URC derbies: Coastal sides tipped but rugby is the certain winner

rugby01 March 2024 06:30
By:Gavin Rich
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stormers @ Gallo Images

The smart money should be on the coastal teams to edge it but the reality is that the only thing we can be certain of heading into the penultimate round of South African derbies in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship is that the sport of rugby will be the winner.

Yes, that’s a hoary old overused cliche, but for once it is right. You just need to be a bit more specific with that statement if you really want to nail it - South African rugby will be the winner! If you consider where franchise-level rugby was heading to before and obviously during Covid, the fact that Loftus should be full for the big north/south showdown is something to really crow about.

More than that, the type of game we should expect, and where the two teams are currently in their respective winning surges, makes the Pretoria clash between the Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers something for South African rugby, and all of those vested in it, to celebrate too. The sport suddenly looks healthy at franchise level with quality teams providing good entertainment.

Of course the fans who see their team lose will be disappointed, but although both sides have much to play for and the stakes are high, it is far from a knock-out fixture. So it doesn’t have the extra angle of tension that for instance the 2022/23 quarterfinal meeting between these teams in Cape Town did. Or for that matter the Christmas derby in December, when the Stormers were still recovering from their disastrous tour and desperately needed to win in order not to fall into a hole.


The Stormers have won six tough games on the bounce since they last lost, which was in early December away to Leicester Tigers in the Investec Champions Cup. Had they lost any of their three derbies - two against the Sharks, one against the Bulls - the need to win an eighth consecutive time against the Bulls would be a lot more desperate.

As it stands, the Stormers haven’t lost a game where they’ve gone full strength. They can lose at Loftus and still be in the top-four mix. Maybe not ahead of the Bulls, but with a run of home matches to come, and their toughest away opponents being Connacht, they should be thereabouts come June regardless of what happens at Loftus.

And the same can be said for the Bulls. Both teams look destined for the higher reaches of the log when the league stage of the season has run its course.

But yes, it is way too early to be throwing ahead to those final weeks. What we have though, and why it is worth celebrating, is a full house for a game where both teams are at full strength, and where both teams shouldn’t be too affected by their most recent games. Those were two weeks ago, so they’ve had a break. And plenty of time to prepare and analyse their opposition. The Stormers surprised the Bulls with their contestable kicking game in Cape Town? What surprises will the two coaches be cooking up this time?

Both teams are boasting good form and winning momentum, and then there’s the rugby they are playing. We know the Stormers’ reputation for giving the ball air and playing up-tempo rugby, but the Bulls are doing that too. Although the later evening slot helps a coastal team on the highveld more than a mid-afternoon kick-off, they will be eager to stretch the Stormers with tempo at altitude.

Gone are the days when a north/south derby could be classed as a battle between the Bulls forwards and the Western Province/Stormers backs. These days it is often at forward that the Stormers get the edge over opponents.

The December derby wasn’t far short of being a classic as far as the physicality was concerned, but at Loftus there could be more pace, flair and x-factor to add to the bruising. The visitors should have Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse back in the key 10/12 decision-making axis and we’ll know later if a way to accommodate Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, so impressive against the Hollywoodbets Sharks, has been found. But the Bulls have lethal finishers and x-factor players in Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie, who were threatening in Cape Town.


The earlier game on double derby Saturday should be as interesting as the one at Loftus, albeit for different reasons. The Sharks don’t have much to play for in terms of URC finishing position. That train has pretty much left the station. But they do need to win to erase the pall of negativity that continues to envelop them after every game, and they have spoken about the need to get as high up the log in the remaining part of the season as possible.

It is to be hoped that their coach John Plumtree might chance his arm in selection for this one. After the loss to the Stormers last time out it seemed pretty clear Curwin Bosch’s days should be numbered as the Sharks No 10, with Siya Masuku surely in line for a start as an alternative, provided that Jaden Hendrikse is unavailable because of the Bok resting protocols.

We will only know who the Sharks are resting and who they are playing in this game when they announce their team later on Friday, but if Hendrikse is playing, this might be a good time to gamble on a change of position for him. Perhaps it won’t happen at the start, but later in the game. What do the Sharks have to lose?

The Lions by contrast have quite a bit to lose. The two successive losses to the Bulls have hurt their quest for a top-eight spot. Lose again and the struggle will become even harder, the obstacles even more difficult.

