The narrative that Leinster are the team to beat wasn’t changed completely by the Dublin based team’s unexpected defeat to fellow Irish team, Ulster, last weekend. The perennial PRO14 champions do provide the bulk of the Ireland test team that had just completed a highly successful November Test campaign, so their 20-10 defeat needs to be seen in that context.
Leinster are sure to have all hands-on deck and be in a determined mood when they host another Irish derby, with this time the opposition being Connacht. Although Connacht have a reputation for being the lowest ranked of the Irish teams that tended to dominate this competition in its previous incarnation as the PRO14, they also have the reputation for being giant killers and have beaten Leinster in the not-too-distant past.
In fact, it was Connacht who were responsible earlier this year for putting an emphatic end to what had been a 26-match unbeaten run in the competition for the champions. And it wasn’t a home win for Connacht in Galway either, but a thumping 35-24 win at Leinster’s home ground of the RDS Arena in the first week of January.
The most famous Connacht win over Leinster though came in 2016, when they beat the favourites 20-10 in the 2015/2016 season PRO12 Grand Final, surely the most famous day for Connacht rugby.
Can Connacht play the role of giant-killer again on Friday night? The smart money would probably be on Leinster to be back at their best after the wake-up call of the week before, but no-one in Irish rugby ever bets their house against Connacht in any game. They are noted for their unpredictability.
An unheard of second successive defeat for Leinster will leave them vulnerable to being overtaken at the top of the log by Ulster, who travel to the southern Welsh coast on Saturday to play against Ospreys.
Unfortunately Ulster have had to shelve plans to make this game the introduction of Springbok legend Duane Vermeulen to the club colours because of a positive COVID test, but they will go into the game in a confident mood after their momentous win last week and will be looking to cement their status as early challengers to the Leinster hegemony.
The top of the log is looking quite interesting at this point, with just one point separating the top three teams - Leinster, who are ahead of Ulster just on points difference but have the same number of log points, 24, and third placed Edinburgh, who are on 23. Edinburgh host Benetton on Friday night and will be favoured to score the win that will enable them to maintain their challenge on the top two.
At this point the South African teams occupy all but one of the positions at the opposite end of the log. The exception is Zebre Parma, who are last with just one solitary log point and won’t be in action this weekend because of the postponement of their South African games - they were to have been in Durban to play the Cell C Sharks this week, but the South African sides will be desperate to improve their positions by grabbing the wins that will enable them to start their climb up the log.
The plum fixture on South African soil will be Friday night’s repeat of what has become the accepted local final since the end of lockdown, with the Cell C Sharks hosting the Vodacom Bulls. The men from Pretoria were disappointing on tour, perhaps more so than their opponents given the expectations, and will be under pressure to win even though officially it is an away game for them.
The DHL Stormers probably should have got more out of their tour than they did and were the surprise package of the local sides in the early rounds and their entertaining brand of rugby could come to the fore against an Emirates Lions team that is like-minded in terms of wanting to play tempo. Those two teams bring down the curtain on South Africa’s 2021 year at DHL Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The addition of the South African derbies means that there will just be four teams - the overseas sides impacted by the postponement of last week’s scheduled fixtures - sitting out what will be a full and interesting round of the competition.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (SA times)
Friday, 3 December
19h00: Cell C Sharks v Vodacom Bulls (Durban)
21h35: Edinburgh v Benetton (Edinburgh)
21h45: Leinster v Connacht (Dublin)
Saturday, 4 December
17h00: Ospreys v Ulster (Swansea)
17h00: DHL Stormers v Emirates Lions (Cape Town)
21h35: Glasgow Warriors v Dragons (Glasgow)