The end is nigh! Crunch time in the United Rugby Championship

The penultimate round of the URC has some intriguing match-ups and little room for error. The match previews below will be updated with Live Blogs on each of the matches by Sunday morning. Refresh page for updates.

Preview: Edinburgh versus Munster: Friday 7.35PM; TG4, Premier Sports

Both Edinburgh (7th.) and Munster (3rd.) are in the hunt for the Champions Cup rugby next season and trying to get as high as possible in the play-off seedings with home advantage the big prize. Munster are still in the hunt for 1st. Place and home advantage right up to the final and are coming off five wins on the trot. They have everyone bar O’Mahony, Carbery, and Kleyn fit and with Jack O’Donoghue (30) the fourteenth and youngest player ever to reach the 200 cap mark look well primed to keep up their Championship chase.

Edinburgh are no mugs however, and are coming off three wins in a row, have an all international pack and 6 Nations star Van der Merwe and ex-Munster player (and top URC points scorer) Ben Healy in the backs. The battle between the back-rows should be worth the admission money alone. Munster will need to be at their best to come away with a win. Munster to win

Edinburgh: W Goosen; M Currie, M Bennett, J Lang, D van der Merwe; B Healy, B Vellacott (co-capt); P Schoeman, E Ashman, WP Nel; S Skinner, G Gilchrist (co-capt), J Ritchie, H Watson, V Mata. Reps: D Cherry, B Venter, J Sebastian, M Sykes, L Crosbie, A Price, C Scott, C Dean.

Munster: M Haley; C Nash, A Frisch, A Nankivell, S Daly; J Crowley, C Casey; J Loughman, N Scannell, O Jager; F Wycherley, T Beirne (capt); J O’Donoghue, A Kendellen, G Coombes. Reps: E Clarke, M Donnelly, J Ryan, RG Snyman, T Ahern, C Murray, R Scannell, B Gleeson.

 

Live Blog: Munster were second best in at the scrum and breakdown early on but more potent in attack through the backs, Frish scoring an excellent try on the wing after a brilliant kick ahead.. Edinburgh’s sole tactic seemed to be the high box kick or kick ahead but this was paying dividends as Munster knocked on on several occasions, conceding territory and then penalties which Ben Healy converted.

Haley went off injured and Munster were having a nightmare at the back dealing with kicks ahead conceding a very soft try. The 6:2 bench split could also hurt them quite badly now. The referee appeared to allow a free for all at the breakdown which Edinburgh were exploiting adroitly, but finally Frish gets over for  a second try after a series of close in rumbles. He is going to be some loss to Munster and Ireland if he moves to Toulon, as rumoured. Edinburgh lead 16-12 at H/T.

Munster run in a facile try off first phase at the start of the second half to right the perception that the first half score line did not really do their efforts justice. Unfortunately RG Snyman’s first act on the pitch was to pass the ball to compatriot Van Der Merve.  Edinburgh are wining the breakdown battle and Healy kicks another penalty. He is winning the kicking duel, but Crowley is winning everywhere else. Munster get their bonus point try after another close in rumble. They are seriously up for this match. 19-26

Despite having the tallest second row combination in URC history to aim at, Scannell manages to miss his 6′ 9″  twin towers Snyman and Ahearn, and an attacking opportunity is lost.  Edinburgh come back strongly but Crowley saves a certain try and then Murray, on for the injured Nankivell,  cops a card or off-feet at a ruck. It’s down to the benches now and Munster’s 6:2 split doesn’t help. Edinburgh lay siege to the Munster line and after interminable reviews are adjudged to have grounded the ball. Clear and obvious it was not. 26-26

Finally Edinburgh are pinged at the breakdown and Crowley nails it. Strangely, Munster go to the corner with another and Edinburgh survive, but time is up and Munster win a very tight encounter 26-29 and with an important bonus point secured.  They are top of the table at least for today and have done Ulster and Connacht a big favour as Edinburgh are one of their direct competitors for a playoff and Champions Cup spot.

This has been a tough encounter between two near equally matched sides. Edinburgh’s lack of a running game cost them in the end but they more than matched Munster under the high ball, at the breakdown, and up front. Beirne was everywhere as usual, but Crowley was my MOTM and Healy showed what a loss he is to Irish rugby. It will be a pity if Frisch now follows him.

 

Preview: Connacht versus Stormers; Saturday 5.05.

Connacht have just announced that 11 players will be leaving the club at the end of the season, including ex captain Jarrad Butler and former fringe Ireland squad members Tom Daly and Gavin Thornbury. Professional rugby can be a cruel sport. One day you are lapping up the adulation of a crowd and the next you can be redundant. Connacht wouldn’t be the most highly rated of clubs, and if you can’t make it there, a career in the French D2 or Championship beckons unless you can demonstrate you’ve been hard done by.

