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RUGBY

Sisyphean Stormers and belligerent Bulls set for titanic URC struggle

Cornal Hendricks (centre) of the Bulls trying to run through Deon Fourie of the Stormers and Scarra Ntubeni of the Stormers during the United Rugby Championship match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on 22 January 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

The inaugural United Rugby Championship final is an all-South African affair, which was a seemingly impossible idea not long ago.

It is fitting that a large dollop of mythology has been used to describe Saturday’s United Rugby Championship (URC) final between the Stormers and the Bulls at DHL Stadium in Cape Town. These are, after all, the two most successful provinces in the history of South African rugby and their rise to the summit of the URC is almost superhuman.

In the URC, they operate as clubs, or franchises, but historically, Western Province (WP) and the Blue Bulls have been South Africa’s leading teams in whatever guise.

The two sides have won 59 Currie Cup titles between them (34 for WP and 25 for the Blue Bulls) and have produced the most Springboks.

In Super Rugby, it was the Bulls that won three titles of that competition with the Stormers only reaching one final in the 25-year history of the tournament. It has always been a “clash of the titans” — to use mythology — of South African rugby and now that clash is for something larger than the Currie Cup — an international title.

It’s also a remarkable rise for two teams that were, for differing reasons, in the doldrums just two years ago.

The Bulls had lost their way as a winning team even if the union was reasonably sound in the financial and management sense. After their 2010 Super Rugby final win over the Stormers in a historic final in Soweto against the Stormers, they went trophyless for a decade.

Jake White’s arrival as coach in 2020 changed that and success has followed with two Currie Cup titles and the once-off Super Rugby Unlocked crown. But victory in the URC final would be the Bulls’ biggest achievement since winning their third Super Rugby title 12 years ago.

Sisyphean Stormers

For the Stormers, winning the URC would be seismic. Just being in the final makes supporters stop for a moment and ponder where it all went right. Because not even a year ago, the union was on the brink of collapse. Regardless of the result in the URC final, the Stormers and WP Rugby have already won.

“It was dark,” Stormers coach John Dobson said in reference to the union’s woes. Top players left and the WP Rugby Football Union was placed under administration after a leadership collapse. It’s no exaggeration to say it was in a death spiral.

“Western Province was dying, no doubt about it,” Dobson said. “So, I had in my mind the Dylan Thomas line from his poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” — rage, rage against the dying of the light.

“And then the Greek myth of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. He’s known as the absurd hero. He was without hope, and his joy became defying that absence of hope.

“As a team, we were 88-1 odds at the start of this competition, and we told the players about the absurd hero that was Sisyphus, and they took it on and revelled in proving everybody wrong, week in and week out.

“It was a really tough time at the start of the season. I love Western Province rugby. I didn’t want to see it break down, but we were perilously close to what happened to the Southern Kings (who collapsed amid financial meltdown).

“And then you know, we’re about to play the Bulls in one of the rounds and only to be called away from a training session to a management meeting to explain why you should remain as coach — that’s not constructive.

“There were meetings every week between the management and players. It became like a kind of game to try and keep the big players. We knew if we could just keep Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, then we could secure Salmaan Moerat and Damian Willemse and others.

“It was literally done like that, to create a team that could compete. And that was all we thought we would do. We aimed for a top-eight placing this season. Our aim was to try and win this competition in 2024 only.

“Then we went on tour and realised, hang on, there is something we can do here. I think some of the South African teams went on that first UK tour and came back with massive doubts, but we organically just grew as a team and came back as a much tighter group.”

Familiarity breeds competition

The Stormers have beaten the Bulls twice in the group stages this year, but finals are an entity all of their own and previous form counts for little. It’s especially true when a massive cold front is expected to make landfall in Cape Town hours before the match.

“The treacherous will make some parts of the match a lottery. The already poor DHL Stadium pitch will be torn up in scrums and with sweeping squalls and strong winds, fielding high balls is going to be error-ridden.

