The South African teams will have to overcome a full-scale attack if they’re to continue their undefeated streak against European sides on home soil in the United Rugby Championship this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The local teams are a perfect eight from eight against their foreign foes at home, however, the return of top stars from Six Nations duty will see business pick up in a big way.
The Lions are up first against the Ospreys on Friday night, while Saturday’s jam-packed schedule includes the rest of the South African franchises in action.
The Stormers face a stern test against Ulster, the Sharks have their work cut out for them against Edinburgh, and the Bulls battle the Dragons.
Lions v Ospreys
Friday, 25 March – 19:00
After roaring back to pull off a stunning 23-21 comeback win over Munster, the Lions are on the biggest high of their campaign and will be backing themselves to complete a hat-trick of home wins, which started with an impressive 37-20 victory over Cardiff.
With a record of 7-5, the Ospreys are four places above the Lions in ninth. When they’re on, they’re a threat to anyone, which they showed by stunning Munster (18-10) and Ulster (19-13).
They’ve been a low-scoring side all season and finding their rhythm should take time as they haven’t played since the 27-23 win over Zebre at the beginning of the month.
Therefore, the high-flying Lions should have their number on the Highveld.
Munster v Benetton
Friday, 25 March – 21:35
It’s not often that Munster loses two in a row. Add to that how they lost to the Lions, surrendering an 11-point halftime lead, and they’ll be in a menacing mood upon their return from South Africa. Benetton can, thus, expect a backlash.
The Italian club will be boosted by a host of heroes who helped the Azzurri to their sensational upset over Wales in Cardiff and will bring that belief on top of their skills to Benetton.
However, stunning a full-strength Munster, who needs to stem the tide to improve or at the very least hold onto the fourth position, will be a bridge too far for the 11th-placed visitors.
Zebre v Scarlets
Saturday, 26 March – 15:00
Like their countrymen, Zebre will have added zest and confidence as they welcome back their Dragonslayers. Given the enormity of Italy’s epic triumph over Wales, this is suddenly a clash they’ll feel they can win.
That glow will likely lead to a few nibbles on the winless minnows, and if ever they are to break their duck, this might be it. However, the Scarlets are the stronger side and with their returning Welsh internationals seeking a measure of revenge, the visitors will pick up their fifth win of the season.
Stormers v Ulster
Saturday, 26 March – 15:00
Following back-to-back runaway wins over Zebre (55-7) and Cardiff (40-3), a resurgent Stormers side will have to step it up another notch if they’re to topple second-placed Ulster in the match of the weekend.
The Capetonians have rediscovered their attacking mojo and have climbed up to seventh on the log, with John Dobson finally managing to put the right puzzle pieces in place with Damian Willemse’s switch to the midfield outside Manie Libbok.
It’s allowed Warrick Gelant to shine at fullback and more importantly, has seen the trio collectively run the show as well as turn the team into counter-attacking opportunists of the highest order.
The champagne rugby of the last fortnight was good and well, but it’s all about reverting to structure for this blockbuster battle. Accuracy will be key as well after they coughed up a shocking 15 knock-ons, while they also had serious lineout issues last Sunday.
Ulster are masters of capitalising on mistakes and are clinical in every aspect. They know their way to the try line, are the second-best defensive team in the league with a 92% tackle success rate and predators at the breakdown.
Coming off an 18-13 win over Leinster to do the double over the log leaders, the Irish giants have won seven in a row in all competitions. Back at full-strength, their superior accuracy will likely see them end the local franchises’ unbeaten run.
Sharks v Edinburgh
Saturday, 26 March – 17:05
On one hand, the recent bonus-point wins over the Scarlets (37-20) and Zebre (38-6) showed the Sharks can get the job done despite operating well below the level one expects from such a star-studded team.
On the other, the elementary mistakes and stuttering backline make them vulnerable against top competition, and Edinburgh are exactly that. Disregard their 1-4 run and most recent 30-17 defeat to rivals Glasgow during the Six Nations.
Before that, a five-match winning streak had them sitting atop the table. Now fifth, one place above their hosts, a full-strength Edinburgh will be a true test of the Sharks’ playoff credentials.
I’m expecting a much-improved performance from the Durbanites, however, I’m also expecting the Scots to carry on where they left off before the Six Nations.
They’re unrivalled in their ability to break the line and even if the humidity does limit them in this regard, they have the best lineout and second-best scrum in the league.
With the Sharks struggling to solve their pivot problem and uncertainty over the fitness of Thomas du Toit and Aphelele Fassi, I see Edinburgh handing them their first loss at home.
Bulls v Dragons
Saturday, 26 March – 17:15
With their 57-12 trampling of the Scarlets making it three consecutive wins, the Bulls are on the charge, and a favourable draw against the embattled Dragons will see them continue their march up.
With just a single victory, back in October over Connacht (35-22), the Welsh club are down in 15th. They are generally stale on attack and should pose little problems to the men from Pretoria.
Up to eighth, Jake White’s Bulls will bank a bonus-point win, which could see them finish the weekend in sixth and as the new leaders of the South African Shield if the coastal sides come up short.
Cardiff v Glasgow Warriors
Saturday, 26 March – 19:15
Winners of five of their last six in the URC, the Warriors are riding a wave of momentum. A convincing 13-point victory over arch-rivals Edinburgh consolidated their place at the top of the Scottish/Italian Shield and see them sitting third overall.
Cardiff, in contrast, are crashing further and further down the log, their fruitless South African tour putting them in lowly 14th. Before their current three-match losing skid, they shocked Leinster 29-27 and that Glasgow’s last loss came against a Welsh side in the Scarlets (35-20) will be another shot of belief for the hosts.
In addition to the Warriors’ winning streak, they’re a bad stylistic match-up for Cardiff and will make it 10 on the trot in this rivalry.
Connacht v Leinster
Saturday, 26 March – 21:35
It probably won’t be close, but the physicality and intensity of this Irish derby will make for excellent viewing. Leinster are at the top of the table, but in no way are they sitting pretty after their 18-13 loss to Ulster last time out saw the latter close the gap to a single point.
On 28 points, Connacht are in a decent 10th, but in terms of the Irish Shield, they’ve been treated like red-headed stepchildren. They’re about to get lapped by Leinster, who’s on 50 points, and trail their closest-placed countrymen Munster by 24.
Leinster cruised to a 47-19 win in the most recent derby in December and that they’re on the road this time around won’t shave off too many points, especially with Ulster breathing down their necks.
SIGN UP TO OUR BET CENTRAL PLAYBOOK
Get weekly emails packed with the best tips and sports content.
Get ahead of the game now – fill in the contact form below.