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The South African Shield battle intensifies

SPOTLIGHT: A few weeks ago there was talk of the top four on the United Rugby Championship log drawing away from the rest, but that top four could itself be splintered before we get properly into 2023.

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The first round of festive season matches, which for all teams amounted to derbies, delivered results that placed some under massive pressure as the competition continues over the New Year weekend.

For instance, the Bulls have to win in Durban against the Sharks on New Year’s Eve if they hope to retain touch with the Stormers in the battle for the South African Shield. The champion team’s impressive win over their arch-rivals at the start of the weekend netted them five points, and with the Bulls not getting any, the Stormers lead the local conference by five. And they have a game in hand.

After the Bulls play the Sharks, the Stormers host the Lions as they look to complete a calendar year without having lost on their home ground.

Ironically, the last time the Stormers lost at the Cape Town Stadium was to the Lions, on December 3, 2021, meaning almost 13 months ago when Saturday arrives.

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But while you could say it was a moving weekend in the South African Shield, and Leinster retained their strong grip on the Irish Shield with their narrow win over Munster in the exciting Limerick derby that brought the curtain down on an absorbing festive weekend of rugby action, it was anything but that in the Scotland/Italy group.

The narrow win that Glasgow Warriors scored in the 1872 derby at Scotstoun, coupled with Benetton’s comfortable win over Zebre on Christmas Eve, leaves the battle for the Scottish Shield in a three-way tie – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Benetton all have 24 points.

If you consider that the Dragons were second, there was some Christmas movement in the Welsh Shield too, with Ospreys following up their impressive Champions Cup win over Montpellier with a 20-point win over Scarlets in Swansea that lends credence to talk of an Ospreys resurgence.

The win means the Ospreys move past the Dragons into second place on the Shield log, but they are still some way off the top eight, with their seasonal haul of 19 points leaving them in 13th place.

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That is though just five points, meaning a bonus point win, adrift of a logjam of teams who are positioned 6th to 10th, all on 24 points. Those teams are Glasgow, the Sharks, Benetton and Edinburgh, with 10th-placed Edinburgh just one point ahead of Munster, who travel to Ulster on Sunday for a plum Irish derby that could have big ramifications for the outlook of both teams going forward.

Connacht pushed Ulster close in their derby in Galway, with the under-pressure team from Belfast scraping home by just two points. The four-point haul for the win lifts Ulster into third place, four behind the second-placed Stormers and one ahead of the fourth-placed Bulls.

Ulster’s time of reckoning regarding their chances of maintaining a challenge for second place – Leinster are too far ahead to be caught – could well arrive in Sunday’s game at the Kingspan.

Munster put up a tenacious fight before surrendering by one point to Leinster in the final game of the Christmas weekend, so you could argue that even though they lost, their resurgence is still on track and they will be motivated to score the win that will put them back into play-off contention.

This coming weekend’s round of games has been perfectly teed up by what happened over Christmas, with the Bulls going to Durban under massive pressure, and the return Scottish and Italian derbies having Shield leadership on the line.

And in Wales, the New Year’s Day clash between Cardiff and Ospreys is all about Ospreys trying to eat into the eight-point lead Cardiff currently has over them. On several fronts, what happens at the start of the new year will have a big bearing on what happens in the remainder of the 2022/23 season.

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