Champions Cup Preview Round 2: It’s Not Just DHL Stormers Who Are Under Pressure

 

It’s not just the DHL Stormers who are under pressure as they go out this weekend to get themselves on track in their quest for a Champions Cup Round of 16 spot.

The Cape Town side is in what is arguably the Champions Cup’s equivalent of the so-called 'pool of death' that the Springboks found themselves in at the recent Rugby World Cup, with both the champions La Rochelle and the beaten finalists from last season and current United Rugby Championship leaders, Leinster, with them in Pool 4.

The top four out of six go through to the Round of 16, and the fifth-placed team will then drop into the Challenge Cup, so it isn’t quite as cut-throat as the situation that South Africa, Ireland, and Scotland found themselves in France, but some good teams lost in round one, including La Rochelle, who come to Cape Town to face the inaugural URC champions in arguably the plum fixture among several quality games lined up for the weekend.

Leinster’s win over La Rochelle at the Stade Marcel Deflandre was the first defeat for the reigning champions in the competition in 16 matches and also their first defeat at home in a couple of years.

So Stormers flanker Deon Fourie was being the master of understatement when he said during the week that they’d be smarting and in a determined mood as they head to the DHL Stadium for what will be the first conventional 15-man rugby match to be played on the new hybrid surface.

It was tested for the first time from a rugby viewpoint, and successfully so, in last week’s Cape Town Sevens.

The Stormers felt they made a statement about both their own depth and the strength of South African rugby when their depleted side was only just beaten at Welford Road by Leicester Tigers last weekend.

But the fact of the matter is they didn’t return home with any log points, which means the pressure on them to win on Saturday is intense, as it is on La Rochelle.

It wasn’t a great weekend for the URC teams in the Champions Cup last weekend, but Glasgow Warriors coach Franco Smith says he reckons it was an anomaly, with the English Premiership clubs starting unexpectedly well due to the squad strengthening that came about when that competition was reduced in numbers when three clubs went bust in the past year and a bit.

A first-round defeat has though heaped pressure on Smith’s men as they go to Bayonne for one of two Friday night games.

The Bulls were the other URC team to come out on the right side of the result last week, with their emphatic win over Saracens being perceived as a major statement, but if the Bulls want to be in contention for the Champions Cup trophy they know they will need to perform well away from Loftus.

So their trip to Lyon this weekend, which precedes a crucial URC derby against the Stormers in Cape Town next week, is seen as the start of a period that will be a litmus test for the Pretoria team’s pretensions to be champions in either competition.

The Bulls got right last week what some of the other URC teams didn’t, which means they used their home-ground advantage.

It is difficult to pick up points on the road, even though last week saw five away wins in the 12 with another game, the one involving URC champions Munster at home, being drawn.

Munster will be hoping to make up for those dropped points by getting something from their trip to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park on Sunday, while their fellow Irish team Connacht will need to make up for a big home defeat when they go to England on Sunday to play a Saracens team that will be looking to recover from their loss at Loftus.