Tom Farrell is rumoured to be joining Munster as a replacement for Frisch together with fellow Connacht player Diarmuid Kilgallen. Others leaving without a known destination include props Dominic Robertson-McCoy and Mathew Burke, hooker Tadgh McIlroy, and fullback Oran McNulty with Tiernan O’Hhaloran’s retirement already announced.

This is Connacht’s last home match before the Clan terrace is torn down to make way for a new stand. The Stormers  come locked and loaded with several Springboks and should be too strong unless Connacht can improve on their recent inconsistent form. Santiago Cordero makes his long delayed debut off the bench following a pre-season injury.

Connacht: T O’Halloran; J Porch, D Hawkshaw, B Aki, B Ralston; J Carty, C Blade; P Dooley, D Heffernan (capt), F Bealham; J Joyce, D Murray; C Prendergast, S Hurley-Langton, S Jansen. Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, J Duggan, J Aungier, O Dowling, J Butler, C Reilly, C Forde, S Cordero.

DHL Stormers: W Gelant; S Hartzenberg, D du Plessis, D Willemse, A Davids; M Libbok, H Jantjies; B Harris, J Dweba, F Malherbe; S Moerat (capt), R van Heerden; E Roos, B Dixon, H Dayimani.  Replacements: A Venter, K Blose, N Fouche, A Smith, M Theunissen, S Ungerer, J du Plessis, S Feinberg-Mngomezulu.

 

Live Blog: Connacht 12 Stormers 16.

Malherbe wins a scrum penalty for the Stormers at the first scrum. He vies with Furlong for the title of the best tight head in the world. Bealham won’t be happy to concede a penalty to 37 year old B rock Harris at the next scrum.  Porch knocks on an aimless kick ahead by Libbok. Connacht are probably happy to concede just 3 points from the third scrum penalty against them.

O’Halloran slices through the Stormers defence but is stopped short and Blade loses possession on the charge off a quick penalty. Had the Stormer’s retreated 10 metres? A Stormers try is disallowed for a forward pass and Bealham actually wins a scrum penalty against Brock Harris. Connacht are held up over the line, but Blade gets over after another penalty.  Connacht are up for this!  7-3

Stormers are doing a lot of kicking when they seem to have the runners to cause Connacht problems and have failed to convert a few scoring chances. Connacht stymie an attacking maul to retain the lead 7-3 at h/t. They will have to play against the wind in the second half, but seem to have thwarted Stormers early scrum supremacy. This match is still all to play for. Stormers have not dominated to the extant I thought probable and have been well contained so far.

Stormers finally trust their running skills and Gelant creates a try for Davids. It’s taken a while for Stormers to get their attack going. 7-10.  Connacht put the pressure on against the wind but lose a critical line-out,. They come again and Aungier squeezes over the line. Carty can’t get the touchline conversion into the wind anywhere near the posts.  12-10.

Cordero comes on for O’Halloran – a changing of the guard. Stormers pile on the pressure, but Connacht disrupt and Dowling poaches.  Libbok nails a penalty and its 12-13.  Porches drops another high ball and Stormers get another scrum penalty. This could be death by high ball. 12-16. Connacht have the courage to keep playing rugby but Gelant wins a crucial turnover.

This was not one of Connacht’s flaky performances. They went toe to toe with a good team and lost out on fine margins. In retrospect, a 7-3 margin at h/t with a strong wind to face in the second half was never going to be enough. Stormers didn’t do much bar kick into space and be uber physical in defence and attack, but Connacht didn’t have the tools to prise their defence open. Ultimately the scrum penalties and dropped high balls did for them.

Connacht drop down to 10th. in the table and are almost out of contention for a play-off place, although Leinster may have other priorities in their last match next Friday week – just 6 days after the European Cup final!

 

Ulster v Leinster; 7.35pm,  TG4 and Premier Sports

Despite Cullen’s pledge not to field weakened teams in the remainder of the regular URC season, none of the starters against Ulster started against Northampton. Hugo Keenan and James Ryan make their long awaited return from injury but Ringrose has still not recovered and is replaced at 13 by the versatile Jimmy O’Brien who may be covering the back positions in the European Cup final next week-end. Others who might feature off the bench against Toulouse include Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa, Jack Conan and Luke McGrath, but this is essentially a second XV.

Ulster have announced the departure of nine players for next season –  Luke Marshall (166 caps – retired), Billy Burns (111), Greg Jones (44), Will Addison (41), Angus Curtis (25 – retired), Steven Kitshoff (14), Dave Ewers (14), James French (4) and Shea O’Brien (1). Billy Burns, Will Addison, and Steven Kitshoff were regular members of the first team, when fit, so presumably their departure is for budgetary reasons. However it is not clear they have sourced adequate replacements for Burns and Kitshoff, in particular. Ulster could be treading water next season unless they find some.