Neither team can change their style much now and given the likelihood of dropped passes, the Stormers may revel in the broken play. They are lethal attackers off turnover but of course, the conditions will also make handling tricky.

The kicking game is obviously going to be crucial and the Bulls, with a commanding lineout, against the Stormers’ erratic lineout, will view that as a potential attacking platform.

The breakdown contest will be immense with Bulls skipper Marcell Coetzee up against Stormers openside Deon Fourie, in his 100th appearance for the team. It could be a decisive micro battle.

The Bulls team is coming off an impressive 27-26 semi-final victory at a physical Leinster in Dublin last week. They can expect more of the same physicality from a Stormers team who had six of the eight members of their forward pack — that started last week against Ulster — called up to the most recent Springbok squad.

“We’ve played the Stormers twice this year and knew that’s what they’re going to bring, they want to make it physical upfront and they have the forwards to do that,” said Bulls vice-captain Arno Botha.

“It’s definitely something we’ll look into and try to capitalise on it because for us it’s also a strong point to have dominant forwards. It’s going to be a ‘clash of the titans’, I’d say.”

The Bulls boast an impressive record in tournament finals. The Pretoria-based team has played in three Super Rugby finals (2007, 2009 and 2010), winning all three.

“A final stays a final and we have to perform like you will in any final. We won’t put pressure on ourselves because of history,” added Botha.

“We might use it as motivation but we’re not going to put ourselves under pressure. We can’t leave anything behind, this is the last game of the season, possibly for many of the guys.”

More composure and no complacency

Getting over the giant hurdle that is beating Leinster away, the Bulls are wary of not having played their final a week early.

“It was a massive effort. I think it’s an effort we haven’t given before [this season]. It’s definitely something we’ll remember forever, but it wasn’t the last one and we won’t treat it like the last one,” said Botha on last week’s victory against Leinster.

Bulls captain Coetzee, recognised the clinical and composed effort by the Stormers when beating Ulster after hooter in the semi-final last week.

“It was a tight contest. It showed both teams were gunning for that final spot. Ultimately the Stormers managed to keep their composure towards the end. That’s the fine margins of playoff rugby, you have to use your opportunities when it presents itself,” said Coetzee.

The Bulls are on an upward trajectory having started their URC campaign quite slowly. They only won one of their first four matches in the tournament — the win coming against Cardiff away – but since then the team has adapted to the game plan and executed their attacking strategies to more precision.

The Bulls have scored the second-most tries (73) across the URC this season.

“It’s been a great ride. The first four weeks didn’t look too promising for us as a team but as the season grew longer, we grew more confident. It’s a special bunch of boys being coached by world-class coaches,” said Coetzee.

“It just shows you we can win away in playoffs, that gives us a lot of confidence. Going into this week, against the Stormers, it’s going to be a different animal completely. They’re a quality outfit, they’ve been consistent in their performances the whole season, they’re playing at home.”

“From our side, we’re sitting with a bunch of guys that are eager for the task and are happy to go down there and accept the challenge.”

BMT

The Bulls scraped through their quarterfinal clash against the Sharks with a last-minute drop goal by Chris Smith. On the bench, they also had the vastly experienced Morne Steyn, who is no stranger to slotting home last-minute penalties.

The Bulls have only lost one of their last 11 URC fixtures, coincidentally, against their opposition on Saturday when they were outplayed 19-17 in Cape Town in April.

“It’s not so much of revenge, it’s a final. It’s going to be personal on both fronts, it’s a completely different game on the day, anything can happen. It’s a 50-50 on the day,” Coetzee said.

“It’s phenomenal that there’s two [South African] sides in the final, it’s good for South African rugby and we’re looking forward to the challenge.

“We booked ourselves into the final, the job’s not done yet. The plan that we executed worked to perfection but it will show you how the team has grown if you can back that up the next week. I think that’s the biggest challenge for us.

“As a team, we’re always aspiring to grow our game and be better and what better way to be better than playing the Stormers in the final.” DM

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