The first two rounds have been steep learning curves for the local teams and things won’t get any easier this weekend. The Sharks are up first when they face their first Welsh opponents in the Ospreys at Liberty Stadium on Friday.
The rest of the South African teams will be in action on Saturday, starting with the Lions, who get their first taste of Scottish rugby in Glasgow, where the Warriors are planning an ambush. The Stormers are in Scotland as well for an encounter with Edinburgh, while the Bulls have made their way to Wales, where they’ll collide with Cardiff.
Ospreys v Sharks
Friday, 8 October – 20:35
The Sharks roll into Wales determined to shake their woes but face another stern test in the Ospreys. The Durbanites have been disappointing to date, looking a far less confident side to the one that reached the Currie Cup final. The laterally against Glasgow at the weekend is positive they’ll look to build on, but if they are to break their duck, they’ll have to rediscover their discipline and direction.
Having had precious little game time in the Currie Cup, it’s asking a lot of Boeta Chamberlain to take over the No.10 jersey and steer the ship with conviction in unchartered waters. He grew into the game but was also the man who conceded the yellow card as the Sharks gifted Glasgow a 21-point head start.
Their growing pains look set to continue against the Ospreys, who’ve fed off mistakes to get off to a perfect start, downing the Dragons (27-23) away and defeating Cardiff (18-14) at home last Saturday. The latter, in particular, showed what the Sharks can expect as Gareth Anscombe scored all of his team’s points.
The Welsh flyhalf has been deadly with the boot and is primed to punish the KwaZulu-Natalians’ indiscretions.
Ulster v Benetton
Friday, 8 October – 20:35
After the glorious scenes in Treviso last weekend, Benetton should brace to have their bubble burst as they leave the comforts of home for the first time this season for an ultra-tough battle against Ulster. Leonardo Marin’s magnificent match-winning drop goal to sink Edinburgh made it two wins from two for the Rainbow Cup champions and would’ve bolstered their belief that they can spring a big upset (5.00).
Ulster is unbeaten as well and made the trip back from Italy where they annihilated Zebre 36-3. Benetton will put up a much better fight than their countrymen did, but they’ve never beaten Ulster, and breaking their duck at Kingspan is highly unlikely. Instead, the hosts should seal a comfortable win.
Leinster v Zebre
Saturday, 9 October – 14:00
Things are set to go from bad to worse for luckless Zebre. After losing to the Lions, the Italian minnows drew Ulster in Round Two and were predictably pummelled. Now they’re up against the tournament favorites, who’ll be in a menacing mood after nearly being upset by the Dragons last Sunday. It’s bound to be a bloodbath.
Glasgow Warriors v Lions
Saturday, 9 October – 16:05
The Warriors’ 35-24 triumph over the Sharks was a statement win, which showed in part that their performance in the opening round – when they pushed Ulster close (35-29) – was a sign of things to come rather than a flash in the pan. The same can’t be said of the Lions after they crashed back down to earth in Llanelli following their win in Parma.
The Warriors look like a well-oiled machine, one fuelled by playoff ambitions, whereas the Lions are still trying to find themselves in the new structures their all-former Springbok trio of assistant coaches are putting in place. Leaking four tries in the 36-13 loss to Scarlets is a concern, however, their misfiring set pieces are particularly problematic.
Glasgow dominated the lineout battle against the Sharks, snatching several steals, and with the Lions struggling in this department, I’m expecting the Scots to target this set-piece to launch attacks from and stifle the pride of Johannesburg at the source. Using set pieces as their foundation, the hosts should power to victory.
Edinburgh v Stormers
Saturday, 9 October – 18:15
Benetton stunning Edinburgh at the death was the worst possible result for the Stormers as they’re set to encounter a supercharged side seeking to make amends for the heartbreak in Treviso. Mike Blair’s men were victorious in their first home game at their new stadium a fortnight ago, beating Scarlets 26-22, and will be determined to replicate that result.
Stamina has been the Stormers’ Achilles Heel thus far, having led at half-time only to be overtaken in the second half in both of their fixtures. The Capetonians looked sensational in the first half against Munster – their big challenge will be to find a way to produce an 80-minute performance in the Scottish capital.
If they’re able to do that, they could secure their maiden win, but Edinburgh’s bench gives them the edge.
Connacht v Dragons
Saturday, 9 October – 18:15
Connacht was sublime as they blew away the Bulls last weekend to bounce back from their 33-21 away loss to Cardiff. Clinical and commanding, they should make it two from two at home. Having said that, of the five remaining winless teams, the Dragons have shown the most fight.
With a little luck, it could’ve been a completely different story for the men from Newport as they were pipped 27-23 by Ospreys at home before nearly causing a major upset against Leinster. The 7-6 loss to the tournament favorites demonstrated what a scrappy side the Dragons can be; they’ll want to make their first away fixture a dog fight but the trip to Ireland will probably stretch the gap by which they fall short.
Cardiff v Bulls
Saturday, 9 October – 20:25
The Bulls have been the most labored of the local teams on the heavy Northern Hemisphere fields. As a result, they’ve mustered just 10 points in their two heavy defeats. While individual players have gained good traction – the jet-fuelled loose trio and No.12 Harold Vorster – the synergy they had in South Africa is lacking.
Standing off at rucks has proved to be counter-productive as well. The tactic has led to turnovers and the intended benefits on defence haven’t materialized, with the Pretoria side slipping a whopping 25 tackles in last Saturday’s 34-7 loss to Connacht. Change is needed and it’ll be interesting to see what Jake White conjures up.
That Cardiff, with key men like Rhys Priestland and Josh Adams, beat self-same Connacht 33-21 strongly suggests they’ll be too good for the battling Bulls.
Scarlets v Munster
Sunday, 10 October – 15:00
A compelling clash to close out the round. The home ground advantage is particularly important in this one on two levels. Like the first two rounds showed, Scarlets are a different team on their stomping ground as they lashed the Lions after losing to Edinburgh on the road.
Secondly, the two meetings between these two teams at Parc y Scarlets were both tightly contested, much more so than those in Ireland. Scarlets prevailed 10-6 in 2019 before Munster secured a 30-27 win last October. Having kicked off their campaign with back-to-back bonus-point wins, you have to fancy table-topping Munster, but as history suggests, it should be a close one.