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URC State: Bulls' attack leading the way

The United Rugby Championship is reaching its halfway mark with all 16 teams having played the first nine of their 18 regular season matches.

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So as the league returns this weekend with Round 10, here is a look at how the sides have fared so far.

First: Leinster Rugby

It’s business as usual, with Leinster sitting on top of the table.

The season didn’t start too well for them, as they shipped 43 points in losing to Glasgow in Round One.

But they then reeled off seven straight wins to restore their regular status as pacesetters, ahead of slipping up at home to Ulster.

They now have Springboks World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber on board, which is some signing.

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Best performance: A hard-fought 9-3 win over reigning champions Munster in Limerick on Boxing Day

Star man: Caelan Doris

Breakthrough player: Joe McCarthy

Second: Benetton

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No team can match their record of having lost just one game in the league so far this season, while they have only been beaten twice in 13 matches in all competitions.

Their work at the breakdown has been crucial to their success, with their tally of 62 turnovers-won the second best in the URC, while discipline has also been a strength, amid just three yellow cards in nine league games.

Best performance: The 24-22 victory away to Edinburgh in Round Six when centre Marco Zanon scored two tries

Star man: Michele Lamaro

Breakthrough player: Alessandro Izekor

Third: Glasgow Warriors

A hard bunch to contain with the ball in hand.

Collectively, they have beaten more defenders (196) than any other team, with fullback Josh Mackay, in particular, eating up the metres. They are also highly effective when it comes to the lineout drive maul, which has contributed significantly to hooker Johnny Matthews topping the URC try count with 10.

In addition, they have won the most lineouts (123) and have the best tackle success rate (90 percent), so very much an all-round package.

Best performance: Turning round a two-try deficit to beat Ulster 33-20 in Round Six.

Star man: Johnny Matthews

Breakthrough player: Kyle Rowe

Fourth: Bulls

Leading the South African challenge, the team from Pretoria have been lethal in attack, scoring the most tries (40) and the most points (294), with hooker Akker van der Merwe touching down six times.

They have picked up two league wins in Europe – away to Zebre and Cardiff – which no other side from the Rainbow Nation has achieved this term.

Plus they have recorded two of the biggest attendances, with 24,515 and 26,632 for derbies at Loftus Versfeld.

Best performance: They ran in seven tries during a 53-27 romp against Connacht in late November

Star man: Elrigh Louw

Breakthrough player: Cameron Hanekom

Fifth: Ulster 

Their defensive work-rate has caught the eye as they have put in more tackles (1638) than any other side, with No.8 Nick Timoney leading the way on 113, just one short of the top individual tally.

Then, in attack, wing Jacob Stockdale has been a resurgent force, with six tries and ten clean breaks, putting him joint second in both categories.

The arrival of Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff has grabbed the headlines and he is making his mark.

Best performance: Their most recent one – a 22-21 win away to league leaders Leinster on New Year’s Day

Star man: Nick Timoney

Breakthrough player: David McCann

Sixth: Edinburgh

Much improved after last season’s lowly twelfth-placed finish, with former Sharks coach Sean Everitt having made a decent start to his tenure.

The signing of Ben Healy from Munster has proved a big hit, with the flyhalf the league’s top scorer on 90 points and bringing valuable tactical control. Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe has also been a key figure, beating more defenders (32) than any player in the competition, while the team have been resolute in defence, high up in tackles success and turnovers.

Best performance: Beating the Bulls was impressive, but the 27-24 win away to Ulster just edges it

Star man: Ben Healy

Breakthrough player: Harry Paterson

Seventh: Stormers

Finalists in their first two years in the URC, the Cape Town collective have a lot to live up to and they have found it difficult at times this season.

They lost four successive games on tour in Europe during the autumn, with damaging defeats away to Glasgow, Benetton, Munster and Cardiff.

But, since then, they have won six out of seven matches in all competitions, while five of their remaining nine league fixtures are at home, where they are so tough to beat.

Best performance: A crowd of 39,925 watched them claim the prize scalp of the Bulls just before Christmas, with Manie Libbok kicking them to a 26-20 win

Star man: Hacjivah Dayimani

Breakthrough player: Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu

Eight: Ospreys

Toby Booth’s team have defied reduced squad numbers and a crippling injury list to win eight of their 13 matches in all tournaments.

Their discipline has been excellent, with just 80 penalties conceded in nine league games – the second lowest – and only three yellow cards picked up.

As with the other Welsh regions, a number of youngsters have shone brightly, notably No.8 Morgan Morse and lock James Fender.

