Failure’s not an option for the South African sides at the heart of the hunt for playoff places in the United Rugby Championship this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
After their serious slip-up last weekend, the Sharks will be determined to rebound against the Dragons in Durban on Friday night, while the other local franchises will look to continue their unbeaten streaks against foreign foes on home soil on Saturday.
The Bulls battle Ulster in the match of the weekend at Loftus Versfeld, the Lions welcome Edinburgh to Ellis Park and the Stormers collide with the Ospreys in Cape Town. Plus, Irish powerhouses Munster and Limerick lock horns in the pick of the European games.
Sharks v Dragons
Friday, 1 April – 19:30
A duel against the embattled Dragons is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Sharks to emerge from their slumber. Their underwhelming play of late finally caught up to them last weekend as they were taught a wet-weather rugby lesson and punished for their high error count by Edinburgh.
The 21-5 home loss was extremely costly as it saw them plummet from the summit of the South African Shield to third place and nothing but a full house will do against the weakest of the Welsh teams, who were trampled 55-20 by the Bulls and have won just a solitary game this season.
Overdue soul-searching and a back-to-basics approach will see the Sharks bounce back, but rain and thunderstorms should keep them from covering the spread.
Glasgow Warriors v Zebre
Friday, 1 April – 20:35
On course to conquer Cardiff on the road, which they were favoured to do, Glasgow surrendered a 28-15 lead – thanks in large part to a yellow card – and stumbled to a 32-28 loss last weekend.
It saw them drop one place to fourth on the overall log and was a major missed opportunity to put daylight between them and their staunchest Scottish/Italian Shield rivals Edinburgh.
With that gap closed to just two, the Warriors won’t squander a second chance and will make sure they seize the full five points against the whipping boys from Parma, who lost 41-24 at home against the Scarlets last weekend.
Benetton v Connacht
Saturday, 2 April – 13:00
Done in by a red card just two minutes into their clash with Leinster, Connacht crashed to a frustrating 45-8 derby defeat at home last weekend. The fight the 14-man hosts showed to lead 8-7 at halftime was a big positive for them to take out of the game and will make them a big threat in Treviso.
Benetton didn’t have such a silver lining after their 51-22 loss to Munster. They’re winless in their last five fixtures, a torrid run that’s seen them drop to 14th. Connacht, in 10th, have more to play for, bigger hitters, and a stronger scrum, which point to a victory for the visitors.
Bulls v Ulster
Saturday, 2 April – 14:00
The controversy that cost Ulster victory in Cape Town win serves as extra fuel for their even tougher task at fortress Loftus. Will it be enough for them to keep up with the high-flying Bulls from start to finish? It’s unlikely in the peak 29° Pretoria heat and altitude, while the brutality of the Stormers showdown will take its toll as well.
The Bulls are firing on all cylinders with their pack dominating upfront, their world-class back-row going from strength to strength, and Kurt-Lee Arendse and company causing havoc out wide.
On current form and in front of what’s set to be the biggest local crowd in the pandemic era, Jake White’s charges should make it five wins in a row in a hard-fought battle.
Lions v Edinburgh
Saturday, 2 April – 16:05
Similar to the battle at Loftus, the conditions will be a major factor at Ellis Park. There will be no teeming rain to aid Edinburgh’s cause like it did in Durban. Instead, it’ll be around 25° and the thin Highveld air will have a suffocating effect on the Scots.
For the visitors, this serves as a test of their conditioning. While they showed their tactical prowess in the rain last weekend, they’re an attacking team at heart. They’ve made the cleanest breaks (96) and beat the most defenders (316) in the league, while they’ve made the second-most metres (5356) and scored the third-most tries (44).
Which proverbial triers will they opt for, then? If they back themselves and go with the slicks, you’d have to think the Lions will win the race down the stretch. Whichever they decide on, they’re starting the race with less fuel, so even a more manageable approach leaves them in danger of running out of gas.
With that advantage and a red-hot streak of three successive victories, I’m tipping the Lions to continue their winning ways.
Stormers v Ospreys
Saturday, 2 April – 18:15
After needing a bit of good fortune to pip Ulster, the Stormers will look to snuff out the Ospreys’ hopes early and sustain their energy, intensity and focus for the full 80 minutes.
The fortuitous 23-20 win over the Irish giants saw the Capetonians climb to the top of the South African Shield, where they have a one-point edge over the Bulls, and they’ll capitalise on this clash to cement their local standing and close the gap on fifth-placed Edinburgh.
The Ospreys would’ve been happy to leave Johannesburg after they were out on their feet as early as the second quarter against the Lions. They’ll have more gas in the tank than they did in the 30-point hiding on the Highveld, however, expect the Stormers to push the pace and pull away to pick up a bonus-point win.
Munster v Leinster
Saturday, 2 April – 20:00
Something has to give when these two Irish powerhouses collide. The chasing pack will all be hoping third-placed Munster can turn log-leading Leinster back.
Leo Cullen’s charges have a five-point cushion over second-placed Ulster with a game in hand. Win here and it’s unlikely anyone will be able to stop them from finishing at the top of the table at the end of the regular season.
Both sides are coming off comprehensive wins, Munster bashing Benetton 51-22 and Leinster crushing Connacht 45-8. At home, Johann van Graan’s men have a real shot.
However, Leinster just have that little bit more class, composure, and sting in their tail, the latter thanks to their superior offloading and transitional attack, which has me leaning towards them.
Scarlets v Cardiff
Saturday, 2 April – 20:35
Matches in this rivalry are generally close and their round-ending encounter should be another tight one. Their records this season further support that notion as the Scarlets sit 11th and Cardiff 13th.
Both teams have managed five wins, but with the men from the capital having a game in hand, a win here will see them re-enter the Welsh Shield title race.
Following fruitless South African tours, both teams got back on track last weekend, the Scarlets securing a 41-24 win over Zebre and Cardiff upsetting the Glasgow Warriors 32-28.
For whatever reason, Cardiff can’t buy a win on the road, and in a clash that’s this close to calling, that season-long problem tilts things in the Scarlets’ favour.
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