URC SCENE SETTER: Upsets possible as five nations focus on playoffs

rugby06 June 2024 15:00
By:Gavin Rich
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DHL Stormers © Gallo Images

There are five nations represented at the start of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship Finals Series, which kicks off with this weekend’s quarterfinals, but upsets will be required for the cosmopolitan nature of the competition to be retained into the semifinal round.

For the first time all five participating nations will feature in the eight team quarterfinal phase, with the Welsh getting their first representation in this phase of the competition since it morphed from being the PRO14 into the URC three seasons ago when the Ospreys broke the Emirates Lions’ hearts by scoring a bonus point win away against Cardiff in the final league game.

With Benetton beating Edinburgh last week in what was effectively a playoff game to secure a journey to Loftus and a meeting with the formidable Vodacom Bulls, Italy will also be featuring in a URC playoff for the first time.

Although the cross-hemisphere nature of the competition made it unique, in the first two seasons only three nations were represented in the playoffs. In the first season there were three South African teams, three Irish teams and two Scottish teams, whereas last year there were four Irish teams, three South Africans and the sole Scottish representative, the Glasgow Warriors.

This year the national representation is three from Ireland, two from South Africa (the Hollywoodbets Sharks drop out) and one each from Scotland, Italy and Wales.


It just makes logical sense that having a Welsh team in the quarterfinal phase adds Welsh eyes to the viewership, and ditto Italy. So it was understandable that URC chief executive Martin Anayi was excited about what he called the “pan nation” nature of the first playoff games. But he was particularly effused by the Ospreys being in, as he remembers what success did for Welsh interest when the Scarlets won what was at that point the PRO12 in the 2016/17 season.

“We definitely saw when the Scarlets were winning the league that attendances were up,” said Anayi.

“The Welsh audience want to support a winning team. When we had Scarlets winning the league we were in pretty good shape in Wales and Ospreys are the side ranked second with league wins. We had good audiences through those years so success is a good driver in URC with Welsh teams.

“Hopefully the teams are going to be strong in the next couple of years and we will see that bounce back. The interest hasn't actually diminished in Wales, it's still growing. It's just not growing as fast in the other countries, it is our job to increase that.”

With all the teams in Wales looking youthful and therefore promising for the future as Welsh rugby goes through a generational changing of the guard at playing level, Anayi has reason to be optimistic. The prospects of the Welsh interest extending into the semifinal phase though aren’t great in the short term, as the Ospreys’ eighth placed finish sends them to champions and log winners Munster for Friday night’s opening game in Limerick.

A major upset will be required to keep Welsh interests in the competition alive, and the same can be said for the Italian focus, as the Benetton have a mountain to climb if they want to win at altitude against the Bulls at Fortress Loftus.


It has been such a competitive season in the URC though that no-one will be writing the Ospreys off. They beat the Stormers in Cape Town, the only team to win at the Stormers’ home ground in the competition this season and only the second team to win there since 2021. The theory is that if they can win at DHL Stadium, they can win anywhere, including Thomond Park.

The Stormers, who haven’t had the stars align for them quite as much as they did in the previous two seasons, will be hoping that alignment can start happening again with an Ospreys win against Munster as they would then be in line to host a semifinal in Cape Town. They are seeded higher than the Ospreys and are on the same side of the Finals Series draw.

First though the Stormers would have to score their first ever win at the Glasgow Warriors home ground of the Scotstoun in one of two games on Saturday that rival each other for the status of plum fixture of the quarterfinal round.

The other is the match that takes place just before that in Dublin between Leinster and Ulster.


In previous years it would have been unheard of for the two Irish provinces, who have been in the top three in each of the two URC seasons, to be pitted against one another this early in the playoffs. But that is the kind of season it has been, with lots of unexpected results, and Leinster have fallen off their perch of the previous seasons to drop to third, while Ulster finished sixth.


The recent match in Belfast between the two sides, won by Ulster in dramatic style with a long range last gasp penalty kick, was though a high quality exhibition of rugby and perfectly showcased just how strong Irish rugby is currently. Leinster will start as favourites at the AVIVA Stadium but Ulster will be buoyed by the knowledge that they have beaten their rivals twice this season.

The pressure in this game should squarely be on Leinster given that they lost narrowly in the Investec Champions Cup final for the third successive year and really need to win the URC to get some form of silverware out of the season.

Leinster were knocked out by the Bulls in the semifinal stage in the inaugural season and by Munster last year and will be driven to reclaim the champion status they enjoyed for most of the final PRO14 years.

A rematch with the Bulls, this time at Loftus, is on the cards if they do win, as that is where they will have to go if they win and the Bulls win against Benetton. That would be a mouth-watering match up and the perfect appetiser for what will be a massive showdown at the same venue just a few weeks later between the No 1 and No 2 international teams in the world, the Springboks and Ireland.

The Bulls won comfortably when the two teams played a league game at Loftus a few weeks ago, but as any coach or player will tell you, a playoff is different.

Whereas Benetton were on a two match tour when they were in Pretoria in May, and had hit their target by beating the Sharks the week before, this time it is a one off and they will be seeking a win rather than a consolation albeit ultimately important bonus point as was the case last time.

Vodacom United Rugby Championship quarterfinals

QF1: Munster (1) v Ospreys (8) (Thomond Park, Limerick - Friday 8:35pm)

QF2: Vodacom Bulls (2) v Benetton (7) (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Saturday 3:30pm)

QF3: Leinster (3) v Ulster (6) (Aviva Stadium, Dublin - Saturday 6pm)

QF4: Glasgow Warriors (4) v DHL Stormers (5) (Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow - Saturday 8:35pm)

Semifinals: Winners of QF1 v winners of Q4; Winners of QF2 v winners of QF3.