Round four of the URC was distinguished by a few notable events. Zebre Parma won their first match since April 2022 after a number of recent near misses. All the Welsh regions lost, and the South African sides continued to struggle in the absence of their World Cup heroes, with the one exception of the Bulls, who lead the table on 15 points, where they are joined by Leinster and Glasgow followed by Ulster and Connacht on 14 points, and Munster on 13.
For the Irish sides it was almost business as usual, with a smattering of World Cup players returning for their provinces. Ulster beat Munster after a strong fightback at home. Connacht managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of a draw against Edinburgh away after a hard fought comeback. Leinster barely stretched their muscles against a poor Dragons side in Newport.
Ulster 21 Munster 14
No sooner do I bemoan the lack of quality props coming through in Irish rugby, than academy tight head prop, Scott Wilson, pops up on his debut to win the match for Ulster against Munster…
Munster’s scrum had dominated the first half with starting Ulster tighthead Greg McGrath patently not up to the job of locking down the scrum. All that changed when academy tighthead, Scott Wilson, came on (accompanied by Herring and Henderson) and he also had a rollicking run in the loose.
David McCann also had a good game for Ulster and is a candidate to fill the vacant slot in the Ireland 6N squad as back-up to Van Der Flier at 7.
For Munster, Craig Casey had a good first half scoring two tries although further questions will be asked of Billy Burn’s defence. I doubt he will be asked to fill the vacant 10 slot in the Ireland squad, but Jack Crowley had a solid enough game.
Once again, a tight game has been decided by a close in would be try scorer being held up over the line, in this case Josh Wycherly held up by Iain Henderson. With a goal line drop out having replaced a 5 metre scrum as the outcome, it has now become imperative for attacking players NOT to cross the try line unless they can be sure of grounding the ball.
It was a scrappy game with lots of knock-ons and messy scrums and breakdown incidents. Neither backline managed much in the way of line breaks although Ethan McIlroy was unfortunate to get injured stumbling and diving for the line.
Shane Daly got binned, but I found it hard to detect any foul play. McIlroy fell into him rather than the other way around. Was Daly supposed to get out of the way to allow a try to be scored? McIlroy was so low that had Daly stooped more he would merely have increased the risk of head on head contact.
Ulster were also unfortunate to have a try off a quickly taken line-out disallowed for the line-out being taken from the wrong position.
Overall, it was a tight game won by small margins with Ulster showing a grit in defence not always in evidence in their displays. Players seemed to lose their footing a lot on the new artificial surface so perhaps their studs and footwear need some adjusting.
The surface can’t be blamed for some of the poor handling, however, and both teams will have to improve if they want to be in contention for the URC title this season.
Edinburgh 25 Connacht 22
Connacht have always been a bit flaky, losing games they could have won. But fair dues, they really dug in and fought hard having gone 14-3 down, particularly when nothing seemed to be working for them.
But lack of concentration let them down again late on when they turned their backs and conceded a soft try off a quickly taken penalty. That and Carty missing a sitter, again, didn’t help. But they fought back to 22 all, only to knock on the restart which ultimately led to Ben Healy kicking the winning a drop goal in overtime.
Ben Heally lost his 100% place kicking record for Edinburgh but still won his kicking duel with Carty. Connacht will be pleased to have been competitive away against an Edinburgh side with 258 international caps between them, while still resting Aki, Bealham and Hansen. Cian Prendergast was again outstanding.
Sterner tests now await against the Sharks and Bulls in South Africa followed by a home match against Leinster.
Dragons 10 Leinster 33
The Dragons have often given Leinster a difficult game, but this was a very poor performance by them, making a very average Leinster performance look good. Leinster tight head, Tom Clarkson, finally found a loosehead he could dominate and scored a very good five yard set piece try to boot.
Leinster were very efficient at taking their chances whereas Dragons could rarely sustain an attack without making a mistake. Dan Sheehan was excellent on his debut as Captain scoring an excellent mauled try and Joe McCarthy was a deserved player of the match for a very physical display. He was joined by younger brother, Paddy McCarthy, Irish u.20 Grand Slam Champion and first year academy prop for the last 15 minutes.
After a poor first half for the spectators, Sheehan snaffled another Dragons error and after some brilliant running and passing gave Frawley the scoring pass out wide. Leinster finally got their systems operating smoothly as the match progressed, narrowing the Dragons defence, and then crosskicking to create chances out wide. Ngatai scored his first and Leinster’s bonus point try following another crosskick and brilliant off-load by Russell.
Taine Basham got a deserved red for a dirty little elbow to Ross Byrne’s head and Mathew Screech was lucky to get away with a yellow for a shoulder to the head of Russell. The Dragons really need to do better than this if they are to deserve a continued place in the URC. You would wonder why their few supporters continue to show up: there is so little for them to hang their hat on.
For Leinster it was workaday routine performance without having to delve unduly into their bag of tricks. It was another useful outing for academy players Jack Boyle and Paddy McCarthy and a debut for Ben Murphy. Unfortunately, Cormac Foley got injured leaving Leinster with just 14 on the pitch towards the end and, with Luke McGrath also injured, down to only Gibson Park as a fit senior 9 in their squad.
Having bemoaned the lack of good props coming through in Irish rugby last week there were some heartening developments this week. Academy Prop, Scott Wilson, had an outstanding debut for Ulster, and Jack Boyle continued his rapid progression at Leinster. Jack Aungier put in another very solid performance for Connacht and Tom Clarson was much improved for Leinster.
Munster have recruited Oli Jager (28), who has secured an early contract release from Crusaders. Educated in New bridge and Blackrock, he left for NZ when he failed to get a Leinster academy contract and has been on the fringes of All Black selection, having been selected for their ‘A’ squad. He should be a good long term replacement for Archer and Ryan, both aged 35.
Jacque Nienabler will have finding a replacement for Michael Ala’atoa on his to do list when he arrives at Leinster, as the latter is said to have agreed a contract with Clermont for next season.
Ulster take on the Lions at home on Friday, in round 5 with Munster having a rematch of last season’s URC final against the Stormers at Thomond Park on Saturday. Leinster will have a few more internationals to call on against the Scarlets in Ballsbridge while Connacht start their tour of South Africa against the Sharks, hopefully with Aki, Bealham and Hansen available. They will need them.
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.