The Vodacom Bulls were within a few dubious home town refereeing decisions of ensuring that South African teams were unbeaten in Ireland this weekend, but the Vodacom United Rugby Championship log does make for quite depressing reading from a local viewpoint.
Whereas a year ago the league phase of the inaugural URC season saw three South African teams finish in the top five, that is not going to be the case this year. Instead, with two rounds to go, it is the Irish who are dominant, with Connacht’s impressive win over Edinburgh in Galway pushing them up to sixth.
That means there are four Irish teams in the top six, and you can’t get much more dominant than that. With the Cell C Sharks’ full strength team slipping to a disappointing defeat to lowly Scarlets in Llanelli, the DHL Stormers are now the only local team that will play a quarterfinal at home. And that has now become a certainty as round 16 of the competition saw the top four move comfortably ahead of the chasing pack.
The Stormers’ draw against Leinster at the RDS Arena at the start of the weekend, a result that stopped Leinster’s impressive 19 match winning run, means their quest to finish in their current second spot is now completely in their hands. It was the two points picked up for the draw that enabled the Stormers to stay ahead of Ulster even though the Belfast team managed a full house of five points against the Bulls.
ULSTER REQUIRE COMPATRIOTS TO DO THEM A FAVOUR
Ulster have closed the gap but not enough to stop them having to rely on fellow Irish province Munster to do them a favour. The Stormers shouldn’t have any problem picking up five in their final game against Benetton in Cape Town, so it is Munster who hold the key to Ulster’s chances. Ulster shouldn’t have too many problems in their remaining matches against the Dragons and Edinburgh.
The important thing about their result against Leinster though is that it means the Stormers just need to beat Munster at the DHL Stadium to ensure their second place that guarantees home ground advantage to the semifinal stage of the competition.
Munster now also loom large for the Sharks, who play them in a Heineken Champions Cup fixture this coming weekend and then again in their penultimate URC game at HollywoodBets Kings Park when that competition resumes again in mid-April. The Sharks need to win both their remaining games to be sure of finishing in the top seven, which is what is necessary for them to qualify for next year’s Champions Cup.
SHARKS CAN STILL FINISH FIFTH
Munster are currently fifth but the Sharks still have a chance of finishing in that position. There are seven points separating them from the Irish team, and if they win both games, and Munster lose to both South African coastal teams, the Sharks will go ahead if they pick up full points from their two home fixtures.
Connacht of course are hovering in that zone too, but while they will start as favourites to beat Cardiff at home in their next game, they will be up against it in their final game against Glasgow Warriors away. The smart money will be on Connacht finishing in the top eight, and making it four Irish representatives in the playoffs, but if the Sharks get the bit between their teeth they have a good chance of going ahead of both Connacht and Munster in the final placings.
Getting their momentum up may be easier said than done though as the Sharks continue to disappoint. With all their current Springboks back from the national resting protocols, most pundits would have picked an easy win for the Sharks at the Parc Y Scarlets. Instead it was the home team that produced a similar performance to the one that beat the Bulls there two months ago, with their ability to absorb pressure and then strike when given the opportunity propelling them to an impressive victory.
RESULT UNDERLINED NEED FOR PLUMTREE
It was a game that once again underlined how important it is for the Sharks that John Plumtree, who is being courted for a return to Durban after an absence of a decade, signs on the dotted line. The Sharks have too many marquee players to be losing to a team like Scarlets, and once again they were beaten tactically.
Just like was the case when their team without the Boks managed to get back into the contest late in the game against the Stormers in Cape Town recently, there were too many crucial stages of the game where the Durbanites just played dumb rugby. They have the star players but their structure is poor and it is asking a lot of Neil Powell to be head coach in his first season in the 15-man game after so many years coaching Sevens.
The good news is that the Champions Cup game against Munster this coming weekend offers an immediate chance to make amends and bounce back, and in that sense the Scarlets result might not be good news for the visitors. But while the Sharks have the players and they will have home ground advantage, they have disappointed too often for their supporters to feel completely confident of their chances.
They are going to have to get it right though or their season is going to end up being classified as a disaster, and the Sharks can’t afford to miss out on Champions Cup qualification given the financial muscle they have due to their equity partnership with the American MVM investment firm.
