Sport

UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

URC stumble may cost SA trio dearly as playoffs loom for big guns

URC stumble may cost SA trio dearly as playoffs loom for big guns
Despite their best efforts, epitomised by hooker Johan Grobbelaar, the 14-man Bulls lost 27-22 to Munster at Loftus, which has hurt their home URC semifinal hopes. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

The Stormers have effectively blown a home quarterfinal place while the Bulls are also in a precarious position.

South African rugby couldn’t have asked for a worse outcome in the 14th round of the United Rugby Championship.

The Sharks, Bulls and Stormers went down, while the results in Pretoria and Cape Town relegated the Lions to 11th place in the standings, in spite of the Joburg-based side’s remarkable 44-12 victory against Leinster.

The Bulls and Stormers may come to regret their respective losses to Munster and the Ospreys.

Sharks best bet for silverware

Even if the Bulls win their remaining four matches, they may find themselves travelling abroad in the URC semifinals – possibly to Dublin to face a full-strength Leinster.

The Stormers have effectively blown their chances of securing a home quarterfinal, and the best-case scenario may see them heading to Loftus Versfeld for the first round of the knockouts.

The Lions find themselves in a do-or-die situation. If they don’t win their remaining matches – a run that includes a final-round showdown with the Stormers in Cape Town – they won’t qualify for the playoffs or next year’s Champions Cup.

At this stage, the Sharks are South Africa’s best bet for silverware – albeit in a second-tier competition.

John Plumtree’s side is no longer in the running for the URC playoffs, and as a result have decided to focus on the remainder of their European Challenge Cup campaign. If they beat French club Clermont in the semifinals and then go on to win the title, they will qualify for next season’s Champions Cup.

The Bulls and Stormers were knocked out of the Champions Cup two weeks ago. While the quarterfinal results against Northampton and La Rochelle were met with widespread disappointment, they certainly simplified the URC equation for the two South African frontrunners.

Having been knocked out of Europe’s premier tournament, the Bulls and Stormers won’t have to juggle the demands of competing in two competitions over the next two months. Furthermore, they will have the opportunity to “rest” in the weeks set aside for Champions Cup, and – perhaps most importantly from a player welfare and performance point of view, they won’t compete for 10 to 14 weeks straight.

URC

After a shock 27-21 home loss to the Ospreys, the Stormers are now in a struggle to make the URC playoffs. (Photo: Grant Pitcher / Gallo Images)

Squad management key at business end of season

It’s understandable why director of rugby Jake White decided to send a second-string side to England for the Champions Cup quarterfinal and keep his star players in Pretoria ahead of the key URC clash against Munster.

Player management is so important at this stage of the club season, even though few sides – Irish giants Leinster being the prime example – have the resources to compete for silverware in two big tournaments such as the Champions Cup and URC.

While the South Africa teams have progressed since joining the northern hemisphere fraternity in 2021, they still have some way to go – and it’s for this reason that White and other coaches may opt to focus on one tournament, in this case the URC.

However, the plan backfired when the Bulls failed to bank the points against Munster, losing 27-22 when the opportunity was certainly there to do so with a full-strength side.

Stormers coach John Dobson fielded a weaker side against the Ospreys, but playing at Cape Town Stadium, the former URC champions would have been expected to take the necessary log points. They also stumbled to a 27-21 home loss.

In the wake of those landmark defeats, both teams face a mad scramble to keep their URC title hopes alive.

Celtic nations in position of strength

Leinster and Glasgow Warriors are the favourites to secure the top two positions in the standings – and to enjoy home advantage for the quarter- and semifinals.

Leinster may have to sacrifice another URC match – as they did last week in Joburg, when they rested their star players – to maximise their chances of winning a Champions Cup semifinal, and possibly the final. Once they have concluded those European commitments, Jacques Nienaber’s side will turn their attention back to the URC.

Glasgow, who are coached by yet another South African, Franco Smith, are well placed considering they will play two of their last four matches against Italian side Zebre, who are ranked last in the competition.

Glasgow still have to come to the Highveld to play the Bulls and Lions, but given their schedule – and the likelihood of banking 10 log points against Zebre – they can afford to target one win from those two matches in South Africa.

The Bulls should be going all out to claim 20 log points from their remaining matches against the Ospreys, Glasgow, Benetton and the Sharks – all of which will be staged in South Africa.

The Highveld conditions should give them an edge against the foreign teams, and they will be favourites to beat the Sharks in the final round, especially if Plumtree’s charges are heading back from England in the wake of a potential Challenge Cup final.

Other results to shape SA teams’ fate

The Bulls may need a result or two to go their way, however, if they are to finish above Munster in the rankings.

The Lions could do the Bulls – as well as themselves – a favour by beating Munster this weekend. Thereafter, Munster will return to the northern hemisphere, where they will be expected to beat Connacht, Edinburgh and Ulster.

The Stormers shouldn’t be looking beyond the next match against Leinster. Their chances of hosting a playoff this season are slim, but they can still finish in fifth place – possibly ahead of Benetton, who may come unstuck against the Sharks and Bulls on their South African tour.

URC

Lions flank Emmanuel Tshituka scores during their United Rugby Championship clash against Leinster at Ellis Park on 20 April 2024. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

If the Stormers beat Leinster, they will head to the northern hemisphere for a two-match tour against the Dragons and Connacht with the belief that they can claim nine or 10 log points. If they lose one or two of those matches, and possibly even the last fixture against the Lions, they may miss out on the playoffs altogether.

