The wait is finally over and this weekend four teams from the north face the four South African franchises in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship for the first time.
After the games were postponed in December because of the Omicron variant outbreak, the rescheduled games will finally take place this weekend and promise mouthwatering action on local rugby fields for the first time.
With the South African conference closer than a scrum engage at the moment, a lot of attention will be on which South African franchises come out on top and use their home-ground advantage to best effect.
So here, in a nutshell, is what you need to know about this weekend’s action in the four games that will take place locally:
Sharks vs Scarlets
Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Live on SuperSport
The Sharks host a resurgent Welsh side in the first fixture, after the Scarlets shocked Glasgow Warriors this past weekend and look a lot stronger under Dwayne Peel than they did a few months back when the fixture was originally scheduled.
The Scarlets have claimed just four URC wins this season but three of those came in their past five games.
They have lost once from 10 previous encounters with South African opposition, going down 28-21 to the Cheetahs in December 2017.
Head coach Dwayne Peel has made three changes for the clash, bringing in Corey Baldwin on the wing for his first Scarlets appearance since breaking his foot in pre-season. He joins Tom Rogers and Steff Evans in the back three.
Skipper Scott Williams and Johnny Williams are again named in midfield, while the two other changes to the side come at halfback.
Rhys Patchell picked up a calf issue in the second half of the victory over Glasgow, so sits this one out. Sam Costelow comes in to partner Dane Blacker. The pack is the same as the one that took the field this past Saturday against the Warriors.
Peel has been impressed by the Sharks.
“They are a star-studded team with a lot of Springbok internationals.
“Physicality is something that’s taken for granted here – if you don’t turn up with good physicality you are going to be in trouble. Sharks also have pace out wide in abundance. Their back-three players are able to hurt you with speed.
“The starting point for us is to match physicality, then we have to limit opportunities for their outside backs because they are world stars who are dangerous. So we have to be clinical, disciplined and take our opportunities when they come.
“We are the first team from the north to travel down to play, it is a game everyone is looking forward to. I am sure the experience the guys will gain from this game will be huge moving forward.”
Vodacom Bulls vs Munster
Venue: Loftus Versfeld
Live on SuperSport
Johann van Graan finally gets his homecoming that was denied him in December and will relish the opportunity to bring his Munster side to Loftus. Van Graan grew up in Pretoria, attended Affies and was a ball boy at Loftus Versfeld before becoming an assistant coach to the Bulls and later the Springboks. While his squad is missing several internationals, they showed their pedigree this past weekend by beating the Dragons 64-3 in a one-sided rout at Thormond Park.
In Gavin Coombes and Jack O’Donaghue they have some quality young forwards while Damian de Allende may or may not be picked for the fixture. The South African element of Jean Kleyn and Chris Cloete also can’t be underestimated.
The Irish province have lost one of their last seven matches, being pipped by Glasgow last month, and have suffered a solitary defeat by South African opponents in 11 fixtures.
The Bulls also haven’t beaten Irish opposition yet, having lost both their away games to Leinster and Connacht and will be keen to get their campaign back on track.
Van Graan called the game a “massive challenge” and said his team will have to face physicality and the altitude and overcome both if they want to win.
Lions vs Cardiff
Ellis Park, Johannesburg.
Live on Supersport
After a season of disappointments, the fixture gives the Lions a chance to record their first victory in any competition for the past three months, while their last victory at home was back in June last year.
Their only previous fixture against Welsh opposition ended in a 36-13 defeat by the Scarlets last October.
But while the Lions have struggled with form, Cardiff are in a very similar boat, and haven’t won on the road in the competition this season.
The Welsh club, though, have lost just one of their last five encounters with South African sides, going down 29-19 at home to the Bulls in October.
But their more recent form won’t give them too much hope, especially as they were soundly beaten by Ulster in Belfast this past weekend, a performance that irked their coach Dai Young.
Young said the team needed to regroup ahead of their match against the Lions.
“We let ourselves down but we just need to bounce back next week. The boys in there are all looking at the floor and looking hugely disappointed but there’s nobody down there to help them,” he said.
“What we need to look at is ourselves. The coaching team needs to look at what we’ve done, how we can get better because the messages we’ve said this week didn’t sink in.
“The players also need to look at each other, how they support each other and how the forwards and backs help each other. Now is not the time to point fingers, now is the time to get closer and work harder because that’s the only way we’ll move forward.”
Stormers vs Zebre Parma
Danie Craven Stadium, Stellenbosch
Live on SuperSport
With the match moved because of a venue clash, the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch will become the 52nd different venue to host a URC game on Sunday.
Zebre Parma’s long wait for a victory continued with a 27-22 loss against the Ospreys this past weekend but they did collect a losing bonus point for the first time since May.
They haven’t won a game in the competition and fired their coach, former Ireland scrumhalf Michael Bradly, in January, replacing him with experienced Argetinian Emiliano Bergaschi, with former Italy wing Fabio Roselli as his assistant.
Zebre rely heavily on home-grown talent, have less players in the Italian side than Benetton and struggle against the other teams, hence them being rooted firmly to the bottom of the log.
They have played two South African teams so far in this year’s competition, with the Lions beating them in the opening game and the Bulls following up with a comprehensive victory in Parma two weeks ago.