URC Round 18 preview: Judgement Day for the Ospreys and Cardiff
Ospreys v Cardiff Rugby (5.15pm, Saturday)
The final league game of the season in Wales and it all comes down to this amid farewells and tears.
It really will be Judgement Day for these two sides, with the Welsh Shield and qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup on the line.
Cardiff are four points clear and have won three more games. So to overtake them, the Ospreys must claim a bonus point win and deny Dai Young’s side a losing bonus.
Given his thoughts, Cardiff skipper Josh Turnbull said: “It’s massive in the context of the season for us. It’s knockout rugby now.
“Winning the Shield gives you entry into Champions Cup rugby and the opportunity to play the top teams in Europe. That’s ultimately what you want, to test yourselves against the best.
“It’s also massive in terms of coming to the national stadium, playing in front of friends, family and supporters from all four regions.
“There’s been some pretty good games on Judgement Day over the years. Because of the size of the pitch, you can throw the ball around a bit and have a pretty expansive game. I think people don’t realise how big it is until you’re out there.”
Turnbull added: “There are a lot of players moving on and the squad will look completely different next year. Ultimately, we want to give those boys the best send-off.”
Fly-half Jarrod Evans has come through a fitness test enabling him to end his Cardiff career on the big stage. The 26-year-old Welsh international, who made his debut for the Arms Park outfit back in 2015, is moving on to Harlequins at the end of the season.
He has established himself as one of the most creative and dangerous players with ball-in-hand in the URC and that’s confirmed by his stats. He has made more miss-passes (51) than any other player this season, while he has also made ten break assists with his passing.
Another of the departing players – Gloucester-bound centre Max Llewellyn – summed up the mood in the Cardiff camp.
“It’s a bit of a weird feeling. I have really come to love the club,” he said.
“It’s 100 per cent going to be an emotional experience because there are so many people moving on. Some of the boys who are leaving have been at the club for years. I am sure once the final whistle has gone there will probably be a few tears from people.
“We want to end on a positive by making sure we finish as the best Welsh region because that will make the day so much better.”
Llewellyn will be partnered in midfield by veteran Samoan international Rey Lee-Lo who joins Evans in returning to the side having recovered from a knee injury.
The Ospreys will need to keep their minds off the interval oranges and be particularly vigilant as the first half nears its conclusion as Cardiff’s favourite time to score this season has been on the eve of half-time, with eight of their 47 tries having come between the 31st and 40th minute.
Recent history is on Toby Booth’s side however as they are on a five-match winning streak against the capital city based-side.
Fly-half Gareth Anscombe makes his first start for them since being struck down by a shoulder injury in November, with Owen Williams moving into the centre, while Wales No 9 Rhys Webb brings up his 200th appearance.
The Ospreys have a real physical presence to bring off the bench as an impact player in flanker Ethan Roots who has made more dominant tackles (17) than any other URC forward (17), while also winning as many turnovers in the tackle as any other player.
It’s been a positive few days for the region with key men Jac Morgan, Keiran Williams and Morgan Morris all putting pen to paper on new deals.
Morris, who starts at No 8 against Cardiff, said: “I’m delighted to sign for another year. It’s an exciting time to be part of the region and I’m thrilled to be representing the badge.
“This club has been a huge part of my life, so it’s great to be able to continue here. From players to coaches, we’re a close-knit bunch that are all pulling in the same direction to be the best team we can be.”
Dragons v Scarlets (3pm, Saturday)
The first leg of the Judgement Day double double header at the Principality Stadium sees the Dragons take on in Cardiff.
The Dragons haven’t won a game since mid-January, so Dai Flanagan will be eager to end the season on high against the team he previously coached. They have Sio Tomkinson back in midfield after completing a two game ban, while fellow centre Steff Hughes also returns having passed concussion protocols.
From the Scarlets’ point of view, they will be seeking to warm up in style for their big Challenge Cup semi-final at home to URC rivals Glasgow. They will be without No 8 Sione Kalamafoni who has played his last game for the region after picking up an Achilles injury.
The Tongan powerhouse, who has made such an impact over the past three years, is joining French club Vannes at the end of the season.
In his absence, young Carwyn Tuipulotu starts at the base of the scrum, while Sam Costelow, Joe Roberts and Johnny Williams come into the back line, as Johnny McNicholl returns from a knee injury among the subs.
DHL Stormers v Benetton (5.30pm, Friday)
Having been in second spot for so long this season, the Stormers relinquished that all-important position with last weekend’s 26-24 defeat at home to Munster. They are now down in third, a point behind Ulster.
