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Road to the play-offs: New URC log-leaders

SPOTLIGHT: Glasgow Warriors are the new leaders of the United Rugby Championship having jumped above Leinster at the top of the table.

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Franco Smith’s team did a professional job in recording a 40-9 bonus point victory away to Zebre, with wing Kyle Steyn and hooker Gregor Hiddleston both crossing twice.

They were then able to watch on as Leinster went down to a second successive heavy defeat in South Africa, losing 12-42 to the Stormers in Cape Town, following on from last week’s 12-44 beating at the hands of the Lions.

That gives Glasgow a four-point buffer at the top of the log with three rounds of matches to go, while Leinster are now just one point ahead of reigning champions Munster who made it back-to-back bonus point wins in South Africa by despatching the Lions.

Having triumphed 27-22 against the Bulls in Pretoria in Round 14, they were comfortable 33-13 winners in Johannesburg, with the league’s leading carrier Gavin Coombes one of their four try scorers.

As for Jake White’s Bulls, they bounced back in style with a 61-24 victory over the Ospreys to stay six points clear of the Stormers in fourth spot.

Connacht were the big risers, jumping up from tenth to sixth thanks to a hard-fought 34-27 bonus point victory over Dragons at Rodney Parade.

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They are now level on 44 points with Ulster and Benetton who were involved in a ten-try thriller in Belfast on Friday, with the home side winning 38-34.

Match of the weekend

Scarlets 27-32 Sharks

The Sharks arrived in Llanelli pretty much fully loaded, with the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Ox Nche, Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am, Vincent Koch and Grant Williams on board.

There must have been a fair degree of trepidation for Scarlets fans to see so many Springbok stars in the opposition ranks, particularly after heavy defeats to Glasgow and Edinburgh for the Welsh region in their previous two games.

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But those supporters would have ended up encouraged by the way their team made such a game of it, pushing the Sharks all the way amid a grandstand finish.

The hosts claimed one of their best tries of the season, with Wales hooker Ryan Elias producing a fine finish to round off a long-range attack that saw the ball go through ten pairs of hands.

Fullback Ioan Nicholas was the player to launch that counter from his own 22 and he was also the man to go over four minutes from time to set up a thrilling finale.

 

But the Sharks held firm in the last play to secure their first win outside South Africa in the league this season.

It was a night to remember for their Ulster-bound wing Werner Kok who marked his 50th appearance for the Dublin-based outfit with a hat-trick of tries.

His first came via a slick backs move featuring sublime passes from centre Am and fullback Aphelele Fassi, while he then profited from two pinpoint cross-kicks by flyhalf Siya Masuku.

Sharks skipper Am commented: “I definitely give credit to the Scarlets. They put us under a lot of pressure, but we managed to come out on top. We are really happy with the performance.”

Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel said: “Looking at the team sheet, some people may not have given us much of a chance, but we fought hard for the full 80 minutes and there were elements to be proud of. We played with some freedom. While we’re not happy with losing, it just felt a different atmosphere here with the fans.”

Player of the weekend

David Kriel (Bulls)

The 25-year-old utility back isn’t as much of a household name as some of the other Bulls, but he plays a valuable role for the team.

He can slot in pretty much anywhere in the back line and is a real reliable presence, both in attack and defence.

This season, he’s worn 15, 14, 13 and 12, with Saturday’s clash with the Ospreys at Loftus Versfeld seeing him line-up at outside centre.

He was to play a pivotal role in a 61-24 victory, having a hand in four tries and scoring one himself via an interception. His link-up play with wings Kurt Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie – who both scored two tries – was excellent, exemplified by the intelligent grubber kick he put in for Moodie’s second. A polished performance.

Quote of the weekend

Stormers prop Neethling Fouche following his Player of the Match display in the 42-12 victory over Leinster in Cape Town:

“We weren’t happy with last week’s performance (a home defeat to the Ospreys). We let our fans down and we wanted to come out and give them something to smile about.

“We still believe in ourselves. There is confidence brewing and we can be dangerous going into the end of the competition.”

 

What’s coming up next?

The URC takes a break next weekend, but three of the league’s teams will be involved in big knock-out rugby.

Leinster take on Northampton in a Champions Cup semifinal, which will be played in front of an 82,300-capacity crowd at a sold-out Croke Park.

In the EPCR Challenge Cup semifinals, the Sharks will be up against French club Clermont Auvergne at the Twickenham Stoop, while Benetton will travel to Kingsholm to face Gloucester.

Then, the following week, it’s back to URC action for Round 16.

New league leaders Glasgow will have their title credentials fully tested when they take on the Bulls in Pretoria, the first of back-to-back games in South Africa for them.

Having left the Rainbow Nation without gaining a single point from their two matches on tour, second-placed Leinster will want to get back on track when they entertain the Ospreys in Dublin.

Just behind them in the table are red-hot Munster who host Connacht in an Irish derby at Limerick’s Thomond Park.

Elsewhere, you’ve got Dragons v Stormers, Edinburgh v Zebre, Scarlets v Ulster, Sharks v Benetton and Lions v Cardiff.

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