Rugby: Irish Provinces close in on URC Quarter Final places.

Once again it’s three bonus point wins out of four for the Irish provinces, with a very much weakened Leinster side once again the odd man out losing to the Stormers in Cape town. Ulster, Munster, and Connacht all played well to gain their hard fought victories in high scoring and entertaining matches.

The Leinster set piece was destroyed by the Stormers who did not have to play well to beat a callow Leinster side. Leinster fall back to second place in the table behind Glasgow, with Munster in third followed by the Bulls, Stormers, Connacht, and Ulster in 4th. to 7th. places. Still in contention for a quarter final slot are the Benetton, Edinburgh, Ospreys, and Lions in 8th. To 11th. places separated by only 5 match points.

Attention now turns to the European Champions Cup where Leinster are the only Irish side still in contention and playing the Premiership leading English side Northampton in front of an 82,000 sell-out crowd in Croke Park. That should be some occasion!

In other news, the Irish Women’s rugby team beat Scotland 15-12 in Ravenhill to finish 3rd. in the 6 Nations and qualify for next year’s World Cup thanks also to Wales’s 22-20 win over Italy. That’s a great recovery from their nightmare against England.


Ulster 38 Benetton 34

John Cooney played like the international player he always should have been and ended up the difference between the two teams. He nailed all his place kicks while Benetton didn’t, and set up some of the Ulster tries as well.

This was an Ulster side almost unrecognisable from the Cardiff match. The problem was that Benetton are a much better side than Cardiff as well, in defence as well as attack. Worries about the Ulster props were confirmed by the concession of two early scrum penalties on the Benetton out in. When compounded by a lineout loss on their own 5 metre line, Ulster were making life hard for themselves.

Nevertheless Lowry, Crothers, and McCann were offering firm resistance. Stockdale looked like he actually believed in himself with Baloucoune also looking like an international winger once again.

I have often wondered whether Ulster needed a psychologist as much as a coach. Richie Murphy appears to have achieved some turnaround in just a week.

It ended up five tries apiece with Ulster shading it and Benetton getting a deserved two bonus points for tries scored and margin of defeat. If Ulster can sort out their scrum issues they could become a force again.


Lions 13 Munster 33

Munster are becoming a good team for exploiting tight margins. The Lions conceded two technical penalties and are promptly punished by two angled long range penalties by Crowley. Neither were easy, but he had the confidence to take them on. Meanwhile, the Lions couldn’t make the most of some attacking penalties and mauls in the Munster red zone. On a rare incursion into the Lions half, Crowley nails a third inch perfect long range angled penalty. 0-9, and Munster have just had to do the basics well.

Hendrikse eventual responds in kind for the Lions. 3-9. This has been a pedestrian match with a lot of technical stoppages. The Lions are denied a possible try by a wicked bounce and then Munster win a scrum penalty – a rarity against a SA side. – followed by a well organised mauled try. Munster are in championship mode again. 3-16. Some chaos in the Lions defence leads to a yellow card and penalty try for Munster. Munster have really maximised every scoring opportunity. 6-23 h/t.

One thing I have found difficult to understand is the dominance of SA sides in scrums when, if the stats are to believed, their packs are generally lighter than their European counterparts. Can there really be such a disparity in strength and technique to overcome the weight disadvantage? But this Munster scrum, maul, line-out, and maul defence has held up well. Ntlabakanye comes off the bench and looks like he could end that weight disparity all on his own. Undeterred, Munster bring the relatively diminutive Wycherley on to prop opposite him.

Munster bring on their subs and score a great try in the corner with Coombes giving the scoring pass to Daly. Crowley proves he’s human by missing the touchline conversion. 6-28. The Lions finally get a try after a prolonged pick and go assault on the Munster goal line. 13-28. Inaccuracy in their passing and knock-ons are undermining the Lions attempt to get back into  the game as Munster tire in the thin atmosphere on the highveld.

Munster manage to get a hand under the ball as another try seemed imminent. In the last minute Munster get their bonus point try after another well organised maul. It has been another extraordinary performance by Munster with Crowley exuding class, but every member of their squad making a major contribution.


Stormers 42 Leinster 12

Leinster named a team which is not so much second string as third choice, with seven academy players in the squad. They can hardly be taking the Stormers – champions as recently as the season before last – or the URC seriously. I can understand them resting their first XV for their European Cup semi-final next week. But hardly anyone outside their props – where Leinster notoriously lack depth – will be anywhere near next week’s team.

