URC Round 17 Review

URC Round 17 Review

Rowntree proud of his table toppers

With just one round of matches to go, reigning BKT URC champions Munster Rugby have gone top of the table for the first time this season - talk about timing your run to perfection!

They took over as league leaders on Friday night with a 29-26 bonus point victory away to Edinburgh Rugby, leaving coach Graham Rowntree “dead proud” of his players.

They were to hold on to top spot as both Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby went down to defeats, losing to the Emirates Lions and Ulster Rugby respectively.

Glasgow have slipped from first to fourth following their 44-21 loss in Johannesburg, while the Vodacom Bulls are now up to second after a 56-35 victory over Benetton Rugby at Loftus Versfeld.

With the DHL Stormers beating Connacht Rugby 16-12 in Galway, six teams are now through to the play-offs.

Those are Munster, Bulls, Leinster, Glasgow, Stormers and Ulster, with the top four assured of home ties in the quarter-finals.

You’ve then got five teams - Edinburgh, Benetton, Lions, Connacht and Ospreys - battling it out for the two remaining spots, with the first two of those meeting in Treviso in Round 18. The losing bonus points they both picked up at the weekend could yet prove decisive.

As for Munster, they made it eight league wins on the trot with their hard-fought triumph at a sold out Hive Stadium.

They trailed Edinburgh 16-12 at the break and then had Conor Murray sin binned midway through the second half with the game hanging in the balance.

But they came through to claim the spoils with 14-point fly-half Jack Crowley landing the match-winning penalty 11 minutes from time as he added to a brace of tries from centre Antoine Frisch.

Giving his assessment on a pulsating encounter, coach Rowntree said: “It was all being thrown against us in that game.

“But we kept going. We found a way to stick to our guns and found a way to win.

“We managed the sin bin well, which was important.

“I am dead proud of the lads. We found a way to win a game where, at points, everything was going against us.

“When it gets to the business end of a match, the lads just know to stick to the plan. We have got the fitness, we have been here before.

“It gives you belief, particularly when you are winning away from home. It’s not a false belief when you go to places and win. You get match hardened. We had it in the run-in last year which we can reference now as a squad. It gives you belief.

“But as a typical boring old Leicester forward, it’s game by game.”

The next game is home to Richie Murphy’s Ulster who will be suitably buoyed by their 23-21 win over Leinster.

“They will be gunning for us,” said Rowntree.

“I am chuffed for Richie getting the gig there. He has got them playing with a lot of clarity and they are always a handful at Thomond Park.”

Morgan the magnificent

When two greats of the Welsh game like Shane Williams and Justin Tipuric describe a player as “superb” and “amazing”, that’s praise indeed.

Those were their plaudits for Ospreys No 8 Morgan Morris after he produced yet another Man of the Match performance in his team’s 26-13 victory over Dragons RFC in Swansea.

Morris has arguably been the most consistent player in Welsh rugby over the last three or four seasons, but he remains uncapped having not received a call up to the national squad.

His skipper Tipuric, who knows a thing or two about back row play, can’t speak highly enough of him, saying: “He has been amazing for years and years now. He is just class.”

Wales wing legend Williams was commentating on the derby for Premier Sports and spoke in glowing terms about Morris’ perseverance.

“He’s just been superb,” he said.

“He hasn’t been selected in the Welsh team. It looks like Warren Gatland is not interested at the moment.

“But what I like about him is the fact he still keeps his head up, keeps working hard in training week-in, week-out and keeps getting the performances.

“It’s the only way you can prove a coach wrong and you’ve got to be proud of the fact he’s doing that. He’s been great.”

Adding his thoughts on Morris’ international chances, Ospreys coach Toby Booth said: “We feel he is getting closer all the time and that’s down to the work he has put in.

“He’s got physically fitter and we are starting to see the fruits of his labour. We are starting to see visibility on both sides of the ball.

“If he is not putting the red shirt on, he is putting the white shirt on and we know what he is going to deliver.”

Morris was a rampaging presence with ball in hand against the Dragons, while he also showed his skill-set with a magnificent offload to send scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams over just before the break.

That score came in between a brace of tries for Wales hooker Dewi Lake, with centre Keiran Williams clinching the all-important bonus point by touching down near the hour mark.

It’s a result that keeps alive the eleventh-placed Ospreys’ mathematical hopes of making the play-offs. They must now claim another bonus point victory - against Cardiff Rugby on Judgement Day - and hope results go their way elsewhere.

The win over the Dragons also means they have clinched the Welsh Shield, which is based on league matches between the four regions.

Reflecting on the game, Booth said: “We are happy. You can’t get more than five points and that was the main thing. We scored some nice tries and our set-piece was dominant. It goes into the final weekend now.”

Indiscipline cost the Dragons dear as they leaked three tries during the sin bin period following yellow cards for Aaron Wainwright and Dane Blacker, while they conceded 20 penalties in all.

Their head coach Dai Flanagan said: “We couldn’t get a foothold in the game. We got frustrated and dived in and gave penalties away which put them back in areas where they were stronger. We went down to 13 men and there was a massive momentum swing. Hopefully we will learn lessons.”

As for the two other Welsh sides, they both recorded bonus point victories away from home.

The Scarlets beat Zebre Parma 32-18 out in Italy with scrum-half Gareth Davies touching down twice to become just the second Welshman - after club colleague Steff Evans - to score 50 league tries.

