Leinster's key role in deciding who are kings of SA
SPOTLIGHT: The North-South clash in Cape Town this past weekend lived up to its billing as the biggest franchise derby since the arrival of the pandemic, but it could be relegated in significance in comparison with what is yet to come in the United Rugby Championship.
Leinster, the multiple and reigning champions in the competition’s previous incarnation as the Pro14 and also four times European champions, are due in South Africa after the Easter long weekend. While they are almost assured now of top spot on the overall URC log, which does introduce an interesting question about what squad they will send, their two opponents are locked in a titanic battle that also features the Bulls for Shield (conference) honours.
The Shield winner will not only have the local boasting rights that the Bulls coach Jake White referred to in the immediate aftermath of his team’s agonising 17-19 defeat to the Stormers in a tense battle described by some of the international players as being similar to a Test match in intensity and physicality. They will also get automatic qualification into next year’s Champions Cup.
As it stands, qualification for Europe, which is what all the South African teams see as their top priority in addition to nailing URC silverware, should not just depend on winning the Shield. There’s been a seismic shift in the local fortunes in the Championship since the arena of battle switched to South African soil.
If Edinburgh drops out of the top eight, three SA teams will make it into Europe. If Edinburgh finish eighth, then the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls can reach their objective by finishing in the top seven, which is more than possible at this stage.
But Leinster stands in the way of the two coastal teams, the Sharks and Stormers, with Irish giants due to visit Durban on April 23 before going to Cape Town a week later. If the Stormers beat the Glasgow Warriors in their next game, the clash at Cape Town Stadium could be akin to a final for them as victory will assure them of qualification and, quite possibly, the Shield too.
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Leinster, as their record suggests, are formidable opponents. They are the European equivalent of the Christchurch based Crusaders that South African teams dreamed of beating, and seldom did, during the Super Rugby era.
However, here is that interesting question – what team will Leinster field in those two games? They are regarded to be a squad of such depth that they can field two teams of almost equal strength, and whether we get to see Ireland flyhalf Jonny Sexton, who is back playing for Leinster at the completion of the Six Nations, could depend on their selection approach for the second leg of their round of 16 clash with fellow Irish team Connacht in Dublin on Friday.
Leinster, with a full-strength team, got through the first game in Galway last Friday, but by their standards it was only just. They won 26-21 at The Sportsground, which means they take just a five-point lead into the second game.
It might force their coach Leo Cullen to select another full-strength team, which might well mean they rest players for the following week’s game at Kings Park.
The South African Shield leaders, the Stormers, can probably anticipate facing a near full-strength team the week after that, as there will just be two URC league games left at that point, with Leinster’s last match being their return derby clash with arch-rivals Munster at their home ground of the RDS Arena.
Remember, it is not just the URC play-offs that Leinster face after that, but also probably a sequence of Champions Cup play-off games. Cullen in the past has shown a liking for creating momentum in the business end of the season by settling his team and combinations.
Whatever the case though, the Bulls should be putting patriotism aside by supporting Leinster in the two matches against their two local rivals as Leinster wins will make their own quest for the Shield so much easier. That’s how Leinster can be king-makers. Of the three SA teams in contention for top eight and the Shield, it is the Bulls who have arguably the easier run-in to the end of the regular season, with Benetton (home), Glasgow Warriors (home) and Ospreys (away) being their remaining opponents.
The Stormers host Glasgow and Leinster and then go to Llanelli to play a Scarlets team that since returning from SA has run into impressive form and cemented their position at the top of the Welsh Shield with a one-sided away win over Cardiff last weekend. The Sharks host Connacht in addition to Leinster and then have the onerous task of going to Belfast to play Ulster.
There’s so much to play for all those opponents outside maybe of Leinster, who will be driven by the need to take momentum into the play-offs rather than fighting for a place in those play-offs, and it promises to be an exciting end to the first season of URC.
The Stormers are now just three points behind second-placed Ulster, so even a place in the top two is now not beyond the realms of possibility.