Something has to give when South African superpowers and Irish giants collide in the United Rugby Championship semi-finals this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Bulls will look to spring an upset against title favourites Leinster in Dublin on Friday night, while the Stormers will be out to maximize their home-ground advantage in the second Rugby Championship semi-final against Ulster in Cape Town on Saturday afternoon.
Leinster v Bulls
Friday, 10 June – 20:35
Written off at 7.75, the Bulls have nothing to lose and everything to gain. One could say they’re playing with house money, having pipped the Sharks 30-27 thanks to a last-gasp Chris Smith drop goal at Loftus Versfeld last weekend to sneak into the semi-finals.
South Africans are feisty and proud, particularly those in Pretoria, so the Bulls are by no means in Dublin to simply make up the numbers. They believe in each other and their structures and that makes them dangerous dark horses.
On the flip side, the pressure is on Leinster – the runaway league leaders and eight-time winners of the PRO14 – to deliver. After all, they trampled the Bulls 31-3 in the opening round of the tournament.
Despite the undeniable talent in the Bulls camp, a shock loss to them in a home semi would be a catastrophe for Leo Cullen after the recent European Champions Cup heartache and the dominant URC campaign he’s overseen.
Leinster’s record 76-14 rout of the Glasgow Warriors last weekend showed just how irrepressible and ruthless they are. The Bulls experienced it all the way back in September, but so much has happened since then. The men in light blue are now a settled side who’ve won nine of their last 10 and four on the trot.
If anyone can mastermind a Dublin siege, it’s probably Jake White, but even a few innovations will have to be accompanied by a bit of luck, especially with Leinster set to welcome back superstar trio Tadhg Furlong, Johnny Sexton, and James Lowe.
Marcell Coetzee and company will put up a good fight, but it’ll be a bridge too far. It won’t be a blowout like the first encounter, though.
Stormers v Ulster
Saturday, 11 June – 15:00
It’s only fitting that these two new rivals run it back for a place in the final. It’s the rematch that had to happen after the maiden meeting, back in Round 14 and at the same venue that’ll stage Saturday’s semi-final, was marred by controversy.
Ulster coach Dan McFarland felt they were robbed after a potential winning try was overturned and the Stormers were awarded a five-metre scrum, despite it looking like replacement prop Callum Reid had lost the ball backwards and then grounded it.
The Capetonians were able to see out the remaining 90 seconds to clinch a 23-20 win, so the final four showdown has plenty of added spice with both sides seeking to settle the score.
Overall, John Dobson’s men will want to dictate terms this time around after allowing Ulster to enjoy the lion’s share of territory (67%) and possession (63%) in the first fixture.
Time on the ball is important, but territory trumps all in finals rugby, and here Warrick Gelant could be better utilised after Manie Libbok, who’s been brilliant all season, criminally under-delivered with his kicking out of hand in the 28-17 quarter-final win over Edinburgh last weekend.
Ulster’s accuracy and conversion rate in their 36-17 dismantling of Munster in Belfast were world-class and their lineout will also be a weapon. And then there’s Duane Vermeulen – an ace in the hole with his in-depth knowledge of the Cape franchise.
The Stormers stuttered by comparison but it says a lot about their character that they were able to overcome their centre crisis. Losing both Damian Willemse and Rikus Pretorius is massive, but they’ll be much better prepared and therefore more in sync on Saturday.
With nine wins in a row, they have momentum on their side, and overcoming the jitters of a first knockout match in a number of seasons will bolster their confidence and belief tenfold. Add their Springbok-powered scrum and the Evan Roos factor and the Stormers should edge a nailbiter.