All roads in the Gauteng province will lead to Johannesburg on Saturday afternoon for a blockbuster Vodacom United Rugby Championship double-header that features the Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls, who are hosting Leinster and Zebre.
To maximise the commercial opportunity of drawing Gauteng’s rugby fans to one venue for two matches, Emirates Airline Park will host the first of two unique double-headers, with the two local teams set to swap international opponents at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria next week. The action kicks off at 1pm when the Bulls charge at Zebre before the resurgent Lions face top-ranked Leinster at 4pm.
There is plenty on the line for the SA teams, both hunting a place in the top eight of the URC. The 11th-placed Lions go into the match against Leinster on the back of two successive URC wins, over Benetton and the Vodacom Bulls. This has seen The Pride close the gap on the top eight to just five points.
It will take the Lions’ best performance of the year to hand the Irish giants their first loss of the season. The Pride will be banking on their home crowd and the altitude factor to give them a handy boost in the clash, but they will know they have to be water-tight in defence and slick in attack to record what would be a noteworthy upset.
Leinster are missing a host of senior players, but showed last season that even when they rest their top dogs, they still have more than enough cohesion and fight to cause the South Africans a problem.
“We know that they thrive on quick ball, so we want to make sure that we slow them down. We want to stop them on defence, and we want to be direct first,” said Lions centre Marius Louw.
“In all aspects of the game, we want to make sure we beat them. It is simple for us, and it is nothing special. We must put ourselves in as many battles as we can and eventually, we will come out on top.”
Earlier in the day, the Bulls will play the league’s last-placed Zebre, with the Italians running out of time to record their first win of the season. While the home change-room at Emirates Airline Park will be foreign to the Pretoria outfit, they will play in the high-altitude conditions they’re accustomed to at Loftus, which is 50 kilometres away from Emirates Airline Park.
When the Bulls first faced Zebre they cruised to a six-try, 45-6 victory at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in February last year. Though Jake White’s team will be confident of producing another compelling performance against winless Zebre, there is nothing more dangerous in rugby than a team with nothing to lose.
Photo: ©INPHO/Ben Brady