URC PREVIEW: Stormers can make semis another Ireland/SA face off

rugby07 June 2024 05:30| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
article image
Andre-Hugo Venter © Gallo Images

Let’s get this out of the way at the outset before we take a proper look at the South African chances in this weekend’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship quarterfinals - the DHL Stormers are up against it.

The Bulls should keep their unbeaten record in home playoff games - spread across Loftus and Orlando Stadium - in international competitions intact. It is whether the Stormers can conquer a team that has a similarly good home record to the one boasted by the Bulls this season that is the question mark.

Yes, the game that brings this first playoff round to a close at the Scotstoun in Glasgow on Saturday night pits the team that finished fourth on the log against the team that finished fifth. As Stormers coach John Dobson says, that says there’s not much between the teams. In fact, if the positions were reversed, and the Stormers were at home, they would start as strong favourites.

But that’s exactly the point. There’s a reason why teams fight so hard to get into the top four and in so doing secure home ground advantage. And it isn’t just about the home crowd and the gate money either. Not knowing where you are traveling to in the week after the last league game before the moment actually arrives does put you at a distinct disadvantage.

Dobson didn’t want to make too much of it when he spoke at a press conference before his team departed for Glasgow. But it was clear the challenge he spoke about was a big one - some squad members were leaving on Monday, some on Tuesday, some as late as Wednesday evening.

The Stormers did their planning beforehand, but as Dobson said last Saturday night when his quarterfinal destination was still in doubt, you can’t book your flights until you know.

“The problem is you can only do the booking once you know your final destination, you have to book the two legs together. We can get to Doha, but I know we won’t be playing the game in Doha,” he said in reference to the fact that the South African teams travel via the Middle East and not direct.


Most of the overseas sides fly direct, or at least on a route that makes the journey quicker, so even though coming to South Africa from Italy will most likely require more than one leg, Benetton aren’t at quite as much of a disadvantage ahead of their game against the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus.

But it is still a disadvantage having to cross the equator the week before a big game like this. Not that they should be complaining - if you want the advantage of playing host, you need to finish in the top four. That’s what the Stormers did in the previous two seasons of the URC and with their home record being so sound, it is why they have won five of the six playoff games they have played in the competition.

This is the first time they have finished outside the top four so it is the first time they play a playoff game away and put up with the disadvantage that comes with being the lower ranked team and having to travel.

The extent of the disadvantage is of course the sticking point and the one that hovers as a question mark over the Stormers’ chances, but one thing is for certain - the challenge is much less than it was when teams from South Africa had to travel for playoff games in New Zealand during the Super Rugby era.

The Sharks won twice in Australia (Brisbane) but there were never any wins in New Zealand due to the additional obstacle that comes into play in trips from South Africa to Australasia - jetlag. There isn’t much travel across time zones in the URC, which means there isn’t jetlag, and that makes the competition fairer.


As Dobson said, the Stormers are also used to the logistical challenges they faced this week. He didn’t say it in those words, but what he was saying was “It is what it is, we will deal with it.”

If they do deal with it, they do have an excellent chance of winning at a venue where they haven’t won yet in the URC but have come close. On their first visit in January last year, they lost only to a Glasgow score off the last move of the game. In the most recent game they were without their Boks and played part of the game with 13 men. It goes without saying that in any away playoff you must watch your discipline or the momentum can quickly go against you.

Given that the Bulls, because they also have the altitude advantage there, just don’t lose playoff games at Loftus, a Stormers win would set up an intriguing repeat of the South Africa v Ireland playoff scenario of the first season. Back then, it was the Bulls who had to travel to Leinster while the Stormers hosted Ulster. This time around it will be the Stormers going to Munster, which isn’t a major undertaking logistically given they will be going there from Glasgow, while the Bulls will host Leinster.

That of course is provided there aren’t any upsets in the other two games to be played this weekend. It has been a season of confounding results and high competitiveness, but Munster should be too good at home to Ospreys in the first game of the round on Friday night. The Leinster/Ulster game is more of a tricky one and the AVIVA Stadium clash rivals the one at Scotstoun as the game of the weekend.

Vodacom United Rugby Championship quarterfinals

Munster v Ospreys (Thomond Park, Limerick - Friday 8:35pm)

Munster hit some off notes in the first half of their game against Ulster last weekend and looked in serious danger of losing when they trailed by 10 points at halftime. As the commentators said, it was very out of character in comparison with what had gone before on an eight match unbeaten run. Could that have been a sign of nerves as the sharp end of the season arrives? Their opponents will hope so, and there is some truth in that old saying “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown”.

