URC, Round 18 - teams and predictions
FRIDAY PREVIEW: Strap yourself in, it is going to be a wild ride.
That sentence captures the essence of the final round of league action in the inaugural season of the United Rugby Championship.
Almost every match at the weekend will have an impact on the final standings in the top eight and who has the home ground advantage in the play-offs.
For two of the Welsh teams, Ospreys and Scarlets, it is about finishing top of their conference and qualifying for the European Cup next season – even though they can’t finish in the top eight anymore.
The roller coaster ride starts on Friday – with Benetton hosting Cardiff in one of the few games where only pride is at stake.
But then the intensity and heat rise dramatically – Ulster hosting the Sharks at Ravenhill in a straight shoot-out to stay alive in the top-four race.
That is followed in the third of Friday’s matches when Ospreys will look to seal top spot in the Welsh conference by beating a Bulls team chasing a top-four spot.
It is in Belfast where the first BIG shots will be fired.
Both Ulster and the Sharks have guaranteed a top-eight finish and a place in the end-of-season URC play-offs.
However, Friday’s match will be crucial in deciding who will secure the all-important home advantage in the quarterfinals.
Going into the game, the Sharks occupy third place on 56 points and Ulster are in the fifth spot on 55 points.
Ulster’s 16-10 victory at Edinburgh in Round 17 of the United Rugby Championship ended a three-game losing run in the Championship.
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Ulster loose forward Marcus Rea described as “vital” the importance of re-establishing the Irish province’s winning form at home.
“We had a few tough games in Munster and Toulouse – which were a big kick in the teeth,” Rea said.
“With the crowd that we have, we want to be winning.
“Getting a win against the Sharks this week would be massive if we can get a home quarterfinal and get momentum going again.”
The Sharks, like all South African teams, did not have a good start to their URC campaign – a humbling 17-42 loss to Munster at Thomond Park in Limerick.
However, visiting coach Sean Everitt is confident they will present this Irish outfit with a far more formidable challenge.
“It took us a while to build cohesion,” Everitt told @rugby365com, adding: “We have come on nicely and playing some good all-round rugby.”
He added that his team’s try-scoring ability – with an average of just over three tries per game – shows the progress they have made.
With rain predicted for Ravenhill, Everitt said conditions will play a role.
However, unlike Durban where the Sharks have had a few ‘wet-weather’ games, in Belfast, the drop in temperature provides the visitors with a very different challenge.
“Our game model allows us to adjust our tactics according to the conditions,” the Sharks coach added.
Like Ulster, the Sharks are also desperate to secure home ground advantage in the play-offs.
Home ground advantage is key in any competition come the knock-out rounds, but so too is the reward that comes with winning your country’s Shield.
“We’re currently sitting on top of the South African Shield and third on the log, so there is everything to play for,” Everitt said.
“We know what a huge challenge it is to go to Belfast to play at Ravenhill, but we do believe we have the ability and the players, as well as the coaching team, to go over there and do the job.
“It would be really good for us if we were able to come home and play in front of our fans at Kings Park in a quarterfinal and semifinal.”
* At almost the same time – there are 35 minutes between the two kick-offs – the Bulls will deal with a desperate Welsh team, Ospreys, in Swansea.
The Bulls will look to put themselves in as strong a position as possible to capitalise, should any of the teams above them slip up – with Munster heading to Dublin to face Leinster on Saturday and the Stormers visiting the Scarlets.
For the Bulls to climb into the top two, they would need a bonus-point win by at least 25 points at the Ospreys as well as defeats for Munster and the Stormers and a draw between Ulster and the Sharks, with neither side earning a try bonus.
They would also have to hope Munster did not collect two bonus points in defeat as Johann van Graan’s men boast a considerably better points difference.
Bulls Director of Jake White said it is an “interesting” game, because of the points difference factor.
“It is one of those games where we have to give it everything we have to get a bonus point [win],” White told @rugby365com.
Being a must-win game for both, there is a lot to play for in this match.
With 11 members of the Welsh team to face the Springboks in July, the Ospreys team presents the Bulls with a massive challenge.
“Seven of the forwards that will face us, will play for Wales,” White said.
“We expect a huge battle against a motivated Ospreys side that will be looking to claim the Welsh Shield with a win over us.
“We expect the match to be a tough encounter, with Ospreys set to be, as always, competitive in the set pieces.
“We have seen what they are capable of and they will no doubt want to get a good result in front of their home crowd.”
Ospreys coach Toby Booth also touched on the significance of the game.
