DHL Stormers coach John Dobson has told an interesting story about his visit to a Dublin pub on the night of his team’s arrival in the Irish capital on Monday.
Dobson went to a pub where he bumped into a former Irish player who represented the British and Irish Lions. He didn’t name the former player, for the good reason that someone who has spent two days in a bar might not want that to be universally known.
“This guy was in the pub and in a terrible state. He told me he had been in the pub since Saturday night, where he had started out celebrating the Irish victory in the Grand Slam decider,” said Dobson.
“So he had effectively been there for two days. That is quite something and although it was also St Patrick's Day weekend it says something about how much the current Ireland success means to the rugby people in this country.”
NO PROFIT FROM IRISH HANGOVER
Dobson is in Dublin for the Stormers’ top of the log Vodacom United Rugby Championship clash with frontrunners Leinster at the RDS Arena on Friday night and he reckons the chances of his team profiting from the inevitable Irish hangover are minimal.
“What has surprised me since being here is how seriously the Leinster people are taking their game against us. I thought that after winning the Six Nations and achieving the Grand Slam this week might see a bit of a lull in the intense interest, but that hasn’t been the case, with most of the venue sold out for our game. The people seem to know who we are and are eager to see this game.”
Indeed, everyone involved with Irish rugby will be eager to see the Irish party and the Irish momentum continue in a weekend where the other current top Irish team, Ulster, are also involved in a game against South African opposition. Ulster host the Vodacom Bulls in Belfast on Saturday night, and if they win and Leinster win the good times, and the revelry, will continue.
Munster also play an important game against Glasgow Warriors that will lift them into the top four if they win. Should that happen, there will be three Irish teams in the top four, with the Stormers the odd one out.
MOMENTUM CAN BE DANGEROUS
Momentum is a peculiar thing of course, and the wave Irish rugby is currently riding will become more dangerous the longer it continues, so with the World Cup in France later this year in the back of all minds, it is imperative for one or both the South African teams to halt it.
If they do, then the Stormers’ quest for second position on the final log behind Leinster will be as confirmed as their status as reigning South African Shield champions currently is, and everyone knows how important it is to know that you have home ground advantage in both a quarterfinal and semifinal should you win your first knock-out fixture. The Stormers will certainly know because that was the route they took to winning the trophy last season.
While the Stormers are playing for second, the other two local teams in the current top eight are playing to stay there, with the Cell C Sharks surely starting as strong favourites to pick up full points against the Scarlets in Llanelli in another Saturday game.
The Lions are last in the South African Shield but thanks to good wins over the Glasgow Warriors and the Bulls they are now back in contention for their stated goal of making it into the elite Heineken Champions Cup next season. They play their final away game on Saturday against Benetton in Treviso and with altitude on their side after that, plus one of their opponents being Zebre, who they beat in Parma in the first ever URC game in 2021/2022, a win will significantly strengthen their chances.
Previews and predictions for Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures
Zebre v Cardiff Rugby (Parma, Friday 21.10)
Zebre are sitting where they’ve been for all the time that the South African teams have been participating in the URC, and even before that in the competition’s previous incarnation as the Guinness PRO14 - namely at the bottom of the log. With Cardiff looking to seal their Welsh Shield win, which will give them entry into next season’s Heineken Champions Cup, an upset result is highly unlikely.
Prediction: Cardiff to win by 12
Leinster v DHL Stormers (Dublin, Friday 21.35)
A lot of the talk this week has been about what this game means and doesn’t mean. In truth, although it is mathematically possible for Leinster to still be overtaken at the top of the log, with the Stormers the only side that can do that, even the men from the Cape accept that the race for pole position going into the play-offs is done and dusted. And Leinster will be looking ahead to next week’s Champions Cup quarterfinal against Ulster, which is potentially perilous for them just because it is a derby. So Stormers coach John Dobson might be right - this game might mean more to his team than to the hosts.
But there is a reason why Leinster haven’t lost a game in any competition since they were shocked by the Bulls in the 2021/2022 semifinal - they are super professional and efficient, and it will take a big game from the Stormers to upset the favourites on their home turf. Yes, the Stormers are close to full strength - Ruhan Nel, Evan Roos and Leolin Zas are the only players missing from what would be the first choice team - but the returning Boks, although well conditioned, should be short of full match fitness after a two month lay-off. For the Stormers, this is just the start of the process of getting the likely team for the play-off phase up to their best form.
The weather forecast a day out from the game didn’t look good for the Stormers - rain and strong winds are predicted for Friday in Dublin. As Dobson reminded the media on Thursday, the games the Stormers have lost this season have been in the wet. But perhaps it is a good thing that the conditions won’t completely favour the Stormers’ running game as they do need to get used to producing in all conditions.
The Stormers should be competitive but the smart money will be on a home win. You don’t bet against a team that hasn’t lost since before the mid-point of last year.
