Munster aim to retain the crown, the Stormers seek to return to the summit while the chasing pack hope third time’s the charm in the third edition of the United Rugby Championship that gets underway this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Kicking off in the shadow of the Rugby World Cup as the global showpiece reaches the semi-final stage, the hunt for cross-hemisphere club glory starts in earnest on Saturday when three of the four South African sides will be in action.
Despite tripping up in the semi-finals back-to-back, European rugby’s perennial powerhouse Leinster are the overwhelming favourites to reign supreme at 1.57 outright, followed by fellow Irish giants and reigning kings Munster at 6.00.
Inaugural champions and last season’s runners-up the Stormers are once again expected to lead the local surge at 6.50, the Sharks and Ulster carry odds of 13.00 followed by the Bulls at 17.00. The Lions are expected to struggle again this season and have odds of 151.00, the joint-third-heaviest of the 16 teams.
Zebre v Ulster
Saturday, 21 October – 14:00
Poor Zebre are once again primed to be the whipping boys of the competition and have drawn one of the strongest title challengers first up. Home comforts won’t count for much as Ulster will romp to a comfortable win.
The Warriors’ impeccable home record makes them incredibly enticing. They haven’t lost at their fortress since a 38-31 European Champions Cup defeat to La Rochelle at the start of 2022. However, Ulster were victorious on their last trip to Glasgow in 2019, leaving with a 19-13 win, and their superior depth should see them repeat the feat.
Connacht v Ospreys
Saturday, 21 October – 16:00
Connacht qualified for the quarter-finals in seventh place last season despite being hampered by inconsistency while the Ospreys were well out of the playoff picture in 13th.
The rise of Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake as co-captains of Wales at the World Cup should make them more of a threat this season but Connacht usually come out on top in this rivalry at home and that should be the case again.
Lions v Stormers
Saturday, 21 October – 16:05
After the disappointment of missing out on a second successive title on their home ground, the Stormers will seek to send a message to the rest of the field that they have their sights firmly set on reclaiming the title.
Starting the campaign without their Springbok stars aren’t ideal and losing Steven Kitshoff and Marvin Orie to overseas clubs are big blows, but they’ve built great depth over the past few years including luring back Warrick Gelant and signing the likes of Courtnall Skosan, Ben Loader and Lizo Gqoboka for this season.
The Lions have to rebuild somewhat as they’ve become used to doing with captain Jaco Kriel retiring and the likes of Jordan Hendrikse, Andre Warner and Sti Sithole moving to greener pastures. Progress was made last season as they narrowly missed out on a place in the playoffs, but defence has been their Achilles heel and it’ll be tested by the Capetonians.
The Lions won’t go down without a fight, but the Stormers are too strong and too well-rounded and have an excellent record against local opposition, so I can’t see them slipping up at Ellis Park.
Dragons v Edinburgh
Saturday, 21 October – 16:05
Edinburgh were one of the biggest flops of last season, surrendering the Scottish/Italian Shield and finishing 12th, an unacceptable run given the talent at their disposal.
The Dragons, who finished second from bottom, don’t hold a candle to them personnel and resources-wise and lost the last two games between the teams heavily as a result.
I’m expecting Edinburgh, who now have Sean Everitt in charge, to leave Rodney Parade with a similar result.
Cardiff v Benetton
Saturday, 21 October – 18:15
Evenly matched teams collide in the Welsh capital.
Neither made it to the playoffs last season with Cardiff finishing one place above the Italian outfit in 10th. That was enough for them to comfortably win the Welsh Shield and for Benetton to finish second in the Scottish/Italian Shield.
Cardiff, who have former Pumas pivot Thinus de Beer in their ranks this season, have never lost to Benetton at home and have won seven of the last 10 meetings overall, so they seem a safe bet.
Munster v Sharks
Saturday, 21 October – 18:15
For a team ushering in a new era under John Plumtree, the Sharks sure are unlucky having to start their campaign on tour against title favourites Munster and Leinster (followed by games against the Ospreys and Zebre) and sans their raft of Springboks.
As a result, Francois Venter will captain the Durbanites on their European trip. The gulf in class between their full-strength side and second-stringers was their biggest challenge last season and one a new coach, especially one of the calibre of Plumtree, should be able to remedy in terms of instilling greater confidence and honing a new identity.
Munster, meanwhile, could call on some Test stars following Ireland’s exit from the World Cup, although it’s unlikely. Regardless, they’re a strong side and will be determined to start their title defence on a winning note.
The Sharks, who’ve offset the departures of the likes of Siya Kolisi and Thomas du Toit with the acquisitions of Vincent Koch, Coenie Oosthuizen, Francois Hougaard and Aphiwe Dyantyi to name a few, will start positively and while they probably won’t get the result, they’ll give Munster a good run for their money.
Bulls v Scarlets
Sunday, 22 October – 15:00
Following a disappointing season that included 10 consecutive losses in all competitions and a quarter-final exit in the URC after contesting the first-ever final, Jake White’s on a mission to set the record straight and make a run at the title this season.
To do so, he’s overhauled his backroom staff, which will now be headlined by Gary Gold, and has made shrewd signings including luring Willie le Roux, Akker van der Merwe, Wilco Louw, Jaco van der Walt, Jannes Kirsten, Henry Immelman and Sergeal Petersen to Loftus.
The Scarlets, who finished in lowly 14th last season, are slippery customers at home but on the road, they should be no match for talented, loaded and ambitious teams like the Bulls, so expect the Pretoria outfit to get off to a flyer.
Glasgow Warriors v Leinster
Sunday, 22 October – 17:00
A cracking contest concludes the opening round. Franco Smith did a superb job in his maiden season at the helm of the Scottish club, shoring up much of the weak areas of the side he’d adopted, giving them a hard edge and some guile to guide them to the Scottish/Italian Shield and a fourth place regular season finish that no one saw coming.
A win over the title favourites would make a massive statement and isn’t out of the question by any means, but Leinster are favourites for a reason. Supremely structured and overflowing with talent, they are the most consistent league club in the world and should eke out a win.