European qualification now assured for 3 South African URC teams
Ulster’s hard-fought win over Edinburgh that brought down the curtain on an absorbing penultimate round of Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) league play has assured the three contending South African teams of entry into Europe next season.
The Ulster win means that when the South African sides head to the north three weeks from now for the final round of fixtures, all three of them – the Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls – will be ahead of the two Scottish sides on the overall log.
And with three points between them and the Bulls, who are the third local team at present, the fact the Scottish sides meet in their return derby at Edinburgh’s DAM Health Stadium means that only one Scottish team can make it into Champions Cup qualification.
The way it works is that the eight top teams on the overall log advance to the URC play-offs, to be played out from the end of May into June, while the four Shield winners – Ireland, Scotland/Italy, Wales and South Africa – automatically qualify for the Champions Cup with the four next best teams joining them.
The Emirates Lions surrendered interest in the Champions Cup and the play-offs a while ago, but the quest for the other South African teams, if they all want to qualify for rugby’s equivalent of soccers Champions League, was always to either finish ahead of the third Irish team or the second Scottish team.
That mission has now been accomplished with a round to go, with the final round Scotland derby now all about which of the two Scottish teams will advance to the lucrative Champions Cup next season.
Like many of the games this past weekend, the Edinburgh/Ulster game was brimful of intrigue and, although a low scoring fixture, was engaging throughout the 80 minutes as Ulster took an early lead and then Edinburgh tried to come back at them. It was a first defeat for Edinburgh on their home field this season, with their only previous failure to bank a win being their draw to the Stormers last October.
Talking of the Stormers, their win over Leinster but failure to pick up a bonus point means that the local teams go into the final weekend pretty much all square in the battle for the Shield. The two coastal teams, the Sharks and the Stormers, are so closely matched at present that they both share the same points differential, with the Sharks appearing ahead of their local rivals on the log only because they have won more games (the Stormers have two draws on their record).
But unless they both draw on the final weekend, that will count for nothing, and both teams will have to go all out for a win. The Sharks do appear to have the tougher task, as they head to Belfast to face Ulster at a Kingspan Stadium venue where Ulster seldom lose. And Ulster broke their sequence of recent defeats with their close win over Edinburgh, with their failure to pick up a bonus point helping the other teams in the battle for second place on the overall log.
Ulster are currently fifth, one point behind the Sharks, Munster and Stormers, who are all on 56 points, with Leinster already assured of top spot by virtue of them having 62 points, six more than the chasing pack.
While the Sharks head to Ireland, the Stormers and Bulls will be heading to Wales to be playing the Scarlets and Ospreys respectively, and what this past round of fixtures did determine was that both of them will have something to play for. Ospreys halted the Scarlets’ impressive recent winning momentum with a good 54-36 win that leaves them just five points behind the Scarlets on the Welsh Shield log with a game in hand.
And that game in hand just happens to be against Dragons, who at the weekend handed Zebre Parma their first win in the competition for over a year.
Which of the two top Welsh teams is the stronger? It is hard to tell, as the Ospreys were at home for their win, but the Ospreys’ return to form, coupled with the return of their talisman Alun Wynn Jones, will make it harder for the Bulls than they might have hoped. The Bulls can still win the Shield, and get into the top four, if the other teams stumble.
One advantage the Stormers have is that their game at Parc Y Scarlets is the last game of the league phase of the competition, which means they will go into it knowing what they need. Apart from the Sharks going to Ulster, the other team up with them in second place is Munster, who end their campaign with a difficult away derby against Leinster. Munster played their way back into a contention with a good win over Cardiff at Thormond Park.
Scarlets’ defeat to the Ospreys removes them from the running for qualification for the URC play-offs so the eight play-off teams, with the order to be finalised after completion of the final round, will be Leinster, Munster, Sharks, Stormers, Ulster, Bulls, Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh.
Credit – URCSA
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