Invasion of the Emerald Isle
URC ROUND ONE – TEAMS AND PREDICTION: It is the pride against South Africa against the power of Ireland on Day Two of Europe’s new toy – the United Rugby Championship.
It is headlined by the four-time European Cup champion Leinster hosting the back-to-back Currie Cup champion Bulls in Dublin.
And the other big feature event is the two-time European Champions Munster at home to the Currie Cup runners-up, the Sharks.
Now throw in the Rainbow Cup champions, Benetton, playing the Stormers in Treviso and Edinburgh at home to Scarlets for a great day’s entertainment.
The weekend’s action is concluded when Dragons host the Ospreys on Sunday.
However, it is the two Saturday matches on the Emerald Isle that will steal most of the spotlight – as it pits the best of Ireland against the best of South Africa – to go with the novelty of a different competition.
Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White spoke about the unknown factor that comes with a new competition.
“It is a great opportunity,” White said, adding that playing the four-time European Cup champions Leinster first up is a massive challenge.
“In whatever competition they played, they were always there, or thereabouts.
“The image is clear, we have one of the top teams in Europe first up and it is a great opportunity for us.”
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He added that the lessons they learnt from the hammering they took at the hands of Benetton in the Rainbow Cup Final have been taken to heart.
“I am hoping the combinations we have now are more suited to playing in the north and also against a really good team like Leinster,” the Bulls boss added.
“We have had some good momentum in the South African domestic scene, and we hope we can transfer that form to the URC.
“We are in for great challenge in this quality championship against competitive opposition. ”
“To have the opportunity of facing a top side like Leinster will be the perfect opportunity to measure ourselves against one of the best sides in Europe.”
Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton will shrug off his disappointment of missing out on the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa by making a rare start for Leinster in the season-opener.
Leo Cullen’s men are boosted by the return of Andrew Porter, who would have toured for the B&I Lions but for an untimely foot injury, and Garry Ringrose, who may have featured in South Africa had he not been hampered by shoulder troubles.
* Meanwhile, the Sharks will look to put the disappointment of another loss to the Bulls in a Currie Cup Final behind them when they face the other powerful Irish province Munster.
Sharks coach Sean Everitt spoke of the challenge of facing a compatriot in the opposing camp, calling Johann van Graan a “well-organized coach” that has coached at the highest level – having been a Springbok assistant coach from 2012 to 2017, before joining Munster.
“He brought a style to Munster that is very difficult to play against,” Everitt said.
“They are a suffocate, strangle-type of a team and they don’t give you much to play from.
“I know Johann and I know his organisational ability at Munster.
“They are certainly a well-oiled machine.
“It will be tough for us as a group – players and management – but are up for the challenge.
“We are excited to go out and measure ourselves against top international opposition.”
Van Graan, like all the coaches and players, spoke about the excitement of going into a new competition – with a new format and a new qualification process for the European Cup.
He described the Sharks as a “very proud South African team” who featured in the last two Currie Cup finals.
“They have put together a really good squad,” he said, adding that the Sharks have good structures.
“I have a lot of respect for them.”
Even though it is only the opening round, he said the goal is to get into the play-offs – both for the URC and European Cup.
“It is a really challenging season, but our focus now is only on this game against the Sharks.
“It is an unknown factor for both teams, but very exciting.”
* Stormers coach John Dobson will hope his team can start their campaign with win in Italy, after the Lions set the stage on Friday with a sublime start.
Dobson said that while Benetton has changed a bit since the Rainbow Cup Final in terms of their personnel, they are still a massive challenge.
“They are a very big team – physically and direct,” the Stormers coach said.
“What we were impressed by [in pre-season games] against Edinburgh and Sale Sharks was the size and the directness of their pack of forwards.
“We expect a pretty tough battle up front.”
Captained by former Stormers scrumhalf Dewalt Duvenage, they have other South Africans like former Lions fullback Andries Coetzee and Cheetahs stalwart Carl Wegner at lock.
“We know Coetzee will bring a bit of X-factor at the back,” Dobson said, adding: “But we mostly expect them to take us on up front.”
Below are all the teams and predictions for the Friday games!
