Round two of the 2023/24 Vodacom United Rugby Championship was a tough battle for teams on the road, with only Cardiff scoring victory points on the road whilst Munster and Dragons could not be separated as they played out to an exciting draw.
Cardiff boss grateful to World Cup crew
Cardiff coach Matt Sherratt had said a big thank you to his Wales World Cup contingent for stepping up to help extend a remarkable winning run against the Dragons.
Tomos Williams, Corey Dowachowski and Mason Grady all offered their services and proceeded to play their part in a 16-9 victory at wet and windy Rodney Parade.
Centre Grady scored the only try of the game as Cardiff recorded a 17th successive league win over their east Wales rivals, while scrum-half Williams brought tactical control and prop Dowachowski delivered his power up front.
“I have got to credit them. They brought themselves back,” said Sherratt.
“To a man, they phoned me and said they were desperate to play for the club which is testament to them and obviously they had a big impact on the game. So I can’t thank those boys enough.
“For me, it’s all about players wanting to represent Cardiff. That’s been a big push, that there’s some pride in representing a club with massive history.”
South African fly-half Tinus de Beer landed four shots at goal as Sherratt’s team bounced back from a last gasp defeat at home to Benetton in Round 1.
“We have had two fairly opposite weekends,” said Sherratt.
“One where we’ve lost in the last play of the game and one where we’ve managed to get over the line.
“I didn’t get too excited last week with a loss because you can’t control a couple of actions and it’s the same this week.
“There’s loads to work on, we can get much better, but we’ve got a win, which is great.
“It was job done, a really gritty win and a great learning experience for our young boys to feel what it’s like to win a derby in a Cardiff shirt.”
Dragons coach Dai Flanagan admitted the long losing run against the men from the Arms Park does build pressure.
“Everything you see, everything you read, every conversation is how many we’ve lost on the bounce to Cardiff,” he said.
“That’s going to be there until we win and sometimes it’s better not to know that and freshen it up.
“We turn up to games now with a perceived pressure on ourselves. We should be turning up with excitement.
“The constant messaging will cloud people’s decisions when they are in that pressure moment and we’ve got to find a way of freeing ourselves up because it doesn’t get easier. We have got Munster and Leinster next and we know how good they are.”
He added: “The players were outstanding effort-wise and we almost found a way, but we have got to stop being the almost team.”
As for the other Welsh sides, the Ospreys came from behind at home to Zebre to win 34-31, despite being outscored by five tries to four, while the Scarlets suffered a second heavy defeat in South Africa, going down 52-7 at the hands of the table-topping DHL Stormers in Stellenbosch.
Hamish home and hitting the heights
Having only had 65 minutes for Scotland at the World Cup, Hamish Watson would have been straining at the leash and it showed with a Player of the Match performance on his return for Edinburgh in their 17-16 victory over the Emirates Lions.
The 59-cap flanker was into everything, excelling over the ball and carrying in his usual dynamic fashion as he helped Sean Everitt’s team make it two from two in the Vodacom URC this season following on from last week’s success away to the Dragons.
“It’s great to be back. After the boys won last weekend, it was good to come back into a winning team,” said the man who turned 32 earlier this month.
“We are really excited about this season. Everyone is buzzing and ready to go.
“Speaking to the boys, they had a really good pre-season. They worked on a lot of stuff that wasn’t great last year.
“For us boys coming in from the World Cup, we have only spent a week under Sean, but we have really liked his coaching philosophy and the way he has managed the boys and the way he has gone about his business, so we are really excited to work under him.”
Turning round with a narrow 7-6 lead thanks to a try from fellow Scotland back row Luke Crosbie, Glasgow found themselves behind when Emirates Lions No 8 Francke Horn ploughed over just before the hour mark.
But another World Cup forward, hooker Ewan Ashman, swiftly responded with what proved to be the winning score, hitting a great line and fending off the last man to touch down, marking his Edinburgh debut in style following his move from Sale.
Reflecting on the team performance as whole, Watson said: “It was nowhere near perfect. We have got a lot to work on.
“There are a lot of guys who have come back into the squad and only had a week training, so that may have played a small factor.
“The Lions are a good team. They stayed in the game and made it really hard for us.”
Another player returning from Scotland World Cup duty, second row Grant Gilchrist added: “We can play a lot better, but we dug it out. We lost games like that season, so that’s a big growth in us. It was physical, it was an arm wrestle, but winning is all that matters.”
Commenting on new head coach Everitt, formerly of the Sharks, Gilchrist said: “He has been really good. He has been really clear about what he wanted. The boys are fit, happy and raring to go. We will get better week on week.”
