Certainly in the years since South Africa first became involved in the Vodacom URC’s forerunner, the Guinness PRO14, when the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings were this country’s representatives, it is hard to recall Leinster being toppled from pole position, or even threatened in the battle for top, with just three rounds to go.

But there is a good chance of that happening in a round where there are few teams not facing potential jeopardy, be it on the day in terms of match result or to their log position and wider ambitions. That’s not new, it has been the way of things from the start of the season, but this is the first time Leinster’s quest for the top seeding for the Finals Series that comes with another log win has been questioned since they recovered from their opening defeat to Glasgow Warriors and started picking up momentum in November.

There was the defeat to Ulster over the festive period that was unexpected, but it wasn’t a disaster. With just three rounds to go after this, a loss to the DHL Stormers in Cape Town at the weekend could be calamitous, certainly to their top spot aspirations, and it will be the Warriors that profit if it does.

As it turns out, Franco Smith’s team could well have gone top last week had they hit the straps after halftime against a tenacious Hollywoodbets Sharks team at Scotstoun Stadium and banked a wider margin of victory and a try scoring bonus points. However, they failed to add to the 21 points they scored in the first half, and their failure to grab the bonus point means they are a solitary point behind Leinster.

This season’s competition has been so competitive that you would hesitate to suggest that Glasgow are the top ranking team facing the least potential jeopardy this weekend, but nonetheless given the extra motivation inspired by the prospect of going past Leinster, they should beat Zebre in Parma on Saturday afternoon.

That will leave them waiting to see what happens between the DHL Stormers and Leinster later on the same day. Of course a changing of position now won’t necessarily be fatal, and Leinster will be well aware that Glasgow still have a tour to South Africa in their future.

The Vodacom Bulls did lose to Munster last week but they will be hard to beat at Loftus, while last week’s Emirates Lions performance against Leinster in Johannesburg sent out a warning to future visitors that they can beat anyone if they hit their straps on their home field.

But Leinster won’t want to leave it up to other teams to determine their fate, and will be going all out to beat the Stormers, who have as much need for a big response to defeat that the log leaders do. A defeat for the DHL Stormers in Cape Town is a rare thing, and what made it worse for John Dobson’s men was that they know that while the Ospreys played well, they were well below par.

With Cardiff only just going down to Ulster in Belfast, it appears the Welsh teams are more competitive than they were, and the Ospreys will be heading to Pretoria this weekend confident they can pull off another shock result that will propel them further towards safety in the battle for a top eight finish and the playoff and Investec Champions Cup qualification that comes with it.

The Ospreys and the DHL Stormers are currently locked together on 40 points in sixth and seventh position. The Capetonians lost ground in their quest for a top four finish, but if they can beat Leinster and either the Ospreys or the Emirates Lions win against the Vodacom Bulls and Munster respectively, they will be right back in it. The Ospreys will be sniffing a top four spot too if they win in Pretoria.

The log positions and what the results will mean to the jockeying for position will determine which are the plum fixtures this weekend, and outside of the three games on South African soil, all of which carry significant gravitas to what the final log will look like, the top game might well be Friday night’s clash between Ulster and Benetton in Belfast.

The Italian team has bounced back quite well from the little blip that saw them drop from their top four position down to ninth, and are now back up to fifth, just four points behind the fourth placed Vodacom Bulls.

Like Glasgow, however, they have a trip to South Africa in their future, and one of those games will be against the Vodacom Bulls. So there’s pressure for them to beat Ulster, even though it is an away game for them, and likewise Ulster might consider themselves to be going into their Last Chance Saloon in their quest to emulate the last two seasons by getting into the top four.

There are only three points separating fifth from 11th (Connacht) so there are 11 teams all still in the fight for silverware and for the rewards that come to those who finish in the top half. It couldn’t be tighter, the battle could not be more absorbing, and the chances are the logjam will persist for a few more rounds at least.

Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures - Round 15

Friday, 26 April:
20h35: Ulster v Benetton (Belfast)
20h35: Scarlets v Hollywoodbets Sharks (Llanelli)

Saturday, 27 April:
14h00: Zebre v Glasgow Warriors (Parma)
15h00: Vodacom Bulls v Ospreys (Pretoria)
16h05: Cardiff v Edinburgh (Cardiff)
17h00: Emirates Lions v Munster (Johannesburg)
19h05: DHL Stormers v Leinster (Cape Town)
21h00: Dragons v Connacht (Newport)