The stage is set for an epic encounter as the Stormers and Bulls take their storied rivalry to a new level in the inaugural United Rugby Championship final at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday (7:30 PM kick-off), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Given how none of the four local franchises could buy a win at the start of the tournament, it’s truly remarkable that we’re days away from an-all South African final. It’s apropos, as well, that those two teams are South African rugby’s great traditional rivals.
They’ve collided in countless classics and gone head-to-head in numerous Currie Cup finals over the decades and famously met in the 2010 Super Rugby final at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, where the Bulls prevailed 25-17.
They are also the two form outfits in the league, the Capetonians having secured hosting rights courtesy of a 10-match winning streak and the men from Pretoria having won 10 of their last 11, the only loss being the controversial 19-17 defeat to John Dobson’s men on their last visit to Cape Town in April.
Referee Frank Murphy sin-binned Hacjivah Dayimani for a high tackle on Kurt-Lee Arendse but did not award Ruan Nortje a try in the same movement in the 73rd minute. Instead, it took the visitors a minute and a half to score from the ensuing lineout they’d set up to close the gap to two points but ran out of time as the hosts held on.
The first fixture in January also went down to the wire with the Stormers staging a stunning comeback to leave Loftus Versfeld with a 30-26 win. All indications are that it’ll be another closely contested clash, yet with two major differences – the pressure of a final and rain that’s set to fall.
Knockout jitters threw the Stormers out of whack in last weekend’s semi-final against Ulster and looked set to be their downfall before their dramatic triumph at the death, Warrick Gelant scoring in the final play of the game and Manie Libbok showing nerves of steel to slot the conversion to snatch a 17-15 win.
The Bulls, in turn, shocked the world with their famous 27-26 win over overwhelming favourites Leinster in Dublin. As complete a performance as they come, it was arguably the franchise’s greatest-ever victory, which covers a lot of ground for a union that boast three Super Rugby titles, a win over the British & Irish Lions (35-30 in 1997) and 25 Currie Cup titles.
That’s an unprecedented spike of momentum and belief, which will be needed given the travel factor that puts them at a disadvantage, along with having to overthrow the Stormers in their backyard. A key question that has to be considered is, has the Bulls played their final?
We saw how England sent shockwaves through the sport when they stunned the All Blacks in their World Cup semi-final showdown in Japan three years ago and were blown away by the Springboks in the decider a week later. Jake White, the mastermind of the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup triumph, will warn his troops about potential pitfalls like those but it’ll only be revealed on Saturday what they have left in the tank.
Injury-wise, they’re better off than the Stormers, whose great escape last weekend came at a price, star wing Lionel Zas, the tournament’s top try-scorer, picking up an injury that’s ruled him out of the final while Damian Willemse, such a key cog in the machine, is seemingly one big collision away from a lengthy layoff after his heroic Man of the Match performance with one good arm.
The Marcell Coetzee-led Bulls play a complete brand of rugby rather than the kick-heavy power game of the Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez-marshalled golden generation, but the rain will still favour the visitors. It should dilute the potency of the Stormers and their superior game-breakers, inhibit them from playing at the high pace they flourish at and likely lead to more lineouts, a season-long weakness of theirs and a major strength of the Bulls.
Still, the Stormers are the favourites and rightfully so given the Bulls’ taxing trip from Dublin to Cape Town. That said, the Pretoria side’s experience and stellar finals record under White make them great value underdogs.
Aside from last year’s disastrous PRO14 Rainbow Cup decider against Benetton in Treviso, which can be put down to the culture shock of having been their first overseas game in two years due to the pandemic, the current crop of Bulls have both shown big match temperament and saved their best for last.
In their first final, the 2020 Currie Cup showpiece against the Sharks, they fought back from 10 points down to tie things up at 19-all and take the game to extra time, where their superior steely resolve and execution led to Arno Botha scoring the match-winning try in the 98th minute.
They followed up that 26-19 triumph, which broke a 10-year trophy drought, with a record 44-10 win over the Durbanites in last year’s Currie Cup final, a rout that highlighted the group’s growth and coaches’ mastering of getting their players to peak at the perfect time.
Their evolution as a cohesive unit has elevated them to another level in the URC. Furthermore, the front row that started the campaign as the clear chink in their armour have callused to the point where they stood up excellently to Leinster’s all-international trio last weekend, while Chris Smith is now settled as the starting flyhalf and proved his temperament with that winning drop goal against the Sharks in the quarter-final cliffhanger.
With decorated world-beaters like Morne Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis on the bench as contingencies as well, both of whom showed how impactful they are in these roles last weekend, the Bulls have all the puzzle pieces in place to pip a historic humdinger.
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