URC WRAP: South African clean sweep as ‘grandmaster’ Springbok shines and champions claim ‘massive win’

Simon Thomas
Stormers back Suleiman Hartzenberg, Lions players Morne van den Berg and Edwill van der Merwe, Sharks hooker Bongi Mbonambi and Munster lock RG Snyman.

Simon Thomas wraps up the weekend's URC action in detail.

The United Rugby Championship (URC) returned to action this weekend with all the teams involved in round 12.

Following a thrilling round of action, Simon Thomas reviews the weekend’s action, dissecting all results, picking out the quote of the weekend, the Player of the Round and more.

South African clean sweep

There were wins for all four South African franchises, with the Emirates Lions’ 38-14 bonus point win away to Connacht arguably the result of the round.

Few teams come away from the Galway Sportsground with maximum points, and the Lions did so despite being down a man for more than an hour following a 16th-minute red card to prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye.

The visitors from Johannesburg made light of their numerical disadvantage, pulling well clear in the second half after leading 12-7 at the break.

Number eight Francke Horn scored twice in the victory, flanker JC Pretorius also crossed to cap a Player of the Match display, and fly-half Jordan Hendrikse landed four shots at goal.

It was the Lions’ first-ever victory in Ireland, and it takes them up to eighth and into the play-off zone.

There was also good reason for the Sharks to celebrate, as they claimed just their second URC win of the season, moving them off the bottom of the table.

The Durbanites welcomed the return of stars Eben Etzebeth, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi as they defeated Ulster 22-12 in Durban, with another World Cup winner, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, collecting one of their three tries while fellow Bok forward Vincent Koch making his long-awaited debut for the side.

Over in Cape Town, the Stormers ran in seven tries in a 43-21 bonus point victory over Edinburgh Rugby – more on that entertaining encounter later.

Finally, the Bulls rounded off a highly successful weekend for the Rainbow Nation by beating Dragons RFC 31-10 at Rodney Parade, with replacement hooker Johan Grobbelaar going over in the last minute to secure the all-important four-try bonus.

That result takes Jake White’s Bulls up to second in the table, with only Leinster Rugby ahead of them – and guess who they play next!

Leinster were pushed hard during the first half by Zebre Rugby in Parma and were just seven points clear at the interval, but they took a firm grip in the second half to win 31-7, with wing Rob Russell completing a try double.

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Scarlets snatch dramatic late win

Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel felt a mixture of relief and delight following a last-gasp 16-13 victory over Benetton Rugby.

The game was into the 84th minute when South African replacement hooker Eduan Swart rounded off a mass lineout drive in the right-hand corner for what looked to be the winning score, but that wasn’t the end of the drama, as there was to be a lengthy TMO review before referee Chris Busby finally awarded the try.

The scenes of celebration that followed showed just how much the result meant to the Scarlets, as it was only their third victory from 16 matches in all competitions this season and their first in the URC since the start of December.

Peel said: “I am pleased for the boys because they have been on the wrong end of those losses, and they put a lot of hard work in. It was big for us to get that win at the end.

“I thought it was deserved. As the game went on, we applied a lot of pressure. We created, and we were bold with the ball when we needed to be.”

Peel added: “There are six league games to go, so there’s a lot of rugby still to be played and a lot of points to be won. We can still build up some momentum going into the back end of the season.

“For us, it’s about climbing the league as much as we can. I also want us to play with a bit of endeavour, and we did that at times out there.”

Clinical champions

Having billed it as their biggest game of the season to date, defending champions Munster duly delivered on their trip to Swansea with a 27-17 bonus-point victory.

It was a strange old game. The Ospreys had much the better of things in terms of territory (59 per cent) and possession (62 per cent), but they came away empty-handed, while the visitors picked up the maximum.

Munster wing Sean O’Brien was named Player of the Match after scoring two long-range tries off interceptions—opportunistic scores that ultimately proved the difference between these two play-off contenders.

“That’s a massive win for us,” he said.

“We had been saying all week it was the biggest game of the season so far. It’s great to get back in after a couple of weeks off and get a win like that.”

Skipper Alex Kendellen added: “We knew how important this game was. It’s so tight in the league these days, so it’s good to get the five points.”

Ospreys coach Toby Booth expressed his thoughts: “I feel for the lads. They feel the pain.

“The overriding feeling is frustration, but this is part of the journey of this team.

“Looking after the ball in key moments is massively important when you play against the best teams, and we were playing against the champions.

“You have to take the moments because you don’t get as many. You need to be clinical. They were, and we weren’t.”

The Ospreys’ evening was summed up in the final minute when wing Alex Cuthbert looked sure to score his second try of the night and secure two losing bonus points only to pull up as his hamstring went.

It was all the more painful for the Welsh international, who had only just returned from a year out due to injury.

“I am just devastated for him,” said Booth. “That would have been two points and, in a league that’s very congested and tight, that would be massive.

“I thought we deserved something out of the game.”

