URC Round Eight - teams and predictions
NORTH-SOUTH DERBY: South African teams return to action on the United Rugby Champion stage for the first time in almost two months.
The last time the SA team’s featured in URC action was back in early December – in domestic derbies, just as they will do on Saturday.
The repetitious nature of the fixtures does not distract from the allure, as this weekend includes a big north-south derby for the second time in four days.
The Bulls demolished Western Province in a Currie Cup encounter in Cape Town on Wednesday.
On Saturday the Stormers will seek retribution in a URC encounter in Pretoria.
The action gets underway when the Lions host Sharks at Ellis Park in the early match of the day.
Then we travel 50-odd kilometres north on the N1 to Loftus Versfeld, where the Bulls are at home to the Stormers.
The Lions lead the way in the South African conference, after five rounds, with 11 points, two clear of the Sharks. The Stormers sit on seven points, with the Bulls at the bottom a further two points back.
For the Lions and the Bulls, it is their first home game of the tournament – with all four teams having toured Europe in the opening month and the Sharks having hosted the Bulls in Round Five, while the Stormers were at home to the Lions.
The game of the weekend is without a doubt at Loftus – not just a north-south derby, but the most successful SA team of the last two years returning home for the first time since the Currie Cup Final in September.
The Bulls have lost just once at Loftus – in all competitions – since February 2020.
The Stormers have lost their last four meetings with the Bulls since a 13-0 victory at Newlands in Super Rugby in February 2020.
John Dobson’s troops have triumphed in three of their last five away games against fellow South African franchises, but have not won at Loftus Versfeld since July 2017.
Dobson made no secret of the fact that Saturday’s showdown will be “much more seismic” and significant for his team.
He said their approach was different to the Bulls – who mixed-and-matched their teams – and is more in line with the Lions, who ring-fenced their URC squad.
“This [Saturday] is the game where we gauge where we are as a franchise,” Dobson told @rugby365com.
“Tomorrow there is no excuses,” he said about Saturday’s encounter.
“We are both putting out what we feel are our best teams for this encounter and it should be a hell-of-a-game.”
Dobson said that after a few weeks of hard training, his team is itching to get out there and put their plans into action.
“It has been good to have this break and evaluate where we want to improve as a team, now it is about going out there and executing those plans accurately,” the Stormers coach said.
“The players have trained well and everyone is very motivated to show what we are capable of up in Pretoria this weekend,” he added.
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Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White also spoke about the historical rivalry between the two franchises and said he expects another “exhilarating” encounter.
“This weekend will be no different and to begin the year in the United Rugby Championship against a quality side like the Stormers will be important in determining where we are as a team after the end-year break,” White said.
The 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok coach pointed to the fact that this is his team’s first home game in the URC and for that reason, it is important to get the win.
“It is not just because it is Province [read Stormers], a north-south derby and it is a chance for us to get off the bottom of the table in the URC,” he told @rugby365com.
“There is a lot to play for and we got momentum from winning the last two Currie Cup games.
“There is a great vibe and the players are looking forward to this game.”
* The game in Johannesburg is just as significant, as both the Lions and Sharks have won twice – including their last outings.
Ivan van Rooyen’s Lions lost both of their meetings with the Sharks in the Rainbow Cup, but they did produce a fine win over the Stormers in their URC encounter in December.
The Sharks produced a convincing victory over the Bulls last month and have prevailed in three of their last five visits to Johannesburg.
They have an excellent record overall against the Lions, losing just one of their last nine encounters – a 40-43 reverse at this venue last March.
Van Rooyen said the hosts have been “steadily growing” since the start of the URC late last year.
“It is a good opportunity for us to keep the momentum going and perform well as a team,” he told a virtual media briefing.
He added that the Sharks have a very settled and experienced backline, while their team selection – with a host of Springboks – speak to their intent.
The coach pointed to the set pieces as the key in this derby.
Captain Burger Odendaal said his team will have to be just as clinical against the Sharks as they were in the first half against the Stormers.
“They enjoy playing of scraps and force other teams into errors, so they can play off that,” Odendaal said.
Sharks coach Sean Everitt said the Lions are a “dangerous” team, as they showed in their win over the Stormers back in December.
“We know they will be hyped up and we are under no illusions as to what they can produce,” Everitt said.
He admitted the stop-start nature of the URC – with SA teams having played only five matches and most other franchises as many as eight already – makes it difficult to build momentum.
“It is a card the South African teams have been dealt,” the Sharks mentor said, adding: “You do need to adjust your training – doing more 15-versus-15 and add more contact into training.
“I believe we are in way better shape since we broke up in the beginning of December.”
Saturday, January 22 teams and predictions …
Lions v Sharks
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg – Kick-off: 15.00; 13.00 GMT)
@rugby365com: Sharks by sevens points
Lions: 15 EW Viljoen, 14 Edwill van der Merwe, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain,) 11 Rabz Maxwane, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Francke Horn, 7 Ruhan Straeuli, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Pieter Jansen van Vuren, 4 Ruben Schoeman, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Sithembiso Sithole.
Replacements: 16 Pieter Botha, 17 Morgan Naude, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Emmanuel Tshituka, 21 Morne van den Berg, 22 Matt More, 23 Tiaan Swanepoel.
Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sibusiso Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am (captain), 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Boeta Chamberlain, 9 Grant Williams, 8 Phendulani Buthelezi, 7 Jeandré Labuschagne, 6 James Venter, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Fezokuhle Mbatha, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Reniel Hugo, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Jaden Hendrikse, 22 Joaquin Bonilla, 23 Jeremy Ward.
Referee: AJ Jacobs
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge & Aimee Barrett-Theron
TMO: Cwengile Jadezweni
Bulls v Stormers
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria – Kick-off: 17.00; 15.00 GMT)
@rugby365com: Bulls by five points
Bulls: 15 David Kriel, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Cornal Hendricks (captain), 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 10 Chris Smith, 9 Embrose Papier, 8 Elrich Louw, 7 Reinhard Ludwig, 6 Arno Botha, 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Walt Steenkamp, 3 Mornay Smith, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Gerhard Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Janko Swanepoel, 20 Marcel Coetzee, 21 Izak Burger, 22 Morne Steyn, 23 Harold Vorster.
Stormers: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Rikus Pretorius, 11 Seabelo Senatla, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Evan Roos, 7 Ernst van Rhyn, 6 Deon Fourie, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Salmaan Moerat (co-captain), 3 Sazi Sandi, 2 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff (co-captain).
Replacements: 16 Andre-Hugo Venter, 17 Leon Lyons, 18 Brok Harris, 19 Adre Smith, 20 Hacjivah Dayimani, 21 Paul de Wet, 22 Dan du Plessis, 23 Warrick Gelant.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Griffin Colby (South Africa), Morne Ferreira (South Africa)
TMO: Marius van der Westhuisen (South Africa)