URC Round Two preview: Welsh sides look to bounce back after winless starts to the season
Ospreys v Zebre Parma, 13:00 UK Saturday
Ospreys coach Toby Booth says matching the power presented by Zebre will be the big challenge at the Swansea.com Stadium.
Booth was impressed by the way the Italians performed against Ulster last weekend, coming tantalisingly close to ending their 26-match losing run in the BKT URC before ultimately going down 40-36 in a 12-try thriller.
“They have changed a bit from last year looking at them. They are big and strong and they want to come at the front door,” he said.
“Ulster are a good team with a lot of strength in depth, so for Zebre to play the way they did against them, that’s going to be a big challenge for sure.
“There were a lot of signs in that game of how much they have improved. They look to have put a lot of work into their maul play, both attacking and defending.
“It’s a bit of a different puzzle than it has been before. It certainly looks like being a more robust one.
The difficult thing will be matching their power. They are absolutely going to be a handful.”
The Ospreys give a first start to centre Dom Morris, who is on loan from Saracens, while Wales World Cup prop Nicky Smith features on the bench having asked to be made available for this game.
Zebre, who now have former Cardiff Rugby defence coach Richard Hodges on board, pose real threat out wide in international wings Simone Gesi and Pierre Bruno, with Gesi having scored two tries against Ulster last weekend.
DHL Stormers v Scarlets, 15:00 Saturday
The Stormers give a first BKT URC start to former London-Irish and England U20s wing Ben Loader.
Tighthead prop Neethling Fouche captains the hosts at the alternative venue of the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch, with Salmaan Moerat ruled out by a chest injury, while the athletic Hacjivah Dayimani is drafted in to start on the flank.
Head coach John Dobson commented: “We have a good record in Stellenbosch, with three wins from three there in the last two seasons, and we want to take some momentum with us on our tour up north.
“We are looking forward to playing in front of our fans in what is a rugby-mad town, it should be a great day out.”
Having suffered a heavy 63-21 defeat to the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria last Sunday, the Scarlets know life isn’t about to get any easier.
“We have a massive challenge playing against a side that has reached the BKT URC final the last two years,” said head coach Dwayne Peel.
“The Stormers are similar to the Bulls in some ways in that when they get on top of you they are very physical and they keep the gain-line. Evan Roos and Hacjivah Dayimani, in particular, are cracking players.
“Then, from a backs perspective, they are very sharp out wide. They want to play expansive rugby and they are razor sharp on turnover ball. They are renowned for that.
“It’s going to be another big occasion and another big challenge for us on South African soil. We have to improve for this week. Seeing who has got the resilience to bounce back is going to be interesting from a coach perspective.”
Dragons RFC v Cardiff Rugby 14:30 Sunday
It’s the first Welsh derby of the season and both teams welcome back World Cup squad members for this Rodney Parade clash.
The Dragons field Dan Lydiate at No 8, as he makes his first appearance for the Gwent region in ten years following a decade away at Racing 92 and the Ospreys, while Cardiff call on scrum-half Tomos Williams, prop Corey Domachowski and centre Mason Grady.
Shane Lewis-Hughes continues at lock for the visitors amid his conversion from the back row, with fellow international forward Thomas Young having regained fitness in time to take a spot on the bench.
Cardiff have won 15 in a row against the Dragons in the BKT URC and coach Matt Sherratt knows his team are in for a lively welcome in Newport with the home fans desperate to see that run come to an end.
“I love going to Rodney Parade. It’s a proper derby,” he said.
“I used to watch Gloucester at Kingsholm and it’s a little bit similar at times. It’s pretty raucous. But that’s why you are in the game. It’s the best places to watch and play I find.
“It’s usually a pretty good encounter against the Dragons in terms of there is a fair bit of edge and a fair bit of spice involved.
“I think the last eight all been one score games. Most derbies are pretty tight affairs.
“It’s got the potential to be a really good game. There will be some good match-ups around the field and it should be a good occasion.”
Dragons boss Dai Flanagan commented: “Cardiff will come into the game as favourites because of their record against us. There’s an expectation that they win. But I saw a lovely saying the other day that underdogs are hungry dogs. We’ll be hungry on the weekend.”
Connacht v Glasgow Warriors, 15:00 Saturday
This has the makings of one of the games of the weekend, with both teams having recorded bonus point victories in Round 1.
Newly-promoted head coach Pete Wilkins is looking for Connacht to build on their 34-26 triumph over the Ospreys as they go into the second of three successive home games at the start of the season.
“It was super important for us to win in front of our fans and show some glimpses of what we want to be about,” he said.
“It wasn’t perfect, but there were enough snap shots of what we are trying to do in attack and some really good defensive sets.
“That will only get better, and we will develop and build that over the weeks to come.”
Commenting on Glasgow, Wilkins said: “The fact they had so many Scottish internationals back against Leinster is no coincidence in terms of how they are going after this season and how they wanted to start it.
“When you come up against them, you are playing pretty much a XV of international players. We need to approach it with that sort of respect and that sort of mindset.
“We will need to get better from where we were last weekend. It’s a really exciting match up.”
