Daylight between URC's top four and chasing pack
ROUND EIGHT REVIEW: Cardiff’s unexpected win over the Sharks in the final game of the eighth round of the United Rugby Championship not only came at just the right time for Welsh rugby, but it has also established the team as a proper threat in the competition.
On a weekend where Benetton clipped the wings of the Edinburgh recovery that threatened briefly before the break following three successive defeats to South African teams, the top four began to draw away from the rest as Leinster, Ulster, the Bulls and the Stormers put daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.
Leinster thumped the Glasgow Warriors, thus preventing Franco Smith’s team from getting any kind of revenge for the humiliation they suffered at the hands of last year’s log winners and beaten European Championship Cup finalists in the 2021/2022 quarterfinal earlier in the year. Their bonus point win keeps them comfortably at the top, eight points ahead of second-placed Ulster.
The Belfast-based team in turn comfortably beat Zebre to stay one point ahead of the South African duo of the Bulls and Stormers. The Bulls are officially third because they have won one more game than the Stormers, but the champions have a game in hand on them and on Leinster. Ulster also have a game in hand on the other two top-four teams.
What is significant though is the six-point margin created on fifth-placed Edinburgh now by the fourth-placed Stormers. That becomes more significant a gap when you factor in the Cape team’s game in hand. It is more than one win, and leaves the chasing pack playing catch-up as the official mid-point of the competition is reached this weekend. The top four teams play host in the first round of the Grand Final Series next April.
Cardiff though, now in a comfortable sixth place ahead of the resurgent Edinburgh, are starting to become a talking point. Not only did they break the Welsh duck in the competition (under the URC masthead) by beating the Sharks in Durban, it was also their first win on the road since 2021.
With their home form already impressive this year, and the champion Stormers numbering among their victims at Cardiff Arms Park, the breaking of their away bogey is a significant moment for Cardiff and does confirm them as a threat to the top four if they can continue with their momentum. They are certainly well in the frame currently to challenge for the place in the play-offs that all the Welsh teams missed out on last year, as well as by extension the Champions Cup.
They can obtain Champions Cup status two ways – they can win the Welsh Shield, which is starting to look a distinct possibility as they have a seven-point lead over the second-placed Dragons, while their advantage over pre-tournament Shield favourites, the Ospreys, is now eight points.
Of course there is a long way to go in the competition, but the 14th and 15th places occupied by the Ospreys and Scarlets respectively does from a Welsh viewpoint counterbalance the improvement being shown by Cardiff as the new Welsh flag bearers.
That those two teams lagging near the bottom though are just five (Ospreys) and 10 (Scarlets) points behind the eighth-placed team, currently Benetton, is confirmation of just how tight the battle for top eight and Champions Cup places is. The only team really out of it is Zebre, who slumped to their eighth loss when they went down to Ulster.
How quickly things can change because of the logjam in the middle of the table was shown by Munster, who with their hard-fought 24-17 win over Connacht in their Irish derby in Limerick this weekend managed to move from 14th to ninth, just one spot away from being bracketed among the play-off teams.
Graham Rowntree’s team have two points to make up on Benetton, who in winning by seven points against Edinburgh avenged the big defeat they suffered at the DAM Health Stadium just before the international break.
Edinburgh, who in recent years have been a perennial presence in the top eight and the Champions Cup, might start to feel vulnerable if they lose again. Their chances of winning the Scotland/Italy Shield were dented a bit in the sense that Benetton’s victory has brought the Treviso team into the equation, but they were helped by the defeat suffered by their fellow Scots, Glasgow, who are now languishing in 10th place, eight points behind Edinburgh and two behind Benetton.
Round Eight United Rugby Championship results:
Stormers 36-19 Scarlets
Ulster 36-15 Zebre
Benetton 24-17 Edinburgh
Bulls 43-26 Ospreys
Leinster 40-5 Glasgow Warriors
Munster 24-17 Connacht
Lions 33-25 Dragons
Sharks 0-35 Cardiff Rugby