Round seven could well be what in Test cricket parlance they refer to as "moving day" as Franco Smith’s team have a chance of putting some daylight between themselves and Leinster in what has been an absorbing race at the top of the Vodacom URC table so far.
Leinster, with Springbok Rugby World Cup winning coach Jacques Nienaber now in tow, are heading to The Sportsground in Galway to face Connacht on Saturday, and that’s never an easy venue for a visiting team - even for mighty Leinster.
Munster coach Graham Rowntree may have been speaking for the rest of the Irish teams when he suggested after his team’s narrow loss to Leinster in front of a crowd of 50,000 at the AVIVA Stadium last weekend that the gap the Dubliners have enjoyed over their opponents for the best part of the past decade is closing.
Glasgow, who comfortably beat Leinster in the opening round, might contend that they are closing the gap too, particularly after last week’s impressive win over Ulster, who should be including Bok double-RWC-winning prop and former DHL Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff in their starting team for the first time as they face Edinburgh on Saturday night.
From the above it can be gauged that this will be a crucial weekend in the cross-hemisphere competition before it breaks for a few weeks for the Investec Champions Cup, with the big South African derby between the Vodacom Bulls and the Hollywoodbets Sharks in Pretoria also having a potential impact on the top positions as the hosts try to hold onto their current position in the top four.
However, so far it has been Glasgow, coached by former Springbok assistant and Toyota Cheetahs head coach Franco Smith, who have made the biggest early season dent on Leinster’s quest to continue their hegemony in the league stage of the competition. Although Leinster, who dominated this competition when it was the PRO14, haven’t yet had their name inscribed on the URC trophy, they have convincingly bossed the log in both seasons.
The trip to Cork is potentially a statement one for the Warriors for while they have racked up an impressive record at home under Smith’s coaching, with an unprecedented 19 consecutive league wins in the Vodacom URC, winning against the champions in their own backyard will be a significant next step and new frontier broken through in this year’s challenge.
Their only previous visit to Ireland this season ended in a disappointing 34-26 defeat to Connacht, which is why a win over Munster will prove the Glasgow credentials to be considered proper contenders for Vodacom URC honours. At the same time, beating Munster will put a serious dent in the reigning champion team’s own quest to be a top four finisher which would enable them to do it the easier way in the playoffs this time around by starting out at home.
And if they get it right, it will be the second time in succession that Glasgow have beaten Munster away in league play. They managed it in quite comprehensive fashion at Thomond Park in Limerick in March, a result that at the time looked like it might end Munster’s 2022/23 challenge but instead it proved a watershed as after that Munster never lost a Vodacom URC game.
Indeed, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was Munster who ended the Glasgow challenge last season, with Graham Rowntree’s men achieving the only positive result for a visiting team to Scotstoun Stadium in the Vodacom URC when they won the quarter-final 14-5 (the Glasgow home record is built around regular season successes) to start off the winning sequence that ultimately saw them installed as champions.
It has been an eventful week at Munster, with RG Snyman announcing he will be departing at the end of the season, which followed on from confirmation that he will be out injured until March, and his lock partner, fellow Springbok Jean Kleyn, signing a two year extension in the face of a rumoured big offer from a French club.
On top of that, Ireland international looseforward Peter O’Mahony, has resigned the captaincy after more than 10 years in the saddle and having led his team to a trophy drought breaking win over the DHL Stormers in last year’s Vodacom URC final in Cape Town.
O’Mahony is out injured at the moment after sustaining a shoulder injury against the DHL Stormers that will also force him to miss the first round of the Champions Cup, and in his absence hooker Diarmuid Barron has led the team, but Rowntree said he will continue to pick the team leader on a game to game basis for now.
Rowntree said Munster enjoy the vibe at their alternative venue in Cork and didn’t believe it would lessen their chances of winning that they will be playing on a 3G pitch, which Glasgow might be more used to as their home ground Scotstoun has a synthetic 4G surface.
“I like the atmosphere down there...obviously, we play a lot on 4G and we have got a 4G facility here that we can train on if we want," said Rowntree. "We are used to it now. I actually really like the atmosphere down there."
Meanwhile, although they finally have Nienaber with them, and the talk from the camp has been positive about his input so far, Leinster will be travelling to Galway without their leading flyhalf Ross Byrne, who picked up the injury in Saturday’s win over Munster and Ciarán Frawley, Harry Byrne and Sam Prendergast will now vie for the No 10 jersey for the Connacht game.
Connacht have Ireland wing Mack Hansen back but will still be without their other Irish RWC starter, centre Bundee Aki, who is expected to make his season debut now in the Champions Cup games.
Ulster could be facing an issue at flyhalf after Billy Burns came off early at Scotstoun for their game against Edinburgh, who will be eager to get back on the winning trail again after the unexpected reverse last week to Benetton. With original replacement Jake Flannery having already pulled out in the warm-up, Nathan Doak had to see out most of the game at No 10 after travelling as 24th man.
Rob Herring, David McCann, Nick Timoney, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy, Mike Lowry and Dave Ewers were all out of action last week and it is unclear how many, if any, Dan McFarland will have back in action for Ulster’s final Vodacom URC game before the initial two-week break for Europe, but they are expecting big things in the first start for their marquee signing, Kitshoff.
“We’ve already seen that he’s a quality operator,” said assistant coach Dan Soper. “We’ll get Steven rolled out again this weekend and see what sort of impact he can make in front of his new home crowd.”
Something that did come out of the Glasgow trip for Ulster was John Cooney’s achievement of passing 1000 points. The veteran scrumhalf scored 20 in the game and became only the second Ulster player to achieve the milestone after David Humphreys.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 1 December:
21h35: Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Cork)
Saturday, 2 December:
15h00: Vodacom Bulls v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Pretoria)
17h00: Cardiff v Scarlets (Cardiff)
17h05: Emirates Lions v Dragons (Johannesburg)
19h15: Ulster v Edinburgh (Belfast)
19h15: DHL Stormers v Zebre (Stellenbosch)
21h35: Connacht v Leinster (Galway)
21h35: Benetton v Ospreys (Treviso)