Pressure will rise significantly for the four South African teams in the United Rugby Championship (URC) this weekend as they face opponents from the Northern Hemisphere in their penultimate round of home matches where victories will be invaluable with an eye on playoff places.
In other developments in the cross-hemisphere showpiece, the tournament organisers announced on Thursday that the Grand Final will be hosted at the home venue of the highest-ranked team where the first URC champions will be crowned.
Looking at this weekend’s action, four SA teams have only three matches remaining – including this round – to secure quarter-final places and with the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls currently hanging onto spots in the top eight on the log.
They will be determined to avoid any slip-ups, especially with their final round of league matches in May set to be played on foreign territory.
Stormers VS Glasgow Warriors
Stormers have made two changes to their starting line-up for their United Rugby Championship encounter with Glasgow Warriors at the Cape Town Stadium on Friday where the home side will be looking to make it seven consecutive home wins.
Both changes to the starting team come in the forward pack with Frans Malherbe at tighthead prop and Junior Pokomela on the flank in place of Deon Fourie who has not yet completely recovered from a minor leg injury.
Lock Salmaan Moerat and fullback Warrick Gelant will both make their return from injury from the bench with front row forwards Ali Vermaak and JJ Kotze also among the replacements.
For the visitors, Ali Price will lead Glasgow Warriors against the Stormers.
The scrum-half is part of a lineup showing five changes from last weekend’s 27-17 victory over Newcastle Falcons, with the Warriors knowing that a win over tomorrow’s hosts would secure them a place in the URC knockout stages.
Having started on the bench in Newcastle, British and Irish Lions tight-head Zander Fagerson is promoted to the starting XV to join Oli Kebble, who takes on his former team for the first time, and Johnny Matthews in the front-row.
Bulls VS Benetton
Bulls scrumhalf Embrose Papier and centre Cornal Hendricks are the only changes to the side’s starting XV that will face Benetton during their United Rugby Championship Round 16 match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Papier, who missed out on action in the previous two matches after sustaining a concussion in the match against the Dragons last month, will return to the team to continue where he left off with his good form while Zak Burger will provide No9 cover from the bench.
The experienced Hendricks will be no stranger in the midfield where he will partner up with Lionel Mapoe as Stedman Gans is roped in as a replacement on the bench.
The match will also provide an opportunity for the Bulls’ most recent signing, Dylan Smith, who has arrived in Tshwane early, to make his team and URC debut from the bench on Saturday.
The talented front rower will provide cover at tighthead prop.
Another change on the bench will include the return of hooker, Jan-Hendrik Wessels, from injury where he will provide backup for starting hooker, Johan Grobbelaar.
The Bulls expect a testing encounter against the visiting team from Italy when they meet this weekend.
Lions VS Connacht
The Emirates Lions will look to return to their winning ways after going down against the Sharks two weeks ago in what marked their first defeat in five matches when they line up against Connacht.
The Irish side have been up and down this year although they will enter this match high on confidence after holding out Benetton away from home last time out to bounce back from back-to-back defeats.
Just like the Lions, they harbor slim hopes of sneaking into the top eight on the table in the next few weeks, and with everything to gain, neither team is expected to give an inch.
Interestingly, Connacht have won their last eight matches against South African teams, which is something the hosts will have in the back of their minds.
Sharks VS Leinster
The Sharks welcomes Springbok fullback Aphelele Fassi to add some magic when the team hosts Leinster at Kings Park Stadium in what is expected to be a massive United Rugby Championship clash.
Aphelele Fassi makes a welcome return to the side after an injury lay-off that saw him miss a number of games and his speed, agility and x-factor will no doubt test the Irish visitors and tournament log leaders.
The other change to the matchday 23 is rotational with Le Roux Roets partnering Gerbrandt Grobler in the second row and Reniel Hugo moving to the bench.
With Leinster’s focus alternating between the URC and the Champions Cup, player welfare plays a big role and to this end, they have only brought six players to South Africa with them from last week’s match 23 against Connacht.
They still have numerous experienced internationals on their two-match tour and will, as their log position confirms, present an enormous challenge to a Sharks side itself riding a wave of confidence.