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Lions still pushing for Champions Cup rugby after courageous URC win

Lions still pushing for Champions Cup rugby after courageous URC win
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 18: Stafford McDowall of the Glasgow Warriors during the United Rugby Championship match between Emirates Lions and Glasgow Warriors at Emirates Airline Park on May 18, 2024 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

South Africa could have as many as four teams in next season’s Champions Cup or as few as two, depending on how next weekend’s results go.

Following a round of fixtures in the United Rugby Championship (URC) that saw three of the four South African sides winning, the country could have as many as four or as few as two teams in the Champions Cup next season.

The second-ranked Bulls and fifth-ranked Stormers have already secured their places after solid victories over Benetton and Connacht respectively this weekend.

The Bulls will have a home quarter-final in the URC as the current six-point buffer between fourth place and fifth means the top four will remain unchanged, with one round of fixtures remaining in the tournament.

The Stormers, who play the Lions at Cape Town Stadium this weekend, can fall as far as seventh spot with a loss to the side from Gauteng.

Aphiwe Dyantyi of the Hollywoodbets Sharks during the United Rugby Championship match between Hollywoodbets Sharks and Cardiff Rugby at Hollywoodbets Kings Park Stadium on May 18 in Durban. (Photo by Steve Haag Sports/Gallo Images)

The Sharks also have their ambitions of qualifying for the Champions Cup next season in their own hands despite a wayward campaign and languishing in 13th spot.

The Durban-based side will play English side Gloucester in the final of the EPCR Challenge Cup at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday evening. Victory there will not only see South Africa’s first trophy collected in Europe but also the Sharks’ entry into the elite European competition next season.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pesky Saffas are in European club rugby to stay, despite grumbles from the North

A victory for the Sharks, however, will negatively impact the never-say-die Lions who are ninth on the log, tied on 49 points with eighth and seventh-placed Benetton and Edinburgh.

The Lions need to finish seventh on the table in order to qualify for the Champions Cup if the Sharks are successful in London, as the Challenge Cup winners take the place of the eighth-placed team in the URC if they are from the same country.

While a seriously daunting challenge, it’s not an unrealistic task for the Lions to achieve a bonus-point victory in Cape Town — after all they were the first team to beat the Stormers at Cape Town Stadium in the URC — given the heroic showing they displayed at Ellis Park this weekend.

Brave Lions

The Lions pulled off a near-miraculous 44-21 victory over Glasgow Warriors, who were table-toppers heading into the weekend. Playing with 14 men for nearly 50 minutes and 13 men for 10 of it, the Lions dug deep to overcome the Scottish outfit.

Andy Uren of Benetton kicks over the top during the United Rugby Championship match between Vodacom Bulls and Benetton Rugby at Loftus Versfeld on May 18 in Pretoria. (Photo by Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

Trailing 14-8 in the 46th minute and 13 men on the field, the Lions turned it around with vintage-Lions entertaining, running rugby which saw them rampage to score 28 unanswered points in the space of 15 minutes.

“What made it enjoyable, was the effort, was the fight. Guys chasing back for the kick, guys chasing back at every turn. That was really special,” Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen said.

“Because it was at home, it was more special. It was a bit of a monkey on our back at home. The performance like this, was something that turned that.

“The last couple of games at home, we got the points, we put in the effort but to see this fight in front of the home fans, probably our last home game of the season.

“There were some significant milestones for this game. To see it happen like this, it makes your heart full.”

It is the Lions’ second 14-man win in the season after getting one over Connacht in March.

The final weekend of league fixtures sees seventh and eighth-placed Benetton and Edinburgh clash, and if the winning team does not secure a bonus point, and the Lions do, their seventh-place and Champions Cup dreams will be alive.

All to play for

The Stormers have no chance of cracking the top four in the URC after they failed to collect a bonus point over Connacht on Friday evening, good enough for a 16-12 win in Galway, Ireland.

It will be the first time the Cape side will have an away quarter-final in the URC, having won and been losing finalists in the past two seasons.

“Every one of our playoffs has been at Cape Town Stadium, so it might be good for our growth to try and win a quarterfinal away,” Stormers boss John Dobson said. “In fact, I have no doubt it would be.

“That’s not a justification for us not qualifying for a home playoff, of course we wanted to do that. But I think it’s going to be good for us to do it.

“Our goal was that we at least wanted to get to the semi-finals. We have to win that quarterfinal, no matter where we go. All of them are tough, whether it’s in Glasgow, Dublin, Limerick or at Loftus.

“But this will be good for us. We need to go through this experience.”

The Bulls, meanwhile, overcame Benetton comfortably 56-35 at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday. The Pretoria-based side allowed Benetton back into the match late to flatter the Italian outfit but were happy enough to take away the victory and bonus-point win which saw them move up the table.

The Sharks, who have all but forfeited the URC lost 36-14 to Cardiff at home in Durban. It was a Sharks outfit made up mostly of fringe players with their stars resting for their season determining fixture on Friday. DM

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