Leinster took advantage of Ulster’s narrow defeat to the DHL Stormers in Cape Town by opening up a five-point gap at the top of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship log that the opposing teams will know they may struggle to make up.
And with Munster bouncing back from their two losses in South Africa with a comprehensive 51-22 win against Benetton, the normal order of business at the top of the log was restored, with the top three places all taken by Irish teams. Before the weekend the Glasgow Warriors had been third, but they lost unexpectedly in a classic game against Cardiff, who bounced back from a 40-3 defeat in Cape Town the week before with a thrilling come from behind win.
That result, and the others recorded by teams who had returned home from unsuccessful tours of South Africa, was one encouraging aspect of the latest round for the local teams. To beat Glasgow as they did, Cardiff can’t be as bad as they were made to look by the Stormers. Munster’s big win also put the victories by the Vodacom Bulls and Emirates Lions against them on the highveld into perspective and it will be interesting to see how they go in the first of two derbies between the two arch-rivals in Limerick this coming Saturday night.
While the Cell C Sharks’ unexpected defeat to Edinburgh in a wet weather game in Durban hurt all three contending South African teams, who will now find it harder to move past Edinburgh on the log as the battle for top eight places and home-field advantage in the playoffs heats up, it was balanced out by the Warriors defeat.
Both Scottish teams are now potentially vulnerable to the South African quest for a top-four spot as they are not far beyond the striking range of the top local challengers. Those top local challengers at present are the Stormers, who went to the top of the South African Shield with their win over Ulster. They are seven points behind Glasgow and five behind Edinburgh but have a game in hand on both.
The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks will be hoping that the Emirates Lions will assist them by again using altitude to their advantage with their quick-paced game when they face the team from the Scottish capital in Johannesburg on Saturday afternoon. With the Lions now building winning momentum after three straight successes, they could well do that.
However, it is the restored Irish hegemony that the South African sides will most like to break, as the performance turned in by Ulster in their narrow defeat in Cape Town underlined just how difficult it will be to beat the top Irish sides in an away playoff game. Even Stormers coach John Dobson acknowledged that Ulster did everything right against his team but win.
Yet the fact that the Stormers did get over the line while not playing particularly well after the 20th minute and being dominated in the battle for territory does have to be seen as a sign of hope. You need to remember too that Ulster has won both matches against Leinster in the league phase of the competition.
Leinster started to stamp their authority in the second half against Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway, but in the first half Connacht, who just pipped the Stormers at home a few weeks ago, gave an indication that Leinster can be disrupted. The South African teams would do well to study a video of the first half, where Connacht gave better than they got and appeared to stun Leinster by disrupting their game. That was even though they lost centre, Tom Daly, to a red card for a shoulder charge in just the third minute of the game.
The South African coaches may well be thinking to themselves that if Connacht can be ahead against Leinster at halftime even though they were down to 14 men for almost the entire half, then the perennial champions of this competition in its previous incarnation as the PRO14 are not invincible.
But no one will be wanting to play Leinster at their home ground of RDS Arena in Dublin in a semi-final or final, and the chances of them being caught by any of the local sides are getting more fanciful by the week. They come to South Africa in the second half of April to play the Sharks and the Stormers and that will provide an opportunity for one or both of those teams to hurt Leinster’s advantage on the log, but they will have to lose a game or two before they travel if there is to be any prospect of them being caught by a team from this country.
Although Munster has already toured, catching the team from Limerick might be a more realistic prospect, while the Bulls can do themselves and the Stormers and Sharks a huge favour by using the altitude and early afternoon kick-off to their advantage when they face off with the Belfast team at Loftus on Saturday.
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