Travel-weary South African URC sides prepare for frosty Europe
All four South African United Rugby Championship sides are in Europe this week — with some spending more than 50 hours in the air travelling north — to take on their international opposition.
Qatar Airways’ partnership with the United Rugby Championship (URC) has brought more problems than solutions for the South African URC sides.
The Stormers, who face Glasgow Warriors in Scotland on Sunday, travelled for more than two days on flights that went through three cities.
The Cape Town side left for Johannesburg on Monday and landed in Glasgow on Wednesday, but had layovers in Johannesburg, Doha and London before eventually landing in the Scottish city.
“We couldn’t get everyone on the same flight from London to Doha so about five players only arrived at nine o’clock on Wednesday night,” said Stormers’ head coach John Dobson.
“They’d been travelling for about 52 hours before they arrived [in Glasgow].”
The flight from Cape Town to Glasgow is usually around 12 hours, with a maximum of two layovers, but the URC’s new partnership with Qatar Airways means all the sides are obliged to travel through Doha — often in economy class and on separate flights.
The extended travel means that South African URC sides like the Sharks have elected to play a “B” team against Connacht in Galway on Saturday, with a plethora of first-choice players staying behind in Durban to prepare for their crunch European Cup match against Bordeaux Bègles next week.
Sharks in Ireland
The Sharks’ travel concerns extend to the Durban-based franchise deciding not to send their interim coach and director of rugby, Neil Powell, to Ireland.
Instead, Joey Mongalo, the Sharks’ Currie Cup coach, will head the side.
The Sharks are on a good run of form, winning their past five matches, including a 47-20 thrashing of the Bulls last week. They currently sit fifth on the log with two matches in hand on leaders Leinster.
Lock Reniel Hugo will lead a side that shows numerous changes, with flank Henco Venter, centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg and wing Marnus Potgieter the only players to retain their places in the starting line-up.
There are three possible URC debutants, with former Cheetahs lock Ockie Barnard, 20-year-old lock and loose forward Corne Rahl and outside back Ethan Hooker on the bench for the Sharks.
At flyhalf, former Maties playmaker Nevaldo Fleurs wears the number 10 jersey, while the experienced Lionel Cronje sits on the bench.
Stormers keep consistency
Despite the Stormers’ heavy travel schedule, Dobson has kept the changes to a minimum, stressing the importance of the match for the coach.
Clayton Blommetjies comes into the starting line-up at fullback, with Damian Willemse alongside Dan du Plessis in midfield, while young flyer Suleiman Hartzenberg shifts to the wing.
Junior Springbok scrumhalf Imad Khan is set to make his Stormers debut, while wing Angelo Davids and hooker JJ Kotze come on to the replacements bench in the only other changes to the matchday squad, as Dobson opts for continuity.
The Stormers remain second on the log, eight points ahead of third-placed Ulster.
Bulls in Wales
The Bulls are on a three-match slump, losing to the Exeter Chiefs, Stormers and Sharks in consecutive weekends. They have the opportunity to turn their fortunes around against a Dragons side that haven’t tasted victory since the end of October.
Director of rugby Jake White is taking no chances, however, and has selected his strongest possible side for the match in Newport.
A somewhat surprising change sees Wandisile Simelane come in at outside centre, replacing Cornal Hendricks who is on the replacements bench.
White has spoken extensively about playing the exciting Simelane at fullback, and has done so with reasonable success thus far, but has given the former Lions back his first run at number 13 this week.
Kurt-Lee Arendse will instead wear the 15 jersey, taking over from Johan Goosen who finds himself on the bench.
Chris Smith continues at flyhalf while Zak Burger will don No 9. David Kriel starts at left wing, with Canan Moodie on the right.
The Bulls find themselves in fourth position on the URC log, with the Sharks and Glasgow Warriors hot on their heels.
Lions on the hunt
The Lions see themselves in a tough mid-table clash against Munster on Friday evening.
The Lions occupied a top-eight spot on the URC log for extended periods of the early season, but after consecutive defeats to the Sharks and Stormers, now see themselves in 11th place having played 10 matches, winning and losing half equally.
Munster are no pushovers for the Lions to get their season back on track. The Irish outfit have been dogged in their past two matches, beating Ulster by one point and losing in dramatic fashion to table-toppers Leinster by one point.
Three of the Lions’ five victories this season have come against European opposition in Europe — a positive history they will need to channel on Friday night in Cork.
Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen has made wholesale changes to the side that faltered against the Stormers last weekend.
Loose forward Emile van Heerden will make his debut as one of several starting 15 changes. Van Heerden, son of former Springbok lock Fritz, starts at flank in place of Ruan Venter, who shifts to the second row.
Among the backs, scrumhalf Morne van den Berg and wing Stean Pienaar are also included in the run-on side, in place of the injured Sanele Nohamba and Rabz Maxwane, respectively.
Elsewhere, hooker Michael van Vuuren gets his chance off the bench alongside the experience of Willem Alberts and Andre Warner.
“We all know you don’t grow when it’s easy, you grow when it’s tough, and Friday will be tough, especially in these conditions away from home,” said Lions assistant coach Julian Redelinghuys. DM
URC matches featuring South African teams:
Lions vs Munster, Musgrave Park, Cork (kickoff 9.35pm)
Bulls vs Dragons, Rodney Parade, Newport (kickoff 9.35pm)
Sharks vs Connacht, Galway Greyhound Stadium, Connacht (kickoff 7.15pm)
Stormers vs Glasgow Warriors, Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow (kickoff 5pm)