cape team to stabilise.
For them it’s no longer a case of having to struggle to make the Champions Cup, which looked possible after their tour, but to chase another top four position and home advantage in the first playoff game. The Stormers have lost only one game since Cardiff beat them in Wales at the end of November, and that was a Champions Cup clash away to the Leicester Tigers when they went in significantly understrength because of the logistics of having to host LaRochelle six days later.
The win over LaRochelle, champions of Europe, was effectively the turnaround, and in addition to the URC wins there have been further wins over Sale Sharks (home) and Stade Francais (away) in the Champions Cup.
BULLS HAVE MOMENTUM TOO
But as iconic Proteas cricketer AB de Villiers said in affirming his support for the Bulls during commentary at the Betway SA20 final in Cape Town the other night, the Bulls aren’t having a bad season. In fact, that’s an understatement, with their only defeats in the last two months being the one in the URC in Cape Town and an understrength loss by the narrowest of margins away to Lyon in the Champions Cup.
Jake White’s team were lucky though to get away with the win over the Lions in the first round game, so an improvement will be necessary when they travel down the M1 highway at the weekend. Indeed, adding intrigue to both the weekend fixtures on SA soil is the narrowness of the first round games - the Stormers edged the Sharks by just one point at DHL Stadium on 30 January.
The Lions would have been frustrated by not getting across the line at Loftus as winners but they have much to play for too - they are only two points currently behind the top eight and are therefore within touching distance of their first qualification for the Champions Cup with half the URC league season to go.
LONG AND WINDING ROAD FOR THE SHARKS
For the Sharks it is certainly a long and winding road that they face if they hope to qualify for the elite European competition next season. They can of course get there by winning the Challenge Cup, but to do it though the URC they need to make up 16 points from their current last position to the top eight bracket, with Ospreys currently lying eighth.
The Ospreys have a big game this coming weekend as they host Ulster, who are perhaps helped by the fact that they’ve got very little representation in the Ireland national side so should be close to full muster. The Ospreys too haven’t got as many Wales internationals as they used to have, so Sunday’s game has the potential to be one of the games of the weekend.
Ulster head to South Africa, where they play the Sharks and Stormers, at the end of March, so they will want to win now so they can lift themselves from their current fifth position into the top four.
Edinburgh will be hoping to have some fringe Scotland internationals back on Friday when they travel to Parma to play Zebre as they look to move up from their current seventh position - they’re level with the Stormers on points and the situation is starting to become desperate for URC champions, Munster, who are 11th. They are away to the struggling Scarlets on Friday night.
With Leinster and Benetton playing each other, Glasgow Warriors will be backing themselves to move back into the top two, at least, as they should have too much firepower for a struggling Dragons team that will be without a clutch of Welsh international players. Glasgow of course do supply the bulk of the Scotland team that lost narrowly to France at the weekend but they have a good record on their home ground of the Scotstoun.
WEEKEND VODACOM UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP FIXTURES
Zebre v Edinburgh (Parma, Friday 21.35)
Scarlets v Munster (Llanelli, Friday 21.35)
Emirates Lions v Vodacom Bulls (Johannesburg, Saturday 15.00)
Leinster v Benetton (Dublin, Saturday 17.00)
Hollywoodbets Sharks v DHL Stormers (Durban, Saturday 17.05)
Cardiff Rugby v Connacht (Cardiff, Saturday 19.15)
Glasgow Warriors v Dragons (Glasgow, Saturday 21.35)
Ospreys v Ulster (Swansea, Sunday 17.00)