After the conclusion of the pool stages of the European Champions and Challenge Cup competitions last weekend, the focus switches back to the URC where all four local sides are abroad for Round 13 action.
On Friday night, the Stormers are up against Ulster in Belfast and the Bulls battle the Scarlets in Llanelli while Saturday sees the Sharks take on Edinburgh and the Lions tackle Connacht in Galway.
Ulster v Stormers
Friday, 27 January – 21:35
The game against Clermont last weekend highlighted how important the missing Manie Libbok is to the Stormers. He’s the key axis that makes the whole operation tick and his return from a concussion is a massive boost on their first visit to Belfast, where Ulster are notoriously tough to beat.
Their two tussles to date were both cliff-hangers, the Capetonians edging the first 23-20 and Libbok famously slotting a last-gasp conversion to snatch a 17-15 win in the semi-finals last year, and the trilogy should follow that trend.
Ulster regained their form in their last two outings, almost shocking La Rochelle (7-3) and beating Sale soundly (21-11) in the European Champions Cup to wipe away memories of their 31-29 loss to Benetton in the previous round of the URC but they’ll be without five-star players who’re in the Ireland training camp for the Six Nations.
Scarlets v Bulls
Friday, 27 January – 21:35
The Bulls are in Llanelli for redemption following the European Champions Cup horror show in Lyon last weekend. The Segway back to the URC will help them leave the 31-7 loss in the rear-view mirror as will the favourable conditions. It’ll be cold, but there won’t be any snow or rain.
The Scarlets stormed through the European Challenge Cup pool stage unbeaten but that momentum has been significantly sapped by the loss of five key players to the Welsh squad, including new captain Ken Owens. Second from the bottom, they’ve found life in the URC tough at the best of times this season, so the Bulls should get back to winning ways.
Benetton v Munster
Saturday, 28 January – 16:30
Benetton have been on a roll, winning six in a row in all competitions, but that streak looks set to come to an end this weekend. Without the pulling power and resources of the URC’s top teams, they don’t have the same level of depth and with no less than 16 of their players being in the Italy camp, they’re up against it.
Munster have given up half that number to the Irish squad and have superior depth. They also haven’t lost to Benetton since 2013, so chalk up another W for the Red Army.
Dragons v Glasgow Warriors
Saturday, 28 January – 17:00
Glasgow’s been gutted with 15 players called up to the national side and with the contest taking place in Wales, it’s unclear if but unlikely that fringe players who’ll be released will be jetted off at such a late stage.
Just two Dragons are among the 37-man Wales squad – a reflection of the 14th-placed club’s struggles, which include falling to the Lions at home last weekend. The Warriors have sufficient depth and the wily Franco Smith to put things together and leave with a win.
Leinster v Cardiff
Saturday, 28 January – 19:05
Could Cardiff be the unlikely ones to end Leinster’s unbeaten streak? They shocked them 29-27 last season, plus, the Irish giants have contributed 20 players to the 37-man national squad. Some will likely be made available, though.
Cardiff are missing eight key players but will sniff an opportunity, as many punters will. Leinster’s structures are so advanced, however, that the young players coming in are more than prepared and eager to show their worth, a combination that’ll lead to yet another victory and a bit of revenge.
Edinburgh v Sharks
Saturday, 28 January – 19:15
Harlequins exposed a few cracks in the Sharks’ game that Edinburgh will look to exploit. The biggest was the basis of the English outfit’s 39-29 win, the remarkable ruck speed they blew the Sharks out of the water with.
Unlike Quins, Edinburgh play a tight game with few offloads, but quick ball through the middle’s still a migraine to deal with. Clear skies will allow either team to push the pace and both can benefit from it with the Sharks boasting a lethal backline.
Ten of Edinburgh’s stars are in the Scottish squad, however, with their camp only being three days instead of five, a couple of those might be released to play on Saturday. The likes of captain Jamie Ritchie and Stuart Hogg certainly won’t be.
Buoyed by a 20-14 win over Saracens, they’ll be a tough nut to crack but one some Springbok-infused power can. In a tough one to call, I’m siding with the underdog Sharks at 2.15.
Connacht v Lions
Saturday, 28 January – 21:35
Just when it looks like the Lions are down and out, they dig down deep and produce a performance like they did against the Dragons last weekend to advance to the European Challenge Cup knockouts against the odds. The 30-25 victory snapped a four-match losing streak and having turned the corner, they’ll look to stay on the winning path.
Connacht, though, are a few steps ahead of the Dragons in quality and one place above the pride of Johannesburg on the log in 11th. With minimal disruptions to their side (just four players in the Ireland squad), the hosts should be able to withstand the fight of a Lions side at the end of a four-week tour.
Zebre Parma v Ospreys
Sunday, 29 January – 17:00
The Ospreys haven’t been able to dispatch the Italian whipping boys like most of the other teams. They won the last two meetings by five and 10 points respectively and lost 23-17 in 2020. The Welsh region will keep Zebre winless but not as emphatically as you’d think initially.