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How the Irish can end Bulls and Sharks' home playoff quest

SPOTLIGHT: Stormers made sure of the South African Shield for the second successive year and still hold onto their top two position but the latest round of the United Rugby Championship was a good one for Ireland.

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Last season there were two South African teams and two Irish teams in the top four. For much of the current term, that looked likely to repeat itself, with the Stormers being joined by the Bulls in the bracket that guarantees home-ground advantage in the first game in the playoff series.

However, while the Stormers have made a top-four finish a virtual certainty by winning their last three derby matches played over the last month, the Bulls have slipped and are now more than a bonus point win behind top-four qualification.

The Sharks are two points behind them and also lagging, eight points behind fourth-placed Glasgow.

Given that the Bulls still have to play Ulster away and Leinster (home), the Sharks arguably have the easier run into the end of the season. But they are too far off the pace for a top four place to be more than an aspiration. A home quarterfinal is not a probability but rather at best outside possibility for the two South African teams who are currently behind the flying Stormers in the Shield.

It is a very different story for Ireland, who had all four of their teams on the winning side in round 15. That includes Connacht, who had to scrap away against Dragons but in the end, did enough to sneak the narrow win that keeps them in eighth place and therefore in the frame for a place in the playoffs. Right now Connacht are a threat to the Sharks’ hopes of Champions Cup qualification, as they are just two points adrift of the top seven finish needed to ensure entry into the prestigious European competition.

Munster, as the Stormers did in Cape Town, nearly let it slip towards the end against a Scarlets team that came back at them strongly. But generally the three Irish sides contending for top four spots were in impressive form and have kept alive the possibility that the final top four will be 75 percent Irish.

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Leinster, who have the Stormers next in Dublin three weeks from now, led the way with a 20-point win in Edinburgh that underlines just how good they are. Leinster aren’t at full strength currently because of Six Nations commitments but they have such depth that whether they have their Irish internationals playing has ceased to be a talking point.

Leinster currently have a 12-point lead on the second-placed Stormers and will make sure of the top spot if they win the March 25 clash in Dublin. The Stormers will have their Springboks back and have pronounced an intention to go to Dublin full strength so it could be an interesting game, one that some might see as a preview to the final.

The Stormers shouldn’t be thinking that far ahead though, for Ulster are currently charging. After a tough period where they lost their way a bit, the Belfast team have turned around their season and after their hard-fought win in Durban the previous week they looked in great form in dispatching Cardiff in Cardiff in the late game this past Saturday.

Ulster are a superbly coached and drilled team and it showed in a quick-paced game played on a fast synthetic surface that was a great advert for the competition. There wasn’t much wrong with Cardiff, who looked up for the game and struck back well after conceding a score shortly after the start of the game.

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However, it was clear even from those early stages that the Ulster class and tempo was going to take its toll, and it did, with Ulster winning comfortably to keep within five points of the Stormers. Meaning one bonus point win. That is what makes the Leinster game important for the Cape side, particularly as the Stormers surrendered their advantage in the points differential column.

With Munster also good for most of the way against Scarlets, and now comfortable in fifth place due to the Bulls and Sharks losses, it is Glasgow Warriors who are the biggest threat to Irish ambitions of having three teams in the top four on the final log.

The Warriors were hurt by their shock defeat to the Lions the previous week but did the expected by bouncing back with a five-point haul against Zebre. The Glaswegians remain a joy to watch with their offload game and will be a handful for opponents once they have all their missing Scottish internationals back after the Six Nations.

Their next game could be a shoot-out for a top-four spot. They will be travelling to Munster on March 25, with the winner set to go into the last two matches of the season in the top four, with the loser outside of that bracket. One thing in favour of the Warriors is that Munster do have a tour to South Africa, where they will face the Sharks and Stormers, after that.

The Warriors host Scarlets and Connacht in their final two games so they would be justified if they go into their final away game against Munster feeling like it is a significant final hurdle to their quest for a top four position.

United Rugby Championship results

Munster 49 Scarlets 42
Glasgow Warriors 50 Zebre 8
Stormers 29 Sharks 23
Bulls 25 Lions 29
Edinburgh 27 Leinster 47
Ospreys 20 Benetton 21
Dragons 20 Connacht 22
Cardiff 20 Ulster 42

Top eight log positions (all after 15 games)

Leinster 71
Stormers 59
Ulster 54
Glasgow Warriors 49
Munster 47
Bulls 43
Sharks 41
Connacht 39

In contention for top eight:

Benetton 38
Cardiff 34
Lions 33

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