URC resumes: Sharks eye Stormers, Bulls push for playoffs

Stormer's prop Frans Malherbe runs into a tackle.

Stormer's prop Frans Malherbe could play his first game of rugby since the World Cup in 2023. Picture: Rodger Bosch / AFP

Published Feb 11, 2024

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The Bulls and Stormers’ next two games in the United Rugby Championship will be crucial ones in their quest to stay in the top eight of the competition.

Jake White’s side are currently leading the South African charge, and will target their return fixture against the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday (3pm kick-off) to stay among the top four teams as the playoffs approach.

The last time the two sides met it ended in a 30-28 Bulls win at Loftus Versfeld, and they will want to make sure that this time around they don’t leave it to a late penalty to seal the win.

The all-important clash over the next couple of weeks for the Bulls will be the North-south Derby against the Stormers at Loftus on March 2.

But after a break of just over two weeks, getting a win at Ellis Park this Saturday will be vital to building momentum looking at their tournament run-in.

They will also have Springboks stars such as Kurt-lee Arendse and Canan Moodie available after their recent rest period, while they’ve built up considerable squad depth, who can step in when required.

There’s even a chance for the Bulls to go to the top of the URC log if they pick up five points from the Jukskei Derby, with first-placed Leinster facing Benetton later on Saturday.

A Bulls loss, though, will open the door for the Stormers to get ahead of them on the table.

The inaugural URC winners head to Durban to face the Sharks at the weekend without three key Springboks, and could be resting more players who have been racking up the minutes in the first half of the season.

They have a flyhalf and midfield conundrum that head coach John Dobson and his assistants have to take care of, but Kings Park could see the return of veteran prop Frans Malherbe, who could be running out in his first URC game of the season.

A victory will keep the former champions in touch with the top teams on the log, but should they not come up with the goods in the Shark Tank, there is the possibility of dropping out of the top eight and a play-off spot.

Meanwhile, there is hope that the Sharks and the Lions can salvage pride before the URC and the various cup competitions conclude.

The Sharks are last in the URC, with just one win in nine games, so their focus is on the Challenge Cup.

But the Lions, in 10th place, will have high hopes of breaking into the coveted top eight and a place in the URC playoffs, not to mention Champions Cup rugby next season.

The above is a forlorn hope for the Durban team as there is too much ground to make up, and they are ensuring their best resources will be available when the Challenge Cup resumes in April.

That is when Eben Etzebeth will be back from minor surgery on a knee cap, and his fellow Boks, Vincent Koch and Bongi Mbonambi, should be fighting fit. The same goes for Vincent Tshituka, who has been recovering from knee surgery.

Bok hooker Mbonambi has begun running with the Sharks after a long break from the injury he picked up early in the World Cup final, and he is likely to have a short stint against the Stormers in the big derby on Saturday at Kings Park (5.05pm kick-off).

The Sharks would love to beat their big rivals – they lost by a point in Cape Town a few weeks back.

IOL Sport