All of the Lions, Stormers, Sharks and Bulls headed North last week to play their first overseas fixtures of the United Rugby Championship in 2022. The rolls are somewhat reversed to what was experienced at the outset of the competition, with the SA sides having their international players available, and their Northern compatriots having to search their depth due to the 6 Nations.
One has to wonder when we will see these sides clash when all teams are at full strength, but as it stands that could come on home soil for the South Africans with fixtures confirmed for here during March. Then the heat of a South African summer and playing on the highveld or competing against the humidity in Durban will bring a new and interesting test for the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Italian sides.
For now though we scored 50% in the opening weekend. 1st up it was the Blue Bulls who faced Zebre. The Bulls scored a convincing 45 - 7 win in Italy, but they hardly look like champion contenders at this stage. They struggled for extended periods in the game and will need to be much improved before they face Munster in two weeks time back at Loftus.
The Bulls were followed by the Lions who had the unenviable task of playing against the log leading Leinster. In our Podcast (which you can check out by clicking this link) I had predicted a slaughtering of the Lions, who have struggled for months now to string together a decent performance, I called a 24 point differential in our Superbru pool. Even a 2nd string Leinster side is a powerful beast so the Lions, whilst losing the fixture managed to retain a flattering score line of 21 - 13 at the final whistle. The JHB side can take comfort that their toughest fixture is behind them as they look towards their coming clash with Cardiff on the 13th of March, a must win fixture for them.
Then over to Connacht where the DHL Stormers unbeaten run came to an end. In a narrow victory, a costly yellow card late in the fixture saw Connacht come out on top with a close 19 - 17 win. The ill discipline of the Stormers and their inaccuracies with ball in hand aside, they will feel hard done by match officials who missed a number of calls on the day, most notably a shoulder charge on Evan Roos. The loss also saw the Stormers forfeit their position atop the SA conference and they now lie in 2nd behind the Sharks. The Stormers will host Zebre at Cape Town Stadium on 12 March.
The Sharks fixture wrapped up the weekend, with a solid 29 - 7 win over Benetton for the Durban based side. The Sharks were always tipped to win that fixture as Benetton contributed a hefty 23 players to Italy, and hardly boast the depth to mount a realistic challenge with the young squad they assembled. Whilst the Sharks got the win on the day, concern over the lack of potency on attack grows. For the number of Springboks lining up in their backline, one would think they would possess a much more clinical approach to the game. The Sharks can't get the assistance of Neil Powell involved soon enough. The Sharks will next host Scarlets at Kings Park on the 11th of March.
The SA side's have some catching up to do at this stage of the competition. They need to lay down a marker, especially with the historic 1st URC fixtures on SA soil looming. A clean sweep will announce our arrival in the competition, although the Bulls have the hardest task of the weekend before them. The URC is gaining momentum and the chance to climb the log is now.