United Rugby Championship
Sharks face seemingly impossible Dublin mission while Bulls look to end losing streak against Stormers
The Sharks are on an apparent mission impossible to beat Leinster in Dublin while the Bulls face a mission improbable against the Stormers in Cape Town as the URC play-offs begin.
Leinster haven’t lost at home in a year. Not since the Bulls toppled the Irish giants in the 2022 United Rugby Championship (URC) semi-finals at 27-26 have the men in blue tasted home defeat.
And they have only lost one match this entire season — when they sent a callow team of academy graduates to face the Bulls at Loftus and lost 62-7.
As losses go, it was a pretty chastening one for Leinster, but the team the Sharks face at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday evening will be a different unit altogether to the one that was mowed down at Loftus.
And if you think there are some psychological scars for Leinster after the Bulls’ defeat, think again. They immediately bounced back with a full-strength team to hammer an exceptional Toulouse 41-22 in the European Champions Cup semi-final last week. They even did it without talismanic flyhalf Johnny Sexton. Leinster are the real deal.
Sexton is out of the rest of the club season with a groin injury. He won’t play for Leinster again having decided to call time on his career after Rugby World Cup 2023.
The Sharks though, arrived in Dublin without their own talismans in captain Siya Kolisi and lock Eben Etzebeth. There have been few better players in the world over the past 18 months than the decorated Bok pair and there is no getting around how much they will be missed.
They are also missing the Bok halfback duo of Jaden Hendrikse and Curwin Bosch to injury. It’s uphill all the way against Leinster.
But there is stardust sprinkled throughout the Sharks squad, none brighter than the Bok duo of Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi. The World Cup winners play a vital senior role in the side.
The Sharks pack is formidable and if they can build pressure there, they have a sliver of a chance.
Leinster are masterfully patient on attack and notoriously difficult to break down defensively. The Bulls upset Leinster with exceptional line speed on defence in last year’s shock semi-final win, and they kept up the intensity for the full 80-plus minutes.
Full-out intensity and focus are the minimum the Sharks must deliver and even then it might not be enough. But it’s their only shot.
Unlike the clash between Leinster and the Sharks, which feels like there is a sizeable performance gap between the sides, the Bulls and the Stormers match-up is much tighter.
Yet, no matter how close it is, the Stormers seem to find a way to win. They have won the last five in a row against the Bulls in the URC and are marginal favourites to make it six.
The law of averages says the Stormers must lose to the Bulls sometime, and there is no reason to think it won’t be this weekend. But there is also nothing to suggest why that might be the case.
The Bulls, barring that win over the Leinster’s B/Cs and a heavy win over the last-place Zebre, have struggled this season. They have star quality all over, none more so than wings Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse, but they also have periods where they seem to switch off mentally.
Bulls coach Jake White took to using a golfing metaphor as inspiration for his team this week. And while it was a cute, curated press release, the reality is that there is a real spikiness when it comes to the Bulls and Stormers.
The age-old north/south derby is steeped in South African folklore and White has previously goaded the Stormers and their coach John Dobson. This time around, in public at least, White has chosen to meander into golfing territory, to draw inspiration.
“There are so many variables you have to go through in golf to win a tournament,” White said. “You first need to play for two days to make the cut, and then the last two days to make sure you win the tournament. One of the things I’ve always said to my players is that in golf there is always pressure.
The pressure is sometimes for the young golfer or rookie to make enough money and make the cut. Then you get the Ernie Elses and Tiger Woodses and the greats that don’t worry about the cut. Their end goal is how they win the tournament.
“It’s a very different pressure playing the 18th on a Sunday to win as opposed to playing on a Friday afternoon to make the cut to ensure you make enough money. I tell my players that we must always get to the point where we have the pressure of walking down the 18th on a Sunday with a chance to win the tournament.”
Dobson, a skilled raconteur himself, also enjoys using tales of perseverance to rally his troops. Last season, amid all the turmoil at the union after it was placed into administration, Dobson recanted the tale of Sisyphus and his pointless effort of repeatedly rolling a boulder up a hill, to his rather bemused squad.
The idea that he never gave up hope, was the message and whether that metaphor fully landed with his team is a moot point. The Stormers won the inaugural URC in spite of everything. They played without fear and never gave up hope.
The Stormers have not been flawless in 2023, but they are real scrappers. They are never out of a game, but they are seldom fully in control of a match either. It’s an emotional mountain range trying to fathom their performances.
The Capetonians are marginal favourites given their impressive win record at home. They have lost only twice in 21 home matches in the last two seasons. They will also be desperate to take one step closer to possibly defending the title they won last season in a repeat of this match on the same pitch.
The Bulls, however, will give everything to create an upset to make up for their disappointing five-point defeat in the final last season and 10-point loss against the Stormers in Cape Town in the league stages.
Spicing up the clash, the Pretoria outfit will enter the clash as the best-attacking team in the competition with 613 points scored in their 18 matches to date — 82 more than the Stormers — although this aspect of their play will be put to the test as the hosts boast a better defensive record.
The other two quarterfinals see Ulster battle it out with Connacht in Belfast on Friday, while the Glasgow Warriors will go up against Munster in Scotland on Saturday.
In a change to last season’s rules, the teams with the highest seeding in each semi-final will have home venue rights. The semi-final winners will meet on Saturday, 27 May. DM
Friday, 5 May
Quarter-final 2: Ulster (2) v Connacht (7) – Kingspan Stadium, Belfast (20:35 SA time)
Saturday, 6 May
Quarter-final 3: Stormers (3) v Bulls (6) – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town (15:30)
Quarter-Final 1: Leinster (1) v Sharks (8) – Aviva Stadium, Dublin (18:00 SA time).
Quarter-Final 4: Glasgow Warriors (4) v Munster (5) – Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow (20:35 SA time)