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Just two weekend URC games survive the Covid chaos

By RugbyPass
PA

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The latest variant of Covid-19 has continued to wreak havoc with the Vodacom United Rugby Championship schedule, with just two of the games set for the New Year weekend due to take place.

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Scarlets will host Ospreys in Llanelli and Munster travel to Galway to play Connacht, with both games set to be played at the same time on Saturday night. The four matches that have been postponed are the appetising top of the table clash between Ulster and Leinster in Belfast, the Scottish derby between Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, the Dragons Welsh derby clash with Cardiff in Newport and what would have been the return clash between the two Italian teams, Benetton and Zebre Parma.

The first-round clash between Benetton and Zebre in Parma was the only game to take place last week, with Benetton winning comfortably.

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The fact that Leinster, Edinburgh and Ulster will not be in action means that this weekend’s games will have little impact on the standings at the top of the table, but their game in Galway is an important one for Munster and their South African coach Johan van Graan as they look to climb back up the table after a period of inactivity.

Munster last played under two weeks ago when they beat French club Castres 19-13 in the European Champions Cup, but it has been a while since they saw action in the URC and it explains why they are listing at a lowly seventh position on the overall log. They do have two games in hand on leaders Leinster, however, with the PRO14 champions having played seven games and their arch-rivals just five.
The gap between the two teams is 10 points, meaning two bonus point wins, so the Munster position is not as parlous as it might appear, but they can’t afford to drop points as they go to what is always considered a difficult away venue for the Irish teams.

The Ospreys will travel to Llanelli with the carrot of breaking into the top three if they beat Scarlets. They’ve won five of their seven games and are enjoying a comparatively good season, while Scarlets are struggling, as reflected by them having just two wins to their credit after five starts. Again, the log positions of the two teams have a lopsided look because of the difference in the number of games they have played.

The latest round of postponements has introduced some concern among coaches who were hoping to see the entire overseas derby phase of the URC season played at full strength. Edinburgh coach Mike Blair has voiced his concern over the impact that a possible switch of dates into the Six Nations window could have on the eagerly awaited 1872 Cup derby fixtures.

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Both Scottish clubs have been badly hit by international call-ups in previous seasons but the calendars were aligned this term to ensure games did not clash with the Six Nations. However, the postponements throughout the league may prompt a rethink by URC officials.

The Scottish derbies have never gone head-to-head with internationals and Blair hopes to keep it that way.

“I imagine it would be difficult to do during the Six Nations because ourselves and Glasgow are going to have between 15 and 20 players involved in that,” said Blair.

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“You don’t know if Scotland are going to call up an extra tighthead at the last minute to make the game unavailable. It’s very difficult to schedule into the calendar. But there are cleverer people than me out there and I am sure they will find ways of hopefully getting the game going because the crowd love these games, we love these games, the players love it.”

The South African teams are scheduled to return to URC action on 22 January, with the Emirates Lions hosting the Cell C Sharks and the DHL Stormers traveling to Pretoria to play the Vodacom Bulls. All four franchises restarted training in the past week after a short Christmas break, with the Lions announcing that they have secured the services of four Pumas players – captain Pieter Jansen van Vuren (lock), prop Morgan Naude, centre Matt More and scrumhalf Ginter Smuts – for the next two years.

The quartet were initially on loan to the Lions for their 2021 Championship campaign, but this new deal makes their stay at the Lions more permanent.

– URC

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