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URC Round 11 Preview: Wales winger makes first start in more than a year

01 Mar 2024 12 minute read
Alex Cuthbert. Photo ©INPHO

Simon Thomas

Edinburgh Rugby v Ospreys Friday, 7.35pm

Ospreys boss Toby Booth has paid a glowing tribute to Wales and Lions winger Alex Cuthbert who will start his first game of rugby in more than a year at the Hive Stadium.

The 57-cap Cuthbert was sidelined for some 12 months due to foot and calf injuries, missing out on the World Cup as a result.

He finally made his comeback off the bench in the dramatic URC victory over Ulster a fortnight ago and he’s now in from the start up in the Scottish capital for this Origin Round clash.

Booth commented: “Cuthy is great, with his influence and his experience in the group.

“He has just got his delivery right around young players and demands standards because he has been there and done it.

“He challenges really well in a really nice way to make it almost feel like you are apologising for someone picking your pocket!

“So having him around the group has been great for us and getting him back playing, he brings different things to this team from a physical point of view.

“It was great to see him back out there against Ulster. He came up with some pivotal moments and showed a bit of experience at key times.

“I am really pleased for him. He has been through a hell of a journey. Throughout his career, he has had to come through adversity a hell of a lot.

“He is an intelligent rugby player that deserves a lot of credit and I hope the remainder of his career is very successful because he has had to do it tough, for sure.”

Scotland squad players

Edinburgh are boosted by the release of seven players from the Scotland Six Nations squad, with WP Nel, Ben Healy, Sam Skinner, Glen Young and Harry Paterson all starting, alongside the returning Hamish Watson.

The Ospreys don’t have any players made available to them by Wales, but they do have Morgan Morris, Owen Williams and Rhys Davies back from injury to act as cavalry off the bench, while their three loanees from the Cheetahs – Evardi Boshoff, Victor Sekekete and debut-making No 8 Jeandre Rudolph – all start.

Looking at Edinburgh, Booth said: “They have got some very influential players and some good players coming back.

“If we are not right on it from the start, we are going to know about it.

“But this group we have got now is definitely not worried about a bit of adversity and they have got massive resilience.

“We need to start well, you always do away from home, but I am excited to see where these boys are going to go.”

The Ospreys have won their last five matches in all competitions and Edinburgh coach Sean Everitt is full of praise for them.

“They are carrying their country’s aspirations on their shoulders and they are doing a really good job,” said the South African.

“Everyone wrote the Welsh teams off at the start of the URC and they are carrying the flag at the moment.

“They are playing incredibly well. It’s an energised team playing with a lot of motivation.

“They are a team that doesn’t know when to go away and we expect nothing less from them this weekend, so we are looking for a complete performance all round, attack and defence.”

There is just one point separating these two play-off contenders going into the match.

Munster Rugby v Zebre Parma, Friday, 7.35pm

League champions Munster warmed up with an impressive 43-35 away victory over Harlequins in a friendly at The Stoop last weekend, running in seven tries.

Having scored two tries in a Player of the Match display against the Scarlets in Round 10, Gavin Coombes is likely to be a key figure once again, with the No 8 having made way more carries than any other player in the URC this season. He has put in 150, with Hollywoodbets Sharks full-back Aphelele Fassi the next best on 113.

Coombes is also leading the way for successful carries and is fifth on the league’s tackle chart. The 26-year-old from Skibbereen in County Cork is having some campaign.

Packing down alongside him will be flanker Alex Kendellen who captains the team at the age of 22.

As for 13th-placed Zebre, who pushed Edinburgh hard in the last round, second row Leonard Krumov makes his 100th appearance for the Italian outfit.

Emirates Lions v Hollywoodbets Sharks, Saturday, 1pm

It’s been a tale of overcoming adversity for Etienne Oosthuizen who will make his first appearance in the URC – for the Lions against his former team.

The ex-Sharks and Lyon second row was out of the game for some two years with a heart condition.

But he made his return during the EPCR Challenge Cup pool stage and now he’s selected for league duty.

“I’m very excited for the opportunity,” said the 31-year-old.

“Being out of rugby for so long and working hard towards this opportunity to finally play a URC game and prove exactly why I am here and what I can bring to the team was always my goal.”

He added: “I must say my games in the Challenge Cup were very nervy as I didn’t really know how the body would react. I gained confidence out of that experience however and it just makes this first URC game for me a lot easier. I also have a good grouping of guys around that can help me in the game, so I’m very confident.”

For the Sharks, World Cup-winning hooker Bongi Mbonambi captains the side in the absence of centre Lukhanyo Am, while Aphelele Fassi will be a major threat at full-back, having made more metres (729) than any other player in the league this season and the second most carries.

Benetton Rugby v Glasgow Warriors, Saturday, 3pm

There’s an eagerly awaited return from injury for Glasgow’s Argentine wing Sebastian Cancelliere who can be so dangerous with his elusive running and finishing.

Head coach Franco Smith said: “We’re pleased to welcome back Sebastian, with a lot of credit to go to the medical and S&C teams for the work they do with all of our players.”

Giving his thoughts on the side he used to coach a decade ago, Smith said: ”Benetton will be defending a proud home record and have been in strong form across this season to date.

“They have recruited well and have developed their squad across the board, providing a strong opponent for us that we will need to be at our best to overcome.”

