URC Round 15 Review

URC Round 15 Review

New team on top

Glasgow Warriors are the new leaders of the BKT URC having jumped above Leinster Rugby at the top of the table.

Franco Smith’s team did a professional job in recording a 40-9 bonus point victory away to Zebre Parma, with wing Kyle Steyn and hooker Gregor Hiddleston both crossing twice. 

They were then able to watch on as Leinster went down to a second successive heavy defeat in South Africa, losing 42-12 to the DHL Stormers in Cape Town, following on from last week’s 44-12 beating at the hands of the Emirates Lions.

That gives Glasgow a four point buffer at the top of the log with three rounds of matches to go, while Leinster are now just one point ahead of reigning champions Munster Rugby who made it back-to-back bonus point wins in South Africa by despatching the Lions.

Having triumphed 27-22 against the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria in Round 14, they were comfortable 33-13 winners in Johannesburg, with the league’s leading carrier Gavin Coombes one of their four try scorers.

As for Jake White’s Bulls, they bounced back in style with a 61-24 victory over the Ospreys to stay six points clear of the Stormers in fourth spot.

Connacht Rugby were the big risers, jumping up from tenth to sixth thanks to a hard-fought 34-27 bonus point victory over Dragons RFC at Rodney Parade.

They are now level on 44 points with Ulster Rugby and Benetton Rugby who were involved in a ten-try thriller in Belfast on Friday night, with the home side winning 38-34.

Life in the BKT URC pressure cooker

Edinburgh Rugby coach Sean Everitt has been outlining just why the BKT URC is such a demanding competition as he reflects on the “pressure cooker” play-off battle.

Everitt’s team boosted their chances of finishing in the top eight by claiming a 24-7 victory over Cardiff Rugby at a packed Arms Park.

Yet they actually dropped down a place to ninth because of results elsewhere.

There are now just six points separating fifth and eleventh in the table with three rounds of matches to go.

It’s desperately tight and there’s pressure on every game, but Everitt is loving it.

“I am just so happy to be involved in this competition,” said the former Sharks coach.

“It’s one of the strongest tournaments in world rugby, the reason being that every facet of the game is being contested, whether it be at the breakdown, the set-piece, the driving maul.

“It’s also hard to break down defences, so sometimes you do have to find other ways.

“Set-piece dominance is not going to win you this competition, so you need an all-court game to be able to get yourself out of sticky situations and that’s what makes it exciting.

“The improvement among all the teams over the last two campaigns has been amazing. You can’t take any side lightly.

“I think this competition is going from strength to strength, which is good for rugby in general.”

Reflecting on the intense battle for play-off spots, Everitt said: “We are in a bit of a pressure cooker. It makes for good competition.

“At the start of the season, we estimated that 12 wins would get you into the play-offs and we have got ten.

“I think two more wins would get us into the top eight. We would like to finish as high as we can on the table for obvious reasons. That’s our goal.

“We have got to stay in touch. Our job is to keep on winning, week-in, week-out.”

It had the makings of a testing assignment for Edinburgh away to Cardiff, with the hosts bidding farewell to a number of stalwart players on what was the final game of the season at the Arms Park.

Long-serving forwards Ellis Jenkins and Josh Turnbull are retiring, while fellow Welsh internationals Tomos Williams and Rhys Carre are leaving for Gloucester and Saracens respectively.

So there was a real sense of occasion, with a near capacity 11,218 crowd turning out to say their goodbyes and hoping for a win after so many near misses.

The game was still very much in the balance at the hour mark with the teams tied at 7-7, following a bullocking try from departing prop Carre.

But Edinburgh pulled clear in the final quarter with Ewan Ashman and Boan Venter muscling over to add to another close range effort from fellow front row Pierre Schoeman in the first half.

“We knew Cardiff were going to bring a lot of emotion to the game, with them saying goodbye to some stalwarts of the club, some special rugby players,” said Everitt.

“So they were going to play with a lot of passion. For us, it was about absorbing that. We knew if we stuck to task, we would be able to get over the line and that’s what happened.

“Under the pressure circumstances, it was a great away win for us. I am delighted for the boys. They have done exceptionally well. I couldn't ask for more. I think we are a team on the rise.”

Cooney enjoying new lease of life

John Cooney admits there were times this season where he was considering calling it a day.

But the Ulster scrum-half has put any such thoughts firmly behind him as he enjoys a new lease of life.

Having landed a late penalty to secure a Round 14 win against Cardiff, he produced a Player of the Match display in Friday’s 38-34 victory over play-off rivals Benetton at the Kingspan Stadium.

He slotted six kicks at goal and was a real creative force with his running game and distribution as Ulster claimed maximum points.

Cooney will be 34 next week, but he is looking as fresh as a daisy right now, having turned a corner over the past month or so.

“I’m enjoying my rugby now,” said the 11-times capped Irish international.

“I’ll admit it was a very difficult winter period, times where I probably questioned for the first time in my career whether I wanted to keep going.

