URC preview: SA teams hope to benefit from Irish inconsistency

rugby01 March 2024 06:00
By:Gavin Rich
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Bulls @ Getty Images

The Ireland national team may be dominating the Six Nations but there hasn’t yet been the dominance by teams from that nation of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship that we saw last season and the top South African teams will be hoping to benefit from their inconsistency.

As Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White correctly stated during the week ahead of his team’s massive north/south derby against the DHL Stormers at Loftus, every team has one clear mission - make the top two on the final log, and you have a great chance of hosting in the playoff phase all the way to the final.

Beating the Stormers on Saturday evening will considerably ease the Bulls’ task, for the Cape side are arguably the Bulls’ toughest home opponents in the eight games that remain in the league phase of the URC season. But even if they don’t manage to win, the Bulls will still be well placed for at the very least a top-four finish, and so will the Stormers.

Having two teams in the top four, thus meaning there are two games on South African soil in the first weekend of the Finals Series, will equal the feat in the inaugural season, where the Stormers and Bulls finished in the top four, and Sharks were just outside of the bracket, in fifth.


The Sharks of course have fallen off the wagon since then and after finishing eighth last year they have dropped right out of top-eight contention this season, but the Emirates Lions, who host the Sharks in what for them is a must-win earlier game on Saturday, are in with a shout at making the top eight.

Two in the top four and three in the top eight will certainly make up for the disappointment of last season, when just the beaten finalists, the Stormers, got to host a playoff game, which just happened to be against the only other local top-eight finisher, the Bulls. That scenario decreed that there was only one South African team in a semifinal line-up 75 per cent dominated by Irish teams.

Much hinges for the Bulls and Stormers, but also the Lions, on the form of the Irish teams. Leinster haven’t dominated the log to the extent they did in the first two URC seasons, but otherwise the Irish have struggled in comparison to this time last year, when it was usually Leinster and Ulster in first and second position on the log. Seventh-placed Ulster are the only other Irish team in the top eight, with Munster ninth and Connacht 10th.

Of course, Munster and Connacht are in a similar position to this time last season, so Irish domination may still happen. And a stunning turnaround of fortunes when related to the log could even happen in this weekend’s 11th round. With just four points separating 10th from fourth, Connacht, could make it as high as fifth if some other results go their way. And ditto for Munster.

But Ireland getting more than leaders Leinster into the top four is not the racing certainty it was this time last year and improvements are going to be needed by all three Irish provinces that are lagging.


There is certainly plenty of pressure on those teams, and many eyes will be on Ulster in particular at the weekend as they start life without their long-serving former coach Dan McFarland. Last season they pipped the Stormers to second on the log, but although they did score a rare win over Leinster in a festive season derby, they have struggled for consistency in 2023/24.

It was a record that read just three wins in their last nine games that led to McFarland being axed mid-season, and the upheaval that ensued after that decision demands some kind of response in Ulster’s home game against the Dragons on Saturday. They will be expected to beat the Welsh team, but then that was also the expectation when they went away to another Welsh team, the Ospreys, last time out.

Dan Soper has taken over as coach for this game. Ireland Under-20 head coach Richie Murphy, who is the early favourite to become the full-time head coach, will steer the ship once the international season is over.

Ulster’s performance will be closely watched and analysed by the South African teams, not just because of the potential threat the Belfast team poses on the log, but also because they are set to tour this country at the end of the month. Ulster will face the Sharks and Stormers in a tour that could make or break their challenge.


Soper has called on every member of Ulster Rugby to take collective responsibility for McFarland’s sacking and in his words there was the hint of a potential bounce back from the team driven by acceptance of ownership for what happened to McFarland.

“This is not one person’s responsibility, whether we’re good, bad or indifferent, it’s not one person’s responsibility. We’re in this together and we all have to own what has happened,” said Soper to the Irish media.

“It’s not nice. It’s not a comfortable thing to have sitting on your shoulders that in some way you may be partly responsible, so I’ve just asked the group that the best way that we can react to it is to react in a really positive way and make sure that this turmoil was worth it. The only way we can do that is to go out and perform when we cross the white line on Saturday night.”

A big performance, thus telegraphing a potential turn-around, will be seen as a warning by the SA teams currently profiting from Ulster’s absence from the top part of the log.


Munster should have too much for Zebre at home on Friday night which, as said earlier, could see them go as high as fourth or fifth, while Connacht too can do a lot of climbing by getting the better of their visitors, Scarlets.

In terms of the quest for top four spots, the big games outside of the Pretoria clash that so many South Africans are focussed on are Edinburgh (6th) hosting the eighth-placed Ospreys on Friday night, and second-placed Glasgow Warriors travelling to Treviso on Saturday to face fourth-placed Benetton in a game that also operates as a top-of-the-table clash in the Scotland/Italy Shield.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (round 11)

Munster v Zebre (Friday, 9.35pm)

Edinburgh v Ospreys (Friday, 9.35pm)

Emirates Lions v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Saturday, 3pm)

Benetton v Glasgow Warriors (Saturday, 5pm)

Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers (Saturday, 5.05pm)

Connacht v Scarlets (Saturday, 7.05pm)

Cardiff Rugby v Leinster (Saturday, 9.35pm)

Ulster v Dragons (Saturday, 9.35pm)