Stormers v Munster: URC final preview as hosts set to win back-to-back titles in front of record crowd
The season began with 18 teams all filled with hope and desire for the campaign ahead. Now only two remain in the quest for United Rugby Championship (URC) glory.
It is the kind of clash players live for, fans long for and the rugby world waits with bated breath for; it is the URC II Grand Final between the Stormers and Munster at DHL Stadium in Cape Town.
One cannot help but romanticise the journey of both sides to reaching the most important fixture of the URC season.
The Stormers are a team still in administration but have continued to defy the odds by earning another home final to defend their title. It is refreshing to see a side so tight-knit and so joyful in their rugby that they play with the goal of “making Cape Town smile”. The holders have gone a long way in achieving that by drawing the biggest crowd of the club’s history to the final on Saturday, with the game sold out in less than three hours.
On the other hand is Munster, who have shown tremendous resilience to bounce back from a slow start this season to transform into the campaign’s party crashers from Glasgow to Dublin. The odds would not have been on them to progress this far but under the tutelage of masterful tactician Graham Rowntree, Munster fly to Cape Town as a serious threat.
From a fan’s perspective, it is a compelling match considering Munster are the only team to win in Cape Town in the URC since December 2021, which will be a vital reference point for the Irishmen. The Stormers will want nothing more than to get one back on them as they look to keep the trophy in Cape Town.
Deon Fourie returns to the Stormers’ starting line-up and will be joined by Evan Roos and Hacjivah Dayimani in the loose trio. Marvin Orie also returns to the XV alongside Ruben van Heerden in the second-row.
Captain Steven Kitshoff starts his last game for the club with Springbok duo Frans Malherbe and Jospeh Dweba in a strong front-row.
Herschel Jantjies maintains his partnership with superstar Manie Libbok in the half-back pairing as trusty midfield duo Dan du Plessis and Ruhan Nel also keep their spots.
Versatile star Damian Willemse starts at full-back with Angelo Davids and Leolin Zas on the wings.
On the pine, the Stormers have opted for a 6-2 split with Paul de Wet and Clayton Bloemmetjies as the backline options.
JJ Kotze, Neethling Fouche and Ali Vermaak are the front-row replacements with BJ Dixon, Willie Englebrecht and Marcel Theunissen the other options.
Meanwhile, Munster welcome a trio of key returnees headlined by veteran scrum-half Conor Murray, who is joined by semi-final hero Jack Crowley in the half-back pairing.
Crowley’s shift to fly-half makes space for the returning Malakai Fekitoa who reunites with Antoine Frisch in the midfield. Calvin Nash also makes a return on the wing with Mike Haley and Shane Daly completing the back-three.
In the pack, the inspirational Peter O’Mahony captains the team from the side of the scrum alongside Gavin Coombes and John Hodnett in the back-row.
Star Tadhg Beirne joins consistent performer Jean Kleyn in the second-row whilst Jeremy Loughman, Diarmuid Barron and Stephen Archer make up the front-row.
Munster opt for a regular 5-3 split with Niall Scannell, Josh Wycherley and Roman Salanoa as the front-row options. Springbok RG Snyman makes his injury return from the bench with Alex Kendellen the other forward replacement.
Craig Casey is joined by veteran Keith Earls and star Ben Healy as the backline options.
Where the game will be won
It is easy to get carried away in the Stormers’ flamboyant attacks filled with exhilarating plays, but it is the strength of the pack that allows the magicians to shine and this is where the key battles will take place.
Primarily the line-out is going to be a decisive contest. The Stormers will be grateful to have their leader at the set-piece, Orie, back from injury as they missed him in the semi-final. Munster are masters of the set-piece and particularly the line-out through skipper O’Mahony, Beirne and Kleyn. Those three are absolutely critical.
Another important area to consider is the breakdown where the Stormers look a different side without their talisman Fourie, who is a master of the arts. The veteran is one of the best in the world and Munster will need to be wise to it. The Irish province is no slouch either with Beirne another very effective exponent of this area of the game. Whoever dominates this facet will be one step closer to pushing for the title.
The scrum is another area but the significance of the battle is reduced by the poor grip in the playing surface. The Stormers’ risky 6-2 split could pay off in this regard. It will be fascinating to see the impact of the benches in the last quarter.
Ultimately Munster need to dominate the Stormers’ forwards because if the defending champions achieve parity or better in the battle up front it could unleash their venomous backline.
Last time they met
What they said
Former Stormers and Munster centre Jean de Villiers praised the impact of skipper Kitshoff on the Cape Town side ahead of the game.
“He has been fantastic for the Stormers and Springboks and his leadership has grown significantly over the last five years. The results that the Stormers have had over the last two years especially speaks volumes of that,” De Villiers said.
Meanwhile, former Munster back-row CJ Stander spoke highly of Stormers number eight Roos before the crunch clash.
“Evan is unbelievably explosive. I saw him score a try against Connacht at the Danie Craven Stadium earlier this season and you don’t see that explosiveness anymore,” Stander said.
Munster defence coach Denis Leamy singled out Libbok as a major threat and a player they will be looking to shut down.
