URC Play-Off Race Blown Wide Open
The Scarlets’ stunning 32-20 victory over the star-studded Cell C Sharks and the Emirates Lions’ 32-28 comeback triumph away to Benetton mean 14 of the 16 sides in the league can still finish in the top eight with just two rounds of matches to go.
Leinster, DHL Stormers, Ulster and Glasgow have all booked play-off spots. The first three of those have already secured home advantage in the Quarter-Finals and Glasgow look set to join them after beating Munster 38-26 in Limerick on Saturday evening.
Then you have 10 sides battling it out for the four other spots.
The Lions are the team really coming up on the rails having seemed out of the picture just a few weeks ago.
They followed up after eye-catching wins over Glasgow and the Bulls by coming from behind to beat Benetton in Treviso.
They were trailing 28-13 going into the final quarter, but then scored three tries in the space of eight minutes, with flanker Vincent Tshituka snapping up two of them.
Although they are down in eleventh place, they are only three points off the play-offs and their last two games are both at home. They are on a roll and very much in the hunt.
In terms of the fight for the top eight, the big match in the next round will be the meeting between Connacht and Cardiff in Galway.
The Irish province are now up to sixth after a 41-26 bonus point victory over Edinburgh on the weekend.
Cardiff - who also picked up the maximum away to Zebre - are five points behind in tenth so really have to win at the Sportsground on April 15 if they are to have a chance of reaching the Play-Offs.
They are also in need of a victory to stay out in front in the contest for the Welsh Shield and automatic qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup.
At present, they are four points ahead of the Ospreys and six in front of the Scarlets.
It could all come down to Judgement Day in the final round, when they meet the Ospreys at the Principality Stadium.
As for the pacesetters, Leinster are now sure of finishing top of the table following their 22-22 draw with the Stormers on Friday night.
It’s getting tight for the all-important second spot that secures home advantage up until the final.
Third-placed Ulster are just two points behind the Stormers having fought back to beat the Vodacom Bulls 32-23 with a hat-trick from hooker Tom Stewart, the league’s top try scorer.
SCARLETS PROVE PUNDITS WRONG
Write us off at your peril was the message from the Scarlets following their thrilling 32-20 win over a Cell C Sharks team packed with Springboks stars.
The visitors from Durban came fully loaded with the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, Ox Nche, Makazole Mapimpi and Bongi Mbonambi on board.
But Dwayne Peel’s team defied the odds to come out on top with wing Steff Evans crossing for two well-taken tries and fly-half Sam Costelow kicking 22 points.
Speaking after the game, skipper Josh Macleod said: “It’s even more pleasing because of commentators writing us off. No-one mentioned us leading up to the game with the Sharks’ team-sheet. But never write this team off. We are building something and we are building something really special.”
Former Wales scrum-half Peel hailed it as the best victory since his arrival as head coach in the summer of 2021.
“It has to be in terms of the quality of opposition,” he said. “We spoke before the game and said there are certain nights you will remember in your careers and we will all remember that. Looking at the calibre of players in the Sharks squad, they are obviously world class.
“I thought it was fantastic from the word go. We were clinical when we needed to be, Sam kicked all his goals and we showed a lot of heart.
“I am delighted with the win and pleased for the boys because they have put a lot of hard work in and it’s obviously paying off. Our young boys are the future of the region and it’s great for them. It’s probably the biggest game they have played and the best opposition. For example you had Joe Roberts playing against Lukhanyo Am. It was fantastic for him.”
The Player of the Match award went to centre Johnny Williams who was making his first start since early October after a lengthy lay-off with a persistent calf problem.
Summing up the game, Williams said: “It was amazing. Honestly, I am just so proud of the effort and the crowd was class as well. It was just so good to be back out there at Parc y Scarlets. It was our last home game of the season in the URC, so it’s good to send it off like that.”
Giving his thoughts on Williams. Peel said: “Johnny is a class operator. People appreciate him as a tough ball carrier, but he’s got good hands as well. He was fantastic. I was really pleased for him.”
As for the other Welsh sides, Cardiff kicked off the weekend with a 34-30 win away to Zebre out in Parma. They looked to be in cruise control as they led by 16 points with just 12 minutes to go, with fit-again flanker James Botham having scored two of their four tries on his first outing since January.