But the way the champions turned it around in the second half was impressive. Like the Stormers in Cape Town on the same day, they showed their pedigree by digging in and they ended the game with momentum that they will take into this quarterfinal. The Ospreys won a quasi-playoff game of their own last week when they picked up full points in Cardiff, and should have the advantage of feeling they have nothing to lose. Their confidence will be derived though not from the trip up the road to the Welsh capital six days ago, but their win in Cape Town in April. The Stormers were decidedly off their game that day though and Munster won’t be.

Prediction: Munster to win by 15

Vodacom Bulls v Benetton (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Saturday 3:30pm)

For Benetton it is an achievement just to be playing this game. This is their first appearance in the playoff phase in this competition since it morphed from being the PRO14 to the URC. They will start as rank underdogs, and rightly so. Apart from the travel, at Loftus you have the altitude to deal with.

There are some who think that the flurry of late scoring that some teams have managed at the Bulls’ home ground this season suggests that the altitude factor is overhyped, but that’s not the case. Altitude also impacts on your output early in the game. One of the reasons the Stormers have done well at altitude in recent seasons is because of the way they manage the game and manage their output.

The strong finishes by teams like Glasgow and indeed Benetton when they visited Loftus recently might have had more to do with the Bulls getting lax when they had it won than the visitors making a proper fist of fronting altitude. Glasgow were a lot less flush in the final minutes of their game against the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg a week later.

Canan Moodie will be missing for the Bulls as will Marco van Staden, but the Bulls’ power game should be way too strong for the visitors. It should be a closer game than the 56-35 result in favour of the Bulls in May, with Benetton treating this as a one off rather than the second game of a tour where they’d already hit target by beating the Sharks, which was the case last time.

It would be a shock of seismic proportions though if Benetton did win, and there should be more than a score in it.

Prediction: Bulls to win by 14

Leinster v Ulster (Aviva Stadium, Dublin - Saturday 6pm)


Ulster beat Leinster twice in league play this season so the hosts have unfinished business in this game and a thirst for revenge. If Ulster can replicate their first half of last week against Munster over 80 minutes and pretty much the entire game against Leinster in Belfast two weeks before that, but this time capitalise on their opportunities, it could be them that travel to Pretoria for next week’s semifinal.

That though is an unlikely outcome. Leinster showed last week against Connacht, even though they weren’t playing their top team, that they are hungry for silverware after three seasons of drought. Had they won the Investec Champions Cup final two weeks ago, it might have helped the other teams in the URC. But they didn’t win against Toulouse, and now have a drive to make up for it.

Leinster used to dominate the URC when it was the PRO14, and with their team being almost a shadow Ireland national team, and we know how good that team is, the smart money should be on them getting their first touch of the URC version of the trophy. But they don’t have easy games, and if they do beat Ulster, they will be on the road to altitude, and then have a return journey to contemplate should they make the final.

Prediction: Leinster to win by 12

Glasgow Warriors v DHL Stormers (Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow - Saturday 8:35pm)

You get the impression that the Stormers are relishing the slightly less pressured situation you face when you are playing a playoff away in comparison with the massive expectation that inspires pressure when you play host. Coach John Dobson kind of said as much this week when he said his team sees the Scotstoun game as an opportunity rather than a threat.

This game will be an intriguing contest between the Glasgow attack and the Stormers’ high defensive system. Glasgow said quite a bit about their confidence in getting around the Stormers linespeed before their game last January, and they managed that to an extent even though they won the game with a last gasp try that was created by a grubber kick. Dobson was less convinced that Glasgow had the key to unlocking the Stormers’ defence the last time the teams met, which was last November.

Dobson reckons he has plans for the Franco Smith ploys, which he feels will come in the form of “little dinks over the top”, but the key for the Stormers is to stop the Glasgow maul, which can be formidable if it gets going on the 4G surface. The Stormers have had work ons at kick off time and they also need to improve their lineout accuracy. Last week the maul was working against the Lions, but lineout inefficiency saw them blow two opportunities in the 22. They will need to make full use of their opportunities to win this one.

If the Stormers can replicate what they did in the first half of the round of 16 Champions Cup game against La Rochelle they will do what Munster did last year by upsetting the Warriors at Scotstoun in a quarterfinal.

Prediction: Stormers to win by 6

Semifinals: Winners of QF1 v winners of Q4; Winners of QF2 v winners of QF3.