Best performance: A comprehensive 31-9 win over arch-rivals the Scarlets in Round Six when centre Keiran Williams went over twice

Star man: Keelan Giles

Breakthrough player: Morgan Morse

Ninth: Connacht

They won four of their first five URC matches – including a historic win in South Africa over the Sharks – and they topped the table at one point, with Pete Wilkins making an impressive start, having been promoted to the coaching helm in the wake of Andy Friend heading home to Australia.

But they then went on a real rocky run, losing five games on the trot in all competitions ahead of a much-needed success against Munster to start the new year on a positive note.

Best performance: A rousing 34-26 triumph over Glasgow in late October, with a try double from wing Diarmuid Kilgallen

Star man: Cian Prendergast

Breakthrough player: Diarmuid Kilgallen

10th: Lions

The team from Johannesburg are good to watch, with flyhalf Sanele Nohamba a real side-stepping box of tricks.

Centre Marius Louw is a highly effective presence in the centre, making the second most successful carries in the URC.

Remarkably, the Lions have received just one yellow card in their nine league games, although there has also been one red.

They have had plenty of tight games along the way this term.

Best performance: The 20-18 away win over the Sharks in Durban early last month

Star man: Marius Louw

Breakthrough player: Sanele Nohamba

11th: Munster

After the heroics of last season’s title triumph, it’s been back down to earth, with just five wins from 13 matches in all competitions.

They have left themselves a lot of ground to make up if they are to retain their URC crown.

Amid the wobbles, No.8 Gavin Coombs has remained a relentless rock, putting in more carries (133) than any other player in the competition.

Best performance: A six-try 40-29 win over Glasgow at the start of December

Star man: Gavin Coombs

Breakthrough player: Calvin Nash

12th: Cardiff

The Arms Park outfit have only won three league games, but all their other matches have been one-score affairs that have gone down to the wire.

They have completed the most turnovers and made the most clean breaks (66 in both cases), with Mason Grady topping the break chart on 12, while new Wales flank Alex Mann is the URC’s leading tackler (114) and South African flyhalf Tinus de Beer lies second for points scored (82).

Best performance: The last-gasp 31-24 defeat of the Stormers in Round Six

Star man: Tomos Williams

Breakthrough player: Alex Mann

13th: Scarlets

It’s been a similar story to last season, with just two wins from their opening nine league matches.

Whether they can repeat last term and turn things around in the second half of the campaign remains to be seen.

They have accumulated the second lowest number of tries (19), while there have also been issues at the set-piece and in terms of the number of penalties conceded (99).

In the Challenge Cup, they lost all four group matches, a sharp contrast to last season.

Best performance: They won 29-23 at the Arms Park in early December to complete the double over Cardiff

Star man: Ioan Lloyd

Breakthrough player: Joe Roberts

14th: Zebre Parma

Having only accumulated 11 points during the whole of last season, the Italians have already passed that mark by the halfway point, having ended a 28-match losing streak by beating the Sharks amid scenes of wild celebration.

They are sharper in attack, having scored a creditable 27 league tries – the sixth highest tally – with wing Simone Gesi claiming six of them, while their lineout maul defence is much improved.

Best performance: The emotional 12-10 triumph over the Sharks in Parma that finally ended the barren run

Star man: Simone Gesi

Breakthrough player: Matteo Nocera

15th: Dragons

It’s been a new era for the Gwent region, who are back in private ownership after six years under the auspices of the WRU.

However, there have still been challenging times on the field with just the three wins from 13 matches in the URC and the Challenge Cup.

Scoring has been a particular problem, with their try tally (16) and points total (142) the lowest in the league. The scrum has also been a concern, but the lineout is more of a plus.

Best performance : The 20-5 victory over the Ospreys at Rodney Parade in mid-November

Star man: Aaron Wainwright

Breakthrough player: Harri Ackerman

16th: Sharks

This is where the stats get a bit weird.

The Sharks are bottom of the table, with just one win, but they have gained more metres (3707) than any other side, with fullback Aphelele Fassi having run for 675 of those to lead the way in the competition, They are also top of the charts in terms of lineout efficiency.

Where they have really struggled is with their discipline, conceding the most penalties (102).

Finishing the Challenge Cup group stage as top seeds has provided hope for the rest of the season for John Plumtree’s side.

Best performance: Has to be the solitary win really and it was some win, as they racked up ten tries in a 69-14 rout of the Dragons

Star man: Aphelele Fassi

Breakthrough player: Jeandre Labuschagne

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