The Vodacom United Rugby Championship takes centre stage again during this coming weekend’s first break in the Guinness Six Nations season and for most teams, the stakes are high as they kick off the second half of the season.
The battles within a battle that make the URC so intriguing are all being closely fought, be it the quest for a top eight place that will secure a place in next season’s elite Investec Champions Cup and also a place in the URC playoffs, or for the top four position that will secure home ground advantage in the play-off phase for the teams at the sharp end.
Ulster’s win over Leinster in the New Year round of fixtures has pinned back the log leaders so that there is only an eight-point gap between them and the seventh-placed Edinburgh. Benetton meanwhile have been going about their business under the radar but with telling effect, to the point that they are now second on the log, just two points behind Leinster.
As it turns out, the two sides are set to clash in Dublin on Saturday, making it a top-of-the-table clash. There will be fringe players released from the national teams for this bye weekend but both sides will be significantly understrength as they provide the bulk of the two teams that clashed in Dublin in the Six Nations at the weekend. Benetton provides roughly two-thirds of the Italy team that started the 36-0 defeat and it is a similar story for Leinster and Ireland.
Both teams have been working hard at their depth, however, and will have plans in place. The Dublin game is though just one overseas game featuring teams that have to get it right if they want to hit their targets. For instance, the Ospreys, who are the team in eighth position and hence at the edge of the bracket for Champions Cup qualification, have a big and potentially decisive game this coming weekend as they host Ulster.
Ulster are fifth at present, in other words on the outside of the top four looking in, and could do with a good win as they will be heading to South Africa shortly for matches against the Hollywoodbets Sharks and the DHL Stormers. They are perhaps helped by the fact that they’ve got very little representation in the Ireland national side so should be close to full muster. Ospreys too haven’t got as many Wales internationals as they used to have, so Sunday’s game has the potential to be one of the games of the weekend.
Edinburgh will be hoping to have some fringe Scotland internationals back on Friday when they travel to Parma to play Zebre as they look to move up from their current seventh position - they’re level with the Stormers on points and the situation is starting to become desperate for the URC champions, Munster, who are 11th. They are away to struggling Scarlets on Friday night.
With Leinster and Benetton playing each other, Glasgow Warriors will be backing themselves to move back into the top two, at least, as they should have too much firepower for a struggling Dragons team that will be without a clutch of Welsh international players. Glasgow of course do supply the bulk of the Scotland team that lost narrowly to France at the weekend but they have a good record on their home ground of the Scotstoun.
It is the local derbies in Johannesburg and Durban that will grab most of the attention in South Africa, with two eagerly awaited match-ups having significant implications for the log and the teams’ chances of hitting the target from the league phase of the season, be that the top eight or top four.
The Vodacom Bulls, courtesy of their last-gasp win over the Emirates Lions in Pretoria a few weeks ago, are the best placed of the South African teams as they head into a fortnight of matches which sees the return clash with the Lions this week and then the huge home derby against the DHL Stormers in Pretoria two weeks later (2 March).
The URC Shield is decided only on clashes between the teams in the group this season, and the Stormers are ahead in that, but Stormers coach John Dobson himself said before Christmas that it would feel a bit flat if they win the Shield but the Bulls are ahead on the overall log.
The Bulls are currently fourth to the Stormers’ sixth but there are just four points separating the two teams. That could change in either direction between now and the end of the round due to be played in the first weekend of May, with the Sharks no doubt supremely motivated to turn their season around by beating the Stormers in Durban on Saturday.
Dobson’s men did well to turn their URC season around in December. They returned from a tour where they lost every game listing deep in the second half of the log, but wins over Zebre in Stellenbosch and the Bulls and Sharks over the festive week in Cape Town have enabled the Cape team to stabilise.
For them, it’s no longer a case of having to struggle to make the Champions Cup, which looked possible after their tour, but to chase another top-four position and home advantage in the first playoff game. But the Bulls are having a good season and will be sitting pretty on the log if they continue their momentum by winning the next two games ahead of their trip to Leinster at the end of March.
They were a tad fortunate though to get away with the win over the Lions in the first-round game, so an improvement will be necessary when they travel down the M1 highway from Pretoria to Johannesburg at the weekend. The Lions have much to play for as they are just two points outside of the top eight so have every chance of qualifying for the Champions Cup for the first time if the second half of their season goes well.
URC Weekend Fixtures
16 February 2024
21:35 Scarlets v Munster - Parc Y Scarlets
21:35 Zebre Parma v Edinburgh - Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi
17 February 2024
15:00 Emirates Lions v Vodacom Bulls - Emirates Airline Park
17:00 Leinster v Benetton - RDS Arena
17:05 Hollywoodbets Sharks v DHL Stormers - Hollywoodbets Kings Park
19:15 Cardiff Rugby v Connacht - Cardiff Arms Park
21:35 Glasgow Warriors v Dragons RFC -Scotstoun Stadium
18 February 2024
17:00 Ospreys v Ulster - Swansea.com Stadium
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