Race for three of four URC Shields hots up
When the United Rugby Championship resumes over the festive period, plenty is at stake for the teams battling for supremacy in the respective national conferences, which will mean an easier passage through the knock-outs.
The winner will be awarded the Shield, but there is one exception.
The odd one out is the Irish Shield. Leinster, like they are doing on the overall log, are running away with it there, with their come-from-behind win over Ulster in the last game before the competition broke for the Heineken Champions Cup effectively putting paid to any challenge from the team from Belfast.
Even though Ulster have a game in hand on Leinster, there’s just too wide a gap, 12 points, to be made up in the second half of the season, and while Munster have been resurgent and are sweeping their way back into play-off contention as well as qualification for next year’s Champions Cup, their chances of getting through as Shield winners are zero. The gap between them and Leinster is 21 points with both teams having played nine games.
Of course, locally there is much focus on this weekend’s pre-Christmas north/south derby between the DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls. On the face of it the game amounts as a potentially decisive moment in the Shield battle, with both teams currently level on 34 points, which by the way also leaves them joint second on the overall log behind Leinster.
But the small print that needs to be read is the number of games they have played. The Bulls will be beginning the second half of the season when they run out at the DHL Stadium, while the Stormers will be playing the game that gets them to the halfway point. That game in hand should mean there is less log pressure on the Stormers, but it depends on whether you are taking a long term or short term view.
If you are going short term, and care about where the teams will be placed at the end of this festive period run of derbies, then the Stormers can probably feel there’s a little less heat on them. For even if the Stormers lose at a stadium where they haven’t suffered defeat for over a year, they will be square again if the Stormers then beat the Emirates Lions on New Years Eve and the Cell C Sharks, likely to be at full strength for the clash, turn the screws the same night against the Bulls at HollywoodBets Kings Park. And the Stormers will still have that game in hand.
Another possible scenario heaps extra pressure on the Bulls – if they lose to both the Stormers and the Sharks on their Christmas travels to the coast, the Stormers will be well ahead of them on the log – still with that game in hand. It might be hard for the Pretoria team to come back into the Shield race from there. A loss on Friday will heap massive pressure on them when they go to Durban.
However, there is a long term view to be taken into account, for it is arguably also true that the Stormers face a slightly tougher second half of the competition than the Bulls do. In the sense that the return derby will be in Pretoria, and it will also be understrength as it coincides with the periods the Springboks will be resting. That favours the Bulls.
The Stormers will also still face home and away derbies against the Sharks, as well as trips to Leinster and Ulster, two tough places to play. The Bulls also still have to go to Ulster, but their league game against Leinster this season will be at Loftus, where the commitment of Leinster might depend on how far they are ahead on the overall log and what their Champions Cup commitments look like.
If there is pressure on the Bulls and Stormers to keep their momentum going, there is even more pressure on the Sharks. The local team that because of their financial muscle is considered most likely to challenge for Champions Cup are currently at risk of not qualifying for the elite European competition next year.
It is the four Shield winners and then the four next best teams that qualify, and the Sharks are currently outside of that bracket in 10th place. Their opponents on Friday night, the Lions, are currently five points ahead of the Durban team, in fifth place overall, and are mounting a strong challenge for a place in the competition they missed out on this season.
However, there is a caveat – the Sharks have played just seven games, two less than the Bulls and one less than the Stormers and Lions. The Lions have plenty to play for over the next few weeks, as a win in either Durban or Cape Town in the festive derbies will cement their position in the top half of the log and also possibly bring them into Shield contention. With those games in hand to be factored in, you could argue all four South African teams are still in with a chance of winning the Shield.
There are three in contention in both the Scotland/Italy and Welsh Shields, where all bets are off for now. In the Scotland Shield, there are just three points separating Edinburgh from Glasgow, with the latter having a game in hand on the leaders. And Benetton are just one point behind them.
Cardiff have a commanding six point lead over Dragons in Wales but the Ospreys, after their statement win over Montpellier away in the Champions Cup, can easily make up the eight point gap between first and third in the nine matches remaining.
HOW IT STANDS IN THE SHIELD BATTLES AT HALFWAY MARK
South African Shield
Bulls 34 points after 9 games
Stormers 34 points after 8 games
Lions 24 points after 8 games
Sharks 19 points after 7 games
Leinster 43 points after 9 games
Ulster 31 points after 8 games
Munster 22 points after 9 games
Connacht 19 points after 9 games
Edinburgh 23 points after 9 games
Glasgow Warriors 20 points after 8 games
Benetton 19 points after 9 games
Zebre 4 points after 9 games
Cardiff 22 points after 9 games
Dragons 16 points after 9 games
Ospreys 14 points after 9 games
Scarlets 9 points after 9 games