The DHL Stormers have recently dominated the North-South derby, but this week presents a good opportunity for the Vodacom Bulls. We look at how the Stormers and Bulls got to the quarterfinals of the URC and what they must do to progress to the semifinals.
The Stormers season so far
The Stormers finished as winners of the South African conference after beating Benetton in the final round. This season saw them dish up some delicious attacking rugby, especially at home. But there were also some bland patches, particularly on the road. The draw to Ospreys and the loss to Cardiff on consecutive weekends come to mind.
Their struggles away from home could be attributed to greater squad rotation due to their participation in the Heineken Cup, and the unique travel demands that came with it. But there is also a tendency to let teams back into the game when playing at home.
The Stormers threatened to put big scores on the Sharks and the Harlequins, but both opponents ended up within 7 points. Although the Harlequins game was a Heineken Cup game, and the result was never in question, it was largely the same group of players that will feature on Saturday.
Their form stuttered a bit towards the end of the season as Munster broke their 19-game unbeaten streak at home. With that loss the Stormers also relinquished their hold on second spot, setting up their quarterfinal with the sixth-placed Bulls.
How they win this weekend’s game
The Stormers are unbeaten in six games against the Bulls. The Bulls coach, Jake White, mentioned earlier this week that history counts for nothing in knockout rugby. While his comment has merit, ask the Irish team if they feel the same way about the quarterfinal stage of the World Cup.
If the Stormers can start strongly you may suspect that the Bulls players might struggle to buy into their coach’s thinking.
Get clean lineout ball
Steven Kitshoff, Joseph Dweba, and Frans Malherbe are a formidable force at scrum time so you would expect the Stormers to get quality ball from that setpiece. However, the Stormers lineout hasn’t been functioning at the same level. For all his other qualities, Dweba still struggles with his lineout throwing.
The driving maul will play a crucial part in this game so they will have to rectify these issues in a game where points-scoring opportunities may be few and far between.
Play with freedom
Knockout rugby is a high-pressure situation and pressure can do funny things to a player. Last season the Stormers dealt with these high-pressure situations brilliantly.
But this Stormers side play their best when they are playing with freedom. Manie Libbok, Hacjivah Dayimani, and Damien Willemse are good examples to younger players of how to play without fear and have repeatedly shown that they can strike from anywhere.
If the forwards can boss the gainline, those three players will have the platform to express themselves and use their running and offloading games to devastating effect.
The Stormers haven’t been as dominant this year as they would have liked. As previously mentioned, they have blown hot and cold throughout games allowing teams to put them under pressure.
The Bulls love to disrupt their opposition and can be ruthless when given a chance. Coach John Dobson will be aware that a full 80-minute performance will be necessary to dispatch a Bulls team that has started to find some rhythm.
The Bulls season so far
It’s been an inconsistent season for Jake White and this young Bulls team. Jake’s consistent tinkering with the lineup and the added demands of another competition highlighted the deficiency in squad depth.
Jake White chose to travel without a lot of his first-team regulars as he looked to keep his players fresh for a season with lots of games and lots of travelling. To be fair to the Bulls, this lack of depth is an accusation that can be levelled at all four of the South African franchises. However, this young team struggled for fluidity, and settled combinations were difficult to identify.
All things considered, they will feel that they are starting to find some rhythm at the right time. Their victory in the final round against a young Leinster outfit showed that they can turn it on and will provide them with some much-needed momentum heading into the knockout rounds.
The Bulls are also the country’s knockout specialists (just ask Leinster). Their style of rugby is perfectly suited to the unique pressure of knockout rounds and in Jake White, they have a shrewd operator that has experience in some of rugby’s most high-pressure games.
How they win this weekend’s game
Beat the rush defence
Much was made of the Stormers’ rush defence in the build-up to the game against Glasgow Warriors. Glasgow won that game and in doing so offered other teams a template of how to beat the Stormers’ ferocious line speed. They had flat and deep runners occupying defenders and their distribution was accurate. The Bulls would have felt more confident with Johan Goosen’s ball-playing ability, but Chris Smith is a more than capable replacement.
If the Bulls can release Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie out wide then the Bulls could have some luck.
Win the aerial battle
Both teams like to use their contestable kicks to put the opposition under pressure and create attacking opportunities from broken play. The Bulls wingers are both internationals and boast impressive aerial ability so this may be the one area where they boast a clear advantage over their hosts.
If the Bulls kickers can kick accurately then this should be a great platform for the Bulls to win territory and attack an unstructured defence with their dangerous strike runners.
Use their maul
The Bulls have always been good proponents of the driving maul. Johan Grobbelaar and Bismarck du Plessis are accurate at lineout time and dynamic off the back of the maul.
If the Bulls enter into the Stormers 22m area expect them to maul and put the Stormers defenders under pressure. If the Stormers don’t defend this area of the game particularly well then they could find themselves a defender short after repeated infringements.
Much has been made of the Bulls’ record against the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship. Jake White will hope his comments earlier in the week will help his troops focus on what’s ahead of them and not what has happened in the past.
However, winning and losing are habits. This weekend’s loss to a young Western province side might have knocked their confidence before the big showdown.
Luckily, habits can be broken and the Bulls will be hoping that they can put some doubt in their opponents’ minds by winning the big moments that knockout games present you.
Stormers by 2 points
Kickoff: 15:00 (SA Time)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Main Photo Credit: Stormers website