But they had to dig deep to hang on in the end, down to 14 men following a yellow card to Shane Lewis-Hughes.
Director of rugby Dai Young said: “We probably won that game three times but that’s Zebre week-in, week-out. If it gets loose, they can score from anywhere. They have been knocking on the door all season. That game wasn’t won right until the end.
“We’ve got five points, we couldn’t have got any more. Our driving maul was really good, our scrum was good, we set a platform to get that real good result.
“Obviously there are things to improve on, but I am pleased to come away with five points and we march on.”
It’s a result that means Cardiff have kept alive their hopes of a top-eight finish with a big trip to play-off rivals Connacht coming up in Round 17 on April 15.
They also have to watch over their shoulder in the battle for the Welsh Shield with the Ospreys having produced a dominant display to beat the Dragons 37-18 at the Swansea.com Stadium.
They led 18-6 at the break and then pulled well clear following a red card to visiting centre Sio Tompkinson for a high tackle on No 10 Jack Walsh early in the second half.
It leaves them within four points of Cardiff with both teams having two league matches left to play, including that big Judgement Day clash at the Principality Stadium on April 22.
The Ospreys are still mathematically in the hunt for the play-offs, while their immediate focus now turns to next Sunday’s Champions Cup last 16 tie away to Saracens.
Their Player of the Match against the Dragons, try-scoring No 8 Morgan Morris, said: “Hopefully we can win the last few games and go as far as we can in Europe and this competition. Obviously, in the back of our mind we are all thinking World Cup as well and trying to put our hand up for that.”
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
Leinster 22, DHL Stormers 22
It always had the makings of being a cracker at the RDS with the top two going head to head and so it proved.
A crowd of 15,653 watched an engrossing contest that swung one way and then the other, ultimately ending up with honours even.
The reigning champions from Cape Town roared into a 17-0 lead with tries from fly-half Manie Libbok and winger Suleiman Hartzenberg and were 12 points up at the break.
But with the wind behind them in the second half, Leinster turned the contest on its head as Player of the Match Scott Penny, Rob Russell and Max Deegan touched down to add to Michael Milne’s earlier effort and make it 22-17.
Clatyon Blommetjies crossed 12 minutes from time to level the scores and set up a titanic finish, but both defences then held firm with a nerve-jangling draw the eventual outcome, although Leinster came away with one more point through their four-try bonus.
It’s a result which ensures they will finish the regular URC season at the top of the table – and they are still unbeaten in all competitions.
Their head coach Leo Cullen said: “It was a very exciting game and it had a bit of everything really, didn’t it? It was a really good advert for the competition overall.
“You could see it was a really big game with both teams going at it. In terms of the product of the competition, it’s bloody exciting isn’t it?
“The challenge for the Stormers is coming from 30-plus degrees up to here where it’s wet and windy and challenging conditions, but it still doesn’t take away from the contest. It’s two teams going full throttle at the game and that’s exactly what you want. It was brilliant.”
Cullen’s opposite number John Dobson commented: “It was an intense, high-level game of rugby. I spoke to Steven Kitshoff afterwards and he said it felt like a Test match; the intensity, the competition in every breakdown, the quality of hits from both sides.
“Leinster played really well. They’ve so much depth. It was a superb game of rugby.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEKEND
Caolin Blade (Connacht)
The scrum-half claimed his second hat-trick of the URC campaign in Saturday’s 41-26 victory over Edinburgh in Galway.
His first was a long-range interception, his second a close-range snipe where he did well to retain control of the ball and his third a classy effort as he cut inside and twice kicked ahead before winning the race for the touchdown.
It was a real captain’s effort from the Irish international who has now scored seven tries in his last four games and 11 in the league this season, putting him second behind Ulster hooker Tom Stewart.
QUOTE OF THE WEEKEND
Leinster centre Ciaran Frawley on the atmosphere during the 22-22 Dublin draw with the Stormers: “It’s definitely the best I’ve ever felt in the RDS. We were down by 12 points at half-time, but the crowd were behind us and we got into the lead. They really helped us there. The energy they gave us was unbelievable. It’s probably one of the toughest games I’ve played in physically, but the crowd got us through it. It was a brilliant occasion to be a part of.”