Last season there were two South African teams and two Irish teams in the top four. For much of the current term, that looked likely to repeat itself, with the DHL Stormers being joined by the Vodacom Bulls in the bracket that guarantees home ground advantage in the first game in the playoff series.
However, while the DHL Stormers have made a top four finish a virtual certainty by winning their last three derby matches played over the last month, the Vodacom Bulls have slipped and are now more than a bonus point win behind top four qualification. The Cell C Sharks are two points behind them and also lagging, eight points behind fourth placed Glasgow Warriors.
Given that the Vodacom Bulls still have to play Ulster away and Leinster (home), the Cell C Sharks arguably have the easier run into the end of the season. But they are too far off the pace for a top four place to be more than an aspiration. A home quarter-final is not a probability but rather at best outside possibility for the two South African teams who are currently behind the flying DHL Stormers in the SA Shield.
It is a very different story for Ireland, who had all four of their teams on the winning side in round 15. That includes Connacht, who had to scrap away against Dragons but in the end did enough to sneak the narrow win that keeps them in eighth place and therefore in the frame for a place in the playoffs.
Right now, Connacht are a threat to the Cell C Sharks’ hopes of Heineken Champions Cup qualification, as they are just two points adrift of the top seven finish needed to ensure entry into the prestigious European competition.
Munster, like the DHL Stormers did in Cape Town, nearly let it slip towards the end against a Scarlets team that came back at them strongly. But generally the three Irish sides contending for top four spots were in impressive form and have kept alive the possibility that the final top four will be 75% Irish.
Leinster, who have the DHL Stormers next in Dublin three weeks from now, led the way with a 20 point win at the DAM Health Stadium in Edinburgh that underlines just how good they are, even though they are not at full strength currently because of Six Nations commitments, but they have such depth that whether they have their Irish internationals playing has ceased to be a talking point.
The Dubliners currently have a 12 point lead on the second placed DHL Stormers and will make sure of the top spot if they win the 25 March clash at the RDS Arena. The Capetonians will have their Springboks back and have pronounced an intention to go to Dublin full strength so it could be an interesting game, one that some might see as a preview to the final.
The DHL Stormers shouldn’t be thinking that far ahead though, for Ulster are currently charging. After a tough period where they lost their way a bit, the Belfast team have turned around their season and after their hard fought win in Durban the previous week they looked in great form in dispatching Cardiff in Wales in the late game this past Saturday night.
Ulster are a superbly coached and drilled team and it showed in a quick paced game played on a fast synthetic surface that was a great advert for the competition. There wasn’t much wrong with Cardiff, who looked up for the game and struck back well after conceding a score shortly after the start of the game.
However, it was clear even from those early stages that the Ulster class and tempo was going to take its toll, and it did, with Ulster winning comfortably to keep within five points of the DHL Stormers. Which means one bonus point win. That is what makes the Leinster game important for the Cape side, particularly as the DHL Stormers surrendered their advantage in the points differential column.
With Munster also good for most of the way against Scarlets, and now comfortable in fifth place due to the Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks' losses, it is Glasgow Warriors who are the biggest threat to Irish ambitions of having three teams in the top four on the final log.
The Warriors were hurt by their shock defeat to the Emirates Lions the previous week but did the expected by bouncing back with a five point haul against Zebre. The Glaswegians remain a joy to watch with their offload game and will be a handful for opponents once they have all their missing Scottish internationals back after the Six Nations.
Their next game could be a shoot-out for a top four spot. They will be traveling to Munster on 25 March, with the winner set to go into the last two matches of the season in the top four, with the loser outside of that bracket. One thing in favour of the Warriors is that Munster do have a tour to South Africa, where they will face the Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers, after that.
The Warriors host Scarlets and Connacht in their final two games so they would be justified if they go into their final away game against Munster feeling like it is a significant final hurdle to their quest for a top four position.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Munster 49 Scarlets 42
Glasgow Warriors 50 Zebre 8
DHL Stormers 29 Cell C Sharks 23
Vodacom Bulls 25 Emirates Lions 29
Edinburgh 27 Leinster 47
Ospreys 20 Benetton 21
Dragons 20 Connacht 22
Cardiff 20 Ulster 42
Top eight log positions (after 15 games)
1 Leinster 71
2 DHL Stormers 59
3 Ulster 54
4 Glasgow Warriors 49
5 Munster 47
6 Vodacom Bulls 43
7 Cell C Sharks 41
8 Connacht 39
In contention for the top eight:
9 Benetton 38
10 Cardiff 34
11 Emirates Lions 33