Ulster are missing only Baloucoune, Hume and Henderson from their first choice XV for this match, and should be good enough, with home advantage, to win.  Besides, they need it more, to assure themselves of a place in the play-offs and the Champion’s Cup next season.  Leinster’s priority is clearly the European Cup, with a home pathway to the URC final a bonus, but dependent on Glasgow slipping up against the Lioms in any case. Ulster to Win

 Ulster: Ethan McIlroy; Mike Lowry, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole; Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor (capt); Cormac Izuchukwu, David McCann, Nick Timoney. Replacements: Tom Stewart, Andy Warwick, Scott Wilson, Harry Sheridan, Matty Rea, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore, Jude Postlethwaite.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Tommy O’Brien, Jimmy O’Brien, Charlie Ngatai, Rob Russell; Harry Byrne, Cormac Foley; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa; James Ryan (capt), Brian Deeny; Max Deegan, Will Connors, Jack Conan. Replacements: John McKee, Michael Milne, Thomas Clarkson, Ross Molony, Scott Penny, Luke McGrath, Sam Prendergast, Ben Brownlee.

 

Live Blog: Ulster 23 Leinster 21 f/t

The Leinster line led a charmed existence in the early minutes, Mike Lowry twice denied tries on marginal decisions. If Leinster needed a wake-up call, they surely got it. All the play was in their half.  Eventually the Ulster maul rolled over and was adjudged by the TMO to have grounded the ball. No less than Ulster deserved. Leinster weren’t at the races. 7-0

Everything Leinster tried seemed to be a little out of kilter, be it two scrum penalties against them or high kicks they failed to regather, or a missed line-out. And then when they did destroy to Ulster scrum, Ulster got the ball away in the nick of time. But somehow you got the sense that if Ulster didn’t make hay while the sun was shining, they would rue it later.

Sure enough, a blocked kick and missed tackle was all it took for Ngatai to score. 7-7. Ulster had nothing to show for 25 minutes of domination, including when Addison was held up over the line. Sadly, Ngatai had to go off injured, to be replaced by academy player, Ben Brownlee.

Keenan then broke the line on a simple inside line and passed to scrum half Foley to score. It shouldn’t be as simple as this. 7-14. Connors was pinged for not supporting his weight and Cooney made it 10-14 and then Harry Byrne contrived to kick the re-start straight into touch. His lustre is dimming all the time… I can hear Cullen saying ” just do the basics lads…”

McGrath comes on for an injured Jimmy O’Brien and Foley is dispatched to the wing. Just as well Leinster didn’t go for a 6:2 bench split. Leinster gradually get on top and get a scrum penalty but Ulster weather the storm and go in 10-14 down at half time. They will be wondering how they could be down after dominating so much of the half. Cullen will be focused on cutting down the error count. Ulster are there for the taking and it won’t take outstanding brilliance to do so based on Ulster’s first half display. How dispiriting must it be to be down to a second string team…

Two breakdown penalties give Ulster position and Cooney makes no mistake. 13-14. Leinster start to get the scrum and breakdown penalties and pile on the pressure and Ala’Alatoa gets the try from close in drives. It had a certain inevitability about it. 13-21.

Molony comes on for Ryan who had a big game. Stockdale intercepts a telegraphed pass and outpaces Foley. Cooney makes the near touchline conversion. Its game on again! 20-21. The Leinster front row bench comes on and immediately concede a penalty. To the untutored eye it looks a 50:50 decision. Byrne almost intercepts but knocks on. Burns overcooks his kick into touch. It’s becoming error strewn again.

Good hands by Leinster builds a sustained attack but Deegan is tackled into touch with the line beckoning. Penny comes on for Connors to emphasise the depth of Leinster’s back row resources. Finally Ulster concede a penalty for off-side and instead of taking the three points Leinster go to the corner where they are turned over. Cue Cullen saying he backs his players decisions – through gritted teeth.

Ulster mount their most sustained attack in a long time but are called back for a forward pass. Prendergast comes on for Harry Byrne and Doak, Postlethwaite and Sheridan for Burns, McCloskey and Treadwell. Ulster get a long range breakdown penalty and Cooney nails it. 23-21. Ulster hold on at the death. Honour has been restored. Not the greatest match in the world, but a nail-biter nonetheless.  Richie Muphy’s winning streak now extends to four wins.

The upshot is that Leinster are now in third place, behind Munster and the Bulls, with Ulster in sixth place. They may still need to get some points off Munster in Thomond in two weeks time, but this has been a giant step forward towards a play-off place and European Champions rugby next season.

 

Elsewhere

The Lions walloped Glasgow 44-21 running in some outrageous turnover tries in the second half to deny Glasgow even the consolation of a try bonus point.  Glasgow play Zebre at home next, so are more or less guaranteed 5 points to finish on 65  points, while Ulster and Connacht have difficult matches against Munster and Leinster away in the last round, so something has to give!

 

 


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