It’s the dawn of a new era as South Africa’s top four teams make their first forays into the Northern Hemisphere as the ground-breaking United Rugby Championship gets underway this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers enter unchartered territory as they take on the best Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales have to offer in the brand new 16-team league.
Each team will play 18 regular season games – nine at home and nine away. All the sides will face each other at least once during the league phase of the competition, which will include double rounds of local derbies before the top eight teams qualify for the playoffs.
The Lions will be the first South African team in action when they face Zebre in the tournament-opener in Parma on Friday. The Stormers also start their journey in Italy as they battle Benetton the following day. The South African spotlight shifts to Ireland later on Saturday, with the Bulls locking horns with Leinster in Dublin and the Sharks meeting Munster in Limerick.
Zebre v Lions
Friday, 24 September – 18:35
As the wooden spoonists of the recent Currie Cup, it sounds ludicrous that the Lions are South Africa’s best bet of an opening-round win, but theirs is the path of least resistance. In Zebre, the men from Johannesburg face a team who failed to win a single game in the Rainbow Cup earlier this year
They have an astute coach in Michael Bradley but lack the star power and depth of the other clubs in the competition. Late efforts to bolster their ranks saw Bradley sign Olympic sevens gold medallist Asaeli Tuivuaka, New Zealanders Liam Mitchell and Tim O’Malley and centre Erich Cronje from the Pumas, but they’re still destined to prop up the table.
While it’s curious that Ivan van Rooyen escaped the axe as head coach, he’s been given a strong all-new support cast in
Albert van den Berg (forwards coach), Ricardo Laubscher (backline and skills coach) and Jaque Fourie (defence coach). Based on the fresh ideas of these former Springboks and the exciting talent at their disposal, I’m tipping the Lions to get off to a winning start.
Cardiff v Connacht
Friday, 24 September – 20:35
Cardiff will be hoping kicking the “Blues” moniker will lead to better fortunes after going 8-8 and finishing fourth in their PRO14 conference last season. Dai Young enters his first full season as the club’s mentor and has recruited the likes of Rhys Priestland and Jarrod Evens, while they have try-scoring machine Josh Adams out wide.
Connacht finished second in the same conference last season. Despite being the smallest of the Irish regions, Andy Fiend has several Test stars in his ranks and plans to empower young players in his fourth year in charge as well. I would’ve fancied them but with Denis Buckely, Gavin Thornbury, Caolin Blade, Colm Reilly, Bundee Aki, Leva Fifita, Sam Illo and last season’s top try-scorer Alex Wootton all on the injured list, Cardiff should capitalise.
Ulster v Glasgow Warriors
Friday, 24 September – 20:35
Potent and highly professional, Ulster are joint-third with the Bulls in the outright stakes (at 8.00) and should, by all accounts, secure one of the more comfortable wins of the opening round. Having said that, it won’t be one-way traffic. The Scottish visitors are an improving outfit, going from a 6-10 record in the PRO14 to 4-1 in the Rainbow Cup.
They’re not to be taken lightly and solid playoff contenders, but they’re not legitimate title challengers (sixth outright at 25.00) like Ulster. Dan McFarland’s men should have too much firepower at home and they’ll only get better once blockbuster signing Duane Vermeulen arrives after completing his Springbok duties.
Benetton v Stormers
Saturday, 25 September – 14:00
The tussle in Treviso is set to be an example of what transpires when level-headed assurance and schizophrenia collide in a rugby sense. Captained by former Stormers scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage, Benetton were an understated yet consistent force in the Rainbow Cup earlier this year and ambushed the Bulls in the final to seal the silverware as the only unbeaten side.
The Capetonians, in contrast, have been erratic underachievers. Their stunning 35-24 win over the Sharks in the guise of Western Province to sneak into the Currie Cup semi-finals showed what they’re capable of but they’re very much a team without direction stemming from their long-standing flyhalf conundrum.
The hosts have undergone a coaching revamp with Marco Bortolami taking over from Kieran Crowley, so it’ll be interesting to see how they go about their business, but at the end of the day, they are the more clinical team and will reap the rewards that come with that.
Leinster v Bulls
Saturday, 25 September – 18:15
The genesis of probably the next great club rivalry. As good as the Bulls are and have been since Jake White took over last year, they face the most daunting challenge imaginable first up. Leinster are the kings of the North, a settled, star-studded unit headlined by Johnny Sexton who clinched a record fourth consecutive PRO14 title earlier this year.
Their 16-6 triumph over Munster in the final extended their record championship wins to eight and it’s no surprise that they’re the outright favourites to be crowned inaugural United Rugby Championship champions at 1.71. Teams hardly ever come away from Dublin with a win over Leo Cullen’s dialled in charges and the Bulls would make a massive statement if they’re able to triumph upon their visit to RDS Arena.
They would’ve taken a lot of lessons from the disastrous Rainbow Cup final against Benetton in Treviso and have only improved since then to claim a third domestic title in a row in emphatic fashion. If they can replicate the record 44-10 rout against the Sharks in the Currie Cup final, they may well spring the upset, but it’s more likely that well-rounded Leinster will systematically wear down the visitors at their fortress.
Edinburgh v Scarlets
Saturday, 25 September – 18:15
Talk about a new era. Both of these teams have new coaches, Mike Blair taking the reins at Edinburgh and Dwayne Peel stepping in as Scarlets head coach. What’s more, this will be the first-ever game at Edinburgh’s new home ground.
Recent meetings between these outfits have been incredibly close – Edinburgh eking out a 6-3 away win last November and Scarlets snatching a 27-25 win on the road in February before a late rally by Edinburgh saw things end in a 28-all stalemate at Parc y Scarlets in June – and I’m expecting another tightly contested affair.
In a clash of evenly matched sides, the historic significance of this maiden match at the new Edinburgh Rugby Stadium should give the home side the edge.
Munster v Sharks
Saturday, 25 September – 20:35
The Sharks have the second-most arduous opening assignment as they enter the lion’s den in Limerick for a meeting with star-studded Munster, who boast not only some of the biggest names in Irish rugby such as Conor Murray, Keith Earls and the returning Simon Zebo but stellar South African imports as well, including coach Johann van Graan and new signing Jason Jenkins.
Leinster have had their number in recent years, their aforementioned defeat in the PRO14 decider earlier this year being their third final loss since their last championship win in 2011, yet they remain their Irish rivals’ strongest title challengers in this new era (second outright at 4.00).
They’re an established and experienced outfit whereas the recent Currie Cup showed the Sharks are full of talent and potential but still a developing team (sixth outright at 22.00). As such and as the South African side with the most star players away on Springbok duty, the Durbanites are in for a rough night.
Dragons v Ospreys
Sunday, 26 September – 15:00
The Dragons were the weakest of the Welsh sides in last season’s PRO14 as well as in the Rainbow Cup, finishing second from bottom in their sections in both cases. Will Rowlands, Mesake Doge and Aki Seiuli are among their new signings but Dean Ryan’s side’s set to remain the poorest-performing Welsh team.
Starting at home helps, but even that won’t be enough to get them the result in my mind as Ospreys are a solid side, certainly stronger than their hosts, and have been bolstered by the return of Wales flyhalf Gareth Anscombe. My money’s thus on an away win.