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BKT URC Round 17 Preview: Botham eyes Wales recall after three months on the sidelines

17 May 2024 13 minute read
James Botham scores for Cardiff. Photo ©INPHO/SteveHaagSports/Willem Loock

Simon Thomas

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Cardiff Rugby, Saturday 5.15pm

Having seen his Six Nations campaign cut short at the first hurdle, James Botham will be looking to force his way back into the Wales mix with big performances in his final games of the season.

The Cardiff flanker earned a starting spot at No 6 for the opening fixture of the Championship against Scotland at the Principality Stadium.

But he was forced off with a damaged knee early in the second half just after scoring a try.

That consigned him to more than three months on the sidelines – the latest in a series of setbacks on the fitness front over the past year or so.

But now he’s back playing again and looking to end the season with a bang, firstly in this weekend’s Durban clash and then the high-profile Judgement Day meeting with the Ospreys.

Eye-catching displays there could see him earn a recall to the Wales squad for next month’s Twickenham Test against South Africa and the summer tour of Australia.

Freak injury

Reflecting on his Six Nations blow, the 26-year-old says: “It’s like anything in rugby. You can be in your absolute prime and be as fit as you are and a freak injury can happen.

“I felt like I was in great shape going into the Six Nations and my knee goes. I can’t help that. It’s just a freak accident. It’s one of those things. It’s rugby, it’s the game we play.

“You don’t know what’s round the corner. You never know, so you’ve just got to take everything with a pinch of salt.

“It was tough and tricky, but it is what it is and it’s just good to be back.”

Botham made his return as a replacement against Edinburgh at the end of last month and then played the full game versus the Lions last weekend.

“It was great to be back playing with the boys and having a full 80 straight away,” he said.

“It’s not been great for me in terms of game-time over the last year or so. I’ve been a bit unlucky in that.”

As for his hopes of a Wales recall, he says: “You’ve just got to play rugby.

“You obviously always want to be there and try and get the spot, but you can’t get too ahead of yourself.

“You’ve just got to play every game as it comes and then it’s up to the coaches to make the decision on what they want to go with. It’s out of my control really. The only control I have got is to turn up and try and play as well as I can against the teams we have got left – Sharks and Ospreys – and hopefully prove enough of a point to get the spot.

“I just need to keep my head down and do what I can.”

The versatile Botham lines up on the openside this weekend, while old pals Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee Lo are reunited in the centre.

For the first time this season, Tinus de Beer doesn’t start, with Ben Thomas shifting to No 10. But the South African fly-half still has a key role to play back in his homeland, as he is covering scrum-half on the bench, with Ellis Bevan being Cardiff’s only fit No 9 following the facial fracture suffered by Gonzalo Bertranou against the Lions.

The Sharks have made 14 changes as they rest their star front-liners ahead of the Challenge Cup final against Gloucester. Second row Corne Rahl the only survivor from the side that started against Benetton last Saturday.

Zebre Parma v Scarlets, Friday 7.35pm

A basement battle between two sides wanting to avoid finishing bottom of the table.

Zebre haven’t won in the league since beating the Hollywoodbets Sharks in November, while the Scarlets have only recorded one victory in their last 13 matches in all competitions.

So there’s an opportunity for someone to end a barren spell.

Scarlets assistant coach Emyr Phillips admitted: “It’s not the type of game you want to play in when we are speaking about bottom of the table clashes.

“But there’s a good feeling in the group where I don’t think these are just end of season games with nothing to play for.

“We know the emotion Zebre are going to bring to it. They are a different team at home, so we realise what’s going to come. Then we’ve got the Dragons, so it will be two big emotional fixtures in terms of what we can expect to be up against. We are looking to match that and hopefully we can move up the table a little bit.

“We are encouraging the boys to move the ball and play rugby. We are looking to bring smiles on faces and have a bit of fun these last two games because the pressure has been on us a lot of the season and we have probably seen it in a few of our performances.”

The hosts’ head coach Fabio Roselli said: “We are aware of the importance of the match and we know we need a great performance to put Zebre back on the right track and finish the season in the best way. We want to honour the club and all our supporters.”

For the Scarlets, Ioan Lloyd takes over from fellow Wales fly-half Sam Costelow at No 10, while young outside back Macs Page is in line to make his league debut off the bench.

Ospreys Head Coach Toby Booth with the media. Credit ©INPHO/Ben Brady

Ospreys v Dragons RFC, Saturday 3pm

Ospreys coach Toby Booth says it would be “a huge achievement” for his team to make the URC play-offs given the challenges they have faced this season.

Booth’s men are down in eleventh place in the table and eight points off eighth spot with just two rounds of matches to go.

But if they can record Welsh derby victories over the Dragons and Cardiff Rugby – ideally with bonus points – they could yet make the cut, looking at the fixtures facing their rivals.

The Ospreys have had to overcome a reduced playing budget and injury issues to remain in the frame through to the business end of the campaign.

“It’s basically about how much competitiveness have you got through the depth,” said Booth.

“We have had a lot of injuries this year, particularly in the back five of the scrum.

“So I think it would be a huge achievement for us to make the play-offs and we are still in with an opportunity to do that with two games to go. We are still alive.

“That speaks volumes for the players, their attitude and their want to be good. If you have got that and the effort that requires, then you have always got a chance.

“We have got our sights on qualifying if we can. That would be a very good reflection on the work that has gone on because it doesn’t happen by accident.”

The Ospreys go into the Swansea showdown with the Dragons looking to bounce back from heavy defeats away to the Bulls and Leinster.

“That’s done, we have got to move on and look at what we can do and that starts with this weekend,” said Booth.

“It just so happens it’s a Welsh derby which adds a bit more spice to it.

“Healthy competition gets us where we need to go.”

