Previews – Round 5 Vodacom United Rugby Championship


With just five points separating the top placed team, the Vodacom Bulls, and the 10th placed Ospreys the first four rounds of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship have underlined the impression that there is much more jeopardy in the competition this season.


Edinburgh Rugby v Vodacom Bulls - 21:35 SA time, Friday

One of the games of the weekend to kick things off. Having beaten the previous league leaders, Connacht, last weekend, Edinburgh now take on the new table toppers as they welcome their guests from Pretoria.

They are boosted by the return of Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie who hasn’t played since being injured in the World Cup clash with Ireland six weeks ago.

Ritchie packs down on the blindside flank, while fellow international Ali Price is set to make his Edinburgh debut off the bench, with the 66-times capped scrum-half having joined on a season-long loan from Glasgow.

Test winger Duhan van der Merwe has hit the ground running on his return to domestic duty, beating eight defenders in the dramatic home victory over Connacht, more than any other player in Round 4.

Head coach Sean Everitt said: “The supporters will have a major role to play once again. The atmosphere at the Hive Stadium was nothing short of electric last weekend. The noise and chants boosted the team until the very last play.”

His Vodacom Bulls opposite number, Jake White, commented: “It is nice to be top of the log, but we have to learn from the past.

“Munster/Ulster were nowhere after five rounds last season, the DHL Stormers were nowhere after round 5 in year one of the competition. It is still early days, so it is not a given that you will be there at the back end of the competition if you are at the top in the early parts.

“But it is nice, it is nice that we are there and we are there at the end of our tour and we have got there rotating our squad too.”

Zebre Parma v Cardiff Rugby - 21:35 SA time, Friday

It will be reunion time in Parma, with former Cardiff coach Richard Hodges now in charge of the defence for Zebre.

After a decade at the Arms Park, Hodges moved to northern Italy over the summer. He has helped habitual strugglers Zebre make a much improved start to the season, culminating in last weekend’s 12-10 victory over the Hollywoodbets Sharks, which ended a 22-match losing run in the Vodacom URC.

Cardiff’s attack coach Richie Rees commented: “We know Richard will have something up his sleeve.

“He has coached the vast majority of our squad, so they know him, he knows them. It might work in his favour, it might also work in ours.

“Zebre are definitely going to be on a high after picking up that victory last week. It’s about managing that emotion and concentrating on us.”

Hodges said: “We are beginning to get some respect back. It’s about changing perceptions and I think we have done that in our early games.

“Last year, Zebre got 11 league points in the whole season. We set ourselves a target of trying to get those 11 points in the first five games because four of them are at home. We have already got nine, so our aim is to get at least two against Cardiff.”

Ulster Rugby v Emirates Lions - 21:35 SA time, Friday

The stats after the first four rounds of matches speak volumes about Ulster’s defensive work-rate and resilience.

They have made more tackles (680) than any other team, while two of their players are out in front in the individual stakes, with back row duo Nick Timoney and David McCann having each put in 64 hits.

Timoney takes a break this weekend, so that sees the 23-year-old McCann move to No 8 after producing a Player of the Match performance from the blindside flank in last weekend’s 21-14 victory over Munster.

Speaking about McCann, who has also won the joint most turnovers (six) in the league, head coach Dan McFarland said: “He’s one of our standout players at the moment.He has made a real impact for us.”

The Emirates Lions will be looking to build on their late victory over the Scarlets, as lock forward Ruben Schoeman makes his 50th appearance.

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Connacht Rugby - 17:00 SA time, Saturday

The Hollywoodbets Sharks will be relieved to be back on home soil in Durban after a torrid time in Europe which brought successive defeats to Munster, Leinster, Ospreys and Zebre, leaving them bottom of the table.

Head coach John Plumtree, who returned to the helm earlier this year, admitted: “It was a disappointing tour and we picked up some key injuries in the same positions, which have been tricky to navigate especially with eight of our Springboks unavailable.

“We could have picked up a win or two, but that didn’t happen. It’s a difficult period right now because no one likes losing.

“When I came in, I knew there would be no overnight fix, but what I can promise our fans is we will do everything we can to get things right and do this jersey proud again.

“We will continue to work hard to get some momentum going and improve our results at home.”

The Hollywoodbets Sharks have Springboks centre Lukhanyo Am back in action, but international front row duo Bongi Mbonambi and Vincent Koch face long lay-offs with knee injuries, while lock Hyron Andrews and No 8 George Cronje are both suspended for four games after a red card and citing respectively against Zebre.

Plumtree added: “Connacht are a real threat and it’s going to be a tough challenge for us. I’m hoping our energy for this first game back is high and we get a good crowd that cheers us on.”

