Sport

TOP OF URC FOR SA TEAMS

Stormers surge way ahead of Bulls and Sharks in hectic rugby season climax

Stormers  surge way ahead of Bulls and Sharks in hectic rugby season climax
Seabelo Senatla of the Stormers during a United Rugby Championship match against the Sharks at Cape Town Stadium in Green Point on 4 March 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Gruelling travel schedules await SA teams, which will face a logistical nightmare when it comes to deploying their players.

Stormers coach John Dobson struggled to contain his delight after his side’s 29-23 win against the Sharks in Cape Town, as talk of the team’s second-half ­failings made way for a contextualisation of the result.

The Stormers will take the high road to the playoffs, while the Sharks – and the Bulls for that matter – look set for an especially challenging schedule in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and Cham­pions Cup postseason.

The Stormers have taken an unassailable lead at the top of the South African Shield standings, and have qualified for the next instalment of the Champions Cup. The result against the Sharks has strengthened their bid for a top-two finish in the URC, and ultimately the right to host a quarterfinal, semifinal and possible final.

Perhaps most importantly, they are now in a position to rotate their squad in the final three rounds of the URC, and their top players should be fresh for the most demanding playoff fixtures across the URC and Cham­pions Cup.

By contrast, the Bulls and Sharks find themselves in a do-or-die situation on just about all fronts. Both remain in the running for the URC playoffs, and for a place in next season’s Champions Cup, but that may change if they don’t arrest their respective slides in the coming weeks.

Calm before 10-week storm

All four South African franchises will enjoy a two-week break to reflect on where they stand and what it may take for them to achieve multiple objectives across the two major competitions.

After that, they will welcome back the Springboks, who have been unavailable for the better part of two months because of national resting and conditioning protocols. The Sharks, who boast a large Bok contingent, will surely benefit from the return of these stars.

On 25 March, the franchises will resume with a single round of URC fixtures. The Stormers will have the option of rotating their squad for one of the toughest assignments in club rugby: a fixture against Leinster in Dublin.

The Bulls and Sharks will be under pressure to bank log points against Ulster and Scarlets respectively – which won’t be easy away from home.

All three sets of coaches will have an eye on the two-week period to come, as the teams look to advance to the latter stages of the Champions Cup. The Stormers will meet Harlequins for a round-of-16 showdown in Cape Town – and may deem it counterproductive to send so many top players to play Leinster in Dublin the week before.

The Sharks may have no choice but to embrace the challenge of travelling to Llanelli and then back to Durban – for a Champions Cup quarterfinal against Munster – with a full-strength side.

Similarly, the best available Bulls team may have to play against Ulster in Belfast before tackling Toulouse in France.

The Stormers may need to travel from Cape Town to Europe for the Champions Cup quarterfinals the following week. Should both the Sharks and Bulls advance, they may meet each other in South Africa. Depending on other results, the Sharks may be forced to head to Europe once more, before returning to South Africa for the final two league matches in the URC.

All three South African contenders have to perform across these two URC matches in mid- to late April. The Stormers will be ­gunning for wins against Munster and Benetton, and ultimately a top-two finish that translates into home ground advantage for the playoffs.

The Bulls will face Zebre and Leinster, while the Sharks will host Benetton and Munster. By this stage, the Bulls and Sharks may be scrapping for playoff places – as well as a top-seven finish that guarantees qualification for next season’s Champions Cup.

It’s possible that Leinster – who lead the URC table and cannot finish lower than second – may send a weakened team to South Africa to conserve their resources for the URC and Champions Cup semifinals (assuming that they advance).

Playing at Loftus Versfeld, the Bulls will be favourites to record big wins against Zebre and Leinster “B”, and to climb the URC ladder. A Bok-heavy Sharks side should also be expected to beat Benetton and Munster at home, but there is a strong chance that the gruelling travelling schedule will catch up with them.

Ruhan Nel of DHL Stormers is tackled by Mike Lowry, left, and Stewart Moore of Ulster during the United Rugby Championship match between Ulster and DHL Stormers at Kingspan Stadium on 27 January, 2023 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Gallo Images)

South African favourites

If the South African franchises survive that ordeal, the best of them could experience a further five weeks of playoff rugby across the URC and Champions Cup.

The last round of the URC will be followed by the Champions Cup semifinals, which – depending on earlier results – could result in a South African side travelling to Europe once more.

Consider how that may affect a team like the Stormers, who are favourites to host a URC quarterfinal and possibly a semifinal. Immediately after competing in a Champions Cup semifinal in Europe, they will fly back to Cape Town for a URC quarterfinal, and a potential semifinal.

After that, they could be off to Dublin for the Champions Cup final on 20 May (the venue for this tournament is determined before the start of the season).

Depending on how things pan out in the URC – and in the unlikely event that Leinster are knocked out before the decider, and the Stormers receive the right to host it for a second time – the Stormers could find themselves travelling from Dublin to Cape Town just days before that URC final.

After the recent win against the Sharks, Dobson hinted at this logistical nightmare, while giving the impression that the Stormers – and the other South African teams – will address it closer to the time.

It would be an incredible achievement for a South African side to advance to the latter stages of the Champions Cup – especially in their debut campaign – and to represent the country in another URC final.

Whether that team will be in a position to perform at optimum after enduring such a gruelling travel schedule during the knockout phase is another story. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

DM168 11/03 FRONT PAGE

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