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Six Nations stars to complicate Bulls' tour

PREVIEW: With the Six Nations now behind us, the United Rugby Championship takes centre stage again, and there is a crucial fortnight of riveting matches to look forward to.

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The next two rounds of the URC will be vital before the attention switches to Champions Cup knock-out matches in April.

Round 12 will see Glasgow Warriors against Cardiff and Ospreys against Munster kick off the fair on Friday, with all four teams arguably still having much to play for.

Ulster need to win against the Sharks the next day to get their quest for a top-four finish really into focus, the Stormers and Edinburgh are close together on the log, and the same can be said for Connacht and the Lions, who clash in Galway.

The Bulls should be fancied to beat the Dragons in Newport but the Bulls have fluffed it a few times in Wales before, so the only top contending team that has it easy this weekend is arguably log leaders Leinster, who travel to Parma.

Benetton might argue that point, but then much could depend for their trip to Scarlets on how many of their Six Nations players are available for this first game.

Six Nations stars to complicate Bulls' tour

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It is usually customary for international players to be eased back after the Six Nations, which means that in Round 13  when the Bulls visit Dublin, Leinster could have a quasi-Ireland that awaits the South Africans, while Connacht go to Benetton to face a quasi-Italy look to them.

Ireland narrowly missed out on what would have been a second successive Grand Slam but they did complete back-to-back Six Nations trophy successes, so it is going to be interesting to see how that impacts Leinster.  The same for Benetton, who have now dropped out of the top four in the URC after being there most of the season.

However, they could benefit from a confident viewpoint from Italy’s great finish to the Six Nations.

Italy’s win over Wales in the final game may have been an even bigger statement than the one against Scotland in Rome the week before because it was achieved in Cardiff in a game they went into as clear favourites.

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Such an expectation can heap extra pressure, and yet Italy did the job. Don’t be fooled by the narrow three-point winning margin, Italy were streets better on the day, and in the tournament as a whole.

This is relevant to the URC because the Italy team’s core is made up of Benetton players. And the core of the Leinster team is made up of Ireland players who have just tasted another Six Nations success.

There were no less than 10 Leinster players in the starting team for the win over Scotland that clinched the title for Ireland. And 16 in the match 23.

It was a similar story for Benetton in the Italian team. At the same time, Glasgow Warriors provided a significant portion of the Scotland team that experienced what for them must have been a very frustrating tournament.

Frustrating because had the try that should have won them their match against France been awarded, they would have ended their campaign second, just three behind Ireland.

It was indeed a Six Nations of fine margins, and while three URC-represented nations finished in the last three positions, it could very easily have been Ireland, Scotland and Italy in the top three.

Italy have confirmed their rise by making it ninth in the World Rugby rankings, at the expense of Australia, which means that five of the top nine in the world, including the top two, South Africa and Ireland, are URC nations.

Wales was the one nation not dominated by a particular URC team and they finished last with no wins, and should now lose their eighth position on the rankings to Italy. The Ospreys are their top-performing URC team and they don’t have the international representation they had in the recent past.

For Leinster, Glasgow and Benetton however, the next fortnight is going to be a period of adjusting from Six Nations footing back to URC footing. Quite a bit has been said about the impact those provinces and clubs had on the Six Nations campaigns of their team, now it’s time to see how it works the other way around.

Ireland and Leinster of course have been there before, the difference this time maybe being that Leinster are not as far ahead on the log as they were in recent seasons and have a fight on their hands. In the Italy case, it is reasonable to expect Benetton to build positively on what the core of their team has achieved at the international level.

United Rugby Championship Round fixtures:

Friday, March 22
Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff
Ospreys v Munster

Saturday, March 23
Sharks v Ulster
Scarlets v Benetton
Stormers v Edinburgh
Connacht v Lions
Dragons v Bulls
Zebre v Leinster

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