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PREVIEW: Second edition of URC set to get underway this weekend

The second edition of the URC gets underway on Friday and there’s a cracking fixture list featuring a couple of intriguing derbies as well as some great cross conference action to sink our teeth into! Darry Worthington previews.

Stuart McCloskey of Ulster URC
Image Copyright - Steve Haag Sports

The second edition of the URC gets underway on Friday and there’s a cracking fixture list featuring a couple of intriguing derbies as well as some great cross-conference action to sink our teeth into! Darry Worthington previews.

Two women looking excitedly at cellphone

Friday 16 September

Benetton 31/20 | Draw 20/1 | Glasgow 57/100 (18:30)
Benetton (+3.5) 17/20 | Glasgow (57/100) 17/20

We kick things off in Italy where an ever-improving Benetton team will take on a Glasgow side loaded with Scottish internationals.

The hosts for the opener had a decent if not spectacular time of it during the inaugural URC season, winning six and drawing one of their 18 games on the way to finishing 13th on the standings. They did scoop a couple of big-name upsets against the Stormers, Edinburgh and this week’s opponents Glasgow. All those victories came at home and show that the Italians should not be taken lightly at the Stadio Comunale.

Glasgow managed to sneak into last season’s play-offs by the skin of their teeth as a late-season surge saw them take eighth place. They may have wished they hadn’t made it through as they were hammered 76-14 by a rampant Leinster side in the quarter-finals.

Both teams have been active in the off-season with Benetton making some serious moves in signing internationals Henry Stowers (Tonga) and Sam Hildago-Clyne (Scotland), while Glasgow have recruited Huw Jones and also bagged South African forwards JP du Preez and Sintu Manjezi.

I really fancy the hosts here. They tend to start campaigns well and they are an absolute handful on home soil. I’ll probably take them on the plus for a bit of security, however. 

Saturday 17 September

Zebre 14/1 | Draw 46/1 | Leinster N/A (14:00)
Zebre (+27.5) 17/20 | Leinster (-27.5) 17/20

Zebre have the toughest start of any team in the comp with the perennial whipping boys taking on wounded Irish giants, Leinster.

As is the custom in any iteration of Pro Rugby, Zebre finished last season at the foot of the URC ladder with only one win from their 18 games with a horrific points differential of -369.

Leinster had a far better season but will be just as disappointed as their opponents for Saturday as the Irish outfit lost to the Bulls in the inaugural URC semi-finals.

In terms of transfer activity, Zebre have done a bit of a Nottingham Forest bringing in no fewer than 22 players including the likes of MJ Pelser from the Lions and former Sharks, Hurricanes and Leicester outside back Kobus van Wyk.

Leinster, meanwhile, have secured the services of Charlie Ngatai from Lyon and Jason Jenkins from arch-rivals Munster. 

The Irish outfit will be looking to put out a statement in Round 1 and things are likely to get messy for Zebre. I’m all over Leinster to clear this (-27.5) handicap.

Cardiff 23/10 | Draw 21/1 | Munster 37/100 (16:05)
Cardiff (+6.5) 17/20 | Munster (-6.5) 17/20

Next up we’ve got a Welsh-Irish affair with the Cardiff Blues taking on Munster. Cardiff had a really poor time of it last season only registering seven wins from their 18 fixtures.

Munster had a far better campaign as they finished the regular season in sixth winning 11 of their 18 fixtures. They were unable to advance any further in the competition than the quarter-finals as they went down 36-17 to domestic foes Ulster.

Cardiff have been stellar in their recruitment securing the services of Taulupe Faletau from Bath, Liam Williams from Scarlets and Lopeti Timani from Toulon among others. They now boast an insane amount of loose-forward talent and should really improve on last season’s showing. 

Munster have a very strong squad boasting a number of seasoned pros. They should bag the win but it should be a close-fought encounter with Cardiff tipped to remain within the (+6.5) handicap.

Lions 3/1 | Draw 23/1 | Bulls 27/100 (16:05)
Lions (+8.5) 17/20 | Bulls (-8.5) 17/20

Our first South African derby of the season is next up with the Lions and Bulls squaring off in the ‘Battle of the Jukskei’.

