United Rugby Championship final preview: Stormers to pip Bulls in epic showdown in Cape Town

·11-min read
 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

The United Rugby Championship (URC) reaches its climax in Cape Town on Saturday when the Stormers and Bulls face off in what should be an entertaining encounter between two evenly matched teams.

These sides represent the regions which are the traditional heavyweights of South African rugby and have been at the forefront of the country’s onslaught in the inaugural URC, so it is fitting that they will be contesting for honours.

The Stormers are in unfamiliar territory as they seldom reach finals and the last time they’ve featured at this stage of any tournament was way back in 2010 when, ironically, they suffered a defeat against the selfsame Bulls in that year’s Super Rugby final in Soweto.

The men from Pretoria were victorious that day but that was the last of their three Super Rugby successes and the Bulls came into this tournament in a similar position to the Stormers as they too haven’t lifted a trophy in recent years.

Like all the South African teams in the URC, these sides struggled during the initial stages of the competition with the Bulls registering their first victory in Round Three when they claimed an away win over Cardiff, while the Stormers had to wait until Round Four for their maiden triumph, against the Dragons at Rodney Parade.

Despite those victories, there were still some struggles for both sides – especially on the road – but they proved difficult to beat when playing at their home grounds. That helped them reach the play-offs where the Stormers got the better of Edinburgh and Ulster, while the Bulls beat the Sharks and Leinster in their respective quarter-final and semi-final encounters.

Both sides are blessed with a plethora of attacking threats and don’t be surprised if this encounter is decided by a moment of magic from one of them.

Last time they met

These sides met at the same venue during Round 13 of the URC as the Stormers sealed a narrow 19-17 victory. The opening half was a tight affair with the sides deadlocked at 3-3 at half-time after Manie Libbok and Chris Smith traded penalties. The match came alive after the break with Hacjivah Dayimani crossing for the opening try, shortly after the restart, but the Bulls struck back when Canan Moodie crossed the whitewash before Libbok slotted two further penalties. Inside the game’s final quarter, Damian Willemse landed a crucial drop-goal which gave his team a 19-10 lead and although Elrigh Louw went over for a converted try, five minutes before full-time, the home side held on for their win.

What they said

Stormers head coach John Dobson is preparing his troops for a closely fought battle but, despite it being a final, he said it doesn’t feels like one.

“It feels like a normal Stormers v Bulls game. The pride of that game is so much for us that the trophy is almost incidental in this case,” he explained.

“It does make us want to win it more and neither team would like to see the other raise the trophy, but it feels like a (regular) Stormers v Bulls game.

“Proper bragging rights in a South African derby. That’s how it feels.

“I think it would be different if we were playing Leinster or something like that, but there is so much on this game in terms of the history and the rivalry, which is what it feels like.”

Meanwhile, Bulls wing Madosh Tambwe tried to downplay the fact that they lost both their previous matches in the tournament against the Stormers.

“We are at a stage and time where there isn’t much more that we can do [about past results]. There is one more game left in the Vodacom URC, so we will have to try to replicate the performance we had against Leinster [in the semi-final] last weekend,” he said.

“The Stormers remain the only South African team we haven’t had a win against. We are obviously going into the game with the mindset of wanting to win. Like Coach Jake (White) says, we enter a competition to win. It doesn’t matter how we start or whatever happens, we just need to worry about the fact that at the time the ref blows the whistle at the end of the 80 minutes that we are a couple of points ahead of them.”

Players to watch

The Stormers were dealt a blow during their semi-final victory over Ulster when Leolin Zas, who is the tournament’s leading try-scorer, was forced off the field with an ankle injury and he is set to undergo surgery which means he will miss the final. One man’s loss is another man’s gain and that person is Sergeal Petersen, who will be champing at the bit as he prepares for this encounter. An experienced campaigner, Petersen was a regular for the Stormers during the early stages of the URC so he should fit in smoothly in the back three alongside Warrick Gelant and Seabelo Senatla. Petersen is solid under the high ball and a good finisher, who will be determined to repay the faith shown in him by Dobson with an excellent all-round performance.

Another player who will be crucial to the Stormers cause is fly-half Manie Libbok, who was his team’s hero in last week’s triumph over Ulster when he slotted a difficult place-kick from close to the touchline. Up until then, the 24-year-old had struggled with his goal-kicking after missing two earlier shots at goal and he can ill-afford to be off target again this week. Libbok is also superb on attack and will be keen to unleash his backline where the likes of Gelant and Damian Willemse have the ability to change the course of a match with their excellent skills. Gelant’s experience at full-back brings a calmness to the rest of his team-mates while Willemse is a genuine playmaker who dovetails nicely with Libbok. If this trio hit their straps on attack, they should wreak havoc.

