URC round 16 Preview

URC round 16 Preview

Dragons RFC v DHL Stormers, Friday 7.35pm

It’s the final game of the season at Rodney Parade and there’s likely to be an added buzz about the place on the back of the Dragons’ recent recruitment drive.

The Gwent region have unveiled a raft of eye-catching signings for next season - both on and off the field - over the past couple of weeks.

Tongan Test back row forward Solomone Funaki will be coming on board from Moana Pasifika, while Aussies Harry Wilson and Steve Cummins will bolster the centre and second row respectively, with Wilson joining from the Waratahs and former Scarlets lock Cummins switching from French club Pau.

In addition, Welsh international back-five forward Shane Lewis-Hughes will be making the shorter journey from local rivals Cardiff Rugby.

The most headline-grabbing news of all has been the securing of Filo Tiatia as defence coach. The former All Black established himself as a legendary figure during his playing days at the Ospreys and will bring plentiful coaching experience from his time in Japan and New Zealand.

In further off-field developments, Ryan Chambers is leaving Warren Gatland’s Wales set-up to become Head of Performance, Rhys Blumberg is moving from Cardiff to take over as chief executive and David Wright is replacing David Buttress as chairman.

So it’s all happening!

This final home game of the season will also provide the Rodney Parade faithful with an opportunity to bid farewell to departing players such as Sean Lonsdale, Jack Dixon, Sio Tomkinson and Aki Seiuli, with Lonsdale starting on the blindside flank.

Plus they will have the chance to greet former favourite Brok Harris who made 143 appearances during a seven-year spell with the Dragons. The veteran South African prop is still going strong for the Stormers at the ripe old age of 39 and is named among the replacements for his return to Newport.

The play-off chasing visitors go into the game in fifth place in the table and have gone “full metal jacket” with their team selection, according to Dragons coach Dai Flanagan.

Stormers Director of Rugby John Dobson said: “We know Rodney Parade is a tough place to play, so it will require a big effort to get the result we need.

“There is little room for error as the play-offs get closer and we are determined to give our best.”

Wing Chris Hollis will make his Dragons debut against his former team having joined the Welsh region on trial after being released by the Stormers. He will no doubt have a point to prove.

Edinburgh Rugby v Zebre Parma, Friday 7.35pm

Despite beating Cardiff Rugby 24-7 at the Arms Park in the last round, Edinburgh actually dropped out of the play-off zone into ninth spot due to results elsewhere.

So they will doubtless have their eyes on securing maximum points against bottom-of-the-table Zebre at the Hive Stadium.

Flanker Jamie Ritchie, Player of the Match in Cardiff, commented: “All we can do is try to keep winning.

“Everything else unfortunately is out of our control, so all we can do is keep focusing on ourselves, keep putting ourselves in a position to win and try to get bonus points.

“We are aiming to win all our games in our run-in. We have got the next two at home, where we love playing and back ourselves to put in a good performance, but it’s one week at a time at the moment and then in three or four weeks time we will see where we are at.”

Coach Sean Everitt, who has made just two changes, added: “We’re right in the battle for the play-offs and the squad know every game in this run-in is a cup final.”

Vodacom Bulls v Glasgow Warriors, Saturday, 1pm

The game of the weekend, with the fourth-placed Bulls locking horns with the new league leaders at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld.

For Glasgow’s South African coach Franco Smith, it’s a return to his homeland and - typical of a man renowned for his meticulous planning - no stone has been left unturned.

His squad trained on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday last week before having a long weekend off ahead of the trip to the Rainbow Nation.

“We wanted to give them a little bit of time before going  away, but we also needed to make sure we trained properly and to mentally get the job done,” said the former Springbok.

“That’s the benefit of not being involved in Europe at the moment. We make the most of the opportunity that it presents.

“Training this week has been highly competitive, with everyone focused on producing our best performance.”

On what lies ahead in back-to-back games against the Bulls and Lions, he said: “It’s a different challenge. We’ve been prepping a long time to go down to South Africa to be ready for that challenge. The important thing is to be very well organised and hopefully the guys will understand what type of pressure we are going to face.”

Smith added: “The Bulls provide one of the sternest tests in the URC. They have one of the strongest home records in the competition at Loftus Versfeld, as well as a blend of physical forwards and dynamic backs.

“We know we will need to be at our best to compete and everyone is looking forward to the challenge.”

For the Bulls, Springbok flanker Marco van Staden returns after a couple of months out with a knee injury, having just signed a contract extension.

“This club will always be like my family and Loftus will always be my home,” he said.

“This is where my professional career started and it will always be a place that is close to my heart. The opportunity to extend is a privilege and to stay for even longer, I am excited to see what is ahead for me and my family.”


Scarlets v Ulster Rugby, Saturday, 3.05pm

It’s that time of year when a lot of departures are announced and the Scarlets have confirmed some particularly high-profile names on their leaving list ahead of their last home game of the season.

Wales and Lions stars Jonathan Davies, Wyn Jones and the retiring Ken Owens are all moving on, along with the likes of Scott Williams, Dan Jones, Ryan Conbeer and Eduan Swart, plus Ospreys-bound duo Kieran Hardy and Steff Thomas, while Johnny McNicholl left for New Zealand in March.

Conbeer starts on the wing against Ulster, while prop Jones, centre Williams and scrum-half Hardy are among the replacements.

Speaking about letting players go, coach Dwayne Peel said: “It’s always a difficult thing to do.

“But it’s a professional sport, it’s part of what we do. Every year will be the same. There’s no getting away from it.

“Unfortunately, you have to say goodbye to players. All we can do is thank them for their great contribution to this club.”

He added: “It’s a rebuild for us now. We have lost a lot of experience over the last couple of years. It takes time to replace that and it takes a new group to grasp it by the reins.”

