URC PREVIEW: Coetzee’s suspension and injuries knock SA challenge
The confirmation that Marcell Coetzee will be suspended for three matches for the incident that saw him red carded last week was one of two blows to the hopes that this weekend will be the one where we see a turnaround in local Vodacom United Rugby Championship fortunes.
The suspension means the Bulls will be without their co-captain and team talisman when they go into their crucial home clash with high-flying Connacht in Pretoria on Saturday. After beating Ulster earlier in their campaign and then the Hollywoodbets Sharks last week in Durban, the usually less fashionable Irish province are serving notice that they intend to follow on from last season’s success, where they made the semifinal round.
Coetzee will also miss the following URC game, the Bulls’ first big derby of the season and opening game of the South African Shield against the Hollywoodbets Sharks, as well as their opening Heineken Champions Cup clash with Saracens at Loftus.
INJURIES BLIGHT STORMERS
The DHL Stormers will be expecting their big players back next week when they play Zebre ahead of a trip to England to play Leicester Tigers in the Champions Cup, but if they don’t get through Friday night’s final tour match against Cardiff with a win they will leave themselves with a lot to do if they are going to feature again as contenders for the main URC silverware this season.
A win against Cardiff looked likely for them after their spirited performance against Munster but on Thursday afternoon came the news that injury and unavailability have forced Stormers coach John Dobson to make more changes than he would have wanted to for Friday night’s game at Cardiff Arms Park.
Out of the game injured are Evan Roos, who has been a key player so far, Gary Porter (who we already knew about as he has flown home), Joseph Dweba, who returned home as he has a family matter to attend to, wings Angelo Davids and Leolin Zas, as well as another star forward in Ben-Jason Dixon.
With the need to have players ready in case they are needed during what will be a busy and intense December for the Stormers, who apart from the two Champions Cup games also host two plum derbies over the Christmas/New Year week, Dobson said he was thinking of mixing up his team and offering playing opportunities anyway.
But he wasn’t intending to go as deep as he has with his changes and admits that although he is looking forward to seeing how the new players go on the 4G surface and in such an important game, it has now become more of a challenge for his team than it would otherwise have been.
The Stormers are in the rare situation for them in the URC era of being outside of the top eight, meaning Championship Cup and URC playoff qualification, and although there is still a long campaign ahead of them and they have plenty of time to correct, it will not look good for the Stormers to arrive home not having won a single tour game. Plus it will certainly ratchet up the pressure on them when they go into their big Christmas derbies.
BULLS SHAPING WELL BUT MUST WIN
At the moment it is the Bulls who look the stronger of the two South African challengers, but much will hinge on whether they can turn around last week’s disappointment in Edinburgh by winning at home against one of the most difficult teams to play against in the competition.
The Emirates Lions have been operating under the radar but their close defeats and one win have, in the words of assistant coach Ricardo Loubscher, put them in the fight. They will need to beat a rapidly improving Zebre in Johannesburg on Saturday to stay in that fight but will have the altitude on their side, something they intend turning into even more of an ally by playing a quick-tempo game.
The Sharks aren’t challengers for anything right now and will just be happy to get their first win of the season when they host the Dragons in Durban. They showed enough promise last week to suggest they should break their duck, and do it quite comfortably, on Saturday afternoon.
While South Africans will be concerned about their teams, the top end of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship table is due for some significant shifts in round six as four of the contending teams square up to each other in crucial top-of-the-table clashes.
IRISH DERBY BIG GAME OF THE WEEKEND
The Leinster clash with Munster on Saturday night is given extra significance this time around as it will be the first match-up between the two Irish interprovincial rivals since Munster became the new URC champions by beating the Stormers in the Cape Town final in May. Munster got to the decider with an epic win over Leinster, their first in a playoff game in many years, in the semifinal, so it goes without saying that Leinster were hurt by it and will be seeking revenge.
However this clash between the current No. 1 ranked team and the No. 6 team will be strongly rivalled by the one between the No. 2 team, Glasgow Warriors, and the No. 3 team, Ulster, that kicks off just over an hour later on Saturday night.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures
Edinburgh v Benetton (Edinburgh, Friday 9.35pm)
Former Sharks coach Sean Everitt, in his new role as coach of Edinburgh, is one of several South Africans making waves in the URC at present. It is just round six this weekend so it is still early days but Edinburgh are currently fifth and will be comfortably in the top four if they beat Benetton, which at home at The Hive they should do.
Prediction: Edinburgh to win by 8
Cardiff v DHL Stormers (Cardiff, Friday 9.35pm)
Another South African making waves overseas is Cardiff flyhalf Tinus de Beer, who previously tormented some of the Stormers players he will face on Friday while playing for Griquas and then the Pumas in the Currie Cup. Stormers coach John Dobson knows full well the extent of the threat the wily De Beer brings and he hasn’t been helped by having six players effectively ruled out for this last game of a tough tour.
On the plus side, Dobson should be mindful that the Bulls volitionally fielded a changed-up team against Cardiff two weeks ago and they won. He might even have taken a cue from Jake White in that game - he has included many of his more experienced and stronger players on the bench, which was something that worked well for the Bulls in their game at Cardiff Arms Park.
