After two weeks of exciting European rugby, the URC returns with a bang this weekend. Eight games across Friday and Saturday with most of the games having big consequences in getting into the quarter finals.
Stormers vs Glasgow Warriors
The weekend begins with two of the best teams this season squaring off, with the fifth placed Stormers hosting the third placed Glasgow Warriors.
This will be the hosts first game in two weeks, with their last result being a close 19-17 victory over the Bulls. Currently in fifth, the Stormers come into this game in excellent form, winning their last five games.
The championships leading point scorer Manie Libbok has been key to that success, scoring 11 of the teams 19 points last time out. Damian Willemse and Steven Kitshoff have also been very good this season and should be available for the Stormers this weekend. With home advantage it could be a huge result for the Stormers.
But they face one of the best teams in the URC this season, with Glasgow currently sitting in third, equal on points with second placed Ulster. Despite being above their opponents, Glasgow head into this weekend in pretty poor form, losing two of their last four games. The Warriors did win in the Challenge cup last weekend, travelling south to defeat the Newcastle Falcons 27-17.
They will also be able to call on international stars that they haven’t always had for the start of 2022. Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray and Kyle Steyn all performed well last week in Newcastle. They are also bolstered by Jack Dempsey who has been one of the best carriers this season in all of the URC.
But I still believe that the Stormers will likely have too much at home and a win should help them jump above Glasgow and take another step towards to a home quarter final.
Ulster vs Munster
The second game on Friday could be the game of the weekend, with an all Irish clash that should be brilliant.
Hosts Ulster are second in the URC and look pretty set for a home quarter final. But they still face some challenges upcoming. The team did not benefit from rest as some others did, their last two weeks being a home and away series against European Champions Cup winners Toulouse.
An impressive win in France two weeks ago could not be built on at home and a red card for Tom O’Toole turned out to be the turning point. There are still positive coming out of the tie. Robert Baloucoune, John Cooney and captain Ian Henderson were all excellent throughout and will look to build on two good performances against incredibly tough opposition.
Munster also had a very tough couple of weeks against Exeter, but got the job done in convincing fashion at home last week. Munster were just able to take the game away from the Chiefs thanks to constant pressure and some excellent performances.
Connor Murray, Damian de Allende and Joey Carbery were all excellent last week and Munster are getting healthy at the right time. The returning Simon Zebo looks just as potent in attack as he has ever been and the team should have more focus now that forwards coach Graham Rowntree has been named as head coach for next season.
It look to be a great clash, but I think the momentum from last week will be a huge factor. Ulster were physically and emotionally drained after coming so close to a huge upset. Munster showing their class in the second half could easily lead into this week and I can easily see a Munster win in Ulster.
Edinburgh vs Zebre
The final game on Friday pits two teams with very different aspirations for the rest of their seasons.
Home side Edinburgh are in a good position for a quarter final place, six points ahead of ninth placed Scarlets. But any small slip up could be crucial and they need to be laser focused this Friday. Two big wins have helped to forget the three losses before that and Edinburgh will be looking to build off their Challenge cup success.
There is a good chance that stars like Darcy Graham, Hamish Watson and Pier Schoeman will be rested this week with big fixtures coming soon. So there could be some surprise stars this weekend.
For Zebre, any points this weekend will be looked at as a positive. They sit bottom on the URC on just two points and have not won a game in the URC this season. A close loss to Newcastle two weeks ago should give them hope.
Antonio Rizzi did all he could to win that game against the Falcons, scoring 17 of the teams 22 points as they lost thanks to a 79th minute try. But hopefully Zebre will be encouraged by a good performance. Luca Andreani, Luca Bigi and Asaeli Tuivuaka have been standouts for Zebre this season.
I think it should be a pretty simple affair for Edinburgh as they take a step towards the quarter finals.
Bulls vs Benetton
Saturday begins with the top Italian side Benetton heading down to South Africa to play the eighth placed Bulls.
The home side are just on the edge of the playoffs, but do have a five point lead over ninth placed Scarlets. Some big wins in the last six weeks were dampened by a close loss to the Stormers two weeks ago. But the Bulls have still been playing some really nice rugby over the last few weeks.
Kurt-Lee Ardendse and Madosh Tambwe lead the URC in line breaks and metres gained and have produced some brilliant tries this season. Johan Grobbelaar has been excellent in the air this season, leading the URC in lineouts won. Their squad is also bolstered by internationals Morne Steyn, Bismarck du Plessis and Cornal Hendricks.
The away side are not in quite as good a position, with Benetton currently 13th in the URC. They also haven’t won a URC game since the 15th of January, but did beat Perpignan in the Challenge cup two weeks ago. A big loss last week against Toulon ended their European campaign.
But Benetton have a lot of talent who shined in the Six Nations including Michele Lamaro, Toa Halafihi and Monty Ioane. So it should not be any easy feat for the Bulls particularly with Benetton pushing Connacht close in their last URC match.
