Sport

BOK TO THE GRIND

Top-of-the-table clash highlights United Rugby Championship return

Top-of-the-table clash highlights United Rugby Championship return
Marius Louw of the Lions is tackled by Wandisile Simelane of the Bulls during their United Rugby Championship match at Loftus Versfeld on 4 March 2023. (Photo: Christiaan Kotze / Gallo Images)

All four South African teams play abroad in the URC this weekend as Springboks return and the business end of the tournament approaches.

Second-placed Stormers take on undefeated Leinster in a top-of-the-table clash to ring back in the United Rugby Championship (URC) after a three-week break in the competition.

The Stormers, along with the other South African teams in the URC, have been without some of their Springbok stars for the better part of a month due to national training camps.

But with a clash against the pace-setting Leinster in Ireland this weekend, Stormers head coach John Dobson brought back all his big guns.

“It’s great to have these Boks back in the mix this week and we are looking forward to seeing what they bring in what will be a tough game away from home,” said the coach.

“It’s been some time since some of these players featured for us, so hopefully the gametime will stand them all in good stead as we head towards the end of the season.”

It’s an all-Springbok front row with Frans Malherbe, Joseph Dweba and skipper Steven Kitshoff in the engine room. While Marvin Orie partners Ruben van Heerden in the second row.

Ruan Smit of the Lions tackles the Bulls’ Cyle Brink during their United Rugby Championship clash at Loftus on 4 March 2023. (Photo: Christiaan Kotze / Gallo Images)

Among the backs, Damian Willemse returns at inside centre while Dan du Plessis will be outside him. Ruhan Nel will miss the fixture due to paternity leave.

Beating Leinster, especially at home, is no easy feat but Dobson has selected his strongest possible side to achieve it.

“For me the benchmark in the south has always been the Crusaders and I see Leinster as the Crusaders of the north,” the head coach said.

“They set the standard and they are what we as the Stormers want to be in terms of success and continuity.”

“It is going to be a massive challenge for us on Friday, but it will give our players an indication of where they are in terms of defending the title.”

“To go to Dublin and win is the biggest away achievement and that is why I rated Jake’s (White) Bulls semifinal win against Leinster as the match of the league. We hope to emulate that wonderful achievement, and if not on Friday, then in the final.”

Playing away

As with the Stormers, all three other South African teams are playing away this weekend.

The Bulls will, perhaps, be the most desperate for a positive result. They are the second-best placed South African team in sixth place but they haven’t won a match since 14 January in all competitions. The Pretoria-based side are currently on a five-match losing streak (including the Currie Cup).

The Bulls have lost nine of their past 11 matches in all competitions.

Their challenge this week is against third-placed Ulster in Belfast. A daunting task to return to form if ever there was one.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Stormers continue to defy odds as URC heavyweights despite uncertain future

Ulster have not lost to a South African side yet this campaign and hammered reigning champions the Stormers 35-5 at the end of January.

The Bulls’ Jukskei River neighbours the Lions, meanwhile, still have an outside chance of qualifying for the knockout rounds of the URC despite currently languishing in 11th place.

They make a trip to Treviso in Italy this week to take on ninth-placed Benetton.

Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff on the charge against ASM Clermont Auvergne at Cape Town Stadium on 21 January 2023. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

The Lions are on a decent run of form, having beaten the Bulls and Glasgow Warriors in their previous two URC fixtures.

The Durban-based Sharks, meanwhile, have not won a URC match since 18 February when they beat the Lions 29-7 away from home.

The Sharks are currently one spot behind the Bulls in seventh place. But only five points (a bonus-point win) separate sixth place from ninth place on the log.

To guarantee a spot in the knockout stages of the URC the Sharks need to win at least two of their three remaining fixtures.

This weekend’s match against the Scarlets should be the easiest of the trio and will be seen as a non-negotiable for director of rugby Neil Powell. DM

URC Fixtures featuring South Africa teams:

Friday:

Leinster vs Stormers at RDS Arena, Dublin (9.35pm).

Saturday:

Benetton vs Lions at Stadio Monigo, Treviso (3pm).

Scarlets vs Sharks at Parc Y Scarlets, Llanelli (7pm).

Ulster vs Bulls at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast (9.35pm).

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