UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
Derby delight as South African sides lock horns for crunch URC encounters
In another round of bone-crushing South African derbies, the coastal Sharks and Stormers kick off in Cape Town before the squads from either side of the Jukskei river meet at Loftus Versfeld.
The Stormers will host the Sharks in Cape Town and the Bulls take on the Lions in Pretoria on Saturday in United Rugby Championship (URC) matches that could prove decisive in where the South African teams finish on the log.
With four rounds of matches before the knockout phase of the URC and the four South African sides still in with a mathematical chance of making it to the quarterfinal stage, this round of fixtures could not be more decisive.
The Stormers, who are currently in second place on the table with 54 points, will be desperate to make the most of their home-ground advantage to stay ahead of the chasing pack — especially with the third-placed Ulster trailing them by only five points — for a possible home semifinal later in the competition.
DHL Stadium has become somewhat of a fortress for the Cape Town-based side, who have won 14 straight matches at the venue in Green Point since their defeat in Cape Town against the Lions in December 2021 — their first URC clash at the stadium.
It is the first URC fixture at the stadium this year and over 30,000 fans are expected to pour into the venue.
“Nothing beats playing in front of our fans at DHL Stadium and we have another big crowd coming out on Saturday, which means it will be a special atmosphere,” said Stormers head coach John Dobson.
Dobson has chosen to make six changes to his team that beat the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld a fortnight ago.
In the backline, wing Angelo Davids and scrumhalf Paul de Wet come into the starting team, with Herschel Jantjies, Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu and Suleiman Hartzenberg set to make an impact from the replacements bench.
While upfront, prop Ali Vermaak and hooker Joseph Dweba start in the front row, with Ernst van Rhyn at lock in place of Gary Porter — who has been ruled out with a concussion.
Connor Evans will cover lock from the replacements bench, with Ben-Jason Dixon starting at blindside flank.
“We are excited to see what the players coming in can do. Everyone is up for what should be another hard-fought South African derby,” added the coach.
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Sharks seek revenge
Stormers will, however, be bracing themselves for a fierce contest against the seventh-placed Sharks, who will be wary that a defeat could place their spot in the top eight in jeopardy in the next few weeks.
The Sharks will also be looking to redeem themselves after a humbling 46-19 loss to the same opposition, at the Shark Tank, a month ago.
The KwaZulu-Natal outfit have called on fit-again Springbok flyer Aphelele Fassi to start on the left wing while flyhalf Curwin Bosch will lead the team for the first time.
Sharks Director of Rugby Neil Powell completely rejigged his front row as well.
With Dian Bleuler coming in for Ntuthuko Mchunu and Fez Mbatha and Hanro Jacobs taking over from Dan Jooste and Carlü Sadie respectively.
The Lions are the lowest-placed South African side on the URC log in 12th, but a confidence-boosting 35-24 victory over Glasgow Warriors at Ellis Park last week will provide them with a sense of hope heading to Loftus Versfeld.
The Bulls, meanwhile, are on a three-match losing streak and have the perfect opportunity to turn their form around on Saturday.
Having spent most of the season in the top four of the table, the Bulls have slipped down to sixth spot, although the table is congested from fourth place to seventh.
That means that every victory at this stage of the competition plays a big role in where the teams will likely end up and play their knockout fixtures.
Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White has called on experienced pivot Morné Steyn to lead his chargers on Saturday.
Steyn replaces Chris Smith, who started in the 23-19 home loss to the Stormers on 18 February. Smith will feature from the bench.
“We are still feeling a bit sore after the loss to the Stormers because we felt (at 12-3 up) we could have won it, but we must get back on the horse because we lost a game we thought we should have won. We could win and now we must make sure we turn it around,” said White.
“Looking at the Lions team that is coming here, they probably picked the biggest team they have and that means we must be ready to deal with their biggest pack forwards and that is not going to be easy.”
The Lions, meanwhile, have recalled one of their own veterans. Willem “The Bone Collector” Alberts will pair up with Ruben Schoeman in the second row on Saturday.
In the backs, the Lions have gone for continuity from the side that defeated Glasgow Warriors last weekend, as Sanele Nohamba and Gianni Lombard continue as halfbacks. DM
URC fixtures featuring South African teams
Stormers vs Sharks
Date: Saturday, 4 March
Venue: DHL Stadium, Cape Town
SA Time: 2:30pm
Bulls v Lions
Date: Saturday, 4 March
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
SA Time: 4:45pm