URC Final Round Preview

URC Final Round Preview

Glasgow Warriors v Zebre Parma, Friday, 7.35pm

Having dropped from first to fourth after successive league defeats out in South Africa, Glasgow will be looking for an empathic return to winning ways back on home soil.

The target will be a bonus point win. Whether that will be enough to improve their final position on the log - and their play-off pathway - hinges on results elsewhere.

Having just signed a new deal, the 33-year-old Duncan Weir will make his 150th appearance for the Warriors as he starts at fly-half.

The hosts are boosted by the return of second row Richie Gray and centre Huw Jones, who have recovered from injuries sustained while on Scotland duty during the Six Nations.

Coach Franco Smith said: “We are looking forward to returning home for the final match of the regular season and we know every point could be crucial in the final standings.

“Zebre will be looking to finish their season on a high and we know they have the ability to cause problems for us given the opportunity – we must be at our best across the field.”

The visitors’ head coach Fabio Roselli says the theme has been “energy, fun and confidence” during this final week of the season for the Italian club.

He is looking for his team to play with grit “right up to the final whistle” as they attempt to avoid finishing the campaign bottom of the table.

Leinster Rugby v Connacht Rugby, Friday, 7.35pm

It will be an emotional night for Rhys Ruddock on what could be his final appearance for Leinster following his announcement that he will be retiring at the end of the season.

Having made his debut for the province way back in 2009, he will make his 229th appearance when he packs down on the blindside flank in this big Irish derby at the RDS.

“Leinster has been such a huge part of my life,” said the 33-year-old.

“I have made some of my best friends here, with team-mates past and present, and had the privilege to be coached by, and work with, the most amazing group of people.

“To play my whole career with this team has been a dream come true.

“It’s been one hell of a journey, with so many incredible memories made and friendships built. I’m looking forward to giving everything I can to help this team finish the season on a high.”

Third-placed Leinster will aim to put the disappointment of the Investec Champions Cup final defeat to Toulouse behind them and secure a win to put the pressure on Munster and the Bulls above them.

Connacht, down in tenth, need a bonus point win to have any chance of forcing their way into the top eight and making the play-offs. Even then, they would need other results to go their way.

While admitting it’s disappointing to be in that position, head coach Pete Wilkins says there’s a determination within the group to ensure their season “marches on beyond this weekend”.

It will be a landmark occasion for hooker Dave Heffernan who makes his 200th appearance for the west of Ireland province.

DHL Stormers v Emirates Lions, Saturday, 12.45pm

This is a huge game for the Lions and a huge opportunity.

If they can come out on top, they will book a spot in the play-offs for the first time, as they would jump up from ninth by overtaking either Benetton or Edinburgh who meet in Treviso.

They can draw inspiration from the fact they are the only South African team to have beaten the Stormers in Cape Town in the league - a 37-19 triumph in December, 2021.

Plus they have won their last two BKT URC matches, defeating Cardiff and then league leaders Glasgow to put themselves right back in the mix.

However, it will be a tough task for them this weekend as the fifth-placed Stormers will want to maintain momentum going into the knock-out stages following successive victories over Leinster, the Dragons and Connacht.

Their director of Rugby John Dobson said: “We have three solid wins under our belts and it is vital we build on that in front of what will be a big crowd at DHL Stadium.

“We may have secured our place in the play-offs already, but this is a fantastic opportunity for us to make improvements to our game in the cauldron of a South African derby, which should be ideal preparation for the knock-out phase of the competition.”

Benetton Rugby v Edinburgh Rugby, Saturday, 1pm

This is a classic winner-takes-all clash and one where there is more than just a play-off spot on the line.

Whoever wins out in Treviso will book their passage through to the knock-out stage and all but guarantee themselves Champions Cup rugby for next season.

The losers could yet make the play-offs, particularly if they pick up a bonus point in defeat.

But the highest they could finish is eighth, which would mean missing out on the Champions Cup, with the Sharks having qualified through winning the Challenge Cup.

So there’s a huge amount at stake, as Edinburgh head coach Sean Everitt confirms.

“This is a cup final for us. We know what’s at stake and we’re treating it with the importance it deserves,” said the South African.

“It’s winner-takes-all for a play-off spot and the boys are focused on delivering a performance that gets us over the line.

“We’ve shown great character on the road this season and we’ll need every ounce of that again in Treviso.”

It’s also a big day for Welsh referee Ben Whitehouse who will take charge of his 100th league game.

Scarlets v Dragons RFC, Saturday, 3pm

There’s a new home for Judgement Day this year, with the Cardiff City Stadium the setting for the annual Welsh derby double header.

Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel, whose team take on the Dragons in a west v east opener, says: “I think it will be a good occasion.

“You only have to have a look at the stadium and the pitch. Hopefully the atmosphere will be good and we’ll get a good crowd. I’ve been there before watching Wales play football and the atmosphere is always electric.

“If we can recreate something similar to that, I think it’s important for Welsh rugby and for us as regions to embrace that and make it a good day.

“I am sure there will be kids coming here to watch rugby for the first time and we need to try and create as much positivity as we can and I think everyone has got a part in that.”

In terms of Scarlets team news, Tonga Test lock Sam Lousi returns from a rib injury, while Sam Costelow swaps with fellow Welsh international Ioan Lloyd at fly-half.

Ahead of his team’s final game of the campaign, Peel added: “Obviously results haven’t been fully on our side this year.

“We would like to have won a few more games, there is no doubt.

“But we are determined to finish the season strongly and on a high. It’s an important fixture for us.”

