Rugby Preview: Ulster, Connacht, Munster and Leinster back in action…

United Rugby Championship: Round I 

Zebre vs. Ulster Sat. Oct. 21st. 13.00 

Connacht vs. Ospreys Sat. Oct. 21st. 15.00 

Munster vs. Sharks Sat. Oct. 21st. 17.15 

Glasgow vs. Leinster Sun. Oct. 22nd. 16.00 

Right on cue, the URC makes it’s seasonal bow this week-end just as Ireland are knocked out of the World cup. Our world cup players will doubtless be afforded a few weeks rest, so these earlier rounds are an opportunity for the other squad players to stake their claim for a regular berth in their sides. There has been quite a lot of change in club squads over the summer, so this is a quick overview of what we can expect from each club:  

 

Ulster 

Ulster’s two main recruits have been South Africa’s starting loose head Steven Kitshoff from Stormers to replace Rory Sutherland (Scotland) and Dave Ewers from Exeter to replace Duane Vermeulen. Experienced players like Jordi Murphy, Craig Gilroy, Rob Lyttle, Sam Carter, Gareth Milasinovich, Jefferey Toomaga-Allen and Ian Madigan have retired or been released to be replaced mainly by promising academy players Ben Carson, Reuben Crothers, James McCormick, Conor McKee and Harry Sheridan. There has to be a question mark, however, against how quickly young ex-academy players can get up to speed and replace all that experience. 

Ulster seem particularly vulnerable at tight head until Marty Moore recovers from injury. However, with only four players in the World Cup squad, and with Tom O’Toole, Rob Herring and Stuart McCloskey relatively lightly raced, Ulster should be well placed to make a good start to the new club season, especially against a Zebre team which lost all their matches last season and who have seen 14 players leave the club since then. 

Ulster team to play Zebre: Will Addison, Michael Lowry, James Hume, Angus Curtis, Jacob Stockdale, Jake Flannery, Nathan Doak; Andy Warwick, Tom Stewart (C), Greg McGrath, Matty Rea, Kieran Treadwell, Dave Ewers, Marcus Rea, David McCann. 

Replacements: John Andrew, Callum Reid, James French, Cormac Izuchukwu, Nick Timoney, Dave Shanahan, Billy Burns, Stewart Moore. 

Rising Stars: Tom O’Toole, Tom Stewart, Harry Sheridan, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore. 

Prediction: Ulster seem unlikely to break past their “nearly men” level of achievement in recent seasons until their promising academy intake get more experience. 

 

Connacht 

Connacht have recruited Joe Joyce from Bristol, where he was player of the year not so long ago to strengthen their lock division and Sean Jansen from Leicester to improve their options in the back row where they have sometimes lacked really penetrative runners. JJ Hanrahan is an astute signing to improve their options at 10 but Argentinian international, Santiago Cordero, signed from Bordeaux, has picked up a long term knee injury. 

Connacht have lost Kieron Marmion to Bristol and released Alex Wootton, Shane Delahunt, Conor Fitzgerald, Sean Masterson, Ciaran Booth, Peter O’Sullivan, Adam Byrne and Leva Fifita. They have recruited Sean O’Brien and Andrew Smith from the Leinster academy but have, strangely, not announced any new recruits to their own academy. It’s getting increasingly difficult to get either an academy or full professional contract in Ireland, with the standards required rising all the time. 

The performances of Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham at the world cup, and Cian Prendergast in the build-up should inspire Connacht to further heights. Andy Friend has left a good legacy and new head coach Pete Wilkins assisted by new defence coach Scott Fardy should be able to continue the good work. A home win against the Ospreys who have lost 19 players and recruited only 6 since last season  is essential  to get their season going on the right track. 

The Connacht XXIII to play Ospreys includes 6 new caps*:  

  1. Andrew Smith *, 14. Diarmuid Kilgallen (16), 13. Tom Farrell (99), 12. Cathal Forde (13)11. Byron Ralston (15), 10. JJ Hanrahan *, 9. Caolin Blade (170) (C), 1. Denis Buckley (228), 2. Dylan Tierney-Martin (24), 3. Jack Aungier 50)4. Oisín Dowling (44), 5. Joe Joyce *, 6. Cian Prendergast (47), 7. Shamus Hurley-Langton (20), 8. Jarrad Butler (114)
  2. Tadgh McElroy *, 17. Peter Dooley (18), 18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (79), 19. Niall Murray (56), 20. Seán O’Brien *, 21. Colm Reilly (17), 22. Jack Carty (195), 23. Liam McNamara *

Rising stars: Cian Prendergast, Niall and Darragh Murray, Cathal Forde. 

