URC Reaching A Decisive Stage As Teams Jostle For Finishing Position On Log


The Vodacom United Rugby Championship returns this weekend after a quiet period while the Guinness Six Nations was being played and with three rounds to go the competition has reached a decisive stage as the teams jostle for finishing position on the final log.

The headline game of the weekend is surely the one on Friday between the table-topping Leinster and the champions, the DHL Stormers, who also happens to be second on the log and poised to repeat their feat last year of finishing as runners-up in the league phase if they can retain their current momentum.

But the game at the RDS Arena is not the only one on a weekend which could have a significant impact on finishing order and the chances the various teams have of finishing in the positions they want to heading into the play-offs and of course also with qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup in mind.

The ongoing narrative around the South African north/south derby clashes might easily dupe some into thinking that the tussle for URC supremacy is an ongoing series of battles between the DHL Stormers and Bulls, but of course that isn’t the case.

Indeed, this weekend the Cape team will find themselves in the rare position of being supporters of the Vodacom Bulls, who they beat in the inaugural final to become the first winners of the trophy. For the Bulls are travelling to Belfast to play Ulster in a game that will impact on the Stormers’ quest for a top two finish.

As it stands, the Stormers have a five point advantage on third placed Ulster with three games to go. So a Bulls win, or even if they just deny the Belfast team a bonus point, will be a huge help for the Stormers. With the Stormers already installed as local Shield champions again, they will have a lot to gain from a good Bulls performance.

Leinster are really too far ahead now to be caught in the battle for top position on the final log but Friday night’s top of the table clash will give a good indication of what might happen should the two teams meet again in the final. The sides have met just once before, but not too much should be read into the Stormers’ win in Cape Town last April as Leinster sent a second string team to South Africa.

There’s a chance Leinster might be relatively understrength again as there was talk of the Ireland international players being rested just one week after the end of their successful Six Nations campaign, particularly as the Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 comes up next and there’s no secret how desperately Leinster want to be kings of Europe once more.

The Stormers will be close to full strength, at least in a manner of speaking. The qualification is an acknowledgement that while Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie and the other Boks who have just completed their resting protocols are back in training and will play in Dublin, they won’t have the sharpness and momentum that comes with having played recently.

For Stormers coach John Dobson the appearance of his Boks in Friday’s game is more about getting them ready for the following week’s important home round of 16 Heineken Champions Cup face-off against Harlequins. That’s not to say the Stormers won’t be going to the RDS with every intention of winning, and Dobson said a few weeks back that his men will give it their best shot.

They do have a lot to gain from bringing points back from Dublin if you look at the narrow gap between the Stormers and Ulster. And after sending a very much Currie Cup strength team to Loftus last week and winning against a full strength Bulls URC team in the second round of the domestic competition, neither will the Stormers be holding out much hope of a Bulls win.

Winning is important for the Bulls though, as they need to halt what has now become a six match losing sequence in all competitions. With games against Leinster and Zebre to come after this, the Bulls’ position in the Champions Cup qualification bracket is suddenly looking precarious. Or will be if that losing sequence stretches to seven.

Should they fail, the Cell C Sharks, who are also welcoming back a phalanx of top Boks this weekend, stand to go past them on the log by beating Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday. A few months back this looked an easy game for the Sharks, but the Welsh side was galvanised by their recent good win over the Bulls and are suddenly playing with a lot of spirit, as evidenced by their recent gutsy fightback against Munster.

Speaking of Munster, they are also involved in what could be a tense top part of the table spat this weekend when they play Glasgow Warriors. Munster have two games against the Sharks in their future, one in the Champions Cup and the other in the URC, plus a visit to Cape Town, so it could be argued theirs is also a desperate need to win. However Glasgow are fighting to make their impressive first season under Franco Smith’s coaching meaningful by clinching a top four finish.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures

Zebre v Cardiff Rugby (Parma, Friday 21.10)
Leinster v DHL Stormers (Dublin, Friday 21.35)
Ospreys v Dragons (Swansea, Saturday 15.00)
Benetton v Emirates Lions (Treviso, Saturday 15.00)
Connacht v Edinburgh (Galway, Saturday 17.00)
Scarlets v Cell C Sharks (Llanelli, Saturday 19.00)
Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Limerick, Saturday 19.15)
Ulster v Vodacom Bulls (Belfast, Saturday 21.35)