Adding his thoughts, skipper Ryan Elias said: “I feel like we have grown a lot over the last five, six matches and taken steps forward, producing some of our better performances.

“We want to finish on a high now and go out on the right note. We are definitely motivated for this last game and will be raring to go.”

Giving his take on Judgement Day, Dragons coach Dai Flanagan said: “It’s the best of Welsh rugby, isn’t it?

“You would like to think if anything will inspire the next generation it’s coming along to an event like this.

“You have seen the energy and passion Wales football show in the stadium. If we can get a good turn out, it can drive that and motivate the boys.

“Hopefully we'll get a good crowd there because we’ve got the best players in Wales playing.

“There is always bragging rights on derby days and it would be nice to finish on the right end of it against the Scarlets and give ourselves a feel-good factor going into the summer. So it’s massively important.”

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Vodacom Bulls, Saturday 3.10pm

Sharks coach John Plumtree is calling for one last big effort from his triumphant, yet weary team as they head into this second South African derby of the final weekend.

The Durban-based outfit will be in buoyant mood following their historic Challenge Cup final victory over Gloucester at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

That encounter and the travel involved has taken its toll, but Plumtree has still gone strong, retaining 12 of the starters from the 32-22 win in London, with the mighty scrummaging front row unit of Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi

and Vincent Koch all on board together again, while the red-hot Siya Masuku will be calling the shots from fly-half.

Plumtree commented: “It’s important for us to sign off on a positive note.

“It’s also a massive challenge for us because we’ve only just got back and our preparation has been compromised.

“We’ve put a lot of energy into winning the Challenge Cup with a lot of travel, having spent four of the last six weeks away from home.

“I have a team that’s pretty knackered and we do have some injuries, but it’s important in our last game, in front of our home crowd, that we go out there and put on a performance that everyone enjoys.”

As for the Bulls, they will want to win to secure the top two finish that would earn them home advantage for both the quarter and semi-finals in the play-offs. Victory in Durban would also see them lift the South African Shield.

Jake White has stuck with the same 23 that recorded a 56-35 victory over Benetton in the last round, with just the one change to the starting line-up, as Johan Grobbelaar takes over from try-machine Akker van der Merwe at hooker.

Munster Rugby v Ulster Rugby, Saturday, 5.15pm

A win for reigning champions Munster will see them finish the regular season on top of the table, which would be some achievement given their shaky start to the campaign.

They only won four of their first nine BKT URC fixtures, but they have come flying up on the rails in the final straight, reeling off eight successive victories.

Going into this last weekend as league leaders, they have made seven changes to the side that won away in Edinburgh in Round 17, with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, RG Snyman and Simon Zebo coming into the starting XV.

Forwards Gavin Coombes, Tom Ahern and Alex Kendellen are set to continue their remarkable record of playing in every BKT URC and Champions Cup game so far this season.

Ulster are unchanged from the dramatic late victory over Leinster a fortnight ago which secured their spot in the play-offs. A win over Munster would see them claim the Irish Shield, which is based on results in inter-provincial matches during the season.

Cardiff Rugby v Ospreys, Saturday, 5.30pm

For the Ospreys, the equation is simple, yet also complicated.

Their own objective is clear. To have any chance of making the play-offs, they have to secure a bonus point victory in this second Judgement Day derby.

But they also require a series of other results to go their way.

They need the Lions to get no more than a point away to the Stormers, for either Benetton or Edinburgh to come away pointless from their meeting in Treviso and for Connacht to miss out on maximum points away to Leinster.

There is also the possibility of them pipping Benetton on points difference should they finish level with them on match points, but that would require a 26 point swing.

The bottom line is they will know where they stand when they take the field at the Cardiff City Stadium as their rivals will have played their matches.

All they can hope is they are still in the mix by that point.

“There is nothing we can do about results elsewhere,” said head coach Toby Booth.

“We can only control what we do. We will put our best foot forward. If we end up falling short, that will just give us the motivation to keep going. We are trying to become a top eight team and that’s the next line in the sand for progress.

“Have we improved this season? Yeah, you bet your life we have. We have won more games and everyone in the group should take a lot of credit for that.

“We are a find-a-way team that wants to keep pushing and keep getting better.

“We are not going to look down, we are going to look up and keep looking at what it’s going to take to get up there.”

Booth is expecting a stiff test from a Cardiff team who have been involved in a succession of close encounters in the URC this season, while their last match saw them beat the Sharks 36-14 out in Durban.

“I think Jockey (coach Matt Sherratt) has done a great job,” he said.

“They are a good team. You don’t go to South Africa and win if you are not a good team, you just don’t.

“They have got a good history, they’ve got a great fan base, they play a nice style of rugby.

“You just look at their losing bonus points this season. It’s narrow margins.

“It will be a good challenge, for sure. We are going to have to go really, really well to win, let alone to win with a bonus point.”

Giving his thoughts on the Ospreys, Cardiff coach Matt Sherratt said: “They have improved during the season.

“When I look at them compared to when we played them on New Year’s Day, they are a much better team now.

“Their defence has improved and their attack is developing nicely as well, with a bit more ball movement.

“They are well coached and they have got good team spirit.”

With Josh Adams having been ruled out with a groin problem, Theo Cabango joins the newly re-signed Mason Grady on the wings for Cardiff, while Tinus de Beer is back at fly-half after sitting out the start for the first time this season against the Sharks.

There will be final appearances for the club for the departing Rhys Carre, Willis Halaholo, Lopeti Timani and Shane Lewis-Hughes.

Meanwhile, the play-off chasing Ospreys show just the two changes from the bonus point win over the Dragons last time out, with Owen Watkin and Max Nagy coming into the back-line.

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