URC – URC Teams In Tense Jostle For Position Ahead Of Break


There should be an element of desperation around the approach of several Vodacom United Rugby Championship teams as they head this weekend into crunch games before going into a fortnight away from the competition.

Most of them will be in action in either in the Investec Champions Cup or the EPCR Challenge Cup before the URC returns just after the halfway point of April. As focussed as they may well be on the round of 16 ties they play once round 13 of the URC is over, the congestion on the log table means there could be significant shifts directed by this weekend’s results.

And with just five games to go after this, they’d want to return to URC action feeling they are in a solid position.

Significant shifts happened last week, with Ulster dropping from the top four to eighth because of their defeat to the Hollywoodbets Sharks in Durban, and Edinburgh found themselves paying for their inability to pick up even a losing bonus point against the DHL Stormers in Cape Town by being passed on the log by the Cape franchise.

Those two teams play the other coastal team in round 13, meaning Ulster are this time meeting the Stormers while Sean Everitt is taking his Edinburgh team to his old stomping ground at Hollywoodbets Kings Park. If the losers from last week can win this time, it will set themselves up for a swing in the reverse direction on the log and they will head back to the cusp of the top four, which signifies home ground advantage in the first playoff game.

But with all important Champions Cup places up for grabs for the teams positioned between six and 12, perhaps the game that comes closest to being a knock-out fixture in round 13 is the one in Treviso on Saturday afternoon.

Both ninth placed Connacht and 10th placed Benetton are still well in the race for top eight, as they are effectively locked together on the same number of log points just one behind the eighth placed Emirates Lions. Wins for the teams ahead of them though will leave the loser in Treviso more than a win behind the top eight, and with just five games to go after this, that gap could be potentially significant.

The Lions’ unexpected win in Galway, which was achieved with a try scoring bonus point while Connacht got nothing from the game, certainly hurt the Irish province, who were mounting a strong challenge for not only a top eight place but maybe even a place in the top four.

Top four will certainly be very distant if they lose in Italy, but ditto for their opponents, who inhabited the top four for most of the first half of the season before losing ground when their international players went away on Guinness Six Nations duty.

It was with an under-strength team that Benetton were upset by Scarlets in Llanelli last week in a game that was a reminder, along with the one in Durban, that log position often means nothing in the URC. Even the second Vodacom Bulls, although they won comfortably in the end, were in potential jeopardy against lowly Dragons until the final stages of their game.

The Bulls’ win set up a mouthwatering top of the table clash against top placed Leinster in Dublin on Friday night. Bulls coach Jake White is talking about it being a Test match and in one sense he is certainly right - all the indications are that his opponents will have their Ireland internationals back in action. And that means Leinster will be pretty much a shadow Ireland team as they had 16 players in the Ireland 23 for the last Six Nations game against Scotland.

Leinster did comfortably win against the Bulls in the very first meeting between these sides in the inaugural season but since then it has been the Bulls who have prevailed - they notably upset Leinster in the 2021/2022 semi-final and then of course they scored what was a record defeat for Leinster at Loftus last season.

Leinster were significantly understrength for that game but they should still be smarting at the ignominy of that moment in their history, and it should add to the motivation for their first choice players to make a point on Friday night. Although the Bulls are far from being a quasi-Springbok side, the game could still be an interesting appetiser for the July series between the No1 and No2 sides in the world on South African soil.

If the Bulls can win away against Leinster, and for a second time, it will certainly help erode any aura of invincibility in an Irish international team that hasn’t lost a game to the Boks since the 2016 series decider in what was then Port Elizabeth and is now Gqeberha.

Regardless of what happens in Dublin though, if the Lions can cement their place in the top eight by beating Ospreys, and the Stormers can maintain their position, South African rugby could derive further confidence ahead of the international season from the state of the URC. At this point, three teams in the top four is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Vodacom United Rugby Championship round 13 fixtures
Leinster v Vodacom Bulls (Dublin, Friday 21:35)
Dragons v Zebre (Newport, Friday 21:35)
Benetton v Connacht (Treviso, Saturday 15:00)
Hollywoodbets Sharks v Edinburgh (Durban, Saturday 15:00)
Ospreys v Emirates Lions (Swansea, Saturday 17:05)
DHL Stormers v Ulster (Cape Town, Saturday 19:15)
Scarlets v Glasgow Warriors (Llanelli, Saturday 21:.35)
Munster v Cardiff Rugby (Limerick, Saturday 21:35)