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Road to the play-offs: Who can catch Leinster?

SPOTLIGHT: Some big statements were made in the United Rugby Challenge over the weekend as the bulk of the teams head into the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, with the last 16 and quarterfinal ties on successive weekend.

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There’s a break from league action for a fortnight before getting back for URC Round 14 in mid-April.

That will see league leaders Leinster begin their two-match tour of South Africa as they take on the Lions in Johannesburg, while second-placed Glasgow host a Sharks team buoyed by back-to-back wins.

Arguably the game of the weekend will be in Pretoria, where third takes on fourth, with the Bulls locking horns with champions Munster at Loftus Versfeld.

Then it is also fifth against seventh as the Stormers welcome the Ospreys to Cape Town, while Ulster host Cardiff, Benetton face the Dragons, Connacht meet Zebre and Edinburgh entertain the Scarlets.

Over the past weekend Leinster made an emphatic statement in their top-of-the-table clash with the Bulls.

After two trophy-less seasons, no one in the Leinster camp will be getting carried away, but their road to the play-off are more or less set.

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It was a tight old affair during the first half in front of a 16,892. In fact, the South African visitors led 14-12 at the interval, having had the upper hand in the scrum.

But it was to be one way traffic after the break as Leinster racked up 35 unanswered points to win 47-14 with their stacked bench having a major impact.

Ireland Six Nations title winners Jamison Gibson-Park, Tadgh Furlong, Caelan Doris and Dan Sheehan were among the star subs to make a big difference, with front row man Sheehan crossing to contribute to a 7-1 try count.

With the Bulls losing, Glasgow Warriors took the opportunity to move up to second in the table as they thumped the Scarlets 45-3 in Llanelli.

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Munster are now just two points behind the Bulls in fourth place thanks to a 20-15 win over Cardiff in Limerick, but they were pushed by their Welsh guests who now have ten bonus points this season, indicating just how many close contests they have been involved in.

As for the battle for play-off spots, it is becoming so congested, with just five points separating fifth and eleventh in the table.

The Stormers and Benetton are now fifth and sixth respectively after hard-fought home wins over Ulster and Connacht respectively, with Edinburgh dropping out of the top eight after losing 13-23 to the resurgent Sharks in Durban.

Ospreys out-performing expectations

The Ospreys were the big movers over the weekend, leaping up from eleventh to seventh with a 36-21 bonus point victory over the Lions in Swansea.

It puts them firmly back in the play-off mix and they also have a Challenge Cup last-16 tie at home to Sale to look forward to next weekend.

When they do return to URC action they will face testing trips to the Stormers, the Bulls and Leinster, before hosting the Dragons and facing Cardiff on Judgement Day.

There was another Welsh win over the weekend, with Dragons beating Zebre Parma 20-13 at Rodney Parade to move off the bottom of the table.

Match of the weekend

Munster 20, Cardiff 15.

It wasn’t a try-fest, with just the two touchdowns apiece, but what a compelling and gripping affair this was in front of 15,423 fully engaged fans at Thomond Park.

Cardiff produced a huge effort, competing hard at the breakdown and bringing a real defensive linespeed, while they snapped up a couple of scoring chances.

When flank Thomas Young rounded off a lineout drive on the hour to add to centre Ben Thomas’ long-range interception, the visitors were leading 12-10.

They also had a man advantage with prop John Ryan in the sin bin following a tipping clear-out on Liam Belcher.

As such, they would have been dreaming of a first ever win in Limerick.

But the 14 men of Munster redoubled their efforts and went back in front when Ireland fly-half Jack Crowley danced through to the line.

Back came Cardiff again and it looked as though the lead was going to change hands once more ten minutes from time as they got closer and closer to the whitewash through 25 phases, only for prop Will Davies-King to lose the ball in going for the touchdown.

Player of the weekend

Kyle Rowe (Glasgow): The man who made his Six Nations debut as a full-back versus Wales last month was in his more regular wing berth against the Scarlets and responded with a hat-trick of tries in Glasgow’ 45-3 triumph down in Llanelli.

Quote of the weekend

Ulster coach Richie Murphy after his team’s 7-13 defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town where they led until seven minutes from time.

“It’s a very tough loss. I am incredibly proud of the players,” he said.

“The work rate, the effort and the chasing back shows the character that’s within the team. You are never happy when you lose, but I think we are moving in the right direction.”

 

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