United Rugby Championship: Five talking points for Round 13 including Stormers’ tricky assignment against Ulster and Hamish Watson’s Edinburgh return
The United Rugby Championship (URC) continues with Round 13 this weekend, which includes some fascinating match-ups as all the South African sides return to the northern hemisphere.
Ahead of the action, Planet Rugby has picked out five talking points to consider this weekend.
Hamish Watson to play first match of the year for Edinburgh
Edinburgh and Scotland fans will be delighted by the news that the openside flanker is set to make his return to action when Edinburgh host the Sharks at the DAM Health Stadium on Saturday.
It will be the 31-year old’s first match since suffering a head injury while on duty for his country against New Zealand in an Autumn Nations Series Test at Murrayfield on November 13.
A hugely influential player, who usually shines on attack, defence and especially at the breakdowns, Watson will have to hit the ground running against the Sharks. Edinburgh did well to beat Saracens in the Champions Cup last week and, in doing so, they booked their place in that tournament’s Round of 16.
However, they have delivered a mixed bag of results in the URC and can ill afford a defeat against the Durban-based side who are trailing them by just one point on the table. Watson will be determined to put in a decent performance to help his team to victory and if he comes through this fixture unscathed he could also make his return to Scotland’s Test side for their Six Nations opener against England at Twickenham on February 4.
Understrength Stormers face tricky assignment at Ulster
The defending champions have opted to leave several of their first choice players at home for Friday’s clash against Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium and their depth will be severely tested against their northern Irish opponents, who are always difficult to beat in their backyard.
Although the men from Cape Town have been boosted by the return of Springbok duo Evan Roos and Herschel Jantjies, they will take on Ulster without fellow Boks like skipper Steven Kitshoff, Damian Willemse as well as Dan du Plessis, Hacjivah Dayimani and Angelo Davids, who have been amongst their best performers during this season.
Number eight Roos and scrum-half Jantjies both came off the bench and scored tries in the Stormers‘ Champions Cup win against Clermont Auvergne last week. Although Jantjies will start against Ulster as a replacement again, Roos has been included in the run-on side and his direct duel with Duane Vermeulen should be one of the highlights of this match.
Benetton and Munster to go down to the wire
The Italian outfit head into their encounter at home against their Irish opponents in a confident mood as they are currently on a six-match winning streak in all competitions, with three of those wins notched in the URC.
That impressive form has moved them into sixth spot on the table while they have also qualified for the Round of 16 in the Challenge Cup where they have won their other three matches. However, they face stern opposition in Munster who, after a slow start to the season, have shown solid improvement in all competitions.
Benetton are in a rich vein of form on their home turf and have already beaten Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets, Dragons, Edinburgh, Zebre and Ulster in Treviso in the URC but they face tough opponents in Munster.
Graham Rowntree’s charges have won their last two matches in the competition – against Ulster and the Lions – and pushed French heavyweights Toulouse all the way in their previous match – in the Champions Cup – before suffering a narrow away defeat.
We expect this to be a hard-fought battle but with the likes of Joey Carbery, Malakai Fekitoa and captain Niall Scannell leading the charge, Munster should take the spoils, albeit narrowly.
Leinster to consolidate top spot
The Irish province have shown that they mean business this season as they have won all their matches in the United Rugby Championship and the Champions Cup so far.
They have been particularly impressive in the Champions Cup, where they finished the group stage with a full house of 20 points after winning all four their matches in that tournament, and head into Saturday’s encounter against Cardiff at the RDS Arena having won all 12 of their URC matches so far this season.
That means they have already amassed 56 points in the standings and are 11 points clear of their nearest rivals, the Stormers, who have played one match fewer that Leo Cullen’s charges.
Cullen has left out several of his first choice players for the clash against Cardiff but Leinster have tremendous strength in depth in their ranks, with the experienced players like captain Rhys Ruddock, Dave Kearney, Luke McGrath and Michael Ala’alatoa expected to lead the charge. Don’t be surprised if they continue on the victory trail.
Bulls to soldier on without Jake White
The Pretoria-based outfit suffered a setback when shortly after returning home after their last URC match – which they won against the Dragons at Rodney Parade on January 6 – their director of rugby, White, underwent emergency abdominal surgery.
Despite being without the former Springbok coach, the Bulls did well to claim a 39-24 victory over Exeter Chiefs in a Champions Cup match at Loftus Versfeld on January 14 but they struggled in their next game, away to Lyon, and eventually lost 31-7 against the French side.
With White only due to return in February, his assistants Nollis Marais, Pine Pienaar, Russell Winter and Chris Rossouw will share the coaching duties. They are up against the Scarlets in Wales on Friday and although their hosts are languishing in 15th position in the 16-team competition, the Bulls struggled in the cold northern hemisphere conditions against Lyon last weekend and will not have it easy at Parc y Scarlets.
READ MORE: URC: Hamish Watson back from injury for Edinburgh while Joey Carbery and Ben Healy set to hit 50 for Munster
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