After rounds three and four Ulster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors have maintained their 100% starts to the season while the Cheetahs showed plenty of bite on their home turf.
Reigning champions Scarlets were put to the sword in Belfast in Round Three on an emotional night for Ulster who commemorated the fifth anniversary of centre Nevin Spence’s tragic death at the age of just 22. A tight game was finally won in the closing stages as replacement hooker John Andrew dotted down for a 27-20 victory. A heavily-rotated Ulster side followed this up by hammering an equally changed Dragons side 52-25 for a bonus-point win. Ulster academy player Nick Timoney celebrated his debut by scoring two tries from number eight while Jacob Stockdale once more staked his claim as the future of Irish rugby by scoring tries in consecutive matches.
Glasgow’s own perfect start to the season was secured via a tight 20-19 win away to Cardiff and an impressive 37-10 victory over Munster at home. A late Finn Russell penalty gave Glasgow the points against Cardiff although the Welsh side missed a penalty of their own in the closing moments. It took a strong performance to secure the bonus-point win over Munster although the Irish side were poor on the day.
Meanwhile the Cheetahs have picked up the pace, following their opening two defeats with two home wins in South Africa. They came out on top against Zebre in a remarkably high-scoring game that left the final score 54-39 to the South Africans. Zebre started the better of the two sides but the Cheetahs grew into the game and pulled ahead in an end-to-end match. Next up was the big shock of the two rounds as the Cheetahs claimed the scalp of visitors Leinster with a 39-19 win. It was a good performance all round but the icing on the cake came with 80 minutes gone when they intercepted a Leinster pass and scored a breakaway try. The surprising result should be good for the league as the Cheetahs showed they are a force to be reckoned with.
Things don’t look so good for their compatriots, the Southern Kings who are the only side in either conference still without a win or a point. The Kings lost out 31-10 to Leinster in a near-empty stadium. There were some encouraging signs as they were only trailing 7-3 at the break before a second-half collapse and a consolation try. Italian side Zebre were next to arrive in town and they recorded their first win of the season with a 43-17 score over the Kings who also have the worst defence in the league.
Elsewhere, Edinburgh suffered the commentator’s curse at the hands of this writer who backed them as this year’s surprise package in the last edition of this column. The Scottish side followed up their opening two victories with two losses in a row. Benetton Treviso left the Scottish capital with the points after a 20-17 win despite Edinburgh being 14-0 up at one stage. Edinburgh then travelled to Scarlets who bounced back from their defeat to Ulster with a comfortable 28-8 victory.
It was a good two weeks for Benetton Treviso as the Italians followed up their win over Edinburgh with a 16-6 victory at home to Ospreys to record back-to-back wins for the first time since February 2016. Ospreys will have been disappointed to lose this one after narrowly falling to defeat at home to Munster the previous week. The Red Army were good value for their 21-16 win in Wales with outside centre Chris Farrell particularly impressive.
Dragons will have enjoyed the last two weeks despite their loss to Ulster in round four. The Welsh team got off the mark with a superb 21-8 victory over Connacht. Gavin Henson rolled back the years as he scored three penalties and one conversion. Connacht will be glad to see the back of the Welsh sides for a while as they followed up this defeat with another to Cardiff. Connacht must have thought they had the game sewn up with two minutes to go as they held a commanding five-point lead with the scores at 15-10. A converted Cardiff try in the 79th minute must have been a bitter pill to swallow on the west coast of Ireland.
As things stand then; Glasgow lead the way on Conference A with 18 points, followed by Munster in second with 14. The Cheetahs have shot right up the table and sit in third place with 10 points followed by Connacht (7 points), Zebre (6), Ospreys (5) and Cardiff (5).
In Conference B Ulster sit top of the table with 18 points, followed by Scarlets with 16 and Leinster a further point behind. Edinburgh lie fourth despite their two defeats with 10 points while Benetton now have 9 and Dragons 4. The Southern Kings prop up the table with no wins from four and 0 points.
This week’s big match to look out for is Leinster against Edinburgh with both teams itching to bounce back from defeat. Elsewhere it will be interesting to see if the Cheetahs can continue their winning streak at home to Ospreys. Looking ahead, the first derbies of the season take place in Round Seven and should serve up some feisty encounters.