Elsewhere, Leinster returned to winning ways with a 34-13 bonus point victory over the Hollywoodbets Sharks, with a try double from super sub centre Rob Russell.
Reigning champions Munster left it late out in Treviso, needing a 79th minute converted touchdown from replacement lock Tom Ahern to earn a share of the spoils in a 13-13 draw with Benetton, who had looked on course to claim a notable scalp.
The Round 2 action concluded with Ulster holding firm amid a grandstand finish to beat the Vodacom Bulls 26-19 in Belfast, with touchdowns from hooker Tom Stewart and wing Jacob Stockdale, who both already have three tries to their names this season.
Game of the weekend
Connacht 34-26 Glasgow Warriors
Eight seasons ago, Connacht won the league in the campaign that followed on from a World Cup and they are making it abundantly clear that they mean business once again.
Having claimed a bonus point victory over the Ospreys in Round 1, they repeated the feat against much-fancied Glasgow at the Galway Sportsground in a compelling contest.
The visitors actually finished ahead on try count 4-3, with a late touchdown from Jamie Dobie earning them a bonus point and they certainly played their part in the entertainment.
But it was Connacht who deservedly took the spoils with Diarmuid Kilgallen crossing twice, while JJ Hanrahan and Cathal Forde shared out seven successful kicks at goal.
Winger Kilgallen, who has now scored nine tries in his last 12 games, said: “The overwhelming feeling is happiness that we got the win.
“We knew how difficult it was going to be and there was some really good stuff there.
“We are just really pleased to get that win because we knew how strong Glasgow were. The whole week we were preparing for a huge battle and they give us every bit of that. We are just delighted.”
Player of the weekend
Max Deegan marked his 100th appearance for Leinster with an inspiring display against the Hollywoodbets Sharks at the RDS. The No 8 powered over for a try midway through the first half and put in a tireless shift at the base of the scrum.
With the Ireland World Cup stars still absent, the No 8’s experience was invaluable in helping a team featuring a number of youngsters secure a welcome 34-13 win over the visitors from Durban.
Reflecting on becoming a centurion, Deegan said: “It’s an incredible milestone. I couldn’t be prouder to hit it. I am so grateful to the lads for putting on such a performance and making it such a special day.”
Quote of the weekend
Ospreys coach Toby Booth on Justin Tipuric who produced a Player of the Match performance against Zebre on his 201st appearance for the region.
“An Ospreys man looks like Justin Tipuric. He is the biggest role model you are going to get – selfless, very smart, very talented, with an unbelievable work ethic. He demands the very, very best all the time. That’s the reason he is held in such high regard and the reason he deserves every accolade he can get. The standards he sets are an unbelievable example to everybody.”
There were 42 tries scored across the eight matches in Round 2, with Cardiff the only team to triumph on the road, amid six home victories and a draw.
While the Springboks won the World Cup out in France over the weekend, the South African Vodacom URC sides haven’t enjoyed similar success on their travels in Europe so far this season.
The Hollywoodbets Sharks have lost both of their games in Ireland, while the Emirates Lions went down to defeat in Edinburgh on Saturday and the Vodacom Bulls were beaten by Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium on Sunday evening.
Now, next weekend, all four of the franchises from the Rainbow Nation are away from home on European soil, so we wait to see how they get on.
What’s coming up next weekend?
Perhaps the most intriguing fixture in Round 3 is the meeting of the Ospreys and the Hollywoodbets Sharks, which will be played at the Twickenham Stoop, the home of Harlequins.
It will be the first ever Vodacom URC match to be staged in London and there’s much anticipation in the Ospreys camp over the ground-breaking move.
Scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams, a try scorer in Saturday’s win over Zebre Parma, commented: “We are all looking forward to it. It’s somewhere we don’t play normally and it’s a good occasion to get your families and stuff in a different place up in London.”
Head coach Toby Booth added: “Rugby in general needs as many positive experiences as it can get at the moment.
“There have been a lot of headlines and a lot written about what not’s going right, so to create an opportunity where we can go and do something different and get some positive momentum is good.
“I think we should enjoy the fact that we are trying to be different. If it promotes more people coming to watch, then that’s great.”
As for the other fixtures, there’s a second Welsh derby of the season, with the Scarlets hosting Cardiff, while it will be an all-Irish affair in Galway with Connacht hosting Ulster in a fascinating battle between two sides who have both won their opening two games.
The league leading DHL Stormers – the only team with a maximum ten points – begin a four-match run on the road by travelling to Glasgow, with both the Vodacom Bulls and the Emirates Lions heading for Italy.
Title holders Munster entertain the Dragons, while Leinster face an Edinburgh team that is two from two in what should be an enthralling encounter in Dublin.