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PREVIEW: Derby day action takes centre stage as URC returns over festive season

After a fortnight of Champions and Challenge Cup rugby, the United Rugby Championship is back with a host of local derbies to look forward to over the Christmas period.

Image Copyright - Kim Ludbrook

After a fortnight of Champions and Challenge Cup rugby, the United Rugby Championship is back with a host of local derbies to look forward to over the Christmas period.

Two women looking excitedly at cellphone

Friday 23 December

Sharks 17/100 | Draw 25/1 | Lions 42/10
Sharks (-11.5) 17/20 | Lions (+11.5) 17/20

Despite having made eight personnel changes to the side that won in Bordeaux last week, including the notable exclusion of Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Eben Etzebeth, Neil Powell’s Sharks should outmuscle their Gauteng foes here. Lukhanyo Am makes a welcome return in the midfield, and while he may be ever so slightly off the pace, his presence will be a big plus against a Lions outfit missing Henco van Wyk in the centres.

The Pride have packed a solid punch this season and will continue to push hard for a playoff berth, but they should find themselves outgunned at Hollywoodbets Kings Park. The Durban humidity won’t make things any easier for the visitors, while the hosts’ bench is loaded with the likes of Siya Kolisi and Jaden Hendrikse.

Get on the Sharks to clear the handicap with ease in Durban.  

Stormers 5/10 | Draw 20/1 | Bulls 7/4
Stormers (-4.5) 17/20 | Bulls (+4.5) 17/20

The Stormers head into this much-anticipated URC final rematch without a number of key playing personnel, including Herschel Jantjies, Ruhan Nel and Salmaan Moerat; the latter of whom has suffered an ACL tear and will be out for the remainder of the season. Unlike the Bulls, who rested a number of frontline players for their Champions Cup games, the Capetonians’ A-listers played right through, which, depending on whom you ask, will either prove a stroke of genius or spell certain doom.

While Jake White’s main manne would have benefitted from having some time off, there’s always the chance that they would have lost some crucial match sharpness and momentum. Questions also remain regarding the Bulls’ tight five, as well as overall their ability to contain the Stormers’ running threats.

This will be a typical ultra-physical SA derby encounter, and the Stormers should just about edge it at home. Take the Bulls on the plus.

Glasgow 59/100 | Draw 22/1 | Edinburgh 29/20
Glasgow (-3.5) 17/20 | Draw 22/1 | Edinburgh (+3.5) 17/20

Warriors head into the first 1872 Cup clash of the season high on confidence after winning their last three games in succession, including impressive victories over Bath (away) and Perpignan in the Challenge Cup. They’ll take heart from those performances after a URC campaign that’s see them blow hot and cold, winning four from eight, and occupying ninth on the standings.

Sixth-placed Edinburgh have been dealing with some injury concerns relating to Duhan van der Merwe and Stuart McInally, with the tenacious Darcy Graham ruled out until the new year. The visitors suffered a narrow Champions Cup defeat to Saracens at the StoneX before earning a hard-fought win over Castres at the DAM Health.

August 2020 was the last time an away side claimed a win in the Scotland derby, with the men from the capital spoiling the Glaswegians’ party on that occasion. With some key Edinburgh individuals currently nursing a few knocks however, that feat shouldn’t be repeated here.

Back Edinburgh on the plus.

Connacht 72/100 | Draw 22/1 | Ulster 12/10
Connacht (-2.5) 17/20 | Ulster (+2.5) 17/20

Red-hot Connacht followed up their URC defeat of Benetton with Challenge Cup wins over Newcastle (home) and Brive (away) to get their European campaign off to a promising start. They’re currently ninth after a difficult opening few rounds and will need a big second half of the season to force themselves into the playoff berths.

Ulster are reeling from three successive losses in all competitions; having dropped to fourth on the URC standings. They have traditionally dominated this derby, winning 75 of the 99 games played, and while they do head into this one under fire, the odds are too good not to have a strike on the Northern Irish lads returning to form here.

Get on Ulster at 12/10.

Saturday 24 December

Benetton 17/100 | Draw 25/1 | Zebre
Benetton (-11.5) 17/20 | Zebre (+11.5) 17/20

Benetton are enjoying one of their best seasons to date, having won four of their nine matches so far, and last week smacking Bayonne 45-7 at the Stade Jean-Dauger in the Challenge Cup. Marco Bortolami’s charges won the Italian derby both times last season and will be confident of seeing off Zebre again here.

Frustratingly, the away outfit have lost every game they’ve played this season despite some close calls; most recently in the first round of the Challenge Cup where they were pipped by three-points by Toulon at the Sergio Lanfranchi. They should keep it close again here at the Stadio Comunale Monigo but won’t have enough against a focused Benetton side.

Zebre on the plus.

Monday 26 December

Dragons 2/1 | Draw 20/1 | Cardiff 43/100
Dragons (+5.5) 17/20 | Cardiff (-5.5) 17/20

After winning just twice in the entirety of last season, Dragons have already gone one better so far this term to see them 13th overall and second in the Welsh Shield. A win over Shield leaders Cardiff here would be a massive statement for the Newportonians, who trail the Blue and Blacks by six-points, but it won’t come easy.

The men from the capital are looking really good this season, sitting seventh and coming off the back of two commanding Challenge Cup wins; 41-0 over Brive at home and 47-10 at Newcastle. They’ll have their sights set on claiming a URC quarterfinal berth, nevermind winning the Welsh Shield, and the momentum they have heading into this one should give them a big boost.

Get on Cardiff to clear the handicap at Rodney Parade.

Ospreys 36/100 | Draw 21/1 | Scarlets 47/20
Ospreys (-6.5) 17/20 | Scarlets (+6.5) 17/20

In probably the biggest upset of the European season, Ospreys pulled off a brilliant 21-10 victory over Montpellier in the Champions Cup last week despite having won just one game throughout their entire campaign heading into the encounter. In the same weekend, Scarlets followed up a big win over Bayonne (39-7) a round earlier by beating the Cheetahs with relative ease. The confidence both outfits would have gained from these results has made this Round 10 rematch even more eye-catching.

In the reverse fixture in the first round, Ospreys scored a last-gasp converted try to earn a 23-all draw at Rodney Parade. As things stand, just five-points and one place separate 14th-placed Ospreys from 15th-placed Scarlets, with the result of this one set to have massive implications on the remainder of the season.

 This should be another one that goes down to the wire, but back Ospreys to just sneak it. Scarlets on the plus.

Munster 7/4 | Draw 20/1 | Leinster 5/10
Munster (+4.5) 17/20 | Leinster (-4.5) 17/20

Leinster have swept all before them, winning all nine of their URC matches as well as their two respective Champions Cup ties against Racing 92 and Gloucester by an aggregated score of 99-10. As usual, Leo Cullen’s men are favourites to take both competitions this season and head into this one having won on their last three visits to Thomond Park.

The Munstermen have lost five of their nine URC matches so far (including a 27-13 defeat to Leinster in October), but they have managed to steady the ship of late after winning three of their last four in all competitions. Still, the men from the capital have dominated this fixture over the past few seasons, claiming 16 wins from the last 19 matchups, and that psychological edge shoukd show itself again here.

Get on this exceptional Leinster unit to clear the handicap.
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