World Rugby’s most international club league experienced a bang in round one as the best talent from South Africa, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy went head-to-head.
The seven games saw a number of notable results as several clubs raised their hands as title contenders.
Speaking of title contenders, last year’s champions, the Stormers are returning for the first time this season after bowing out in the first round. John Dobson’s side start their title defense in the university town of Stellenbosch in front of a loud crowd. First up for the champions is Ireland’s Connacht, who will be looking to recover after a tough first-round defeat at the hands of local rivals Ulster.
So without further ado, let’s get down to business with your preview and predictions for week two.
Marketing masterclass from the champions
As already mentioned, the defending champions will not end up in their familiar area of the huge Cape Town Stadium. Instead, they will conduct the action en route to a place where rugby is a religion. Stellenbosch University and the famous Danie Craven Stadium are in the heart of rugby heartland, in an area that has produced some of the best rugby talent in the world. Stellies, as it is affectionately known, is one of South Africa’s premier universities with an immensely strong rugby program and support base. Western Province Rugby’s marketing department deserves a slap on the back for taking their team to what was supposed to be a full stadium and an electric atmosphere to kick off their title defence.
Ladies and Gentlemen… Your BKT URC Champions are BACK! 🏆
— BKT United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) September 23, 2022
The Powell Effect
Former South African 7s head coach Neil Powell has made the leap to the XV as a side game. Powell was a highly talented sevens player before moving into the coaching world with the Blitzbokke (the South African sevens team). Under Powell’s tutelage, the Blitzbokke were immensely successful, winning a World Series, Olympic medals and generally being one of the best teams in the world. Powell is now taking on the role of rugby director at the Sharks and will work with head coach Sean Everitt to oversee one of the league’s most talented teams. A hallmark of Powell’s teams was their incredible defensive organization and ability to counter with turnover balls. As touched on on this page, the Sharks aren’t lacking in talent, but they just couldn’t quite get the job done last season when it counted. The first round should give a good indication of his early impact on the Sharks.
What is your motivation? 💬
Neil Powell’s rousing speech on the subject is a must see…
Watch the first two episodes of Seven Days in September ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/2hlSYhfsBK
— World Rugby 7s (@WorldRugby7s) September 21, 2022
Locked and loaded for Irish Giants
Irish powerhouse Leinster head into the second round after losing the first round by a hair’s breadth to Italian team Zebre. Lacking a large number of front-line players due to a return-to-play system for Ireland internationals, Leinster played a very entertaining game with Zebre. That all changes this weekend when they welcome back a number of their international stars, most notably the center combination of Robbie Henshaw and captain Garry Ringrose. Playing at home for the first time this season, Leo Cullen’s side again meet Italian opponents, this time it’s Benetton Treviso, who are in high demand following their first-round win over Glasgow. All in all, the Leinster 23 for this weekend includes 20 international players looking to make their mark after their disappointing end to last season. Joining their compatriots, who choose a significantly stronger side this week, are the two-time European champions Munster, who are getting several of their Irish internationals back. Club captain Peter O’Mahony returns in the starting XI, as do Keith Earls, Craig Casey and Dave Kilcoyne, while Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne on the bench should provide some real momentum as they enter the fray.
— EK Rugby Analysis (@ek_rugby) July 16, 2022
Brightening Quick Track Star to leave your mark
Arguably the most impressive side in Round One, Ulster appear to be a real threat for the title again this season. Under Dan McFarland, Ireland’s Northern Province, a well-rounded squad now travels to Wales where they meet one of their former assistant coach-turned-Scarlets head coach, Dwayne Peel. While there are countless tales to follow, one that has slipped under the radar is lightning-quick Aaron Sexton, who has been appointed wing for Ulster. Sexton, an all-Ireland record holder in the school-level 100m and 200m sprints, is incredibly fast. Despite representing Bangor Grammar School, Sexton’s incredible numbers of 10.43 in the 100m and 20.69 in the 200m mean he may be the fastest player in the league. At 6ft 2in and 207lbs, he’s no shrinking purple and looks set to have a breakout season in time for the 2023 World Cup.
I’m looking forward to seeing Aaron Sexton make his long awaited first start for Ulster tomorrow.
A reminder that in 2019 Sexton broke the All Ireland School record in both the 100m and 200m.
