Vodacom Bulls In The Standout Fixture Of The Opening Round Of The URC


The standout fixture of Round 1 sees PRO14 champions Leinster hosts Rainbow Cup SA winners Vodacom Bulls today @ 18:15 in Dublin at the Aviva Stadium.

Leinster have been the dominant force in the PRO14 over recent years, winning each of the last four editions of the competition.

They will be heavily fancied to challenge for the title again and their blockbuster opening fixture against the Bulls will give a good indication of how they might stack up against the new arrivals.

As well as topping the Rainbow Cup SA standings, the Bulls, the three-time Super Rugby champions, were winners of last year's Super Rugby Unlocked tournament and thumped the Cell C Sharks 44-10 in the Currie Cup final.

Leinster begin their campaign at Dublin's Aviva Stadium, where they have only lost once in 23 championship matches - by a point against Munster almost seven years ago.

It is almost as impressive a run against South African opposition, with six wins from seven, but they can expect a tough challenge from the Bulls.

Head Coach Leo Cullen named his team that will play in front of an expected crowd of 20,000. 

Cullen has made a number of changes from the team that faced Harlequins in the Bank of Ireland Pre-Season Friendly two weeks ago and there are a number of positional changes as well.

Hugo Keenan, Rory O'Loughlin and James Lowe are the back three selected by Cullen with Keenan and O'Loughlin seeing action for the first time this season against the Bulls. 

In the centre, Ciarán Frawley will also get his first taste of Leinster action this season as will Garry Ringrose beside him, with both players now fully recovered from shoulder injuries. 

In the half-backs, Cullen has chosen the same pair as started against 'Quins with the experienced duo of Luke McGrath and captain Johnny Sexton starting. 

In the pack, Andrew Porter has recovered from a foot injury and will start in the number one jersey for Leinster for the first time since November 2016. Dan Sheehan starts at hooker with Michael Ala'alatoa making his competitive debut at tighthead prop. 

Ross Molony and James Ryan will form an all-St. Michael's College second row unit when they line out tomorrow afternoon. 

Finally, in the back row, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris complete the starting XV for Cullen. Neither van der Flier nor Doris was involved at the Aviva two weeks ago.

On the bench, Cian Healy will wear the number 18 jersey, while Max Deegan will make his first competitive appearance for the club since October 2020 when he is introduced. 

Leinster's backline coach Felipe Contepomi said “It’s a big challenge. They are definitely the team in form in South Africa. They play really good rugby and they are really well-coached. I think it’s a big challenge for us.

“They are the new addition to this competition and playing against the reigning Currie Cup champions, that is a great challenge for us.

“The South African teams will add a different dimension in terms of scouting and how to approach a strong physical team like the Bulls. They will add a lot to this competition.”

Despite losing to Benetton in the Rainbow Cup final, the Vodacom Bulls head into the new campaign having been crowned Currie Cup champions for the second successive year.

They overcame the Sharks in the Loftus Versfeld final having suffered their last defeat to the same team in early August.

Bismarck du Plessis will make his Vodacom Bulls debut today. The 37-year-old hooker is set to add to the already existing stability of the front row, where he will partner with props Mornay Smith and Gerhard Steenekamp.

In the second row, Ruan Nortje and Walt Steenkamp will make up the lock pairing, while the familiar loose trio of captain, Marcell Coetzee, Arno Botha and Elrigh Louw will complete the forward's pack.

Flyhalf, Johan Goosen, returns to the starting XV for the half-back pairing with Zak Burger, while the midfield pair of Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe continue where they left off in South African domestic rugby. Madosh Tambwe, Cornal Hendricks and David Kriel complete the makeup of the starting XV as the outside backs.

Vodacom Bulls director of rugby, Jake White, said ahead of the game: “We have had some good momentum in the South African domestic scene, and we hope we can transfer that form to the Vodacom URC.

“We have a long and tough URC season ahead and it will be important how we manage our squad going forward. Equally, it is important we continue building on the winning culture we are creating at the Vodacom Bulls, so it is imperative we utilize our experienced workhorses and our exciting youngsters.

“We are in for great challenge in this quality championship against competitive opposition. To have the opportunity of facing a top side like Leinster Rugby will be the perfect opportunity to measure ourselves against one of the best sides in Europe.

“We have opted for continuity in our selection, with a team that has a good blend of youth and experience. We are confident that the inclusion of Bismarck du Plessis, whose experience is invaluable, will add great value both in our play and giving some direction as a leader.”

Leinster: 15. Hugo Keenan, 14. Rory O’Loughlin, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Ciarán Frawley, 11. James Lowe, 10. Johnny Sexton (captain), 9. Luke McGrath, 8. Caelan Doris, 7. Josh van der Flier, 6. Rhys Ruddock, 5. James Ryan, 4. Ross Molony, 3. Michael Ala’alatoa, 2. Dan Sheehan, 1. Andrew Porter. Replacements: 16. James Tracy, 17. Ed Byrne, 18. Cian Healy, 19. Ryan Baird, 20. Max Deegan, 21. Jamison Gibson-Park, 22. Ross Byrne, 23. Jamie Osborne.

Vodacom Bulls: 15. David Kriel, 14. Cornal Hendricks, 13. Lionel Mapoe, 12. Harold Vorster, 11. Madosh Tambwe, 10. Johan Goosen, 9. Zak Burger, 8. Elrigh Louw, 7. Arno Botha, 6. Marcell Coetzee (c), 5. Ruan Nortje, 4. Walt Steenkamp, 3. Mornay Smith, 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. Gerhard Steenekamp. Replacements: 16. Joe van Zyl, 17. Simphiwe Matanzima, 18. Jacques van Rooyen, 19. Janko Swanepoel, 20. Jacques du Plessis, 21. Keagan Johannes, 22. Chris Smith, 23. Stedman Gans.