Saturday, September 25
Benetton v Stormers
(Stadio Comunable Di Monigo, Treviso – Kick-off: 14.00; 12.00 GMT)
@rugby365com: Benetton by eight points
Benetton: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ratuva Tavuyara, 13 Marco Zanon, 12 Joaquin Riera, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Tomas Albornoz, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage (c), 8 Riccardo Favretto, 7 Michele Lamaro, 6 Manuel Zuliani, 5 Carl Wegner, 4 Niccolò Cannone, 3 Tiziano Pasquali, 2 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 1 Nahuel Chaparro
Replacements: 16 Giacomo Nicotera, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Ivan Nemer, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Lorenzo Cannone, 21 Callum Braley, 22 Leonardo Marin, 23 Tommaso Menoncello
Stormers: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Rikus Pretorius, 11 Edwill van der Merwe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Paul de Wet, 8 Evan Roos, 7 Willie Engelbrecht, 6 Deon Fourie, 5 Salmaan Moerat (cc), 4 Ernst van Rhyn (cc), 3 Neethling Fouche, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Leon Lyons
Replacements: 16 Andre-Hugo Venter, 17 Dian Bleuler, 18 Sazi Sandi, 19 Adre Smith, 20 Nama Xaba, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Tim Swiel, 23 Juan de Jongh
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Federico Vedovelli (Italy), Alex Frasson (Italy)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
Leinster v Bulls
(Lansdowne Road, Dublin – Kick-off: 17.15; 18.15 SA time; 16.15 GMT)
@rugby365com: Leinster by 18 points
Leinster: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Rory O’Loughlin, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Ciarán Frawley, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 James Ryan, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Michael Ala’alatoa, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Cian Healy, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Jamie Osborne
Bulls: 15 David Kriel, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Zak Burger, 8 Elrigh Louw, 7 Arno Botha, 6 Marcell Coetzee (c), 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Walt Steenkamp, 3 Mornay Smith, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Gerhard Steenekamp
Replacements: 16 Joe van Zyl, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Janko Swanepoel, 20 Jacques du Plessis, 21 Keagan Johannes, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Stedman Gans
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Daniel Carson (Ireland)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Edinburgh v Scarlets
(Edinburgh Rugby Stadium – Kick-off: 17.15; 16.15 GMT)
@rugby365com: Edinburgh by five points
Edinburgh: 15 Henry Immelman, 14 Darcy Graham, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Cammy Hutchison, 11 Damien Hoyland, 10 Blair Kinghorn, 9 Ben Vellacott, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Luke Crosbie, 6 Jamie Ritchie, 5 Grant Gilchrist (c), 4 Marshall Sykes, 3 Lee Roy Atalifo, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Dave Cherry, 17 Boan Venter, 18 WP Nel, 19 Jamie Hodgson, 20 Connor Boyle, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 James Lang
Scarlets: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 Ryan Conbeer, 13 Jonathan Davies (c), 12 Scott Williams, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Kieran Hardy, 8 Sione Kalamafoni, 7 Dan Davis, 6 Blade Thomson, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Aaron Shingler, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Phil Price, 18 WillGriff John, 19 Tom Price, 20 Tom Phillips, 21 Dane Blacker, 22 Sam Costelow, 23 Ioan Nicholas
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Ian Kenny (Scotland), Graeme Ormiston (Scotland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
Munster v Sharks
(Thomond Park, Limerick – Kick-off: 19.35; 20.35 SA time; 18.35 GMT)
@rugby365com: Munster by 18 points
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Dan Goggin, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Joey Carbery, 9 Craig Casey, 8 Gavin Coombes, 7 Jack O’Donoghue, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Fineen Wycherley, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne
Replacements: 16 Diarmuid Barron, 17 Jeremy Loughman, 18 Keynan Knox, 19 Rudolph Snyman, 20 Thomas Ahern, 21 Rowan Osborne, 22 Ben Healy, 23 Chris Cloete
Sharks: 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Werner Kok, 12 Marius Louw, 11 Thaakir Abrahams, 10 Boeta Chamberlain, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Phepsi Buthelezi (c), 7 Henco Venter, 6 Dylan Richardson, 5 Gerbrandt Grobler, 4 Le Roux Roets, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Khwezi Mona
Replacements: 16 Fez Mbatha, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Mpilo Gumede, 20 Ruben van Heerden, 21 Hyron Andrews, 22 Sanele Nohamba, 23 Jeremy Ward
Referee: Craig Evans (Wales)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Dermot Blake (Ireland),
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
Sunday, September 26
Dragons v Ospreys
(Rodney Parade, Newport – Kick-off: 14.00; 12.00 GMT)
@rugby365com: Dragons by five points
Dragons: 15 Josh Lewis, 14 Jonah Holmes, 13 Jack Dixon, 12 Aneurin Owen, 11 Jordan Olowofela, 10 Sam Davies (c), 9 Lewis Jones, 8 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Ollie Griffiths, 6 Ross Moriarty (c), 5 Will Rowlands, 4 Ben Carter, 3 Mesake Doge, 2 Ellis Shipp, 1 Aki Seiuli
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Greg Bateman, 18 Chris Coleman, 19 Joe Maksymiw, 20 Taine Basham, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Jamie Roberts, 23 Ioan Davies
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Mat Protheroe, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Luke Morgan, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Rhys Webb (c), 8 Morgan Morris, 7 Jac Morgan, 6 Will Griffiths, 5 Rhys Davies, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Nicky Smith
Replacements: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Ethan Roots, 21 Reuben Morgan Williams, 22 Josh Thomas, 23 Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler
Referee: Sam Grove-White (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Gwyn Morris (Wales), Tom Spurrier (Wales)
TMO: Sean Brickell (Wales)