Bulls and Stormers fly SA flag in URC while Lions rue season of near misses

Bulls and Stormers fly SA flag in URC while Lions rue season of near misses
Bulls No 8 Cameron Hanekom carries the ball against the Sharks with Nizaam Carr in support. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

The Bulls finished second on the URC standings and the Stormers fifth after the 18-game round-robin phase, and are into the quarterfinals.

The Bulls and Stormers will be South Africa’s representatives in the last eight in the United Rugby Championship and therefore carrying the nation’s hopes into the post-season.

For a short while it seemed the Lions would join them, but sport can be cruel. They really should be in the last eight and therefore in with an outside chance of winning the URC.

The reality though, is that they finished ninth, agonisingly on the same log points – 50 – as Welsh team Ospreys. Tournament regulations made the number of wins the first tiebreaker instead of points difference.

lions urc

Evan Roos is tackled by Jordan Hendrikse and Marius Louw of the Lions during the United Rugby Championship match. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

On that score, the Ospreys edged the Lions with 10 league wins to the nine of the Lions even though the latter had a far superior points difference.

You could argue that the Lions had the opportunity to eliminate any chance of missing out by beating the Stormers at the DHL Stadium in the final round.

They were even aided by the Stormers being reduced to 14 men when wing Angelo Davids was red-carded early in the second half for a horror collision with Lions flyhalf Sanele Nohamba.

Instead, the Stormers overturned a seven-point halftime deficit to win 29-24, which gave the Lions a losing bonus point, but no more.

Later, the Ospreys secured a full haul of five points by beating Cardiff 33-29. It made it even more painful for the Lions because for a few hours they held the eighth and final play-off place thanks to the one log point they earned in Cape Town, only to have it snatched from them.

Over an 18-game season, the Lions paid the price for small misses along the way and not only because they failed to beat the Stormers in Cape Town.

It was definitely a season of “what-ifs” for the Lions as six of their nine defeats were by less than a single score. Had they just turned one of those losses into a victory, the outcome at the end of the campaign would’ve been vastly different.

“I think we got seven or eight losing bonus points, which means we were a few minutes away from potentially 30 more log points,” Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen said.

“It was a season of ‘almost there and near misses’ and that’s what it feels like today (following defeat against the Stormers) as well. But, I’m proud of the fight we have shown and I can definitely say we have grown as a team.

“We had to restart two or three years ago and there were ups and downs in that process.

“But in the last six to eight weeks I think we have really played some good rugby. We feel we’re there, giving ourselves opportunities to win rugby matches.

“I feel potentially we’ll deliver four to six Springboks in the next 12 to 16 months. We know where we are as a group.”

Bulls cautious

The Bulls finished second on the standings behind defending champions Munster, thanks to a 26-14 win over the Sharks in Durban. As a consequence, the Bulls will at the very least host a semi-final if they progress past Benetton in their quarterfinal next weekend.

bulls sa shield

The Bulls were crowned SA Shield winners as the best local team in the URC following their victory over the Sharks in Durban. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports/Gallo Images)

The Bulls also won the SA Shield (for the best SA team in the tournament), which is the first time any team but the Stormers has taken it.

Despite the good news and strong campaign so far, coach Jake White has cautioned against looking beyond next weekend’s quarterfinal at Loftus.

The Bulls are also unlikely to have Bok flank Marco van Staden for the meeting against the Italian side after he sustained a knee injury.

“The first tick in the box was to make the playoffs, which we have. The second was to get a home playoff. People talk about us having a home semi, but we’ve still got to win the quarterfinal first,” White said.

“So, it’s little steps. As you know, we got to the final in the first year [of the competition] and we lost to the Stormers. The second year we caught the Stormers, who were the champions, in the quarterfinals and we lost.

“Maybe this is an example of all the lessons we’ve learnt in the past two years; we get a home quarter, we could get a home semi if we win, which we’ve never had before.

“Already there’s a massive difference to where we are as a group, and all we want is to give ourselves a really good chance to win this competition.”

Stormers ready to travel

stormers roos

Stormers No 8 Evan Roos on the rampage against the Lions at DHL Stadium in Cape Town. (Photo: Cole Cruickshank / Gallo Images)

In the minutes after beating the Lions, the Stormers knew they had secured fifth in the standings, but they were unsure of where they would play their quarterfinal.

They now know they will travel to Scotland to face Franco Smith’s Glasgow at Scotstoun Stadium.

Although coach John Dobson admitted that his bosses would have preferred a home play-off to earn some much-needed income, as a team winning on the road is the next part of the evolution in their development.

The Stormers, without their Springboks, had a poor European Tour at the beginning of the URC season, losing all four matches. That included a 20-9 defeat against Glasgow in winter in the northern hemisphere. This weekend’s clash will be in summer and in hopefully better conditions, although this is Scotland after all…

The Stormers subsequently showed huge improvement away from home.

A second-string team narrowly lost (36-25) to the Leicester Tigers in a Champions Cup match. Dobson’s side followed that with a 24-20 win over Stade Francais in Paris, and a 45-29 win over Northampton Saints in a friendly. They then secured consecutive URC wins against the Dragons (44-21) and Connacht (16-12).

“It doesn’t really sell with my bosses for me to say that it’s a good thing we are playing away,” Dobson said with a wry smile.

“We’ve played every playoff game here at DHL Stadium. We said at the start of the season, one of the big things for us was how we play away.

“We’ve gone from nought from four on tour to a really good performance in Leicester with a so-called B-team, a win in Paris, a friendly win in Northampton and then two wins on tour.

“This is the next step in our growth. I would have loved to have it here, for the people for the money and the chances of winning. But it’s not a bad thing for our growth to play the quarterfinal away.

“I would really be excited to go to Scotstoun in May, compared to November without our Springboks.

“We are up for this. I promise you, we are not going for one week now. If we can play in the afternoon at Scotstoun, it’s game on.” DM


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