SA's URC challenge is now under pressure

rugby22 April 2024 06:22
By:Gavin Rich
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Elrigh Louw (c) and Kurt-Lee Arendse © Gallo Images

For a while on Saturday afternoon there were three local teams in the top eight of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship log and the South African challenge appeared to be flying, but then came 160 minutes that changed everything.

The Emirates Lions were highly impressive in beating Leinster in Johannesburg, and their bonus point win propelled them into the play-off and Investec Champions Cup qualification bracket. With the Vodacom Bulls and the DHL Stormers playing at home, two teams in the top four plus the Lions within the top eight seemed likely.

But sadly the other two teams didn’t help the Lions or themselves like the Lions had helped them, with Munster reminding us how they became champions last year by winning yet another important game in South Africa, this time at altitude. And the Ospreys, perhaps underestimated by the Stormers even though throughout the week they tried to convince everyone otherwise, showed that there was a reason they started the weekend in seventh position.

Cardiff had perhaps sounded a warning to the Stormers, who rested several frontline players for the game, when the night before the DHL Stadium clash they were unlucky to lose by just two points to Ulster at Ravenshill. The top two Welsh teams are certainly more competitive than they were in previous seasons.


Both the top South African teams had reason to kick themselves in frustration afterwards. Stormers coach John Dobson has it right when he says there are times when his team get seduced by early space offered to them by the opposing defence. It leads them to think they can hit every ball for six and eschew the more basic ingredients required as the base of a winning recipe.

That certainly happened at the DHL Stadium. Make no mistake, the Ospreys were outstanding, and they gave the Stormers an object lesson on how to retain and look after possession. But at the same time the Stormers were at their most charitable, which has been a habit from the season that explains why they are not higher up the log.

Ospreys coach Toby Flood admitted afterwards that one of the reasons his team’s plan worked was because they knew the Stormers DNA. What has brought the Cape team success can also trip them up in the sense that they try to force things, particularly against a team that limits the opportunities to play off chaos. Against patient opposition the inclination to try and turn every movement into points turns into a fatal flaw, which it did in this game.

The upshot was that the Stormers, who already knew they wouldn’t make it into the top four this weekend after Munster’s win in Pretoria, fluffed their lines, lost significant ground in their quest for a home playoff game.

The penalty try they were awarded right at the end gave them a losing bonus point that could yet be crucial in the close run in expected at the sharp end of the league season, but that was the only consolation from a game which was easily their worst at home since they lost to the Lions in December 2021. They’ve gone from being strong challengers for a top four spot to danger that if they don’t beat Leinster in what has now become a massive game this coming weekend of dropping out of the top eight.

There’s been a lot of talk from the Stormers about the need to secure a top four spot and the home playoff game that goes with it, but maybe their priority should be what it was in the first season of the URC - just make sure you secure Champions Cup qualification first.


Right now that is far from a certainty for the Stormers, who play half of their last four league games overseas. The Bulls, who effectively lost the game when Johan Goosen was red carded in the second half, at least have three more home games to look forward to, and their only remaining engagement aside from those Loftus clashes is in Durban.

The Bulls’ outlook has changed considerably though because of their defeat and there has also been a change of narrative brought about by the weekend results in Cape Town and Pretoria. The Ospreys team that travels to Loftus on Saturday are now firmly in the frame for a top eight finish and may even themselves now be top four contenders. And Glasgow Warriors and Benetton, the two other teams set to visit the Bulls, are both comfortably in the top eight and will have been given some confidence by what Munster were able to do at Fortress Loftus.

There’s been a breach in the barricades in Pretoria, and sometimes those small holes can be widened and the defences broken apart by invaders who have been emboldened by seeing the line breached.

The Bulls have gone from challenging Leinster for top spot to battling to retain fourth spot, something that would have been under threat from their countrymen from Cape Town had Frans Malherbe’s men not fluffed their lines at the DHL Stadium.


The Bulls should still be good for a top four finish, but the Stormers will have to win all their remaining games and bank on other teams helping them out if they are to secure a home quarterfinal. The Lions can help them out on Saturday by beating Munster, and on the form they showed in beating Leinster, another upset can happen.

The Lions tore out of the blocks to make the best use of a mid-afternoon kick-off time in 30 degree heat at altitude and before Leinster had even settled they were trailing 22-0. That was effectively the game, although the Lions did have to rely on a tigerish, organised defensive effort in the last 50 minutes of the game when Leinster were resurgent but just couldn’t convert the pressure.

Leinster showed enough in that period to alert the Stormers to the fact that the Johannesburg result does not mean the Cape side will have an easy game on Saturday night. The Stormers should have their big artillery back and will start as favourites, but Leinster will have been stung by the defeat and should mount an even stronger challenge than the Ospreys did.

Meanwhile the Lions are suddenly, or maybe not so suddenly because they’ve always been there or thereabouts this season, mounting a challenge to the Stormers’ quest for a Champions Cup spot. Like the Bulls, the Lions will be playing three of their last four games in Johannesburg. Their last one is in Cape Town at the beginning of June - that could well become an eliminator for a top eight spot. That’s not a position the Stormers would have envisaged themselves being in at the start of the weekend, and once again the URC has delivered a seismic shift in log standing and perceptions. It really is a spell-binding competition this year.

The other South African team, the Hollywoodbets Sharks, were beaten by Glasgow on Friday night, which was expected, but their second string team put up enough of a fight for coach John Plumtree to emboldened by the depth he has available. The Sharks also denied the hosts the bonus point try they should have expected, which helped the Bulls, at least until the Bulls took out the shotgun and riddled their feet with bullets.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results

Ulster 19 Cardiff 17

Glasgow Warriors 21 Hollywoodbets Sharks 10

Benetton 36 Dragons 19

Emirates Lions 44 Leinster 12

Vodacom Bulls 22 Munster 27

DHL Stormers 21 Ospreys 27

Edinburgh 43 Scarlets 18

Connacht 54 Zebre 16

Log positions 1 to 12 after 14 games of 18: 1. Leinster 54, 2. Glasgow Warriors 53, 3. Munster 48, 4. Vodacom Bulls 46, 5. Benetton 42, 6. DHL Stormers 40, 7. Ospreys 40, 8. Edinburgh 39, 9. Connacht 39, 10. Ulster 39, 11. Emirates Lions 39, 12. Cardiff 25.

This coming weekend’s fixtures:

Ulster v Benetton (Friday 8:35pm)

Scarlets v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Friday, 8:35pm)

Zebre v Glasgow Warriors (Saturday, 2pm)

Vodacom Bulls v Ospreys (Saturday, 3pm)

Cardiff v Edinburgh (Saturday, 4:05pm)

Emirates Lions v Munster (Saturday, 5pm)

DHL Stormers v Leinster (Saturday, 7:05pm)

Dragons v Connacht (Saturday, 9pm)