UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
It’s Mission Munster for Stormers while Sharks and Bulls have it all to do
The Stormers face a must-win game against Munster to boost their chances of home United Rugby Championship playoff games, while the Bulls, Sharks and Lions need to win to stay in the playoff race.
Munster’s red machine rolls into Cape Town this week in a clash that should decide the immediate fate of both teams in the United Rugby Championship (URC).
The Stormers are guaranteed a top-four position, meaning their quarterfinal will be at home. But second on the standings could mean a home semifinal as well and as it stands now, that is not guaranteed.
For Munster, the equation is even more complicated on their two-match tour of South Africa for rounds 17 and 18 of the regular season. Win both and they should finish in the top four and secure a home quarterfinal. Lose both and they could be out of playoff contention altogether and therefore out of next year’s European Champions Cup.
The Stormers are second on the standings going into the penultimate weekend, on 61 log points. Ulster, in third, are only two points behind and are eyeing the important second place while Leinster have already locked down the top spot.
The Stormers are without scavenger-supreme Deon Fourie, who has a fractured eye socket sustained in the Champions Cup win over Harlequins two weeks ago.
It’s a huge blow because his excellent breakdown skills and attacking support play were sorely missed during last week’s chastening 42-17 loss to Exeter in the Champions Cup quarterfinals.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but in those first 20 minutes [against Exeter] we were making too many single tackles, we weren’t making steals and the ball they were getting was too fast. That spirals and that’s certainly where we missed Deon,” said Stormers coach John Dobson.
“There were a couple of steal opportunities, he would have called an extra cleaner in or slowed the ball down.
“We did miss him a hell of a lot. I didn’t expect it to be quite like it was. Credit to Exeter for how they played, but we did miss him.”
Former Bok flank Schalk Burger, who is now a respected analyst, lamented South Africa’s Champions and Challenge Cup exits last weekend, which also saw the Sharks and Lions eliminated. But he felt that being out of Europe could be a boost for the URC campaigns at the business end.
“This might be a bit of a blessing in disguise for our squads because I feared their URC campaigns would have suffered as a consequence if they had got through to the European semifinals. So maybe this is good for us,” Burger told a URC roundtable with journalists.
“We are a little bit thinner spread than some of the powerhouses up north and it’s the first year we have done both. Last year, we were privileged where we only had to focus on the URC.”
The Sharks and the Bulls must pick up bonus point wins at home to Benetton and Zebre Parma, respectively, to cement their playoff spots, which on paper they should do. But Benetton are only one point from a playoff position and have everything to play for.
Considering the Sharks’ inconsistent form this season, nothing is guaranteed, although they still have their future in their control. The Lions, who are three points off a playoff berth, need to beat Leinster at Ellis Park, which seems an impossible task given the Irish side are undefeated.
The Bulls face the Irish juggernaut at Loftus in the final round the following week. There is nothing on the line for Leinster but gaining experience in South African conditions.
Leinster have travelled with an under-strength squad, which is understandable considering their supreme log situation.
Leinster’s 30-man squad includes four uncapped players. They are without Ireland regulars such as Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe, Caelan Doris and the World Player of the Year, Josh van der Flier.
Still, they are formidable opponents and coach Leo Cullen stressed that the team will still be playing for their reputation and to respect the tournament, their opponents and the venues.
Cullen, a former Ireland flank, loves rugby’s rich history and is something of a rugby romantic. And even though his side are ruthless winners, they are well versed in the game’s traditions.
“Last year we went to Kings Park and I found it very special to be there. Just to be there in the dressing room under the stands — the smell and the scent you get,” Cullen said. “I just thought back to some of the teams that would’ve played there and changed there in those dressing rooms. It was special.
“It’s the people in the game that make it, isn’t it? It’s a people business at the end of the day and that’s why it still doesn’t feel like a job for me.
“We have so much respect for the South African teams. I’ve grown up watching these teams through the Currie Cup and the early days of Super Rugby.
“This is going to be the first time we’ll be playing at Ellis Park, which is such an iconic ground. Then it’s the same for Loftus Versfeld, which will also be a first for us. The Bulls beat us in the semifinal last year and we have a huge amount of respect for what they’ve done over many years.
“We’re very much looking forward to our trip because it’s an amazing country. In South Africa, rugby is all around you. It’s on the front pages and the back pages of the newspapers there.
“There are not that many countries that have that. It’s so steeped in the tradition of the game. When you’re in South Africa there is that definite sense. People are fascinated by the game because it’s all around them.
“That’s the thing that’s so exciting about the future of the United Rugby Championship. It’s some of those battles against the Bulls or the Stormers over time and how they develop. You’re hoping it will continue not just for the next two or three years, but for the next 70 or 80 years.” DM