United Rugby Championship Round 14 Preview

United Rugby Championship Round 14 Preview

Ulster Rugby v Cardiff Rugby, Friday 7.35pm

Cardiff boss Matt Sherratt has faced a welcome selection dilemma ahead of his team’s trip to Belfast.

He’s had more numbers to choose from than at just about any other point this season, with players returning from injury and an international coming on board.

One of the fit-again contingent, Taulupe Faletau, plays his first game of rugby in six months, while there’s a first start since November for wing Theo Cabango, with Argentine Test scrum-half Gonzalo Bertranou set to make his debut after joining on loan from the Dragons.

The boosted numbers are reflected by Bertranou being joined on the bench by Welsh internationals Mackenzie Martin, Rhys Carre, Ellis Jenkins, Rory Thornton and Evan Lloyd.

“There have been some real tough decisions,” said Sherratt.

“It’s been pretty difficult to select the side, but it’s a good problem to have.”

In contrast, play-off chasing Ulster are without Steven Kitshoff, Iain Henderson, Nick Timoney, Rob Herring and Stewart Moore through injury, but are still able to field a strong-looking line-up for what should be an intriguing contest.

It will be a first home game for interim head coach Richie Murphy who started off with four away fixtures in South Africa and France.

Glasgow Warriors v Hollywoodbets Sharks, Friday 7.35pm

The rejuvenated Hollywoodbets Sharks head for Scotstoun looking for a fifth straight win in all competitions following victories over Ulster, Zebre and Edinburgh (twice) in the BKT URC and Challenge Cup.

Assistant coach Dave Williams commented: 

“Confidence does a lot for the team. The spirit coming in on a Monday is high, it brings belief and the confidence to carry out the plan on the field.

“Glasgow are unbeaten at home this season, so it’s a real challenge for the guys to build a performance and gain a win away from home.”

The hosts’ South African coach Franco Smith said: 

“The Sharks will pose a significant test and we know we will have to perform well to get the right result.

“They have a squad filled with powerful forwards and dangerous backs and they have the potential to cause problems from anywhere on the field.” 

Prop Oli Kebble is set to make his 100th appearance for Glasgow from the bench.

Emirates Lions v Leinster Rugby, Saturday 2pm

It’s been a huge week for Leinster, with the hoodoo-laying Investec Champions Cup quarter-final victory over La Rochelle followed by the headline-grabbing signing of All Blacks’ star Jordie Barrett.

There’s also been news of Tyler Bleyendaal joining the coaching team from the Hurricanes and of a move to the Aviva Stadium next season while the RDS is redeveloped.

So it’s all been happening. Now it’s back to BKT URC action and a tour of South Africa which will test the league leaders’ much-vaunted squad depth as they take on the Lions and Stormers.

Starting centre Liam Turner commented: 

“We are playing two extremely strong sides.

“Rugby is a proper religion down here and, of course, after South Africa winning the World Cup rugby is at an all-new heights, everybody is behind all the sides. So we are up against huge tests.

“But it’s all about having a belief in what we are trying to do and applying that the best we can.

“It’s still very tight up at the top of the BKT URC table, so it’s about getting two wins and building towards that number one seed. It’s going to be two very tough games.”

Meanwhile, Lions No 8 Francke Horn has issued a plea, declaring: 

“I would just like to say to all the Jo’burg fans, please come out and support us. We always know when you guys are here in the stands, with all the noise you guys make for us.

“It’s definitely going to be a cracker of a game and we are looking forward to scoring some great tries for our fans.”

Benetton Rugby v Dragons RFC, Saturday 2pm

Dragons coach Dai Flanagan admits his team’s away record is nothing to be proud of and wants to address that as they head for Treviso.

The Gwent region haven’t won on the road since they triumphed out in Pau in the Challenge Cup in January 2023, while their last away success in the BKT URC was at the Scarlets in April 2022.

“We are like Jekyll and Hyde a little bit, two different teams,” said the former fly-half.

“The challenge is on us when we go away to fight for what we fight for when we are at home.

“It’s easy at home because our people are there, the people we represent, whether it’s our family, our friends, our fans.

“At home, we average 18 points conceded. Away, it’s about 40.

“So our challenge is not to let that happen and this weekend is the first step in that.

“This is our last game out of the country this season and there’s a bit of pride at stake for us.

“An away record like that is nothing to be proud of.

“When we are at home, we show that steel, that extra fight and go that extra bit for our people. It’s important we show that fight for our people when they watch us on TV as well.

“We have let ourselves down with our tactical approach in certain away games and we can’t allow that to continue to happen.”

Sixth-placed Benetton will go into the game on a high, having recorded back-to-back victories over fellow BKT URC sides the Lions and Connacht to reach the semi-finals of the EPCR Challenge Cup.

