South Africa’s coastal franchises face two of the toughest tests the United Rugby Championship have to offer as the race to the playoffs enters the final stretch this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The fifth-placed Stormers will start the round when they welcome the third-placed Glasgow Warriors to Cape Town on Friday night, while the sixth-placed Sharks take on log-leading Leinster in Durban on Saturday evening.
The Highveld teams are also in action on Saturday with the Bulls battling Benetton in Pretoria and the Lions colliding with Connacht in Johannesburg.
The pick of the European fixtures is a blockbuster battle in Belfast where second-placed Ulster and fourth-placed Munster renew their rivalry on Friday night.
Stormers v Glasgow Warriors
Friday, 22 April – 18:30
Glasgow flew under the radar before making a move in January and February, stringing together four wins in a row to overtake Edinburgh at the top of the Scottish/Italian Shield and soar into the top four.
The key to their success is their fantastic fundamentals. They boast the best tackle success rate (92%) and scrum (97%) in the league, as well as the second-best lineout (91%). The latter is the facet they’ll target as the Stormers are still struggling in the set-piece.
The rest of the Capetonians’ game is top tier, the reason for their rise being two-fold: their key players are in top form and they’ve found their groove collectively.
They’re on a five-match winning streak and at the summit of the South African Shield and it’s that consistency that should see them fend off a Warriors side that are dangerous but have traded wins and losses in their last five URC games.
Ulster v Munster
Friday, 22 April – 20:35
When looking at their January showdown and contrasting fortunes this past weekend, second-placed Ulster have a burning desire to prove a point while Munster, in fourth, have confidence and momentum.
Ulster were knocked out of the European Champions Cup by the narrowest of margins as a last-gasp try by Antoine Dupont and crucial conversion by Thomas Ramos saw Toulouse triumph 30-29 in the Round of 16 second-leg tie at Kingspan Stadium to scrape through 50-49 on aggregate after Ulster had defeated the defending champions 26-20 in the first leg.
Munster, meanwhile, recovered from their 13-8 opening-leg loss to Exeter with a 26-10 win at home to advance to the quarterfinals (34-23 aggregate). Munster also came out favourably the last time the Irish powerhouses collided and it’s the manner in which they won that’s fuelling Ulster’s fire to hit back.
Johann van Graan’s men won 18-13 despite losing Simon Zebo to a red card in the 15th minute. For Ulster, that’s the type of loss that gets you up extra early in the morning and awakens something deep inside of you once the whistle blows.
History shows that the team with home ground advantage have won the last seven matches in this rivalry, so I’m backing a fired-up Ulster to edge a nailbiter.
Edinburgh v Zebre
Friday, 22 April – 20:45
Dominant wins in the European Challenge Cup over the past fortnight have erased the disappointment of the 15-9 loss to the Lions in Johannesburg and have Edinburgh primed to punish winless Zebre. Sixth on the log, look for them to cash in, top the 17-point win they claimed in Parma last October and cover the spread.
Bulls v Benetton
Saturday, 23 April – 14:00
This is one the Bulls have been waiting for for over a year. Jake White’s men haven’t forgotten the painful humiliation they endured at the hands of Benetton in the PRO14 Rainbow Cup last June, a 35-8 thumping in Treviso, and are lying in wait to make the Italians’ first visit to Loftus equally jarring.
The teams are on opposite trajectories. The Bulls won five straight before their controversial 19-17 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town while the 13th-placed visitors have lost their last five.
It’s, therefore, a timely opportunity for the eight-placed Bulls to strengthen their position by bagging the full five log points and you can bank on them to do just that.
Dragons v Scarlets
Saturday, 23 April – 16:00
Will lightning strike twice for the Dragons? The men from Gwent upset the playoff-pursuing Scarlets 38-27 in the only URC fixture last weekend and with home ground advantage this time around, the Dragons will be eyeing a derby double.
The win was just the second of the season and while it was indeed a much-improved performance from the 15th-placed Dragons, the ninth-placed Scarlets were their own worst enemies, conceding three yellow cards, two in quick succession.
Three of the Dragons’ five tries came in those periods and that the Scarlets still led 28-27 before leaking the decisive try with five minutes remaining have me tipping them to bounce back.
Lions v Connacht
Saturday, 23 April – 18:05
The Lions, two places and log points behind Connacht in 12th, hit a snag against the Sharks last time out, a 37-10 loss snapping a four-match winning streak that showed their potential and did the three local playoff hopefuls the world of good.
The pride of Johannesburg have a self-confessed conundrum in derby matches. Stylistically and psychologically, they struggle to compete against their countrymen, so don’t read too much into the defeat in Durban.
Mentally, they’ll be back to the predators that got the better of Cardiff, Munster, the Ospreys and Edinburgh and will welcome the contest against the weakest of the Irish clubs.
Connacht are coming off brutal back-to-back losses to Leinster in the European Champions Cup Round of 16 over the past fortnight, the physical toll of which will be felt and will amplify the Highveld factor.
That last Friday’s 50-26 thrashing highlighted several weaknesses in their game further leaves them ripe for the picking and the fresher Lions should overcome and overtake the visitors on the log.
Sharks v Leinster
Saturday, 23 April – 18:15
With seventh and eighth-placed Edinburgh and Bulls expected to pick up big wins over the Italian sides, the Durbanites face dropping two places to eighth if they come up short.
Their aforementioned 27-point triumph over the Lions at home came at the perfect time as it saw them iron out a lot of the kinks that cost them against Edinburgh and hampered them in the bittersweet wins over the Scarlets, Zebre and Dragons.
Was it enough of an improvement to conquer the leading team in the league, though? Against an understrength version, it should be. With a 10-point lead over second-placed Ulster at the top of the URC table, Leinster are prioritising the upcoming European Champions Cup playoffs and have left the bulk of their internationals at home.
The Sharks aren’t ones to look a gift horse in the mouth. It won’t be a cakewalk, especially given it’ll be an overcast night with possible rain, but the Springbok-laden hosts should be too strong for what’s essentially a Leinster ‘B’ team.
Cardiff v Ospreys
Saturday, 23 April – 18:15
Both teams have lost their last two URC games and are out of the playoff picture. The Ospreys are 11th with Cardiff three places back in 14th.
Defensive deficiencies have been at the heart of Cardiff’s troubles. They’ve conceded an average of 38 points in their last seven URC games and lost five of those.
The Ospreys are generally better on D and have the formula to defeat the men from the capital, having won the last three meetings and seven of the last 10. They’ll continue that run.