A log point or two may be the difference between qualifying for the playoffs – and next season’s Champions Cup. At this stage, only three points separate Benetton (fifth) and the Lions (11th), with the Stormers, Ospreys, Edinburgh, Connacht and Ulster jammed in between.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Contrasting nature of URC underlines its value in preparing players for Test rugby

Like the Bulls, the Lions will have the benefit of playing their remaining league games in South Africa.

If they build on their recent performance against Leinster and manage to topple Munster – the current URC champions – they will strengthen their chances of qualification. They should beat Cardiff in Johannesburg thereafter, and it remains to be seen how Glasgow – their subsequent opponents – will adapt to the altitude.

The Bulls will be cheering the Lions on over the next few weeks, as losses for Munster and Glasgow will boost their own home playoff prospects.

The Stormers, however, won’t mind if Ivan van Rooyen’s side lose a game or two and bow out of the playoff race before the final round. A Lions side with little but pride to play for may be less dangerous than a group that is hunting history, as the first Lions team to qualify for a URC knockout fixture. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Patson says:

    Reading this, I realise I have no idea, before looking elsewhere, where the “Lions” are based. Is it PE as used to be before it changed its name to a hawking sound?
    Stormers are the old WP, I get that, Sharks are the old Natal, get that too but also hazy on Bulls, are they Pretoria or Joburg?
    Compare and contrast with France and UK where most teams are named for the towns they play and represent.
    Durban Sharks makes things clearer still, Cape Town Stormers too.

    • tom cobley says:

      Been the blue bulls for many years.
      Lions are the old Transvaal.
      Pretoria and Joburg respectively

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      As far as I know they’re called the Hollywood Bets Sharks and DHL Stormers respectively – nothing about Durban or Cape Town in their actual names. Nobody cares about the Bulls, so that’s okay, and the Lions will once again have to carry the can for SA rugby as we sweep gloriously into the knockout rounds!

  • J vN says:

    The Bulls were on course to win on Saturday, when yet another red card changed the course of the game. Two weeks prior to that, a Leinster player made a very similar tackle to the one that the Bulls player was red-carded for, also making head contact, except the Leinster player only received a yellow card.

    These absurd rules and the inconsistent refereeing are killing the game. You can’t have a situation where the referees make differing calls, depending on who the team is, and you can’t have multiple red cards spoiling games.

    Rugby’s is alienating its supporters. Nobody wants to watch a so-called sport where the referees win or lose games. Bill Beaumont must go.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      You get inconsistent reffing in every sport, the problem for rugby is that it’s a more technical sport than most, giving up more opportunities for interpretation. Generally the penalised side feels aggrieved. I do agree that the reds are having an outsized impact on the matches though – it’s perhaps time for the trial rule of 20 minutes on the sidelines and then back to 15 players, but not the carded player to be enforced for things like these tackle penalties. Foul play (punching, gouging, stiff arm tackles etc) still deserve a full red, no replacement player.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Don’t despair. Things are slowly sorting themselves out. What I hope is that AI can get involved (no, not Adrian Island, or something like that, but Artificial Intelligence) which really shouldn’t be too difficult – maybe a coating for the ball(s) to identify touch downs – and so on. And without getting lambasted, in many ways I think it’s good that our top teams are getting beaten – for now – so that we don’t get accusations of unfairness like we sort of did in the first two URC seasons. I really think rugby union is on the up, and starting to avoid the NZRU and Aussies attempts to change it into boring ‘five tackles, kick’ league.

      But one thing I totally and utterly agree with you is that Beaumont – and all the other Pommie Posh Boys – must go so that the knee on union’s neck can be removed completely and the game properly reach it’s deserved place as probably the best winter game for ALL kids of any gender.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Don’t despair. Things are slowly sorting themselves out. What I hope is that AI can get involved (no, not Adrian Island, or something like that, but Artificial Intelligence) which really shouldn’t be too difficult – maybe a coating for the ball(s) to identify touch downs – and so on. And without getting lambasted, in many ways I think it’s good that our top teams are getting beaten – for now – so that we don’t get accusations of unfairness like we sort of did in the first two URC seasons. I really think rugby union is on the up, and starting to avoid the NZRU and Aussies attempts to change it into boring ‘five tackles, kick’ league.

      But one thing I totally and utterly agree with you is that Beaumont – and all the other Pommie Posh Boys – must go so that the knee on union’s neck can be removed completely and the game properly reach it’s deserved place as probably the best winter game for ALL kids of any gender.

    • andrew farrer says:

      When we played in the super rugby league, most of the Aus & Nz ref’s, were biased against our teams. The same is happening inthe URC, those 50/50 calls allways seemm to go against the SA team? – Our dominance in the first season scared them and they told their ref’s to even the playing field?
      That said, the Stormers current squad must be the dumbest bunch of rugby players erer assembled into one team! The idiot penalties they give away when attacking the oposition team’s line . . . wtf! Evan Roos in particular, great talent but needs a brain to become a great player, and he thinks he’s so much better than he actually is!

  • I just wish the bulls had gone all out in the Champions Cup, coz anything is possible in rugby

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.