The clashes with the Scottish teams that loom in their not too distant future could play a big role in determining the chances of the two leading South African Vodacom United Rugby Championship teams securing the top eight spot they are aiming for.
South African coaches were often fond of saying during the derby phase of the URC that those games were worth double points, but there are some big games against overseas teams looming for the contenders for top eight spots that could be even more important. For winning the Shield, which is what makes the derbies so critical, is not the only way to get into the European Champions Cup.
While the Shield will guarantee qualification, a top eight spot is pretty sure to as well, and that is why the two games the Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers will host against Edinburgh and the Glasgow Warriors respectively are so important.
The Sharks host Edinburgh in Durban in their next game (26 March) after this coming Saturday’s clash with Zebre Parma. If the Sharks pick up five points from the Zebre, which you’d expect them to do, they will be just three or four points behind the loser of Saturday’s big Scottish derby in Glasgow, who will have played one more game than them.
And that game in hand will also mean the Sharks will be close enough to the winner of the Scotstoun showdown to catch them in the weeks that follow.
The Stormers, placed second in the Shield, are currently 10 points adrift of the two Scottish teams, who are fourth and fifth overall respectively, but will also move to within touching distance of the loser if they beat Cardiff at the DHL Stadium (Cape Town Stadium) on Sunday. The Cape team drew with Edinburgh when the teams met at DAM Health Stadium in October, but they do still have a home clash with the Glasgow Warriors in their future (22 April).
Of course, that is over a month from now and much can happen between now and then, but the Stormers brains trust are already looking ahead to that date as a possible big moment in their season. They might well by then be vying with Glasgow for a top eight spot, as might the Bulls, who are hosting the Warriors the week after the Cape Town clash (29 April).
Talking of the Bulls, they are a potential obstacle for the Stormers too, as the two teams meet in the second of the competition’s two north/south derbies in Cape Town on 9 April. It would be a mistake though for either of the two rival South African franchises to prioritise that ahead of their games against Glasgow, or for that matter the big clashes with Ulster, currently second on the overall log, that are far more imminent.
The Stormers host Ulster on Saturday week, the same day as the Sharks play Edinburgh, and Ulster, who should have former Stormers and Bulls stalwart Duane Vermeulen in tow, then go to Pretoria to play the Bulls.
The clashes between the two South African teams and Ulster could be seismic events both in terms of the interesting angles around those games being a first visit to the country of one of the top two in the competition and also for what it would mean to the Stormers or Bulls if they win. Not many teams knock over Ulster, or for that matter Leinster, who visit the Sharks (23 April) and Stormers (30 April) later in the competition.
There’s also a difficult away weekend for the South African teams towards the end of the league phase for them to look forward to with a bit of trepidation, with the Sharks visiting the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on 21 May to play Ulster. Given how good Ulster are at home, the Sharks will want to have secured their passage through either winning the Shield or making sure of a top eight place before they get to that point.
Some significant dates for SA teams in the battle for top eight places
26 March: Sharks v Edinburgh; Stormers v Ulster
2 April: Bulls v Ulster
9 April: Stormers v Bulls
22 April: Stormers v Glasgow Warriors
23 April: Sharks v Leinster
29 April: Bulls v Glasgow Warriors
30 April: Stormers v Leinster
21 May: Ulster v Sharks
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