Giving his thoughts on the Ospreys, Dragons coach Dai Flanagan said: “They have been impressive.

“They have evolved through the year, both with and without the ball. They are further down the line. They move the ball a lot more than they did at the start of the season when they knew what their strength was – their set-piece and their kicking game – and they went to that all the time. Now they have the ability to change the point of attack.”

Wales hooker Dewi Lake will be hoping for a double celebration as he makes his 50th appearance for the Ospreys just a couple of days after his 25th birthday, while fit-again fellow World Cup captain Jac Morgan comes into the back row.

For the Dragons, Welsh international forwards Taine Basham and Ben Carter are drafted into the pack, with lock Carter having completed his suspension.

Remaining games

Edinburgh Rugby v Munster Rugby, Friday 7.35pm

The first of two sell-outs in the URC this weekend, with a capacity crowd of 7,774 set to watch this meeting between two in-form teams at Hive Stadium.

Edinburgh have moved up to seventh with successive victories over the Scarlets, Cardiff Rugby and Zebre Parma, boosting their hopes of making the play-offs.

Meanwhile, reigning champions Munster have won seven league matches on the trot and are now just two points off top spot in third.

For the hosts, the challenge is to claim the victory they believe will nail down a place in the play-offs, while the visitors are also in search of a precious win as they look to finish in the top two to earn extended home advantage in the knock-out stages.

Edinburgh head coach Sean Everitt is expecting “an electric atmosphere” and says his players will be “fired up” when they step out in front of a full house at a buzzing Hive Stadium.

“This is a massive game for us and the energy our fans create will be crucial in driving us forward from the first whistle,” said the South African.

“The squad have put in a huge shift this season and this is a chance to solidify everything we’ve worked for.”

For Munster, 30-year-old back row forward Jack O’Donoghue will become the youngest ever player to reach the landmark of 200 appearances for the province.

A win would see the title holders move above Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby at the top of the table, albeit perhaps just temporarily.

Vodacom Bulls v Benetton Rugby, Saturday 3pm

Bulls boss Jake White says it’s testament to the competitiveness of the URC that it’s all going down to the wire.

White’s team currently lie in fourth, but they are just four points behind leaders Glasgow and hot on the tails of Irish duo Leinster and Munster.

They will be hoping to capitalise on being the only one of the top four at home this weekend, but at the same time they are up against a Benetton team desperate for points to maintain their play-off push.

Former Springboks coach White said: “This weekend has so many permutations still. We could win and still remain in fourth.

“That is what’s nice about the competition, it all goes down to the final weekend.”

Looking at Benetton, he said: “They beat the Sharks last week in Durban with a good team, nothing makeshift.

“They deserve to be in the top eight as they currently are now and they beat us in the Rainbow Cup a few years ago. There is no reason for us to underestimate them.

“They have done well, recruited well and their season has been good. They have beaten some good teams.”

Benetton’s match-winner against the Sharks, Jacob Umaga, added his thoughts about playing at Loftus Versfeld.

“Not many teams win there, so it’s a difficult place to go and it’s going to be a difficult challenge,” said the utility back.

“But we are going there with the mindset to perform for 80 minutes and to get as much out of it as we can.”

Emirates Lions v Glasgow Warriors, Saturday 3.05pm

Having picked up two priceless points with a late rally in last weekend’s 40-34 defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria, league leaders Glasgow now move on to Johannesburg.

It will be another testing encounter for them on South African soil, with the Lions having to win to stay in the mix for the play-offs.

Head coach Franco Smith, who has made five changes, said: “Training this week has been competitive and focused, with everyone looking forward to the challenge.

“The Lions are a dangerous side across the field. They have the ability to hurt any team in transition and will look to attack from anywhere. They will provide us with a stern test and we know that we will have to be at our best.”

Flanker Emmanuel Tshituka is promoted to the Lions starting line-up after scoring two late tries off the bench to secure a bonus point in last weekend’s 34-13 victory over Cardiff, with fly-half Gianni Lombard and wing Rabz Maxwane also brought into the side.

Connacht Rugby v DHL Stormers, Saturday 5.05pm

Stormers boss John Dobson is looking for a sharper display from his team in this Galway battle between two play-off contenders.

Dobson was far from happy with the overall performance in last weekend’s 44-21 victory over the Dragons at Rodney Parade, where they trailed 21-16 with just 15 minutes left to play.

“While we were pleased with the way we finished, we know there are many areas we can sharpen up in and this is another great opportunity to refine our game with the play-offs approaching,” said the director of rugby.

“We know Connacht will be desperate to win in their last home game of the season and the obvious pressure of the log will ramp up the intensity even further.”

Connacht coach Pete Wilkins says it will be “a momentous occasion” and “a massive game” at the Showground.

Retiring full-back Tiernan O’Halloran will play the final home game of a 15 year career with the west of Ireland province.

Ulster Rugby v Leinster Rugby, Saturday 7.35pm

The second full house of the weekend with an 18,000-plus crowd set to watch this huge Irish provincial derby.

A win would all but guarantee Ulster a place in the play-offs, while Leinster have their sights set on reclaiming top spot from Glasgow.

So it should be some occasion at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium.

Richie Murphy will be aiming to celebrate his appointment as Ulster’s permanent head coach following a successful stint in an interim position.

“It’s no secret I was keen to stay on in the role because I can see what is building here,” said the former Ireland U20s boss.

“I’ve had a very enjoyable start to my time with the club and I’m excited now to move on to the next stage.

“We have a very talented group and, together with a loyal and dedicated supporter base, I’m relishing the opportunity to see what we can all achieve together.”

The immediate goal is to secure an all-important win over visitors Leinster, who welcome back Ireland stars Hugo Keenan and James Ryan from injury, with second row Ryan taking on the captaincy.

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