Cancelliere’s countryman Facundo Cordero is on the other wing for Glasgow, fresh from a try-scoring debut last time out against the Dragons.

Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers, Saturday, 3.05pm

The “sold out” signs are up at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld for this huge South African derby clash.

With the famous stadium having a capacity of around 51,000, that will make it the biggest attendance of the season in the URC, surpassing the 49,246 for Leinster v Munster at the Aviva Stadium in Round 6.

It’s the first full house for a provincial game at Loftus – outside of play-offs – since 2012.

Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White commented: “It doesn’t get any bigger than this, besides a World Cup final.

“Not many provincial players will have played in front of 51,000 people, besides the World Cup winners.

“There aren’t many provincial players who will have played in front of a big crowd like what is expected and that in itself comes with a challenge for the young guys who have not done that before and we must help them with that.

“I am excited for tomorrow. It is nice for the guys to play in front of a big crowd, baying for the franchise like in the past. I am glad they can be a part of that because I hope that will be the catalyst for us to kick on for the next couple of seasons.”

Going into the game, the Bulls lie third in the URC table, five points above the sixth-placed Stormers.

White said: “The match is not make or break but a marker of where we are and what is working and what is not working, and we have a lot of things working for us. Where we were then and where we are now is chalk and cheese.”

Connacht Rugby v Scarlets, Saturday, 5.05pm

Welcoming his team’s return to the Galway Sportsground, Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins said: “It’s been six weeks since our last home game.

“So we’re delighted to be back in front of our home fans. Tickets sales have been brilliant which says a lot about the support we’re currently getting.

“It’s up to us now to give them the performance they deserve and make it three straight wins in the URC.

“We are also looking forward to marking Origin Round. All our players are proud of their roots.”

The Scarlets have bid farewell to the man who has made more offloads (18) than any other player in the URC this season, with Johnny McNicholl leaving to take up a playing opportunity in New Zealand.

Back three star McNicholl made 130 appearances for the region over eight seasons, scoring 57 tries, while he also won 10 caps for Wales.

Athletic No 8 Vaea Fifita will be a man Connacht will have to be wary of, as he has pulled off more lineout steals (9) than anyone in the league.

Cardiff’s Josh Turnbull. Photo
©INPHO/Ben Brady

Cardiff Rugby v Leinster Rugby, Saturday, 7.35pm

Cardiff coach Matt Sherratt is hoping for another big Arms Park crowd for the visit of table-topping Leinster.

There have been 12,000 sell-outs for the last three home games against the Dragons, Harlequins and Connacht, with 10,000-plus for the clash with Bath before that.

“The crowds have been brilliant this year in terms of people turning up and supporting,” said Sherratt.

“I’ve been sat in those stands during international periods in the past and there have been 4,000 or 5,000 here.

“So to have as many as we had against Connacht was brilliant.

“Our crowd have come out and shown their spirit and got behind a group of young local lads. It makes a massive difference. Hopefully it will be the same on Saturday night.”

There is sure to be a big ovation for skipper Josh Turnbull who will make his 200th appearance for Cardiff, while there is a first start for centre Max Clark, who is on loan from the Dragons.

Leinster lost 29-27 on their last visit to the Arms Park in January 2022, with fly-half Jarrod Evans landing the match-winning penalty in the final minute.

Assistant coach Andrew Goodman commented: “The boys have got that result from two years ago at the back of their minds.”

And winger Rob Russell added: “The last time we played over there we lost. A good few of the lads would have played in that game, so we will probably have a bit of a look at where we went wrong there and hopefully put a few changes in place so that doesn’t happen again. But Cardiff are definitely dangerous.”

Ulster Rugby v Dragons RFC, Saturday, 7.35pm

It will be a first game at the helm for Ulster stand-in coach Dan Soper who has stepped up following the departure of Dan McFarland last week.

Ireland U20s head coach Richie Murphy will take over until the end of the season once the Six Nations campaign is completed. But, in the meantime, assistant coach Soper has been preparing the squad for Saturday night’s meeting with the Dragons at the Kingspan Stadium.

The Kiwi commented: “I’m delighted that we’ve got a game to focus on.

“Last week was a little bit different. Whenever change happens, there’s always a bit of disruption, but the one thing we have always prided ourselves on was how to adapt and overcome.

“I don’t suppose there is a great time for anything like that to happen, but we’ve got to focus on how we go out and play this weekend.

Soper added: “I spoke to the group at the end of last week and said ‘We all need to own this’.

“This is not one person’s responsibility, whether we are good, bad or indifferent, we’re in this together.

“We all have to own what has happened. It’s not nice, it’s not a comfortable thing to have sitting on your shoulders, that in some way you are maybe partly responsible.

“I’ve just told the group the best way to react to that is in a really positive way and make sure this turmoil was worth it and the only way we can do that is to go out and perform when we cross the white line.

“The main thing for me has been how supportive the staff and the playing group have been of me. I’ve been really impressed with the players, their focus towards what we’re going for this weekend. We’ve ripped into the week and I’m really encouraged by that.”

The Dragons are the only Welsh region to have a player released from Six Nations squad duty, with Taine Basham packing down at No 8 alongside debut-making flanker Harry Taylor and the veteran Dan Lydiate.

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