The South African teams are hoping for better fortunes abroad in Round Four of the United Rugby Championship this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
With just the Bulls managing a win last weekend, the South African contingent are keen to come good in enemy territory, starting with the winless Sharks, who take on Zebre in Parma on Friday night before the Bulls collide with Cardiff in the Welsh capital.
On Saturday, the Stormers take on Benetton in Treviso and the Lions look to break their drought against the Scarlets in Llanelli.
Zebre v Sharks
Friday, 10 November – 19:30
That a Sharks win isn’t a foregone conclusion in Parma speaks to the poor start the Durbanites have gotten off to. Rooted to the bottom of the log as the only side yet to pick up even a single log point, John Plumtree’s second term in charge has been extremely frustrating thus far with the players adapting to the new structures at a snail’s pace.
Limp in their 19-5 loss to the Ospreys last weekend, a game they were favoured to win, their ill-discipline, shoddy decision-making, poor handling and halfback problems persisted and if they’re not sharper, they could be in for a new low against the perennial whipping boys.
Zebre have shown a lot of fight and twice pulled their way back against the Bulls before the men from Pretoria finally pulled away last weekend. Their interlinking has been impressive and they’re adept at poaching lineouts, however, their scrum is a weakness and their discipline a concern.
What’s been a tough tour for the Sharks will end up as an absolute disaster if they crash to defeat against a Zebre side on a 24-match losing streak, but they have the cattle up front to break their duck.
Cardiff v Bulls
Friday, 10 November – 21:35
It took some doing to put die-hard Zebre away, but the eventual 54-29 victory saw the Bulls sharpen their attacking tools and bounce back from the 26-19 defeat to Ulster. Defensively, though, they’ll want to tidy up in the Welsh capital.
Cardiff are still winless. Their 31-25 away loss to the Scarlets was their third narrow reverse in a row, so while they haven’t gotten over the line yet, they’ve been competitive. The Bulls, however, are a step up in competition for them.
Jake White’s charges won both previous meetings against Cardiff comfortably (29-19 and 45-9) and their sharpness, powerful scrum and dynamism should see them make it three from three against the Welsh region.
Ulster v Munster
Friday, 10 November – 21:35
Ulster are in for a second tough Irish derby in as many weeks but this time at home after coming close to beating Connacht on the road. They’ll feel it’s a game they should’ve won as they raced into a 20-3 lead only to succumb 22-20 in the end.
Therein lies the problem for them, namely they haven’t been able to put an 80-minute performance together yet. Unbeaten Munster have – against the Sharks in Round One and in their 45-14 runaway win over the Dragons last weekend, which bookended a 13-all away draw with Benetton.
A single point separated these rivals in both of their matches last season with the away team prevailing on both occasions. Given what we’ve seen so far, Munster are juicy underdogs to keep that trend going.
Benetton v Stormers
Saturday, 11 November – 17:00
After suffering their first defeat of the season against the Warriors last weekend, the Stormers seek to get right back on the horse in Treviso. While Benetton are tough to beat at home, the Capetonians will fancy their chances after watching a Lions team largely stuck in first gear frustrate and give them problems.
Stylistically, Benetton are a tactical team that you have to break down in order to beat. You’re not going to blow them away. Patience is required and field position is important. The Stormers did themselves in with unforced errors and ill-discipline in Glasgow. It was just a flat night overall for them with their set pieces also not functioning like usual.
These are all things that can be rectified, and a more accurate performance should see them edge the Italians.
Ospreys v Glasgow Warriors
Saturday, 11 November – 19:15
South African slayers square off in Llanelli, the hosts fresh off their 19-5 win over the struggling Sharks and the visitors full of confidence after their 20-9 triumph over the Stormers.
Franco Smith’s Warriors, who thrashed Leinster in the opening round, are a cut above the Ospreys and after failing to convert a number of opportunities last weekend, they’ll be more clinical and come away with a comfortable win.
Scarlets v Lions
Saturday, 11 November – 19:15
Home is where the heart is for the Scarlets. After a tough, fruitless tour of South Africa, their homecoming last weekend saw them out gun Cardiff 31-25 to pick up their first win of the season and build confidence ahead of this meeting against the Lions.
The pride of Johannesburg have been nearly men this season, losing all three of their matches by less than seven points. They know how to stay in the fight despite not being at their best, which was certainly the case against Benetton last weekend.
Conceding turnovers aplenty is a big cause for concern for the Lions as the Scarlets are opportunists of note and will punish them, unlike Benetton. A severe lack of patience has hampered the Lions as well, along with inaccuracy, lineout issues and too many soft shoulders on defence.
The Scarlets have serious X-factor and with the Lions struggling to find their rhythm, the hosts should keep them winless.
Edinburgh v Connacht
Saturday, 11 November – 21:35
One of just two remaining unbeaten teams, Connacht have been ultra-impressive and top the table. After back-to-back displays of total rugby, they showed great character to come back from 17 points down to pip Ulster 22-20. That grit will be of great benefit in matches like this one, away from home.
Edinburgh edged the Lions 17-16 in their only home so far and went down 36-27 to Leinster last weekend. Connacht are on such a roll that I have to go with them, especially as great value underdogs.
Dragons v Leinster
Sunday, 12 November – 15:15
A mismatch closes out the round. The Dragons were mauled 45-14 by Munster last weekend and they’ll suffer a similar fate against title favourites Leinster. Scoring hasn’t come easy for the Welsh minnows and they’re unlikely to trouble the Irish giants.