Player of the Match Davies said: “It’s good to get the win. It’s a tough place to come.

“We knew Zebre were going to come out all guns blazing and they really did challenge us in the first 20 minutes, but I thought we got together and managed the game well and came away with a good win.

“We have had a tough old season, so it’s nice to have a good win out here and hopefully it will give us a bit of momentum going into the last game of the season.”

Completing one of the best weekends of the campaign for the Welsh regions, Cardiff defeated the Hollywoodbets Sharks 36-14 in Durban to end a ten-match losing run in all competitions.

Skipper Liam Belcher declared: “We needed that. We hadn’t had a win since Boxing Day.

“It’s been tough-going with results, losing in the last minute and stuff like that. It was a big effort from the squad.”

The Player of the Match award went to Ben Thomas who moved from his regular centre berth to start at fly-half.

Giving his thoughts on the win, he said: “It’s very pleasing. We needed that performance. We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve run teams close and not come away with the result.

“It was a good performance and the result was huge for us.

“We will go into the Judgement Day derby against the Ospreys now and really give it a go.”

Match of the weekend

Ulster Rugby 23, Leinster Rugby 21

A crowd of 15,976 witnessed a titanic tussle at a sold out Kingspan Stadium where the game built towards a dramatic crescendo.

It looked as though Leinster were going to claim the spoils to go top of the table as they led 21-20 with just a couple of minutes to go, having scored three tries to two.

But then Ulster were awarded a penalty just inside opposition territory and up stepped scrum-half John Cooney to land the match-winning long-range kick to the delight of the home fans.

It’s a victory that guarantees the Belfast-based team a place in the play-offs.

Revealing what it was like taking on the decisive late penalty, Player of the Match Cooney said: “It was eerily quiet.

“I didn’t really think to be honest. That’s just how I work. I love kicking and I just felt really grateful in that moment that I was here in front of this crowd.

“I felt unbelievably lucky. I’m nearly about to cry here! I just felt real privilege.”

The 34-year-old added: “I am really blessed with the career I have had. I just really enjoy it and I really feel like I can give a lot more in rugby. I feel like Benjamin Button, I always joke.

“I just enjoy what I do every day. I come to work happy, I am full of energy. I am really privileged. I get to go to the gym every day and I get paid to do it.”

Giving his views on the nerve-jangling finale, Ulster coach Richie Murphy commented: “I just thought it was made for John. He seems to thrive on those big moments and he duly knocked it over.”

Player of the weekend

JC Pretorius (Emirates Lions)

The blond bombshell picked up his second successive Player of the Match award as he took a key role in the Lions’ eye-catching 44-21 victory over recent league leaders Glasgow in Johannesburg.

With fellow flanker Ruan Venter being red-carded just before the break, swiftly followed by the sin-binning of No 8 Francke Horn, Pretorius was a one-man back row for a spell, but nothing seems to be beyond this tireless breakaway.

The 26-year-old from the Mpumalanga Province was into everything and had not one, not two, but three involvements in the try of the match on 57 minutes.

He produced a pair of exquisite one-handed passes out of the side door in the build-up and then, there he was, providing textbook openside support to take the inside scoring pass from centre Erich Cronje.

The highly skilled Pretorius was part of the South African Sevens team that won the gold medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and he is now really making his mark in the 15-a-side version of the sport.

Quote of the weekend

Edinburgh co-captain Grant Gilchrist after the 29-26 defeat to Munster in front of a full house at Hive Stadium:

“I am devastated with the result. We knew this game was huge for our season. Our supporters, our club, we demand to be in the top eight and this was a big opportunity.

“Our fans were outstanding. It was an absolute privilege to play here. You can’t fault the effort, the boys gave absolutely everything, but we just fell short.”

On the play-off shake-up, he added: “It’s still in our hands. We’ve got to go to Benetton, which will be a tough game. We now need to go and do it on the road and that’s what we will set about doing.”

What’s coming next?

And then there was one - just one more round to go, but with so much still to play for.

All will be resolved in a fortnight’s time when calculators will need to be at the ready.

The top three sides are all involved in derbies. New league leaders Munster host Ulster in Limerick, the second-placed Bulls travel to Durban to take on the Sharks and Leinster entertain Connacht.

Glasgow, now down in fourth, will look to apply the pressure as they have a Friday night game at home to bottom-of-the-table Zebre.

Elsewhere, there’s a huge encounter in terms of the play-off race as Benetton and Edinburgh - locked on 49 points in eighth and seventh respectively - meet in Treviso.

The Lions, who are also on 49, are away to fellow South Africans the Stormers in Cape Town.

There are two further derbies in Wales, with the Cardiff City Stadium the setting for a Judgement Day double header.

First up, it will be the Dragons against the Scarlets. Then the Ospreys will be hoping to be in a position to secure a play-off spot by claiming maximum points against Cardiff, a scenario that hinges on other results earlier in the day.

Before all that, two BKT URC sides will be involved in next weekend’s EPCR finals at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Leinster take on Toulouse in a mouth-watering Champions Cup showpiece, while the Sharks face Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final, knowing victory will see them qualify for next season’s Champions Cup instead of whoever finishes eighth in the BKT URC.

Now that would add yet another twist to the tale on the final weekend of the regular league season!

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