In South Africa, the Cell C Sharks made a strong statement by knocking over the local champion team, the Vodacom Bulls, in their derby in Durban, while Leinster recovered strongly from their unexpected and rare defeat to fellow Irish team Ulster by comfortably winning their derby clash with Connacht in Dublin.
Both teams were comfortably better than their opponents, with Leinster being particularly stylish, efficient and slick once they had shaken off a bit of early match rustiness.
The common denominator was that both teams had their international players back after their absence during the Autumn International Series. The importance of having their international players on board was something commented on by both coaches, in Leinster's case before the latest round of games, and the Sharks afterwards.
Leinster coach Leo Cullen made 10 changes and brought back nine Irish internationals for what was being touted as a potentially difficult game against a Connacht team that has a reputation for being able to pull off giant killing acts. That wasn’t their entire complement of Irish internationals, but not far off it as Leinster get ready for their next challenge, which is the first couple of rounds of the European Champions Cup, starting with a match against Bath this coming weekend.
The perennial champions in the erstwhile PRO14 and PRO12 scored seven tries but, ominously for future opponents, Cullen wasn’t completely satisfied with his team’s performance.
“I'm pleased to get a win. It was a good win, we got a bonus point and there was a great crowd there as well, which makes some difference to the whole mood around the place,” said Cullen after Friday night’s match at the RDS Arena.
“(But) we looked a bit scrappy and we made a few unforced errors. Guys are trying hard at the start, but we probably lack a little bit of cohesion, it's fair to say. We're not quite where we would like to be at the moment, but we had a fair amount of changes over the last couple of weeks so maybe it's to be expected with the short turnaround in terms of prep.
“Guys came in tonight after the November internationals. They had a week off then this week was a short week to get that sense of togetherness and cohesion back.”
Interestingly, and perhaps disturbingly from the perspective of the South African teams competing in the same competition, Cullen felt that the two derby fixtures his team has played over the past two weekends were a level up from what they faced in the first five rounds of the Vodacom URC.
“It was our first derby of the season. Ulster felt that when they got beaten by Connacht (a few weeks ago) and even then Connacht had lost narrowly to Munster the week before that. It’s a different type of game,” said Cullen.
“It is a different type of game from internationals, definitely a different type of game from what we encountered in the first five rounds of the season. When you watch that Connacht-Ulster game and even the Munster-Connacht game there was definitely a better edge to those games.”
Ulster though clearly forgot to retain the hard edge they take into derby fixtures as after beating Leinster the previous week they managed to retain their reputation for being inconsistent by being shocked by the Welsh club, the Ospreys, this past weekend. That result enables Leinster to stand alone at the top of the log, just ahead of Edinburgh, as the competition hits the Champions Cup recess before resuming over the Christmas week.
On the evidence of their win over Connacht, Leinster will take some stopping, but the Sharks will feel more confident in their ability to compete now that they have experienced the winning feeling that came to them through having their Boks back in tow for the Bulls game.
Cell C Sharks coach Sean Everitt praised the environment created by SA Rugby's Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber in the Springbok team when he noted the impact returning international players such as Bok skipper Siya Kolisi, Sharks captain Lukhanyo Am, speedsters Makazole Mapimpi and Sbu Nkosi, as well as debutant hooker Bongi Mbonambi had on the confidence of their teammates.
“I have been with the Sharks for a long time and sometimes it was a worry when the Boks came back (because their attitude wasn’t right), so it is really pleasing to see the commitment of the guys,” said Everitt after his team’s 14-point defeat of the Carling Currie Cup champions.
“Rassie and Jacques have created something special at the Boks and we just look forward to our Boks rubbing shoulders with our youngsters and showing them the right way.”
Am has been through a busy rugby year but walked away with the man of the match award at Kings Park.
After seeing the impact the Boks made on the Sharks performance, Stormers coach John Dobson might regret resting three Boks - Steven Kitshoff, Damian Willemse and Herschel Jantjies - for his team’s derby against the Lions. Although they dominated parts of the game and had many entries into the Emirates Lions’ 22, the Stormers produced a comedy of errors as they struggled to find the flow and continuity they were threatening towards the end of their overseas tour.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Edinburgh 24 Benetton 10
Leinster 47 Connacht 19
Cell C Sharks 30 Vodacom Bulls 16
Ospreys 19 Ulster 13
Glasgow Warriors 33 Dragons 14
DHL Stormers 19 Emirates Lions 37