While former Vodacom Bulls and Springbok legend Victor Matfield is bullish about his former team’s chances of finishing top of the Vodacom URC log, in other words passing Leinster, there is a lot more space between first and fourth on the log (11 points) than there is between fifth and 11th (just five points).

Cardiff, who are 12th and now a full 10 points behind 11th placed Connacht, can probably feel now that their race has been run. Two bonus point wins, which is what the gap is, wouldn’t be much towards the start of a competition that can be likened to a marathon rather than a sprint, but it is when the number of games remaining is whittled down to five.

There’s enough of a log jam though between the fifth placed team, the DHL Stormers, and Connacht to suggest that the three teams locked together on 34 points, just outside the top eight and a solitary point behind eighth placed Ulster, won’t quite feel that the game’s they play this weekend are their last chance saloon.

But it’s getting much closer to the end now, and with just four games remaining after this, the trio of teams on the outside looking in - Edinburgh, the Emirates Lions and Connacht - will know they can’t really afford to lose if they want to have a strong chance of making it into the top eight bracket.

That makes it tough for the Emirates Lions, who are at home but are facing a formidable challenge in the form of the log leaders, Leinster. Connacht will expect to bank full points at home against Zebre, and the same can probably be said for Edinburgh at home against Scarlets.

But while they should be very much alive in the race for the top eight after this round, they will join the Gautengers in hoping that Cardiff can pull off an upset when they visit Belfast to play Ulster on Friday night.

An upset there will make space for other teams in the top eight, as will an Ospreys defeat on Saturday against the DHL Stormers in Cape Town. The Welsh team are currently bringing much nuisance value to the other contenders with their improved and spirited showing this season, and are currently seventh. They and Ulster have the same number of log points, 35, just ahead of the chasing trio of top eight wannabees.

The DHL Stormers/Ospreys game is a big one in terms of both top eight and top four pretensions. If the Capetonians win, they could well be in the top four come the end of the round as fourth placed Munster, even though they will be fully loaded for this game, face a stern test at altitude against the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus.

As their former captain, Matfield, told a Vodacom URC media round table this week, the Vodacom Bulls are a much improved team this year and he believes they have a great chance of going all the way to the top of the log by the end of the league phase - with Saturday’s game against the champions possibly being their toughest remaining game.

“I think the Bulls have got their mix right. They have got a few very experienced guys and they have also created a lot of depth in their squad, whereas last year they probably overplayed the guys a little bit,” said Matfield.

In saying the Vodacom Bulls can overtake Leinster, Matfield is clearly hopeful that the Emirates Lions and the DHL Stormers, who Leinster play in their second game on tour next week, will do the men from Pretoria, who play all their remaining games in South Africa and four of them at Loftus, a favour. And while they are 10 places below Leinster on the log, you can’t write the Lions off - it just depends which Lions team pitches.

The Emirates Lions team that destroyed Connacht in Galway can certainly push any team, particularly on their home field and with altitude as an ally. But it was a different kind of Lions performance when they lost to the Ospreys in Swansea the following weekend. The praise that had been heaped on them turned to criticism, the hope turned to dismay.

Yet that is the beauty of how the Vodacom URC is playing out this year - the teams are bunched so closely on the log that every game can bring a seismic shift in the standings. Look at Benetton. A month or so ago the Italian team was being praised for the way they were competing in the top four, and the improved performance by Italy in the Guinness Six Nations was attributed to the Treviso based team’s greater competitiveness.

But then they lost a few games and dropped out of the top eight, only to recover in their last game and make it up to their current position of sixth. If they bank five points in their home game against the Dragons on Saturday, and the Stormers and Munster slip up, Benetton will be right back in top four contention. And the same can be said for all the teams positioned fifth to 11th.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby fixtures

Friday, 19 April:
20h35: Ulster v Cardiff Rugby (Belfast)
20h35: Glasgow Warriors v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Glasgow)

Saturday, 20 April:
15h00: Benetton v Dragons (Treviso)
15h00: Emirates Lions v Leinster (Johannesburg)
17h05: Vodacom Bulls v Munster (Pretoria)
19h15: DHL Stormers v Ospreys (Cape Town)
20h35: Edinburgh v Scarlets (Edinburgh)
20h35: Connacht v Zebre (Galway)