With home advantage though, the Bulls should provide too much firepower for the young Benneton and win this weekend.
Dragons vs Scarlets
An all Welsh affair is a game between two teams who are both currently not in the top eight.
The situation is much more dire for the Dragons as they are in fifteenth and with only two wins across the entire season. However, one of those wins came last week against the Scarlets. Free flowing tries in the second half led the Dragons to a surprise victory away from home.
Good performances from Will Rowlands, Sam Davies and Aaron Wainright helped lead them to victory. But it looks like the dragons will be without Elliot Dee and Josh Lewis who both went off injured in the first half last week.
The visitors will be concerned about a tough loss at home against the Dragons last week. Poor discipline throughout led to the teams demise last week as the top eight stretch away from them. But their performances throughout the season still look good and the defeat came after back to back big wins against Cardiff.
With no Ken Owens or Leigh Halfpenny for the rest of the season, the Scarlets are missing a lot of fire power. But they do have Sione Kalamafoni who leads the URC in carries. Johnny McNicholl has been excellent this season and Liam Williams is looking to end his season strong.
I think the Scarlets will bounce back this weekend against the Dragons and move closer to a surprise top eight finish.
Lions vs Connacht
Two of the teams far outside the top eight play on Saturday with the Connacht squad travelling down to face the struggling Lions.
The home side did face a big loss in their last game against the Sharks. Prior to that, they recorded four wins against European sides including wins against top eight sides Munster and Edinburgh.
In a struggling side, Jaco Kriel and Jamba Ulengo are the outstanding members of the squad. The 9-10 combination of Jordan Hendrikse and Morne van den Berg have been good this season and any success against Connacht will be dependant on how they play. Vincent Tshituka has been excellent this season but may not be 100% healthy after spending some time off the pitch last week.
The Lions opponents are the lowest placed Irish side with Connacht being the only province outside the top eight. They also come into this game off the back of a huge loss against Leinster. After holding their own at home, Connacht lost the second leg of their Champions cup tie by 36 points.
In the URC, Connacht have also been struggling having only won one of their last three games. Mack Hansen has been the teams starring playing this season and is leading the URC in defenders beaten. Bundee Aki continues to be a threat to any opposition defence and Jack Carty has been brilliant from 10.
But the team is still missing the talent of the past that has taken them to a Pro 12 title. With this in mind, combined with the home advantage, the Lions should win this weekend but the talent of Connacht could make the game a high scoring affair.
Cardiff Rugby vs Ospreys
The second all Welsh affair on Saturday is a game that should have very little impact on the top eight, a game more for pride.
In a difficult season for Cardiff, their European campaign ended last week in a high scoring affair at the Saracens. Cardiff performed well but a late comeback was not enough. The result means Cardiff have lost their last three games and have only won once since their incredible win over table toppers Leinster on the 29th of January.
Tomos Williams and Josh Navidi were excellent last week and should continue that form back into the URC if they hope to get a result.
Their counterparts did not play in Europe so this will be the teams first fixture of three weeks. The break was probably needed as the Ospreys returned from a trip to South Africa where they were comfortably beaten by the Stormers and the Lions.
Gareth Anscombe and Stephen Myler have been very good with the boot all season, thanks to the excellent jackling of Jac Morgan and Morgan Morris all season. Without George North the team are missing serious firepower and need a lot of metres from Alex Cuthbert and Rhys Webb.
With some big additions in the summer, I think that Cardiff will end the season strong and get the result against the Ospreys this weekend.
Sharks vs Leinster
The final game of the weekend looks like a brilliant encounter as table toppers Leinster make the trip down south to take on the Sharks.
Despite sitting in Sixth place, the Sharks are only four points off second placed Ulster and are still absolutely in the running for a home quarter final game. They have been helped by winning six out of their last seven matches. A big reason for this is the excellent play of their world cup winners.
Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi and Makazole Mapimpi all performed well last time out. Mbonambi has been particularly good this season, winning 87 lineouts this season which has been a real weapon for the Sharks. Curwin Bosch has also been good this season and is the fourth highest points scorer in the URC.
They face a hugely tough challenge this week against the best team in the URC this season. Leinster are coming off the back of a huge win against Connacht in the Champions Cup, winning by a whopping 36 points. Four tries from James Lowe earned him man of the match.
But it is not just Lowe who has been good for Leinster this season. With most of Irelands national team playing for Leinster they have stars all over the pitch. Up front, Leinster probably have the best group in the world with Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher returning last week.
They have stars all over the pitch and are back to pretty much full strength. Leinster’s power upfront is brilliant and when that doesn’t work, their incredibly talented backs can cut through any teams defence. After an emphatic victory last week I think that Leinster get another statement win this week.
But look out for the Sharks. Home advantage in South Africa is huge and it looks to be a thrilling encounter to end this weekend’s URC games.