Brok Harris captains the Stormers from loosehead on the occasion of his 400th senior provincial or club professional game and the one that enables him to equal Steven Kitshoff as the most-capped Stormers player in history.
A dry night is expected in Cardiff and that could be the cue to the Stormers unlocking an attacking game that has stuttered more than usual just recently.
Prediction: Stormers to edge it.
Emirates Lions v Zebre (Johannesburg, Saturday 2.55pm)
If the Lions didn’t know that they should be taking the threat posed by Zebre, even so far away from their home ground in Parma, seriously based on their results against the Sharks and Cardiff, they will know it because their teammate Richard Kriel would have told them. Kriel, who plays on the wing on Saturday, played for the opposition last year and he made it clear in a media session that Zebre are a hungry team.
Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen has made just a few changes to the side that lost by seven to Ulster last week, with Sanele Nohamba continuing at flyhalf. The Lions have operated under the radar but have shown plenty of intent this season and with just a bit of luck they could have been in the top two on the table right now. What they mustn’t do now though is fall back into that irritating habit for their supporters of doing well in the games they shouldn’t, meaning the away games, and poorly in the ones they should be expected to win (home).
Vodacom Bulls v Connacht (Pretoria, Saturday 5pm)
The Bulls were unlucky not to at least leave Edinburgh last week with a losing bonus point on a night where they saw themselves tumble from top spot to seventh. Their director of rugby, Jake White, will be mindful of the need to go into next week’s first derby match against the Sharks with some momentum, and he’d also like, no doubt, to have a bit of a buffer on the log when his team go into their crucial next URC game after that, which will be the Christmas derby against the Stormers in Cape Town.
Connacht did well to dig deep and come away with the win in Durban last week but must be wondering how they managed it, as the Durbanites definitely conspired against themselves. Still, when you win ugly it enhances a winning habit, and the Bulls, who will be without their suspended talisman Marcell Coetzee, will be mindful of that. At altitude though they do have a telling advantage and it will be one they will want to make use of by bringing good tempo to their game. Connacht’s mission will be to slow the game down.
Prediction: Bulls to win by 14
Hollywoodbets Sharks v Dragons (Durban, Saturday 7.05pm)
John Plumtree must have been tearing what remains of his hair when his team bottled it last week against Connacht, but few will disagree with him after watching that overall performance that his team aren’t far away from turning the corner. The Sharks are due to get the boost provided by their returning World Cup-winning Springboks, but whether that happens on Saturday or the following week against the Bulls in Pretoria is open to question. They have already dropped one game against a team they’d expect to beat easily in the form of Zebre, but even without the Boks, they should be too good for the Dragons.
Indeed, Plumtree did say in the buildup to last week’s game that at some point his men would “wallop some team”. It could just be the Dragons that will happen against.
Prediction: Sharks to win by 20
Leinster v Munster (Dublin, Saturday 8.30pm)
This rematch of last year’s absorbing semifinal is the big game of the weekend. Leinster aren’t expecting Bok World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber to be on duty as their head coach Leo Cullen has said that he’d prefer Nienaber, who currently still has a few commitments to his South African bosses to fulfil, to return when he is ready and comfortable and he didn’t want Nienaber to feel he was under any pressure.
What Cullen does have back though for this attempt at revenge for what happened in that semifinal in May is a raft of international players, with nine of their RWC frontliners having already played a role in last Saturday’s 54-5 win over Scarlets.
In addition to that, Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw were both seen training fully with the Leinster team earlier in the week and look set to make their first appearances of the season, with Ross Byrne and Tadhg Furlong set to start as well.
Munster could be welcoming a Bok World Cup winner back in the form of lock Jean Kleyn but are not as lucky as Leinster on either the injury or players returning front. Peter O’Mahony was back last week for the game against the Stormers but was injured and is in a race against time to lead his side in a battle against Leinster that he always particularly relishes. His replacement, Jack O’Donoghue, is also injured.
Prediction: Leinster to win by 12
Glasgow Warriors v Ulster (Glasgow, Saturday 9.35pm)
The Warriors are at home which should spell trouble for Ulster, as Glasgow have picked up a big winning habit at the Scotstoun under the coaching of Franco Smith. Ulster edged into the top four by winning their interprovincial game against Munster two weeks ago, but that match was at home at the Kingspan.
The Warriors have already claimed one big Irish scalp in the form of Leinster on the opening weekend when the perennial log winners weren’t able to even pick up a bonus point. However, the Irish internationals weren’t back from their Rugby World Cup duties at that stage and that has changed now. The Warriors might even find they are up against a World Cup winner in the form of former Stormers URC-winning captain and Springbok loosehead Steven Kitshoff.
Prediction: Warriors to edge a thriller
Ospreys v Scarlets (Swansea, Sunday 5pm)
The Ospreys are four points ahead of Scarlets, in position 11 against 15, and should be favoured to win this Welsh derby as it is being played at home.
Prediction: Ospreys by 12