Five storylines to watch in the United Rugby Championship including star-studded teams and top eight shake-up

Dylan Coetzee

Split with Manie Libbok (Stormers), Benetton and Bulls v Sharks.

The United Rugby Championship (URC) has already pulled up at Round Seven of 18 with yet another blockbuster weekend of action promised.

Things are heating up as the competition heads into the festive period with plenty of local derbies to come, and ahead of the action Planet Rugby selects five storylines to follow this weekend.

The start of South Africa’s local derbies

With the aforementioned derby season upon us, it is the Rainbow Nation that kicks it off with a titanic tussle between two star-studded squads as the Bulls host the Sharks.

The teams enter the clash in completely contrasting situations but both will know that dominating the local derbies is essential to achieving that top eight or even top four finish. The Bulls look settled and will probably only get better. Jake White’s men have made a strong start to the campaign, as they have done before only for it to wobble mid-season, so they will want to avoid that setback this time around. The Pretoria men will look to leverage their high altitude and push the Sharks to the edge.

For the Durban men it has been a poor start but a lot of that could be attributed to adjusting to new coach John Plumtree’s game model. They flexed Springboks muscles last weekend, scoring 69 points against the Dragons. It is a good confidence booster but now there will be a bigger test this weekend. The Sharks need to stand up to the massive challenge but they are very capable of doing so. A significant game in Pretoria is loading.

Stormers’ Springboks need to make an impact

Two wins from six is certainly not the start John Dobson was hoping for from his team. It could have been four wins from six but the Stormers stumbled in key moments against Benetton and Cardiff, perhaps due to inexperience or the downside of rotation.

Only one of those six matches was at home which is a factor, but the Capetonians would have liked a better platform to work with. Dobson will be pleased to have his Rugby World Cup winners back. Manie Libbok is the Stormers’ general; the team is simply significantly better with him at the helm. Add the X-factor of a super-confident Damian Willemse and the leadership of Deon Fourie and the team could catch flames.

There have been some positives with fringe players showing their worth whilst prodigy Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu has looked comfortable at this level. It will be interesting to see him play consistently with the returning stars.

Zebre Parma is the challenge this week before some tricky European fixtures and local derbies. The Stormers have only lost one URC game to South African opposition – a stat they need to keep intact if they are to dream of a home play-off. The big players at the Stormers need to stand up straight away.

Important points on offer near the top of the table

The make-up of the URC table this season is fascinating with the top 12 all within close enough striking distance of that all-important top eight, making some of this weekend’s game that much more interesting.

Defending champions Munster need to bounce back from defeat to Leinster when they host leaders Glasgow Warriors. It is certainly a tricky run of fixtures for the province, especially with the form of Franco Smith’s side who just look better and better every game. The season has started to settle in and there is no saying how important it is to take points off other top-eight contenders.

Ulster hosting Edinburgh and Connacht meeting Leinster fall into the same category as a group of serious play-off prospects face each other with every point counting. Ulster will hope to keep their good start going but Edinburgh have a greater sense of maturity about them this season. Meanwhile, Connacht need to find a way to fend off Leinster, who are playing catch-up in their head after dropping some points earlier on.

Let the top eight shake-up begin!

Can Benetton maintain their start to the season?

One of the most impressive teams in the competition this season has been Benetton, who look to be going from strength to strength. Already in this edition, they have managed wins against the Stormers, Cardiff, Lions and Edinburgh whilst holding Munster to a draw at home.

That is a huge haul for the Italian side who are looking to continue building. Benetton has wedged themselves nicely into sixth spot on the table and could well be a play-off contender. However, the key is to maintain their charge. It is one thing working themselves into this position but it’s another staying there.

Stage one is complete in how they maximised the period where some of their opponents’ internationals were missing. The next step is to continue winning at home which they will believe they can against the Ospreys.

It certainly feels that something special happening in Treviso, providing they keep their foot on the gas.

Who can find stairs in the basement?

Three teams sit right at the bottom with only one win to their name so far in the Sharks, Dragons and Scarlets.

One would think with the return of the Springboks that the Sharks would immediately climb the table and whilst that is possible the Durban side has to get the better of some of their counterparts, which has been difficult in recent seasons. The clash with the Bulls sets the tone.

The Dragons felt the wrath of a frustrated Sharks side loaded with superstars last weekend, conceding 69 points, and it does not get much easier against the Lions this time around. The Johannesburg side has been better than their results suggest and the heat, coupled with the altitude, is a real hurdle.

It’s a local derby for the Scarlets against a brave Cardiff side, who will be on a high after beating the Stormers, making it especially challenging for the disjointed Llanelli outfit. However, playing against local teams has an added aura about it, meaning almost anything can happen. They will be desperate for any points.

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