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Dramatic Munster win has major ramifications for URC table

By RugbyPass
Leolin Zas of DHL Stormers celebrates scoring a try with teammates during the Heineken Champions Cup match between DHL Stormers and London Irish at DHL Cape Town Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

An absorbing and pulsating double round of festive season Vodacom United Rugby Championship matches was ended on New Year’s Day with two Irish derbies that both made big statements about what to expect in the second half of the competition.

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While Leinster rounded off the New Year weekend with a comprehensive home win over Connacht that was entirely expected, Munster again confirmed their resurgence under Graham Rowntree’s coaching with a dramatic last gasp win over Ulster at the Kingspan, thus avenging the defeat they suffered to Ulster at home at Thomond Park earlier in the season.

Ulster led for most of the way via three first half penalties from John Cooney, and seemingly had the match wrapped up when Rob Baloucoune went over for a try that put daylight between them and Munster on the scoreboard with just 10 minutes remaining. But the visitors dug deep and produced the goods in the last minutes, with a Ben Healy penalty narrowing the gap to within seven point range with five minutes remaining.
Many thought then that the visitors would be happy to take the losing bonus point from the fixture but that reckoned without the determination that has been built up in the Munster team over the last few weeks and which was exemplified in the tenacity they showed in a recent away win over Northampton Saints in the Champions Cup.

Munster weren’t finished and after Jack Crowley produced a moment of magic to wriggle away from a host of tacklers and get into the Ulster 22, Healy sniped over from a tap penalty to send the away fans into raptures as Munster sealed the win.

For neutrals, it would have been the impact on the overall log that would have had the most impact. While the win takes Munster to ninth, just outside the top eight and play-off qualification with most teams having seven games to play, the Ulster defeat has interesting ramifications for what previously was a tight top four that looked like it was running away from the rest of the field.
With the DHL Stormers having completed their two derby matches played over the Christmas and New Year week with full points, and third placed Ulster only managing five from their games against Connacht and Munster, the gap between the Stormers in second and Ulster in third place is now eight points. That is same number of points that Leinster lead the log by, but the Stormers do have a game in hand.

So what the festive season games have delivered is a starkly changed outlook when it comes to the log position. Whereas before the Christmas derbies it was a four horse race at the top, with the rest lagging, the middle of the log teams have now caught up with the fourth placed Bulls, while the top two have opened a considerable gap on third and fourth.

You need to factor in too that the Stormers, who now lead the Bulls by 10 in the South African conference and the battle for the Shield, also have a game in hand on their rivals from Pretoria. So there’s every reason to believe it is the reigning champions who start 2023 in the pound seats locally and are now clear favourites to retain their SA Shield trophy, although it would be a brave man who bets against Leinster ultimately reasserting the hegemony they enjoyed when the URC was still the PRO14.

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The Cell C Sharks are now the team that looks more likely to challenge the Stormers for the Shield as they joined their coastal rivals in picking up a full house of 10 points from their two festive week matches. Ironically, it you look at the scores of the four matches played in South Africa since two days before Christmas, the Stormers and the Sharks did things that were remarkably similar.

The telling games for the two teams could be their derby meetings in February and March, but unfortunately both games are likely to be without their Springboks, who will be resting in that period. That probably favours the Stormers more than it does the Durbanites, who are a very different team when they have their top Boks playing.

The Sharks have now lifted themselves to fifth on the log and have now fully recovered from the nightmare of their 35-0 defeat to Cardiff in November, but the other South African team, the Emirates Lions, has dropped out of the top eight after two losses and are now 11th.

It is still all to play for though for most teams with Champions Cup qualification and play-off aspirations, as there are just nine log points separating the fifth placed Sharks from the 13th placed Connacht.

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There was movement in both the Scotland/Italy and Welsh Shields over the festive week, with Glasgow Warriors having lifted themselves to the top of the Scotland conference after two wins in their home and away 1872 derbies against Edinburgh. That was after they’d started the festive week games behind Edinburgh.

Glasgow are joined at the top of the Shield log by Benetton, who won their two Italian derbies against Zebre Parma, with the two teams level on 29 points and currently occupying sixth and seventh respectively on the overall log. It is important to note that Glasgow, who host the Stormers in an important home game at Scotstoun on Sunday, have a game in hand on Benetton, and indeed on Edinburgh, who are four points and now five positions behind them.

Cardiff are still top of the Welsh Shield but the gap has been closed quite significantly by Ospreys, who confirmed the apparent turning of the corner signified by their away Champions Cup win over Montpellier with two good derby wins in the URC over the festive period.
Their tight 22-19 away win over Cardiff was important as it ensured the Swansea based team still has plenty to play for, something that wasn’t likely to be the case had they lost, in which event Cardiff would have had a 12 point lead on their rivals.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results

Edinburgh 25 Glasgow Warriors 32
Zebre 17 Benetton 40
Cell C Sharks 47 Vodacom Bulls 20
DHL Stormers 40 Emirates Lions 8
Cardiff Rugby 19 Ospreys 22
Scarlets 33 Dragons 17
Ulster 14 Munster 15
Leinster 41 Connacht 12

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