Guide to this weekend’s BKT United Rugby Championship matches
WEEKEND PREVIEW – BTK URC ROUND 15
SCARLETS ON COOMBES COLLISION COURSE
The Scarlets will have their hands full containing Ireland squad member Gavin Coombes in Friday night’s showdown with Munster, as two in-form teams lock horns at a sold-out Musgrave Park in Cork.
Released from Six Nations duty a fortnight ago, the powerful No 8 produced one of the performances of Round 14 in the 58-3 demolition of the Ospreys in Limerick.
He not only scored a hat-trick of tries – the fourth of his career – but made more carries (23) than any other player in the league that weekend.
His try-scoring record really is prolific for a back row forward. He has touched down 11 times in 14 games for Munster this season, while his career tally for the province is 32 tries in 65 appearances.
So finding a way to stop the 25-year-old from Skibbereen will be a major priority for the Scarlets.
They will also have to keep a close eye on French-born, Irish-qualified centre Antoine Frisch, who made a round-high 114 metres against the Ospreys, while also producing three clean breaks and contributing a try.
Just to add further to the mix, Springboks lock RG Snyman returns on the bench having played just four games for the province over the past couple of years because of two knee ligament ruptures.
As for the Scarlets, Johnny McNicholl and Sione Kalamafoni have been the men stacking up the stats this season.
McNicholl has run for more metres (805) than any other player in the competition and pulled off the most offloads (21), adding another four in the victory over Edinburgh in the last round. Meanwhile, No 8 Kalamafoni remains top of the carrying chart.
The Welsh region, who welcome back fit-again internationals Josh Macleod, Tom Rogers and Johnny Williams, have won eight of their last nine matches in all competitions, while Munster are on a four-match winning streak in the league, so something has to give.
Scarlets head coach Dwayne Peel: “We have been growing and getting better. The boys are in a good space, but we realise the size of the challenge ahead of us this week. Munster are on a good run of form, they are playing well. It’s a massive step.
“I think it’s a good thing for us. Yeah, we have been on a bit of a run, but there’s no bigger test than going to Munster. It’s something we need at this present time. We need to be able to push ourselves against the likes of Munster when you have to travel over there. We need to see where we are at. I am looking forward to it as a coach and the players are looking forward to it. It will be a good test for us.”
Pretty much all the stats point to the DHL Stormers coming out on top as they take on the Cell C Sharks for the second time inside a month.
John Dobson’s defending champions won 46-19 in Durban at the beginning of February and now they are at home in Cape Town where they have won 17 consecutive fixtures.
In terms of their attacking threat, they are proving to be very effective from just about anywhere.
They have scored more tries (15) from their own half than any other team in the URC, while they have also touched down from a league-high 40 per cent of their 22 entries.
To add further to their productivity, they have the competition’s top-points scorer in Manie Libbok, who continues at fly-half. He has racked up an impressive 134 points, thanks to an 81 per cent success rate off the kicking tee.
Moreover, the Sharks went down to a 31-24 defeat at home to Ulster in a rearranged fixture last weekend, so the form book doesn’t look too healthy for them.
Director of Rugby Neil Powell has unsurprisingly made a number of changes for Saturday afternoon’s South African derby. One man who does keep his place is centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg and he has proved a real weapon this season, beating more defenders than any other player (31), while the visitors are pretty potent at scrum-time, having scored more tries (seven) from scrums than any other team.
If the Ospreys are to come out on top at home to Benetton on Saturday evening, it’s likely their scrummaging and carrying will be key factors looking at the stats.
Toby Booth’s team have won more scrum penalties (39) on their own feed than any other team in the URC – 12 more than next-best Glasgow Warriors – with their scrum success rate up at 93 per cent.
They also have the highest rate of dominant carry contacts, winning the collision with 26 per cent of their carries. Back row man Morgan Morris has led the way on that front, making 40 dominant carries – the third-highest total in the league.
Both teams will be looking to get back to winning ways, with Benetton having lost their last two league games and the Ospreys having gone down to a heavy 58-3 defeat at the hands of Munster in Round 14.
The Welsh region’s head coach Toby Booth said: “There were some parts of our performance out in Limerick that were uncharacteristic and we have spoken very honestly about that.
“We are in this to get as far down the track as we can. We want to get into the final knockings of all competitions. You are running out of games, so you have got to make sure you perform well.”
Flanker Dan Lydiate makes a welcome return for the Ospreys having recovered from the broken arm he suffered playing for Wales against Argentina in November.
Can Edinburgh succeed where everyone else has failed this season and defeat table-topping Leinster?
