High stakes with Euro carrot for URC combatants
SPOTLIGHT: There should be high levels of discomfort and an element of desperation in several teams when the next phase of the United Rugby Championship gets underway at the weekend.
What makes the URC different to the Super Rugby competition that South Africa was aligned to during the first 26 years of rugby being professional are the different battles within the larger war that are constantly being fought.
It isn’t exactly like the English round ball leagues in the sense of their being teams threatened by relegation at the end of the season, but there is the big carrot, and pressure, of needing to qualify for Europe.
The top eight in the 16-team competition qualify for the Champions Cup, which South Africa will be part of for the first time from the weekend of December 9/10/11 – when the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls make their debut in the prestigious European competition.
The teams that don’t make it into the top eight participate in the secondary Challenge Cup, with the Cheetahs answering an invite to join the Lions in that competition.
There is a caveat to the top eight qualifying for the Champions Cup.
The top team from each of the four Shields – meaning the South African, Irish, Welsh and Scotland/Italy conferences – automatically goes through to the main European competition.
That is why there is a Welsh team in the Champions Cup, even though no Welsh team made it into the top eight in the 2021/2022 season.
So it is effectively a case of the top teams in each conference plus the next best four that advance to the Champions Cup, though it is a straight-out case of the top eight teams going into the play-off phase of the URC.
In the battle for both Champions Cup places and spots in the knock-outs it is very tight after the first block of seven rounds of competition has been completed, and for some, the situation has already become desperate.
The Scarlets, who won the URC in a previous guise as the Pro12 as recently as 2017, for instance, should be in a particularly desperate mood when they visit Cape Town on Friday to play the reigning URC champions.
They are currently second last on the log, six points behind the currently eighth-placed Sharks, but the Sharks, like the ninth-placed Lions, have games in hand on the Welsh club. The Sharks have two games in hand, the Lions have one.
Qualifying for the Champions Cup by winning the Welsh Shield is an even more distant prospect for Scarlets as they head towards the halfway point of the league phase of the season (that will be reached after they’ve played nine games).
Cardiff is currently sixth on the overall log, nine points ahead of the Scarlets, meaning more than two wins, after the same number of games.
The Dragons, who struggled for a long time to break a losing sequence that stretched to nearly a year, are currently second on the Welsh Shield, on 15 points along with the Sharks and Lions, but ranked 10th on the number of wins and points difference.
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They will consider themselves in with a shout at top-eight qualification if they can beat the Lions in Johannesburg in the first game of a Sunday South African doubleheader.
Indeed, if Cardiff follows up their recent win against the Stormers by beating the other local coastal team, the Sharks, in the later game on Sunday, a Dragons win could see them not only in the top eight, but also top of the Welsh Shield. That is certainly good motivation for the team from Newport, who appears to have turned the corner.
But they won’t be driven by the sheer desperation that will drive Scarlets, who has a clutch of big-name players back and have in their ranks experienced internationals like Jonathan Davies and Rhys Patchell. \
Talking of desperation, the team that recently downed the South African A side, Munster, should have plenty of that as they look in this second phase of the URC to pick up the pieces after their disastrous start.
They are currently 14th, just three above Scarlets, as they look forward to hosting Connacht in what should be a tough Irish derby on Saturday.
In reality, though it is only really Leinster, who are currently way out in front with 33 points from seven games, eight more than second-placed Ulster, who are safe from having to battle it out for a Champions Cup place with the logjam in the middle tiers of the table, although it is the teams currently placed sixth (Cardiff) to 15th (Scarlets) who are under the most pressure from a play-off and Champions Cup viewpoint this weekend.
There certainly is a lot of context in this return to play round, particularly for those like the Durban and Johannesburg protagonists, who don’t have much separating them in terms of position and points on the log.
Weekend fixtures with current URC placings
Friday, November 25
Cape Town: Stormers (fourth) v Scarlets (15th)
Belfast: Ulster (second) v Zebre (16th)
Saturday, November 26
Treviso: Benetton (11th) v Edinburgh (fifth)
Pretoria: Bulls (third) v Ospreys)
Dublin: Leinster (first) v Glasgow Warriors (seventh)
Limerick: Munster (14th) v Connacht (12th)
Sunday, November 27
Johannesburg: Lions (ninth) v Dragons (10th)
Durban: Sharks (eighth) v Cardiff (sixth)