UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
Winners Etzebeth and Mapimpi back in URC rugby action this weekend, Harris plays 400th match
Returning Boks and a superb milestone for Stormers prop Brok Harris – these are the major subplots for this week’s United Rugby Championship matches.
When the Dragons, out of Newport in Wales, peruse the Sharks team sheet for this weekend’s United Rugby Championship (URC) clash in Durban, they might feel a prickle of anxiety.
Bok World Cup winners Eben Etzebeth, Makazole Mapimpi and Jaden Hendrikse are back for their first matches of the campaign. Lukhanyo Am, who made a strong return to the game during last week’s 13-12 loss to Connacht, will lead the under-pressure Sharks.
The KZN-based side are still winless after five rounds. Anything other than a full haul of five points against the Dragons at home, would be a rugby disaster for the Sharks.
The Welsh side are not in much better shape, with one win from their first five outings. Normally, this would be as close to a formality for the Sharks as professional rugby allows. But these are uncertain times in Durban.
Read more in Daily Maverick: SA teams struggle in early stages of URC due to lack of Boks and tough draws
The Sharks have been attempting to bed down a new style of play without many key players, which is a little easier this weekend thanks to the returning Boks.
Five consecutive losses, including last week’s home defeat, has ramped up pressure on the players and coach John Plumtree. Confidence is as low as you’d expect. One win could change all that. One talismanic outing from Etzebeth, Mapimpi, Am and Hendrikse, could turn a season around.
Further boosting the Sharks is the presence of prop Ox Nche and scrumhalf Grant Williams on the bench. More World Cup winners, and more experience should help rebuild some confidence.
“We had a meeting on Monday morning, just a general chat over how they [returning Boks] are feeling mentally and physically,” said Plumtree.
“We got a bit of feedback over what it means to be back here with us, coming off such a high. It was really positive, and they were all really keen to go.
“They have been great all week, adding their experience to what we are doing – they obviously have lots of leadership – filling our boys with a lot of confidence.
“I expect them to be a lot better next week than they will be this week. Even though they have trained well, they haven’t played for a while. There is a bit of nervousness around their lungs, but we will monitor that through the game. Not sure how it’s going to pan out, good to get a nice start with them.
“They might be a bit rusty. I think we have to be aware that there might be a bit of a bedding-in period. Hopefully, it won’t last long and they can get back into it. We’ve been playing some good rugby, but we lack that ruthlessness in terms of execution to use our opportunities.
“Hopefully that experience in there in terms of taking the right option or a bit of skill to put someone away, will come. They’ve just got that little bit of nous and can problem-solve on their feet. That’s the benefit of getting experience back in that group.”
The Sharks are running out of time to begin to claw their way back into the race for a play-off berth, and they cannot let another win slip away in what will be warm and humid conditions.
Harris plays 400th game
Over in Cardiff, veteran prop Brok Harris will play his 400th professional match when he leads the Stormers at Arms Park.
It’s a remarkable achievement in any era, but considering the physical demands of the modern game, it’s otherworldly. It will also be Harris’ 136th outing for the Stormers, which is a club record.
“I’m very privileged… when I moved back, I never thought I’d reach a hundred [caps] for the Stormers,” said Harris. “I did that… now I’ve gone to 400 [121 for Western Province, 143 for the Dragons and 135 for the Stormers].
“I can’t wait for the opportunity to captain the side because it’ll make it even more special, but it’s not about me, it’s about performing – we’ve got a job to do and I’m looking forward to it.”
The Stormers have lost all three tour matches so far, including to Italian side Benetton last week. They are desperate to take something from the tour in Cardiff on Friday night.
“Our goal was to win two games on tour,” coach John Dobson said. “We clearly haven’t achieved that and the Benetton game … [attack coach] Dawie [Snyman] referred to it as quite a big swipe out of our credit card by not winning.
“But tomorrow has become about us showing that we have got enough depth to compete in this competition. Were you to jot that team down, maybe there are three or four guys you would start if everybody was fit and available.
Dobson has little choice but to mix up his team with youngsters, after injuries and Bok player unavailability forced his hand.
Aside from Harris, there is a callow feel to the starting side. Hooker Andre-Hugo Venter, prop Lee-Marvin Mazibuko and loose forward Nama Xaba will start with the benefit of huge experience on the bench.
“Sti Sithole, Scarra [Ntubeni] and Neethling [Fouche] scrummed bloody well against Munster last week, we should have got more penalties and I think the referee could have been more generous to us,” Dobson said of their narrow 10-3 loss.
“So, a front row of that level coming on could do some damage, then you’ve got some really powerful carriers in Keke and a guy like [former Stade Francais lock Hendre] Stassen – who was regarded as one of the bright futures of South African rugby – he’ll make an impact.
“And then Warrick [Gelant] is there to bail us out if we get into trouble. He’s on 400 minutes and we just wanted to give Blomme [Clayton Blommetjies] a start. So, there is an element of let’s behave ourselves and not do anything silly to start with, and then that bench will take it away.”
Willie makes Bulls debut
Springbok fullback Willie le Roux will make his Bulls debut against Connacht at Loftus this weekend. Le Roux, who joined Jake White’s outfit from Japan, will start while other returning World Cup Boks, Canan Moodie and Marco van Staden, are on the bench.
The men from Pretoria have lost just twice at Loftus Versfeld in the URC since February 2022 – to the Stormers and Lions in successive matches last February and March.
Connacht will be mindful that the Bulls’ last five matches against Irish provinces have all gone the way of the home team, whilst no Irish side has managed to win at Loftus.
The Lions will be looking to avoid an Italian double when they host Zebre Parma in Johannesburg.
The South Africans have already lost to Benetton when they went down by 15-10 in the third round, and with Zebre high on confidence after arriving in South Africa unbeaten in their last two URC fixtures, their best such run since 2018.
However, the Italians will have to break new ground in Johannesburg as they have not beaten the Lions yet, going down by 50-35 on their last visit to Gauteng. DM