The Highveld and coastal franchises are ready for round two as they run it back in the United Rugby Championship this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Lions will have to find something special to turn the tables on the Bulls after what their neighbours did to them last weekend, while the Stormers and the Sharks will seek to set the record straight after their stalemate. Both South African showdowns are on Saturday.
But first, it’s an Irish derby as Ulster and Connacht battle it out in Belfast on Friday night.
Ulster v Connacht
Friday, 4 February – 22:15
With Connacht crashing and burning badly last weekend, Ulster are overwhelming favourites to kick off the action with a win. The loss of three key players to the national side were heavily felt by Connacht in their 42-20 humiliation at home courtesy of the Glasgow Warriors.
The result left them deeper entrenched at the bottom of the Irish Shield, a full 11 points behind frontrunners Ulster, although they’re still firmly in the play-off mix in eighth place. Ulster’s vastly superior depth saw them cope without their seven Test stars just fine, Duane Vermeulen in destructive form to help power them to a 27-15 bonus-point victory over the Scarlets. This derby should play out much the same way with a similar or wider scoreline.
Bulls v Lions
Saturday, 5 February – 15:00
A week is a long time in rugby. Teams have made improbable turnarounds in that time and the Lions have to pull such a rabbit out of the hat on their short trip to Loftus. It’ll take a brave man to bet on them to bounce back after they were soundly beaten last weekend.
They were woeful in every department, with even their steely determination – the backbone of Lions rugby – absent in the 34-10 drubbing. Attitude is one thing, a quick fix, while personnel charges will bolster their slim hopes in the sequel, particularly at pivot following Fred Zeilinga’s mare.
On top of their sterile offence and toothless defence, they were blown away at the breakdown. That’s where their focus should be, finding a way to stifle the Bulls at the source. They also cannot allow Jake White’s men to dictate the pace again. An already arduous task is made all the more daunting by the double blow of losing captain Burger Odendaal and Willem Alberts to injury and I cannot see them troubling the Bulls at their fortress.
Stormers v Sharks
Saturday, 5 February – 17:05
The Stormers showed little other than desire in Durban last weekend, with John Dobson admitting his charges were lucky to salvage the dramatic 22-all draw after being down by 14 with 12 minutes remaining. “Dobbo” has serious decisions to make to address the areas the Sharks ruled and will be desperate to have the services of Frans Malherbe and Evan Roos this time around.
Brok Harris stopped the bleeding a scrum time when he replaced Sazi Sandi, who was put through the wringer by Ox Nche, so even if Malherbe remains unavailable, the Stormers should stand up better to the all-Springbok front row of the Sharks with the veteran in the No.3 jersey. That said, the Sharks should still have the advantage.
After indiscipline undid their dominance, Sean Everitt’s side will be more deliberate in their actions. For them, it’s a case of polishing the game plan that worked for three quarters. Had Boeta Chamberlain slotted all his kicks at goal, there would’ve been no way back for the Capetonians. He would’ve worked extra hard with Pat Lambie this week to fine-tune his process and cash in for his team.
The star-studded Sharks have the platform and pipelines to punish the Stormers and while the hosts will be better prepared for what the men in black and white bring to the table, a more clinical KwaZulu-Natal collective should secure the victory that eluded them last weekend.