URC – It’s Time To See Six Nations’ Impact On URC

 

The Guinness Six Nations is now over and it will be interesting to see how the performances of the teams dominated by clubs and provinces competing in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship might impact on that competition as it heads into a crucial phase.

With the international competition now behind us, the URC takes centre stage again, and there is a crucial fortnight of riveting matches to look forward to before the attention switches at the start of April to the Investec Champions Cup knock-out matches.

You just have to look at the coming weekend to see what is meant by that, Glasgow Warriors against Cardiff Rugby and Ospreys against Munster kick off the fair on Friday night, with all four of those teams arguably still having much to play for. Ulster needs to win against the Hollywoodbets Sharks the next day to get their quest for a top-four finish really into focus, the DHL Stormers and Edinburgh are close together on the log, and the same can be said for Connacht and the Emirates Lions, who clash in Galway.

The Bulls should be fancied to beat the Dragons in Newport but the Bulls have fluffed it a few times in Wales before, so the only top contending team that really has it easy this weekend is arguably log leaders Leinster, who travel to Parma. Benetton might argue that point, but then much could depend for their trip to Scarlets on how many of their Six Nations players are available for this first game.

It is usually customary for international players to be eased back after the Six Nations, which means that it is the following week when the Bulls visit Dublin and Connacht go to Benetton that Leinster and Benetton could have a quasi-Ireland and quasi-Italy look to them.

Ireland narrowly missed out on what would have been a second successive Grand Slam but they did complete back-to-back Six Nations trophy successes, so it is going to be interesting to see how that impacts Leinster. Ditto Benetton, who has now dropped out of the top four in the URC after being there most of the season but who could benefit from a confidence viewpoint from Italy’s great finish to the Six Nations.

Italy’s win over Wales in the final game may have been an even bigger statement than the one against Scotland in Rome the week before because it was achieved in Cardiff in a game they went into as clear favourites. Such an expectation can heap extra pressure, and yet Italy did the job. Don’t be fooled by the narrow three-point winning margin, Italy were streets better on the day, and in the tournament as a whole.

Why this is relevant to the URC is because the core of the Italy team is made up of Benetton players. And the core of the Leinster team is made up of Ireland players who have just tasted another Six Nations success. There were no less than 10 Leinster players in the starting team for the win over Scotland that clinched the title for Ireland. And 16 in the match 23.

It was a similar story for Benetton in the Italian team, while Glasgow Warriors provided a significant portion of the Scotland team that experienced what for them must have been a very frustrating tournament. Frustrating because had the try that should have won them their match against France been awarded, they would have ended their campaign second, just three behind Ireland.
It was indeed a Six Nations of fine margins, and while three URC-represented nations finished in the last three positions, it could very easily have been Ireland, Scotland and Italy in the top three. Italy have confirmed their rise by making it to ninth in the World Rugby rankings, at the expense of Australia, which means that five of the top nine in the world, including the top two, South Africa and Ireland, are URC nations.

Wales was the one nation not dominated by a particular URC team and they finished last with no wins, and should now lose their eighth position on the rankings to Italy. The Ospreys are their top-performing URC team and they don’t have the international representation they had in the recent past.

For Leinster, Glasgow and Benetton however, the next fortnight is going to be a period of adjusting from Six Nations footing back to URC footing. Quite a bit has been said about the impact those provinces and clubs had on the Six Nations campaigns of their team, now it’s time to see how it works the other way around.
Ireland and Leinster of course have been there before, the difference this time maybe being that Leinster are not as far ahead on the log as they were in recent seasons and have a fight on their hands. In the Italy case, it is reasonable to expect Benetton to build positively on what the core of their team has achieved at the international level.

This weekend’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (SA Times)

Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Rugby (Friday, 21.35)
Ospreys v Munster (Friday, 21.35)
Hollywoodbets Sharks v Ulster (Saturday, 15.00)
Scarlets v Benetton (Saturday, 17.00)
DHL Stormers v Edinburgh (Saturday, 17.05)
Connacht v Emirates Lions (Saturday, 19.15)
Dragons v Vodacom Bulls (Saturday, 21.35)
Zebre v Leinster (Saturday, 21.35)