Stormers, not Bulls, are favourites for Loftus showdown

rugby26 February 2024 10:12
By:Brenden Nel
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Daniel du Plessis, Adre Smith and Scarra Ntubeni © Gallo Images

Loftus Versfeld looks set to host a bumper crowd for Saturday’s much-anticipated Vodacom United Rugby Championship showdown between the Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers, but one thing is certain - the hosts won’t be favourites for the clash.

With both sides set to have full-strength line-ups for the match, the contest will come down to a battle of wills and while a capacity crowd - the Bulls have been running a #filluploftus campaign for two weeks now - will aid the home side, they will need to overcome their own mental hurdles if they are to reverse a streak that has plagued them ever since the URC came into being.

The Bulls are likely to have Wilco Louw back from injury and Willie le Roux back from honeymoon, while the Stormers will have the luxury of Frans Malherbe back in their squad alongside World Cup winners like Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok, for instance.

But driving the emotion surrounding the contest will be the fact that in URC terms, the Stormers have played seven against the Bulls, and won seven. It has been a refrain that has been exploited by the Cape supporters, much to the chagrin of Bulls supporters and in particular, their Director of Rugby Jake White.

But while banter is all part and parcel of the spectacle of professional sport, the stark reality is that the Stormers will head to Loftus Versfeld as overwhelming favourites, and rightly so.

Not only have they won the last seven encounters between the two sides, but add in two Currie Cup encounters last season as well when the Bulls fielded a close-to-full-strength side and lost against a Western Province team that shouldn’t have come close and the dominance is something extra.

And while White may not like it, until they break the hoodoo, even at Loftus Versfeld they will be considered underdogs.

That won’t sit well with many Bulls fans, given the history between the two sides. The Bulls have ultimately been a better side across the board this season, and are currently third on the SA standings.

But ask any of their supporters which game will grind them the most? It will still be this one.

And because of the lack of success the motivation and desperation is set to be higher this time around.

The Stormers have ironically also been unbeaten against all other local URC sides for more than two years and have a similar dominance over the Sharks in the URC but those contests have not captured the imagination like the north-south derby in recent times.

The rivalry has intensified, as have the chirps from down south and White, for one is sick of hearing about it. And it will resurface this week to irritate him more.

Before the Lions game he was talking about the importance of winning derbies and said that it was time the Bulls got one over the Stormers.

“One is the Lions away and it’s at altitude ... and then the Stormers, who we haven’t beaten in a long time. I keep hearing about that, and I’m sure I’ll keep hearing about that for the next couple of weeks as well, so it’s time we beat them.”

The match also serves as a moment to almost settle the SA Shield, the internal trophy won by the Stormers over the past few seasons and which defacto confirms who is the best franchise in South Africa.

The Bulls will tell you it doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things but the pride associated with it will tell you that is a lie.

The Bulls have had a decent season, have more depth than before and are currently third on the URC log. They have scored the most tries and most points in the tournament thus far but have a few vulnerabilities on defence.

The game is also not in Cape Town, where the majority of the seven losses took place. And it could be in front of a full-house Loftus Versfeld.

But even with all that as their ally, the Bulls will have to overcome their own mental obstacle to beat John Dobson’s side.

They won’t like hearing that they are underdogs for the big game, but everything points to that.

And it is up to them to change that.