Battle of the Blues ignites BKT URC rivalry

Battle of the Blues ignites BKT URC rivalry

The DHL Stormers have rallied their World Cup-winning Springboks to stand tall and get the home team’s drive for a BKT United Rugby Championship play-off back on track against Leinster in Cape Town.

The BKT URC Race to the Eight continues in Round 15 with the sixth-placed DHL Stormers reeled back into the playoff gridlock after a stunning home defeat to Wales's Ospreys.

Suffering just their fourth BKT URC home loss since December 2021 has left the DHL Stormers one point ahead of the 11th-placed Emirates Lions, one of four teams tied on 39 points.

There is very little breathing space as the reigning SA Shield champions prepare to face Leinster in the latest edition of what is quickly growing into a blockbuster rivalry, and one with a unique twist.

In the immediate aftermath of the defeat to Ospreys, John Dobson admitted that the DHL Stormers are under pressure and he doesn’t expect it to get any easier against Leo Cullen’s charges.

This is the third time the teams have met, with the DHL Stormers winning the inaugural clash in Cape Town in 2022 and drawing the second in Dublin last year, though having never faced Leinster’s strongest lineup.

While Leinster will once again be without a group of heavy-hitters, DHL Stormers defence coach Norman Laker knows that the home side cannot afford to make the same mistakes that they did against Ospreys.

“Every game now is basically a play-off,” Laker said. “We need to be at 100 percent for every single game.

“We were one point away from getting into the top four so it will be disappointing if we don’t make it into the play-offs.”

Laker’s defensive system will come under the close scrutiny of his mentor, Jacques Nienaber. Nienaber is the man who constructed the Great Wall of Newlands, the DHL Stormers’ impenetrable defence, in the years Laker was coming through the ranks as a young coach.

“Jacques and I have come a long way together and I learned a lot from him,” recalled Laker.

“In 2014 we worked together with the South Africa under-20 team. He left for Munster and I took over as defence coach at the Stormers in 2016. When he came back to coach the Boks he had evolved from coaching a quite passive system into a massive rush system.

“We mixed and matched our ideas and we got to a nice system that benefitted both us at the Stormers and him at the Boks.”

The former Springbok head coach only linked up with the Irish club after the 2023 World Cup, and Laker noted the changes to Leinster’s defence and hinted at potential opportunities to exploit it.

“The Leinster defence was always passive, they never came up. They are doing that now, you can definitely see Jacques’ influence there.

“It is new to them and occasionally they have a problem with connection, and they lost to Ulster because Ulster were good at kicking behind their advancing defence.”

For Leinster, this will be another big opportunity to test the depth in their squad, but head coach Cullen understands the importance of them bouncing back from an emphatic loss against the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg.

“You will see two teams that are highly motivated. It was a really good game against the DHL Stormers at the RDS last year which was a draw. It’s a proper challenge for our guys, but they know that,” said Cullen.

“We’ve seen a hell of a lot of the DHL Stormers, because they were on our side of the Investec Champions Cup. If you look at their squad, they have a ton of Springboks, so it’s a proper test, but this is how you want to test guys. It’s a great challenge and a great stadium.”

This growing rivalry is set to stretch beyond the field of play and into the boardroom, after the successful Red Disa Consortium Investments private equity deal with the DHL Stormers.

Irish company Ardagh Glass Packaging, a heavyweight partner in the consortium, is represented on the board by former Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson.

"Leinster has a very strong and established academy system,” DHL Stormers CEO Johan le Roux said.

"However, their challenge - finding talent and keeping it - is different from ours. Our challenge is to find the gems among the overwhelming amount of talent here.

"Our Irish partner, Ardagh, is very keen to learn what has worked at Leinster and also here, and to then establish a project accordingly."

With the stakes high in a simmering rivalry, this Battle of the Blues in Cape Town is set to deliver an electrifying spectacle between two rugby powerhouses, with both having the prestige and pulling power to make this annual fixture the blue-ribbon one of the league.

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