CHAMPIONS CONTINUE TO CONFOUND
The Stormers have yet to finalise an equity partner but on the field they continue to confound, and might feel that had they not conspired against themselves in a few instances, they should have left Dublin with a win over table topping Leinster. As it was, the draw confirmed Leinster will finish in pole position, and they retain their unbeaten record in the season, but the Stormers asked questions of Leinster that haven’t been asked before.
Yes, the Six Nations players were missing from the Leinster line-up, but the Leinster team wasn’t the completely second string combination that the Stormers and Sharks beat on South African soil last year and everyone knows how strong Leinster are regardless of which players they put on the field.
And while the Stormers did have their Boks back for the game, the Sharks result later in the weekend was an indication that it does take time for players who haven’t played in a while to shake off rust. The likes of Damian Willemse had a quiet game after resting for 10 weeks but it is unlikely he will be as quiet if these two teams meet again in a final.
RESULT WILL INSPIRE CONFIDENCE
Of course, Leinster will start favourites should these teams meet in a final. They don’t boast their impressive record by fluke, and they will be favourites against whoever they play. But by drawing at the RDS Arena the Stormers have ensured they at least won’t be going into a possible return game feeling completely cowed.
While they should be pleased with the result, for they were playing a team that had won 19 games in a row before this and most of them with a fair degree of comfort, the Stormers will also have absorbed a few lessons from the game. For a start, against Leinster if you surrender possession you don’t get it back in a hurry, and there were too many instances, such as the botched defensive lineout that led to Leinster’s important try just before halftime, where the Stormers made mistakes that gifted possession to their opponents.
Ultimately a draw was a fair result from a titanic battle between two good teams that showed they deserved their position in the top two.
BULLS BOKS MADE A DIFFERENCE BUT THEY WERE ROBBED
At halftime in the Ulster game it looked like the Bulls were going to join the Stormers in halting the Irish momentum wave that the nation is riding following Ireland’s triumph in the Six Nations. The halftime stats all favoured the Bulls, who arguably got more from their two returning Boks, Kurt Lee Arendse and Canaan Moodie, than the other two South African teams that had international players returning. Whereas previously the Bulls had dominated possession in games but struggled to score, in this one Arendse and Moodie brought the needed cutting edge and it made all the difference.
But there are many reasons why it is difficult to win at a place like the Kingspan Stadium, and the questionable yellow carding of Elrigh Louw early in the second half was arguably the turning point of the game. Even if there had been a team warning there’d been a lot of rugby played, plus the intervention of halftime, since the last time the Bulls were in the red zone.
Then came the even more bizarre yellow card shown to Bismarck du Plessis, who really didn’t do anything in his clean out of the Ulster flyhalf that merited sanction, and that was the game.
The Bulls’ misery was compounded by the late penalty that denied them a bonus point, which was the least they deserved for their efforts, and it does leave them in a hole as they list at seventh place, just ahead of the Sharks and also in danger of dropping out of playoff and European qualification.
The Bulls’ two remaining games are against Zebre, which they should win, and then Leinster. They should feel pleased that Leinster picked up points against the Stormers, for being guaranteed top position increases the likelihood of Leinster taking an under-strength team to Loftus. Having said that, as we’ve already noted, there is no such thing as a weak Leinster team, and the Bulls will be playing for survival in that final league match.
LIONS COULD OVERTAKE BULLS OR SHARKS
As it stands, the Sharks and Bulls could even be overtaken by the surging Emirates Lions, who with a dazzling three try burst overcame Benetton in Treviso. The Lions have now beaten the Glasgow Warriors and the Bulls at home and Benetton away in consecutive matches and have a real chance of achieving their objective of making the top eight.
Like the Bulls though it is Leinster who stand in their way, with the log leaders coming to Johannesburg on 15 March. The Lions can treat that game as a final as they finish off against Zebre and shouldn’t have too much trouble dealing with the Italians.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Zebre 30 Cardiff 34
Leinster 22 DHL Stormers 22
Ospreys 37 Dragons 19
Benetton 28 Emirates Lions 32
Connacht 41 Edinburgh 26
Scarlets 32 Cell C Sharks 20
Munster 26 Glasgow Warriors 38
Ulster 32 Vodacom Bulls 23
Remaining matches for SA teams (all at home).
Stormers: Munster, Benetton.
Bulls: Zebre, Leinster.
Sharks: Benetton, Munster.
Lions: Leinster, Zebre.