North v South: Crunch time in Cape Town
Traditionally it is one of the most brutal encounters and always evokes plenty of emotion.
Saturday at the Cape Town Stadium, when the Stormers host the Bulls in a rescheduled United Rugby Championship Round 13 outing, there will be significant additional spice as a result of their positions on both the overall standings and in the South African conference.
Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White did not pull any punches and said it is “going to be one of those games”.
The Stormers top the South African conference (a guaranteed top-four spot in the URC and qualification for the European Cup next season), followed closely by the Bulls (one point behind) and the Sharks third (a further points back).
The Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff was frank about the significance of the game, given the congestion at the top-end of the South African conference.
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He said the Bulls played well in beating Ulster this past weekend, with their bruising forwards making a massive contribution to the victory.
“The next couple of games are going to be crucial for us,” Kitshoff said, adding that they want to cement their spot in the top four – with games against Glasgow Warriors, Leinster (both at home) and Scarlets (away) to follow this week’s north-south showdown.
The Bulls boss, White, was adamant that his team is ‘far’ from where they needed to be.
“We must keep our feet on the ground,” White said after a run that has seen them go on an impressive five-match winning streak – beating Zebre 45-7, Munster 29-24, Scarlets 57-12, Dragons 55-20 and Ulster 34-16.
The wins over the two Irish provinces contributed significantly to their rise into the play-off zone (top eight) and a possible place in the European Cup next season.
However, the Bulls boss has not forgotten some painful losses to the Sharks (22-29) and Stormers (26-30) earlier this year – especially the reverse at the hands of their arch-rivals, the Stormers, at Loftus Versfeld back in January.
It has been five great wins,” White said, adding: “This [victory over Ulster] is probably the biggest win we’ve had, because we have lost to two other Irish teams [3-31 to Leinster and 7-34 to Connacht in rounds One and Two].
“We have since beat Munster and now we’ve beaten Ulster.
“Two of them [Leinster and Ulster] are in the top three.”
He said they have now laid a platform, but cautioned that the next challenge will be just as enormous – when they face the Stormers in Cape Town.
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“They beat us at home here,” he said of the Stormers’ win at Loftus back in January.
“We have to ensure that we are good enough,” White said, adding: “They also beat Ulster.
“They will think they are where they need to be as a team [one point and one place ahead of the Bulls on the standings].
“It is going to be a great game.”
He ‘encouraged’ the Bulls supporters to “fill up the Cape Town Stadium” on Saturday.
The Bulls boss equated the north-south derby to a Test.
“Northern Transvaal versus Western Province is almost like the All Blacks against the Springboks,” he said of the history of the rivalry.
“I have chatted to many former players – Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers – said it has always been one of those games.
“I am excited because we get to play them in Cape Town.
“Hopefully it is a full-house and then we get back to the glory days of rugby in South Africa.”
He said the nearly 20,000 spectators at Loftus for the win over Ulster created just such an atmosphere.
Stormers coach John Dobson expects it to be a great game, with plenty of entertainment value.
“They [the Bulls] are definitely playing a more expansive game,” the Stormers coach said, adding: “However, they still have a big, direct pack of forwards.
“Hopefully it will be a classic.
“For the last couple of years people had written us off as also-rans, now we are in touching distance [of the top].
“We are really looking forward to it a lot.”