Breaking the Irish drought
URC ROUND FOUR – TEAMS AND PREDICTIONS: South African teams have a zero-from-four record against Irish teams, a drought they hope the Lions can finally break in Round Four.
It is a tall order, given the Johannesburg-based franchise travel to Belfast on Friday to take on Ulster at the Ravenhill Stadium.
So far the Bulls – said to be South Africa’s best hope – have lost to Leinster (3-31) and Connacht (7-34), while the Sharks, the Currie Cup runners-up for the past two seasons, lost 17-42 to Munster.
The Stormers produced a slightly more respectable 18-34 margin in their loss to Munster.
South Africa’s three wins in the tournament’s opening weeks have been the Lions against Zebre (38-26), the Sharks against Ospreys (27-13) and the Bulls over Cardiff (29-19).
There is also the Stormers’ 20-all draw with Edinburgh.
However, claiming an Irish scalp has so far eluded the touring South Africans.
There is a good reason why the South African teams have struggled.
The only teams with a 100 percent winning record after three rounds of the United Rugby Championship are Irish.
Leinster, who have won the Pro14 for the past four seasons, sit a point behind Ulster and Munster, last season’s beaten finalists, with the latter two having accumulated an extra bonus point.
Ulster is keen for another bonus-point win and the Lions know they have a mountain to climb.
The other Friday match will see the Stormers looking to put their union’s administrative woes behind them when they face the Dragons in Newport.
Dan McFarland’s Ulstermen have won their last four matches – their last loss a Rainbow Cup fixture against Leinster at the RDS Arena in May.
Ulster has played nine previous matches against South African opponents – all in the Pro14 – winning seven, drawing one and losing another.
The Lions have won only two matches across the Rainbow Cup and URC. They have also lost to the Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors since opening their campaign with a win at Zebre
Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen retained regular fullback EW Viljoen stays at flyhalf, despite the arrival of Fred Zeilinga in Ireland. Zeilinga arrived on Monday and only had his first full session with the team on Tuesday, hence the call was made to stay with Viljoen in the No.10 jersey.
The decision is a result of injuries to both first-choice tour flyhalves Jordan Hendrikse and Eddie Fouche.
Van Rooyen said it is no coincidence that the Irish provinces are always at the top end of competitions in Europe and suggested this will be the Lions’ toughest outing on tour.
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“Ulster, in particular, are one of the leading teams in terms of ‘ball if play’,” the Lions coach said.
He added that they also have a great kicking game that puts the opposition under pressure.
“They do have great ball-in-hand skills and thrive on quick ball.”
Captain Burger Odendaal admitted that – given Ulster’s skillsets – defence will be “massive”.
“We are seeing the game as a ‘finals’ week,” he told @rugby365com, adding: “Defence is going to win the game for us.
“The Scarlets game [Week Two] we were not good and we made a step up against Glasgow [last wee].
* Meanwhile the Stormers – meeting Welsh opponents for the first time – are yet to register a win in the URC, although they ended a three-game losing run by holding Edinburgh to a 20-all draw in the Scottish capital last time out.
The Dragons recorded their first win outside Wales since a victory over Glasgow in December when they triumphed over Connacht in Galway last weekend – their first triumph at the Sportsground since 2004.
Dean Ryan’s side has lost their last four home games but pushed Leinster all the way in a 6-7 loss in their last Rodney Parade outing.
Stormers coach John Dobson felt that playing on such a traditional ground will assist his team with motivation.
“Just to play with crowds again has been amazing,” Dobson said.
Captain Salmaan Moerat also suggested the team will ‘enjoy’ the experience of running out onto the historic pitch on the east bank of the River Usk in Newport city centre.
“The boys are just really privileged to play in front of a crowd again,” Moerat said, adding: “The last three weeks have been really special.
“Those are the things you play for.”
The Stormers also have the privilege of the insights of veteran prop Juan Harris – who played 130-odd games for the Dragons between 2014 and this year.
“He has played a lot of rugby at Rodney Parade and knows their team inside out,” Dobson said.
“They are a team on the up.
“They have a massively physical pack, with the entire back row in the frame for the Welsh team.
“They are direct and physical.
“As we know, when you are good in one area, there are opportunities in other areas.”
* Friday teams and predictions follow below …
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 15
Ulster v Lions
(Ravenhill Stadium, Belfast – Kick-off: 19.35; 20.35 SA time; 18.35 GMT)
@rugby365com: Ulster by 18 points
Ulster: 15 Will Addison, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 James Hume, 12 Stewart Moore, 11 Ethan McIlroy, 10 Billy Burns, 9 Nathan Doak, 8 David McCann, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Matty Rea, 5 Sam Carter (captain), 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Tom O’Toole, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Andrew Warwick.
Replacements: 16 Brad Roberts, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Mike Lowry, 23 Ben Moxham.
Lions: 15 Divan Rossouw, 14 Stean Pienaar, 13 Manuel Rass, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Sibahle Maxwane, 10 EW Viljoen, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Ruhan Straeuli, 7 Vincent Tshituka, 6 Sibusiso Sangweni, 5 Reinhard Nothnagel, 4 Ruben Schoeman, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Sithembiso Sithole.
Replacements: 16 Pieter Botha, 17 Ruan Dreyer, 18 Asenathi Ntlabakanye, 19 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 20 Emmanuel Tshituka, 21 Morne van den Berg, 22 Fred Zeilinga, 23 Wandisile Simelane.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Robert O’Sullivan (Ireland), Dermot Blake (Ireland)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
Dragons v Stormers
(Rodney Parade, Newport – Kick-off: 19.35; 20.35 SA; 18.35 GMT)
@rugby365com: Dragons by seven points
Dragons: 15 Jordan Williams, 14 Jonah Holmes, 13 Jack Dixon, 12 Aneurin Owen, 11 Jordan Olowofela, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Taine Basham, 6 Ross Moriarty (captain), 5 Ben Carter, 4 Will Rowlands, 3 Mesake Doge, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Greg Bateman.
Replacements: 16 Taylor Davies, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Chris Coleman, 19 Joe Davies, 20 Joe Maksymiw, 21 Ollie Griffiths, 22 Rhodri Williams, 23 Josh Lewis.
Stormers: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Leolin Zas, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Dan du Plessis, 11 Edwill van der Merwe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Evan Roos, 7 Willie Engelbrecht, 6 Junior Pokomela, 5 Salmaan Moerat (captain), 4 Ernst van Rhyn, 3 Neethling Fouche, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Brok Harris.
Replacements: 16 JJ Kotze, 17 Kwenzo Blose, 18 Sazi Sandi, 19 Justin Basson, 20 Marcel Theunissen, 21 Paul de Wet, 22 Tim Swiel, 23 Juan de Jongh.
Referee: Gianluca Gnecchi (Italy)
Assistant referees: Gwyn Morris (Wales), Ben Breakspear (Wales)
TMO: Emanuele Tomo (Italy)
* Additional reporting by @URCOfficial