The South African United Rugby Championship sides will be keen to close the deal on their respective one-week business trips in Europe this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Bulls and Sharks are in Italy, while the Lions and Stormers have steeper challenges to overcome in Ireland. Friday night’s doubleheader sees the Bulls battle Zebre and the Lions go up against log-leading Leinster.
The coastal franchises are in action on Saturday, with the Stormers colliding with Connacht and the Sharks tackling Benetton.
Zebre v Bulls
Friday, 25 February – 19:30
Fortune smiles on the Bulls as they have the most favourable match-up in the competition. It comes at the perfect time for Jake White’s men, who after taking two steps forward with a Jukskei derby double, took a big step back with a 29-22 loss at home to the Sharks, leaving them precariously placed in lowly 12th position.
What Italy are to the Six Nations, Zebre are to the URC. Winless and hapless, it’s been a tough old time for the Parma-based side, whose scheduled clash against Cardiff last weekend was postponed due to extreme weather conditions.
The Bulls will remember the horrors and lessons learned from their last trip to Italy, when they were bashed by Benetton in the PRO14 Rainbow Cup final last June. Zebre don’t hold a candle to the men from Treviso, but that nightmare trip will ensure an already desperate Bulls outfit are completely dialled in to avoid an even bigger disaster.
The loss of the suspended Morne Steyn leaves the Bulls in a bit of a pivot predicament, with newcomer Juan Mostert set to feature in one way or another. Fortunately for them, Chris Smith’s inclusion in the touring party indicates he’s recovered from the head knock he took against the Sharks.
I’m expecting a comfortable win for the Pretoria team. The expected rain will complicate matters, though, and could deny them a four-try bonus point.
Leinster v Lions
Friday, 25 February – 21:35
Unfortunately for them, more misery is in store for the Lions. Leinster blew the Ospreys out of the water in wet conditions last weekend, leading 22-0 and ultimately claiming a 29-7 bonus-point win to leap to the top of the ladder.
The Lions are winless in 2022 and understrength with Jannie du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Andre Warner, Fred Zeilinga, Pieter Jansen van Vuren, Tshituka brothers Vincent and Emmanuel, Reinhard Nothnagel and Ruhan Straeuli all unavailable. They’ll be decimated in Dublin.
Connacht v Stormers
Saturday, 26 February -15:00
Whereas the Bulls hit the lottery with a trip to wooden spoon town, the Stormers’ visiting Galway comes at an inopportune time as the Irish club are on cloud nine following their first-ever win at Parc y Scarlets last weekend, without their three Test stars.
The historic win was more convincing than the 29-23 scoreline suggests as Connacht led 29-12 just after the hour-mark before a penalty try, yellow and subsequent red card for Leva Fifita brought the Scarlets back into the game.
Inclement weather will make things that much tougher for the Stormers, but in Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse (Warrick Gelant is injured), they have a stacked deck to dictate terms. They need them to fire, though.
The Cape side came out in 2022 with greater fight than they’d shown in some time and are unbeaten this year as a result. Refining their game and rediscovering the dog within have seen them climb to the top of the South African Shield.
Connacht are the safe bet, but being bolstered by significant forward reinforcements, headlined by Evan Roos, I’m tipping the Stormers to pull off an upset.
Benetton v Sharks
Saturday, 26 February – 17:05
The Sharks will seek to strike while the iron is hot with Benetton missing a whopping 22 frontline players. Based on that alone, you’d expect a Springbok-laden Sharks side to be too strong for the depleted Italian outfit.
Although they were kept tryless by the Warriors last weekend, they fought gallantly and were hardly outplayed in the 13-3 defeat. Being back at home will be a valuable boost but not a wonder drug; they’ll be feeling the effects of the ultra-physical war they had in Glasgow.
Conditions will be favourable for running rugby, however, the Sharks will be well-served to follow the Warriors’ direct approach, even if only initially. The smart play will be to soften up the hosts up front, i.e. to earn the right to go wide and then unleash their star-studded backline.
It’s a golden opportunity to pick up points abroad and I don’t see the Sharks letting it slip.