URC – It’s Wide Open But Irish Duo Sound Ominous Warnings

 

In all but one instance the teams in their last chance saloon managed to keep their Vodacom United Rugby Championship hopes alive in round 16, thus ensuring that with two rounds to go there are still 10 teams in the hunt.

The odd one out was the Ospreys, who came away with nothing from their trip to Dublin, where Leinster produced one of two statement performances of the weekend as they shrugged off a loose period midway through the first half to bury their opponents under a second half landslide.

Speaking of statement performances and Irish teams, the other big statement of the weekend was Munster’s comfortable win over Connacht, thus tipping their fellow Irish side into last chance saloon mode when they host the DHL Stormers in Galway this coming Saturday.

While there were some one-sided results in the round, it was late shifts in two of the three games on South African soil that had the most profound influence on the log battle. The Hollywoodbets Sharks certainly didn’t help their fellow South African teams, the Stormers and Emirates Lions, by conceding the late try scored and converted by Jacob Umaga that kept Benetton’s challenge very much alive.

That result coupled with wins for Ulster and Edinburgh ensured that there is still a logjam in the positions behind the fifth placed Stormers, who themselves can’t feel completely safe even though they hit target with their late flurry of scoring that secured them a bonus point win over the Dragons in Newport at the start of the weekend. It was the first Stormers win overseas in the URC since they beat Zebre in Parma in October 2022.

The gap between fourth and fifth did not change at the weekend because both the Bulls and the Stormers picked up full points, but with one less game to play, and only two to go, that gap becomes more significant. A full house of points at home against Benetton in the penultimate round will be enough for the Bulls to make sure of a top four spot regardless of how the Stormers go in Galway and what they do in their final league game against the Sharks in Durban.

But the battle for top spot among the top four is intense, with just four points separating top placed Glasgow Warriors from the fourth placed Bulls. In that sense, the two bonus points the visitors picked up in the game at Loftus with their late flurry of scoring could prove highly significant.

Glasgow are one point ahead of Leinster with two games to go and two ahead of surging Munster, so with a game against last placed Zebre to come after that, their trip to Johannesburg to play the Lions this weekend becomes crucial for them. If they pick up full points, they will be pretty assured of a top place finish.

While it was supposed to be a knockout weekend, the only team to be really knocked out was the Ospreys, who with the magical figure of 51 points generally considered the target for safety in the battle for top eight spots, are probably too far behind now with 40 points and just two games to go.

If 51 is the target, the Stormers, who were poor most of the way before hitting their straps late against the Dragons, are just a solitary log point from being secure. But they will still be nervous after several other results went against them - the one in Durban for a start. The only South African team to lose was the only one that didn’t have anything riding on the game, the Sharks.

But there was a lot riding on the game for their opponents, Benetton, and by extension the Stormers and the Lions. Defeat in Durban would have been a hammer blow to the Italian team and effectively ended their challenge but now they remain a strong threat to the aspirations of both the Stormers and Lions.

With Leinster set to play Ulster this coming weekend and Munster having potentially tough clashes with Edinburgh (away) this coming Friday and then Ulster (home) in the final round, the Bulls might still be hopeful of finishing higher than their current fourth. Their last two games are against Benetton, who looked a bit injury ravaged after the Sharks game and should be beaten, before they go to Durban for a potentially tricky finish against the Sharks.

One of the reasons the Bulls need to get up the log from a South African viewpoint is because it looks increasingly likely the Stormers will finish fifth, and fourth plays fifth in the quarterfinal round. It would be better for the Bulls to host an overseas team, and better for South Africa as a whole to avoid a scenario like last year where only one team can make the semifinal round.