Glasgow can make big statement in Cork
The sold out signs went up around Musgrave Park as Munster’s secondary ground in Cork braces for Friday night’s blockbusting Vodacom United Rugby Championship showdown between the champions and the table-topping Glasgow Warriors.
With 19 points out of a possible 20 from their last four games, Franco Smith’s Warriors are on a roll, and top the log by one point. They will be looking to increase that lead as round seven could be what in cricketing parlance relating to test cricket, could be a moving day, with Leinster heading to Galway to play Connacht in what could be a tight Irish derby on Saturday night.
The Sportsground is never an easy venue for a visiting team and Connacht would have returned from South Africa more focused on what they did well, meaning the winning points they took off the Hollywoodbets Sharks in Durban, rather than their defeat to the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus.
Leinster have Springbok World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber in tow for the first time, and the feedback about his input so far has been good. But even mighty Leinster can struggle in Galway and Smith, if his team get over the line against Munster, will be hoping they do as the competition heads into a few weeks of break for the Investec Champions Cup.
IRISH TEAMS CLOSING GAP ON DUBLINERS
Munster coach Graham Rowntree may have been speaking for the rest of the Irish teams when he suggested after his team’s narrow loss to Leinster in front of a crowd of 50 000 at the Aviva Stadium last weekend that the gap the Dubliners have enjoyed over their Interpro opponents for the best part of the past decade is closing.
Glasgow, who comfortably beat Leinster in the opening round, might contend that they are closing the gap too, particularly after last week’s impressive win over Ulster, who will be including Bok double World Cup-winning prop and former DHL Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff in their team for the first time as they face Edinburgh on Saturday night.
From the above, it can be gauged that this will be a crucial weekend in the cross-hemisphere competition, with the big South African derby between the Bulls and the Sharks also having a potential impact on the top positions as the Bulls try to hold onto their current position in the top four.
However, so far it has been Glasgow, coached by former Springbok assistant and Cheetahs head coach Franco Smith, who have made the biggest early season dent on Leinster’s quest to continue their hegemony in the league stage of the competition. Although Leinster, who dominated this competition when it was the Pro14, haven’t yet had their name inscribed on the URC trophy, they have convincingly bossed the log in both seasons.
The trip to Cork is potentially a statement one for the Warriors for while they have racked up an impressive record at home under Smith’s coaching, with an unprecedented 19 consecutive league wins in the URC, winning against the champions in their own backyard will be a significant next step and new frontier broken through in this year’s challenge.
Their only previous visit to Ireland this season ended in a disappointing 34-26 defeat to Connacht, which is why a win over Munster will prove the Glasgow credentials to be considered proper contenders for the URC trophy. At the same time, beating Munster will put a serious dent in the reigning champion team’s own quest to be a top-four finisher which would enable them to do it the easier way in the playoffs this time around by starting out at home.
And if they get it right, it will be the second time in succession that Glasgow have beaten Munster away in league play. They managed it in quite comprehensive fashion at Thomond Park in Limerick in March, a result that at the time looked like it might end Munster’s 2022/23 challenge but instead, it proved a watershed as after that Munster never lost a URC game.
Indeed, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was Munster who ended the Glasgow challenge last season, with Graham Rowntree’s men achieving the only positive result for a visiting team to the Scotstoun in the URC when they won the quarterfinal 14-5 (the Glasgow home record is built around regular season successes) to start off the winning sequence that ultimately saw them installed as champions.
EVENTFUL WEEK AT MUNSTER
It has been an eventful week at Munster, with RG Snyman announcing he will be departing at the end of the season, which followed on from confirmation that he will be out injured until March, with his lock partner, fellow Springbok Jean Kleyn, signing a two-year extension in the face of a rumoured big offer from a French club.
On top of that, Ireland international looseforward Peter O’Mahony, has resigned the captaincy after more than 10 years in the saddle and having led his team to a trophy drought-breaking win over the Stormers in last year’s URC final in Cape Town.
O’Mahony is out injured at the moment after sustaining a shoulder injury against the Stormers that will also force him to miss the first round of the Champions Cup. In his absence, hooker Diarmuid Barron has led the team, but coach Rowntree said he will continue to pick the team leader on a game-to-game basis for now.
Rowntree said Munster enjoy the vibe at their alternative venue in Cork and didn’t believe it would lessen their chances of winning that they will be playing on a 3G pitch, which Glasgow might be more used to as their home ground Scotstoun has a synthetic 4G surface.
“I like the atmosphere down there… Obviously, we play a lot on 4G and we have got a 4G facility here that we can train on if we want. We are used to it now. I actually really like the atmosphere down there,” said the former England prop.
FLYHALF PROBLEMS FOR LEINSTER AND ULSTER
Meanwhile, although they finally have Bok World Cup-winning coach Nienaber with them, and the talk from the camp has been positive about his input so far, Leinster will be travelling to Galway without their leading flyhalf Ross Byrne.
Byrne picked up the injury in Saturday’s win over Munster and Ciarán Frawley, Harry Byrne and Sam Prendergast will now vie for the No 10 jersey for the Connacht game.
Connacht have Ireland wing Mack Hansen back but will still be without their other Irish World Cup starter, centre Bundee Aki, who is expected to make his seasonal debut now in the Champions Cup games.
Ulster could be facing an issue at flyhalf after Billy Burns came off early at Scotstoun for their game against the other Scottish team, Edinburgh, who will be eager to get back on the winning trail after the unexpected reverse last week to Benetton. With original replacement Jake Flannery having already pulled out in the warm-up, Nathan Doak had to see out most of the game at 10 after travelling as 24th man.
Rob Herring, David McCann, Nick Timoney, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy, Mike Lowry and Dave Ewers were all out of action last week and it is unclear how many, if any, Dan McFarland will have back in action for Ulster’s final URC game before the initial two-week break for Europe, but they are expecting big things in the first start for their marquee signing, Kitshoff.
“We’ve already seen that he’s a quality operator,” said assistant coach Dan Soper. “We’ll get Steven rolled out again this weekend and see what sort of impact he can make in front of his new home crowd.”
Something that did come out of the Glasgow trip for Ulster was John Cooney’s achievement of passing a thousand points. The veteran scrumhalf scored 20 in the game and became only the second Ulster player to achieve the milestone after David Humphreys.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures
Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Cork, Friday 9.35pm)
Vodacom Bulls v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Pretoria, Saturday 3pm)
Cardiff v Scarlets (Cardiff, Saturday 5pm)
Emirates Lions v Dragons (Johannesburg, Saturday 5.05pm)
Ulster v Edinburgh (Belfast, Saturday 7.15pm)
DHL Stormers v Zebre (Stellenbosch, Saturday 7.15pm)
Connacht v Leinster (Galway, Saturday 9.35pm)
Benetton v Ospreys (Treviso, Saturday 9.35pm)