As it stands, Leinster are top of the overall Vodacom URC log. With a 10-point lead, they are unlikely to be overhauled, which is why their coach Leo Cullen was comfortable sending a squad to South Africa for the games against the Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers that looks more geared towards expanding depth than a win at all costs imperative.
But when it comes to the next tier, the competition for top two and top four places is particularly intense, and Friday night’s Irish derby between hosts Ulster and Munster at the Kingspan Stadium could see the loser drop out of the top four. Currently Ulster are second, level with Glasgow Warriors on 50 points but ahead on points differential, and Munster are fourth. Ulster have 50 points, Munster have 47 points, as do the DHL Stormers.
A DHL Stormers win over the Warriors in Cape Town on Friday will propel them into second place, at least for the few hours before the conclusion of the Belfast game. Should Ulster win, they will go back to second, but should they lose, then the bonus point spread for the two games might end up determining which of Munster or the Stormers are second.
The Cell C Sharks, just one point behind the DHL Stormers and scheduled to play Leinster in Durban on Saturday, could also find themselves propelled to second on the log by the end of the weekend.
The Ulster/Munster clash has been given added significance by the round of 16 Champions Cup results this past weekend, with the ante being lifted for an Ulster team that has now been left with the Vodacom URC as the sole focus following an agonising exit at the hands of the top French club, Toulouse.
Over the two legs, meaning 160 minutes of rugby, there was just one point separating the two teams (50/49), and it has prompted inevitable concerns about a possible hangover at Ulster ahead of the derby.
“When we look at the loss for us it is with incredible frustration rather than in previous years where we have looked at it and went ‘we were well beaten out there’ or ‘they were able to run away with it,’” said Ulster skipper Iain Henderson to the Irish media after the second leg game, won 30-23 by Toulouse in Belfast.
“Duane (Vermeulen) had a good chat with us after the game and said a loss like that some guys will get over it in 15 minutes, some guys will get over it in a week, and for some guys it will be longer. There is no right or wrong way to look at that.
“We have to rally round each other and make sure everyone is supporting each other and make sure we are physically and emotionally ready to go next weekend. It is difficult to throw yourself straight back into it but it will be a focus of ours with a huge emphasis on the next two games.
“Those next two games are going to be instrumental in defining how we finish the season, so we have to make sure we can show ourselves, the staff, and everyone else that we are able to bounce back and put in a good performance on the back of an emotional loss.”
Dropping out of the Vodacom URC top two, and thus surrendering their current strong challenge to host their play-off games up to the semi-final stage, will compound the distress for Ulster.
By contrast, Munster are on a high after they got through their Champions Cup last 16 game against Exeter Chiefs with minimum fuss (26-10) off the back of 21 points from flyhalf Joey Carbery. Their South African coach, Johann van Graan, will be hoping they can carry that momentum into a clash with a team that usually starts as strong favourites on their home ground.
Munster also have a return derby against Leinster, who have travelled to South Africa with a weakened squad, to look forward to in the last round, and that does make the Belfast an imperative win for them. Leinster are nigh impossible to beat at their home ground of RDS Arena in Dublin.
The other overseas games that have significance for the South African contenders this weekend are seventh placed Edinburgh’s clash with Zebre in the Scottish capital, and ninth placed Scarlets’ trip to the Dragons on Saturday. Although Edinburgh would be expected to beat Zebre quite comfortably, both they and Scarlets could have a say on which teams qualify for both the play-offs and next year’s Champions Cup so the locals will be willing them to lose.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 22 April:
18h30: DHL Stormers v Glasgow Warriors (Cape Town)
20h35: Ulster v Munster (Belfast)
20h45: Edinburgh v Zebre Parma (Edinburgh)
Saturday, 23 April:
14h00: Vodacom Bulls v Benetton (Pretoria)
16h00: Dragons v Scarlets (Newport)
16h05: Emirates Lions v Connacht (Johannesburg)
18h15: Cell C Sharks v Leinster (Durban)
18h15: Cardiff Rugby v Ospreys