Can Stormers, Bulls go all the way and conquer Europe?

Bulls head coach Jake White. Photo: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans/Shutterstock via BackpagePix

Bulls head coach Jake White. Photo: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans/Shutterstock via BackpagePix

Published Jan 25, 2024


The good news after last week’s rounds of European rugby action is that all five South African teams have advanced to the play-offs in their respective competitions, but the sobering question is: How much further can they go?

On April 5, the Bulls and Stormers host Lyon and La Rochelle respectively in the Champions Cup, while in the Challenge Cup, the Sharks are at home to Zebre, the Lions travel to Benetton and the Cheetahs to Clermont.

The big issue is that the European teams are now fully focused on the cup competitions. They are no longer fielding weakened teams when they travel, while the challenge of playing knockout games away in another hemisphere continues to put the travelling team at a massive disadvantage.

Bulls coach Jake White has been quick to temper expectations of South African teams going all the way.

“There is belief, but I want people in South Africa to understand that the big guns are coming now,” said White.

And of the five SA teams, the Bulls are likely to go the furthest.

“When the likes of La Rochelle, Toulouse, and Leinster bring out their big players, you start comparing the number of internationals on each side.

“You’re now pitting youngsters who are still growing (against internationals), but sport is an amazing thing, and there’s a reason why people follow sport around the world,” White continued.

“They do so for the reason that there are days when the team that isn’t supposed to win, ends up winning.

“It’s provincial rugby on steroids. Hopefully, our belief will grow and we get better, but I’m also a realist, as we saw with last week’s games that were on a different level.”

White’s Bulls – fatigued from a long-haul flight back from Europe – almost blew their home match against Bordeaux, but held on to win 46-40 to secure a last-16 place.

The Stormers secured their home play-off thanks to a thrilling 24-20 victory against Stade Francais in Paris.

They entertain champions La Rochelle, and while the Cape Town Stadium is a fortress, the Stormers will have to play their best rugby of the season to beat a desperate visiting team packed with World Cup players.

The problem for John Dobson’s team is that if they get past La Rochelle, they are away to the winner of the Leinster v Leicester game – those two are heavyweights of the northern hemisphere.

In the Challenge Cup, the Sharks will surely have little drama in putting away Zebre at Kings Park, but the odds are against the Lions beating the in-form Benetton in Italy, while the Cheetahs will have to play their socks off to win away against a full-strength Clermont.

The Sharks — dare we say — have turned a corner after solid back-toback victories over Oyonnax and the Dragons.

It is fair comment that the French team were not at full strength in Durban, while the Dragons are simply poor. Still, so much of rugby is about confidence, and the way the Sharks celebrated after their powerful finish on Sunday night in Newport is an indication of how much the big win meant to them.

They will smash Zebre in Durban, and that will give them the momentum to have a good crack at winning the Challenge Cup.

My tips for the top: the Sharks and Bulls to be South Africa’s standard-bearers in the Challenge Cup and Champions Cup.

IOL Sport