There’s been plenty of jeopardy for the favoured teams in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship and last year’s runner up in the league phase, Ulster, join the South African teams in feeling some early pressure as the competition goes into the fourth round this weekend.
While the four local franchises are all at various stages of four match tours, and the Hollywoodbets Sharks in particular desperately need to win after three losses on the road when they end off against Zebre in Parma, the visit by champions Munster to Ravenhill to face Ulster on Friday night is undeniably the flagship game of the weekend and the one that could have a most significant impact on the outlooks of the teams who favour themselves for top four spots.
Munster did show last season that it is possible to do it the hard way to make it to champion status in this competition, and Connacht also showed you can start abysmally and yet make it as far as the semifinals. Both were near the bottom of the table last Christmas and then turned it around after that.
But no-one would want to do it the hard way and Ulster will be smarting from their defeat to Connacht in Galway last week. While they lost away from home, Munster were recovering from being held to a draw by Benetton the previous week by hammering the Dragons at Thomond Park. Munster are better placed than Ulster right now, and Ulster will feel they’ve lost significant ground if they go down in what should be a spicy derby.
Ulster will reason that at least last week’s loss was away from home, with Galway likely to be an even more difficult place to visit this season than it was in the past now that Connacht have been emboldened by their semi-final appearance in 2022/23. So what do you go on? Derbies are always difficult to predict, but what Munster do have is a good record away from home - they won all three play-off games last year away and were unbeaten on their South African tour that preceded the playoffs - and they did show in drawing off the final move of the game against Benetton that they have retained their never say die attitude that made them champions.
The other game that could have a big impact on the early battle for top four spots and the lessening of pressure that might come with being up there at this point of the season is the one in Swansea between the Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors.
Glasgow started the season with a great win over Leinster and then ruined it by slipping up against Connacht in their next game before hitting an upward spike in their performance graph the following week against the Stormers. Both their wins were at home, both required big performances. The loss was away.
They now need to show they can reproduce the form they showed against Leinster and the Stormers, first and third respectively on last year’s log, on the road against an Ospreys team that was significantly weakened when it surprised the Sharks last week.
The Welsh team should have talisman Justin Tipuric back after he was given the Sharks game off to play for the Barbarians, while of course the Warriors have had their Scottish internationals back for a few weeks now.
When it comes to the local teams, some are deeper in the mire than others but it would be fair to say that all four franchises are under pressure, with the DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls needing to beat Benetton and Cardiff respectively if they want to come away from tour with what should be the minimum requirement of two wins from four starts.
That the URC is a marathon and not a sprint is becoming a bit of a cliche, and there is plenty of time to recover from a poor start. However, a one win tour when you play four games would not be a successful trip if that one win was against Zebre and all the other games were lost.
Bulls coach Jake White and his team will know that, so while both of them will be played on the artificial pitches that all the South African sides are struggling to get used to, they should be looking for at least one win from their remaining tour games against Cardiff and Edinburgh.
The Bulls did score their inaugural URC win in Cardiff in September 2022 and should draw some inspiration from that fact. They also gave Ulster a good game at Kingspan Stadium the week before they hammered Parma so it’s not like they are down on form currently.
A minimum of two wins should be their target according to where they should want to be as a team in this competition, and it will be, but considering what is to come for them, aiming for a 75% success rate from their tour is not unrealistic.
The Stormers are arguably on a tougher tour than the Bulls given that they don’t play Zebre and also have to play two of the other three teams that made it into last year’s top four, with the other games being played at venues they have yet to win at in the URC.
Very few would have made them favourites to win at the Scotstoun, so it wasn’t as if last week’s defeat was unexpected. What they must do next though is win, particularly as they have a repeat of last year’s final against Munster to look forward to after Saturday’s clash with Benetton in Treviso, and this time it is at Munster’s home ground of Thomond Park.
The Sharks and the Lions are of course in desperate need to get a win to their name, something the Sharks should be favoured to do in Parma in the first game of the weekend even though they only just squeaked home in the corresponding fixture last year. The Lions have lost thrice but none of their defeats has been by more than five points so they will want a change of luck as they come up against an enigmatic Scarlets team in Llanelli. Enigmatic because they do seem so much better on their home field than they looked when they were thumped twice on their recent tour to South Africa.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship matches
Zebre v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Parma, Friday 19.30)
Cardiff Rugby v Vodacom Bulls (Cardiff, Friday 21.35)
Ulster v Munster (Belfast, Friday 21.35)
Benetton v DHL Stormers (Treviso, Saturday 17.00)
Ospreys v Glasgow Warriors (Swansea, Saturday 19.15)
Scarlets v Emirates Lions (Llanelli, Saturday 19.15)
Edinburgh v Connacht (Edinburgh, Saturday 21.35)
Dragons v Leinster (Newport, Sunday 15.15)
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