So the reigning champions have to beat Benetton in Stellenbosch and then hope Ulster lose at home to Edinburgh later in the evening. Finishing second is crucial as it secures home advantage for both the quarter-finals and the semi-finals in the play-offs.
Scrum-half Paul de Wet makes his 50th appearance for the re-jigged Stormers who will be presented with the South African Shield for the second year in a row after the game.
Head coach John Dobson said: “We have made a few rotational changes to make sure everyone will be ready to perform in the knock-out phase of the competition. We want to raise our game and put in a confidence-building performance to take some momentum forward.”
Ulster v Edinburgh (7.35pm, Friday)
Any kind of victory would be enough to secure second place – and that crucial home advantage in the play-offs – for Ulster as they would finish above the Stormers on matches won if the two sides finish level on points.
They will be looking to make it five wins in a row in the URC, with a bumper crowd set to roll up at the Kingspan Stadium for what should be a memorable occasion.
Having set a new try-scoring record for the competition last weekend, Tom Stewart moves down to the bench, with Rob Herring taking over at hooker.
Scrum-half John Cooney, who recently committed his future to the province with a new two-year contract, commented: “On paper, Edinburgh have one of the best squads in the league. They haven’t got what they wanted from this season, but we will not be taking them for granted. This is a really important game for us.”
Emirates Lions v Zebre (1pm, Saturday)
This is Zebre’s final chance to avoid going through the entire league season without winning a game. As for the Lions, they will want to bounce back from last weekend’s dramatic home defeat to Leinster which ended their hopes of reaching the play-offs. This will be the opening game in a URC double header at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld.
Vodacom Bulls v Leinster (3.05pm, Saturday)
So, just one more hurdle for Leinster to overcome to go through the entire league season unbeaten, but it’s going to be a sizeable one for Leo Cullen’s young team at Loftus Versfeld.
The seventh-placed Bulls will be going all out for the win as they look to qualify for the Champions Cup. They may need to finish in the top six to do that, should either Benetton or the Scarlets win the Challenge Cup. So they will doubtless be looking for a bonus point win as they set their sights on Connacht and Munster above them.
Where the Bulls end up in the table will also determine where they travel to in the play-off quarter-finals on the weekend of May 6.
Cell C Sharks v Munster (5.15pm, Saturday)
As the table stands, the Sharks would miss out on Champions Cup rugby. They are in eighth place and that wouldn’t be good enough as the winners of the Welsh Shield would qualify for Europe’s elite event instead of them. So they will be seeking a victory and hoping that either the Bulls or Connacht slip up above them.
They have certainly rolled out the big guns. World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi is joined by fellow Springboks Lukhanyo Am, Ox Nche, Makazole Mapimpi and Bongi Mbonambi, while they have a real weapon in reserve in centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg who has beaten more defenders (38) than any other player in the league this term.
Munster, in turn, will be looking for a win to stay in fifth and absolutely nail down Champions Cup qualification, while a losing bonus point will be enough to secure the top six finish that should book their passage.
Gavin Coombes is likely to be a key figure for them. The No 8 from County Cork has been their main man in terms of providing go-forward this season, having put in 172 carries for 168 contact metres, the second-most in the league.
He is joined in the back row by Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony who led by example as captain in last week’s invaluable victory over the DHL Stormers in Cape Town, delivering a Player of the Match display, ruling the roost at the lineout.
Glasgow Warriors v Connacht (7.35pm, Saturday)
Connacht really need a win to stay in the top six and remain on course for the Champions Cup with both the Bulls and the Sharks breathing down their necks. Defeat could well see them drop down to eighth spot which would see them competing in the second-tier Challenge Cup.
Glasgow have already nailed down a top four finish and a home quarter-final, but will want to end the regular season by maintaining their winning ways as they head into a Euro semi-final against the Scarlets and then the play-offs.
It won’t be a place for the faint hearted at Scotstoun with two of the URC’s most defensively destructive teams on collision course.
Glasgow have the best rate of tackle completion in the league (90.3 per cent), while no-one has put in more tackles this season than Connacht flanker Conor Oliver.
Former Munster openside Oliver made another 19 in the play-off clinching victory over Cardiff last weekend to take his tally up to 192. His back row pal Shamus Hurley-Langton was even more prolific, with the Kiwi pulling off no fewer than 26 tackles and that was after not even starting the game!
It’s the highest number from a replacement so far this season and he will be on hand to provide clout off the bench once more.
At the set-piece, Connacht will be hoping for more heroics from second row Niall Murray who has made more lineout steals (15) than any other player.
They are on a six-match winning streak, but Glasgow have come out on top in seven of the last eight meetings between the teams, while they have also lost just once in their last ten league matches, securing that top four finish in the process.
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