Vodacom United Rugby 2023 Championship | Glasgow’s shock win sends out multiple messages
The two South African teams that played in the inaugural final, the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls, made the early statements locally in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship but it was Glasgow Warriors’ excellent win over Leinster that provided the standout moment of the opening weekend.
Leinster have fallen at the play-off stage of both editions of the competition to have been played thus far. In the first season it was the Vodacom Bulls that shocked them in the 2021/22 semi-final at the RDS Arena in Dublin, and last season eventual winners Munster did the trick at the Aviva Stadium at the same stage of competition.
But in both seasons Leinster have dominated the league standings from start to finish, so the Warriors’ win is seismic in terms of what it does to the competition. It sent out the messages that Leinster could find more opposition to their quest to finish top of the log again.
Leinster weren’t at full strength, and Glasgow did have a smattering of their Scotland internationals back, but it was also a big a statement performance from the team coached by South African Franco Smith at Scotstoun Stadium.
This will be Smith’s second season in charge and after finishing fourth last year, much is expected of the Warriors, who were floundering before the former Springbok centre’s arrival in Glasgow. A decision was made to employ a similar playing approach, with an emphasis on offloading and transition play, that won the DHL Stormers the inaugural trophy, and Smith made big strides towards that in his first year.
What was perhaps missing was the hard edge at forward that was necessary. There was some talk before Sunday’s game about the hard work that has been put in at scrumming in particular during the off-season. Well, that labour paid off handsomely against Leinster, for it was their dominant scrum that laid the platform.
They did that while retaining their brilliance in turning over opposition ball - last season they completed the most turn-overs in the competition and were also high up when it came to offloads - and the other more flashy aspects of their game. Argentinian wing Sebastian Cancillieri has pace to burn out wide and Scotland international centre Huw Jones also revels in opportunities created out wide.
The Warriors’ future opponents can consider themselves warned - although this was the first game in a long season, the Glaswegians started like they had a train to catch and are going to be formidable opponents. The Stormers are one of those more imminent opponents, and can look forward to a tough game when they go to Scotstoun on Friday week.
The DHL Stormers, beaten by Munster in the 2022/23 final, made a positive start to the competition by beating the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg. Going to altitude for a first game is a challenging proposition for a coastal team, and Stormers coach John Dobson will be delighted with the five log points his team picked up.
However, his defence coach Norman Laker must have been close to apoplectic when the Lions ran riot against a non-existent defensive system late in the game. There was never really any prospect of the Emirates Lions actually winning the game, but it will nonetheless be concerning that conceding points late isn’t a new trend for the DHL Stormers - and a 32-7 lead was eventually whittled down to just two points.
For most of the game though the DHL Stormers were in control, at least once Lizo Gqoboka, formerly of the Vodacom Bulls, came on to stabilise the scrum. Dobson will have been pleased with Gqoboka’s debut, but the game will have reminded him that replacing his former captain Steven Kitshoff, who is off to Ulster after the Rugby World Cup, is going to be no easy task.
While the DHL Stormers made a mini-statement in Johannesburg, the Vodacom Bulls made a major one 60km up the N1 in Pretoria the next day, scoring two tries in the opening six minutes as they smashed the travelling Scarlets. Like the DHL Stormers, the Welsh side will feel they drew a short straw in having to go to altitude first up, but while the Cape side survived against the Emirates Lions, the Scarlets experienced a nightmare afternoon.
The team from Pretoria have acquired some much needed scrumming power in recruiting Springbok prop Wilco Louw and it was there that a strong statement was made, as well in the powerful driving of the forwards and the interplay between backs and forwards that took the visitors out of their comfort zone.
The Vodacom Bulls now head to Ulster, who were given a good game by Zebre in the opening fixture of the competition in Parma. Scarlets travel to the Cape to play the DHL Stormers in Stellenbosch on Saturday. The Scarlets defeat completed a poor opening weekend of the Welsh teams, with Cardiff losing by one point at home to Benetton and Sean Everitt’s new team, Edinburgh, doing the business away against the Dragons.
The new champions started the competition comfortably enough by picking up full points against the Hollywoodbets Sharks, who made crucial errors that cost them the game but nonetheless showed positive signs for the season ahead. Under John Plumtree as the new coach, the KwaZuluNatalians appear to be playing with better attacking shape and the forwards are definitely working harder too.
The Hollywoodbets Sharks arguably won’t have been enthused by what happened later in the weekend in Glasgow, however, as they play Leinster next and the perennial log winners will be desperate to bounce back with a strong performance. If you factor in the end of last season, Leinster have lost three of their last four Vodacom URC games so this coming weekend could be statement time for them.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Zebre 36 Ulster 40
Emirates Lions 33 DHL Stormers 35
Connacht 34 Ospreys 26
Dragons 17 Edinburgh 22
Munster 34 Hollywoodbets Sharks 21
Cardiff 22 Benetton 23
Vodacom Bulls 63 Scarlets 21
Glasgow Warriors 43 Leinster 25
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