URC PREVIEW: It’s proper knockout time for some

rugby10 May 2024 05:35| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Salmaan Moerat © Gallo Images

DHL Stormers captain Salmaan Moerat said his team was taking it game by game but he also said in the same press conference ahead of Friday night’s clash with the Dragons that the knockout phase has now effectively arrived for his team in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.

And he’s not wrong either. If the Stormers lose at the Rodney Parade, they effectively drop out of the race for a top four spot, something that Moerat admitted his men still covet.

“We want to play in a home quarterfinal and that is our goal, but we are realistic and know that the only thing in our control is that we keep winning every game,” said the lock from Newport on the eve of the round 16 clash.

Defeat won’t knock the Stormers out of the battle for a top eight spot and qualification for next season’s Investec Champions Cup, but it will make their position more tenuous. So yes, it is a knockout game for the Stormers, who face a tough one against Connacht in Galway the following week.

The Vodacom Bulls won’t drop out of the top four if they lose to Glasgow Warriors in Pretoria, but if they do, they can kiss their chances of finishing top goodbye. So for them the Loftus clash on Saturday afternoon is a kind of knockout fixture too. And definitely ditto the Emirates Lions, who can’t afford to lose to Cardiff if they hope to remain in contention for a top eight finish.

Not that the three South African sides with URC ambitions are alone in going into this weekend’s fixtures on a playoff footing. Sean Everitt’s Edinburgh will feel the same when they face Zebre on Friday night, the Ospreys are in their last chance saloon at the RDS Arena against Leinster on Saturday, and neither Connacht nor Ulster can afford to lose in this round if they want to keep their ships properly afloat.


Edinburgh v Zebre (Edinburgh, Friday 8:35pm)

Edinburgh are ninth currently, one point out of the top eight placings, but a five point haul from this game against the bottom team of the competition could propel them to as high as fifth. They are more sure of doing that on their home field than some of the other teams that face greater jeopardy in this round.

Prediction: Edinburgh to win by 20

Dragons v DHL Stormers (Newport, Friday 8:35pm)

The sun was shining in Newport on Thursday and it was expected to do so again on Friday, which means the conditions could feel even more like home to the Stormers than the chilly evening that saw them lose to the Ospreys at the DHL Stadium. It’s make or break time for the Stormers, which has been stressed often enough, and the selection for this game reflects that - it’s pretty close to being a full strength Stormers team. Only Damian Willemse, who flew to Wales late after attending to a personal matter in Cape Town, is missing of the usual frontline players.

The Dragons are physical and gave the Stormers a tough game last time they visited Rodney Parade but a fully loaded Cape side should be expected to win and with a bonus point.

Prediction: Stormers to win by 15

Vodacom Bulls v Glasgow Warriors (Pretoria, Saturday 2pm)

This is arguably the big game of the weekend, with the fourth-ranked team hosting the team currently placed first. There’s a lot to play for for both, and while neither of them will see drop out of the top four placings if they lose, the Bulls’ quest for first will be done, and Glasgow, if they lose, will most likely be overtaken by Leinster and slip to second.

The Bulls are always strong favourites at Loftus, with their altitude advantage, no matter who they play, but their experience against Munster, where they lost unexpectedly, did introduce a question mark that the Bulls need to sweep away with a win over these tough opponents. The Glasgow style, developed under the tutelage of former Springbok assistant coach Franco Smith, is suited to the fast Loftus surface so this should be a spectacular game as well as tight. If both teams play their best, it could be one of the games of the season.

Prediction: Bulls to win by 7

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Benetton (Durban, Saturday 4:05pm)

The question marks over the Sharks culture were emphatically erased by the way they dug in and fought back, and then celebrated the win, in last week’s EPCR Challenge Cup semifinal. The Sharks are of course focused on winning the final in that competition, which will be played at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London two weeks from now, but they also have a separate mission to finish off the last three home games of the URC season unbeaten.

Benetton have a lot more to play for from a URC viewpoint than the Sharks. They are eighth, and this is a make or break tour for them in much the same way that the Stormers’ tour is. If they win both games in South Africa, they will come close to being in the top four, if they lose both they will be out of the top eight and unlikely to make it back with one game to go. It will be interesting to see what team Sharks coach John Plumtree comes up with when he announces later on Friday but word from Durban is that it will be a strong one as the Sharks look to turn it on for their loyal home fans.

Prediction: Sharks by 12

Scarlets v Ulster (Llanelli, Saturday 4:05pm)

Ulster are one of three teams tied on 44 points, one behind the fifth placed Stormers, and with a game against Leinster to come next week, this is in every sense a knockout fixture for last year’s log runners up. Although they are 14th on the log, the Scarlets can be troublesome on their home ground. But Ulster have a lot to play for and should prevail.

Prediction: Ulster by 8 to 12

Munster v Connacht (Limerick, Saturday 6:15pm)

Outside of the game in Pretoria, this is probably the plum fixture of the weekend. There is always an edge in Irish derbies, Connacht invariably raise their game. But after winning twice in South Africa, and grabbing full points to boot, Munster have momentum they are unlikely to let slip at this point. Not on their home field of Thormond Park.

Prediction: Munster to win by 8

Emirates Lions v Cardiff (Johannesburg, Saturday 6:15pm)

The Lions will have surprised no-one when they made it known they are looking to play a quick tempo game. That’s what you have to do when you are a highveld team hosting one from overseas in Johannesburg or Pretoria. Of course, the Lions are well versed in that rugby, and it was what buried Leinster early in their ill fated recent visit to Emirates Airlines Park. As they are wont to do, the Lions then disappointed the following week against Munster. However, there isn’t much comparison between Munster and Cardiff, so with Quan Horn back in tow and this effectively being a knockout fixture for them, the hosts will start as strong favourites.

Prediction: Lions to win by 14

Leinster v Ospreys (Dublin, Saturday 8:35pm)

The Ospreys won in Cape Town, where not many teams win, and they will take that confidence into a Dublin fixture where the hosts are feeling rare pressure for this stage of a URC campaign. They need to win to get back on top of the log, but even then they need to bank on the Bulls denying Glasgow any log points in Pretoria (the difference between first and second is currently four points). Given Glasgow’s playing style, that might be difficult to do.

The Ospreys also have plenty on the line. Before they lost to the Bulls, they were in the upper reaches of the log and looked well placed to become the first Welsh team in a while to make the top eight. But their failure to accumulate at Loftus has seen them drop to 10th, and they will be out of it if they lose now.

Prediction: Leinster to win by 12