URC Round 2 preview and predictions, return of champions, incoming upset

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World Rugby’s most international club league enjoyed resounding success in the first round as top talent from South Africa, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy battled it out.

Over the seven matches there were a number of notable results as several clubs raised their hands as title contenders.

Speaking of title contenders, last year’s champions Stormers return for the first time this season after their first round. John Dobson’s side kick off their title defense in the college town of Stellenbosch in front of what is expected to be a raucous crowd. First up for the champions are Ireland’s Connacht who will be looking to bounce back from a tough first-round loss to local rivals Ulster.

So without further ado, let’s get to it with your week two preview and predictions.

Marketing Masterclass by Champions

As hinted, the defending champions won’t be short of their familiar Cape Town giant stadium patch. Instead, they’ll take action on the road to a place where rugby is a religion. Stellenbosch University and the famous Danie Craven Stadium are right in the heart of rugby in an area that has produced some of the best rugby talent in the world. ‘Stellies’ as it is affectionately known is one of the top universities in South Africa with an extremely strong rugby program and support base. Western Province Rugby’s marketing department deserves a pat on the back for taking their side to what should be a sold-out stadium with an electric atmosphere to open their title defence.

The Powell Effect

Former South African 7s head coach Neil Powell has taken the plunge into the secondary game of the XV. Powell was a very talented sevens player before moving into the world of coaching with the Blitzbokke (the South African sevens team). Under Powell’s tutelage, the Blitzbokke enjoyed immense success winning a World Series, Olympic medals and generally being one of the best teams in the world. Powell now takes on the role of Director of Rugby with the Sharks and will work alongside head coach Sean Everitt to guide what is one of the most talented teams in the league. One of the hallmarks of Powell’s teams was their incredible defensive organization and ability to counterattack with a turnover ball. As hinted on this side of the Sharks, he’s not lacking in talent, but couldn’t get the job done last season when it mattered. The first round should give a good indication of his early influence on the Sharks.

Locked and loaded for the Irish giants

Irish powerhouse Leinster enter the second round after struggling through the first round by the skin of their teeth against Italian side Zebre. Missing a large number of front row players due to a return to play system for Irish international players, Leinster played a very entertaining game with Zebre. That all changes this weekend as they welcome back a number of their international stars, including the center combination of Robbie Henshaw and captain Garry Ringrose. Playing at home for the first time this season, Leo Cullen’s men again face Italian opposition, this time it’s Benetton Treviso who are riding high after beating Glasgow in the first round. In total, this weekend’s Leinster 23 includes 20 international players as they seek to establish a marker after their disappointing end to last season. Joining their compatriots in selecting a significantly stronger squad this week, two-time European champions Munster welcome several of their Irish internationals. Club captain Peter O’Mahony returns to the starting line-up, as do Keith Earls, Craig Casey and Dave Kilcoyne while on the bench Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne should provide a real boost when they enter the fray.

Lightning Quick Track Star to make his mark

Arguably the most impressive team in the first round, Ulster again look to be a real title threat this season. Now a well-rounded side under Dan McFarland, the Northern Province of Ireland travel to Wales where they come up against one of their former assistant coaches turned Scarlets head coach, Dwayne Peel. While there are plenty of stories to follow, the one that has flown under the radar is lightning fast Aaron Sexton who was appointed on the wing for Ulster. The All Ireland record holder in the 100m and 200m sprints at schoolboy level, Sexton is incredibly fast. While representing Bangor Grammar School, Sexton’s jaw-dropping numbers of 10.43 for the 100m and 20.69 for the 200m mean he is potentially the fastest player in the league. At 6’2” and 207 pounds, he is no shrinking purple and looks set to have a breakout season just in time for the 2023 World Cup.