“That’s really special and he’s such a special player is Libbok. He’s the type of player that we have to try and take time and space away from him,” he said.
“We will go back to our fundamentals and framework in terms of how we want to control the speed of the ball and how we nullify him in terms of how we defend together.”
Second-row Kleyn is desperate to win silverware with Munster – something he has been building towards since the tragic passing of Anthony Foley years ago.
“For us to win a trophy, it would be incredible, it is something we’ve been building towards over the last seven years, I would say since Axel passed away.”
Players to watch
Big games call for big players and a massive figure for the Stormers is Damian Willemse. The versatile star wears 15 this week where he has been influential for the defending champions. His ability to cover the backfield is crucial for his team as is his spark on the counter-attack. The Springbok produced for the Capetonians in the closing stages of URC I and they need him to deliver the goods again.
Willemse will be hoping to show off his synergy with golden boy Manie Libbok who cannot do much wrong at the moment. The Fan’s Player of the Season has developed into the league’s most lethal attacking playmaker. He is a defender’s nightmare and the result hinges on his performance. If Libbok fires in his playmaking, game management and goal kicking it will be difficult to beat the Stormers.
It will be the last game for skipper Steven Kitshoff in Stormers colours. He is a true legend of the game and arguably the greatest the club has ever seen. ‘Spicy Plum’ will be adamant to bow out with back-to-back titles and he will do everything in his power to get over the line. The front-row’s mobility in broken play and jackal ability will be important for the Stormers as will his scrummaging on a slippery surface.
In the Munster ranks Gavin Coombes will be vital again. The number eight is a key ball carrier and an important physical presence. He has been outstanding for the Irish province all season long and is a reliable star for Rowntree. What is required from him is more of the same; carry relentlessly, tackle like a man possessed and completely empty his tank. It is a massive game for an impressive player.
Tadhg Beirne will always be influential in any game he is part of. He is the master of the breakdown and the line-out. His engine is ever-impressive and he is one of the heartbeats of the Munster pack. Beirne’s experience at all levels of the game will be so valuable for his side. The Stormers will need to watch the world-class lock very closely.
The hero of the semi-final Jack Crowley is another important player to consider. The way in which he slotted the winning drop goal under pressure was truly outstanding. He is an absolute team man as his interview showed and he will need to be again this weekend. Crowley has to be clear in his decision-making and control where and how his team plays. The fly-half is a very talented star and the stakes could hardly be higher. His battle with Libbok could be decisive.
Finals are games of inches, clashes that can be decided by the split-second decisions in key moments, which inspired our choice of the most important match-up. It is between two stars wise in their experience and top shelf in their quality, two players who tilt the balance of the game in their team’s favour, it is Deon Fourie up against Peter O’Mahony.
Fourie’s story is magnificent, a veteran who is ageing beautifully and playing his best rugby. His jackal ability has become so effective that the Stormers rely on its output more than they would like. The Springbok’s ‘dog-like’ mentality will be huge for the forward pack. His turnover ability could well be the difference in the critical stages. He is a passionate and proud Stormer who will run out with a puffed chest and focused mind for a monstrous clash.
In his way is the beastly O’Mahony. The Irish superstar is a warrior and nothing short of it. He loves being in and amongst the chaos. O’Mahony is a modern-day legend with his line-out prowess, skill over the ball at the breakdown and relentless mindset. The flank is an inspirational leader, one who brings out the best in those around him. His multi-faceted game and warrior mentality has the ability to win the small moments throughout the game. When Munster needs someone to step up O’Mahony is always there and he needs to be yet again on Saturday.
Munster have been there and done it before at DHL Stadium which will be massive for their confidence. However, with a sell-out crowd, the experience of last year’s Grand Final and the return of key men it is going to be tricky for the visitors. Stormers to win back-to-back titles by beating Munster by eight points in a thrilling clash.
2023: Munster won 26-24 in Cape Town
2021: Munster won 34-18 in Limerick
Stormers: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Angelo Davids, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Dan du Plessis, 11 Leolin Zas, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Evan Roos, 7 Hacjivah Dayimani, 6 Deon Fourie, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Steven Kitshoff (c)
Replacements: 16 JJ Kotze, 17 Ali Vermaak, 18 Neethling Fouche, 19 Ben-Jason Dixon, 20 Willie Engelbrecht, 21 Marcel Theunissen, 22 Paul de Wet, 23 Clayton Blommetjies
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Calvin Nash, 13 Antoine Frisch, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Shane Daly, 10 Jack Crowley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Gavin Coombes, 7 John Hodnett, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Diarmuid Barron, 1 Jeremy Loughman
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Josh Wycherley, 18 Roman Salanoa, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Alex Kendellen, 21 Craig Casey, 22 Ben Healy, 23 Keith Earls
Date: Saturday, May 27
Venue: DHL Stadium, Cape Town
Kick-off: 18:30 local (17:30 BST, 16:30 GMT)
Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR)
Assistant Referees: Mike Adamson (SRU), Craig Evans (WRU)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (WRU)
READ MORE: Stormers v Munster: Five storylines to follow including heated exchanges in a fiery URC final
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