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NEWS: Excitement builds ahead of URC play-offs

The shambolic opening salvos of the URC seem a distant memory as we head into the quarter-finals this weekend.

Aphelele Fassi of the Sharks - URC
Image Copyright - Steve Haag Sports

The shambolic opening salvos of the URC seem a distant memory as we head into the quarter-finals this weekend.

URC

If you cast your mind back to the end of September, the Sharks and Bulls were hammered by Munster and Leinster respectively. The Stormers were outgunned by Benetton while the Lions would beat Zebre 38-26 despite leading 38-0 in the 50th minute. What followed was a series of poor results away from home as the South African franchises – shorn of their Springboks – learned valuable lessons on their first ventures up north.

Then of course there was the threat of the Omicron variant. The ensuing travel bans imposed on South Africa and her neighbours wreaked havoc with the fixtures as organisers were forced to reschedule games with virtually no notice. Since then, however, we’ve seen the South African sides build up a head of steam, with that momentum carrying the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls into the play-offs. The Lions – who came into this tournament as the ‘weakest’ of the South African franchises – managed eight wins, finishing nine points outside the play-off places.

We’ve been treated to what has been an excellent competition in the last few months. The South African sides have also been buoyed by news that they will be involved in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. Interestingly, the Cheetahs have been afforded a spot in the Challenge Cup in which they will compete alongside the Lions. The Stormers, Sharks and Bulls have all qualified for Europe’s premier competition following their top-eight finishes in the URC.

Looking ahead, the play-offs get underway. in Belfast where Ulster host Munster. This match could honestly go either way. The Ulstermen will have their typically boisterous Belfast crowd behind them, but Munster hold the psychological edge having defeated the Northern Irish side twice this season already. I’m leaning toward a Munster win here, but it seems to close to call with any degree of certainty.

Saturday’s early kick-off sees the Sharks travel up the N3 to face off against the Bulls at Loftus. The KwaZulu-Natal franchise – like Munster over Ulster – has done the double over the Bulls this season, including a first win at Loftus since 2011. Lukhanyo Am’s timely return from a stint in Japan will be a welcome boost for the Sharks whose backline hasn’t quite clicked in the closing rounds of the regular season. For the Bulls, weathering the set-piece threat that the Sharks pose will be key. If Sean Everitt’s men gain the ascendency up front, it could be tickets for the Pretoria side.

We head to the RDS next where Leinster, who are no doubt still smarting following last week’s Champions Cup final defeat, will look to get the better of the Glasgow Warriors. While the Warriors are a good side, they’re on a dreadful run of form losing three on the spin. Leo Cullen’s men really should have the measure of the Scots here. They won convincingly at the Scotstoun earlier this season and should be able to clear the 17.5 handicap on Saturday.

The curtain will come down on the quarter-finals in the Cape where the red-hot Stormers welcome Edinburgh to the Cape Town Stadium. Jon Dobson’s men have been sensational of late, winning 10 of their last 11 matches to eventually finish second on the standings. Edinburgh have battled for consistency, losing three of their last six. They’ll have their hands full trying to keep the Stormers’ electric backline quiet. The general feeling is that the Cape side should win this with some degree of comfort. Their powerful pack of forwards should give their thrilling backs the platform they need to bury the Scots.

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