“The Bulls are very physical, very strong up front, a very collision and field position based side,” Booth said.
“They have a good kicking game and if you let their back three have it on their terms, in broken field, they are going to hurt you.
“We saw that against the Stormers, from our own personal experience, so we are expecting the same.
“The good thing for us is that we are at home, with a crowd. We haven’t had to travel and this is on our terms, in that respect.
“It is going to be a massive arm wrestle and a massive challenge, but one we are really looking forward to.”
* Cardiff heads to Italy looking to secure a third consecutive victory to close out the 2021/22 campaign.
“We were pleased to secure back-to-back wins last week and now we are determined to finish the season on a high with three,” Cardiff Director of Rugby, Dai Young said.
“It has been a frustrating and very disrupted season but we now have the opportunity to sign off on a positive note and have something to build into next year with.
“Playing so many consecutive games has been a real challenge and a lot of players are battered and bruised so we have made a few more changes.
“It will be a big test, and Benetton will be confident after winning last week, so we need to focus on our own game and roles and execute to the best of our ability.”
All the teams and predictions for Friday, May 20, are below …
Benetton v Cardiff
(Stadio Monigo, Treviso – Kick-off: 19.00; 18.00 Ireland & UK time; 17.00 GMT)
@rugby365com: Benetton by five points
Benetton: 15 Rhyno Smith, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Ignacio Brex, 12 Filippo Drago, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Tomas Albornoz, 9 Callum Braley, 8 Lorenzo Cannone, 7 Michele Lamaro (captain), 6 Giovanni Pettinelli, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Irné Herbst, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Giacomo Nicotera, 1 Thomas Gallo.
Replacements: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Ivan Nemer, 18 Nahuel Tetaz, 19 Niccolò Cannone, 20 Toa Halafihi, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Joaquin Riera, 23 Leonardo Marin.
Cardiff: 15 Cam Winnett, 14 Owen Lane, 13 Mason Grady, 12 Max Llewellyn, 11 Theo Cabango, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 James Ratti, 7 Ellis Jenkins (captain), 6 Shane Lewis-Hughes, 5 Matthew Screech, 4 Seb Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Kristian Dacey, 1 Rhys Carré.
Replacements: 16 Efan Daniel, 17 Corey Domachowski, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Teddy Williams, 20 Josh Turnbull, 21 Ellis Bevan, 22 Ben Thomas, 23 Jason Harries.
Referee: Eoghan Cross (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Andrew Cole (Ireland), Alberto Favaro (Italy)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
Ulster v Sharks
(Ravenhill Stadium, Belfast – Kick-off: 19.35; 20.35 SA time; 18.35 GMT)
@rugby365com: Ulster by eight points
Ulster: 15 Mike Lowry, 14 Rob Baloucoune, 13 James Hume, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Ethan McIlroy, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Marcus Rea, 5 Iain Henderson (captain), 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Tom O’Toole, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Andrew Warwick.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Gareth Milasinovich, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Matty Rea, 21 Nathan Doak, 22 Stewart Moore, 23 Rob Lyttle.
Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Werner Kok, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Marius Louw, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Phendulani Buthelezi, 7 Henco Venter, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Thomas du Toit (captain), 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Kerron van Vuuren, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Jeandré Labuschagne, 21 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 22 Grant Williams, 23 Boeta Chamberlain.
Referee: Ben Blain (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Peter Martin (Ireland), Paul Haycock (Ireland)
TMO: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Ospreys v Bulls
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea – Kick-off: 20.10; 21.10 SA time; 19.10 GMT)
@rugby365com: Bulls by six points
Ospreys: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Luke Morgan, 13 George North, 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Keelan Giles, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Rhys Webb (captain), 8 Morgan Morris, 7 Jac Morgan, 6 Will Griffiths, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Dewi Lake, 1 Gareth Thomas.
Replacements: 16 Sam Parry, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Dan Lydiate, 21 Harri Morgan, 22 Stephen Myler, 23 Mat Protheroe.
Bulls: 15 Canan Moodie, 14 David Kriel, 13 Cornal Hendricks, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 1o Chris Smith, 9 Izak Burger, 8 Elrigh Louw, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Marcell Coetzee (captain), 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Walt Steenkamp, 3 Mornay Smith, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.
Replacements: 16 Jan-Hendrik Wessels, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Robert Hunt, 19 Janko Swanepoel, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Juan Mostert, 23 Stedman Gans.
Referee: Chris Busby (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse (Wales), Jason Bessant (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)