The South African teams resume their respective Vodacom United Rugby Championship campaigns with the landscape having changed a bit since they last played seven weeks ago.
The narrative that Leinster are the team to beat wasn’t changed completely by their unexpected loss against Ulster last week. The perennial PRO14 champions do provide the bulk of the Ireland test team that had just completed a highly successful Autumn International Series campaign so their 20-10 defeat needs to be seen in that context.
Leinster are sure to have all hands on deck when they host another Irish derby, this time against Connacht. Although Connacht may be the lowest-ranked of the Irish teams but they also have a reputation for being giant killers and have beaten Leinster in the not-too-distant past.
In fact, it was Connacht who were responsible earlier this year for putting an emphatic end to what had been a 26-match unbeaten run in the competition for the champions. And it wasn’t a home win for Connacht in Galway either, but a thumping 35-24 win at Leinster’s home ground of the RDS Arena in the first week of January.
The most famous Connacht win over Leinster came in 2016 when they beat the favourites 20-10 in the 2015/2016 PRO12 Grand Final.
The smart money would probably be on Leinster to be back at their best on Friday night but don’t rule out a Connacht surprise.
An unheard-of second successive defeat for Leinster will leave them vulnerable to being overtaken at the top of the log by Ulster, who travel on Saturday to play against Ospreys. Unfortunately, Ulster have had to shelf plans to debut Springbok legend Duane Vermeulen due to a positive Covid test, but they will go into the game in a confident mood after a momentous win last week and will be looking to cement their status as early challengers to the Leinster hegemony.
The top of the log is looking quite interesting at this point, with just one point separating the top three teams – Leinster (24 points) are ahead of Ulster on points difference but have the same number of log points, and third-placed Edinburgh (23). Edinburgh host Benetton on Friday night and will be favoured to score the win that will enable them to maintain their challenge on the top two.
At this point, the South African teams occupy all but one of the positions at the opposite end of the log. The exception is Zebre, who are last with just one log point and won’t be in action this week because of the cancellation/postponement of their South African games – they were to have been in Durban to play the Sharks this week.
The plum fixture on South African soil will be Friday night’s repeat of what has become the accepted local final since the end of lockdown, with the Sharks hosting the Vodacom Bulls. The Bulls were disappointing on tour, perhaps more so than their opponents given the expectations, and will be under pressure to win even though officially it is an away game for them.
The Stormers were the surprise package of the local sides in the early rounds and their entertaining brand of rugby could come to the fore against a Lions team that is like-minded in terms of wanting to play tempo. Those two teams bring down the curtain on South Africa’s 2021 year at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday evening.
The addition of the South African derbies means that there will just be four teams – the overseas sides impacted by the cancellation of last week’s scheduled fixtures – sitting out what will be a full and interesting round of the competition.
Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures:
Sharks v Vodacom Bulls (Durban, Friday 7pm)
Edinburgh v Benetton (Edinburgh, Friday 9.35pm)
Leinster v Connacht (Dublin, Friday 9.35pm)
Ospreys v Ulster (Swansea, Saturday 5pm)
Stormers v Lions (Cape Town, Saturday 5pm)
Glasgow Warriors v Dragons (Glasgow, Saturday 9.35)