100m time – 10.43
200m time – 20.69 pic.twitter.com/ZRBjlxqlco
— Cian Tracey (@CianTracey1) September 23, 2022
Italian momentum grows
Italian rugby has been in the doldrums for far too long. Unable to win a game in the Six Nations for as long as it takes to complete both high school and a three-year college degree, the Azuri had become something of a laughing stock. Things had gotten so bad that many Six Nations fans were demanding their removal from the tournament for the tournament’s integrity. 2022 adapted that narrative slightly by going to Cardiff and beating Wales in the Six Nations to unleash a pressure valve. Sure, the result mattered, but it was the performance that was so impressive. Italy were unencumbered by what lay ahead, instead they dared and took it to their most coveted opponents. A 22-21 win for the Italians in Cardiff, with a squad full of young attacking talent, many of whom will be mainstays for the next decade, was just what the Azzuri needed. Early in the first round, Benetton proved that Italian rugby is on the rise across the board, their victory over Glasgow was emphatic. Next Zebre pushed Leinster to the abyss and had it not been for two missed conversions they would have ended up with one of the best in Europe. Now the URC season is long and each week presents a different challenge but one thing seems clear, the Italians are building and should be more competitive this season.
Crosskick + Chip and Chase = Try Time 🔥
– World Rugby (@WorldRugby) September 21, 2022
Zebra vs Sharks
A very interesting one indeed to get the weekend’s action going. On paper, the Sharks are the more talented team, but as Zebre showed against Leinster, they’re no push-overs this season. As with the Stormers, this will be the first game of the season for the Sharks after they had a bye for the first round of the competition. Allowing for ring rust and travel, the sharks might start out slow on this one, but their quality will have them clawing home. Sharks at 1!
Leinster versus Benetton
As mentioned above, Benetton was great in the first week. The return of some big names for Leinster was also touched on above. The Royal Dublin Society is a difficult place for any visiting team to come from to win at the best of times. This Leinster team looks like they want blood from senior coach Stuart Lancaster last season. Lester until 18.
Glasgow Warriors vs Cardiff Blues
Brutally bad is the best way to describe Franco Smith’s debut as Glasgow head coach. Cardiff, on the other hand, beat Munster to open their account on a positive note. Cardiff will be without two-star players Liam Williams (injury) and Taulupre Faletau (time management) this week. A tough decision but Glasgow need a big answer at home. Glasgow at 6
Scarlets vs Ulster
Two top-flight sides will take the field in one of the more interesting clashes of the round at Parc Y Scarlets on Saturday. Both teams started rather slowly in round one before bouncing back with great performances in the second half. Overall, Ulster have a better squad which gives them an opportunity to stay or get stronger when competing on their bench. Ulster to 3
Bulls against Edinburgh
Two big winners from the first round met in an early line-in-the-sand match in Pretoria. The Bulls are rightly going into the game as home favorites, despite missing a number of key players who remain in the Springbok camp ahead of the Rugby Championship’s final game. In an exciting development, the highly rated but fairly star-crossed Johan Goosen returns as full-back for the Bulls. This season is all or nothing for Goosen, whose career has taken something like this, school prodigy – springbok – big money contract in France – early retirement – controversial return to South Africa – back to France – finally with the Bulls. At his best he is one of the best players in the world and he will try to remind the Springbok selectors of that fact by starting the season on a strong note. bulls up to 15.
Stormers vs. Connacht
The return of the champion brings with it much anticipation. Can Dobson’s side support it? Or were they just a flash in the pan. Still without a number of Springbok players, the Stormers still have a strong point. Last season’s star was undoubtedly number eight Evan Roos, who has returned to Stormers from his international career. Connacht travels to Cape Town after being beaten by Ulster in round one. Head coach Andy Friend has recalled his four Ireland stars in Finlay Bealham, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Cian Prendergast. Despite all signs to the contrary, this has a sense that a surprise is in store. Connacht to 2.
Osprey vs Lion
An interesting fight awaits you in this one. Neither side set the world on fire in round one, but they weren’t sad either. Both sides have some great young talent who are thriving, particularly in the flyhalb section. Ospreys appear to be the more composite of the two at this stage of the season. Osprey up to 10.
Dragons against Munster
This one has the potential to get ugly fast. First round losses for both make it crucial to get a result. Munster are by far the better side considering the return of their Irish stars and it’s hard to argue for anything other than a Munster win. Former Munster full-back JJ Hanrahan will take on his old side in an interesting duel with young Ben Healy. Munster until 20.
Written by Philip Bendon