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State of the URC as Ospreys lift South Africa's hopes

SPOTLIGHT: There were some tight contests in the games that mattered in the fight for United Rugby Championship log positions during an absorbing Round 10 of the competition.

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However, none was more meaningful to the top two South African teams than the game that ended the round.

Ulster have been a constant presence in the top four in the first few seasons of the URC, and they are considered to be one of the teams standing firmly in the path of the Bulls and Stormers’ quest for the top four positions that guarantees home-ground advantage in the play-offs.

Ulster made some ground when they knocked over Leinster on the New Year weekend, but in a round which saw the two South African challengers both make strong statements of intent and solidify their challenges, the team that former Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff now represents took a significant backward step in Swansea in the only game to be played on the Sunday.

In the South African Shield, the Stormers lead the charge on 17 points from their four derby matches, but they are closely followed by the Bulls on 15 points.

Jake Flannery probably felt his Ulster team had clinched victory over the Ospreys when he kicked a late penalty to take his team into the lead in a game that was always tight.

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But the young 20-year-old Ospreys flyhalf Dan Edwards, who we may hear a lot more about, raised the decibel levels of the nearly 6,000-strong home crowd by kicking a brilliant 80th-minute drop-goal to clinch a dramatic victory.

Almost unnoticed, the top Welsh teams have made improvements this season and become stronger challengers, and that certainly does count for the Ospreys, who with their win have now lifted themselves to seventh on the log, with Ulster now eighth.

There hasn’t been a Welsh team in the top eight in the first two seasons of the URC, so if the Ospreys do nail down a play-off spot it will be a first for Wales in this version of what started out as the Celtic League.

The Bulls and Stormers won’t be considering the Ospreys too formidable a challenge to their own positions on the log just yet, and the Welsh side, like Ulster, does still have to come to South Africa, so they will be celebrating the win for what it does to their own challenge.

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Ulster are now under acute pressure as they have to head to South Africa, where they face the Sharks and the Stormers, after their next game against the Dragons in a fortnight.

The Stormers are now tied in fifth on 30 points with the Edinburgh team coached by former Sharks mentor Sean Everitt.

The Scottish team will be hugely relieved to have snuck home by five points in a tight game in Parma against a motivated Zebre unit as they join Ulster in touring South Africa at the end of March, with the Stormers and the Sharks being the teams they will be playing against.

The Sharks are of course desperately in need of a few wins to turn around their mood, and although their chances of qualification for the play-offs and Champions Cup qualification are slim, they can help the Stormers and Bulls by knocking over Ulster and Edinburgh when they tour.

Benetton, who were second on the log going into their clash with Leinster but were given a beating that wasn’t entirely unpredictable in Dublin, also have to travel to South Africa later in the competition, as do most of the teams that are cohabiting the top end of the log with the now third-placed Bulls and the Stormers.

Of course, those two local teams are due for a seismic clash at what could be a packed-out Loftus and a record crowd for a league URC game on March 2.

However, after that they are playing overseas opposition until the final round in June, when the Bulls are due to go to Durban and the Stormers host the Lions.

The Lions were disappointing as they failed to follow up their good performance in an ultimately unlucky loss at Loftus a few weeks ago on their home ground, and they won’t join the other South African teams in celebrating the Ospreys win as it makes their own quest for a top eight position more difficult.

After losing to the Bulls and failing to get a bonus point, the Lions have now dropped to 11th from 10th, and are five points off the top-eight bracket.

Connacht, who were involved in another tight game involving teams near each other on the log in Cardiff at the weekend, are four points ahead of the Lions and their hard-fought away win at Arms Park will leave them believing they can repeat last year’s feat of making the top eight.

The loss means that Cardiff have dropped off the pace a bit but there is still a logjam between positions seven and 12, and even the fifth and sixth-placed Edinburgh and Stormers are not out of the woods when it comes to the battle for top eight.

The Stormers though, with so many home games to come at a stadium where they seldom lose, will be confident that Champions Cup qualification won’t be a problem for them – they are aiming at the top four, which at this point means they just have two points to make up on the now fourth-placed Benetton.

Glasgow Warriors, who upped a gear to comfortably beat the Dragons, and the Bulls join Leinster as the teams most likely to be in the top four.

Munster hit their straps away against Scarlets and lie ninth, which at this point means they could have to do it the hard way, meaning playing their play-off games away, if they want to retain their trophy.

The beauty of it though is that there are only three points between them and the fourth-placed team.

Indeed, there are three teams, from positions seven through to nine, locked together on 29 points, three off the fourth-placed team. It makes for a great final eight rounds of league play.

Photo: @THESTORMERS

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