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'No second chances' - BKT URC semi-finals preview

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Saturday Jun 15, 2024

There will be no second chances; that has been the motto of the week for the final four teams remaining in the 2023/24 BKT United Rugby Championship.

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Speaking earlier in the week, Munster boss Graham Rowntree laid his cards on the table, “It’s what you play rugby for, isn’t it? You know, pressure moments, high-stakes games, physical battles, it’s huge, and it’s exciting.”

Rowntree’s men will know that they are the key domino this weekend in terms of where the final will be played. Win, and the match will be at the iconic Thomond Park; lose, and the match could be in either Pretoria or up the M7 in Dublin.

With the teams named and all of the talking now done, it’s time for action.

Vodacom Bulls vs Leinster Rugby

Two iconic brands with well-established winning pedigrees, the opening clash of the semi-finals weekend is set to be an absolute humdinger.

For the home side, unfortunate injuries to star outside backs Canan Moodie and Kurt Lee Arendse is a significant blow ahead of what will be their toughest fixture of the season to date.

Whilst the backline will no doubt take a hit in terms of dynamism, the pack is significantly boosted by the return of experienced backrow Marco van Staden.

Leinster prospect pulls off outlandish footballing skills in URC quarterfinal

The Springbok World Cup winner will bring some much-needed experience to the talented but inexperienced backrow pairing of Elrigh Louw and Cameron Hanekom.

Facing this trio is an Irish international combination of Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier and Caelen Doris. Combining to form one of the best backrow line-ups in professional rugby, the Leinster trio will no doubt be crucial in getting their team over the advantage line as well as targeting the Bulls’ potent counter-rucking game.

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For Leinster, the return of star outside centre Garry Ringrose is a significant boost. Whilst young talent Jamie Osborne and Robbie Henshaw have been more than capable deputies in his absence, Ringrose is a silky smooth operator who brings a level of panache to the Leinster attack. Defensively, the 29-year-old is the key component to making the hard rush work more effectively, along with his ability to pick out potential carriers. In the Jacques Nienaber system, there is a heavy reliance on individuals to make the correct read before rushing out of the line, and there are few better in the game than Ringrose at doing so.

Key match-up: The front row 

Setting the tone for this one will be a clash between two of the best front rows in the URC. Despite ranking 3rd in scrum penalties won, the Bulls will have their hands full when they pack down against what is the Irish first-choice front row. Of particular interest will be the head-to-head 14 times capped Springbok tighthead Wilco Louw and the ultra-dynamic Andrew Porter.

By any metric, Porter has been a star performer for both his province and country over the past eight years. If there has been one area that has at times been his Achilles heel, it has been at scrum time, where he has caught the chagrin of certain referees. Most famously or infamously for Irish fans, Porter was blown off the park in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against the All Blacks.

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In this department, Louw will look to get after Porter. Should he get a foothold early, then it will nullify a powerful Leinster scrum. On the flip side, should Porter get in the ascendancy or at least hold his own, then the Bulls will have a real challenge on their hands, given the loosehead’s dynamism around the park.

Prediction

Interestingly, the bookies have made Leinster a heavy favourite despite the travel and altitude factor. Taking into account the fact that their countrymen Munster have already won twice at altitude this season, it could well have something to do with it.

In reality, the Bulls are up against it on a number of fronts. Firstly, they will be without star Springbok outside backs Canan Moodie and Kurt Lee Arendse. The two World Cup wingers are the creative sparks that have, to date, made the Bulls’ backline fire; just how head coach Jake White will adjust his side without them will be interesting to track. Secondly for the Bulls has been their mixed form during the run in to the play-offs. Whilst they have only lost once in the last six fixtures, they have conceded a significant amount of points against opposition they should have shut down. Of course, the argument can be made that they have run up big scores of their own; against Leinster, this will not be the case. Led by former Springbok head coach and defensive guru Jacques Nienaber, Leinster ranks third in points conceded. In this department, the Bulls rank eleventh, which, against a red-hot Leinster side, will be a major concern for White and his coaching staff.

Despite the odds seemingly not being in their favour, the Bulls will relish the underdogs’ tag and will view today’s clash as a free hit. Should the home side be in touch with fifteen minutes to play, one has to question whether Leinster’s fragility in the crucible minutes of knockout games could rear its ugly head. For us, the bookies are rarely wrong, and Leinster, on paper, just have too much for the Bulls and will take this one to set up a final in Ireland. Leinster by 15.

Munster Rugby vs Glasgow Warriors

Arguably the most tetchy rivalry in the URC, this Celtic match-up never fails to deliver top-notch entertainment.

Meeting one stage earlier last season, Munster’s magic carpet ride through the knockout stages glided through Scotstoun as the Warriors endured an implosion of epic proportions.

Starting with flyhalf Tom Jordan’s red card in the 25th minute and ending with a Sione Tuipulotu yellow in the 75th minute, the Warriors conceded infringements at crucial junctures in the fixture.

Munster vs Glasgow – three key areas that will decide the BKT URC semifinal

Fast forward to this season, and the clash between the two sides in Cork was equally intriguing. On that night, Munster torched the Warriors for some of the best tries we have seen this season, only to concede five tries to the Glasgow maul.

Coming out on top in both fixtures will no doubt have given Munster confidence heading into today’s home semi-final, but they will, however, be acutely aware of the threats that their international-laden opponents will bring to the party.

Key match-up: The benches

Tactically, Munster boss Graham Rowntree has opted to stick with his tactic of loading up his bench with his most physical players as he deploys a 6 – 2 bench split. This approach has yielded exceptional results for Munster thus far this season, with the power game of Diarmuid Barron, Oli Jager, John Ryna, RG Snyman, Gavin Coombes and Alex Kendellen being used to batter opponents into submission in the final quarter.

Glasgow, too, brings bundles of power from the bench with their own 6 -2 split of George Turner, Oli Kebble, Murphy Walker, Max Williamson, Euan Ferrie and Henco Venter, providing much-needed grunt to counter the Munster pack.

Depending on how the opening forty minutes play out, this head-to-head between the benches will likely prove to be the winning and losing of the match.

Prediction

Outside of Leinster, if any team in the URC were to go to Thomond Park and win, it would be the Warriors, who have proven in the past that they are undeterred by the aura of the iconic ground.

Throw into the mix their international pedigree, and the Warriors are far from consensus underdogs in this one.

Losing only to the Bulls and Lions in the URC in 2024, the Warriors will no doubt fancy their chances of avoiding a three-peat of losses to a side they detest more than any other.

For the home team, Munster understands the magnitude of what is on offer this afternoon.

Win, and the final is guaranteed to be at Thomond Park, irrespective of how the other semi-final plays out. Lose, and their reign as champions comes to an abrupt ending.

Certainly, this match will not be one-way traffic, and Munster’s recent run of injuries that sees the influential trio of Thomas Ahern, Joey Carbery, and Calvin Nash miss out is far from ideal. But with the experience of winning big games and their exceptional form Munster will not fear the Warriors one bit.

Looking at the bench split of the two sides, should Munster weather the inevitable storm that the Warriors are going to bring at scrum and maul time, then their bench will be too strong for the visitors. It will be tight, but Munster will march on to what looks set to be an all-Ireland final in Limerick. Munster by 6.

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