GARETH DUNCAN looks at the Saffas who have impressed in the leagues around the world over the weekend.
Ulster’s 45-7 drubbing of Aironi in Belfast was a crucial win. It confirmed that the Northern Irish club had succeeded in overcoming a poor patch of form in the first half of the season (when they suffered six of their seven defeats), and they now have a chance of sneaking into a semi-final spot on the table with only three rounds remaining in the current Pro12 campaign.
The victory over Aironi last Friday momentarily lifted Ulster into the top four on the table with 55 log points, but Glasgow beat the Cardiff Blues 31-3 on Saturday to jump back into fourth spot with 56 log points. With Munster (third with 56 log points) and Ospreys (second with 58 log points) within reach in the standings, the play-off race is still wide open.
Scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar has been pivotal in Ulster’s late charge, which includes an unbeaten run in March. The former Sharks halfback kicked 36 points in the club’s four consecutive victories over Aironi (11 points in 45-7 win), Treviso (12 points in 27-23 win), Edinburgh (eight points in 38-16 win) and Ospreys (five points in 15-14 win). Since joining Ulster last season, Pienaar has scored 262 points in 37 outings.
Ulster now need a strong run in a challenging finish to the Pro12 league phase. They face Connacht away before hosting current log leaders Leinster and defending champions Munster in their last three round-robin fixtures. There’s also the European Cup quarter-final against Munster this Sunday.
Pienaar will be expected to play a key part from the kicking tee and in general play in these matches, and he will be supported by a strong South African contingent. No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, who scored a try in Ulster’s Aironi triumph, and team captain Johann Muller have both recently recovered from injury and will play leadership roles up front. Loose forward Robbie Diack and fullback Stefan Terblanche have also been regular starters and will want to continue their impressive form.
Elsewhere in the Pro12, loosehead prop Heinke van der Merwe and replacement hooker Richardt Strauss were physical in the forwards battle in Leinster’s 18-9 Irish derby win over props BJ Botha and Wian du Preez’s Munster in Limerick. Hooker Ethienne Reynecke was solid in Connacht’s 27-19 away win over wing Tonderai Chavhanga’s Newport Gwent Dragons.
In the French Top 14, Racing Metro fullback Frans Steyn, who will return to South Africa after officially announcing his departure from the club at the end of the season, scored a try in the 27-16 win over reserve scrumhalf Rory Kockott and prop Michael Coetzee’s Castres. Lock Francois van der Merwe and No 8 Jacques Cronje also started for the victors in an ill-disciplined match that saw four yellow cards issued.
Wing Rudi Coetzee dotted down for one of Perpignan’s five tries in their 47-9 thrashing of flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter and lock Rob Linde’s Bayonne. Potgieter kicked three first-half penalties. Eighthman Antonie Claassen scored a telling try in Brive’s 14-9 win over lock Bakkies Botha’s Toulon.
In the English Premiership, director of rugby Gary Gold’s Newcastle Falcons picked up a vital 22-19 win over the Sale Sharks. Wings Corné Uys and Greg Goosen played a part in the relegation-threatened club’s victory.
Tighthead prop Brian Mujati was powerful with ball in hand in the Northampton Saints’ 26-6 thumping of scrumhalf Michael Claassens and hooker Peter Dixon’s Bath.