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The key battles and the players to watch as Welsh teams return to URC action

27 Jan 2023 9 minute read
Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel (Credit: Inpho Photography)

Simon Thomas

The stories behind the stats

Scarlets face rising Ruan

Dwayne Peel’s Scarlets must beware the rising threat of Vodacom Bulls skipper Ruan Nortje when they welcome the visitors from Pretoria on Friday evening as Round 13 of the BKT United Rugby Championship gets underway.

Second row Nortje, who stands 6ft 7ins tall, has won more lineouts than any other player in the league this season, a total of 64 so far.

He’s also demonstrated his skills in the loose by making more passes than any other forward (50), while’s he a definite physical presence, tipping the scales at 17st 11lbs. The 24-year-old is a young man with a real all-round game.

In addition to Nortje’s lineout dominance, the Bulls also possess a mighty scrummaging unit, but it’s not just at set-piece time they prosper. They are also highly effective off turnovers, scoring more tries from that area (11) than any other team.

Much of that is down to their jackal-work, which has seen them win the second highest number of penalties in the league (25) over the ball.

The Scarlets are on a great run, having won six of their last seven matches in all competitions, but coach Dwayne Peel is well aware of the challenge posed by a team that beat his side 57-12 ten months ago.

“The Bulls pumped us in Loftus last year is the truth. They go after you with their set-piece, so, first things first, you have to match their physicality. If you allow them to get a head of speed, they will hurt you up front and then they also have the ability to shift the ball and make use of their wheels on the edge,” said the former Wales and Lions scrum-half.

The Scarlets are boosted by the return from suspension of Tongan No 8 Sione Kalamafoni who is the league’s top carrier (150) and has also made the most post-contact metres (128) and the most dominant carry contacts (40).

Second wind

Glasgow will need to be on their guard when they come out for the second half at Rodney Parade on Saturday afternoon.

The Dragons have scored eight of their 29 URC tries this season in the 10 minutes after the interval, with only Edinburgh having notched up as many during that period.

As for the visitors, they will arrive in Newport in buoyant mood on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run in all competitions.

They are a hard team to contain in open play, having beaten more defenders (225) than any other side in the league, with their Argentine Test wing Sebastien Cancelliere leading the way on that front, having eluded no fewer that 28 would-be tacklers.

Fellow backs Kyle Steyn and Huw Jones were firmly in on the act during the thrilling victory over the Stormers in Round 12, beating nine and eight defenders respectively, while scrum-half George Horne (136) and back row Sione Vailanu (92) have made the most metres from ‘pick-and-gos’ in the competition.

Leinster’s Garry Ringrose (centre) scores against Racing 92. Photo Niall Carson PA Images

Defensive duties in Dublin

One stat that jumps out at you ahead of Saturday evening’s showdown at the RDS is that Leinster have made the most entries to the 22 this season (127) and their guests Cardiff the fewest (73). The table-topping Irish outfit have also have made more metres in contact than any other team (1,146) and scored the most tries in the league (54).

So Cardiff will have to be on their mettle defensively and a vital man there will be skipper Josh Turnbull. He is second-highest tackler (131) in the URC this season, with only his sidelined back-row colleague Thomas Young ahead of him.

When it comes to the Welsh team’s attacking game, much hinges on the creativity of their fly-half Jarrod Evans, who has made more miss-passes than any other player (42) in the league, with his passing also directly leading to eight clean breaks and four tries.

A continuing concern for Cardiff is their lineout. It’s the least successful in the URC (79%) and was an Achilles heel once again during last weekend’s Challenge Cup defeat out in Brive.

Benetton aiming to end ten-year drought

It’s a big game in Treviso on Saturday in terms of the play-off race, with Benetton and Munster lying sixth and seventh in the table respectively, with just a point between them. The Italians are on a real roll, having won six games on the bounce in all competitions.

History is against them when it comes to this fixture, as they haven’t beaten Munster since September 2013, but they have the winning habit right now, so could this be the moment for them to end their 13-match losing streak against the men in red?

Their Argentinian fly-half Tomas Albornoz is likely to be a key figure for them if they are to come out on top. He has an 89 per cent success rate with kicks at goal – the highest of anyone who has taken more than 20 shots – while he has also beaten the second-most defenders (27).

