A Lot To Play For In The Penultimate Round Of The United Rugby Championship


The Vodacom United Rugby Championship is heading into an exciting and what could be a decisive penultimate round this weekend and there isn’t a game in the competition that doesn’t have something riding on it.

Perhaps the only one that isn’t a win at all costs for both teams is the one in Glasgow that will be played on Friday night between the Warriors and Scarlets, but even then the Warriors need to win to be absolutely sure of a top four finish, meaning a home quarterfinal, while the Scarlets are still harbouring hopes of an unlikely win in the Welsh Shield.

For the rest, there’s a lot of win or bust, and even some of the games involving teams well out of the top eight have Shield aspirations on the line. Locally, there is a Johannesburg double-header at Emirates Airlines Park featuring the Vodacom Bulls in the role of playing the curtain-raiser against Zebre to the Emirates Lions’ big clash with Leinster later on Saturday afternoon.

The big local game of the weekend though is probably the one in Cape Town as the DHL Stormers go out to shake off the disappointment of last week’s poor performance in their exit from the Heineken Champions Cup by beating Munster at the DHL Stadium on Saturday. They have to win if they want to keep in check the ambitions of Ulster, who are chasing them hard, in the battle for second spot.

Ulster hosts the Dragons this week and should pick up five points so the pressure is on the Cape side, who are currently two points ahead of the third-placed team.

For the other South African sides, it is win or forget about playing in the Champions Cup next year. Entry into the more elite of the two European competitions requires a top-seven finish.

Both the Cell C Sharks and the Bulls should be favoured to win against Benetton and Zebre respectively, with their tough games coming up the following weekend, when the Bulls host Leinster and the Sharks host Ulster.

What both coaches will be looking for though is the big win that will help their momentum going into the final league games and then hopefully the playoff phase that will follow that.

The Lions, so impressive over the past month and a bit, can keep their hopes of sneaking into the playoffs alive if they upset Leinster in Johannesburg. Conversely, defeat will leave them out of the race and short of their target for the season.

It is not just the games involving the South African teams that have a lot riding on them this weekend, all eight of them do, as outlined in the summary of the weekend fixtures below.

Round 15 Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures and what they mean:

Cell C Sharks v Benetton (Durban, Friday 18:30)
The Sharks are currently eighth, which by the standards they set themselves, means they are languishing. Their hopes of URC play-off and Champions Cup qualification will be seriously dented if they lose to the Italian team, who won the Rainbow Cup two seasons ago, as Benetton are currently just one point behind the Sharks on the log. By Sharks’ director Neil Powell’s reckoning, the Sharks can finish anywhere between fifth and out of the playoff bracket, and it goes without saying he won’t want the latter. Neither will the Sharks’ supporters.

Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets (Glasgow, Friday 20:35)
Glasgow is in imperious form and although the Emirates Lions lived with them quite well after initially going behind 14-0 in the Challenge Cup quarterfinal last week, they appear to be gaining momentum. While a top-eight finish is now unlikely for the Scarlets, who are 13th, eight points behind the eighth-placed Sharks, they do have a chance of qualifying for Europe by winning the Welsh Shield. They are six points behind the Shield leaders, Cardiff. Glasgow knows defeat will mean their top-four finish, which means a home quarterfinal, is still not secured. Their lead on fifth-placed Munster is currently six points.

Ulster v Dragons (Belfast, Friday 20:35)
There is nothing in this game for the Dragons, who are second last, but Ulster needs to win with a bonus point to maintain the pressure on the Stormers in the race for the runner-up position that will ease their passage through the playoffs.

Vodacom Bulls v Zebre (Johannesburg, Saturday 13:00)
The Bulls are seventh, just two points ahead of the Sharks, so their situation is similar to that of the Durbanites. They should have regained some confidence with their win over Griquas in the Currie Cup last weekend as it broke a long sequence of defeats for the union and franchise and a bonus point win over Zebre will be needed to ensure they go into their final league game against Leinster the following week feeling that European qualification is a bit more secure.

Emirates Lions v Leinster (Johannesburg, Saturday 16:00)
If they can get maximum points from their remaining two games, the resurgent Lions will find themselves on 48 points and that would probably be enough for them to make at least the URC playoffs if not qualification for the Champions Cup. So they have plenty to play for against the table-topping team from Dublin. A defeat will end the Lions’ challenge for what they set as their season goal, meaning a top eight finish.

DHL Stormers v Munster (Cape Town, Saturday 18:15)
The Stormers’ recent draw against Leinster was of crucial significance as the two points they got from that game is what separates them from third-placed Ulster. With Benetton visiting the following week, the Cape side will consider this the harder of the two games they need to win to ensure their top two finish.

Edinburgh v Ospreys (Edinburgh, Saturday 20:35)
The Ospreys are a lowly 12th on the log but they are only four points adrift of Wales Shield leaders Cardiff so a win for them against an Edinburgh team that has been disappointing this season will be worth gold, particularly if Cardiff trip up in Galway in a game that will be played at the same time as the one at the DAM Health Stadium in Edinburgh.

Connacht v Cardiff Rugby (Galway, Saturday 20:35)
Connacht, by their standards, is styling at the moment, and they have the carrot of knowing that if they win and get a bonus point they could lift to fifth if the Stormers beat Munster. At home, Connacht is always more difficult to play against and Cardiff might struggle to get the win they need to keep Ospreys at bay in the battle for the Welsh Shield. A Connacht win will ensure their playoff spot.