The Stormers start the defence of their title while the Sharks also enter the fray in the second round of the United Rugby Championship this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The South African coastal franchises got valuable intel on their opposition during their first-round byes and will be eager to get their campaigns off to a winning start.
The Sharks kick things off away to Italian outfit Zebre Parma on Friday night, with the rest of the local sides in action on Saturday. The Bulls and Stormers play host to Edinburgh and Connacht in Pretoria and Stellenbosch respectively, while the Lions have made their way to Swansea for a showdown with the Ospreys.
Zebre Parma v Sharks
Friday, 23 September – 18:30
Zebre looked nothing like the hapless wooden spoonists that won just a single game last season as they nearly pulled off a stunning upset over title favourites Leinster last weekend.
It’s not often that the Irish giants concede five tries and though they were undercooked, credit has to go to Zebre for their enterprising attack. Their South African imports made an immediate impact, with Richard Kriel, MJ Pelser and Franco Smith Jr all dotting down, and they look set to ask questions of the Sharks’ defence.
No team want a first-round bye but in this case, it may well prove a blessing in disguise for the Durban side, who rather than being ambushed, now know they’re in for a far tougher battle than they would’ve expected if not for the Leinster clash case study.
As a result, the smartened-up Sharks – even without their Springboks and other unavailable players – should edge it.
Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff
Friday, 23 September – 20:35
It’s Round Two and Franco Smith will already be feeling the pressure after his tenure as Glasgow coach got off to a terrible start in Treviso. There were few positives to take out of the 33-11 trampling other than getting 80 minutes under their belts after being short on pre-season games, and dropping their first home fixture would have lingering effects.
Cardiff, conversely, were fantastic in their shock 20-13 win over Munster. Luck played no part in the upset, with Cardiff full value for the victory, beating the visitors to the ball and gutting it out at the depth to hold on.
They haven’t won in Glasgow in nine years but they similarly hadn’t beaten Munster in ages and with the breakdown brilliance they showed, I’m tipping underdogs Cardiff to make it two from two.
Leinster v Benetton
Friday, 23 September – 20:35
The narrow 33-29 win over Zebre in Parma was as good as a loss for Leinster in the sense that it will inspire a backlash and one will be needed after Benetton blew away favoured visitors Glasgow in the tournament-opener.
Leo Cullen’s charges paid Zebre too little respect on the defensive line and they won’t make that mistake again. Owing their local fans for last season’s semi-final loss to the Bulls, Leinster will be much-improved and should win their first home game convincingly.
Scarlets v Ulster
Saturday, 24 September – 14:00
Denied at the death, the Scarlets had to settle for a draw that would’ve felt more like a loss against the Ospreys, while Ulster hit the ground running to record a 36-10 win over Connacht.
The Scarlets struggled under sustained pressure, conceding a string of penalties, a yellow card and the late try that cost them the win, and the onslaught Dan McFarland’s men will bring will be too much for Johnathan Davies and company.
Bulls v Edinburgh
Saturday, 24 September – 14:30
Edinburgh will be a significant step up in competition for the Bulls, who would’ve been satisfied with the result – a 31-15 win – but not the performance they put forth against the Lions at Ellis Park.
The 16-point margin was more than most expected and yet, Edinburgh made a far greater statement in their 44-6 demolition of the Dragons.
This game boils down to defence. The Bulls lacked their renowned physicality on D and missed no less than 19 tackles. The Lions didn’t punish them but Edinburgh, with their game-breakers, will as they showed in their seven-try first-round rout.
I expect the Bulls to front up in this regard and come away with a hard-earned win.
Stormers v Connacht
Saturday, 24 September – 14:30
Connacht aren’t pushovers, but they’re a favourable first out for the Stormers. They’ll be looking to pick themselves up after the 26-pound pounding by Ulster and are a better team than what they showed at Ravenhill.
The Stormers, who like the Sharks are missing several Springboks and others, will focus more on themselves than their Irish counterparts, though, they would’ve noticed their defensive deficiencies, particularly around the rucks.
Connacht might be a tough nut to crack, as they were in the first 30 minutes last weekend, but the Capetonians have the dynamic back rowers and danger men out wide to find the gaps and get off to a winning start at Danie Craven Stadium.
Ospreys v Lions
Saturday, 24 September – 20:35
The Lions showed great fire and physicality in the first half of the Jukskei derby, smashing the Bulls back with double tackles, before fizzling out badly in the second 40.
That’s particularly worrying considering the Ospreys finished strong in their Welsh derby against the Scarlets, Jack Walsh converting Rhys Davies’ injury-time try to earn a 23-23 draw.
The Lions will have their moments but the hosts, with their slew of internationals, should pull away.
Dragons v Munster
Sunday, 25 September – 16:00
Both teams got off to the worst possible start, the Dragons failing to fire a shot in their 44-6 loss to Edinburgh and Munster crashing to a shock 20-13 loss in Cardiff.
The Dragons looked directionless as they were kept tryless, a clear sign that it’s going to take time for things to fall into place under new mentor Mark Bennett. Bank on Munster to score a big bounce-back win.
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