Ahead of Round 4 of the BKT United Rugby Championship journalist Simon Thomas provides his Previews.
Zebre Parma v Hollywoodbets Sharks
17.30 UK & IRE / 18:30 ITA / 19:30 SA, Friday
While both teams are still without a win this season, Zebre Parma have accumulated five points, primarily through racking up no fewer than 15 tries in their opening three BKT URC matches, four of those from winger Simone Gesi who is a real threat with his pace and footwork.
In contrast, the Hollywoodbets Sharks are without a single point and lie rock bottom of the table. So the pressure is on the visitors from Durban who show two changes from the side beaten by the Ospreys in London last weekend, with Boeta Chamberlain and George Cronje coming in at fly-half and No 8 respectively.
Cardiff Rugby v Vodacom Bulls
19.35 UK & IRE / 20:35 ITA / 21:35 SA, Friday
Cardiff have been boosted by the return of Wales quartet Tomos Williams, Mason Grady, Corey Domachowski and Teddy Williams as coach Matt Sherratt gears up for a major challenge on all fronts from the third-placed Bulls.
“It’s easy with the South African teams to say they’re physical and they’ve got a good set piece, but they’ve got some pretty good backs as well,” he said.
“Yes, we’re going to face a real physical challenge. They’ve got big forwards and they have got a power game to go back to. So 100 per cent the physical battle will be there.
“But, as I said, they’ve got some exciting outside backs as well that they can use to test your edges. So they have got a balanced game.”
Giving his thoughts, Vodacom Bulls boss Jake White commented: “To play Cardiff in Cardiff is always a difficult game.
“They have got four internationals back from Wales duty. That’s definitely going to add a little bit of energy and spark to their team and we are going to have to play well, especially after they lost last week to the Scarlets.
“I have got no doubt they will want to try and have a bit of a rebound. So we are not taking anything for granted. I am sure it’s going to be a great game.
“I love the fact there is such great history in this town. It oozes rugby. It’s always nice for overseas sides to come and play here, so we are looking forward to it.”
Ulster Rugby v Munster Rugby
19.35 UK & IRE / 20:35 ITA / 21:35 SA, Friday
Munster coach Graham Rowntree is anticipating an international level contest when the title holders lock horns with Ulster in this inter-provincial derby at the Kingspan Stadium.
To back up his point, the fixture sees a return for Test players on both sides, such as Ireland World Cup duo Jack Crowley and Stuart McCloskey, who will be back line opponents.
Rowntree commented: “We are going to Belfast on a Friday night and a lot of teams have come unstuck there. I think it is going to be an international-intensity game around the breakdown.
“Our discipline has got to be very good. We can’t give them access because they have a very good maul. We will be facing a big test both there and at the scrum.
“We can’t give them silly penalties and our breakdown has to be spot-on. It’s another big test and they just roll on, week to week.”
Rowntree will be hoping for another potent performance from winger Calvin Nash who beat more defenders (12) and ran for metres (163) than any other player in Round 3, while also grabbing a couple of tries against the Dragons.
For Ulster, blindside flanker David McCann will be a key men in terms of containing the visitors’ attacking threat, as he has made the most tackles (47) in the BKT URC so far this season.
It will be a big night for hooker Rob Herring as when he comes off the bench he will set a new appearance record for the province, with game number 230.
Benetton Rugby v DHL Stormers
15:00 UK & IRE / 16:00 ITA / 17:00 SA, Saturday
Marco Bortolami’s Benetton are still unbeaten, a fact somewhat disguised by them lying down in ninth, a position which reflects both the significance of bonus points and how tight it is in the table.
Italy captain Michele Lamaro comes in to lead the side from the back row, while the club’s strength in depth is indicated by two of the BKT URC's form players being kept in reserve on the bench, with lock Eli Snyman having won more lineouts (22) than any other player so far this term and flanker Alessandro Izekor having put in a round best 27 tackles in last week’s victory over the Emirates Lions.
The breakdown is also an area where Benetton have had plenty of joy, with no team having pulled off more turnovers than their tally of 29.
DHL Stormers coach John Dobson has made four changes as he looks for a response following last weekend’s defeat in Glasgow, with wing Courtnall Skosan, centre Ruhan Nel, hooker Scarra Ntubeni and lock Adre Smith coming into the starting line-up.
Dobson said: “We understand what we are up against and know it will take the best of us to get the right result, but also excited to see how the guys coming in add to what we are doing.”
Ospreys v Glasgow Warriors
17:15 UK & IRE / 18:15 ITA / 19:15 SA, Saturday
Buoyed by their victory over the Sharks at the Twickenham Stoop, the Ospreys return to Swansea as a host of internationals reinforcements join the fray.
