After a Covid-enforced false start to the United Rugby Championship’s holiday season derby schedule, supporters are holding thumbs for more action to start the new year this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The virus played the role of the Grinch last weekend, with all but one of the six scheduled festive derbies falling by the wayside while the South African sides had to sit out another round.
Rugby lovers are, therefore, cautiously optimistic that the plagued inaugural season of the new league will pick up steam again this weekend.
Welsh derbies are scheduled to kick-off the action on Saturday, with the Dragons hosting Cardiff and the Scarlets entertaining the Ospreys.
Connacht and Ulster will then hope that home-ground advantage inspires them to win over Munster and Leinster respectively.
The first fixture on Sunday sees Benetton battle Zebre before Edinburgh and the Glasgow Warriors go to war for the cherished 1872 Cup.
Dragons v Cardiff
Saturday, 1 January – 17:00
The Dragons are traditionally the weakest of the Welsh teams and they find themselves in that unenviable position again with just a solitary URC win. The opening rounds of the European Challenge Cup offered them an opportunity to turn their fortunes around but their troubles only grew as they followed a decent showing in their 22-16 loss to Perpignan with a poor 41-28 loss to Lyon at home.
On the other side of the coin, Cardiff has endured a Covid curse. Their South African sojourn from hell robbed them of 42 frontline players for their opening European Champions Cup assignments and they recorded new cases that forced the postponement of their scheduled showdown with the Scarlets last weekend.
Quite simply, it all comes down to what team Cardiff is able to field. If Dai Young can call on a near full-strength side, they should be able to get over the line. They showed as much when they were able to hang on for a 31-29 win in the Round Five derby after losing Rey Lee-Lo to a red card in the 53rd minute.
Scarlets v Ospreys
Saturday, 1 January – 19:15
The Scarlets are champing at the bit to get back onto the field after being swept up in Covid chaos that saw them concede their European Champions Cup opener to Bristol and their last two scheduled matches being postponed through no fault of their own.
The virus infiltrated the Ospreys camp last week, leading to the cancellation of their clash with the Dragons. That the news broke last Tuesday ought to give those affected enough time to recover, albeit without training with the team this week. Having stunned both Munster and Ulster, they’ve overachieved at this early stage to find themselves in fourth place.
The Scarlets, in turn, lost heavily to the abovementioned Irish powerhouses and are 11th with a record of 2-3. They won seven of the last 10 games in this rivalry, though, including the last three on the trot. On current form, I fancy the underdog Ospreys, but I expect plenty of two-way action on the betting front.
Connacht v Munster
Saturday, 1 January – 19:15
Most local rugby lovers will automatically back the more-proven Munster, but don’t be too quick to overlook Connacht. Styles make matches and Connacht has shown they have the game plan and guts to push Munster to the max, with the last four meetings all decided by four points or less (3-1 in Munster’s favour).
Furthermore, Connacht led the dance for most of the match and looked on course to pull off the upset on the road in Round Four only to be denied by a converted try at the death. Having said that, Damian de Allende showed what a difference he makes to Munster with a Man of the Match performance in the 19-13 win over Castres last time out, which made it two-from-two for them in the European Champions Cup after a 35-14 opening-round win over Wasps.
Both sides have side-stepped Covid issues (up to the time of writing), so they’re settled and should put on a show. Munster’s pedigree is what’s allowed them to eke out wins in this fiercely contested rivalry and I see it proving decisive again in a cliffhanger.
Ulster v Leinster
Saturday, 1 January – 21:35
In contrast to the preceding Irish derby, both of these teams have been troubled by Covid. The latest woes saw both having to pull out of their slated meetings with Connacht and Munster last weekend. That suggests a level playing field, but that’s not the case.
Last week’s new cases were only the next wave in the continuous struggles of Leinster since their doomed South African trip. Like the Ospreys and Scarlets, the tournament favourites have been hit hard and have played just a single game this month as a result.
With the squad scattered between South Africa and Europe and then splintered again last week, training has been an impossible task as far as the first-choice team is concerned. Add the fact that Ulster secured back-to-back wins in the European Champions Cup following the arrival of Duane Vermeulen and are playing at home and I’m leaning towards them.
Benetton v Zebre Parma
Sunday, 2 January – 15:00
Benetton were strong favourites as the visitors last weekend, but as we pointed out, recent matches in this rivalry had been close. So, it came as a surprise that they were able to blow Zebre out of the water, triumphing 39-14 after having raced into a 24-0 half-time lead.
The 25-point triumph was the biggest since Benetton’s 28-10 win three years ago and underlined their superiority over the embattled men from Parma.
With the Rainbow Cup champions at home this time around, things look set to go from bad to worse for winless Zebre, whose leaky defence and indiscipline should lead to another commanding win for the Treviso-based team.
Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors
Sunday, 2 January – 16:00
The 1872 Cup is set to be decided on aggregate but with Monday night’s first leg called off and uncertainty over if it’ll be rescheduled, a victory on Sunday could end up being enough to seal the silverware.
We’d tipped the Warriors to win the opening derby based on their commanding European Champions Cup victory over the fancied Exeter Chiefs, however, the tables have now turned.
Aside from Edinburgh now set to have a home ground advantage, Glasgow is disrupted by the Covid outbreak in their camp. As winners of their last five (including a 21-18 victory over Saracens in the European Challenge Cup last time out), that tips the scales in the red-hot men from the capital’s favour.