The Sharks do boast a fair recent record in Johannesburg and like the Loftus game later in the day, I have a hunch we will see the coastal team winning it. They are South African derbies though, so both games should be close, and supporters of all four teams can look forward to some nail-biting and anxious moments. As well as some electrifying, top-quality rugby. Let the good times continue to roll…

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (round 11)

Munster v Zebre (Friday, 9.35pm)

Munster are currently ninth but they won’t be panicking just yet. This time last season their position was even more precarious. But as the games go by, so the opportunities to get some momentum slip through the fingers. What is in favour of Munster though is how close the log is - they are just three points behind the fourth-placed Benetton. And if the other results go their way this weekend, that is how high they could jump. It’s what makes this round so intriguing.

Prediction: Munster to win by 25

Edinburgh v Ospreys (Friday, 9.35pm)

Sean Everitt’s men are locked with the Stormers in tied fifth position and with a trip to South Africa up next, the former Sharks coach will know his men need to make full use of their home-ground advantage. The Ospreys, in a rebuilding phase under Toby Booth, have pulled off some surprising results, but Edinburgh should be better than them on their home field even though Scotland international players will be missing.

Prediction: Edinburgh to win by 8

Emirates Lions v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Saturday, 3pm)

The strategies of the two teams will be predictable - the Lions will be out to play up-tempo rugby in order to bring the altitude into it, which you can when you kick off in Johannesburg at 3pm in summer. The Sharks learned their lesson about trying to speed up play at altitude when they lost to the Bulls in early December and perhaps more significantly in their Challenge Cup defeat to the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. So the Sharks, far from embracing the quicker game John Plumtree ultimately wants to see them excel at, might be eager to slow things down when they can. We hear Curwin Bosch has been running at flyhalf this week, which is a surprise - we might have assumed after the defeat to the Stormers that the penny might have dropped. That may be the biggest thing counting against a much-needed Sharks win.

Prediction: Sharks to edge it.

Benetton v Glasgow Warriors (Saturday, 5pm)

This is the big top-of-the-table clash of the weekend. Glasgow Warriors will be looking to hold onto their current second spot, while Benetton need to bounce back after their big defeat to Leinster in Dublin. Benetton will be without their Italian national players but then Glasgow will also be without their internationals. This could be a classic, with my money only just on Glasgow to edge it.

Prediction: Glasgow Warriors to sneak it.

Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers (Saturday, 5.05pm)

Jake White may not have done his team any favours when he fielded a full-strength URC side against Western Province in a Currie Cup match last year. The WP victory gave the Stormers fringe players, for that was what they were, experience of breaking down the aura of Fortress Loftus. So home-ground advantage, although altitude is always a factor, might not be so big for the Bulls, and the Stormers are arguably set to pick their strongest team of the season. It is likely to be a game of fine margins, and only a fool would bet their house and all their other worldly possessions on the result, but I have to agree with my colleague Brenden Nel - this isn’t a game where you make the Bulls favourites. Not after seven consecutive losses to their opponents. But then, as was written after the Cape Town game in December, neither of these teams is a Mickey Mouse team. Neither of the coaches, White and John Dobson, are Mickey Mouse coaches either, and there are no Mickey Mouse players. The Stormers have the all-round game to win, and so obviously do the Bulls, who will have the passionate support of the bulk of a close to 50 000-strong crowd.

Prediction: Stormers to win by less than 7

Connacht v Scarlets (Saturday, 7.05pm)

Connacht know they can break back into the top eight with a win, and they can possibly finish the weekend as high as fifth, or even, at a stretch, fourth. So they have much to play for and Scarlets have struggled on the road.

Prediction: Connacht to win by 15

Cardiff Rugby v Leinster (Saturday, 9.35pm)

Cardiff are still clinging to an outside chance of making the top eight, so this is a big game for them. Leinster are still without their frontliners, who make up the core of the Ireland national side currently dominating the Guinness Six Nations, but it is hard to see that mattering too much. Particularly as Cardiff are also missing some of their key players to international commitments.

Prediction: Leinster to win by 10.

Ulster v Dragons (Saturday, 9.35pm)

This is a massive game for Ulster just because it will be the first since the axing of their former coach Dan McFarland, who was sent on his way after the team lost six of their last nine games. The loss to the Ospreys was the final straw but that was away from home. This time Ulster are playing at Ravenhill, so they should win comfortably.

Prediction: Ulster to win by 15 to 20