The pressure on the South African Vodacom United Rugby Championship franchises will strike a new level this weekend as the competition hits the fourth-last pool round and the race for playoff spots moves up a few notches.
The DHL Stormers will host the Cell C Sharks in Cape Town and the Vodacom Bulls take on the Emirates Lions in Pretoria on Saturday in matches that could prove to be decisive as every point will count with all but one of the 16 teams in the competition still in with a mathematical chance of making it to the quarter-final stages.
The DHL Stormers, who are currently in second place on the table with 54 points, will be desperate to make the most of their home ground advantage to stay ahead of the chasing pack – especially with the third-placed Ulster trailing them by only five points – for a possible home semi-final later in the competition.
The DHL Stadium has become somewhat of a fortress for the DHL Stormers, who have won 14 straight matches at the venue in Green Point since their defeat in Cape Town against the Emirates Lions in December 2021 – their first Vodacom URC clash at the stadium.
They will, however, be bracing themselves for a fierce contest against the seventh-placed Cell C Sharks, who will be wary of the fact that a defeat could place their spot in the top eight in jeopardy in the next few weeks.
The Capetonians will draw confidence from the fact that they boast a better record on attack and defence so far this season, but they will be mindful that the Kwa-Zulu Natalians have everything to play for, especially after suffering a disappointing home defeat against Ulster last week in their postponed round six clash.
The visitors, meanwhile, will look to take advantage of the fact that they have had extra game time and will come into the encounter with some momentum, as the DHL Stormers come off a bye.
Spicing things up, the DHL Stormers have won two of their three Vodacom URC matches against the Durbanites, with the other match playing out to a draw, which will set the scene for an exciting battle.
But the Cell C Sharks’ only loss in their last four South African derbies was by 19-46 at home to the DHL Stormers, a month ago in a rearranged round one fixture.
The Vodacom Bulls and Emirates Lions will enter the Jukskei Derby under similar pressure at Loftus Versfeld, as the hosts – currently in sixth position on the log – lead the Cell C Sharks by only one point, and they know that a defeat could see them potentially fighting for a playoff spot.
The Emirates Lions, meanwhile, have everything to play for with the team currently in 12th position and trailing the eighth-placed Connacht by a mere six points. They also come off a morale-boosting win against the fourth-ranked Glasgow Warriors last weekend, which will give them confidence going into the clash.
The men from Johannesburg will also be keen to break a long losing streak on the road – they have not won away from home in the Vodacom URC since they beat Edinburgh in Scotland on 7 October. Furthermore, the Emirates Lions have not beaten a South African opponent since their 37-19 victory over the DHL Stormers in Cape Town in December 2021.
With the Pretoria outfit having won eight of their 14 games so far to only six by the Johannesburgers, and the team boasting a better record on attack and defence than their Gauteng neigbours, they will enter the match as favourites on paper, however, anything could happen with teams fighting for quarter-final spots.
While the Vodacom Bulls will be looking to secure their first victory in four outings against a domestic team in the competition, the Emirates Lions will be looking to earn their first away win in the tournament since last October, meaning neither team will hold back.
DHL Stormers v Cell C Sharks
Date: Saturday, 4 March
Venue: DHL Stadium, Cape Town
SA Time: 14h30
Referee: AJ Jacobs
Vodacom Bulls v Emirates Lions
Date: Saturday, 4 March
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
SA Time: 16h45
Referee: Jaco Peyper