The South African Vodacom United Rugby Championship franchises will hunt a rare third clean sweep in a row when they take the field against a new set of European teams in the cross-hemisphere showpiece this weekend, with an eye on climbing further up the table for playoff contention.
The four domestic teams have made the most of their home ground advantage against their international rivals in the last two weeks, winning all eight of their home matches, and with the four of the next five rounds being hosted in South Africa, they will be determined to capitalise further on this as they look to establish their positions on the top end of the log table.
The Emirates Lions will kick off the round against Ospreys in Johannesburg on Friday at 19h00, and this will be followed by a feast of action featuring seven matches – three of which will be hosted by the South African sides.
The DHL Stormers will be the first domestic team to take the field on Saturday when they host Ulster in Cape Town at 15h00, and this will be followed by clashes between the Cell C Sharks and Edinburgh in Durban at 17h05 and the Vodacom Bulls and Dragons in Pretoria at 19h15.
The Emirates Lions will have their sights set on extending their winning run at home to three matches when they welcome Ospreys. A victory for the hosts would mark their fifth victory of the season following a disappointing start to the competition, which is sure to inspire them going into the match.
Emirates Lions No 8 Emmanuel Tshituka will start with his brother, Vincent, in his normal spot on the side of the scrum, while Francke Horn completes the new-look backrow combination in the No 6 shirt. Amongst the back, Rabz Maxwane comes in for the injured Stean Pienaar on the wing, while scrumhalf Andre Warner returns to the side on the replacements’ bench.
“A two-game winning streak doesn’t really mean our season is back on track,” cautioned Emirates Lions scrum coach Julian Redelinghuys.
“What we are trying to do at the moment is to stay positive and maintain our processes. Key for us is continuing the hard work and paying special attention to our preparations, ensuring we put ourselves in positions to put up good performances come game day.”
The seventh-placed DHL Stormers will also look to maintain their presence at the top end of the standings when they meet Ulster at the DHL Stadium, and the fact that they have not won four home games in succession since 2018 will fuel their determination to win even more.
But they will be wary of the visitors, who are currently in second place on the log with 10 victories in 13 games and fresh off a four-match winning streak.
The Capetonians, however, will draw confidence from the fact that they scored 95 points in their last two matches against Cardiff and Zebre Parma, but they will be cognisant of the fact that it will take nothing less than a fine performance all around against the Irishmen to come away with their seventh win of the season.
“Ulster are a very big, physical, hard-carrying team,” said DHL Stormers head coach John Dobson.
“We need to be more accurate at set-piece than we were against Cardiff. We also weren’t that great under the high ball, so those areas we were loose in we need to sharpen up. Defensively Ulster are a really superb team, you don’t get to the top of the standings without a lot of merit.”
The sixth-placed Cell C Sharks will have their sights set on passing Edinburgh on the table when the teams cross paths at Hollywoodbets Kings Park, where the hosts will be hunting their fifth win in a row in the competition.
But they will be wary of the fact that Edinburgh are undefeated in their last three fixtures against South African opponents. The KwaZulu-Natalians will also look to take advantage of the expected hot and humid Durban conditions after a scrappy patch in which the Scottish side won only two of their five matches so far in 2022.
Cell C Sharks head coach Sean Everitt made two changes to his starting team, with Springbok prop Ox Nche making a welcome return, which sees Ntuthuko Mchunu revert to the bench, while Anthony Volmink (fullback) comes in for Aphelele Fassi, who left the field against Zebre Parma with an ankle injury.
Everitt opted for a six-two split on the bench due to the set-piece and forward dominated approach adopted by the European teams, with Carling Currie Cup captain James Venter bolstering the stocks.
“We have gained confidence over the four wins,” said Everitt. “I thought our performance was better last week although we didn’t finish the opportunities we created. It is also good for us that we were able to have consistency in selection in the last four weeks and that helps us in building cohesion, so the guys are amped for the game.
“There is obviously a lot at stake as far as log points are concerned. Edinburgh are just a little ahead of us and if we can keep on marching, who knows what will happen at the end of the round-robin stages.”
The Vodacom Bulls will also look to maintain their winning momentum as they hope to bag their third win a row when they meet the Dragons at Loftus Versfeld, and with the Welsh side having won only one of their 10 matches in the competition to date, the hosts will be hoping for a full house of points.
The Northern Gautengers will certainly enter the match as the favourites given the Dragons’ disappointing form this year, in which they drew one match and suffered two defeats in a row before making the trip to South Africa, but the visitors will have extra motivation to sway their season as they have yet to register a win in South Africa.
“We have a lot of respect for the overseas sides, it must be said,” said Vodacom Bulls forwards coach Russell Winter.
“I know their coach Dean Ryan, who was at Newcastle, where I also played. He is a tough man and I assume he is a tough coach as well. So, that pack will be a hardened pack, and they will definitely come at us, there is no doubt in my mind. We are expecting a tough game on Saturday.”
Emirates Lions v Ospreys
Date: Friday, 25 March
Venue: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
SA Time: 19h00
Referee: Ben Blain
DHL Stormers v Ulster
Date: Saturday, 26 March
Venue: DHL Stadium, Cape Town
SA Time: 15h00
Referee: Gianlucu Gnecchi
Cell C Sharks v Edinburgh
Date: Saturday, 26 March
Venue: Hollywoodbets Kings Park, Durban
SA Time: 17h05
Referee: Andrea Piardi
Vodacom Bulls v Dragons
Date: Saturday, 26 March
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
SA Time: 19h15
Referee: Frank Murphy