Sport

URC

Bevy of Boks on display at Loftus as SA teams return to full strength

Bevy of Boks on display at Loftus as SA teams return to full strength
Kurt-Lee Arendse of the Bulls during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Vodacom Bulls and Exeter Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld on 14 January 14, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

All South Africa’s United Rugby Championship (URC) teams are back to full strength with the return of fit and available World Cup-winning Springboks this week.

Just as the Sharks started on the gradual bend to turning their season around with their first win last week, they now come face to face with the high-riding Bulls at Loftus. Life is tough in the URC. 

The Bulls have won four of six matches and are one of five teams to hold the top spot on the standings after only six rounds. The 2023/2024 URC is still as wide open as a Free State plain, with the Bulls currently in third. 

The Sharks have won just once in six – last week’s impressive 69-14 demolition of the Dragons at King’s Park. The Durban side were bolstered by returning Boks Eben Etzebeth, Makazole Mapimpi and Jaden Hendrikse, who will all be in action at Loftus on Saturday.

In all, the Sharks have 13 Boks in the 23-man squad. On paper they look magnificent. At times last week they were magnificent, but prior to that they struggled. 

Eben Etzebeth of the Hollywoodbets Sharks during the United Rugby Championship match between Hollywoodbets Sharks and Dragons at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on 25 November, 2023 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports/Gallo Images)

Bulls lineup

Jake White’s Bulls also features a host of Boks, although not as many from the current vintage. Bok wing Kurt-Lee Arendse is back for his first URC outing of the campaign while the Bulls have a formidable array of quality players. 

Canan Moodie, Willie le Roux and David Kriel make a dangerous back three. The all-Bok front row of Gerhard Steenekamp, Akker van der Merwe and Wilco Louw will certainly make the Sharks’ task of gaining forward dominance difficult.

It will be a massive test of whether the Sharks have turned that corner. 

“I know how many Boks are going to be out there, but I don’t count them,” Sharks coach John Plumtree said.

“We’ve got a few and they’ve got a few, but it won’t come down to that. It’ll come down to the best team on the day. We realise the challenge is much greater, playing the Bulls at Loftus, and there’s not too many sides that win there. 

“We have to get a lot of things right if we want to win on the weekend. We’ve had good preparation but that’ll mean nothing, it’s all about what happens in those 80 minutes.

“The Bulls are a confident team and have been playing consistently well, they put away Connacht last week with ease, and we lost to Connacht. 

“I’ve spoken a lot to the media about my long-term plan and we’re on a journey… This weekend’s performance doesn’t define who we’re going to be, but it’ll be great if we can go up there and do well and look forward to the Challenge Cup the following week.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Winners Etzebeth and Mapimpi back in URC rugby action this weekend, Harris plays 400th match

Bulls coach Jake White was also brimming with confidence, given the quality of his unit.

“We are going to have four World Cup winners running out for us and they are using their available World Cup winners as well,” White said.

“For the first time, the crowd will get the chance to see World Cup winners on the field and I am hoping that will be a great boost for the fans.

“It is going to be a tough match. Last year they beat us, so we are not taking anything for granted despite the starts we have both had. 

“Any away game is so difficult to win and we have seen the stats. Especially derbies, they are like double-swingers as well, if you get a win it’s like an eight-point swing because you take points from the game as well as points away from people in your conference.”

Bok boost 

Etzebeth gave the Sharks a real boost up front with his skill, power, experience and leadership. It lifted the entire pack, which will have to go up another notch at Loftus. 

With a star-studded backline, including Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am and Aphiwe Dyantyi, the Sharks have the weapons to make teams suffer. It’s about creating the foundation to be able to launch those strike runners.

 “Hopefully, they’ll score a lot of tries,” Plumtree said of his back division. 

“Aphiwe coming back in there and he provides a slightly different skills set than Werner (Kok, who is injured), while Aphelele Fassi is in good form. 

“Mapimps will be better for the run that he had last week this week, and our midfield is starting to get some continuity. (Flyhalf) Curwin Bosch is starting to develop some confidence and he’s been working very closely with Dave Williams (skills coach). 

“We’ve got our two nines and they’re great players, so we’ve got plenty to look forward to in terms of our backline, but the game, like any at Loftus, will be won and lost up front.” 

Damian Willemse of the Stormers and Malakai Fekitoa of Munster during the United Rugby Championship final match between DHL Stormers and Munster at DHL Stadium on 27 May 27 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

Stormers add Boks

The Stormers will welcome back Rugby World Cup winners Deon Fourie, Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok for their clash against Zebre in Stellenbosch on Saturday.

Willemse’s return is timely as he will slot into inside centre after Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu was ruled out for about a month with an ankle injury.

“It has been a major boost to have the World Cup Boks, plus a few other key players back in the mix again this week,” Stormers coach John Dobson said.

“We were very disappointed with the results on tour and this is a great opportunity for us to get some momentum going in front of our fans in Stellenbosch.” 

The Lions, still buoyant after their 61-19 win over Zebre last week, face the struggling Dragons at Ellis Park on Saturday. 

In a week that they announced the re-signing of 20 players with new contracts, things are starting to turn around in Doornfontein.

The Lions have only ever lost one match to a Welsh team and another big win this weekend could push them into play-off position. DM

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