Libbok starts the match with two mistakes,  failing to get his kick-off past the 10 metre line and then missing a penalty to touch. It must be reassuring for Prendergast that even a World Cup winning 10 can make such elementary errors. But then a Leinster back-line malfunction gifts the Stormers a turnover try. Just what Leinster didn’t need to do.

Milne is destroyed in the first four scrums – the referee may as well skip the formalities and not bother awarding the Stormers scrums anymore and proceed straight to the penalty – they have won a penalty at every one. Leinster can’t get their line-out functioning either, but the Stormers haven’t really created much with Libbok kicking three penalties, until finally they don’t bother with the scrum penalty anymore and score a try instead. It’s 23-0 at halftime, and Leinster will do well to avoid a 50 point hammering at this rate.

The second half has hardly started when Stormers score another simple try, Jantjies running in untouched. Leinster then actually win a scrum penalty but throw the ball to a Stormers forward in the line-out who doesn’t even have to jump. Deegan finally ends the nonsense and scores off a close-in penalty. Stormers have been fouling at will, and must be close to a yellow card. 30-7.

Deegan then breaks from deep and gives the scoring pass to Russell who wins the 70 metre race to the line. 30-12.  Leinster are dragging the Stormers down to their level and finally the referee gives a yellow to Roos for incessant cynical fouling by the Stormers. The bad news is that Malherbe, arguably the best tight head in the world, has taken the field just as first year academy hooker Gus McCarthy comes on for Leinster. Incredibly Libbok kicks for goal and misses rather than the Stormers going for their bonus point try.

Finally the Stormers stir themselves to score their bonus point try and then Warrick Gelant scores a fine fifth try to mercifully bring the proceedings to a halt. 42-12. From a Leinster perspective, a 30 point defeat for this team is a win. The effort of the Leinster youngsters can’t be faulted and at least they weren’t disgraced or humiliated. Hopefully, they will be better for the experience.


Dragons 27 Connacht 34

Connacht certainly started in determined fashion and good running lines lead to an early try for Hurley-Langton. 0-7. But in classic Connacht fashion they then gift an easy first phase try to Steff Hughes. 7-7

The match is being played at a frantic pace but despite the helter skelter nature of the proceedings, there are a lot of good running lines and fast handling from both sides to give the crowd good value for money. Young academy recruit Mathew Devine confirms the good impression he made on his first start last week and creates a try for  Bealham. 7-14.

Connacht are edging this as Dragons mistakes proliferate and John  Porch gets in for an excellent try after sustained Connacht pressure. 7-19. Connacht have dominated the first half with 71% possession and 75% territory but their tackle success rate is only 72% compared to 91% for the Dragons. Rhodri Williams, who has been the Dragons best player gets in at the death of the first half for a 14-19 score line the Dragons scarcely deserved. H/T

Mathew Screech is fortunate to avoid a card for a shoulder on head contact with Devine but Elliot Dee gets a yellow for side entry at the subsequent Maul with Heffernan getting the bonus point try. 14-24. In fairness to the Dragons, they are giving it socks and Evans converts another penalty 17-24. This match isn’t over yet. Rio Dyer’s pace gets him in ahead of the cover to dot down a fine grubber kick and Cai Evans nails the touchline conversion. 24-24. A couple of missed kicks by JJ Hanrahan could be costly yet.

A Cheap scrum penalty gives JJ the chance to make amends, and he doesn’t miss from in front of the posts. 24-27. An offside penalty gives Evans the chance to equalise, and he doesn’t miss. 27-27.

So who has the stronger bench? Caolin Blade comes on a bit over-eager and knocks on. With Sam Illo on for Bealham the Connacht scrum can’t get any advantage. Connacht have lost their early dominance but a red card for Ben Carter for a shoulder onto the head of Jennings tilts the balance and Connacht score a try off the subsequent maul converted by Cathal Forde, just on for JJ Hanrahan..

It’s been a tight match but Connacht shade it 27-34 and the 5 points gained lifts them up to 44 points and from 10th. To 6th. In the URC table just ahead of Ulster and Benetton on points difference. It’s getting very tight for those quarter-final places!







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