Munster celebrate their URC win

Munster celebrate their URC win.

URC overview: Munster join challenge to derail SA playoff ambitions

The Stormers got what they wanted from what proved a decisive URC round, but the threats to South African playoff ambitions are multiplying.

Munster celebrate their URC win

Munster celebrate their URC win.

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The Stormers got what they were hoping for when Glasgow Warriors pipped Ulster at Scotstoun at the start of what proved a quite decisive URC round, but the threats to South African ambitions in the competition are multiplying.

Why the Stormers should be smiling is because the Glasgow win coupled with their own gutsy win over the Bulls the next day, has put them in a comfortable position on the two battle fronts that concern them. It will take a bizarre sequence of results for them to be unseated as South African conference leaders, which means they are set to retain the Shield, and second position is starting to look more probable than possible.

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Their lead over third placed Ulster is now 10 points, which is a lot to make up even though the Irish team does have a game in hand. That game in hand is their clash with the Sharks at Kings Park, a match that now takes on extra significance not only for the Stormers but also, and perhaps much more so, for the Bulls.

The Bulls have now fallen out of the top four and apart from the top two, Leinster and the Stormers, they are now also behind Ulster, Glasgow and Munster. The last mentioned team, with a two game tour of South Africa set for the last rounds of the league phase of competition in April, has now joined Glasgow and Ulster in being a threat to the South African goal of repeating last season’s feat of getting two teams into the top four.

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Like Glasgow, who continue to impress under the coaching of Franco Smith and are now proper dark horses for the trophy, Munster have picked up impressive momentum in the last two months. They’ve gone from at one stage being third last to fifth, and it has all happened in the relative blink of an eye as the Munster players start getting used to life under new coach Graham Rowntree, who replaced South African Johan van Graan in the off season.

Munster’s latest victims were the Ospreys, and not just by a little bit either. They ramped up a score of more than 50, which will be a big confidence booster for them heading into the last four rounds of the league season. It was a record win for Munster against the Ospreys, who were admittedly without their Welsh internationals and that might explain the depths to which they plummeted after an impressive run recently after scoring some big upsets in the Heineken Champions Cup.

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With Cardiff dealing fairly comfortably with Benetton on Saturday, the Ospreys have now fallen behind in the Welsh Shield race. The five points Cardiff picked up against the zero managed by Ospreys is now the difference between the teams, with Cardiff now ninth overall and Ospreys 12th.

While the Welsh are struggling, the Irish are suddenly flying, with Connacht joining Leinster, Ulster and Munster in the top eight that will secure play-off qualification. If the log was frozen now, the playoffs would feature four Irish teams, three South African teams and one Scottish team.

The Irish Shield race was pretty much done and dusted before the weekend, the South African one is now looking the same, and they are joined amongst the almost certain winners of a Shield trophy by Glasgow. Their nine point lead over second placed Benetton in the Scottish/Italian conference is a significant one if you consider the Scots have a game in hand and that there are only four rounds to play.

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Edinburgh, who were still in contention at the start of the weekend, have dropped further off the pace following an unexpectedly heavy away defeat to Scarlets, who appear to be playing with renewed confidence subsequent to their recent win over the Bulls. The gap between Glasgow and Edinburgh is now 12 points, again with the Glaswegians having a game in hand.

That game in hand is next Saturday’s clash with the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg, which along with the Ulster game against the Sharks will have the other two local teams desperately hoping for South African wins. Losses for Ulster and Glasgow will certainly help the Bulls, who play their next game against the Lions at home in a fortnight from now.

URC fixtures and results

Round 14 results:

Glasgow Warriors 17 Ulster 11
Munster 58 Ospreys 3
Emirates Lions 7 Cell C Sharks 29
Vodacom Bulls 19 DHL Stormers 23
Zebre 34 Connacht 57
Cardiff Rugby 30 Benetton 13
Scarlets 42 Edinburgh 14
Leinster 43 Dragons 14

Next round of rescheduled fixtures:

Sharks v Ulster (Durban, Saturday 14.00)
Lions v Glasgow Warriors (Johannesburg, Saturday 16.10)

The URC table after round 14
The URC table after 14 rounds of action.