The visitors welcome back tighthead prop Finlay Bealham as they make eight changes from their last-gasp defeat to Edinburgh, but fellow Ireland World Cup stars Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen have not travelled out to South Africa due to injury.

Dragons RFC v Ospreys - 19:15 SA time, Saturday

The Dragons are aiming to repay their loyal Rodney Parade fans who have had to sit through three home defeats already this season.

Dai Flanagan’s team have lost to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leinster at their Newport base. Now they are looking to make it fourth time lucky when they entertain the Ospreys.

Wales wing Rio Dyer, who scored two tries in a 32-25 victory in the corresponding fixture just over a year ago, said: “We want to give the fans what they want.

“They come out in the rain, the cold, the snow to come and watch us. They take the time out of their day, so it’s up to us to give it back to them with the results.

“We have to give 110 per cent and do it for the fans and for ourselves. Every Welsh player loves the derbies, so the emotions will be there.”

Echoing Dyer’s comments, Dragons skipper Steff Hughes said: “We are well aware of the fans’ support and we would love to give them something to cheer about this weekend.

“They are very faithful and have been very passionate over the years.”

Matthew Screech makes his 150th Vodacom URC appearance as he packs down alongside Welsh international Ben Carter in the Dragons second row, with Ollie Griffiths returning on the openside.

The Ospreys have flanker Jac Morgan back on board, alongside his fellow Wales World Cup co-captain Dewi Lake, who put in a round-best 17 carries against Glasgow last weekend. Daniel Kasende, on loan from the Cheetahs of Bloemfontein, covers the back three from the bench.

Head Coach Toby Booth said: “Rodney Parade is a tough place to go. It’s a Welsh derby so there are plenty of emotions kicking about.”

Munster Rugby v DHL Stormers - 19:15 SA time, Saturday

The DHL Stormers will be looking for revenge for their defeat to Munster in the Grand Final in Cape Town back in May.

Springboks hooker Joseph Dweba comes in to start, along with fit-again centre Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu among a number of changes from last Saturday’s defeat to Benetton Rugby.

Head Coach John Dobson said: “We know we will have to lift our standards in a number of areas and the players who are coming in are all keen to make their presence felt in what will be a tough game at Thomond Park.”

Munster captain Peter O’Mahony and fellow Ireland World Cup forward Tadhg Beirne make their first appearances of the season, along with scrum-half Conor Murray who is among the replacements.

O’Mahony will pack down in the back row alongside No 8 Gavin Coombes, who is one of the real form players in the Vodacom URC, topping the carrying chart with 64.

Glasgow Warriors v Benetton Rugby - 21:35 SA, Saturday

The only unbeaten record in the league so far this season will be put to a stern test as Benetton head to Scotstoun on the back of three wins and a draw.

Second row Federico Ruzza will be a go-to man for them, having won nine lineouts in last weekend’s victory over DHL Stormers, the most by any player in the round, while no team has pulled off more turnovers than the Italian outfit. (35)

For Glasgow boss Franco Smith, it will be a fixture with added resonance as he coached in Treviso from 2007 to 2013.

“Benetton will pose a strong test,” said the former Springbok.

“They have recruited well, had 22 players participate in the World Cup and they’re at the top of their game at the moment. They’ve shown they can win away from home this season and pose a real all-round threat.

“We know we will need to be at our best and it’s a challenge the players are incredibly excited by.”

Leinster Rugby v Scarlets - 21:35 SA time, Saturday

Leinster welcome back more internationals this weekend, with centre Garry Ringrose, lock James Ryan and full-back Hugo Keenan the latest to return.

Head coach Leo Cullen has been speaking about how his Ireland World Cup contingent have handled the heartbreak of the World Cup exit at the hands of New Zealand.

“There was huge disappointment clearly,” he said.

“You have lost a knock-out game after going undefeated for 17 matches and it’s a game where there were opportunities to win it.

“It’s one of those that sticks in the memory for players, but you have got to dust yourself off and go again and that’s a real indication of what proper mental strength is.

“That’s the journey a lot of guys have to go on and try and it’s about trying to make yourself stronger for the future.

“Everyone goes through it from a different lens. Everyone feels it to some degree.”

Leinster host a Scarlets team which led the Emirates Lions for virtually the entire game last weekend only to go down to a late try.

“They would have been disappointed how that match ended,” said Cullen.

“They had the game in the bag really. We have got to make sure we are ready for it in terms of when the backlash is going to come.”

Wales centre Johnny Williams has recovered from a hamstring problem to start for the Scarlets amid 10 changes from the team that came so close at home to the Emirates Lions.