A top four finish is beyond them but visits to South Africa by Irish provinces Leinster and Munster will go a long way towards determining whether the Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks will be at the party when the Vodacom United Rugby Championship Finals Series arrives.
Leinster also hold the key to the Emirates Lions’ chances of completing a stunning comeback by clinching a top eight spot, while Munster will have a say in the DHL Stormers’ strong quest for a repeat of the second placed finish that gave them a significant leg up on the road to the overall URC title last season.
While there was much focus on the matches played by the Stormers and Bulls against the top two Irish provinces, Leinster and Ulster, at the weekend, the convincing win that Franco Smith’s Glasgow Warriors scored away from home against Munster may well have been the most telling and impactful result of the 16th round of the 2022/2023 edition of the URC.
TAKING LEAVE OF THE CHASING PACK
It was that game that saw the top four finally take leave of the chasing pack by putting daylight between themselves and the rest. There are now six points separating fourth placed Glasgow from fifth placed Munster, and that should be too much of a lead with just two games to go.
So the battle for home advantage in the quarterfinals is effectively done and dusted. Both the Bulls and the Sharks thought they were still in with a chance of joining the Stormers in playing at home in the first play-off weekend. That thought was scuppered by the Glasgow win coupled with the failure of the Bulls and the Sharks to get any log points from their visits to Ulster and the Scarlets respectively.
But while the two South African teams will be disappointed, they may have been encouraged by what happened in Limerick. The ease with which the Warriors dealt with Munster on their home turf, and at one stage they held a really big lead, came as a surprise, and should also be encouraging to the Sharks and Stormers, who face the Irish team in the last two rounds of the competition.
A Munster fade at the end of the season to match their poor start to the Graham Rowntree era as coach should encourage the Bulls too. Munster are still catchable for both South African teams, who are currently down in seventh and eighth and struggling just to make the play-offs and qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
LEINSTER MAY TRAVEL UNDERSTRENGTH
Two losses for Munster in South Africa will make it possible for both the Bulls and Sharks to overtake them on the log provided they win both their remaining matches. But here is the catch - although the Bulls will be playing both games at home, one of their remaining fixtures is against Leinster.
The perennial champions in the URC’s previous incarnation as the Guinness PRO14 clinched top spot when they managed to get three log points from their tough, intense clash with the second placed Stormers at the weekend. Which might suit the Bulls if it means Leo Cullen opts to send an under-strength team to South Africa, where they also play the Emirates Lions, who are suddenly charging and in strong contention for a top eight finish.
But those who’ve been following the URC for a while will tell you that there is no such thing as a weak Leinster team, no matter which players are selected. And this past weekend’s draw at the RDS Arena was an example of that - although Leinster were without their Ireland Six Nations winners, they still had more international players than the Stormers and twice as many URC caps.
Leinster are renowned for their depth, and neither the Bulls nor the Lions will find them easy to play against, even given their big ally, which is the altitude. In fact, mention of altitude cues the possibility that Leinster might want to embrace the challenge of winning at Loftus and Emirates Airlines Park, and let’s not forget they have a score to settle with the Bulls, who knocked them out of the competition in last year’s semifinal.
STORMERS STILL NEED TO WIN BOTH
The Stormers’ quest for second was helped by the two points they picked up in the draw in Dublin, but the Bulls’ failure to hold onto the strong advantage they built in the first half against Ulster in Belfast means that the Stormers will probably have to win their remaining two games to be sure of second. Ulster have a relatively easy run-in to the end of the league phase with fixtures against the Dragons and the out of form Edinburgh.
The Stormers will be confident they can do the business in their last game against Benetton, so the clash with Munster on 15 April has become all important to them.
The Connacht thrashing of Leinster in Galway at the weekend has lifted them to sixth, meaning there are now four Irish provinces in the top six of the URC log, the Stormers and Warriors being the odd men out. Connacht face Cardiff next and that will be a tough game as Cardiff still hold a slender lead over the Ospreys, who easily dealt with the Dragons at the weekend, in the battle for the Welsh Shield.
With the Lions hovering just outside the top eight, and a logjam between positions five and 11 on the current log, the last two rounds are going to be decisive and the visits to South Africa by the two Irish teams will go a long way towards both determining who finishes in the top eight and the finishing order.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Zebre 30 Cardiff 34
Leinster 22 DHL Stormers 22
Ospreys 37 Dragons 19
Benetton 28 Emirates Lions 32
Connacht 41 Edinburgh 26
Scarlets 32 Cell C Sharks 20
Munster 26 Glasgow Warriors 38
Ulster 32 Vodacom Bulls 23
Remaining matches for SA teams (all at home)
Stormers: Munster, Benetton.
Bulls: Zebre, Leinster.
Sharks: Benetton, Munster.
Lions: Leinster, Zebre.
Remaining matches for other teams in top eight contention
Leinster: Lions (away), Bulls (away)
Ulster: Dragons (away), Edinburgh (home)
Glasgow Warriors: Scarlets (away), Connacht (home)
Munster: Stormers (away), Sharks (away)
Connacht: Cardiff (home), Glasgow (away)
Benetton: Sharks (away), Stormers (away)
Cardiff: Connacht (away), Ospreys (away)