Leinster are leading the competition by a country mile, and they will expect to finish top of the final overall log regardless of what they do against the Dragons at the RDS Arena on Saturday night. The window of opportunity for others to catch them is narrowing with just five rounds to go, and their advantage over the second-placed DHL Stormers, who are making a good fist of their season as champions, is 11 points.
You could say the same at the bottom of the log, where Zebre have exactly the same points gap between themselves and the second last team, the Dragons, that separates Leinster from the DHL Stormers.
But most of the teams in between first and 16th have plenty to play for, with the 13th placed Emirates Lions being in with a shout still of achieving their stated aim of making the top eight if they win their home derby against the Cell C Sharks on Saturday.
They have a game in hand on the teams ahead of them, so a five-point haul will put them within catching distance of those hovering around eighth place, including the KwaZulu-Natalians themselves.
The stakes are certainly high for the Cell C Sharks as they head to Johannesburg, for although they are in the top eight at present, they will probably need to be higher than that if they are to secure a place in next year’s Heineken Champions Cup.
For qualification into Europe, a top eight position won’t be enough if the winner of one of the Shields, which carries automatic qualification, does not finish in the top half. And as it stands currently, the Welsh Shield winners will be hard pressed to do that, with both Cardiff and the Ospreys, currently 11th and 12th respectively, four points off the pace.
The Cell C Sharks’ visit to Emirates Airlines Park starts a crucial three-week sequence for them that will see them host Ulster the following week before travelling to Cape Town for the return derby against the DHL Stormers in the first weekend of March.
Speaking of Ulster, they have a crunch game on Friday night when they visit Scotland to play the Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium. The team from Belfast are in third place, seven behind the DHL Stormers but with a game in hand.
Dan McFarland’s team will desperately want to grab second place, which will mean them avoiding last year’s fate of having to travel to Cape Town or some other away venue for their semi-final should they get that far.
It won’t be easy though for them against a Glasgow team superbly coached by former Springbok assistant coach Franco Smith and which has momentum following a series of good wins in both the Vodacom URC and the EPCR Challenge Cup.
Glasgow can leapfrog the Vodacom Bulls and Ulster into third place if they win and the men from Pretoria lose to the DHL Stormers at Loftus Versfeld in the plum match being played on South African soil this weekend.
Saturday evening’s game could be a South African Shield decider should the DHL Stormers win as such a result would put them as much as 15 points clear with just four games to play. That would effectively be game, set and match to the Capetonians within the conference.
By contrast, the DHL Stormers could have their lead whittled down to five points, which would mean the SA Shield race is opened up again.
The Warriors, Benetton and Edinburgh will all have their respective Shield ambitions very much on the mind when they play.
Although Glasgow are still within reach in the Scotland/Italy Shield, that will become a lot more difficult should the current five point gap between them and second placed Benetton become more than that. And should the Glaswegians falter against Ulster, Edinburgh can play themselves back into contention by beating Scarlets in Llanelli.
Benetton are visiting Cardiff, where there should be plenty of motivation for the hosts due to the tightness of their conference battle with the Ospreys, who will be going to Limerick to play Munster on Friday night in yet another of several potentially impactful clashes in what should be an absorbing weekend.
Munster have now climbed to sixth and with a tour to South Africa in their future, they need to win as much as the Ospreys do if they hope to capitalise on the momentum they’ve picked up by challenging for a place in the top four, which means home ground advantage in the first play-off game.
This weekend’s Vodacom URC fixtures:
Friday, 17 February
21h35: Glasgow Warriors v Ulster (Glasgow)
21h35: Munster v Ospreys (Limerick)
Saturday, 18 February
15h00: Emirates Lions v Cell C Sharks (Johannesburg)
17h05: Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers (Pretoria)
17h05: Zebre v Connacht (Parma)
19h15: Cardiff Rugby v Benetton (Cardiff)
19h15: Scarlets v Edinburgh (Llanelli)
21h35: Leinster v Dragons (Dublin)