United Rugby Championship: Crunch time for defending champions the Stormers

David Skippers
Stormers training huddle URC 2022 - PA.jpg

With the United Rugby Championship (URC) fast approaching its business end, the tournament’s final rounds of matches are set to be crucial for the defending champions, the Stormers, if they want to secure a home semi-final.

John Dobson’s charges are currently in second position in the standings, with 45 points amassed from 12 matches – 16 points adrift of unbeaten pacesetters Leinster, who have played one game more.

Chasing second place in the standings

With the Irish province on course to finish at the top of the table for the second successive season, the race is on to secure second place with the Stormers currently occupying that position courtesy of a slender two-point lead over Ulster, who have also played 12 games so far, while the Bulls are in fourth spot on 40 points, albeit after completing 13 matches.

The Stormers have six matches left to complete before the URC play-offs and they head into those fixtures in the midst of a mini slump after losing their last two encounters in the competition, at Glasgow Warriors and Ulster.

The first three of the men from the Cape’s remaining six league matches will be against arch rivals the Sharks and Bulls.

This Saturday, they head to Durban where they will face a daunting task against the Sharks, who are brimming with confidence under the guidance of their director of rugby, Neil Powell. South African derbies are renowned for being attritional affairs and the men from the Cape can prepare themselves for another tough physical confrontation against their hosts, who have won all their fixtures at their Kings Park headquarters since Powell took over the coaching duties from former head coach Sean Everitt at the end of November last year.

Following that, the Stormers head to Pretoria where another difficult task awaits against the Bulls, who will be highly motivated to beat them as they are yet to do so in clashes with the Stormers in the URC. The Loftus Versfeld-based side’s motivation stems from the fact that they lost both league matches and the final against the champions during the 2021/22 campaign as well as the corresponding fixture in Cape Town earlier this season.

After that, it’s the Sharks’ turn to come to Cape Town where they will be determined to end the Stormers’ outstanding winning record, as the champions have won 17 consecutive home matches since losing to the Lions at Cape Town Stadium on December 4, 2021.

However, things will not get easier for Dobson‘s men as they then head to Dublin where they will take on high-riding Leinster on March 24, before returning to Cape Town to finish the league phase of the competition with home games against Munster (April 15) and Benetton (April 21).

Their recent defeats at Glasgow and Ulster proved costly as they also lost the services of Springbok duo Manie Libbok (fly-half) and Evan Roos (number eight) to concussion and a knee injury respectively.

The loss to Ulster was described by Dobson as “extraordinary” as apart from Roos, Clayton Blommetjies (full-back) and Junior Pokomela (loose forward) withdrew prior to that match in Belfast. The situation worsened when JJ Kotze (hooker), Roos and Jean-Luc du Plessis were also forced off with injuries during the first half and after all those setbacks it was hardly surprising that they eventually suffered a 35-5 reversal.

Not all doom and gloom

Despite that result, it’s not all doom and gloom for South Africa’s recently crowned coach and team of the year – Dobson and the Stormers – as they received a shot in the arm ahead of Saturday’s clash against the Sharks with the news that key forwards Deon Fourie, Joseph Dweba, Hacjivah Dayimani and Neethling Fouche, as well as Libbok and star wing Seabelo Senatla are all set to return to action.

That sets the scene for what should be a tightly contested battle between two evenly matched teams and Stormers supporters will be hoping their side can end the Sharks’ brilliant winning run at home under Powell and, in doing so, also get their own campaign back on track.

READ MORE: United Rugby Championship: Seabelo Senatla’s return set to boost the Stormers