The obvious question as URC sides sew up Champions Cup
If anyone doubted the strength and quality of the competition in the United Rugby Championship (URC), the pool phase that has just been completed in the Heineken Champions Cup has delivered a firm riposte.
The last 16 has now been reached, with that round of matches scheduled for the weekend of 31 March through to 2 April, and there are eight URC teams left in the competition. You can do the maths – 50% of the remaining competitors are URC sides, with the other two competitions, the French Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership, sharing the other eight.
The three South African teams all advanced to the round of 16 at the first time of trying, but it was some of the European teams that provided the big surprise. None more so than the Ospreys, who for the first time in many years have managed to get out of the Pool phase. And that during a season where they are still in the lower third on the URC log.
The extent of the Ospreys achievement can be measured by the fact that along the way to qualifying for the next round, they beat the champions of both France and England. Indeed, they beat the French champions, Montpellier, twice, both home and away. They edged out English champions Leicester Tigers by one point this past weekend, with the significant aspect of that result being that it was away at Welford Road.
Edinburgh have also been styling in the Champions Cup while not necessarily enjoying a particularly successful URC season. They ended fifth in Pool A, but only missed out on the top four position that would have clinched them home ground advantage in the single round last 16 stage was an inferior points difference to the Cell C Sharks and Saracens, who also ended with 15 log points and ended third and fourth respectively.
It means the Sharks get to play at home against fellow URC team Munster, while Edinburgh are travelling to Leicester Tigers. After what Ospreys did to Leicester in the final pool game, and given the form Edinburgh have been in, you wouldn’t necessarily bet against them advancing to the quarterfinals.
There are two URC teams in the top two at the end of the group stage in Pool A, while the Stormers were third in Pool B. The Ospreys finished fifth in Pool B with Munster sixth, while Ulster, under pressure for so much of the season, managed to squeak into the round of 16 by avenging their first round defeat to Sale Sharks with a good win at home at the Kingspan this past weekend.
Given that Ulster took champions LaRochelle to the final move of the game in their previous match, and it was away at a particularly intimidating venue, it can now be argued that the men from Belfast have turned the corner and are picking up some momentum. The URC champions, the Stormers, will have that in mind when the visit the Kingspan for a crucial top of the table URC game on Friday night.
The success of the likes of Edinburgh and the Ospreys begs a question – has the South African inclusion in the URC already started to have the effect of improving the quality of competition to the point it makes the URC teams more formidable in Europe?
It is a fair question to ponder, notwithstanding the appearance that some of the French sides, very aware of the perils presented by the two team relegation format in the Top 14, could be holding back at this point of the competition.
Only three French teams made it to the round of 16 – Toulouse, LaRochelle and Montpellier – as against five English teams. It is interesting to note though that the recent French success stories are all through. What is also interesting is that the two protagonists in last year’s thrilling Champions Cup final in Marseille, eventual winners LaRochelle and Leinster, top the two logs.
There’s good reason to believe though that Leinster should be the favoured team this year. By heading Pool A, the Dublin based outfit have managed ensure they will have home ground advantage on their side all the way through the playoffs, because Aviva Stadium is already the designated venue for the decider.
Leinster have indeed been in imperious form and their march through both the URC and Champions Cup has been an inexorable one thus far. They managed 20 log points from their four games in the group stage, meaning a full house of five points, including a four try bonus, in every game they played.
The situation in the Challenge Cup is equally as positive for the URC, with the South African entrants from the URC, the Emirates Lions, being joined by Scarlets, Benetton, Connacht, Glasgow, the Dragons and Cardiff in the round of 16. That is seven teams, so if you consider that four teams drop out of the Champions Cup to compete in this phase of the Challenge Cup, it is a more than 50 per cent success rate.
Indeed, the only URC team that won’t be playing when round of 16 games are staged in the two competitions is Zebre Parma, who might feel they are represented by the Toyota Cheetahs, the wild cards from South Africa who are using the Zebres’ Parma headquarters as their home base.
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