Well, they do ask attacking questions, as demonstrated by them having beaten more defenders than any other team (279), at an average of 19.9 per 80 minutes, with Jaco van der Walt and Nick Haining both beating six men apiece in Round 14.
But Leinster’s own stats are pretty daunting. They have scored the most tries in the URC (67) and conceded the joint-fewest (29). That goes a long way to explaining why they are unbeaten this season as they head for the Scottish capital.
Edinburgh will have to be particularly wary of tap penalties, with Leinster having scored 12 tries from those, six more than anyone else.
The Scottish side have won just one of their last seven fixtures, so the odds remain stacked in favour of the league leaders.
BOLTING THE FRONT DOOR
Cardiff Rugby boss Dai Young is under no illusions about what to expect from third-placed Ulster at the Arms Park on Saturday night.
“They are very direct with a real good set-piece. So it will definitely be all about physicality,” he said.
“There is nothing under-handed with them. They are coming through the front door and you have got to stand up and be counted.
You have got to try and win the collisions and win that gain-line.
“Field position will be important because they have got a real good driving lineout and pick-and-go game. If they get into your 22, they are one of the most deadly teams in the league.
“You have only got to look where they are sitting in the table really. They have had some real impressive away results, so they are a team that can travel.”
Giving the direct physicality of the visitors, fronting up in defence will be key for Cardiff and skipper Josh Turnbull will no doubt be the man setting the example there.
He has made the second-most tackles (163) in the league this season, with only back-row team-mate Thomas Young (170) ahead of him. Flanker Turnbull has also been a nuisance in more rucks than any other player (31).
Ulster have their own tackling machines, lock Harry Sheridan making 16 last time out, with hooker Tom Stewart and flanker Nick Timoney both just one behind on 15. So expect the Arms Park to shake with some mighty collisions.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rhys Carre (Cardiff)
Having been released from the Wales squad to get some game-time, the 20-cap prop will be aiming to put up his hand for a starting spot against Italy when he takes on Ulster at the Arms Park.
The strong-carrying loosehead has come off the bench in the first three Six Nations matches and now has eyes on that red No 1 jersey.
“Everyone wants to start for Wales, don’t they? That’s never been a doubt in my mind,” he says.
“It’s up to Warren (Gatland) at the end of the day. The more minutes I get on the pitch the better I feel and I will just look to give it 100 per cent every time I get out there.”
Tom Jordan (Glasgow Warriors)
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Jordan arrived in Scotland in 2019 to join the Ayrshire Bulls and was signed up by Glasgow after impressing in the Super 6 competition. A goal-kicking fly-half who can also operate in the centre, he’s a real threat when he takes the ball to the line. He showed that by producing four clean breaks and beating five defenders in the rearranged game against the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg last weekend when he also chipped in with a try.
So Zebre will have to keep a close eye on the 24-year-old who started out his rugby journey with Hamilton Old Boys.
Marco van Staden (Vodacom Bulls)
The breakdown is arguably the most important area of the game these days with more rucks than anything and there are few better in that department than the 27-year-old Springboks flanker.
Back in Pretoria after a season in England with Leicester, he has won the joint-highest number of turnovers in the league this season (14), with 11 of those having been jackals. Once he clamps himself over the ball, he is so hard to move given his rock-solid body shape and a physicality that allows him to survive the clean-out. He is likely to be a major thorn in the side for the Emirates Lions at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday afternoon.
Jacob Umaga (Benetton)
Rugby really runs in the blood of the 24-year-old who will wear No 10 against the Ospreys on Saturday evening. His father Mike forged a fine career in both codes of the game while his uncle Tana played 74 times for the All Blacks, with the late great Jerry Collins also a family member.
Born in Halifax, with his dad having played both league and union in Yorkshire, Jacob started out with the Leicester Tigers academy, but broke through with Wasps, making 72 appearances for them. When the English Premiership club went into administration last October, he signed a two-year deal with Benetton.
Niall Murray (Connacht)
The 23-year-old lock is building a real reputation for himself as a predatory lineout operator. He has pulled off by far the highest number of lineout steals in the league this season, with his tally of 13 being five more than the next-best, Munster’s Peter O’Mahony. So the warning is there to the Dragons this weekend. Try and avoid him.
Murray has big ambitions to make it onto the international stage and is aware what he needs to focus on to achieve that goal.
“I’d love to get into an Irish squad. My brain is perfect, I know how to read a game and I just need to get a bit more physical, a bit more size on me and we’ll see what the future holds. The goal is to be at 115kg consistently,” he said.
His younger brother Darragh is also a second row on the Connacht books with the pair having packed down together against Leinster on New Year’s Day.
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