URC returns this weekend to give Welsh rugby fans welcome distraction
BKT United Rugby Championship Round 14 preview
WATKIN RETURNS FOR OSPREYS
The Ospreys – who welcome back Wales centre Owen Watkin after three months out following knee surgery – take on Munster in Limerick on Friday night having won six of their last seven matches in all competitions.
“The boys are in good fettle as we had some extra preparation time in the build-up,” said head coach Toby Booth.
“We know going to Munster is a very tough thing to do, but we have been into Ireland on a Friday night before and done ok, so we will see how we go.”
Booth’s men will need to watch out for livewire scrum-half Paddy Patterson. The former Leinster No 9 has made as many ‘pick-and-gos’ as any other player (25), gaining 123 metres from his snipes. He also showed his predatory instinct by scoring one of his team’s six tries in their 40-30 victory away to Benetton last time out.
The Ospreys are once again captained by in-form prop Nicky Smith, while international winger Simon Zebo makes his first appearance since December for Munster.
HOW TO STOP SEBASTIAN?
There is no more effective attacker in the URC than Glasgow’s Sebastian Cancelliere and Ulster will be well aware of the threat he poses as they head into Friday night’s top-five battle at Scotstoun.
The Argentine wing has beaten the most defenders in the league (30), made the most clean breaks (18) and is second only to the Scarlets’ Johnny McNicholl for metres run (654), while he has snapped up seven tries.
Glasgow are unbeaten in their last nine matches in all competitions and are the most efficient team in the league when it comes to their work in the opposition red zone, earning a penalty or scoring a try from 63% of their 22 entries.
So Ulster coach Dan McFarland is well aware of the challenge posed by Franco Smith’s red-hot side.
“They play a very exciting brand of rugby and are extremely dangerous. They play from deep and move the ball across the park,” he said.
“They have more wide passes that any other team in the league by some distance and they have the runners to eat up the ground.
“They’ll definitely come into this game as favourites off the back of the run of wins they’ve had. It’s all up for grabs.”
Scarlets fans will be looking to savour every remaining minute of Sione Kalamafoni’s time with the club before he leaves for France at the end of the season.
The Tongan international No 8 has proved a fantastic acquisition since arriving from Leicester in 2020 and will again be a go-to man as he takes the captain’s armband at home to Edinburgh on Saturday evening.
He has made more carries (162) and more successful carries (80) than any other player in the league this season, while he’s joint third in terms of tackles made (132).
Behind the scrum, it’s back three-man Johnny McNicholl who has been the Scarlets’ star performer in terms of stats, making more metres (765), offloads (17) and cover tackles (7) than any other player in the 16-team competition.
As for Edinburgh, they have beaten the most defenders (249), with their centres particularly impressive, Mark Bennett leading the way. However, they have conceded a league-high 12 penalties at the lineout, five of which have been for obstruction, so they will want to tighten up there against a Scarlets side that have won seven of their last eight matches in all competitions, including a notable 37-28 victory over the Bulls in Round 13.
Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel said: “The boys are excited about playing again. It is a big game and an important one for us. Edinburgh are a side who like to play football, we are fully respectful of them, but for us it is about focusing on ourselves and maintaining momentum. We have to make sure that areas of our game improve and we know we have to be at our best.”
It’s safe to say Vodacom Bulls No 8 Elrigh Louw is a hard man to stop. He has made more metres in contact than any other player this season (150) and the third-most successful carries overall (64), crossing the gain-line no fewer than 11 times – joint top – in Round 13 for a success rate of 68.75%. So, good luck to the DHL Stormers in trying to haul him down in Pretoria on Saturday afternoon.
Alongside him in the Bulls pack is Mr Consistent Ruan Nortje, with the second row having played more minutes than any other player in the league (1,030), missing just 10 minutes of URC rugby so far this season. The 24-year-old Nortje has also made more clearouts than any other player (67), lies fifth on the tackle chart (122) and is a prolific source of lineout ball.
The Stormers bounced back from a 35-5 Round 13 thumping at the hands of Ulster by winning 46-19 away to the Cell C Sharks in a rearranged fixture at the beginning of the month.
They ran in six tries in Durban, including one from fly-half Manie Libbok who claimed a 21-point match haul to strengthen his position as the league’s top scorer (121).
The Bulls have lost their last four league matches against the Stormers, three of which have been in Cape Town. But now they are on home soil where they haven’t been beaten since February 2022.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH – ONE FROM EACH COUNTRY
Josh Turnbull (Cardiff Rugby)
The Cardiff captain will be 35 next month, but there is no sign whatsoever of him throttling back in his advancing years. When he leads his team out against Benetton at the Arms Park on Saturday evening, it will be his 17th appearance of the season in all competitions and his work-rate remains exemplary. The 13-times capped flanker has made more defensive entries to the ruck (83) than any other player in the league, consistently spoiling opposition ball, while only fellow Cardiff back row man Thomas Young tops his tally of 147 tackles.
Dewaldt Duvenage (Benetton)
It will be South African scrum-half Duvenage taking on the captaincy duties for the Italian visitors to the Arms Park. Now 34, he’s had a wandering career, starting out at Boland Cavaliers and Western Province, before having a couple of spells with the Stormers, either side of a three-year stint at Perpignan in France. He’s been with Benetton since 2018 and brings real tactical control, having put in more box kicks (70) than any other player this season. His opposite number Lloyd Williams, who sets a new Cardiff record for appearances in the professional era, is also highly adept with the boot and off both feet, putting in 27 kicks with his right and 19 with his left this term. So dealing with bombs from the base could well be crucial in this contest.
James Venter (Cell C Sharks)
Flanker Venter actually made a couple of Super Rugby appearances for Saturday’s opponents, the Emirates Lions, back in 2019. But he is very much a thoroughbred KwaZulu-Natalian, having been born down on the Hibiscus Coast and attended school in Durban.
So he will be Lion-hunting up in Johannesburg this weekend, looking to produce another big display in defence. He made more tackles than any other player in Round 13 – no fewer than 27 – during the away victory over Edinburgh. That’s the most tackles a Sharks player has made in a single match this season.
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby)
Having not featured for Scotland so far in the Six Nations, the 54-cap flanker will be out to make a statement when he lines up against the Scarlets down in west Wales. He showed in the Round 13 clash with the Sharks that he is in pretty good nick, making more carries (21) than any other player, while also putting in a remarkable eight offloads, more than anyone has produced in a single match this season. His head-to-head with opposite number Dan Davis should be one to savour, as the 24-year-old Scarlets openside has been in outstanding form in his team’s excellent run of late.
Max Deegan (Leinster)
The quality in depth Leinster possess at No 8 is something else. Caelan Doris has been one of the stars of the Six Nations to date, while Lions Test starter Jack Conan is also on Ireland squad duty. But, in their absence, up steps another international in the sizeable shape of the 6ft 4ins, 17st Deegan to lead the charge from the back of the scrum. During the victory over Cardiff last time out, he made more metres in contact (37) than any other player, so the Dragons will be well aware of his carrying threat as they prepare for Saturday’s clash at the RDS. The collisions between Keegan and fit-again opposite number Ross Moriarty are unlikely to be for the faint-hearted.
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