Pressure Is Mounting On Several URC Teams Heading Into 12th Round

 

The intensity of the festive period derbies may be behind them but there are still several teams who will be heading into the 12th round weekend of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship feeling they are under acute pressure to put up big performances.

Two teams currently in the top four, third-placed Ulster and the fourth-placed Vodacom Bulls top the list of teams needing to turn around their indifferent form, while Edinburgh will be hoping that visitors Zebre continue to struggle like they have been doing as they search for a win after two consecutive derby losses to the Glasgow Warriors.

Mention of the Warriors though factors in a different kind of pressure that teams can face. After picking up momentum with their festive period wins over their arch-rivals, the Warriors now face the pressure of trying to retain that momentum when they host the champions in the competition, the DHL Stormers, at the Scotstoun in the last game of the round on Sunday.

The Stormers have opened a healthy gap on the chasing pack in the South African conference as they look to retain the Shield they won as the first step to their overall triumph in last year’s inaugural version of the URC. With tough away games against Ulster, Leinster and the Bulls, plus a trip to Durban, to come later in the competition, the good derby wins over the Bulls and Emirates Lions in the last week of December still haven’t given the Stormers breathing space.

But Stormers coach John Dobson might feel his team will have room to manage players and selections a bit better if they do get home against Glasgow, a team they beat quite comprehensively at DHL Stadium in Cape Town last season.

It won’t be easy. While defeat won’t cost the Stormers their place at the top of the Shield, it will for their opponents, as there are still just four points separating Glasgow from Edinburgh, while they are level with Benetton on the number of log points accumulated. Glasgow does have a game in hand on both Benetton and Edinburgh, but the Warriors coach Franco Smith, who coached the Cheetahs and was also an assistant Springbok coach for a while, will be targeting this game against his countrymen as a must-win.

Benetton host Ulster in a Saturday afternoon game in Treviso that should attract a lot of interest not just because the Italian team is in strong contention in their Shield race and in the battle for top-eight placings that ensure play-off spots, but also because there is much interest in Ulster’s situation.

Like the Bulls, Ulster looked like they had picked up good momentum a few weeks ago, but then came a big defeat in the Heineken Champions Cup first round away to Sale Sharks followed by a home loss to LaRochelle. They sneaked home by just two points in their URC derby against Connacht and then went down to Munster, so Ulster desperately need a resounding win to get their confidence back. Perhaps that spells danger for Benetton, who is a much tougher proposition on their home field than when they travel.

The Bulls have lost three in a row now if you add their away defeat to Exeter Chiefs in the Champions Cup to their derby defeats to the Stormers and Sharks, with the magnitude of those three defeats perhaps being more concerning than the fact they lost. Both the derby losses were by significant enough margins to deny them even a solitary bonus point across their two festive period matches.

They will be in Newport on Friday night to play the Dragons, and while the smart money will be on the South African team, the Dragons have been competitive at home this season. The Bulls might also feel the short turnaround, coupled with the long flight to Wales via Doha that ended with a bus journey. So an ambush is not beyond the realms of possibility at the Rodney Parade.
The Welsh Shield has become competitive again thanks to the Osprey’s narrow away win over Cardiff last weekend, and they have a chance to make a further statement following a run of impressive wins that started away against French champions Montpellier when they host championship leaders Leinster on Saturday night. Cardiff, current leaders and the Ospreys’ main rivals for the Shield, host Scarlets on Saturday night.

Munster joins the Dragons and Bulls in starting off the weekend action when they host the Emirates Lions at Thomond Park on Friday night, with Munster no doubt eager to continue the form they showed in their narrow win over Ulster at the Kingspan last weekend.

Few will quibble with Munster’s right to consider themselves to be in resurgent form as they do appear to have recovered from their nightmare start to the season, but the pressure applied to the other teams is also felt by them as they are only ninth on the log, meaning outside top eight qualification, and thus can’t afford to lose a home game.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures

Munster v Emirates Lions (Limerick Friday 21.35)
Dragons v Vodacom Bulls (Newport Friday 21.35)
Benetton v Ulster (Treviso, Saturday 15.00)
Edinburgh v Zebre (Edinburgh, Saturday 17.00)
Cardiff Rugby v Scarlets (Cardiff, Saturday 19.15)
Connacht v Cell C Sharks (Galway, Saturday 19.15)
Ospreys v Leinster (Swansea, Saturday 21.35)
Glasgow Warriors v DHL Stormers (Glasgow, Sunday 17.00)