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Spotlight on SA derbies again as stakes get higher

URC PREVIEW: The spotlight will fall on some big South African derbies once again as Round 11 of the 2023/2024 United Rugby Championship season gets underway.

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The competition returns after a break for Round Three of the Six Nations and stakes are high when it comes to positions in the overall standings and Shield standings.

In South Africa, Saturday’s derby double header featuring two games on the Highveld will take centre stage, with the Bulls looking to break their seven-match losing sequence against the Stormers in the main event at Loftus.

However, the support feature of the Lions hosting the Sharks will be no less intense in terms of what is at stake.

The Lions desperately need to get back onto the winning trail after a two-game bump against the Bulls if they hope to become South Africa’s third team in the Champions Cup next season, and possibly fourth if the Sharks win the EPCR Challenge Cup.

The Bulls will be sitting pretty for a place in the top two on the overall log if they beat the Stormers, but conversely, the Stormers will be well back in the race for a top-two finish if they make it eight in a row against their arch-rivals.

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Both teams head into the Loftus clash in good form and with winning momentum – the last time the Bulls lost it was against the Stormers two days before Christmas, while the Stormers haven’t lost since their second-string team made a good fist of it against Leicester Tigers in the Champions Cup at Welford Road on December 8.

The Loftus Versfeld game is also important in terms of the battle for the South African Shield – which the Stormers lead with 17 points, having won all four of their encounters with SA franchises.

SA URC Shield standings after four rounds

There has been an upward trend on the performance log for the two front-running South African teams in the URC, and their positioning after Saturday could be strongly influenced by what happens elsewhere in Round 11.

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The weekend of high-stakes showdowns starts on Friday, with fifth-placed Edinburgh hosting the seventh-placed Ospreys.

With just one point separating those two teams, and the Stormers on the same number of points as Edinburgh, there is an obvious opportunity for both them and the Ospreys to make a significant climb up the log if they are successful this weekend.

The other game on Friday also has importance, as it features the champions, Munster, at home to Zebre.

The Italians pushed Edinburgh in Parma last time out but shouldn’t be as tough away from home, with Munster needing a full house of five log points to lift them into the top eight.

They are currently ninth and while they won the trophy the hard way last season, they won’t be wanting to go that route again.

Perhaps the biggest game of the weekend outside of the one in Pretoria will be the one that kicks off at roughly the same time in Treviso.

The Glasgow Warriors have opened a four-point gap on Benetton thanks to them winning last time out and Benetton not getting anything out of their trip to Leinster.

That means Benetton dropped to fourth after starting the last round in second, with Glasgow now second, three points behind leaders Leinster.

It is a big game for the two teams not just because of their positions in the top four, and their need to retain that stability in the face of a strong challenge from several teams, but also because of their Shield aspirations.

The Scotland/Italy Shield currently sees Benetton as leaders by four points over Glasgow, although Glasgow does have a game in hand in a competition within the main competition that is now only tabulated from derby matches.

Both teams will be missing the bulk of their players to the Six Nations, although in this off week, several fringe international players should also return to action.

Benetton have been strong at home this season but they are up against a team in good form and coached by a man in former Springbok assistant coach Franco Smith who knows Italy and Benetton very well.

Connacht are one of the teams living on the edge when it comes to top eight and Champions Cup and play-off qualification, so a win at home against Scarlets is imperative, while another Welsh team, Cardiff, needs an upset win over Leinster at Arms Park if they are to remain in touch with the top eight.

Cardiff are currently 12th, which seems a long way away yet, but it is a different picture if you see the number of log points separating them from the top eight – just seven.

That will change after this weekend if Cardiff lose as a top-eight finish will be a bit beyond them if the difference stretches into double figures.

Hence the late Saturday clash in Cardiff will be a quasi knock-out fixture for the hosts. And talking of hosts, there’s no need to point out the imperative of an Ulster win over the Dragons at the Ravenhill Stadium in the first game they will play since the Irish province parted ways with coach Dan McFarland.

United Rugby Championship Round fixtures:

Friday, March 1:
Munster v Zebre
Edinburgh v Ospreys

Saturday, March 2:
Lions v Sharks
Benetton v Glasgow Warriors
Bulls v Stormers
Connacht v Scarlets
Cardiff v Leinster
Ulster v Dragons

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