The Sharks, Stormers, and Bulls return to Europe with the singular goal of securing hosting rights in the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals as the regular season reaches a thrilling climax this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The South African trio are among the eight teams who’ve already punched their tickets to the playoffs and among five sides vying for the three remaining home quarter-final slots, with Leinster (62) having wrapped up top spot.
Munster, the Sharks, and the Stormers are all on 56, followed by Ulster on 55 and the Bulls on 53, all of whom are in a shootout to finish in the top four. A place in the history books also hangs in the balance as the first-ever winners of the South African Shield will emerge.
Rounding out the top eight are the Warriors and Edinburgh (both on 50), who’ll go head-to-head for the Scottish/Italian Shield honours in Glasgow.
The Sharks have the biggest challenge of the South African teams as they battle Ulster in Belfast while the Bulls face the Ospreys in Swansea on Friday night. On Saturday, the Stormers square off against the Scarlets in Llanelli and the Lions sign off with a clash against the Dragons in Newport.
It’s only fitting that the playoff seedings for the fascinating inaugural season of the league will go down to the very last match of the regular season – a top-of-the-table showdown between Irish giants Leinster and Munster in Dublin.
Benetton v Cardiff
Friday, 20 May – 19:00
Fourteen host thirteen. Both teams will be disappointed with how their seasons panned out and will want to finish on a high. Home-ground advantage often points one in the right direction in a game like this.
More than that, though, Benetton dazzled in their 39-17 derby win over Zebre while Cardiff were rather fortunate to come away with a 19-18 win over the Dragons last weekend.
Buzzing after their Rhyno Smith-inspired triumph, Benetton should edge it.
Ulster v Sharks
Friday, 20 May – 20:35
Tied with the Stormers on 56 points and 11 wins, the Sharks occupy third place and lead the South African Shield by the slimmest of margins, that being they’ve scored one more try than their coastal counterparts (57).
It’s ironic that THAT is the differentiating factor considering the Durbanites’ lack of cohesion in recent rounds. Their pack have compensated for the misfiring backline and powered them to four successive wins. The caveat is those came against lesser opponents.
The return of captain and MVP Lukhanyo Am from his sabbatical in Japan will go a long way in helping them rediscover their attacking shape, if the weather allows it. Rain is forecast to fall all day with “a shower or two” possible in the evening. Either way, fifth-placed Ulster boast the best defence in the league and will be fuelled by the 16th man that is their home crowd.
It should be a belter, but besting Ulster in Belfast – especially with a home quarter-final at stake – is a bridge too far for the Sharks.
Ospreys v Bulls
Friday, 20 May – 21:10
The Ospreys find themselves on the unenviable bubble of what could’ve been, that being just outside of the playoff places in ninth. They trail eighth-placed Edinburgh by six, so even an improbable bonus-point win would be bittersweet.
By no means are they pushovers, but this really is the Bulls’ game to lose as opposed to the Ospreys’ to win. The men from Pretoria are on a serious hot streak, winning seven of their last eight, the only loss being the controversial 19-17 defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town in April.
The Ospreys have won three in a row, but it’s important to note all of them were derby matches. They’re winless against South African sides, which highlights their soft underbelly, so bank on the Bulls to overpower them.
Dragons v Lions
Saturday, 21 May – 16:00
The 11th-placed Lions have drawn a favourable final match-up in the embattled Dragons. Granted, it’s hard initially to back the Lions after their URC team in disguise went down to the Bulls’ Currie Cup side last weekend.
However, the Dragons have been dog water all season. Second from bottom having managed just two wins, their current four-match losing streak includes them reaching a new low by going down to last-placed Zebre.
The Lions may be unpredictable, but their hosts are predictably mediocre. It would be a major missed opportunity if the pride of Johannesburg don’t pull it through, but with it being a swansong for several of their stalwarts, they should be able to end their campaign on a positive note.
Connacht v Zebre
Saturday, 21 May – 16:00
Wooden spoonists Zebre finally broke their duck when they saw off the Dragons 23-18 at the end of April but fell right back into their losing ways by dropping two heavy defeats.
Twelfth-placed Connacht have eight wins to show for their efforts and the treasured scalps of Ulster, Munster, and the Stormers. They’ll have too much firepower for the men from Parma, but the spread is a bit wide for my liking.
Scarlets v Stormers
Saturday, 21 May – 18:10
The Stormers are coming in hot. Seven straight wins leave them with a golden opportunity to clinch a home quarter-final and the South African Shield, and against the indifferent Scarlets, who’re coming off a loss and languishing in 10th place, you’d have to favour them to do just that.
In golfing terms, they’ve set themselves up perfectly. Now they just need to hole the five-foot putt. Those can be tricky sometimes, but a disciplined and structured performance against a side who like to throw the ball around will lay the groundwork for a solid win for the Capetonians.
Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors
Saturday, 21 May – 19:30
Seventh and eighth on the log, both teams are guaranteed of their playoff places yet neither can upgrade to home knockouts. There’s plenty to play for, though, as the Scottish/Italian Shield and 1872 Cup are up for grabs.
Both are on 50 points, with Glasgow having the edge as they’ve banked one more win than their local rivals (10-9). Edinburgh, in turn, have a superior points difference of 36, so whoever wins will claim the Shield and the prize of a place in next year’s European Champions Cup that comes with it.
The 1872 Cup is another issue, though, as it’s contested over two legs. Glasgow won the March meeting 30-17, so Edinburgh will need to win by 14 to take all the spoils. It’s a tough one to call, but the Warriors have had Edinburgh’s number in recent times, winning the last four in this rivalry, so I’m tipping them to pip it.
Leinster v Munster
Saturday, 21 May – 20:15
Leinster’s European Champions Cup semi-final triumph over Toulouse last weekend was a big win for Irish rugby in more ways than one. With his charges already having secured top spot in the URC, Leo Cullen’s set to save a number of key players for next weekend’s Euro final against La Rochelle.
That opens the door for a full-strength Munster to prevail on Saturday and cement the number two seed, which would mean only two South African sides at most could finish in the top four.
The Leinster second-stringers showed on their South African tour that they’re nothing to scoff at, but the table is set for a Munster win.