2023 Ulster Rugby vs Blue Bulls

United Rugby Championship Round 2 Recap: Italian Improvements Continue

United Rugby Championship Round 2 Recap: Italian Improvements Continue

Discover the thrilling highlights and standout moments from the 2023-2024 United Rugby Championship's second round in our comprehensive recap.

Oct 31, 2023 by Philip Bendon
United Rugby Championship Round 2 Recap: Italian Improvements Continue

As the 2023-2024 United Rugby Championship season unfolds, fans of the league were treated to an exhilarating display of nail-biting rugby during the opening weeks of the season.

Round 2 built on the exceptional showings of Round 1, as teams vied for early supremacy. 

With just four of the 16 competing teams leaving Round 2 with two victories, the competition could not be more hotly contested.

Here are five of the biggest takeaways from Round 2 of the 2023-2024 BKT United Rugby Championship:

The Next Generation Of Stars Emerge

As the 2023 Rugby World Cup drew to a close Saturday evening with South Africa’s Springboks retaining the William Webb Ellis trophy for another four years, Round two of the United Rugby Championship was an opportunity for several up-and-coming future international stars to showcase their talents. 

In a weekend that had several notable performances, no two players showed more than the Stormers’ Sacha Feinburg-Mngomezulu and Connacht’s Cathal Forde. 

The two 21-year-old centers proved to be the standout performers for their respective teams and both have set themselves up to challenge returning international stars for starting places in the No. 12 shirt. 

For Feinburg-Mngomezulu, he likely will battle it out with Rugby World Cup winner Damian Willemse for the in Cape Town, and while Willemse solidified his place as the No. 1 fullback for the Boks, Stormers head coach John Dobson has preferred him in the midfield. 

Throw into the mix the addition of fellow Springbok fullback Warick Gelant in the offseason, and the Stormers have a selection conundrum incoming. 

For Pete Wilkins and his Connacht side, the selection process is no easier, with Forde set to battle World Player of the Year nominee Bundee Aki in the coming weeks. 

Simply put, Aki is the best inside center in the world at the time of this writing and has just signed a new two-year deal with Irish Rugby. 

At 33-years-old, Aki likely is in his final contract with the province and will be in no mood to give up his jersey. 

Therefore, these two battles will make for interesting subplots, as two of the title favorites go about their respective seasons. 

For a bonus mention, heralded former Ireland U20 star Sam Prendergast showed glimpses of his otherworldly potential, as Leinster defeated the Sharks in Dublin.

Italian Improvements Notable

Like a train put off it’s tracks, the fast-improving Italian national team met an absolute buzzsaw to end its 2023 Rugby World Cup campaign. 

Losing by a record 96-17 margin to New Zealand, before losing 60-7 a week later to France, the Azzurri left the World Cup on a whimper. 

Thus, their return to club action could have gone one of two ways - either they were going to be totally demoralized by the experience, or they were going to come out swinging. 

Fortunately for Italian fans, the players chose the latter and have been nothing short of superb in the opening two rounds. 

For Zebre, while two losses are a heartbreaking return, the team's performances have been exceptional, as they picked up two losing bonus points from each match to sit on four log points. 

Clearly, the people of Parma will want to remove the tag of perennial losers and ditch their nearly two-year losing streak. 

Unlike last season, a victory feels closer than ever, and with three upcoming home matches, it would be fitting for them to do so then. 

On the other side of the Italian divide, Benetton picked up a gutsy road win in Cardiff in Round 1, only to blunder away a victory against reigning champion Munster at home. 

In the end, a draw was a disappointing returning for Marco Bortolami’s team, which outplayed the visitors for the bulk of the contest. 

Irrespective of their slip-up, Benetton looked to be every bit a playoff team this season in what would be a huge step forward for Italian Rugby.

Budding Rivalries Continue To Emerge

Beating your closest rival is always sweet. However, in a league as internationally diverse as the URC, it is a major tip of the cap to the competition organizers that there already appears to be several international rivalries to go along with the local derbies. 

Outside of the traditional national rivalries, fixtures such as Leinster vs. Sharks, Glasgow vs. Munster or Cardiff vs. Benetton have become top billing. 

One such international fixture that quickly is entering this sphere is that of Ulster vs. the Vodacom Bulls. 

It's two sides, which on their day, are capable of beating anyone and likely are to be featuring in postseason action, so Sunday’s matchup in Belfast was a pulsating affair. 

Edging the encounter by seven points, Ulster kept its unbeaten start to the season going, but the Bulls gained a valuable losing bonus point.

The match itself was a titanic arm wrestle, which was dominated by physical forward confrontations, plus a sprinkling of backline brilliance. 

Setting the scene was Ulster hooker Tom Stewart, who barged over from a quick tap, before winger Jacob Stockdale got his team’s second score with a world-class finish. Like all South African teams, the Bulls were never out of it, as second row WJ Steenkamp brought Jake White’s team back into the reckoning. 

The fixture continued to be back and forth, adding an interesting layer to this new rivalry. 

Improved Dragons Mental Barriers Remain

The Dragons, like Zebre, are one of these teams that continually shows sign of improvements, only to come up heartbreakingly short. 

Two bonus-point losses in matches they could/should have won to open the season is a rather deflating return. 

Making things worse, is that the second loss was yet another Welsh derby loss to Cardiff, which scored a breakaway try through Mason Grady. This score would prove to be decisive and will leave the Dragons ruing what should have been a victory to build upon. 

The loss means the Dragons have lost 17 straight Welsh derby matches to Cardiff. 

Head coach Dai Flanagan spoke post match about the Dragons woes, "We seem to put pressure on ourselves against Cardiff and listen to the negativity of this run and how many we've lost. We need to turn up full of optimism, but the mindset is hard to shift until we win."

Edinburgh Has A Match Winner

Perhaps one of the most disappointing performers last season, Edinburgh at times looked to be one of the dark horses for a title run, only to implode down the stretch. 

Key to their issues was the fact that they were playing Scotland star Blair Kinghorn at fly-half, rather than his preferred fullback. 

Having acquired Munster star Ben Healy in the offseason, the now Scottish international looks every bit the player for which Edinburgh could have hoped. 

Having played second fiddle to Jack Crowley and Joey Carbery for the majority of his Munster career, Healy showed his class in Munster’s run to the title. 

In that period, he forced Carbery out of the match 23 to become a super sub who had several crunch moments. 

In the opening two rounds of this season, Healy once again has been the difference, as Edinburgh closed out two narrow victories against the Dragons and Lions in what will be crucial psychological victories. 

While it wasn’t pretty on other occasions, these are clashes Edinburgh  previously would have lost. 

For Healy, the opportunity to start regularly is exactly what he needs if he is going to push Finn Russell for Scottish No. 10 shirt.