The South African teams will be determined to make the most of the final slab of home matches and strengthen their playoff bids in the penultimate round of the United Rugby Championship this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The eighth-placed Bulls are up first as they lock horns with the sixth-placed Glasgow Warriors at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night.
Headlining an action-packed super Saturday is a mouth-watering top-of-the-table showdown between the Stormers and pace-setting Leinster at Cape Town Stadium.
The fourth-placed Sharks collide with Connacht at Kings Park and the Lions, who find themselves out of playoff contention, will look to treat their fans when they tackle Benetton at Ellis Park.
The other key clash of the weekend will wrap up the round with seventh-placed Edinburgh hosting fifth-placed Ulster.
Bulls v Glasgow Warriors
Friday, 29 April – 19:00
The Bulls still haven’t bucked the bad habit of starting slow. Jake White’s men handed Benetton a 13-point head-start before they got going and ultimately scored a 46-29 win last weekend.
Glasgow, two places and log points above them in sixth, will be hoping to cash in early but even if they do, 80 minutes of rugby against a big and physical Bulls side at altitude is like a punishing ultra-marathon.
That they were kept scoreless for the remainder of the match after having drawn first blood in their 32-7 loss to Stormers in Cape Town last weekend strengthens the probability that they won’t have the legs or firepower to rebound in Pretoria.
Instead, bank on the Bulls to win convincingly to leapfrog the visitors on the log.
Munster v Cardiff
Friday, 29 April – 20:35
This is a pretty open and shut case. Muster’s 24-17 away win over Ulster last weekend was massive, moving them up to third, and hosting lowly Cardiff (14th) will translate into a full house.
The margin will come down to whether or not Johann van Graan opts to rest key players ahead of next weekend’s European Champions Cup quarterfinals, but they’ll cover the spread either way.
Lions v Benetton
Saturday, 30 April – 14:00
Like their neighbours, the Lions will be hell-bent on getting off to a better start after shooting themselves in the foot against Connacht last weekend.
Their spirited comeback probably deserved the same payoff as the men from Pretoria’s but a lack of composure led to them being denied by a last-gasp penalty goal.
There are a few technical things for them to improve on, but this game will come down to the mental side of the coin. As they’re out of the playoff hunt, this will be their final home game of the season and that’ll remedy a lot of last weekend’s issues.
That extra gasoline on the fire will see them come out guns blazing and shoot off the line faster on defence, which should power them to an entertaining win.
Zebre v Dragons
Saturday, 30 April – 16:05
Last weekend’s events add some intrigue to this basement battle. Zebre almost stunned Edinburgh while the Dragons were soundly defeated by the Scarlets (38-19).
Having said that, the winless Italians played against 14 men for most of the second half and still lost 29-26. The Dragons had beaten the Scarlets the previous week and are a better team than the men from Parma.
They’ll pip it, but I expect a solid action on Zebre at 2.80.
Sharks v Connacht
Saturday, 30 April – 16:05
The hard-fought 28-23 win over what’s essentially Leinster’s ‘B’ team have the Sharks steeled for this contest in more ways than one. It ensured they won’t take Connacht – who’re down in 10th place – lightly, revealed their character and would’ve bolstered the trust they have in one another on defence to hold Leinster up over the try line to hang on for the win.
It also provided the blueprint for them to claim a second Irish scalp in as many weeks. Connacht showed how dangerous they can be in their 33-30 upset at Ellis Park. It also highlighted their greatest strength, which is their pilfering prowess at the breakdown.
The fourth-placed Durbanites still lack attacking shape in the backline, but if they stick to the pack-powered style that got them over the line against Leinster, they’ll triumph with more breathing room to deny the Irish club a South African clean sweep.
Stormers v Leinster
Saturday, 30 April – 18:15
After the heart understrength Leinster showed to almost defeat the Sharks at the death, the Stormers know they’re in for a fight in this top-of-the-table tussle. The visitors, in turn, know they face a taller task.
The key difference between South Africa’s coastal sides at the moment is the superior synergy and conversion rate of the Capetonians. Their playmakers, slick offloading and finishing saw them blow the Warriors away and will be tough for Leo Cullen’s men to contain, primarily because they more than likely won’t be able to stop them at the source.
As valiant as the Leinster second-stringers were, they took a hiding at scrum time and had no answer for the driving maul. The Stormers are just as strong as the Sharks in these areas and will, therefore, not only have momentum if and when they move it wide but also present problems in tight.
Add the stoic defence that saw them concede just seven points last weekend and they stand to beat Leinster more comfortably than the Durbanites did.
Ospreys v Scarlets
Saturday, 30 April – 18:15
With the Ospreys coasting past Cardiff (22-6) and the Scarlets slaying the Dragons (38-19) last weekend, the stage is set for a fierce derby between the top two Welsh teams.
The Ospreys have a nine-point lead in the Shield but the Scarlets have the psychological advantage of having won the last four fixtures in this rivalry, most recently triumphing 22-19.
It should be close again but with the ninth-placed Ospreys still having a slim chance of making the playoffs, it should be them who come out on top in front of their home crowd this time around.
Edinburgh v Ulster
Saturday, 30 April – 20:35
A red card shortly after half-time almost cost Edinburgh dearly but the 14-man outfit were able to eke out a 29-26 win over last-placed Zebre last weekend to end the round in seventh position.
Ulster were the biggest losers of Round 16 as their 24-17 home loss to Munster saw them drop from second to fifth. It was also their third consecutive defeat in the URC, so things are unravelling for them somewhat.
This one could go either way but given Ulster’s struggles and the fact that Edinburgh are unbeaten at home, I’m siding with the Scots.
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