While the Emirates Lions did knock back the Glasgow Warriors’ threat to the South African ambitions of getting two teams into the top four, meaning there’d be two playoff games in this country in the quarter-finals, Ulster’s win in Durban last weekend kept them on track in their battle with the DHL Stormers for second place.
The games played last week were the ones rescheduled from October, when a gastro virus prevented Ulster and Glasgow from fulfilling their commitments against the Cell C Sharks and Emirates Lions respectively. So, the log has now reached a point where the teams are all finally on level terms when it comes to games played. They’ve all played 14, meaning there are four to go.
With so few fixtures left in the league phase, it means the DHL Stormers’ 13 point lead in the South African conference is significant, and it is unlikely to be closed.
However, the five-point advantage over third placed Ulster makes their second spot more vulnerable, and it makes the two games the respective teams play this weekend more interesting and important.
Ulster go to Cardiff on Friday night to play a team that will have the motivation of wanting to defend their current lead over the Ospreys in the battle for Welsh Shield honours, which is extra important as it is possible that the Principality will again miss out on a top eight position, which means the Shield will be relied on for qualification to next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
The DHL Stormers, like was the case two weeks ago when they played the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria the day after Ulster had lost to Glasgow, will know where they stand when they kick off against the Cell C Sharks at DHL Stadium on Saturday. If the team from Belfast win with a bonus point, it will heap the pressure on the Capetonians as they will be all square.
The Cell C Sharks will be traveling to Cape Town with a lot of motivation as they desperately need to cement their position in the top eight, as well as try and bid for a top four position if they can. With their Springboks due back in the mix the next time they play, an upset win could just be the start of a momentum that could make them a threat in the competition.
At this point it looks unlikely the DHL Stormers will finish lower than third, meaning SA is almost certain to host at least one quarter-final, though the Warriors should pick up maximum points when they host Zebre on Friday.
The Vodacom Bulls have dropped to sixth after their recent loss to the DHL Stormers and need to do the business against the Emirates Lions at Loftus Versfeld in the second of the South African derbies on Saturday if they want to maintain their challenge for fourth.
A glance at what is to come after this is instructive when it comes to establishing what is on the line this weekend.
Both the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls face particularly tough assignments when the Vodacom URC resumes after a three week break towards the end of March. The Capetonians head to Dublin for their first away game against table topping Leinster, in what could be a full strength Irish team after they came to South Africa with an under-strength side last year.
The Vodacom Bulls, who are the only local team to have beaten Leinster in Dublin, will be hoping that experience helps them when they go to Belfast to play Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium on 25 March. For that game, the DHL Stormers will find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being supporters of their arch-rivals from Pretoria.
The Vodacom Bulls game is arguably Ulster’s toughest of their remaining fixtures, and if you consider Leinster must be favourites against the DHL Stormers in Dublin, it does suggest the race for second will be a close one.
Unless the men from Pretoria help their counterparts from Cape Town out, or Cardiff do it this Friday. Whichever way you look at it, the DHL Stormers do need to beat the Cell C Sharks despite the breathing space given them in the battle for SA Shield honours by their gutsy recent away win against the Vodacom Bulls.
Munster, who play the Scarlets this week, are positioned fifth and could also be problematic to the South African quest for two teams in the top four. In their case though they have a particularly tough finish to the competition, with a difficult home fixture against Glasgow in late March being followed by a two-match tour of South Africa, where they face the Stormers and the Sharks.
Edinburgh are just outside the top eight and will carry a lot of motivation into their clash with Leinster on Saturday. Leinster remain unbeaten and are four matches away from completing a clean sweep.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 3 March:
21h35: Munster v Scarlets
21h35: Glasgow Warriors v Zebre Parma
Saturday, 4 March:
14h30: DHL Stormers v Cell C Sharks
16h45: Vodacom Bulls v Emirates Lions
19h05: Edinburgh v Leinster
19h15: Ospreys v Benetton
21h35: Dragons v Connacht
21h35: Cardiff Rugby v Ulster
Top eight points and remaining fixtures (all completed 14 games)
1 Leinster 66 - Edinburgh (A), Stormers (H), Lions (A), Bulls (A)
2 DHL Stormers 54 - Sharks (H), Leinster (A), Munster (H), Benetton (H)
3 Ulster 49 - Cardiff Rugby (A), Bulls (H), Dragons (H), Edinburgh (H)
4 Glasgow Warriors 44 - Zebre (H), Munster (A), Scarlets (H), Connacht (H)
5 Munster 42 - Scarlets (H), Glasgow Warriors (H), Stormers (A), Sharks (A)
6 Vodacom Bulls 41 - Lions (H), Ulster (A), Zebre (H), Leinster (H)
7 Cell C Sharks 40 - Stormers (A), Scarlets (A), Benetton (H), Munster (H)
8 Connacht 35 - Dragons (A), Edinburgh (H), Cardiff (H), Glasgow (A)