UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
All-South African URC final set for Cape Town after Stormers and Bulls advance
South African rugby’s move to Europe appears to have been the right decision after the Bulls and Stormers qualified for the United Rugby Championship final.
The inaugural United Rugby Championship final will have a familiar flavour for South Africans when the Stormers meet the Bulls in next week’s showpiece after two dramatic semifinals.
On Friday, the Bulls upset the odds by edging Irish giants Leinster – winner of the four PRO14s in a row before the tournament morphed into the URC – 27-26 in Dublin.
And on Saturday, it was the Stormers who secured a dramatic, late 17-15 win over Belfast’s Ulster at a raucous DHL Stadium in Cape Town.
The outcome is an early indication and vindication that South African Rugby’s decision to align with Europe was the right one. The inaugural URC will have a South African champion, which will give dissenters in Europe who are unhappy with South Africa’s involvement, something to mull over.
“This is confirmation that we are up there with the top teams in Europe,” Stormers coach John Dobson said. “The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks are stacking up and this is a definitive statement, for sure.”
Fullback Warrick Gelant scored a try to level the match five minutes after the hooter and flyhalf Manie Libbok stepped up to slot the difficult conversion to seal victory.
Libbok had endured a poor match to that point, missing two reasonably simple conversions and made a litany of ill-judged tactical decisions throughout the match.
It appeared as if the chance to win and ensure a home final next weekend had evaded the Stormers when replacement lock Adre Smith was red-carded in the 71st minute.
Ulster led 15-10 at the break after the Stormers raced into an early 10-0 lead with tries from hooker JJ Kotze and No 8 Evan Roos for the home team.
But the Ulstermen remained composed and clawed their way back through tries from wing Rob Balacoune and fullback Stewart Moore, which silenced the frothing crowd.
The Stormers struggled to break down the Ulster defence and lost the breakdown battle for the most part. The home team’s lineout drive was effective, scoring a maul try in the fourth minute. But Ulster managed to slow the Stormers maul for the remainder of the game and stayed in front in an increasingly tense second half.
Libbok’s errant tactical kicking eased pressure on Ulster at crucial times and the Stormers’ composure was often lacking as they went through phases on attack.
But when it seemed that the match was up, a series of attacks close to the Ulster line resulted in a penalty. With captain Steven Kitshoff benched, stand-in skipper Ernst van Rhyn opted for a scrum 5 metres from Ulster’s line.
After a couple of phases off the back of the scrum, the Stormers moved the ball left where Gelant was wide open to scamper in for the score. But the job wasn’t done and it was up to Libbok to secure the win from an acute angle.
“It was a really frustrating performance in terms of our discipline and he didn’t stick to our tactical plan. We dropped a lot of ball too, so it was a poor performance,” Stormers coach John Dobson said. “But we showed a great deal of character to pull it through.
“Manie made some mistakes but to stay in the fight like he did, and then do it at the end, was special.”
Bulls joy in Dublin
On Friday night, the Bulls produced one of the best performances in the club’s history to topple Irish giants Leinster. Although there was one point in it at the end, the Bulls led 27-19 after the hooter sounded and a late Leinster try was irrelevant at the point.
It was only the 22nd time in 225 PRO14 and URC home matches that Leinster suffered a defeat, underlining what a significant achievement it was by Jake White’s team.
The former Bok coach has put together a group of rising stars, journeymen and experienced old heads and conjured a team of high quality and skill.
On Friday, 38-year-old flyhalf Morne Steyn came off the bench and slotted a crucial penalty to put the Bulls 8 points clear, which was a significant moment.
Veteran hooker Bismarck du Plessis also came off the bench and made three crucial plays at the breakdown, winning some vital penalties that stunted any Leinster momentum in the dying moments of the match.
“It doesn’t happen that often [winning away against Leinster], so you have to take the chance when it comes,” White said.
“I’m very proud of the team because we learnt lessons from when we lost [31-13 in the group phase] at the Aviva Stadium. One of those lessons was not to give them a good start.
“We got a bit of a lead today and then at halftime we started to believe that we could win. Some of the players were also magnificent and the youngsters that came off the bench really stepped up.” DM
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