URC – Preview – Irish Inconsistency Helps SA Challenge

 

Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White was unequivocal ahead of his team’s massive Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby against the DHL Stormers about the mission his men face, he wants them to finish in the top two and thus give themselves a good chance of hosting a final.

Beating the Stormers, who are probably the toughest opponents they will face at home during the remainder of the league phase, will considerably ease that quest. But even if the Bulls don’t win, there will then be a great chance of both of the Loftus protagonists finishing at the very least in the top four, with much hinging on how the Irish teams respond to the pressure they are currently under.

The Hollywoodbets Sharks have lost too many games to be in contention, but the Emirates Lions, who host the Sharks in Johannesburg on Saturday, are in with a shout at making it three local teams in the top eight. It won’t be three in the top five as it was in the inaugural season, but three in the top eight will be a big improvement on last season for South Africa.

Two in the top four will certainly make up for the disappointment from last season, where only the beaten finalists, the Stormers, who finished third, got to host a playoff game. Conversely, Ireland dominated the top eight, with Leinster, eventual winners Munster, Ulster and Connacht all making it into the playoffs and qualifying for the Investec Champions Cup.

Irish domination may still happen, and this weekend’s 11th round could provide a dramatic swing. Connacht, currently 10th, could make it as high as fifth if some other results go their way. And ditto ninth-placed Munster.

But Ireland getting more than leaders Leinster into the top four is not the racing certainty it was this time last year and improvements are going to be needed by all three Irish provinces that are lagging.

Although the Ireland national team look likely to pull off a record-breaking second successive Guinness Six Nations triumph, it hasn’t gone as well for their provinces in the URC, and even Leinster haven’t dictated the log battle in the way they did in the first two seasons.

Seventh-placed Ulster are the only other Irish team in the top half of the table with eight matches to go, and many eyes will be on them at the weekend as they start life without their long-serving former coach Dan McFarland. This time last year Ulster lay second on the log, but although they did score a rare win over Leinster in a festive season derby, they have struggled for consistency in 2023/24.

It was a record that read just three wins in their last nine games that led to McFarland being axed in mid-season, and the upheaval that ensued after that decision demands some kind of response in Ulster’s home game against the Dragons on Saturday. They will be expected to beat the Welsh team, but then that was also the expectation when they went away to another Welsh team, the Ospreys, last time out.

Dan Soper has taken over as coach for this game. Ireland Under-20 head coach Richie Murphy, who is the early favourite to become the full-time head coach, will steer the ship once the international season is over.

Ulster’s performance will be closely watched and analysed by the South African teams, not just because of the potential threat the Belfast team poses on the log, but also because they are set to tour this country at the end of the month. Ulster will face the Sharks and Stormers in a tour that could make or break their challenge.

Soper has called on every member of Ulster Rugby to take collective responsibility for McFarland’s sacking and in his words there was the hint of a potential bounce back from the team driven by acceptance of ownership for what had happened to McFarland.

“This is not one person’s responsibility, whether we’re good, bad or indifferent, it’s not one person’s responsibility. We’re in this together and we all have to own what has happened,” said Soper to the Irish media.

“It’s not nice. It’s not a comfortable thing to have sitting on your shoulders that in some way you may be partly responsible, so I’ve just asked the group that the best way that we can react to it is to react in a really positive way and make sure that this turmoil was worth it. The only way we can do that is to go out and perform when we cross the white line on Saturday night.”

A big performance, thus telegraphing a potential turn-around, will be seen as a warning by the SA teams currently profiting from Ulster’s absence from the top part of the log. Yet it is not only Ulster under pressure, for two semifinalists from last season, Munster and Connacht, are below them on the log.

Munster should have too much for Zebre at home on Friday night, which depending on other results could propel them to as high as fourth or fifth on the log. Connacht too can do a lot of climbing if they get the better of visitors Scarlets. There are currently just four points separating fourth from 10th place.

In terms of the quest for top four spots, the big games outside of the Pretoria game that so many South Africans are focussed on are Edinburgh (6th) hosting the eighth-placed Ospreys, and second-placed Glasgow Warriors travelling to Treviso to face fourth-placed Benetton in a game that also operates as a top of the table clash in the Scotland/Italy Shield.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (round 11)
Munster v Zebre (Friday, 21:35)
Edinburgh v Ospreys (Friday, 21:35)
Emirates Lions v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Saturday, 15:00)
Benetton v Glasgow Warriors (Saturday, 17:00)
Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers (Saturday, 17:05)
Connacht v Scarlets (Saturday, 19:05)
Cardiff Rugby v Leinster (Saturday, 21:35)
Ulster v Dragons (Saturday, 21:35)