Bristling Benetton eye SA sweep at Fortress Loftus

Bristling Benetton eye SA sweep at Fortress Loftus

Benetton Rugby have emerged as a BKT United Rugby Championship powerhouse and the Italians are poised to achieve an unprecedented clean sweep of the South African teams.

A narrative that would have seemed improbable just a few seasons ago, Benetton are now on the cusp of etching their name in the annals of BKT URC history with a stunning clean sweep of the teams that hail from the home of the world champions.

Having beaten the Hollywoodbets Sharks, Emirates Lions and DHL Stormers, Benetton will have scalped the competition's South African contingent if they outrun the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday afternoon.

Rewind to their infamous upset of the Vodacom Bulls in the 2021 Rainbow Cup final, and you'll understand that Benetton’s surge is no fluke. The 35-8 victory at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo, which clinched Benetton's first piece of silverware in an international competition, was the genesis of the team that has since grown into a serious BKT URC play-off contender.

With a four-point cushion in eighth place, the Italians are on track to contest the BKT URC quarter-finals for the first time since the 2018-19 campaign, having knocked over several big teams this season.

Benetton launched their campaign with a four-game unbeaten run, conquering Cardiff, holding defending champions Munster to a draw, before claiming two South African scalps with home wins against the Emirates Lions and last season’s finalists the DHL Stormers.

Victories over Edinburgh at the Hive Stadium and Ospreys at home were followed by a double over Italian rivals Zebre Parma and, after a mid-season slump including four successive losses, Benetton have rebounded with wins against Connacht and Dragons RFC, before the historic victory last Saturday against the Sharks at Hollywoodbets Kings Park.

Benetton have based their success this season on the BKT URC's most exemplary disciplinary record, conceding just 133 penalties in 16 games (an average of eight per game). This was showcased against the Springbok-enforced Hollywoodbets Sharks, as Benetton conceded just two penalties in 80 minutes.

It's a feat made all the more remarkable considering Benetton have made the second-most tackles of any team in the competition (2690) and won the third-most turnovers (114), pointing to an incredible accuracy on defence.

Having a solidity on defence has given playmakers such as flyhalf Jacob Umaga and veteran playmaker Rhyno Smith the time and space to shine.

Umaga, the son of Samoan international Mike and nephew of former All Blacks captain and centre Tana, is currently the season’s third-highest points scorer, with his match-winning self-converted try against the Hollywoodbets Sharks taking his points tally to 115 on the season.

The 25-year-old flyhalf is enjoying his second season with Benetton, having arrived in Treviso in 2022, a year after making his Test debut for England against the USA.

South African fullback Smith, meanwhile, is tied-fourth for clean breaks this season (17), ahead of the likes of Duhan van der Merwe and Kurt-Lee Arendse.

Linking the two playmakers is an all-Italian centre pair of Juan Ignacio Brex and Tommaso Menoncello. The duo was crucial to Italy’s success in the 2024 Guinness Six Nations, and have carried that form into the BKT URC, with Menoncello on a run of three tries in four games.

Of course, the backline would not operate without a solid pack of forwards and Benetton have just that, led from the front by inspirational loose forward Michele Lamaro.

Italy’s captain completes a back row that includes No 8 Toa Halafihi and Seb Negri, while fellow loose forward Alessandro Izekor provides the impact. Izekor’s willingness to cover ground and do the hard yards is highlighted by him ranking fifth among this season’s tacklers (168).

Benetton’s abrasive nature and ability to stay in games, even when they aren’t at their best, has been noted by the Vodacom Bulls, who are looking to avoid the late-game slump they suffered against league leaders Glasgow Warriors.

“We have seen what Benetton did to the Sharks in the last 20 in Durban,” Vodacom Bulls tighthead prop Wilco Low said.

“They have some experienced Italy internationals in their side and we are finding that the overseas teams are getting wise at how to play at altitude. They are clever in how they slow the game down in the second half.”

Enforcer Ruan Vermaak says the Vodacom Bulls expect Benetton will give it their all until the final whistle.

“They are a quality side, and it will be a physical game,” Vermaak said. "They have a lot of fight, they play an 80-minute game and keep coming at you.”

With their eyes set on the ultimate prize, Benetton continue to defy expectations and challenge the status quo in the BKT URC. Their ability to overcome formidable opponents, coupled with their dominance in crucial matchups, has solidified their status as a team on the rise and a new threat in the race to the title.

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