Glasgow have two more players back from World Cup duty in Scotland lock Richie Gray and Tongan flanker Sione Vailanu, while George Horne steps up to start at scrum-half.
Looking at Connacht, head coach Franco Smith said: “They are a very good side. They turned Ulster over 12 times at the breakdown in the quarter-final last season and their attitude and the way they went about that was extraordinary, We have the utmost respect for them as a team. We know they have a three-game run at home which means they would like to build an innings at the start of the season, so we expect an enormous challenge.”
Leinster v Hollywoodbets Sharks, 16:55 Saturday
If Leinster lose to the Sharks in Dublin, it will be a third successive league defeat, having been beaten by Munster in May’s semi-final and by Glasgow in last weekend’s season opener. Now that hasn’t happened since 2008, so you can expect them to be fully revved up for this first home game of the campaign.
They will be looking to improve their cutting edge, defence and discipline from the trip to Scotstoun. They spent more time in the opposition 22 than any other team in Round 1, some nine minutes, but were outscored by seven tries to three, while they were on the wrong end of a 13-7 penalty count.
Staying squeaky clean will be all the more important against the Sharks, whose fly-half Curwin Bosch was 100 per cent off the kicking tee in the defeat to Munster last weekend, while also providing assists for two tries.
The addition of Aphelele Fassi at full-back adds potency behind, while Phepsi Buthelezi will be another big threat, with the No 8 having made more carries (111) and more tackles (115) than any other player for the Durban-based side last season.
Giving his thoughts ahead of the RDS clash, Buthelezi said: “There was a bit of rustiness against Munster, but we have a new plan with new coaching staff and there were lot of positives to take from the performance.
“We are going in with more of an attacking mindset. Coach John Plumtree has come in and drives what the jersey means to us and the fans back home: that whenever we step out onto the park, to be mindful of who we’re representing and to never take that opportunity for granted. That’s our biggest focus, to make ourselves and the people of KwaZulu-Natal proud every time we play.”
Edinburgh v Emirates Lions, 17:00 Saturday
Edinburgh are boosted by the return of six World Cup players with full-back Blair Kinghorn, lock Grant Gilchrist, flanker Hamish Watson and Fijian No 8 Viliame Mata all starting.
They are looking to make it two-from-two in the BKT URC after last weekend’s opening round victory away to Dragons.
New head coach Sean Everitt said: “We’re delighted to welcome back a number of internationals. Although we weren’t altogether pleased with last weekend’s performance, we showed plenty of physicality and resilience to come away with a hard-fought win away from home.”
The Lions welcome back their reigning Player of the Year Edwill van der Merwe, with the left winger having recovered from injury, while last weekend’s try-scorers from the bench against the Stormers – flanker Ruan Venter and centre Henco van Wyk – also come into the starting XV.
Reflecting on the 35-33 home defeat to the Stormers in Round 1 and the start of a four-match run on the road, head coach Ivan van Rooyen said: “We’ve learnt a lot from last weekend.
“We played with good intensity and when we were physically dominant in certain parts of the game, we had the makings of a championship team. Unfortunately, there were moments where we were inconsistent and that for us is a big work on ahead of Saturday and the rest of the tour. I’m really excited about the group we have going into this four-week tour. I feel we’ve gone with a dynamic mix of players who can go physical and, where needs be, have the option to select players to speed the game up.”
Benetton v Munster 14:00 Sunday
Having parted company with Munster at the end of last season, centre Malakai Fekitoa returns from World Cup duty with Tonga to make his Benetton debut against his former team-mates.
If the hosts are to keep the reigning champions at bay, then Gianmarco Lucchesi is likely to be a key man, having completed 22 tackles in last weekend’s narrow victory in Cardiff, more than any hooker completed all last season. He also showed up in attack, scoring one of their two tries.
The tactical play of scrum-half Andy Uren, a recruit from Bristol, will also be important as he put in the most contestable kicks (seven) from any match in in Round 1.
Munster, for their part, will be looking for another big contribution from full-back Shane Daly, who made the most metres (83) in the 34-21 bonus point win over the Sharks last weekend, beating four defenders in the process.
The title holders were very clinical against the visitors from Durban, posting the highest rate of efficiency in the opposition 22 in the opening round, earning either a penalty or scoring a try with 90 per cent of their entries.
Ulster v Vodacom Bulls 17:00 Sunday
It was some BKT URC debut for 21-year-old Cameron Hanekom in the Bulls’ 63-21 demolition of the Scarlets last weekend.
The No 8 put in 14 carries for 125 metres, beat seven defenders beaten, delivered four offloads and scored two tries to be named Player of the Match.
Then alongside him, you’ve got Elrigh Louw who produced the second most carries of any player in the league last season and made a whopping 40 post-contact metres in Round 1.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the little matter of Springbok Marcell Coetzee completing the back row, with the 31-cap flanker skippering the side.
So good luck to Ulster containing that trio!
Mind you, the hosts have a pretty decent breakaway unit themselves in their summer signing from Exeter Dave Ewers, Nick Timoney and Dave McCann, so it should be some contest in that department.
Jacob Stockdale will be looking to maintain his fine start to the season having scored two tries in the opening weekend win away to Zebre, while fellow Ireland international Rob Baloucoune comes in on the other wing.
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