The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks are amongst the elite eight who’ve engaged playoff mode for the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Stormers and Bulls collide in a repeat of last year’s final in Cape Town on Saturday while the Sharks have made their way to Dublin where they face the daunting task of tackling title favourites Leinster later in the day.
Bookending these fixtures are Friday night’s Irish derby between Ulster and Connacht in Belfast and Saturday night’s showdown between the Warriors and Munster in Glasgow.
Ulster v Connacht
Friday, 5 May – 20:35
As the smallest of the four Irish clubs, Connacht have exceeded expectations to qualify for the last eight but in their minds, they haven’t come this far just to come this far and will throw everything at Ulster.
Simply put, Ulster have more class. This saw them do the double over Connacht, first claiming a comprehensive 36-10 win at home before edging out a 22-20 victory on the road en route to finishing the regular season in second place.
The visiting underdogs will be out to gain traction and field position through their powerful scrum and disrupt the hosts at the source with their breakdown prowess. However, the hosts’ continuity, driving maul and finishing ability will see them come out on top.
Stormers v Bulls
Saturday, 6 May – 15:30
They meet again. South African rugby’s greatest rivals will go hammer and tongs in what will be the most physically intense clash of the weekend.
The Stormers have had the wood over the Bulls in recent years, winning all five URC encounters between the sides. Four of those fixtures were decided by five points or less including last year’s decider (18-13) while the biggest winning margin was 10.
Having been so competitive, it begs the intriguing question of whether Jake White will stick to his guns or think outside the box to finally get one over John Dobson. A spark is definitely needed after a Bulls team loaded with URC stars were walloped 31-7 by a young Western Province side in the Currie Cup last weekend.
Pressure changes things and all the pressure will be on the defending champions. The men from Pretoria will look to use that to their advantage by getting off to a good start. If they can build an early lead, they might just spring a surprise.
Having said that, the Stormers have the slightly better balance across the spread. Their all-Springbok front row gives them ascendency up front, which they’ll aim to maximise at scrum time if the pitch allows it.
Ultimately, the contest will come down to whoever wins the collisions. The Stormers have shown to have better staying power/stamina, are more patient with ball in hand and structured on defence, which should see them earn a hard-fought win.
Leinster v Sharks
Saturday, 6 May – 18:00
The Sharks face what is European club rugby’s mission impossible. The Bulls famously pulled it off in the semi-finals last year, a performance the Durbanites will draw inspiration from, but Leinster have been unstoppable this season.
Their 41-22 trampling of French giants Toulouse in the European Champions Cup semi-finals last weekend showed just what a juggernaut they are. After all, it was Toulouse who bundled the Sharks out of the European showpiece with a 54-20 thumping.
The Sharks have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They’re a franchise who’ve always performed better as underdogs and haven’t made the trip to the Emerald Isle to simply make up the numbers. Staying in the fight will be their mantra this week, as in don’t allow Leinster to essentially win the game in the first quarter as they do so often.
Even with a perfect start, the Sharks simply won’t be able to keep up with Leinster’s relentless pace as they lack the requisite depth, especially in the injury-enforced absence of Springbok trio Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Jaden Hendrikse.
Whether sooner or later, Leinster will inevitably leave the Durbanites in their dust.
Glasgow Warriors v Munster
Saturday, 6 May – 20:35
The last quarter-final is also the toughest to call with the team who qualified fourth hosting the side who qualified fifth.
The Warriors are on an unprecedented run. They’ve lost just one of their last 18 games in all competitions and have won seven in a row to book this home quarter-final and a historic European Challenge Cup final berth courtesy of last weekend’s 35-17 away win over the Scarlets.
Munster have a rich pedigree and proved their championship contender status by ending the Stormers’ home unbeaten streak last month. Their offloading game is a handful for the best of defences while they’re organised and disciplined without the ball. They can beat anyone on any given day and are marginal favourites.
Munster’s last URC loss came against the Warriors (38-26) in March and Franco Smith’s men are on such a roll that they should repeat the feat in a closer and tenser encounter.