Dewi Lake, George North, Adam Beard, Nicky Smith and skipper Justin Tipuric are all back involved after figuring in the Wales v Barbarians game last weekend.
Looking ahead to the meeting with Glasgow, coach Toby Booth said: “Everyone knows what Franco (Smith) is doing there in conjunction with the Scottish way of playing. They’re going to roll into town very confident.
“They are going to try to impose a very dynamic, fast style against us, so we’ll have to produce defensive qualities like we showed against the Sharks.
“We’ve also got more strength in depth in our tight five this week with the returning internationals, which will be a help.”
The stats show the Ospreys will indeed need rearguard resolve as Glasgow have beaten more defenders (82) than any other side this season.
The visitors welcome back South African second row Sintu Manjezi for his first appearance since late last year following an injury lay-off.
Scarlets v Emirates Lions
17:15 UK & IRE / 18:15 ITA / 19:15 SA, Saturday
It’s been a long while since Wales World Cup hooker Ryan Elias last donned a Scarlets jersey - December 2022 to be precise.
But now he’s back fit and ready to go, with wing Tom Rogers, flanker Taine Plumtree, prop Harri O’Connor and sub scrum-half Kieran Hardy also coming in after being involved against the Barbarians, with the hosts looking to build on their victory over Cardiff.
Head coach Dwayne Peel said: “It was important to win at home last weekend after a tough trip to South Africa.
“It is going to be another tough challenge for us. The Lions are a physical team who beat us in Johannesburg last year. It’s important we put in another big performance and build some momentum.”
Back rower Emmanuel Tshituka is someone the Scarlets will have to be wary of as he made more carries (22) than any other player in Round 3, during the Lions narrow defeat away to Benetton.
Edinburgh Rugby v Connacht Rugby
19:35 UK & IRE / 20:35 ITA / 21:35 SA, Saturday
After defeating the Ospreys, Glasgow and Ulster in Galway to top the table after Round 3, Connacht now face their first away game of the season.
Head coach Pete Wilkins, who has stepped up following the departure of Andy Friend, commented: “A lot of people said it was a great opportunity having three home games to start the season, but it was only going to be a good opportunity if we took advantage of it.
“We are really pleased to have got the three wins. Momentum is really important in the context of our season. It’s important in terms of having a new coaching group and everything that goes with that.
“So we’re really pleased with that, but we saw last year it’s a long old body of work that gets you through to the top eight and then hopefully knock-out games so we need to keep moving in that direction.”
After their assignment in Edinburgh, Connacht then head out to South Africa to take on the Hollywoodbets Sharks and the Vodacom Bulls. It’s a run that will test their credentials to stay at the business end of the table and Wilkins acknowledges they want to improve their record on the road.
“We’ve looked very closely at our away form and how we manage those games,” he said.
“Not just the 80 minutes but also in terms of how we prepare for the games, the lead-in, how the week looks like, the travel, the time in the hotel.
“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet in there, but we are looking at that. It’s a unique challenge to have three away games in a row to try some of those things out and see what kind of progress we’re making.”
Giving his thoughts, Edinburgh coach Sean Everitt said: “It will be a tough test against a Connacht side who are full of confidence, but we’re raring to go. It’s been a really strong week of training and the squad are excited to be back home.”
The hosts welcome back Fijian World Cup No 8 Viliame Mata from injury, with
Scotland prop Pierre Schoeman making his 100th appearance, while Connacht show eight changes.
Dragons RFC v Leinster Rugby
13:15 UK & IRE / 14:15 ITA / 15:15 SA, Sunday
Like the other Welsh regions, the Dragons are bolstered by international returnees in the shape of Aaron Wainwright, Dan Lydiate, Rio Dyer, Cai Evans, Elliot Dee and Lloyd Fairbrother.
After defeats in their opening three games, coach Dai Flanagan is looking for his team to turn a corner as he prepares for the final BKT URC fixture of the weekend.
“We can’t just keep accepting that Leinster are coming to town and we are underdogs,” he said.
“Our team on paper is a pretty good team. It is not acceptable just to say how good Leinster are and we have nothing to lose.
“It’s about time we turn a corner and say we are a pretty good team, we have to start believing that and performing.
“We have some fresh juice with the internationals all back together and there is a spring in their step. They make a huge difference.”
The Dragons will have to keep a particularly tight rein on Leinster winger Tommy O’Brien, who has run for more metres (276) than any other player so far this season.
Scrum-half Ben Murphy makes his first start for the Irish province, with Samoa Test prop Michael Ala’alatoa set for his 50th appearance off the bench.