Vodacom Bulls v Munster Rugby, Saturday 4.05pm

Flanker John Hodnett says Munster will encounter burning lungs and huge physicality when they take the field at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld.

The openside from county Cork says playing at altitude on the High Veldt delivers unique challenges.

“It’s tough. Your lungs will be burning pretty quickly,” he said.

“You just try and get used to it the best you can. It will definitely be a challenge, there’s no doubt about it. But we just have to get on with it.”

There are only two points between the two sides, who lie third and fourth in the table, making this a huge encounter.

Then, after locking horns with the Bulls, Munster face another test at altitude, as they travel to Johannesburg to take on the Lions next week.

“It will be two really tough challenges here with the altitude and the heat, while the Bulls and the Lions are really good teams,” said Hodnett.

“They are hugely physical down here, they are all big men. Dealing with their physicality on the gain-line is one of the biggest things for us, while they have a lot of speed out wide as well.”

The Bulls welcome back the likes of Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Elrigh Louw, Canan Moodie and Wilco Louw having gone into their Champions Cup quarter-final in Northampton without a number of star names.

Munster, meanwhile, welcome back Six Nations star Calvin Nash, Shane Daly, and World Cup winner, RG Snyman.

DHL Stormers v Ospreys, Saturday 6.15pm

Wales prop Nicky Smith is looking to sign off on a high before leaving the Ospreys at the end of this season.

The 46-cap loosehead will be joining Leicester this summer after some 12 years with the region.

But first he wants to help the seventh-placed Ospreys secure a spot in the BKT URC play-offs, with this weekend’s Cape Town clash launching a five-match run-in.

Reflecting on signing for the Tigers, the 30-year-old said: “It was certaining a tough decision.

“Playing for the Ospreys has meant everything to me, being a Swansea boy, living ten minutes from the ground. It’s been an absolute honour for me to pull on the jersey.

“But where I am in my rugby career and, more importantly, my family life, it’s the right time to test myself in a different league and a different environment.

“It’s a strange feeling, but I am just looking to finish on a high.

“I am so keen to help the boys as much as I can to get into those play-offs and push for silverware.

“We want to get to the play-offs. It won’t be a success if we don’t make it.”

The Ospreys face back-to-back fixtures out in South Africa, with Saturday’s game against the Stormers followed by an encounter with the Bulls in Pretoria.

“It’s exciting,” said Smith. “It’s the home of rugby here. You can see it everywhere that they love the sport.

“The heat has taken us heavy boys off guard a little bit, but it’s been nice. The weather back home, with the rain, has been miserable. The boys are a lot happier with the sun on their backs.

“We know how important this tour is to pick up some vital points leading into the last three games of the season to really put ourselves in a good position.”

World Cup-winning Springboks prop Frans Malherbe will captain the Stormers, with their director of rugby John Dobson saying his team “will need to fire from the first whistle to get the result we need against a highly competitive Ospreys side”.

Edinburgh Rugby v Scarlets, Saturday 7.35pm

Scotland star Ali Price will be out to celebrate his contract extension as ninth-placed Edinburgh look to give their play-off hopes a lift.

Having joined on loan from Glasgow in November, the 66-cap scrum-half will now be staying in the capital for at least another year.

“I’ve absolutely loved my time here so far and I’m really enjoying the environment,” said the delighted 30-year-old.

“The boys have really helped me settle and honestly it’s been exactly what I’ve needed – a fresh challenge and somewhere where I can continue to develop and grow as a player.”

Edinburgh coach Sean Everitt is equally pleased at the news, saying: “Ali has been a great addition to the squad since he joined us.

“He’s an exceptional player with a really broad skill-set that allows him to play the game in a number of ways, which makes him a real asset.

“He brings a huge amount of heard-earned experience in the Test arena to a pivotal position.”

As for the Scarlets, there’s a welcome return for Wales back row forward Taine Plumtree after five months out following shoulder surgery.

Plumtree starts on the blindside flank, while fellow Welsh internationals Sam Costelow, Gareth Davies, Johnny Williams and Kemsley Mathias also come into the side.

Connacht Rugby v Zebre Parma, Saturday 7.35pm

Having bowed out of the Challenge Cup last weekend with a quarter-final defeat to Benetton, Connacht will now be turning their full focus to trying to make the BKT URC play-offs.

They go into Round 14 down in tenth spot, but they are just one point off eighth, so will have plenty of motivation as they step out at the Galway Sportsground.

Head coach Pete Wilkins said: 

“This is the first of five crucial games for us to ensure we break back into the top eight and remain in control of our destiny.

“We’re very clear what we need from the coming weeks to make the play-offs and we’re confident we can achieve it.” 

Ireland tighthead prop Finlay Bealham will become the seventh player to make 200 appearances for Connacht, joining team-mates Denis Buckley, Tiernan O’Halloran and Jack Carty, plus former players John Muldoon, Michael Swift and Kieran Marmion as a double centurion.

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