United Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from the South African derbies including Manie Libbok turning on the style

Five takeaways from the South African derbies involving the Sharks, Lions, Stormers and Bulls in the United Rugby Championship on Friday.

United Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from the South African derbies including Manie Libbok turning on the style

Following victories for the Sharks and Stormers over the Lions and Bulls in their South African United Rugby Championship derbies, here's our five takeaways from the matches in Durban and Cape Town.

Former Springboks Sevens head coach Powell began his stint as the Sharks' director of rugby at the start of the season and while his initial role did not involve coaching the Durban-based franchise's senior side, he was thrown into the deep when Sean Everitt resigned from his position after an underwhelming start to their URC campaign.

Powell has done well since taking over the coaching reins as the team have won all four of their matches with him in charge – against the Ospreys, Harlequins, Bordeaux-Begles and the Lions. Although those are all impressive results, the victory against the Lions was perhaps the best. It was achieved without the services of several of his first choice players in his starting line-up, with the likes of Springbok stalwarts Eben Etzebeth and Bongi Mbonambi not involved at all in Friday's encounter at Kings Park, while fellow Boks Siya Kolisi and Jaden Hendrikse were among the replacements.

The latter two came on in the second half but, despite their introduction, the Sharks were dominating with several of their fringe players producing strong performances. That showed that the competition for places at the Sharks is intense and Powell is building plenty of depth in their ranks.

Ivan van Rooyen's troops came into their clash with the Sharks in Durban in a confident mood after being unbeaten in their four previous matches following victories against the Dragons and Scarlets in the URC, and a draw against the Newport-based side and a victory over Stade Francais in the Challenge Cup. All those fixtures were played at their Ellis Park base in Johannesburg and they managed to score 30 points or more in all of the aforementioned encounters.

It was a different story altogether against the Sharks in Durban, however, as they struggled to get going on attack with their only try, which was scored by Edwill van der Merwe, coming after a Sharks clearance kick was charged down by the Lions flyer.

What will be concerning for Van Rooyen and his coaching staff is that his team played against an understrength Sharks side and the result adds to their woeful record against fellow South African teams. After overcoming the Stormers in Cape Town at the end of last year, the Lions have not beaten a fellow South African since. They succumbed to the Sharks and Bulls during the 2021/22 campaign and the men from Pretoria, the Stormers and Sharks have also defeated them during this season.

The Stormers fly-half showed why he made his international debut for the Springboks earlier this year as he delivered another outstanding all-round performance in the Stormers' 37-27 triumph over the Bulls. The 25-year-old's playmaking skills were outstanding throughout and he combined his attacking flair with strategic intelligence, while he also kept the scoreboard ticking over with accurate goal-kicking.

There was plenty of talk in the build-up to the match about Libbok's direct duel with Johan Goosen and although the Bulls pivot had some good moments, he was overshadowed by his counterpart, who was at the heart of everything that was good about the Stormers' attacking play. The Stormers sealed their win early in the second half with three well-taken tries from Joseph Dweba, Suleiman Hartzenberg and Leolin Zas and Libbok was prominent in the build-up to the two latter tries.

Firstly, he did brilliantly with a superb carry which tore the Bulls' defence to shreds before drawing in two defenders and offloading Damian Willemse, who got a pass out to Angelo Davids and he did well to put Hartzenberg in the clear. Shortly afterwards, Libbok caught the Bulls' defence napping again with another scything run and he was soon inside their 22 where he threw a perfectly weighted long pass to Zas, who stepped past several defenders on his way over the tryline. Libbok's role in both tries should not be underestimated and Stormers fans will be hoping he continues his excellent form for the rest of the season.

Although the Bulls came off second best in most departments against the Stormers, their director of rugby Jake White will be happy with the performance of his forwards as they gave a good account of themselves against their counterparts. The home side had plenty of experience up front with the likes of captain Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Dweba, Marvin Orie and Deon Fourie, who all featured at Test level for South Africa in 2022, in their starting pack.

One facet of play which the home side, surprisingly, struggled in was at the scrum where Kitshoff, Dweba and Malherbe were caught on the back foot on a few occasions and the Bulls were actually awarded some penalties.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what the problem was as Malherbe and Kitshoff rarely get dominated at scrum time, but it should not be forgotten that with strong scrummaging locks like Salmaan Moerat and Adre Smith currently out injured, their impact at the set-piece was missed against the Bulls. One thing is for certain, it's definitely an area which Stormers forwards coach Rito Hlungwani will be working on during training sessions in the build-up to their next game against the Lions next weekend.

Much has been said about White's decision to rest most of his first choice players for their Champions Cup matches against Lyon and Exeter Chiefs earlier this month. Although the Bulls managed to secure a win in their first outing at Loftus Versfeld against the Top 14 club, his charges came up short in their next match against the Chiefs and suffered a crushing defeat against the Premiership outfit.

Despite that reversal, White said he was being realistic as he does not feel that the South African teams have the firepower to compete with the likes of Toulouse, Leinster and La Rochelle in the Champions Cup. The message was clear that he was targeting a win over the Stormers in Cape Town but things did not going according to plan and they eventually lost the clash against their arch rivals.

White has also said that the impact of his decision not to play his first choice players in those Champions Cup matches can only be measured at the end of the season and that might be true but, after putting all his eggs into one basket for Friday's clash, he must be hurting. The fact of the matter is that the Bulls are yet to beat John Dobson's troops in the URC as they have lost all four of their games in this fixture since last season.

READ MORE: Stormers defeat Bulls in final replay, while the Sharks rampage past the Lions

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