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How four SA teams can dominate Euro's top league

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Not only could there be three South African franchises in the United Rugby Championship play-offs, but there might be four local teams in the Champions Cup next season.

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In keeping with the script of this 2023/2024 edition of the URC, it was a round of tumultuous change in the closely fought battle between the top four teams, while the battle for the top eight spots that confirms play-off qualification saw just one casualty as the logjam from the fifth place down remains in place.

The casualty was Connacht, who lost by four points at home to the Stormers in what they had admitted beforehand was a Cup final for them. They are just four points off the top eight bracket with one round to go, but given who is playing who on the final weekend, that is four-points too many.

Actually, that’s not completely true, for there is an outside though slightly unrealistic chance of both them and the Ospreys, who are on the same number of points, sneaking in if the teams currently eighth and ninth don’t pick up any points on the final weekend and they pick up a full house.

They are both playing away, however, with Connacht going to Leinster and the Ospreys to Cardiff, which is one of the reasons it is so unlikely.

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The Round 17 clashes confirmed a top four finish for the Bulls, who after their bonus point win over Benetton are now second and will be playing for top spot when they head to Durban for their final game of the regular season. It also confirmed play-off as well as Champions Cup qualification for the Stormers, who cannot end lower than seventh.

A top seven finish will be necessary for Champions Cup qualification if the Sharks win the EPCR Challenge Cup Final against Gloucester at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday night.

If the Sharks do win it will guarantee South Africa three teams in the elite competition next year, and it could be four if a series of not completely results fall the Lions’ way in the final round.

If the Lions pick up a bonus point win over the Stormers in Cape Town on June 1 they will still finish behind the Cape team as they won’t have as many wins as the Stormers in the event of a tie (currently 11 wins against nine).

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But they will lift themselves ahead of the loser in the Benetton/Edinburgh derby, which will give them play-off qualification, and Champions Cup qualification will come their way if Ulster are denied any points in what could be a cracking Irish derby between Munster and Ulster in Limerick.

Cracking would be the right word to describe the exciting and nail-biting Irish derby that was played in Belfast this past weekend. In front of an enthralled packed house at their Ravenhill Stadium home ground, Ulster won with a long-range penalty from man of the match John Cooney two minutes from time.

It was a deserved win for Ulster who dominated the early parts of the game without being able to convert that dominance into points before Leinster came charging back at them. It looked like Leinster were going to win when their clinical finishing took them into an 11-point lead but Ulster, spurred on by their supporters, came back through an intercept try and then dominated the last parts of the game as they pressed for the win that keeps them in the top six with one round to go.

While the Lions were excellent in effecting a seismic change to the top four log positioning by comprehensively beating the previous log leaders, Glasgow Warriors, while playing more than half the game with 14 men in Johannesburg, it was arguably the Belfast game that provided the benchmark for what is needed to win the URC.

There was a tempo and level of quality to the match that took it to the level of international rugby, and with Munster on the charge after their tight win away to Edinburgh the night before, the Irish challenge looks in a good space.

That isn’t to say that the South African challenge isn’t strong, with the Bulls showing us what we knew already, namely that their power game is formidable, particularly at their home fortress of Loftus.

And the Stormers held their nerve in a playoff atmosphere to beat Connacht at a ground where only one South African team had won before and thus finish their crucial two-match tour with nine points out of a possible 10.

By burying their overseas bogey in the URC the Stormers proved to themselves that travelling overseas for a playoff game does not leave them without hope, although how the cards are going to fall in terms of who plays who in the playoffs just adds further to the intrigue of what will be an absorbing final round.

As it stands, the Stormers (fifth) will have to go to Glasgow to play the Warriors (fourth), while Leinster and Ulster are now on a derby collision course.

The Bulls will fancy their chances of beating Edinburgh in Pretoria if that is how it ends, with them second and Edinburgh seventh, which is one of two good reasons why the Bulls will be supremely motivated to round off their league campaign with a win against the Sharks.

The other reason is of course that a top-two finish means they have home ground advantage in a semifinal should they get that far. But going to Kings Park won’t be an easy task for the Bulls and there are some other games on the final weekend that could see the log change significantly once more. If the Bulls lose, Leinster beat Connacht and Munster win against Ulster, it could be Irish teams in positions one and two.

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