The matches that can settle Euro and play-off spots
SPOTLIGHT: With only two full rounds to come before the play-offs, the top half of the United Rugby Championship could hardly be tighter.
A thrilling weekend of action has bunched up the field yet further while a couple of sides outside the top eight retained some hope of making a late entry to the play-offs.
Only one point now separates the teams from second to fifth in the overall standings while the eighth-placed Bulls are just four adrift of the second-placed Stormers.
Leinster are nine points clear at the summit, but missed an opportunity to secure top seeding for the play-offs as they lost to the Sharks this past Saturday.
They visit the Stormers this weekend, before facing Munster in their final fixture.
Ulster and Glasgow Warriors slipped out of the top four, thanks to their defeats to Munster and the Stormers and head to Edinburgh and the Bulls respectively in potentially pivotal Round 17 fixtures.
In total, six of the top eight face fellow play-off contenders next weekend, while third-placed Munster host Cardiff and the fourth-placed Sharks welcome Connacht.
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Only the top four will earn a home fixture in the first round of knockout matches.
Much of the talk building up to the penultimate round of the URC will focus on the clash between the Stormers and Leinster, but the later game on Saturday in Edinburgh could prove even more crucial from a South African perspective.
If the Stormers beat Leinster they will be assured of Champions Cup qualification for next year.
The Sharks too, if they win against Connacht, would be sure of a passage into Europe with one game to play.
But a win might not be so vital for those two teams if Ulster beat Edinburgh in the game that will bring the curtain down on what should be another fascinating, absorbing and entertaining round of URC action.
And provided the third South African challenger, the Bulls, beat Glasgow Warriors on Friday, that will be to the benefit for all three local teams.
In order for three South African teams to qualify for the Champions Cup, the quest has always been for them to either finish ahead of the second Scottish team or to finish ahead of the third Irish team.
And with Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors due to face off in their return derby on the final weekend of the regular season, thus meaning the winner will cancel out the other, that means all three South African teams will be assured of qualification for Europe if they start the final round ahead of both Scottish challengers.
An Edinburgh home win over an Ulster team that looked like it was still a bit shell-shocked from its agonising round of 16 Champions Cup exit the previous week when it lost to Munster, won’t be the end of the world for the South Africans.
It would mean the Sharks would potentially have the destiny of their fellow South African challengers in their hands when they close off against Ulster in Belfast on May 20.
But apart from the fact that winning in Belfast looks like a tough challenge for the Sharks, an Ulster win will be preferable in Edinburgh in the sense that will decide the issue this week.
It would mean South African teams won’t be heading overseas for the final round of away fixtures with Champions Cup qualification still in the balance.
The second Scottish team dropping out does look more likely than the third Irish team dropping out.
Munster, currently third and one of three teams, together with the fourth placed Sharks and fifth placed Ulster, on 51 points, will back themselves to win at home against Cardiff on Friday.
And even if Ulster don’t beat Edinburgh, they will expect to be favourites against the Sharks at the Ravenhill Stadium.
Edinburgh currently have 49 points, Glasgow have 50. If Glasgow lose to the Bulls, the Bulls will go from 48 to 52 or 53. The Sharks are already ahead of those two teams, and so obviously are the Stormers, who are second placed overall on 52 points.
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The Lions are not in the equation when it comes to the Champions Cup, but the three contending teams do all face potentially tough fixtures in that last round.
The Stormers go to Llanelli to play Scarlets, who have picked up impressive momentum since returning from South Africa.
The Ospreys could well be playing for the Welsh Shield when they host the Bulls.
And Ulster are always formidable opponents at the Kingspan.
What the Ospreys and Scarlets will be playing for in that final round will depend heavily on the outcome of their derby clash in Wales on Saturday.
A Scarlets win will wrap up their Shield challenge as they currently lead the Ospreys by nine points. But the Ospreys do have a game in hand, so a win for them will bring them back into contention and leave Scarlets in a must-win situation against the Stormers a fortnight later, provided the Ospreys win their additional match that was rescheduled by COVID, which is against the Dragons on 8 May.
It needs to be clarified that the requirement for the South African teams to finish ahead of the second Scottish challenger only applies when it comes to clinching Champions Cup spots.
That is because the four Shield winners automatically qualify, thus meaning the top Welsh team does not need to finish in the top eight.
When it comes to URC play-off places, however, the top eight placed teams go through, which is why in the Stormers’ case they consider that part of their mission to have already been accomplished.
Sources: @URCOfficial & ©URCSA