This weekend Peel goes up against a team he spent four years with on the coaching staff, while his assistant Jared Payne was there for more than a decade as player and coach.

“They are in the hunt for the play-offs after hard-fought wins against Cardiff and Benetton,” said former Wales scrum-half Peel.

“They are obviously going to come here with that in mind. So it’s going to be a hard challenge.

“But we have been steadily improving and we want to push this Ulster team as much as we can.”

For the visitors, full-back Mike Lowry makes his 100th appearance, while Rob Herring comes into the side at hooker.

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Benetton Rugby, Saturday, 3.05pm

The Sharks may be out of the running for the play-offs, but they can still have a big say in which eight teams qualify for the Investec Champions Cup from the BKT URC.

If they beat Gloucester in the EPCR Challenge Cup final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 24, they will book a place in next season’s Champions Cup, with whoever finishes eighth in the URC missing out.

And right now, that eighth spot is occupied by Benetton.

So the Italians will have even greater incentive to come out on top in Durban, with a testing trip to the Bulls coming up next week followed by a final round meeting with play-off rivals Edinburgh in Treviso.

As for the view from the buoyant Sharks camp, coach John Plumtree said: “We’ve won six out of the last seven games and you can see there’s a nice bounce in the players’ step.

“It’s important we maintain some momentum now. The key for us is to make sure we go out and play well in front of our home crowd, which is really important to us. We feel like we are winning some support back after a disappointing part of the season. We just want to keep that support.”

Emirates Lions v Cardiff Rugby, Saturday, 5.15pm

Cardiff coach Matt Sherratt has been giving his thoughts on being out in South Africa, as his team prepares for back-to-back games in Johannesburg and Durban.

“It's a unique experience in terms of the style of rugby, the altitude, the fans and how big rugby is out here,” he said.

“You can turn on any TV channel and there's school games on.

“I think the players and the staff really enjoy coming out here. It's a place you can go for 10, 12 days, hopefully with a little bit of sun, time to get together as a squad and play some good rugby.

“It's very easy to go to South Africa and kind of take your eye off the ball a little bit, but we haven’t come out here just so the season can fizzle out. This Cardiff team and our Cardiff fans deserve a lot more than that.

“We've got to be the best version of ourselves, showing a load of fight and playing some positive rugby.”

On his return to his homeland, fly-half Tinus de Beer continues his remarkable record of having started every game this season, while centre Ben Thomas is handed the captaincy just days after becoming a father for the first time.

For the Lions, who are down in eleventh but still in the play-off mix, full-back Quan Horn returns from injury for his 50th appearance.

Munster Rugby v Connacht Rugby, Saturday, 5.15pm

RG Snyman is determined to make up for lost time in his last few weeks with Munster as they bid to retain their BKT URC crown.

The World Cup-winning Springbok second row will be moving on to Leinster at the end of the season after an injury-ravaged four-year spell in the south west of Ireland.

“It’s obviously the last bit that I can contribute to Munster,” he said.

“I’m as committed as I’ve been since the day I got here. I just didn’t have the opportunity.

“All of the chances I have missed, I am trying to put into the opportunity I do have now.”

On the reaction to him signing for Leinster, the 29-year-old said: “I must say people have actually been really nice about it.

“The guys around the building have been professional about it and when I bump into people in the street they are very understanding of the situation.”

Looking ahead to the meeting with Connacht, he said: “The derbies in Ireland are very big.

That’s something I came to learn over here really quickly.

“You can get that sense and that feeling from everyone. As you go around town, there is anticipation building up throughout the week every time there is a derby game.

“It is something to look forward to. It's special to play in these games. They are the ones you want to be involved in.”

Third hosts sixth in what should be a full-on Irish derby at Limerick’s Thomond Park.

Connacht coach Pete Wilkins said: “These are the kind of days you train for and look forward to all year.”

Leinster Rugby v Ospreys, Saturday, 7.35pm

Ospreys coach Toby Booth is calling on his team to draw inspiration from Borussia Dortmund as they take on the Leinster “juggernaut” in Dublin.

“We have surprised a few people in how we’ve gone this year, so it shows it still can be done. That’s the beauty of sport,” said Booth.

“You saw this week in the Champions League. Borussia Dortmund didn’t have a chance, according to everybody, but they find themselves in the final.”

Giving his verdict on Leinster, he said: “They are the juggernaut, aren’t they?

“They have got 60 odd players of the same calibre. So it doesn’t matter who wears the shirt.

“They have got the luxury of making selection choices, where others don’t necessarily.

“That’s the benefit of having deep pockets and deep squads. There is no complaining or whinging about it. It is what it is.

“You know Leinster are effectively a super power of the BKT URC and you know how difficult it is to match that. They have got a lot to play for and are a very, very good team.

“It’s very difficult to compete, but we have competed there before and we will compete there again and see where it takes us.”

Booth’s team go into the weekend in tenth place in the URC table, but they are just four points off the play-offs, with Welsh derbies against the Dragons and Cardiff to follow their trip to the RDS.

“I know we have probably got to win two,” he said, looking at their three remaining fixtures.

“I think people are going to take points off each other. I am sure the sponsors are loving it because there is a lot on a lot of games.”

The Ospreys welcome back Wales flanker Jac Morgan after six months out following knee surgery, but fellow Test forward Adam Beard has picked up an ankle injury that will end his season and may well rule him out of the summer tour of Australia.

Openside Morgan is named among the replacements, while fellow World Cup captain Dewi Lake makes his first start since January at hooker after recovering from hamstring damage.

Leinster show five changes from the side that beat Northampton 20-17 in the Champions Cup semi-final last weekend, with the likes of Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Sheehan and Jack Conan waiting in reserve on the bench.

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