The Lions had a testing season last term and were pretty much building from scratch having lost loads of young talent to both domestic and foreign sides. They started the season rather slowly but got better as the season went along and ended with eight wins from their 18 games.

The Bulls had a great first URC campaign making it all the way to the final where they lost to the Stormers. Like the Lons, they started slowly but found their footing as they got deeper into the campaign.

Jake White has once again convinced the big boys at Loftus to splash the cash with the Bulls bringing in Sbu Nkosi, Wandisile Simelane and Ruan Vermaak during the off-season.

The Lions have also been working hard on the recruitment front with Marius Louw, Ruan Smith and Andries Coetzee linking up with Joburg’s Pride. The return of Coetzee is a massive coup for Lions fans with the fullback a firm crowd favourite. Whether the new signing will offset the loss of key men like Burger Odendal, Vincent Tshituka, Carlu Sadie and Simelane remains to be seen.

I reckon this one will be tighter than many think. The Lions learnt some hard lessons last year and they should be more of a force this time around. A small punt on the Lions to lose within (+8.5) handicap is my play here.

Scarlets 49/100 | Draw 20/1 | Ospreys 7/4 (18:15)
Scarlets (-4.5) 17/20 | Ospreys (+4.5) 17/20

A Welsh derby is the next offering with the Scarlets taking on the Ospreys.

The two sides were the best performing Welsh outfits last season with Ospreys finishing ninth and the Scarlets a palce back in 10th.

Both sides have made a couple off-season signings with the hosts bringing in Welsh talent in Iwan Shenton and Griff Evans as well as ex-All Black Vaea Fifita, while the Ospreys went shopping in Exeter bringing in Jack Walsh from the Chiefs.

Welsh derbies tend to go the way of the side hosting and I reckon the theme will continue here. Back Scarlets to win on the board at 49/100.

Edinburgh 1/10 | Draw 33/1 | Dragons 6/1 (20:35)
Edinburgh (-14.5) 17/20 | Dragons (+14.5) 17/20

The penultimate game of the weekend is a Scottish-Welsh affair with Edinburgh playing host to the Dragons.

The visitors had a rather dismal season last term with the Dragons finishing in 15th place with only two wins and a draw from their 18 outings. They’ve undergone a rebrand in the off-season and will now be known as Dragons RFC. Whether the change will usher in a change of fortunes is another story. 

They’ve cleared out no fewer than 19 players from last season’s squad through releases, retirement and transfers and brought in the likes of JJ Hanrahan from Clermont, Sean Lonsdale from Exeter and Rob Evans from Scarlets. 

Edinburgh were a lot better as they finished the regular season in sixth having won ten and drawn one of their 18 games. They didn’t fare too well in the quarter-finals, however, going down 28-17 to the Stormers in Cape Town.

Edinburgh have done some really smart business in the off-season signing Sam Skinner from Exeter, Wes Goosen from the Hurricanes and Nick Auterac from Northampton.

Home ground advantage should be a massive factor and I can see Edinburgh fully capitalizing on it here to clear the (-14.5) point handicap.

Ulster 17/100 | Draw 25/1 | Connacht 42/110
Ulster (-11.5) 17/20 | Connacht (+11.5) 17/20  

Round 1 comes to a close with an absolute cracker which will see Ulster take on Connacht in an all-Irish clash.

The hosts had a solid inaugural URC finishing the regular season in third having won 12 of their 18 fixtures. They managed to advance all the way to the semi-finals where they went down 17-15 against the Stormers, with Manie Libbok nailing a clutch conversion to knock the Irish side out of the competition.

Connacht were less impressive as they could only muster an 11th-place finish. They blew hot and cold throughout the season winning half of their regular season fixtures while losing the rest.

The pick of Ulster’s off-season business has seen Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (Wasps) Jake Flannery (Muster) and Michael McDonald (Western Force) arrive in Northern Ireland.

Connacht have made a couple high profile signings with the talented foursome of Adam Byrne, Josh Murphy, Peter Dooley and David Hawkshaw making the switch from Leinster. They’ve also signed Counties Manawatu’s Shamus Hurley-Langton who should be one to watch this season

I think that Ulster will win at home on Saturday evening. But Connacht are certainly good enough to remain within the double-digit handicap. Get on the plus. 

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