It’s a massive weekend in the United Rugby Championship as local teams finally front European opposition on South African soil, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
It’s take two after the initial incoming tours were spoiled by Covid in December, leading to rearranged Round Six and Seven matches over the next fortnight that promise to be worth the wait.
The first of the historic clashes will see the Sharks square off against the Scarlets in Durban on Friday night. There are two mouth-watering matches on Saturday, Munster touching down at Loftus Versfeld to battle the Bulls and a top-of-the-table showdown between Ulster and Leinster in Belfast.
In two rare Sunday games, the Lions collide with Cardiff at Ellis Park and the Stormers face Zebre in their first-ever home game in Stellenbosch.
Sharks v Scarlets
Friday, 11 March – 19:10
The Sharks face a tricky task in the Scarlets. While the West Walians are four places below the Durbanites in 12th, they showed their unpredictability again when they put the much-vaunted Warriors to the sword last weekend.
The 35-10 triumph, their fourth of the season, snapped fourth-placed Glasgow’s five-match winning streak in all competitions and arrested a run of four consecutive losses in all competitions for the Scots.
It was a stern warning for the Springbok-laden Sharks. However, I’m expecting them to struggle to replicate the fast-paced fluency that sunk the Warriors in the Durban humidity (85%).
Despite boasting a star-studded backline, the Sharks operate on a slow, deliberate pace, which is exactly what’s required against opposition who thrive on high-octane offence.
The conditions and superior class of the Sharks should see them score a historic win to consolidate their place at the top of the South African Shield.
Bulls v Munster
Saturday, 12 March – 16:05
The historic meeting of South African and Irish powerhouses in Pretoria will be campaign-defining for the Bulls. The men from Pretoria, who’ve dominated the domestic scene in the Covid era, have underwhelmed in the URC and sit 10th with four wins and six losses.
Munster, meanwhile, are third with eight wins from their 11 fixtures. This, however, is one of those rare cases where recent history is inconsequential. This is a blockbuster the Bulls have targeted from the day the draw was announced and transcends the two teams who’ll lock horns at Loftus Versfeld.
The bigger picture is the strength of the South African franchises and what they bring to the table. Local teams, and the league as a whole, need the Bulls to secure a statement win. A loss against an understrength Munster side, especially a heavy one, would be a big blow to the still-developing identity of the URC.
Given the added significance, the Bulls’ focus is fully on the 80 minutes on Saturday. They’ll pay no mind to what came before or what is to follow and when Jake White’s charges are in that frame of mind, they’re tough to beat.
The return from suspension of Morne Steyn is a game-changing boost for the Bulls. One of several Springboks in the team, the veteran pilots the Pretoria outfit unlike any other.
Munster’s impressive depth was on display last weekend, their 64-3 drubbing of the Dragons being the biggest rout of the season so far. The 33-man touring party includes 12 internationals, one of which is Springbok midfielder Damian de Allende. Another returning South African is Chris Cloete, who’s set to play a big part at the breakdown.
Having said that, they’re missing nine stars on national duty as well as two injured internationals in Keith Earls and Springbok lock RG Snyman. Add the Highveld factor and the chips are in the favour of the Bulls, who should cash in with their power and pace.
Ulster v Leinster
Saturday, 12 March – 21:35
The pace-setting Irish giants collide in a can’t-miss demolition derby with pole position on the line. With both sides being on fire, Ulster on a six-match winning streak and log-leading Leinster having won four on the trot, something has to give.
Leo Cullen’s charges hold a four-point advantage over their second-placed hosts, but it’s Ulster who have the psychological advantage, having beaten Leinster 20-10 in their backyard earlier in the season.
Leinster will be looking to return the favour and will fancy their chances, having emerged victorious on their last two trips to Belfast (28-10 in 2020 and 38-19 last year).
The line-ups are set to look much different to those of the last meeting in late November, yet, both have ample depth and remain evenly matched despite their missing internationals.
In a titanic battle that could go either way, I see the championship pedigree of Leinster nudging them over the line.
Lions v Cardiff
Sunday, 13 March – 16:00
With Cardiff – who are sans nine Test stars – being crushed 45-12 by Ulster last weekend, this is the sort of game the Lions should win, but will they?
One place above the Lions in 13th, the men from the Welsh capital hadn’t played a match in over a month before the blowout, so they’ll be better for the 80 minutes they got under the belt, despite the torrid result.
The Lions, in their last outing against Leinster, finally found a key ingredient that had been missing since the turn of the calendar. All signs had pointed to a hiding in Dublin, but the pride of Johannesburg rediscovered their desire to contain the scoreline to a commendable 21-13 against the log leaders.
Yes, it was a sixth straight loss, but there was victory in defeat for a change. A Lion with fire in his belly is a different animal, which along with the ally they have in altitude, have me leaning towards the home team.
Stormers v Zebre Parma
Sunday, 13 March – 18:05
Hard done by in Galway, where controversial yellow cards condemned them to a 19-17 defeat to Connacht, the Stormers will be spoiling to bounce back emphatically in their first-ever home game in Stellenbosch, due to a scheduling clash with the Cape Town Cycle Tour.
Zebre Parma produced one of their best performances of the season last weekend, pushing the Ospreys harder than anyone expected. The end result was still another loss (27-22) to remain winless, but like with the Lions, there were positives to take from it. More than picking up just their second log point, the improved performance would’ve given them a timely confidence boost.
The Stormers, however, are far too strong for the wooden spoonists, who are missing six internationals. Set to be played on a heavy pitch at Danie Craven Stadium, with rain showers expected in the morning, the Stormers will likely follow the Bulls’ blueprint to bag a bonus-point win.