Ulster Stay Top But Leinster Are The URC Team To Beat


In a weekend where inclement weather sent out an icy warning to the South African teams that are about to venture north of the equator, it was Leinster who again underlined why they are going to be so hard to keep away from the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship trophy.

Ulster impressed with the way they managed to keep control in driving rain and high winds at a drenched Rodney Parade in Newport on Sunday to hold onto top spot, but second placed Leinster have now closed the gap to just one point and they have a game in hand, as they do on Glasgow Warriors, who have the same number of log points that they do but are third because of inferior points difference.

Munster started the weekend by scoring a good win over Edinburgh that sees Johan van Graan’s team go back into the top four on the overall log for the first time in a while. By contrast, Edinburgh have in the space of just a few weeks gone from a strong second on the log down to fifth. 

From a South African perspective, Connacht’s good away win over Scarlets meant that the top local team at this point, the DHL Stormers, move to eighth from seventh. There is just one point between the two teams, with Connacht having played two games more, so this coming weekend’s clash in Galway offers a good carrot to the Stormers, who could also have Ospreys, well beaten by Leinster, in their sights if they win.

But for the Stormers and the Emirates Lions in particular, winning their one-off clashes this coming weekend is going to be particularly challenging. It is not just the class of the opposition, with the Lions having to travel to Dublin to clash with Leinster on Friday, that provides a formidable obstacle, but also the alien conditions they will be encountering.

While the weather should be more temperate in Italy, where the Cell C Sharks go to play Benetton and the Vodacom Bulls go to on Friday to play Zebre Parma, the UK and Ireland are in the throes of a particularly severe mid-winter. And on that note, the conditions that some of the games played this past weekend, when two severe weather systems hit the region, provided a discomforting warning to the traveling teams on what they should expect.

The South African teams are stepping out of their summer this coming weekend for one-off games, and it was the driving rain and wind that saw to it that several of the games were low scoring, with Ulster being dominant against the Dragons at Newport but only winning 12-0. Ditto the Glasgow Warriors in their 10 point win over Benetton. 

The wind wasn’t too bad but it rained during Leinster’s comprehensive win over the Ospreys, and several other games were storm hit. And the bad news for the Stormers and Lions in particular, for they face the toughest games, the long range forecast for next weekend suggests the weather then isn’t going to be much better.

Heavy rain and strong winds are predicted for Galway on Saturday, and it is similar in Dublin, where the Lions have the onerous task of playing against the in form Leinster unit on their home ground of RDS Arena.

The Bulls can expect rain too when they go to Parma on Friday to face Zebre Parma, but at least it is light rain predicted. And as they are playing against the bottom team on the log, perhaps the weather won’t be as big an issue for Jake White’s team. The Sharks can expect relatively mild weather for Saturday’s game against Benetton in Treviso, with no rain predicted and a high of 13 degrees, which is significantly warmer than the temperatures anticipated at the other venues.

Adjusting to the conditions is made more difficult by the fact that the South African teams to fly relatively late in the week. The Stormers for instance only fly out of Cape Town on Tuesday night so will only arrive in Galway with just two full days to acclimatise before match day. 

Apart from adjusting from the heat of the South African summer to the cold and damp of the northern winter, the two games in Ireland are going to demand big game adjustments from the two visiting South African teams, who were both committed to an expansive, dry weather condition style of rugby when they met in a derby match in Johannesburg eight days ago.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results

Munster 34 Edinburgh 20
Leinster 29 Ospreys 7
Glasgow Warriors 13 Benetton 3
Scarlets 23 Connacht 29
Dragons 0 Ulster 12
Cardiff Zebre postponed

Upcoming Vodacom URC fixtures

Zebre Parma v Vodacom Bulls (Parma, Friday 19.30)
Leinster v Emirates Lions (Dublin, Friday 21.35)
Connacht v DHL Stormers (Galway, Saturday 15.00)
Benetton v Cell C Sharks (Treviso, Saturday 17.05)