It’s survival of the fiercest and fittest in the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Eight sides are left standing – three from Ireland, three from South Africa, and two from Scotland.
They’ll break new ground in the inaugural knockouts, which will be kick-started by the Irish derby between Ulster and Munster in Belfast on Friday night.
An all-South African affair gets Saturday’s action underway with the Bulls battling the Sharks in Pretoria, title favourites Leinster will look to put their European Champions Cup heartache behind them when they host the Glasgow Warriors in Dublin and the Stormers collide with Edinburgh in Cape Town.
Ulster v Munster
Friday, 03 June – 20:35
Bone-crunching physicality isn’t reserved for South African derbies like the first of Saturday’s showdowns alone. The battle in Belfast will be an absolute war as instead of focusing on line breaks, both teams’ offensive MO is hard, direct carries and stringing together phases to ultimately crash over the whitewash.
Munster’s conversion rate has been much better, though. They’ve scored 66 tries, with only Leinster (73) and the Bulls (67) having touched down more, while Ulster’s 52 five-pointers are the fewest among the quarter-finalists.
Both teams have conceded just 34 tries, second only to Leinster’s 31, so it’ll be a brutal and compelling slog, one that could go either way. Munster have a monster scrum, which is set to be telling, triumphed 24-17 on their last visit to Kingspan, and have won the last three in this rivalry, so I’m backing them to pip it as juicy underdogs.
Bulls v Sharks
Saturday, 04 June – 13:45
It might sound ludicrous, but the Sharks will quietly feel they won the lottery with this trip to Loftus. Yes, it’s been restored to a fortress in the Jake White era, but considering the Durbanites did the double over them in the regular season, the Sharks will much prefer this derby than a trip abroad and will be full of belief.
The Sharks’ loss to Ulster in the final round, which cost them the South African Shield, stunted their momentum but is otherwise of no consequence as we know what both teams will bring to the table.
The visitors will bank on their pack and kicking game while the hosts will look to push the pace and stretch the Sharks on defence, both to create openings and sap their energy.
There is real underdog value in the star-studded Sharks, but they’re too unpredictable for my liking. The Bulls have consistently performed at a high level and would’ve learned the requisite lessons from the last two meetings to turn the tables in a tight, titanic tussle.
Leinster v Glasgow Warriors
Saturday, 04 June – 16:15
Leinster’s last-gasp loss to La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup final last weekend was the worst possible result for Glasgow. Gone is the faintest of possibilities of Leo Cullen’s charges coming in complacent for this clash against the lowest-placed qualifiers.
The Warriors would’ve picked up a few pointers from the new continental champions on how to combat Leinster but there’s a 0.0001% chance of an upset. The Irish powerhouses, who so emphatically finished at the top of the table, beat the Warriors 31-15 in Glasgow in October and they’ll better that in their backyard.
Stormers v Edinburgh
Saturday, 04 June – 19:00
The showdown of Shield winners is fascinating and set to be fiercely contested. Composure will be key, particularly for the Stormers. Winners of eight straight to finish the regular season in second place, they’re firm favourites and such expectations can weigh heavily on a side, especially one that haven’t played finals rugby in a while.
Edinburgh will be out to pile on the pressure from the get-go. The playmakers will be their main targets personnel-wise, the focus on frustrating and forcing them into mistakes. That the Stormers have a stacked deck in that regard in Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse and Warrick Gelant is massive as it safeguards them should one of their drivers lose his cool.
The target areas will be the lineout and breakdown. The Stormers have had lineout woes all season and are coming up against the league leaders in this facet, so limiting this set-piece will form part of their strategy.
The breakdown, however, will be the be-all and end-all. The hosts’ free-flowing game plan is dependent on clean ball. It’s not to say they can’t grind out a win, but a lack of momentum will seriously complicate matters and the visitors happen to lead the league in turnovers (135 – the Stormers are eighth with 118).
Brace yourself, then, for a human demolishing derby as the forwards clatter into the rucks. The Capetonians have the local turnover king in their ranks in Deon Fourie, with captain Steven Kitshoff and Evan Roos also good over the ball. It speaks to a general theory – that the Stormers have the answers for everything Edinburgh will throw at them.
As a result, John Dobson’s charges should advance to the final four.