Full Round Of URC Will Have Big Impact On Playoff Prospects

 

The Vodacom United Rugby Championship returns to a full round this coming weekend and it is getting to that time of the competition when almost every game could have a big impact on where the teams will finish and who will play where in the playoff phase.

While the Emirates Lions did knock back the Glasgow Warriors' threat to the South African ambitions of getting two teams into the top four, meaning there’d be two playoff games in this country in the quarterfinal round, Ulster’s win in Durban in the doubleheader of derbies last weekend kept them on track in their battle with the DHL Stormers for second place.

The games played last week were the ones rescheduled from October when a gastro virus prevented Ulster and Glasgow from fulfilling their commitments against the Cell C Sharks and Lions respectively. So the log has now reached a point where the teams are all finally on level terms when it comes to games played. They’ve all played 14, meaning there are four to go.

With so few fixtures left in the league phase, it means the Stormers’ 13-point lead in the South African conference is significant, and it is unlikely to be closed. However, the five-point advantage over third-placed Ulster makes their second-place position more vulnerable, and it makes the two games the respective teams play this weekend more interesting and important.

Ulster goes to Cardiff on Friday night to play a team that will have the motivation of wanting to defend their current lead over the Ospreys in the battle for Welsh Shield honours. The Shield is extra important for the Welsh as it is possible that the Principality will again miss out on a top-eight position, which means the Shield will be relied on for qualification to next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.

The Stormers, as was the case two weeks ago when they played the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria the day after Ulster had lost to Glasgow, will know where they stand in relation to Ulster when they kick off against the Cell C Sharks at DHL Stadium on Saturday. If Ulster wins with a bonus point, it will heap the pressure on the Stormers as they will be all square.

The Sharks will be travelling to Cape Town with a lot of motivation as they desperately need to cement their position in the top seven, meaning Champions Cup qualification, as well as try and bid for a top four position if they can. With their Springboks due back in the mix the next time they play, an upset win could just be the start of a momentum that could make them a threat in the competition.

At this point it looks unlikely the Stormers will finish lower than third, meaning SA is almost certain to host at least one quarterfinal, though the Warriors should pick up maximum points when they host Zebre on Friday. The Bulls have dropped to sixth after their recent loss to the Stormers and need to do the business against the Lions at Loftus in the latter of the two South African games on Saturday if they want to maintain their challenge for fourth.

A glance at what is to come after this is instructive when it comes to establishing what is on the line this weekend. Both the Stormers and the Bulls face particularly tough assignments when the URC resumes after a three-week break towards the end of March. The Stormers head to Dublin for their first-ever away game against table-topping Leinster, and perhaps their first-ever clash with a full-strength Leinster too. Leinster came to South Africa under strength last year.

The Bulls, who are the only local team to have beaten Leinster at Leinster, will be hoping that experience helps them when they go to Belfast to play Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium on 25 March. For that game, the Stormers will find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being supporters of their arch-rivals from Pretoria.

The Bulls game is arguably Ulster’s toughest of their remaining fixtures, and if you consider Leinster must be favourites against the Stormers in Dublin, it does suggest the race for second will be a close one. Unless the Bulls help the Stormers out, or Cardiff does it this Friday. Whichever way you look at it, the Stormers do need to beat the Sharks despite the breathing space given them in the battle for Shield honours by their gutsy recent away win against the Bulls.

Munster, who plays the Scarlets this week, is positioned fifth and could also be problematic to the South African quest for two teams in the top four. In their case, though they have a particularly tough finish to the competition, with a difficult home fixture against Glasgow in late March being followed by a two-match tour of South Africa, where they face the Stormers and the Sharks.

Edinburgh is just outside the top eight and will carry a lot of motivation into their clash with Leinster on Saturday. Leinster remains unbeaten and is four matches away from completing a clean sweep.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures

Munster v Scarlets (Friday, 21.35)
Glasgow Warriors v Zebre (Friday, 21.35)
DHL Stormers v Cell C Sharks (Saturday, 14.30)
Vodacom Bulls v Emirates Lions (Saturday, 16.45)
Edinburgh v Leinster (Saturday, 19.05)
Ospreys v Benetton (Saturday, 19.15)
Dragons v Connacht (Saturday, 21.35)
Cardiff Rugby v Ulster (Saturday, 21.35)

Top eight points and remaining fixtures (all completed 14 games)

Leinster 66 - Edinburgh (A), Stormers (H), Lions (A), Bulls (A).
Stormers 54 - Sharks (H), Leinster (A), Munster (H), Benetton (H).
Ulster 49 - Cardiff Rugby (A), Bulls (H), Dragons (H), Edinburgh (H).
Glasgow Warriors 44 - Zebre (H), Munster (A), Scarlets (H), Connacht (H).
Munster 42 - Scarlets (H), Glasgow Warriors (H), Stormers (A), Sharks (A).
Bulls 41 - Lions (H), Ulster (A), Zebre (H), Leinster (H).
Sharks 40 - Stormers (A), Scarlets (A), Benetton (H), Munster (H).
Connacht 35 - Dragons (A), Edinburgh (H), Cardiff (H), Glasgow (A).