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How Bulls can host the URC Final

SPOTLIGHT: The deciding round of the United Rugby Champions league season ran according to script by having everyone on the edge of their seats from beginning to end and the play-offs that kick off this weekend promise to do the same.

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It has been a highly competitive season and there have been enough upsets during it to suggest it is hard to bank on anything with proper certainty heading into the play-offs.

For sure, the top finishing team Munster will start as overwhelming favourites to beat the eighth-placed Ospreys in their quarterfinal, but didn’t Ospreys win in Cape Town not long ago? That was the only Stormers home loss this season, and if you can beat them at home surely you can beat anyone on your day.

Benetton are up against it as they head to Loftus Versfeld, but Jake White is sure to remind his team what happened when they went to Treviso a few years back expecting victory in the Rainbow Cup Final. It’s also not a tour this time for Benetton, meaning that they won’t be targeting a game, which appeared to be the case on their league visit here when they considered the win over Sharks to be enough.

Then there are two potentially seismic quarterfinals later on Saturday between teams that have been top performers in the URC over three seasons – Leinster hosting Ulster at the Lansdowne Road, and Glasgow Warriors hosting the inaugural champions, the Stormers.

Leinster will feel they have to win this competition now to have something to show from their season after falling short in the Champions Cup so will be hard to beat, but Ulster did beat them twice in league play. They were pretty on point in their first half performance against Munster in Limerick too before the champions came back from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat them in the final league game.

Round 18 ran according to the script of the season to that point. There were confounding outcomes like the Ospreys sneaking into the top eight. Just about every pundit felt that 10th-placed Connacht were the cut-off point when it came to contenders for a top-eight finish going into the final weekend.

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There was confusion at the Cape Town Stadium, where everyone in the press box assumed the losing bonus point picked up by the Lions against the Stormers was enough for them to qualify. It took Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen to set it straight when he was congratulated afterwards – the Ospreys could still sneak in with a bonus point win against Cardiff. Which they did, but the result wasn’t assured until deep into that final game of the league season.

So what we thought was a weekend of just two dead rubber games turned out to be a weekend of just one, – the Welsh derby between the Scarlets and the Ospreys. That’s a great advert for the competitiveness of a competition that continues to grow and will become even more sharply into focus now that the showcase part of the season has been reached.

Yes, there are teams you expect to see get beaten, but it isn’t with the complete certainty that was the case when New Zealand and Australian teams played trans-Tasman games when South Africa was still involved in Super Rugby from around 2016 to 2019.

The sides you expect to get beaten are only Zebre and the bottom two Welsh teams. The Sharks are a much better team than their 14th-placed finish and even though they were “knackered”, in the words of their coach, they were well in their game against the second-placed Bulls at a stage of the second half of their game in Durban.

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Even last-placed Zebre came close to confounding the ‘certain big win’ some of us predicted for the eventually fourth-placed Glasgow Warriors. The home team at the Scotstoun were chasing points differential but until deep into their game on Friday they were struggling just to win it. That will give the Stormers considerable hope as they prepare for their quarterfinal visit there on Saturday.

But of the two local teams still alive in the competition, it is the Bulls who start the play-offs with the best chances of success as they have a home-ground advantage in at least two play-off games should they get past Benetton. That advantage is something Jake White’s team thoroughly deserves and earned through the improvements they have made this season that saw them jump from last year’s sixth-placed finish to second.

As it turns out though, the Bulls/Leinster Final that many may have dreamed about won’t be happening, with the results of the final round of league play putting them on a collision path in the semifinal instead.

Leinster need to win the competition after failing again at the final hurdle in the Champions Cup and they showed no signs of any hangover when they thumped Connacht at the start of the final weekend. They will go into the finals series feeling both determined and confident, and one thing we can be almost certain of is that Leinster will send their full-strength team to Loftus this time.

The chances of the Bulls playing a Final at home sustained a blow when Munster recovered from a rare first-half misfire to beat Ulster in a thrilling and high-quality game.

But a home Final for the Bulls is still possible given the unpredictability of the competition.  It just needs Munster to be knocked over, possibly by the Stormers if they make it through Saturday’s game in Glasgow as winners.

The Stormers weren’t at their best against the Lions but they were playing against a team that was playing for so much more than they were and yet they still showed their pedigree to come through to win it after trailing with six minutes to go by scoring a try when they were 14 men against 15.

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The Lions sadly can look back at a season where they made massive improvements but just fell short. In some ways, their final game was a microcosm of their season – they really looked like they had the bit between their teeth, particularly during the first half, but lost the big moments.

As it turned out, even had they opted to go for the try rather than kick for posts in that clutch moment six minutes from time and then scored another try to pick up full points from the game, it would not have been enough for the Lions to make the Champions Cup. The losing Ulster bonus point in the later game would have knocked them from seventh to eighth. It was that kind of league season – one of fine margins, and fine margins separated the winners from losers in the end.

How Bulls can host the URC Final

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