Up front, players like tearaway Deon Fourie, captain Steven Kitshoff and fellow front-row Frans Malherbe will also be crucial for the Stormers as their experience will prove invaluable. Fourie has been a revelation on the side of the scrum with his high workrate at the breakdown particularly outstanding. The 35-year-old will make his 100th appearance for the Stormers on Saturday and will be keen to celebrate the occasion with a victory. Meanwhile, everything begins up front and who better to have in the forward exchanges than 2019 World Cup winners Kitshoff and Malherbe. Their scrummaging ability is amongst the best in the business and they will be expected to set up solid platform from which the more glamorous team-mates can launch attacks.

For the Bulls, experienced back-row Arno Botha will not be lacking in motivation as this will be his final outing for the Pretoria-based outfit before he joins Top 14 club Lyon next season. Botha has a solid all-round game with his attacking and defensive play usually excellent and he is also a good option at the tail of the lineout. His partnership with fellow flanker and Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee is an important one as they work well in tandem on the ground and in defence. Coetzee is also in superb form and his ability to offload in the tackle makes him a real threat with ball in hand.

Also keep an eye on hooker Johan Grobbelaar, who was unlucky not to be included in the Springbok squad for next month’s three-Test series against Wales, as he has been one of the Bulls’ better players this season. The 24-year-old was one of the Bulls’ stars in their semi-final win over Leinster in Dublin last week. He was excellent in the execution of his core duties, but also caught the eye with his breakdown work and he was rewarded with a try for his efforts.

Amongst the Bulls’ backs, there are several attacking threats with Chris Smith‘s emergence as their chief playmaker and goal-kicker amongst the highlights of their campaign. Head coach Jake White could easily have selected veteran fly-half Morne Steyn but he opted for Smith, who at the age of 27 represents the future for the Bulls. Smith has justified the faith shown in him by his coach with some solid performances, especially in the play-off victories over the Sharks and Leinster and will be determined to continue his good form in this fixture.

Meanwhile, in Canan Moodie and Cornal Hendricks the Bulls have two excitement machines who can match anything the Stormers throw at them in terms of attack. At the age of 19, Moodie might be a rookie but he plays with a maturity beyond his years and will be sure to test the Stormers defence with some barnstorming runs. Meanwhile, former Springbok wing Hendricks has played consistently well since switching to inside centre. The 34-year-old runs good angles and is also good at creating opportunities for the likes of Moodie.

Main head-to-head

Although there are numerous mouth-watering battles set to take place across the park, the duel between the number eights pits two of the tournament’s best players against each other. Both the Stormers’ Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw of the Bulls have been included in the Springbok squad and those call-ups have been richly deserved as both players have made massive contributions for their respective teams en route to the final. Roos’ outstanding form has been rewarded with four URC awards and he leads the tournament statistics for carries (245) and defenders beaten (56) and if he continues in this vein he should prove a handful to the Bulls’ defence. Meanwhile, Louw is the tournament’s fourth highest carrier (211) and a vital cog in the Bulls machine with his defence and lineout work also of a high standard. Whoever comes out on top in this duel is also likely to finish on the winning side.

Prediction

There’s been plenty of rain in Cape Town during the past week and with more predicted for Saturday, the weather could play an important role in deciding this game’s outcome. It should be a tight duel and don’t be surprised if this game goes down to the wire, with extra-time a realistic option. However, home ground advantage will be crucial and although it’s difficult to call, the Stormers will win by three points.

Previous results

2022: Stormers won 19-17 in Cape Town
2022: Stormers won 30-26 in Pretoria
2021: Bulls won 34-29 Pretoria
2019: Stormers won 24-23 in Cape Town
2019: Bulls won 40-3 in Pretoria
2019: Stormers won 33-28 in Cape Town
2018: Stormers won 29-17 in Cape Town
2018: Bulls won 33-23 in Pretoria

The teams

Stormers: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Damian Willemse, 11 Seabelo Senatla, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Evan Roos, 7 Hacjivah Dayimani, 6 Deon Fourie, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Salmaan Moerat, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 JJ Kotze, 1 Steven Kitshoff (c)
Replacements:
16 Andre-Hugo Venter, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Neethling Fouche, 19 Ernst van Rhyn, 20 Junior Pokomela, 21 Nama Xaba, 22 Godlen Masimla, 23 Sacha Mngomezulu

Bulls: 15 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Cornal Hendricks, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 10 Chris Smith, 9 Zak Burger, 8 Elrigh Louw, 7 Arno Botha, 6 Marcell Coetzee (c), 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Walt Steenkamp, 3 Mornay Smith, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Gerhard Steenekamp
Replacements:
16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Robert Hunt, 19 Janko Swanepoel, 20 WJ Steenkamp, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Morne Steyn, 23 David Kriel

Date: Saturday, June 18
Venue: DHL Stadium, Cape Town
Kick-off: 19:30 local (18:30 BST, 17:30 GMT)
Referee: Andy Brace (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
TMO: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)

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