South African franchises are targeting double delight
Coaches are likely to put their best players into the URC’s closing stages, but they will have half an eye on the Currie Cup — and a few are still hopeful about next season’s Champions Cup.
Last October, the four South African franchises limped home from Europe after combining for four wins in 16 matches. They were widely written off thereafter, and some critics went as far as to denounce organisers for bringing South African rugby into the northern hemisphere fold.
Fast-forward to the present, where three of the South African teams are on course for a place in the United Rugby Championship (URC) quarterfinals. Two sides are genuine contenders for a spot in next season’s Champions Cup, the world’s biggest and most prestigious club competition.
The turnaround has been remarkable.
South African teams were expected to improve in matches staged on home soil, yet an overall record of 15 wins in 16 home matches against European opposition – with 10 of the 15 wins yielding a four-try bonus point – screams domination rather than improvement.
The Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and even the Lions have maximised the local conditions to put South African rugby in a strong position ahead of the business end of the season. While the final round of the local derbies will bring an end to two unbeaten streaks, the better sides should kick on and claim some crucial results en route to the playoffs.
Bulls best-placed of SA contenders
Jake White’s Bulls side began 2022 at the bottom of the South African division. After claiming big wins against Irish giants Munster and Ulster at Loftus Versfeld, and after putting more than 100 points past the Scarlets and Dragons, they’re in position to top the local standings.
The winner of the South African division will advance to the playoffs, and will automatically qualify for the 2022/23 Champions Cup. The Bulls are best-placed to realise these ambitions when you consider they have the most favourable schedule in the last three rounds.
After the north-south clash at the Cape Town Stadium, the Bulls host Benetton and Glasgow before travelling north to tackle the Ospreys. They will be favourites to beat the Italian and Scottish teams at altitude, and should have too much firepower for the battling Welsh side.
It will be interesting to see how White manages his charges in the lead-up to the URC playoffs – and indeed how each of the coaches responds to the challenge of featuring in two competitions at the same time.
Lions’ late surge to boost SA counterparts
In early February, Lions defence coach Jaque Fourie criticised his charges for their performances and overall attitude. Since then, the Johannesburg-based side have produced a series of complete showings to beat four European teams – most notably Munster and Edinburgh.
While playoff qualification is unlikely, the Lions may continue to serve South African rugby’s interests by performing against the foreign clubs. After hosting Connacht and Benetton, they will go to Wales to face the Dragons. Given their current form, you wouldn’t bet against Ivan van Rooyen’s side winning all of their remaining URC games.
Van Rooyen may be tempted to pour all his resources into the Currie Cup side and ensure that the Lions climb the log. The Golden Lions are currently at the bottom of the domestic standings.
But if Van Rooyen is building for the future, then he would do well to focus on the final rounds of the URC.
Further exposure to European opposition and conditions will benefit the players down the line – in the second instalment of the URC and in the European Challenge Cup. The Lions look set to join the latter tournament – Europe’s second-tier competition beneath the Champions Cup – from the 2022/23 season.
Stuttering Sharks face tough finish
At the start of the season, KwaZulu-Natal’s Sharks were hyped up as favourites to finish at the top of the South African standings and to qualify for the Champions Cup.
As the end of the URC league stage approaches, however, it seems that Sean Everitt’s side will need some luck to finish ahead of the Bulls and the Stormers in the local division.
After producing some underwhelming performances against South African opposition, the Sharks picked up big wins against the Scarlets, Dragons and Zebre. They failed to pass the test against a top side like Edinburgh, though, and went down 21-5 at home.
The Sharks will face Leinster and Connacht at home in the coming weeks, before travelling to Belfast to tackle Ulster. The Irish clubs have long set the standard in the Pro12 and Pro14 – the regional tournaments that preceded the URC.
Leinster have won the European title four times. With their Ireland stars back from Six Nations duty, they will be favourites to win the inaugural edition of the URC. Connacht are no easy-beats, and Ulster – who count Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen in their ranks – have been one of the best teams on show this season.
The Sharks will need to produce something special in order to win those matches and qualify for the playoffs.
Stormers rise from the ashes
John Dobson and his Stormers players deserve credit for how they have responded over the past few months. The actions of president Zelt Marais plunged the franchise into financial chaos, yet, since Marais’s suspension and SA Rugby’s timely intervention, the Stormers have started to express themselves with positive results.
While the Stormers’ kicking and aerial game still require attention, they have struck an outstanding balance between attack and defence over the past few months. Flyhalf Manie Libbok was at the heart of emphatic victories against Zebre, Cardiff and Ospreys. The team as a whole appear to be in a more confident space.
Much was made of the contentious decision by officials that swung things against Ulster in the Stormers’ favour. The Cape side was due a bit of luck, though, after officials denied them a big win against Connacht in Ireland weeks previously.
That said, the Stormers can’t afford to leave anything to chance in the coming weeks. While they remain in the frame for a URC playoff berth, they must know that the margins are small and that a series of complacent showings could result in them finishing outside of the top eight.
Glasgow and Leinster will be boosted by the return of their Six Nations stars ahead of their respective tours to South Africa. The Stormers have to win at least one of those matches before they travel to Wales for their final league fixture.
The result against Scarlets could determine whether the Stormers top the South African division and claim a spot in the Champions Cup or if they fail to qualify for the playoffs.
At this stage, the door is still open for the Stormers to host a quarterfinal.
The Stormers’ URC ambitions should be prioritised at this stage of the season. Western Province lost 45-34 to the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld recently, and remain in sixth place on the Currie Cup log. While they still have a slim chance of making the domestic playoffs, Dobson and company should be managing the senior players with the business end of the URC in mind.
It’s believed that the URC bosses are exploring the option of hosting this year’s final in South Africa. Given what we’ve witnessed in cross-hemisphere fixtures staged on South African soil, it’s fair to say that any local team that features in that URC decider will be well placed to win the title.
Dreaming of the double
The final two rounds of the Currie Cup will be staged on the same weekends as the URC quarter- and semifinals. In the best-case scenario, the Bulls – well placed in the URC and currently heading the Currie Cup log – would field their strongest side in the URC match and name a less potent combination for the corresponding domestic fixture.
Chances of achieving “a double” – winning the URC title as well as the Currie Cup – are slim. The URC final will be staged on the same weekend as the Currie Cup semifinals.
If a leading team such as the Bulls advances to a URC final, they may pour all their resources into that fixture. A less-experienced outfit would be left to do the business in the Currie Cup semifinal. There wouldn’t be many complaints, though, if a South African side lifted the URC title and lost a Currie Cup semifinal on the same weekend.
But if a South African team did win the URC title, and if their young and inexperienced Currie Cup side did manage to win a semifinal, it would make for an interesting situation on the last weekend of the season.
In that scenario, the team would have all the big guns at their disposal for the Currie Cup final, and would be in a position to win another trophy.
It may seem an unlikely outcome at this point, but if the South African teams continue to perform in the URC in the coming weeks, and if the URC bosses opt to stage the final of the tournament in South Africa, then that dream scenario may well become a reality. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.