Sport

ON THE WHITE TRACK

Rampant Bulls revel in momentum while Stormers grapple with do-or-die situation

Rampant Bulls revel in momentum while Stormers grapple with do-or-die situation
Kurt-Lee Arendse of the Bulls looks to tackle Evan Roos of the Stormers during their United Rugby Championship match at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 2 March. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

In Pretoria, coach Jake White will have the luxury of managing his squad with the URC as well as the looming Champions Cup playoffs in mind. Things look decidedly worse for Stormers coach John Dobson.

The Bulls couldn’t have asked for a better outcome to the north-south derby staged at Loftus Versfeld. Although much was made of the 40-22 victory – the Bulls’ first against the Stormers in eight matches – more should be read into the hosts claiming a full haul of log points, denying the Stormers any form of consolation.

The Bulls have moved up to second place in the United Rugby Championship (URC) standings and the Stormers have dropped to ninth. All the momentum is with the Bulls, and Jake White, their director of rugby, will have some leeway to rotate his squad in the coming weeks in both the URC and Champions Cup.

Meanwhile, the other franchises find themselves in a do-or-die position. The Stormers and Lions each need to bank two wins to stay in the race for the URC playoffs – and, more importantly, in the hunt for a place in next season’s all-important Champions Cup. The Sharks, rooted to the bottom of the table after 11 games, will be desperate to finish their campaign on a high.

These results will have an impact on the South African challenge as a whole. It’s hard to imagine White breaking out the blue-and-white pom-poms and cheering for the Stormers, Lions or Sharks, but the Bulls will have cause to celebrate if these teams ground some of the high-flying foreign clubs over the next few rounds.

Bulls earned right to juggle resources

Edinburgh (fourth in URC) and Ulster (fifth) are both scheduled to tour South Africa for a fortnight, and will face the Stormers as well as the Sharks.

Both local teams will be targeting two victories – and in the event of those results, the Bulls, who are gunning for home advantage in a quarterfinal and potentially a semifinal – will keep daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.

White will have the luxury of managing his squad with the URC as well as the looming Champions Cup playoffs in mind. The Bulls will resume their URC campaign on 23 March against the Dragons in Newport, and travel to Leinster in Dublin thereafter. The Champions Cup round-of-16 match against Lyon will be in Pretoria eight days later.

The Bulls are less likely to collect points if they send a weakened side to Leinster in the second fixture. It’s a nice headache for White to have.

Given the logistical demands of such a schedule, White is unlikely to field his strongest available team across all three matches. It’s sad to think that one of the biggest clashes of the URC league stage – log-leading Leinster against second-placed Bulls – may be a watered-down affair, at least in terms of the visiting personnel.

And yet, you wouldn’t blame White, or any other coach for that matter, for protecting his players from injury and travel-induced fatigue ahead of a Champions Cup playoff.

The big question

The big question is whether White will send a Springbok-laden contingent north for the first tour clash against the Dragons. The Bulls bolstered their squad in the preseason, and you’d expect a second-string side to bank a win against the Dragons, who have won two matches this season and are ranked 15th out of 16 teams.

However, sending a strong combination to Newport will increase the likelihood of a full haul of log points, and possibly a total of five points for the tour.

To reiterate, the Bulls are less likely to collect points if they send a weakened side to Leinster in the second fixture. It’s a nice headache for White to have.

The Bulls have delivered a series of consistent performances over the past six months and earned their current position.

They can afford to lose the odd URC fixture without compromising their push for a home playoff, and they can afford to rest senior Boks with the all-important Champions Cup playoffs in mind. By contrast, Stormers coach John Dobson finds himself afflicted with the wrong kind of headache.

One has to wonder whether the Stormers will be at their physical best for the upcoming playoff against La Rochelle in the wake of two bruising URC encounters.

The Cape franchise’s next three matches – two URC league games against Edinburgh and Ulster, followed by a Champions Cup playoff against title holders La Rochelle – are all at home.

They have only lost twice at Cape Town Stadium in the past three years and made a statement when they beat La Rochelle at the venue earlier in the season. Whether they can deliver three big wins in as many weeks – given their squad and recent form – is another story.

Bulls Jake White

Bulls coah Jake White before their Champions Cup match against the Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate in Bristol, England, on 13 January 2024. (Photo: Dan Mullan / Getty Images)

Unlike White, Dobson will not have the luxury of rotating his squad in the URC fixtures. A full-strength Stormers side may be needed to secure wins against Edinburgh and Ulster. A best-case scenario has the Stormers beating the Celtic teams and riding the resultant momentum into the Champions Cup round-of-16 match against La Rochelle.

It took everything the Stormers had to edge the French side in the recent league fixture, and one has to wonder whether they will be at their physical best for the upcoming playoff in the wake of two bruising URC encounters.

If the Stormers beat La Rochelle again, they are likely to travel north for the ensuing Champions Cup quarterfinal. It’s a tough ask for any travelling team, let alone a side that has played three tough games in succession.

Closing the URC gap

Put simply, the chances of the Stormers advancing to the latter stages of Europe’s top tournament are slim. Knowing this, Dobson may place greater emphasis on those two URC matches.

Only 10 log points separate the Bulls (second) and the Stormers (ninth) at this stage of the URC, and some have suggested that it’s not do-or-die just yet and that the battling Cape side also has some leeway.

That may be true in one sense.

Like the Bulls, the Stormers will hope that the Sharks do them a favour by beating Ulster and Edinburgh in Durban.

Unlike the Bulls, the Stormers don’t boast much strength in depth. As a result, they may be forced to unleash all their available stars in the next series of matches in a bid to turn their campaign around.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bulls losing streak against Stormers is a touchy subject – but there is no escaping it

If they leave themselves with too much to do at the end of the league stage, they may miss out on a place in the URC playoffs and a spot in next season’s Champions Cup.

That may appear alarmist, but nobody believed the Sharks would lose their place in the top flight, yet here they are a season later – plumbing new depths in the URC and scrapping for a consolation win in the second-tier Challenge Cup. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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