Edinburgh and Ulster will look to shake up the United Rugby Championship status quo on a weekend headlined by a blockbuster Irish derby, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
All eyes will be on Edinburgh as they kick off a wet super Saturday with a golden opportunity to soar to the summit when they host Cardiff. This is followed by a highly compelling clash between two of the leading sides in the league in the Glasgow Warriors and the Ospreys.
The match of the weekend is up next as Irish powerhouses Munster and Ulster collide. Should Cardiff pull off an upset over their Scottish opponents, a bonus-point win at Thomond Park could catapult Ulster into pole position. The other fixture of Round 10 sees the Scarlets square off against the Dragons in a Welsh derby.
Edinburgh v Cardiff
Saturday, 8 January – 17:00
Cardiff has been lukewarm, as their record reflects. They’re 3-2 and down in 10th position. Back-to-back wins over the Sharks and Dragons were cooled off by heavy defeats to Toulouse and Harlequins in the European Champions Cup. Edinburgh, in the form they’re in, is much closer to the latter two of those teams than the former.
The collective from the Scottish capital has won five straight, including a 21-18 win over Saracens in the European Challenge Cup in their most recent outing. As a result, this home assignment is theirs to lose more so than it is Cardiff’s to win.
Edinburgh boasts a monster scrum and knows their way to the try line, so I expect they’ll overpower Cardiff upfront and outgun them out wide to leapfrog Leinster at the top of the log.
Glasgow Warriors v Ospreys
Saturday, 8 January – 19:15
The Ospreys had their chances to extend their lead in the Welsh Shield but their inability to capitalize on the day and a late try by a red-hot Johnny McNicholl saw them fall agonizingly short against the Scarlets last weekend. The next stop on their trip is daunting as they look to lay siege on Warriors territory.
It’s four versus five on the log, the visitors holding the higher ranking by a single log point, and the teams are as evenly matched as the table suggests. Usually, the pressure is on the home team but in this case, it’s transferred onto the Swansea side as they have a lot riding on the result.
Having played one more match than the rest of the top five, a loss would not only see them relinquish their spot to the Warriors but also drop to sixth if Munster beat Ulster in the next game. Glasgow’s success is based on them dictating how the game is played. They have the best tackle success and lineout in the league, while their offense is free-flowing.
If they stay disciplined, that combination should get them over the line. Rain could curb the speed at which the hosts like to play with the ball in hand, therefore, I’m tipping the Ospreys on the plus.
Munster v Ulster
Saturday, 8 January – 21:35
This is a massive fixture for Munster. Their 10-8 loss to Connacht last weekend was their second of the season and left them seventh, five points adrift their third-placed opponents on Saturday. Yes, it’s still early days and they do have a game in hand over four of the top five, but they cannot afford to drop this one at home.
They’re not used to being in this situation, so this is a crucial early acid test for Johann van Graan’s charges. Discipline will be the focus after they conceded two yellow cards in the fiery Galway derby, with Chris Farrell fortunate not to see red for a dangerous tackle.
Ulster’s had to sit out the last two weeks due to Covid complications, robbing them of the opportunity to build on their successive European Champions Cup wins. Momentum may be stalled, but the extra fire has been ignited and Duane Vermeulen and company will be coming out guns blazing.
Dan McFarland’s charges will be confident as well, having split the last 10 encounters in this rivalry straight down the middle. Having said that, home ground advantage has been the trump card, with the last nine games all being won by the hosts on the day.
Given the importance of the match and that Munster is unbeaten at home this season, I see them edging out the win on a cold and what’s forecast to be a wet night.
Scarlets v Dragons
Saturday, 8 January – 21:35
The Scarlets showed a lot in their thrilling 22-19 win over the Ospreys last week. After five of their fixtures were postponed across the URC and European Champions Cup due to Covid issues, they returned with renewed desire – holding up the fourth-placed visitors over the line on multiple occasions – and played with an attacking fluency that dispelled any fears of rust to outscore the Welsh Shield leaders by four tries to three.
It was the type of passion-powered performance that boosts a team like rocket fuel and it’ll take some doing on the Dragons’ part to derail them. Since almost shocking Leinster in Round Two and beating Connacht the following week, they’ve lost six straight across the URC and second-tier European Challenge Cup.
Expect the Scarlets to ride the wave and add to the embattled Dragons’ woes with a comfortable win.