Sharks set-piece bite

As the Cell C Sharks head for the Scottish capital to take on Edinburgh, it’s revealing to look at what the stats say about their attacking approach.

They have thrown fewer passes than any other team (1,053), but have scored the most tries from scrums, with almost half of their touchdowns coming from first phase. So Edinburgh will have a good idea where the primary threat lies.

They come into this game fresh from their notable Heineken Champions Cup victory over Saracens. One of the stars of that show was Fijian No 8 Viliame Mata and he will have a pivotal role to play in getting over the gainline against the Sharks. He had made more carries (131), more contact metres (98) and more dominant carry contacts (34) than any other player in the Edinburgh squad.

More on Big Bill to come.

Five players to watch

Nicky Smith (Ospreys)

The omission that raised the most eyebrows when Warren Gatland named his Wales Six Nations squad last week was that of 41-cap loosehead prop Smith. His scrummaging has been simply immense, while he’s also highly effective over the ball and a real hard grafter.

Out of contract at the end of this season, he is reportedly a target for a number of English clubs, including the likes of Bath, Bristol, Gloucester and Northampton.

The Ospreys are understandably keen to hold on to the 28-year-old, with coach Toby Booth saying: “We’re hopeful we can make something happen. Nicky’s very important to us. He has been unbelievably good this year. He’s been one of our form players and he’s enjoying his rugby. I’m very clear on our intentions to keep him. He’s part of the fixtures and furnishings here.”

Smith’s standing is further reflected by him being chosen to skipper the Welsh region against Zebre out in Parma on Sunday afternoon.

Marvin Orie (Stormers)

When it comes to the lineouts, Orie rules the roost. He won more of them than any other player in URC Round 12, leaping to claim possession 11 times against Glasgow, while he has been the Stormers’ most regular target this season, taking a total of 52 balls at the set-piece. The seven-times capped Springbok has been in Cape Town since 2020, having had previous spells with the Bulls, the Lions and the Ospreys in Wales. Now 29, he brings bags of experience and leadership, which he will look to utilise as he skippers John Dobson’s reigning league champions against Ulster in Belfast on Friday night.

Viliame Mata (Edinburgh)

Having fully recovered from the serious knee injury which kept him out for the second half of last season, big Bill is really firing again. He is second only to the Scarlets’ Sione Kalamafoni in terms of carries in the URC this season, with 131, and he had an immense game in last weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup victory over Saracens.

The Fijian powerhouse is likely to be a key man for Edinburgh once again when they host the Cell C Sharks on Saturday evening in a meeting that will be crucial for both teams’ play-off hopes as eighth faces ninth.

Coach Mike Blair said: “Bill was out with his ACL last year and sometimes it just takes a little bit of time. It’s probably taken him seven or eight games to get back up to the level, but he has been great for us the last few weeks. He has really stepped up.”

Luke McGrath (Leinster)

There are few better at popping up on a shoulder at just the right moment than the 19-times capped scrum-half. He has made more metres (87) as a support carrier than any other player this season, being rewarded for those astute running lines. He has also forced the joint-most pressure errors with his kicking, which is such a big part of the game for a No 9 these days, so Cardiff will have to be on their guard in the back field at the RDS on Saturday.

Born in Ontario, Canada, McGrath moved to Ireland at a young age, going on to attend University College Dublin, with his Leinster debut coming against the Dragons in May 2012, when he was just 18.
Having had a spell out with an ankle injury, he came through his return with no issues last weekend and will be a key man for Leinster now with fellow scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park away with Ireland.

Lorenzo Pani (Zebre)

The 20-year-old full-back will be looking to make up for last time against the Ospreys as he returns from the three week suspension he picked up for being red card against Benetton on New Year’s Eve.
He’s in his first season with Zebre having being a starring member of the Italy U20s team that finished fourth in last summer’s World Rugby series in Treviso. At 6ft 4ins, he stands out from the crowd behind the scrum, while he knows his way to the try-line, having touched down three times in ten games this term. A young man with strong will and big ambitions by all accounts.

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