Prediction: Leinster by 7.
Ospreys v Dragons (Swansea, Saturday 15.00)
The Ospreys are four points behind Cardiff in the battle for Welsh Shield honours, and with Cardiff expected to beat Zebre, the pressure is on the Ospreys to do the same in this home derby. The Ospreys lost a bit of the momentum they picked up off some telling Champions Cup successes when their Welsh internationals away but with the Six Nations now over, the hosts should have at least some of them back.
Prediction: Ospreys to win by 15.
Benetton v Emirates Lions (Treviso, Saturday 15.00)
After picking up some momentum with two successive shock wins against Glasgow at home and then the Bulls away, the Lions are suddenly back in contention for a top eight finish, which would enable them to qualify for the playoffs. But there’s a five point gap between their 11th place and the ninth placed Benetton, and Benetton are always a lot more formidable at home.
The Bulls will tell you just how much after their big defeat in Treviso in the Rainbow Cup final in 2021. That does not mean though that the Lions, if they retain the form they showed against the Bulls, can’t come away with a victory. They can.
The Lions have yet to name their team but what we do know is that they won’t have Jordan Hendrikse playing for them as he is injured. It was confirmed this week that the ace flyhalf will be out for the rest of the season with his shoulder injury. They do however have their regular captain Reinhard Nothnagel back from injury. Nothnagel was part of the 25 man group that traveled to Treviso earlier this week. Also in the squad was former Springbok fullback Andries Coetzee, who played a couple of seasons for Benetton. His knowledge of the venue and the opposition could come in handy to the visitors, who will be looking to regain the great away form they showed when they went to Wales towards the start of the competition.
Prediction: Benetton to win by 8.
Connacht v Edinburgh (Galway, Saturday 17.00)
There’s a bit of a reversal of the usual roles in this game, with the home team playing for the top eight finish that Edinburgh have made more of a habit of than they have in recent seasons. With their Scottish internationals back, Edinburgh stand a good chance of scoring the win they need to get back into contention, but not for nothing is The Sportsground in Galway recognised as one of the toughest places to visit.
Prediction: Connacht to win by less than 7.
Scarlets v Cell C Sharks (Llanelli, Saturday 19.00)
Scarlets did shock the Bulls a while back, but it probably isn’t being unkind to the hosts to suggest that the Bulls conspired against themselves in that game. Their defence was all over the place and they wasted scoring opportunities against a Scarlets team that was up for the game that night.
With the Springboks expected back for this one, the Sharks’ forwards should just be way too strong for Scarlets. And they should win with a bonus point, which is what wing Werner Kok listed as the minimum requirement. Indeed, with a possible home quarterfinal still in their sights and a desperate need to get much higher than their current seventh position on the log, it is not asking too much of the Sharks for them to get full points from their remaining fixtures. Which could just about lift them into the top four.
Prediction: Sharks to win by 12.
Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Limerick, Saturday 19.15)
Outside of Friday night’s top of the table clash in Dublin, this is the plum fixture of the weekend. And arguably it also means more than the Leinster/Stormers clash, as the two teams are fourth (Glasgow) and fifth (Munster) on the log, with just two points separating them. With fourth representing home play-off qualification, there’s a lot of pressure on Munster as they face a difficult two match tour to South Africa to round off the league phase of their campaign.
The Warriors lost a bit of their momentum in the period that they were without their Scottish internationals but they did beat Ulster not that long ago and are a playing an eye-catching and dazzling style of attacking rugby under the coaching of Franco Smith. Munster though have recovered well from their early season slump at the start of Graham Rowntree’s tenure as coach and are always a difficult team to play on their home field.
Prediction: Munster to win by less than 7.
Ulster v Vodacom Bulls (Belfast, Saturday 21.35)
The Stormers will be hoping the Bulls can do them a favour by knocking back Ulster’s now strong challenge for the second position that the Stormers also covet and currently hold onto. At the very least, the Cape side will be hoping the Pretoria team can deny Ulster a bonus point. But while the Bulls are certainly good enough on paper to pull off a win, their recent form suggests they go into this game as rank underdogs.
They do have two Springboks back in the form of the dazzling stepping duo spawned in Paarl, Canaan Moodie and Kurt Lee Arendse, but it might require more than that to arrest a slide that has now seen the Bulls lose six in a row in all competitions.
The Currie Cup shouldn’t be factored in as it is really a development competition, but the Bulls went full strength against the Stormers last week and weren’t too far away from URC strength when thumped by the Pumas the week before that. So the Currie Cup games deepened the losing habit of the Bulls players involved in the Belfast match.
What the Bulls need right now is an injection of confidence and they will get that if they win at the Kingspan, where a South African team is yet to win in the URC. But don’t bet on it happening.
Prediction: Ulster to win by 12.