Bulls on charge but Lions, Stormers also in play-off frame

Mpilo Gumede of the Bulls celebrates victory against the Stormers this past weekend. | BackpagePix

Mpilo Gumede of the Bulls celebrates victory against the Stormers this past weekend. | BackpagePix

Published Mar 5, 2024


Leighton Koopman

The Bulls are flying the South African flag high in the United Rugby Championship after claiming the second spot on the overall points table this past weekend.

It’s clear that they are the in-form local side, but the Stormers (ninth) and Lions (11th) are not far off from breaking into the top eight for a place in the play-offs, alongside Jake White’s troops.

There are seven rounds of URC action left before the knockouts arrive, and the Bulls are well on their way to representing South Africa. The Lions and Stormers will put everything into the next couple of months to join them.

Mpilo Gumede of the Bulls celebrates victory against the Stormers this past weekend. | BackpagePix

Bulls the cream of the crop

They’ve been excellent as an all-round team, and it looks like they’ve finally perfected the rugby White wants them to play. The interplay between the forwards and backs makes them tick at the moment, and it can only get better.

The Bulls are not overreliant on their forwards, like they have been accused of in the past, and there is no aimless kicking and hoping for the best.

Everything works out as it should, and the ball bounces for them even when they are under the pump. How they weathered the storm on their tryline against the Stormers in Saturday’s north-south derby is what championship-winning sides are made of.

They have two away games left, and the other URC clashes are at Loftus Versfeld, with the toughest challenges being against Leinster and Munster in Pretoria. But they will be ready for the challenge to showcase their title credentials.

The Stormers have dropped to ninth in the URC standings. | BackpagePix

Can the Stormers get over the line?

They won’t go into panic mode yet after dropping out of the play-off spots on the log. Looking at their tough run-in to the end of the season, things could get tense for the Stormers as they look to reach the URC knockouts for a third successive season.

It looks highly likely that they will lose the SA Shield title to the Bulls, but all their focus will be on finishing in the top four to secure a home play-off. John Dobson’s men haven’t been travelling well this season, but with the DHL Stadium their fortress and Stormers Faithful their 16th man, they will look to bounce back from their defeat when Edinburgh come to Cape Town on March 23.

They have to fix their line-outs and conversation rate to get back on track, however.

The Lions have a tough run-in over the next few weeks as they seek to secure a play-off spot. | Backpagepix

Lions roaring and raring for a play-off berth

They are still in the hunt for a maiden URC play-off berth, and after their rousing win over the Sharks on Saturday, they are only a couple of points off a top-eight spot.

Judging by how they have gone, this could be their season to break into the play-offs, with the Durban side not among the South African contenders.

The Lions will have to keep doing what they currently are and not get caught up in the maths of what they need to do over the next seven games to get there. They will most likely lose sight of the play-offs if they get into it.

It’s a tough run-in, especially their next four URC games, where they travel for to Ireland and Wales and welcome the two Irish powerhouses Leinster and current champions Munster to Ellis Park. They need all their players to be fit and firing when they head to Connacht in a few weeks.

The Sharks might be at the bottom of the URC, but they will decide the top eight in the weeks to come. | BackpagePix

Will the Sharks stay bottom-feeders?

They’ve won one out of 11 games this season and are still stuck at the bottom of the URC log. With their roster of players, it’s hard to fathom how the Sharks can be dead last in the competition.

By now their focus will likely shift to going the distance in the Challenge Cup and not so much on the URC. But somehow they will have to conjure up a plan to get out of wooden-spoon territory and at least make their way to the middle of the log to restore some pride.

There is still time to do this in the seven matches they have left, but how the team recovers from their SA derby losses over the coming weeks will be important.

It’s time for their senior players to step up, and lead the team out of the doldrums they find themselves in. If that does not happen, they’ll stay rooted to the foot of the log.