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Rugby | SA teams await fate in first playoff round

The tough task of beating their respective opponents in the two local Investec Champions Cup is not the complete part of what will make this an interesting and perhaps also anxious weekend for Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White and his DHL Stormers counterpart John Dobson.

With the Vodacom Bulls unlucky not to beat Lyon in France in their pool clash in December, they should start as clear favourites to beat the French team at Loftus Versfeld and advance to the quarter-finals for the first time. However, there is plenty of jeopardy for the DHL Stormers as they face the reigning two time champions, Stade Rochelais, at the DHL Stadium.

It is what comes next for both teams that is intriguing and could spark some anxiety. If the Vodacom Bulls win, they will be playing the winner of the game between Northampton Saints and Munster at Franklin Gardens. But that game is only set to be played on Sunday, which means that if White's team do win, they have to wait until then to find out if they will be travelling for their quarter-final.

If Northampton win, then the Vodacom Bulls will be heading to England. If Munster win, then the Pretoria team's players will be spending the week at their homes as they will be hosting the Vodacom United Rugby Championship title holders at Loftus. And with Munster due to play a Vodacom URC game at Loftus the following week, that will mean the two sides clash in the same place twice in the space of a week.

It’s almost the same but not quite for the DHL Stormers. If they upset Stade Rochelais, there is a strong likelihood they will be heading to Dublin to play Leinster in the quarter-final round. Leicester Tigers, who are in Dublin to play Leinster in the late game on Sunday night, will come to Cape Town if they win.

The DHL Stormers are set to play Leinster in Cape Town two weeks after the quarter-finals, so if they do get to clash at the RDS Arena it will be the first of two games between the two teams, but in opposite hemispheres, in the space of a fortnight.

Played as the later of the two South African games, the Cape Town Round of 16 clash between the DHL Stormers and Stade Rochelais would challenge for being the plum game fo the weekend, particularly if what happened at the same venue in mid-December can be re-enacted. The Capetonians produced a Houdini act in getting up to win with a last gasp conversion from the touchline from clutch kick specialist Manie Libbok.

But there’s plenty of jeopardy everywhere, with Stade Rochelais and the DHL Stormers not the only good teams facing a potential early exit from the competition. It starts with an appetising showdown between two attack orientated teams, Harlequins and Glasgow Warriors, at The Stoop on Friday night.

Who would you choose as the winner? Glasgow are the away team but under the coaching of Franco Smith they are soaring in the Vodacom URC and are currently placed second behind Leinster on the log and look the only team capable of preventing Leinster from ending top for the third consecutive year.

Harold Vorster in action for the Vodacom Bulls against Lyon earlier in the season.

Harold Vorster in action for the Vodacom Bulls against Lyon earlier in the season.

Harlequins haven’t been as good as they were a few years back and were soundly thumped by Saracens in a game played in front of a massive crowd of more than 60,000 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London a few weeks ago. But they have game breakers aplenty, headed by England’s mercurial pivot Marcus Smith and with the Springbok centre Andre Esterhuizen, destined to return to the Hollywoodbets Sharks next season, alongside him.

There are two derbies set for this first knock-out round, with English clubs Exeter Chiefs and Bath squaring up at Sandy Park on Saturday, while Racing 92, the club that Bok captain Siya Kolisi now plays for, travel to face the formidable Toulouse on Sunday. Toulouse have experienced some relatively lean years in a competition they have dominated in the past and will be eager to get it right this year after playing third fiddle for the past two years to fellow French team Stade Rochelais and Leinster.

Talking of Leinster, they must be going through what the Bill Murray character did in the movie Groundhog Day, when he woke up every morning to discover that he was reliving the day before. The Irish outfit have played Leicester Tigers several times at this stage of the season or similar in recent years, and also played against the Tigers in the pool phase. They’ve won every time they’ve met in the last few years, and usually quite comfortably, but being such strong favourites can sometimes backfire. Remember what happened to Leinster in last year’s Vodacom URC semi-final against Munster.

Returning to the subject of jeopardy, the Bordeaux Begles clash with Saracens should attract a lot of interest from both sides of the English channel, with Saracens considered the most likely English team to succeed after their big win over Harlequins even though they have trailed Northampton Saints for much of the season in the Gallagher Premiership.

There’s much focus in South Africa on the EPCR Challenge Cup games, with all three local teams that started the secondary competition getting to play in this year’s round of 16. The Hollywoodbets Sharks are sweating over the fitness of Eben Etzebeth but they shouldn’t need him to beat Zebre in their game on Sunday afternoon. There is far more jeopardy for the Emirates Lions, who are in Treviso to play Benetton, while the Toyota Cheetahs are going to be hard pressed to keep their campaign alive as they go to Clermont, a notoriously difficult venue for visiting teams.

Rugby, 2024, Investec Champions Cup

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