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United Rugby Championship week 14 review

19 Feb 2023 9 minute read
Record attendence at Loftus Versfeld. Photo

Simon Thomas

Dai sees it going down to the wire

Cardiff Rugby boss Dai Young believes the battle for BKT United Rugby Championship top eight play-off spots could well go right down to the wire as he reflects on his team’s all-important 30-13 bonus point victory over Benetton at the Arms Park.

When 15-point utility back Ben Thomas crossed in the final play to secure the four-try bonus, it took Young’s men above the Italians on points difference and up to ninth, just one point behind Connacht who currently occupy the final play-off position.

“We knew this was a huge game for us. If we didn’t get that result, things would start

to look more and more difficult,” said director of rugby Young.“The players have been outstanding, their focus in training has been excellent and I am really pleased with that performance and that result.

“We won the second half 14-0, playing into the wind, so that’s a big tap on the back for the players. There were big smiles on the faces coming off the field and that’s what playing rugby is all about.

“We have got Ulster here in a couple of weeks, so that’s another massive game. All we can do is pick up as many points as we can moving forward.

“It could go right down to the wire. We are hoping that come the last game on Judgement Day we are going there with a realistic chance of getting in that top eight and challenging to be the best-placed Welsh region. But there are three games before that which we have got to get right as well.”

There was also a big bonus point win for the Scarlets, who ran in five tries in beating Edinburgh 42-14, with winger Ryan Conbeer crossing twice. They have now won eight of their last nine matches in all competitions, turning their season on its head.

Skipper Sione Kalamafoni commented: “It feels very good to keep that momentum going. The boys have been working very hard and it’s shown in the last few weeks. I am extremely proud for the fans, families and friends.”

Head coach Dwayne Peel added: “We prepared really well for this game. The boys have trained really hard. We were physical when we needed to be, we gave a big performance defensively and were clinical. I’m very pleased and it’s good to carry on the momentum.”

Record crowd

A record crowd of 41,205 turned out at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld to watch the DHL Stormers defeat the Vodacom Bulls 23-19 in a repeat of last season’s BKT URC final.It was the biggest attendance for a league match in South Africa and it was a titanic tussle to match the occasion, with the reigning champions turning round a 12-3 deficit.

They claimed tries through back row men Marcel Theunissen and Junior Pokomela, with fly-half Manie Libbok landing five shots at goal, while the Vodacom Bulls’ one touchdown came from winger Sbu Nkosi.

DHL Stormers coach John Dobson said: “I’m very proud of the character shown by the team. We knew the level of motivation and desperation for this game and that the first 20, 30 minutes would be really tough.

“At 12-3 down we were under the pump, but the way we stayed in the fight, got into the lead at half time and then started the second half was magic – and then the character at the end. That’s what this team is about, what happened in those last 10 minutes, and I’m so proud of them. We were defending so well. There was just this desperation to defend to win.”

Dobson added: “We have the Sharks game next and if we get that right we’ve got a clean sweep of the local derbies, which would be brilliant for us.

“We probably need another win from the last four games to get the SA Shield, which

I’m sure we’ll get and that’s important for us.“You want to be the best team in South Africa and we’re getting very close to that, given our results. If we can win the Shield two years in a row it’ll be a great feather in the cap for this union and the team.”

In the other South African derby, the Cell C Sharks pulled away in the second half to claim a 29-7 bonus point victory over the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg and maintain their bid for a play-off spot.

Fly-half Curwin Bosch contributed 17 points, including the first of their four tries. The Sharks now turn their attention to next Saturday’s rearranged meeting with Ulster in Durban, while the Lions will host red-hot Glasgow.

Dempsey delivers

Scotland back row Jack Dempsey warmed up for next weekend’s huge Six Nations clash away to France with a Player of the Match display in Glasgow Warrior’s 17-11 win over Ulster at a rainswept Scotstoun.

The former Wallaby, who has been able to embark on a second international career due to a change in eligibility rules, was a replacement during the victories against England and Wales in the first two rounds of the Championship.

Released to start at No 8 for Franco Smith’s Glasgow in Friday night’s top-five clash, he scored one of three lineout drive tries, with fellow Scotland squad forward Fraser Brown and Tongan flanker Sione Vailanu nabbing the others.

Speaking after the game, Dempsey said: “Ulster brought it, that felt like a Test match out there. It was good to come out and execute, getting those maul tries which we pride ourselves on. Franco comes up with these little gems during the week, these little babies that he likes!”Reflecting on the decision to consistently kick penalties to the corner in search of those lineout drive tries, head coach Smith said: “I think it’s the most discussed point in rugby these days – do you kick at goal or do you kick it out?

“With the conditions and the way the game was balanced, it was important for us to stay up on that side of the field and stick to our systems.”

Glasgow are now unbeaten in ten matches in all competitions, which is very different to the start of the season when they lost four of their first seven BKT URC matches during the first couple of months of Smith’s tenure.

“There were a lot of guys that lifted their eyebrows at the way we went at the beginning!” he said.

“Our recent run is a compliment to the boys, they are just buying in and I am enjoying it. There’s good energy around the place.”

Former Springbok Smith now heads to his native South Africa, with Glasgow facing a rearranged fixture against the Emirates Lines in Johannesburg next Saturday.

Ulster, who led 8-5 at half-time through flanker Harry Sheridan’s first try for the province, remain one point ahead of the Scots in the table having picked up a losing bonus point. They too travel out to South Africa later this week for a meeting with the Cell C Sharks in Durban.

Elsewhere on Friday night, Ireland squad forward Gavin Coombes scored a hat-trick of tries for Munster from No 8 as they thumped the Ospreys 58-3 – a record league defeat for the Welsh region.

Leinster completed the weekend’s action by making it 14 wins out of 14 in the league with a 43-13 bonus point victory over the Dragons at the RDS, with fly-half Harry Byrne touching down twice.

Match of the weekend

Zebre Parma 34, Connacht 57
There were no fewer than 13 tries scored in Parma with Connacht claiming nine of them as they kept up their bid for an end-of-season play-off spot.

Hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin went over for a hat-trick, with winger Simone Gesi nabbing a brace for bottom-of-the-table Zebre Parma who had the consolation of a four-try bonus point.

Player of the weekend

Sam Lousi (Scarlets)
The Tongan international second row is so hard to bring down and he’s also a real magician with the ball, as perfectly illustrated by his one-handed scoring pass out of the side door for Steff Evans against Edinburgh, while his work at the breakdown was a key factor in the Scarlets’ 42-14 victory.

“I was just doing my job,” he said modestly after the game. “I thought the boys stood up and everyone played well. I’m just glad we got the win.”

Quote of the weekend

DHL Stormers captain Deon Fourie on his team holding on for a 23-19 victory away to the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria: “It was quite stressful at the end and it gave me a few more grey hairs! But it was lekker to win like we did and it shows the character of the team. Hopefully we can build on this going forward.”

Play-off race

There are just ten points covering the eight teams from third to tenth in the BKT URC table and it’s getting particularly tight around the play-off cut-off point, with the seventh-placed Cell C Sharks on 38, then Connacht on 35, Cardiff Rugby and Benetton both on 34, Edinburgh on 31, the Ospreys on 29 and the surging Scarlets on 27.

Crucially, the Sharks have a game in hand and that comes up next Saturday when they host Ulster in Durban.

Looking ahead to Round 15 in a fortnight, Cardiff and the Ospreys have big home games against Ulster and Benetton respectively, while Connacht travel to the Dragons RFC and Edinburgh host unbeaten Leinster.

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