Growth of the Italian elk

For too long, Italian rugby has been in the doldrums. Not winning a game in the Six Nations for as long as it took to complete both high school and a three-year college degree, the Azzuri had become something of a laughing stock. Things had gotten so bad that many Six Nations fans called for their withdrawal from the tournament for the integrity of the tournament. 2022 adjusted that narrative slightly, heading to Cardiff and beating Wales in the Six Nations released a valbe of pressure. Of course, the result was important, but it was the performance that was so striking. Italy weren’t embarrassed by what came before them, but instead were bold and prevailed over their fanciest opponents. A 22-21 Italian victory in Cardiff with a squad brimming with young attacking talent, many of whom will remain mainstays for the next decade, was just what the Azzuri needed. Kicking off the first round Benetton proved that Italian rugby is on the rise across the board, their victory over Glasgow was emphatic. Then Zebre pushed Leinster to the brink and had it not been for two missed conversions they would have finished with one of the best in Europe. Now the URC season is long and each week presents a different challenge, but one thing seems clear, the Italians are building up and should be more competitive this season.

Match Predictions

Zebra versus sharks

A very interesting one indeed to kick off the action of the weekend. On paper, the Sharks are the most talented team, but as Zebre showed against Leinster, they are not being pushed this season. Like the Stormers, this will be the Sharks’ first game of the season after being exempted for the first round of the competition. Given ring rust and travel, the Sharks might start slow in this one, but their quality will see them scratch at home. Sharks by 1!

Leinster v Benetton

As mentioned above, Benetton was sublime the first week. The return of some big names from Leinster was also mentioned above. The Royal Dublin Society is a tough place for any visiting side to go to win at the best of times, this Leinster side appear to be out for blood in what looks to be head coach Stuart Lancaster’s final season. Leinster at 18.

Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Blues

Brutally bad is the only way to describe Franco Smith’s debut as Glasgow head coach. Cardiff, on the other hand, beat Munster to open their account on a positive note. Cardiff are without their two-star men in Liam Williams (injury) and Taulupre Faletau (game time management) this week. Tough to call but Glasgow need a big home response. Glasgow by 6.

Scarlets v Ulster

Two quality teams will take the field at Parc Y Scarlets on Saturday in one of the most interesting games of the round. Both teams started rather slow in the first round before bouncing back with great performances in the second half. Overall, Ulster have a better squad, giving them the chance to hold on or get stronger when calling on their bench. Ulster by 3.

Bulls v Edinburgh

Two big winners from the first round in Pretoria in a front row of sandplay. Fittingly, the Bulls enter the game as home favorites despite missing a number of key players who remain with the Springbok side ahead of the final game of the Rugby Championship. In an exciting development, highly rated but rather cursed Johan Goosen returns for the Bulls at fullback. This season is decisive for Goosen whose career has gone something like this, school prodigy – Springbok – big money contract in France – early retirement – controversial return to South Africa – return to France – finally at home the Bulls. At his best, he is one of the best players in the world and he will be looking to remind Springbok managers of that fact by starting the season on a high. Bulls by 15.

Stormers v Connacht

The return of champions brings a lot of anticipation. Can Dobson’s team confirm this? Or were they just a flash in the pan. Still without a number of Springbok players, the Stormers still possess a powerful squad. The star of last season was undoubtedly number eight Evan Roos who returned to the Stormers after his stint with the national team. Connacht travel to Cape Town after being heavily beaten by Ulster in the first round. Head coach Andy Friend recalled his four Irish stars in Finlay Bealham, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Cian Prendergast. Despite all indications to the contrary, it gives the impression of impending upheaval. Connacht by 2.

Ospreys vs Lions

An interesting battle awaits you in this one. Neither team set the world on fire in the first round, but they weren’t dismal either. Both teams have great young talent, especially in the fly-half berth. Ospreys seem to be the more composed of the two at this point in the season. Ospreys by 10.

Dragons vs. Munster

This one has the potential to get ugly fast. First-round losses for both make securing a result crucial. Munster are by far the better side, given the return of their Irish stars and it’s hard to argue for anything other than a Munster win. Former Munster fly-half JJ Hanrahan will face his former team in what will be an interesting duel with youngster Ben Healy. Munster by 20.

Written by Philippe Bendon

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