Prediction: Connacht should qualify for the play-offs and European Cup again, especially now that the national shield winners are no longer guaranteed a spot in the European Cup. 

 

Munster 

Having finally gotten the “no trophy in 11 years” monkey off their backs, Champions Munster should be marching onward and upwards from here. Ben Healy and Malakai Fekitoa (after a slow start) are a loss, but the recruitment of Alex Nankivell from Chiefs and Sean O’Brien from Exeter should compensate. The retirement of Keith Earls should be covered by the rise of Shane Daly, Calvin Nash, Liam Coombes and the promotion of Patrick Cambell from the academy. 

John Ryan has returned once again to shore up the tight head side of the scrum, but he, Archer, Kilcoyne, O’Mahony, Murray and Zebo aren’t getting any younger so this could be their last Hurrah in Europe. A fully fit RG Snyman could do wonders for their prospects and Gavin Coombes will want to prove Andy Farrell wrong for leaving him out of the World Cup squad. The Sharks  have named a strong team and will provide them with a serious early season test in Thomond Park. 

The Munster team to play Sharks includes 5 academy players (in italics). Shane Daly; Andrew Conway, Antoine Frisch, Rory Scannell, Calvin Nash; Joey Carbery, Ethan Coughlan; Josh Wycherley, Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer; Edwin Edogbo, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O’Donoghue (capt), Alex Kendellen, Gavin Coombes. 

Replacements: Scott Buckley, Kieran Ryan, John Ryan, Tom Ahern, Brian Gleeson, Neil Cronin, Alex Nankivell, Shay McCarthy. 

Rising Stars: Thomas Ahearn, John Hodnett, Jack Crowley, Antoine Frisch 

Prediction: In contention for the URC title and the European Cup? 

 

Leinster 

Leinster have generally only won the European Cup with some outstanding global talent in the side – Felipe Contepomi (2003-09), Rocky Elsom (2008/9), Nathan Hines (2009-11), Brad Thorn (2012), Scott Fardy (2017-2021), and Isa Nacewa (2008-13, 2015-18) – but are relying entirely on academy recruits John McKee, Rob Russell, Alex Soroka, Lee Barron, and Sam Prendergast to help them over the line this time around. With no Sexton or Dave Kearney, they will need some of their younger players to step up to world class to see them through to a title once again. 

Leinster seem a little light on props once their international players are away and seem to be placing a lot of faith in academy props Jack Boyle, Temi Lasisi, Paddy McCarthy and Rory McGuire to be able to deputise as required. They already have a crisis at loose head with Cian Healy, Ed Byrne and Michael Milne all rehabilitating injuries and Andrew Porter just back from a heavy workload during the world cup. Starting your campaign against Glasgow away with two academy looseheads, however promising, is not an ideal start.  

Leinster have a good conveyor belt of talent coming through, but will that be enough to help them win a title? Glasgow away, first up, will provide a stern test with some Scottish players no doubt keen to avenge their defeat at the World Cup.  

Leinster team to play Glasgow contains 4 academy players (in Italics): Ciarán Frawley; Tommy O’Brien, Liam Turner, Charlie Ngatai, Jordan Larmour; Harry Byrne, Luke McGrath; Jack Boyle, John McKee, Thomas Clarkson; Ross Molony, Jason Jenkins; Max Deegan, Scott Penny (capt), James Culhane. 

Replacements: Lee Barron, Paddy McCarthy, Rory McGuire, Brian Deeny, Rhys Ruddock, Cormac Foley, Sam Prendergast, Will Connors. 

Rising stars: John McKee, Joe McCarthy, Sam Prendergast, Jamie Osborne, Rob Russell, James Culhane. 

Prediction: In contention, as ever, but can they make it over the line? 

 

Last season was outstandingly successful for the Irish clubs with Munster winning the URC, Leinster and Connacht making it to the semi-finals, and Ulster second in the regular season table. With the South African clubs becoming ever more competitive, a similar performance this season would be an amazing achievement. 


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