UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
Stormers’ fortress breached by Munster, but all is not lost
Three South African sides are into the URC playoffs, but the Stormers missed a chance to lock in second overall on the standings when they lost to Munster.
Stormers coach John Dobson, who marked his birthday on Saturday with two defeats, wrily remarked it was the “worst birthday of my life”. He then paused, and added, “Well, except for the one when my bike was stolen.”
It’s unclear whether he was being serious, but it underlined that Dobson hasn’t lost his sense of humour even though his side lost the opportunity to host a home United Rugby Championship (URC) semifinal.
Earlier in the day, he had his Currie Cup hat on in the coaching box when Western Province lost 26-17 against the Cheetahs. It must be some kind of a record that a coach has lost two professional first-class matches, with two different teams, within a few hours of each other.
Later, on a near-perfect day at the DHL Stadium, the Stormers’ 26-24 defeat by Munster was their first home loss since December 2021. They had gone 21 matches undefeated in that period. The record had to go at some stage, but this was a bad time for it to happen.
The Stormers slipped to third on the standings as a consequence, on 63 points — one point behind Ulster — after taking away two losing bonus points from the clash. But Ulster’s final group match is a home fixture against struggling Edinburgh. It’s hard to imagine them slipping up in Belfast next week.
Unless Glasgow, in fifth, achieve a massive win over Connacht at home next week, and the Stormers lose to Benetton, the Cape side are at least guaranteed a home quarterfinal. But the prize for finishing second on the log is a potential home semifinal, which is now out of their hands. “Today was a major disappointment,” Dobson said after the match.
“We want to host a semifinal, so it’s hard to see a silver lining.
“The winning run was going to go at some stage. It’s not something we invested in as a team. We wanted to stay at home and we have this whole drive to make Cape Town smile, so it’s disappointing for the fans. We wanted to provide the occasion of a home semifinal and wanted to keep it in our own hands.
“We had to win today, that’s the bottom line. Just in terms of that home semi, which is so important. I don’t think those two bonus points are going to make a difference, to be honest. It’s just so disappointing because we were so close. It’s hard to see a silver lining from today other than the fact that we didn’t pick up any serious injuries.”
Dobson is being hard on himself considering the Stormers’ exceptional campaign and their long run of wins at home. Munster were excellent on the day, with the return of the colossal RG Snyman to the Irish side’s starting lineup making a huge difference.
Snyman’s superb performance was painful for the home team, but for outgoing Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber, it must have provided some satisfaction with the World Cup only five months away.
Snyman has spent the better part of three years out with an array of serious knee injuries and personal setbacks. There was a stage when it seemed he might never play again, but on Saturday’s evidence, so early in his comeback, if he stays fit, he could fulfil his massive potential.
“That was his first start for us in the URC, for a significant period. I thought his performance was huge,” Munster coach Graham Rowntree said.
“He was constantly involved. Of course, he’s a huge presence in the set piece, but he is also excellent on both sides of the ball.
“I’m delighted for RG. He’s had a tricky time, which has been well-documented. He’s been great with the group. He’s in our leadership group and the lads really respect him and have taken to him.”
Stormers skipper Steven Kitshoff obviously found it hard to be as enthusiastic about Snyman’s performance in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, but with his Springbok cap on he was able to see the value for the national team.
“He is just a quality player. He is getting his game fitness and confidence back that we were used to back in 2019,” Kitshoff said.
“I am chuffed for RG. I think he is really knocking hard on to getting a possible recall in the Springbok side. He was irritating today though. He is my mate, but today, I didn’t like him a lot.”
Sharks and Bulls win
The Bulls were guaranteed one of the top eight play-off berths after thrashing Italian outfit Zebre 78-12 at Ellis Park where they played as part of a doubleheader. The Lions and Leinster played later in the day, with the Irish side securing a late 39-36 win.
For the Bulls, it means another postseason, but they will have an away quarterfinal. Next week’s final round of matches will determine if they head to Ireland to face either Leinster or Ulster or stay in South Africa for a Cape Town quarter against the Stormers.
Leinster, who are in South Africa with a largely second-string team, are the Bulls’ final opponents and if nothing else it presents Jake White’s team with a chance to become the first team to beat Leinster this season. That would be a confidence booster.
“We are happy with the performance,” Bulls assistant coach Pine Pienaar said after the match.
“But there were certain areas that we were not happy with when not looking at the score. We have to make sure we fix the things we have been working on the last few weeks, so there is still hard work left for us going into next week.
“We don’t know where we are going to finish, so for us, it’s important that we nail next week first — it’s going to be a different beast against Leinster.”
The Sharks beat a game Benetton 43-33 which all but sealed at least eighth spot unless Benetton win by a massive margin in their final match against the Stormers and the Sharks are thumped by Munster. DM