URC Preview: Which mad dogs will flake first at Loftus?
“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” was a phrase that might have first been coined by Rudyard Kipling but it was definitely Noel Coward who sung the song that springs to mind when referencing Saturday’s big Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby at Loftus.
It won’t quite be midday but it will be December for goodness sake, so mid-afternoon on the highveld seems a crazy time to play a rugby game, and probably quite a bit more uncomfortable for the visiting Hollywoodbets Sharks than for the hosts, the Vodacom Bulls.
After all, it was surely at the Bulls director of rugby Jake White’s behest that the words “Altitude does matter” were inscribed on a strategic point of the tunnel the teams use to access the Loftus field a few years back.
Does it matter? The coaches from the coast will pretend it doesn’t, but then they betray themselves after they win, by making a big song and dance of the obstacles and challenges they overcame at altitude.
Altitude was very much a talking point when current Sharks coach John Plumtree, who made those of us who were working in the game back then feel really old when he reminded us that most of his players weren’t born when he played for Natal at Loftus, was part of the coastal provinces historical moment in 1990.
Ian McIntosh, the Natal coach, took his team to Pretoria early in an attempt to blunt the impact of the rarified air on his team.
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
These days the angles gained from science on the subject have shifted the approach, with some coastal teams now making sure they get to the highveld as late as possible to minimise the effect.
Whatever the truth though, knows the subject well, so it said something when Plumtree mentioned altitude as something coaches, those from the coast obviously, don’t like to talk about, but he didn’t duck it in his online team announcement press conference on Thursday.
“We don’t talk about the humidity in Durban and we have not spoken about the heat in Pretoria,” said Plumtree in a statement which stuck to the line that he has already stressed when pressed on the subject before, which is that the focus is on preparation without reference to extraneous influences and conditions.
However, he didn’t go so far as to suggest it won’t have an impact on the game.
He says he has no intention of adjusting the Sharks’ new found tempo and intensity, with management of energy often being the watchword of coastal teams that do win at altitude, but he did so with a hint of fighting talk.
“It will be hot for both teams. It will be the players that dig the deepest in the darkest times - that is the challenge. Both benches will have a huge impact, that is what makes it even more of a challenge for us. We want to play the game at the highest tempo, whether it is hot or it is cold. There is a danger we might run out of puff, but if we play well, maybe they (the Bulls) will run out of puff first…”
No mention of altitude there, just heat, but a hot day at the coast wouldn’t bother the Sharks. So you don’t have to step into the realms of fiction and fantasy to feel it is safe to read between the lines.
SHARKS RUNNING HUGE RISK
The Sharks are running a huge risk on Saturday just because their high tempo game is still so new to the players.
Plumtree himself said not long ago that his team were suffering some discomfort from around the 50 minute mark of their games because they weren’t used to the intensity and therefore the different fitness demands.
The altitude and the way the Sharks say, note that word, they are approaching this game, is why in my book the Bulls start as strong favourites to win their first derby match in this edition of the competition.
That and the fact that the Bulls have been in better form over the first part of the season and the Sharks only got their Boks back last week.
Yes, the Bulls also got Boks back only a week ago, but if you look at where the various international players play in the respective teams, you will understand why the issue of continuity might just impact the Sharks more right now than the Bulls.
BRING ON SATURDAY 🥶🍿 pic.twitter.com/dbfxEzxIsW— SuperSport Rugby (@SSRugby) December 1, 2023
The DHL Stormers have traveled to Ulster and Glasgow and the Bulls to Ulster but the Pretoria game is the biggest to be played in South Africa thus far, and there’s a lot riding on it.
The Sharks can hardly suffer another defeat if they harbour any top four ambitions, while the Bulls need to win to retain momentum into a tough two weeks in the Investec Champions Cup and then an away derby against the Stormers.
The Stormers, who are expected to have their Boks back, should pick up five points from their game against Zebre that winds down the South African fare on Saturday, so will be back in touching distance of the Bulls if the Bulls do lose to the Sharks.
So too will be the Emirates Lions, in fact even more so, as they are currently one point ahead of the Stormers and should have too much tempo in Johannesburg - yes, I am talking altitude again - for the Dragons.
Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Cork, Friday 21.35)
Glasgow have arguably been the form team thus far in the competition, and have managed to pick up 19 points out of a possible 20 over the last month.
They also have the small matter of revenge on their mind after Munster knocked them out on their home field in Glasgow in last season’s quarterfinal.
The situation if you look at the log though is more desperate for the champions, plus they are at home, so Franco Smith’s team will have to play very well to win.
Prediction: Munster to win by less than 7.
Vodacom Bulls v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Pretoria, Saturday 15.00)
Altitude does matter, at least when you are a coastal team going to the highveld with a new game-plan that places an emphasis on tempo and you haven’t been doing it for long.
Both teams though will have to draw on their benches, and it is interesting to note that John Plumtree has opted to play Ox Nche off the bench, just like Jacques Nienaber did at the Boks.
The Bulls team will be announced later on Friday, but the Sharks have just one change to the 23 that did duty against the Dragons, with Aphiwe Dyantyi coming in on the wing for the injured Werner Kok.
Prediction: Bulls to win by 8 or more.
Cardiff v Scarlets (Cardiff, Saturday 17.00)
Cardiff hit form last week by coming from behind to beat the Stormers and are at home and the Scarlets are last on the log and have a negative points differential of 153.
All derbies can turn out weird results, not just Welsh ones, but the smart money must surely be on the hosts.
Prediction: Cardiff by 14
Emirates Lions v Dragons (Johannesburg, Saturday 17.05)
The big win over Zebre last week was followed by the news that the majority of the Lions have extended their contracts, which means that the rebuild in Johannesburg can be taken seriously as a repeat of what happened under Johan Ackermann, where the team just gelled from playing together so often and over several seasons, could now conceivably happen again.
They face tougher challengers later in the campaign when their depth might be challenged once there is some attrition, but they should win comfortably against the Dragons, who were quite hapless once the Sharks took control in Durban last week.
Prediction: Lions by 20
Ulster v Edinburgh (Belfast, Saturday 19.15)
Sean Everitt’s new team suffered a setback when they lost late to Benetton last week and will be out to restore some momentum, but it won’t be an easy thing to do against an Ulster team that has to respond from the loss to Glasgow at the Scotstoun.
Former Stormers captain and World Cup winning Bok prop Steven Kitshoff is expected to make his first start for Ulster after coming off the bench just as the momentum had swung against his new team in Glasgow last time out.
Prediction: Ulster by 14
DHL Stormers v Zebre (Stellenbosch, Saturday 19.15)
It won’t just be the sunny skies and the more temperate conditions that the Stormers will be eager to embrace at the Danie Craven Stadium, but also a proper grass surface.
Coach John Dobson and their lock Ruben van Heerden made it quite plain in a presser that they don’t enjoy 4G surfaces, with Van Heerden quipping that they should be banned.
The Stormers won’t just have the grass on their side, they will also have the crowd, and with a clutch of influential Springboks back, they should win comfortably to restore some solidity to their challenge heading into the Champions Cup break.
Prediction: Stormers to win by 20
Connacht v Leinster (Galway, Saturday 21.35)
Jacques Nienaber’s new life is just beginning but it is a bit early to expect any impact from his input.
It has, after all, just been a week. Leinster have recovered well from their opening defeat to Glasgow in round one but they still haven’t been quite as convincing as in season’s past and might be challenged by a Connacht side that is always difficult to get the better of at the Sportsgound in Galway.
Connacht have Mack Hansen back but not yet Bundee Aki, while Leinster are missing their flyhalf replacement for Johnny Sexton, Ross Byrne.
Prediction: Leinster to win by less than 7
Benetton v Ospreys (Treviso, Saturday 21.35)
The phrase “Benetton are just not going away” is often an apt summation of their refusal to die in individual matches, but it is also relevant to this season as a whole.
Every time it looks like they might be heading into a reality check, they come up with a good result, as they did away last week against Edinburgh.
If they can beat the Stormers at home and draw with Munster there’s no reason they shouldn’t beat the Ospreys, but with Benetton it is normally close.
Prediction: Benetton by less than 7.