United Rugby Championship: Five talking points ahead of Round 12 including a must-win game for Bulls and under-powered Sharks

Dylan Coetzee
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The United Rugby Championship continues with Round 12 this weekend, which includes some fascinating match-ups with all the South African teams in the northern hemisphere looking to find ways to adapt better to the cold.

Ahead of the action, Planet Rugby has picked out five talking points to consider this weekend.

Can the Bulls conquer Rodney Parade and get out of their slump?

Sport and all that comes with it moves like lightning. Not long ago, the Bulls were looking excellent after a fast start to the season before the wheels came off, and now the Pretoria side has lost their three games in all competitions, conceding over 100 points in the process.

Jake White’s side does have a tricky schedule to deal with and has been back and forth to the northern hemisphere on long flights, and in the grand scheme of things, three losses on the bounce are manageable, given his long-term vision for the club. However, it is the nature of the defeats that is the issue.

Weakness in the set-piece at times, lack of problem-solving on the field, and clear inexperience in key passages of the game have all hampered the Bulls over the last three games.

White’s men now have the challenge of winning at Rodney Parade. Bulls facing the Dragons at Loftus Versfeld is easy enough to predict the winner, but the Welsh side finds different gears on their home turf and is difficult to play. Add the dramatic change in weather and conditions for the travelling Bulls, and a brilliant clash is waiting.

The Bulls side looks as strong as they can field at this stage, and it would be hard to bet against them, but if White and his men want to get back on track and underline their title credentials, this is a game they have to win.

Form and confidence can be a slippery slope. If three consecutive losses become four, it could spell trouble for the Bulls.

Sharks go to Sportsground dangerously light

Director of rugby Neil Powell has done tremendously well since taking over the coaching role, winning five games on the bounce and getting the most out of his blockbuster squad. The Sharks well and truly announced themselves last weekend with a 47-20 win over the Bulls, and suddenly the Durban side is a team to talk about again.

However, Powell has made his first gamble by sending a young side to face Connacht this weekend and leaving the heavyweights at home for the Champions Cup clash against Bordeaux and likely the trip up to Harlequins a week later.

Much like the Bulls, it is a lot of travelling over a couple of weeks, and it is the challenge of fighting on two fronts. One wonders if Powell has gone in too light, and possibly more of a blend between the first and second string would be better.

Having said that, White’s inexperienced Bulls surprised all against Lyon at the end of last year, and this Sharks side could do the same. There is certainly talent on the field, but Connacht is no slouch, particularly at home.

It sets up for an intriguing clash, one that will bear the headline of ‘master-class’ or ‘disaster-class’ for Powell.

Will the Stormers handle the cold this time?

The Stormers capped off a brilliant 2022 without a loss at home and looked to continue growing and taking strides since their title triumph. However, despite the strong form and table position, one kink has shown in the champions’ armour this season: adaptability to cold and wet northern hemisphere weather.

John Dobson’s men have only lost two games and drawn one this season in all competitions, with all the negative results coming from games in bad or cold weather. Against Cardiff, where the Stormers’ win streak was ended, it was cold, windy and very wet, much like their draw to Ospreys, whilst against Clermont in the Champions Cup, the freezing cold got the better of the Cape Town men.

However, this is a clever team and one that will have hoped to learn. Their style is throwing the ball about and expressing themselves, but the Stormers can only do that because of how deceptively good their forward pack is; strong at scrum and maul time and impressively mobile.

The forecast in Glasgow is just about freezing with fairly strong winds, and that is no secret to Dobson’s men, who will know they simply have to adapt. They have experienced these conditions on a few occasions, and the Stormers must show progression and development.

On the other side of the coin, Glasgow will be relishing this opportunity to get one over the champions. The side has settled under Franco Smith’s guidance and looks brilliant and exciting. It could be a real opportunity for them to catch the Stormers cold.

Two teams who like to throw the ball around, in icy conditions, sets up for one of those games that showcase the stunning beauty of this competition.

The best chance for Benetton to upset Ulster

Dan McFarland will be one of the first to admit that his Ulster side has not been at its best lately. Whilst their record is still very good over the last two games, the Irish province has tailed off in the second half, which Munster capitalised on last weekend to steal a win late on.

It is a concern, but Ulster is a hard-working team. However, McFarland’s men travel to Treviso to face Benetton, who have been decent at home this season with a lovely win over Edinburgh to show for it.

The Italian side is the most active kicking side, using Tomas Albornoz’s boot to try to control territory and pin teams in their own half. The tactic is effective when executed well, which it has been in periods of most games, particularly at home, but one gets the feeling the team are due a perfect game.

It is a bold thought, but if ever there was a time to upset Ulster, it is now for the Italians. Of course, the visitors would have looked at this game as one to get the ship straight again, but the passionate Italians will play the full 80-minutes, hoping to catch Ulster out.

Ulster remains the firm favourite, but there will certainly be some Benetton fans silently dreaming of a memorable upset.

Business as usual for Leinster

Who can stop Leinster? That seems to be the common denominator every season, and rightly so. The coaching, the club ethos, the standards, the depth of players, the systems and the attention to detail is second to none. There is a reason the Irish giants are almost always at the summit of the table.

The team is structure personified, more so than any other club in the world. Even with Ospreys on a great run of three wins on the trot, including a triumph over French champions Montpellier, it is difficult to say the Welsh side can down Leo Cullen’s men.

Of course, it has happened in the past where Leinster has slipped up in strange circumstances, but after having nothing to show for from last season, the team is hungry for silverware and is a very scary prospect for the league.

Regardless of playing in Swansea, expect Leinster to churn out yet another win this weekend to continue their blemish-free season.

READ MORE: URC: Harry Byrne starts at 10 for Leinster against Ospreys while Finlay Bealham and Mack Hansen return for Ulster