Spotlight on local derbies as URC returns with a bang
The stakes will be sky-high for all four South African teams this weekend as a full round of Vodacom United Rugby Championship action returns and sides turn their attention on the race to the playoffs, with the Grand Final happening in exactly 100 days.
With Irish powerhouse Leinster all but assured of top position on the log, the other teams will gear up for a race to book their places in the top-eight, with lots still to play for.
The DHL Stormers – away to the Vodacom Bulls on Saturday – will have their sights set on securing second spot on the standings and, in the process, home ground advantage should they progress to the semi-finals.
The fourth-placed Vodacom Bulls, on the other hand, are in more of a precarious position as they are being hounded by a chasing pack of teams who will be pressing hard for a top-four finish and quarter-final hosting rights.
The Cell C Sharks, who travel to Johannesburg to face the Emirates Lions on Saturday, can also still move up on the log, but they are in eighth place at the moment, and any dropped points could end up costly.
The Emirates Lions, placed 13th with six games to go, will also know that any points will be very valuable as they look to finish in the playoffs this year.
The match in Johannesburg, which kicks off at 15h00 on Saturday, is the first in a double-header of South African derbies that can make or break the local teams’ playoff aspirations.
On paper, the Cell C Sharks should be favourites to clinch the win, as they have won all three previous encounters with the Emirates Lions, including a five try to one victory by 37-10 in December. However, the hosts will have taken notice that the KwaZulu-Natalians have lost three of their last four league matches away from home.
On their part, the Cell C Sharks would have noticed their opponents’ defensive issues, with the Emirates Lions’ 49 tries conceded so far this season only topped by Zebre Parma’s 65, while the hosts are also on the wrong end of the table when it comes to tries scored (30).
At 17h05, the focus will move 60km north to Loftus Versfeld, where the Vodacom Bulls will be looking for their first Vodacom URC victory over the DHL Stormers in an eagerly awaited North-South Derby.
The teams have met four times in the Vodacom URC, including in last season’s inaugural final, with the Capetonians winning on all four occasions, the last of which was a 37-27 win in Cape Town just before Christmas.
The hosts will be buoyed by the return of their head coach Jake White following surgery and recovery, and if he is named in the match-day squad, it will be Morné Steyn’s 150th appearance for the Vodacom Bulls (in international competitions).
However, that alone will not be enough to topple the high-riding DHL Stormers, whose only defeat on South African soil in the Vodacom URC was way back in round five last season, on 4 December 2021 against the Emirates Lions in Cape Town.
The Vodacom Bulls – who haven’t lost at home since February 2022 (12 matches) – came close last season at Loftus, where the DHL Stormers won by 30-26 courtesy of a converted try at the death by Paul de Wet.
But history won’t count this weekend as the Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls will be dead-set on reversing their fortunes against their coastal counterparts.
Emirates Lions v Cell C Sharks
Date: Saturday, 18 February
Venue: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
SA Time: 15h00
Referee: Cwengile Jadezweni
Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers
Date: Saturday, 18 February
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
SA Time: 17h05
Referee: Marius vd Westhuizen
Other fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 17 February
21h35: Glasgow Warriors v Ulster (Glasgow)
21h35: Munster v Ospreys (Limerick)
Saturday, 18 February
17h05: Zebre v Connacht (Parma)
19h15: Cardiff Rugby v Benetton (Cardiff)
19h15: Scarlets v Edinburgh (Llanelli)
21h35: Leinster v Dragons (Dublin)