The United Rugby Championship, now in its second full season, has proven to be a more complex challenge for the Irish provinces, than any previous structure this competition has taken in the past.
The South African influence provides a new dynamic to the competition, with the franchises merging a pragmatic approach, similar to test match rugby, with a high-octane style of play focused on strike plays from set pieces and swift counter-attacks.
Round 5 served up arguably the game of the season so far in Johannesburg when Ulster narrowly managed to survive by two points against the Emirates Lions, 37-39. This was Ulster’s first win in South Africa since the competitions revamp and the added significance of the high altitude and blistering heat in Ellis Park will serve as great optimism for the Ulster men who now travel down to Durban to take on a
Sharks side littered with Springboks.
Eben Etzebeth, Makazole Mapimpi, and World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi are all due to start against an Ulster team who will be hoping that Stuart McCloskey and Robert Baloucoune can continue their impressive start to the season.
United Rugby Championship – Leinster firm favourites?
Leinster are the only team to maintain a 100%-win record over the first five games, a tetchy 10-0 win in Galway over Connacht in round five, however, will raise questions around their heavy favourites tag.
Leinster’s primary focus of the season is no doubt to add a fifth European Cup to the trophy cabinet, but with the first round of the Champions Cup not until the 9th of December, domestic competition is the current priority and Round 6 sees them welcome old foes Munster to the Aviva stadium.
Injuries are becoming an issue for Leo Cullen and could make them vulnerable as the season continues, but there is little evidence to suggest another win at Lansdowne Road is not imminent.
A poor start to the campaign for Connacht, coupled with an unkind fixture list, sees them second from bottom with only four points from five games. The introduction of multiple new signings to the squad along with facing last year’s four semi-finalists so far has proved a difficult task and their upcoming game at home to the Scarlets is beginning to feel like a must-win.
A new coaching ticket at Munster hasn’t had the impact that perhaps the Thomond Park faithful were anticipating. Three losses in their opening five games have shown some frailties within the squad as they try to adapt to a more expansive game plan brought in by new attack coach Mike Prendergast.
Qualification for the Champions Cup is no longer a foregone conclusion for Munster with only 8 teams from the URC qualifying by way of the country shield and then on league position. With Leinster and Ulster looking like firm favourites to contest the Irish Shield, Munster could find themselves in a scrap to stay in the competition that has become such an integral part of the province’s identity.
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