The United Rugby Championship continues to heat up with exciting encounters across Europe this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Starting things off with a bang is a battle between the fifth and sixth-ranked sides as Edinburgh entertains Connacht in a crunch clash on Friday night. At the same time over in Ireland, Ulster will look to overtake Leinster at the summit, even if only for the night, with a convincing win over Cardiff.
Self-same Leinster kick-off Saturday’s proceedings away to Benetton, Scarlet’s cross swords with the Glasgow Warriors, and Munster meet the Dragons. Putting a bow on the weekend’s URC offering is Sunday’s showdown between the Ospreys and Zebre.
Edinburgh v Connacht
Friday, 4 March – 21:35
Fresh off a fortuitous win over the Stormers, Connacht will look to ride their luck to another victory. That the Irish club enjoyed the rub of the green is an understatement. They were handed two yellow get-out-of-jail-free cards that allowed them to fight back and eke out a 19-17, which moved them up to the sixth place.
Edinburgh is a side in free-fall. Since the start of the Six Nations, the depleted Scottish club has lost all three of their fixtures (to the Ospreys, Leinster, and Munster) to plummet from the summit all the way outside of the top five to the fifth position.
It’s a massive game for them, at home, to get back on track and stay in touch with the Glasgow Warriors, who’ve used the international window to leapfrog and establish a five-point lead over them at the top of the Scottish/Italian Shield.
The Stormers exposed Connacht’s non-existent maul defence and Edinburgh is sure to target this soft spot. This is shaping up as a clash of who wants it more, and with so much riding on it for Edinburgh, I believe they’ll dig the deepest to claim a hard-fought win on a chilly evening.
Ulster v Cardiff
Friday, 4 March – 21:35
Two caged beasts will be unleashed in Belfast. Both sides have been starved of rugby in recent times. Ulster was last in action on 20 February, while it’s been over a month since Cardiff took to the turf as their only February fixture, at home against Zebre, was postponed due to a weather warning.
Now they head into a proverbial storm to face an Ulster side on a roll. The Six Nations block has shined a spotlight on their invaluable depth, which has powered them to three comprehensive wins (27-15 over the Scarlets, 32-12 over Connacht, and 12-0 over the Dragons) on the bounce in this period.
Cardiff won’t be lacking in confidence as they managed to pull off a major upset over Leinster last time out, however, their long stretch without competitive action and Ulster’s remarkable reserves should result in yet another solid victory for the hosts.
Benetton v Leinster
Saturday, 5 March -14:55
A serious mismatch in the current state of things. Leinster will be kicking themselves for not getting the full five points out of their game against the Lions and will be locked in to maximise their trip to Treviso.
Benetton are bleeding without their Test stars. They were no match for the Sharks and things are going to be a lot tougher this weekend. Expect one-way traffic and a bonus-point triumph for the log leaders.
Scarlets v Glasgow Warriors
Saturday, 5 March – 19:15
The Warriors have purged during the Six Nations block. Like adjacent elevators going in opposite directions, Edinburgh’s downfall has coincided with Glasgow’s rise.
Despite being without 11 internationals, just two less than their local rivals, they’ve racked up three consecutive wins to move into third and, as aforementioned, the top of the Scottish/Italian Shield.
Those victories over Connacht (42-20), Munster (13-11), and Benetton (13-3) are a testament to the squad Danny Wilson has put together as well as his man-management acumen.
Ten places below their visitors in lowly 13th, it’s been a struggle for the Scarlets in the best of times. In this period, the absence of seven frontline players has compounded matters to the tune of back-to-back losses.
Even home-ground advantage carries little weight if you’re considering backing the underdogs as they went down 29-23 to Connacht last time out. A superior Warriors team across the board will condemn them to a second straight loss at home.
Munster v Dragons
Saturday, 5 March – 19:15
When it rains, it pours. For the embattled Dragons, the phrase has a double meaning. Firstly, they’ve won just a single game all season, back in October, and secondly, they were shut out 13-0 by Ulster in atrocious conditions in their backyard in their most recent outing.
There will be no rain in sight this time around. That means they’ll have to contend with a Munster team able to shift gears and push the pace as they please. Thus, expect the hosts to leave them in their dust as they race to a commanding win.
Ospreys v Zebre
Sunday, 6 March – 16:00
You have to feel for Zebre. Winless and without a prayer to turn the corner, the URC is essentially prolonged punishment for the Italian minnows. Now, having been pummelled 45-7 by the Pretoria-based Bulls, they limp into Swansea where a fresh Ospreys outfit lay in wait.
Sitting seventh and at the top of the Welsh Shield, Toby Booth’s men will be much too strong and will take full advantage to rack up points.