‘Ref what you see’ – Dragons boss demands answers for multiple referee decisions

In Friday night’s other contest, Glasgow overcame a 13-0 halftime deficit to beat Cardiff Rugby 17-13 at a wet and windy Scotstoun.

“The weather conditions made it difficult. It was horrible, it was hideous out there,” coach Franco Smith said:

“But I must give credit to Cardiff. They came out to play; they made it hard at the breakdown, and they defended really well. We lost the physical battle in the first half, and they made us pay for it in a lot of areas.

“They are a good side. Nobody should underestimate them. We knew they were going to be tough and competitive.”

Having played into the wind and driving rain in the first half, Glasgow swiftly erased Cardiff’s lead on the resumption. They played a territorial game and turned to their big ball carriers to guide them to victory.

“It was a case of being a bit more pragmatic,” said Smith.

“For us, it was important to get an attacking platform further down the pitch. A win will do, but we need to play better.”

Giving his take, Cardiff coach Matt Sherratt said: “It’s almost a bittersweet one because we had chances to win it. We got pushed into touch twice five metres from their line and were held up twice over the line.

“But we are the first team in the league this season to get a point at Glasgow away. Leinster have been here, the Stormers have been here. It’s one of the toughest places in the league, so to come here and get something is all credit to the players.”

That’s now nine bonus points for Cardiff, an indication of just how many close contests they have been involved in this season.

Match of the weekend

Stormers 43-21 Edinburgh Rugby

The game that produced the most points (64), the most tries (10), and the highest attendance (23,281) over the weekend. Plus, it also featured a strong contender for try of the season from the Stormers.

That came after just nine minutes, with the ball going through numerous hands amid a succession of dazzling offloads before fly-half Manie Libbok put in a pinpoint cross-kick, which wing Suleiman Hartzenberg collected on the bounce to score out wide.

That was the first of a hat-trick of tries for the 20-year-old Hartzenberg, while fellow wing Leolin Zas crossed twice, as did No 8 Evan Roos.

Edinburgh also contributed to the entertainment with three tries, but the home side was just too hot to handle.

Stormers full-back Damian Willemse, who was named Player of the Match, commented: “We are really happy with the win. There are a lot of positives we can take from the game. I really enjoyed it.

“It’s all about building now going into the tough end of the season. We are going into the tail end of the URC and every match and every point counts.”

John Dobson added: “We felt like a bit of our spark was back, and our intensity was there, so it was great.

“What’s frustrating is how many tries we are leaving out there, but I’d rather have that than not being able to create.”

Damian Willemse leads the way as Stormers cruise past Edinburgh while Scarlets seal last-gasp win over Benetton

Player of the weekend – Willie le Roux

The double Rugby World Cup winner may be 34 now, but there are no signs of his powers waning. He produced a consummate display from full-back to help the Bulls claim a 31-10 bonus point victory over the Dragons in Newport.

A superb long pass from the veteran outside back was fired out to Kurt-Lee Arendse, sending the wing over for the game’s first try.

Then there was a perfectly placed cross-kick ahead of flanker Mupilo Gumede going over for a picture-book score. Those were the highlights, but there was just a classiness to everything the playmaking Le Roux did.

As one poster on social media put it, he was “reading the game like a grandmaster”.

The man himself was suitably modest as he received his Player of the Match award.

“Credit to the boys, it’s a team sport and I couldn’t have done it without all of them,” he said.

“Coming from 35 degrees in Pretoria and playing in 5 degrees here, there is a 30 degrees difference. It’s definitely a bit tougher.

“The Dragons played really well, so credit to them. They made it very tough for us.

“But we just stuck to what we know and luckily we got that last try to get a bonus point which was unbelievably important. It was a really tough game, so it was good for us to get this one under the belt.”

Bongi Mbonambi shines as Sharks end dreadful losing streak

Quote of the weekend

Sharks coach John Plumtree after the 22-12 victory over Ulster, which ended a five-match losing run in the URC: “It was good to see the physicality of the team. I asked the guys for a big effort. We know we’ve got a talented team if we can gel, especially with all the players available, but it takes a lot of effort as well.

“Ulster are a tough side and have a never-give-up attitude, so it was good to see us come through that.”

What’s coming up next?

There’s no doubt about the game of Round 13.

That will be the top-of-the-table clash between leaders Leinster and the second-placed Bulls in Dublin next Friday night.

It has all the makings of an absolute humdinger.

Glasgow is just a point behind the Bulls in third. They will travel to Llanelli to take on a Scarlets team buoyed by their dramatic victory over Benetton.

Elsewhere, the Sharks will be aiming for their first back-to-back wins of the league campaign as they entertain Edinburgh. Ulster will continue their South African tour by facing the Stormers in Cape Town, and Benetton will host Connacht.

The Ospreys need to beat the red-hot Lions in Swansea to keep alive any hopes of making the play-offs. Cardiff are on the road again, heading for Limerick to meet Munster.

Finally, as well as the top two meeting, the bottom two also lock horns with the Dragons welcoming Zebre to Rodney Parade.