“But I wrote down after the Sharks game last month that I was going to turn this into another chapter in my career, so I am really happy with the last few games and how it has gone.”

Cooney appears to be prospering under the coaching of Richie Murphy who took the helm in mid-March.

“I have known Richie since I was 17,” he said.

“I came through when he was an Ireland Academy coach and it’s great to have him again.

“He sat me down last week and said he wanted to get me running more, which I did out there.

“He knows me really well. He’s kind of giving me that lease of life to kick on to another chapter of my career, so I’m really enjoying working with him.”

Reflecting on the victory over Benetton, Cooney said: “It was such a big game for us.

“We knew it was potentially like a knock-out game and we knew we had to win.

“We need to get in that top eight, we need to play in the knock-outs, we need to get into Europe.

“Benetton are a brilliant team, so that’s a great win for us.”

It finished five tries a piece, with the Italian visitors claiming two losing bonus points which leaves the sides tied on 44 points in the table.

Ulster coach Murphy said: “We are delighted with the win. We got what we wanted, we got five points. To get that at this time of the season is really important.

“We were a little bit disappointed to concede four tries and a losing bonus point to them because it keeps it very tight in the league. We would have liked to have got a little bit more space.

“Defensively, we need to be a bit more solid, but we played some really good rugby and scored some great tries.”

Match of the weekend

Scarlets 27, Hollywoodbets Sharks 32

The Sharks arrived in Llanelli pretty much fully loaded, with the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Ox Nche, Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am, Vincent Koch and Grant Williams on board.

There must have been a fair degree of trepidation for Scarlets fans to see so many Springbok stars in the opposition ranks, particularly after heavy defeats to Glasgow and Edinburgh for the Welsh region in their previous two games.

But those supporters would have ended up encouraged by the way their team made such a game of it, pushing the Sharks all the way amid a grandstand finish.

The hosts claimed one of their best tries of the season, with Wales hooker Ryan Elias producing a fine finish to round off a long-range attack that saw the ball go through ten pairs of hands.

Full-back Ioan Nicholas was the player to launch that counter from his own 22 and he was also the man to go over four minutes from time to set up a thrilling finale.

But the Sharks held firm in the last play to secure their first win outside South Africa in the league this season.

It was a night to remember for their Ulster-bound winger Werner Kok who marked his 50th appearance for the Dublin-based outfit with a hat-trick of tries.

His first came via a slick backs move featuring sublime passes from centre Am and full-back Aphelele Fassi, while he then profited from two pinpoint cross-kicks by fly-half Siya Masuku, the Player of the Match.

Sharks skipper Am commented: “I definitely give credit to the Scarlets. They put us under a lot of pressure, but we managed to come out on top. We are really happy with the performance.”

Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel said: "Looking at the team sheet, some people may not have given us much of a chance, but we fought hard for the full 80 minutes and there were elements to be proud of. We played with some freedom. While we're not happy with losing, it just felt a different atmosphere here with the fans."

Player of the weekend

David Kriel (Vodacom Bulls)

The 25-year-old utility back isn’t as much of a household name as some of the other Bulls, but he plays a valuable role for the team.

He can slot in pretty much anywhere in the back line and is a real reliable presence, both in attack and defence.

This season, he’s worn 15, 14, 13 and 12, with Saturday’s clash with the Ospreys at Loftus Versfeld seeing him line-up at outside centre.

He was to play a pivotal role in a 61-24 victory, having a hand in four tries and scoring one himself via an interception. His link-up play with wings Kurt Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie - who both scored two tries - was excellent, exemplified by the intelligent grubber kick he put in for Moodie’s second. A polished performance.

Quote of the weekend

Stormers prop Neethling Fouche following his Player of the Match display in the 42-12 victory over Leinster in Cape Town:

“We weren’t happy with last week’s performance (a home defeat to the Ospreys). We let our fans down and we wanted to come out and give them something to smile about.

“We still believe in ourselves. There is confidence brewing and we can be dangerous going into the end of the competition.”

What’s coming up next?

The BKT URC takes a break next weekend, but three of the league’s teams will be involved in big knock-out rugby.

Leinster take on Northampton in an Investec Champions Cup semi final, which will be played in front of an 82,300 capacity crowd at a sold out Croke Park.

In the EPCR Challenge Cup semi-finals, the Sharks will be up against French club Clermont Auvergne at the Twickenham Stoop, while Benetton will travel to Kingsholm to face Gloucester.

Then, the following week, it’s back to BKT URC action for Round 16.

New league leaders Glasgow will have their title credentials fully tested when they take on the Bulls in Pretoria, the first of back-to-back games in South Africa for them.

Having left the Rainbow Nation without gaining a single point from their two matches on tour, second placed Leinster will want to get back on track when they entertain the Ospreys in Dublin.

Just behind them in the table are red-hot Munster who host Connacht in an Irish derby at Limerick’s Thomond Park.

Elsewhere, you’ve got Dragons v Stormers, Edinburgh v Zebre, Scarlets v Ulster, Sharks v Benetton and Lions v Cardiff.

It’s tight and there’s all to play for.

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