United Rugby Championship: A ‘high-powered’ battle in top four as Round 16 could end some play-off hopes

Dylan Coetzee
Split with Benetton, Ulster, Glasgow Warriors and Bulls players.

Split with Benetton, Ulster, Glasgow Warriors and Bulls players.

Just three rounds remain in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and 11 teams are still in the race for the eight play-off spots, but that could soon change.

Round 16 is set to have massive implications on the knockout picture with some of the clubs at risk of falling out of the mix.

Planet Rugby takes a look at what lies ahead.

Dragons (15) v Stormers (5)

Dragons have been out of the play-off race for some time and now pose a threat to other sides as a tricky hurdle to clear, especially at their home ground Rodney Parade.

For the Stormers the equation is simple, if they are to challenge the top four at all a bonus point win is required and even then the Capetonians are unable to climb the table as the fourth-placed Bulls are six points ahead of them. However, those points will be huge in staying in the race as they are only two points ahead of ninth spot.

The Cape side has been poor in the northern hemisphere this season and they have to get it right now or it will be extremely costly.

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Edinburgh (9) v Zebre (16)

The Scots are just outside the top eight and have Munster then Benetton in the final two rounds, meaning a full house of points is likely what keeps them in the picture. Mathematically a win will still keep them in striking distance but from their last three games this is the one they need to capitalise on.

A home game against the basement dwellers is a perfect opportunity but Zebre have grown through the season, rattling the cages of some bigger teams. Edinburgh must take their chance or risk sliding too far from the coveted play-off spots.

Bulls (4) v Glasgow Warriors (1)

Easily the most important game of the round and one with the sense of a knockout before the knockouts given the quality on display.

Both teams are pretty much locked in for a play-off spot and now they are pushing for as much as they can get. The Bulls are a challenging team to face at home and will be the hardest game in Glasgow’s two-game South African tour that will make or break their grapple of the top spot.

Leinster will be watching keenly hoping the Bulls can do them a favour with a victory of any kind while a win at Loftus Versfeld could further underline the title credentials of Glasgow.

It is a high-powered battle in one of rugby’s great cathedrals and one that could have massive implications on the top four.

Scarlets (14) v Ulster (7)

Ulster are just hanging on in the play-off race and find themselves in the mess of teams between fifth and 10th that are all perilously close to either qualifying or falling out of contention.

On the other hand, the Scarlets are well out of the picture and only playing for pride at this stage. Quite frankly, considering Ulster’s final two games are Munster and Leinster the Belfast men have to secure a bonus point win to keep them in the mix.

A win might be enough if they get results in the final two rounds but a bonus point win would certainly give them more options. It is a perilous time for Ulster who are flirting with danger and they have to capitalise on this match-up.

Sharks (13) v Benetton (8)

The Challenge Cup finalists from Durban may have had a torrid season in the league but have now found their feet, making them a massive threat to other teams on their run into the play-offs.

Benetton are right on the cusp and now have to face the Sharks then the Bulls in a season defining tour. The Italians will know that the Durban side have their tails up and they will also understand the importance of getting a result.

A lot hinges on whether the Sharks management decide to rotate in preparation for their final or if they look for continuity and momentum building. Either way Benetton has to win this game to avoid the slippery slope.

Munster (3) v Connacht (6)

A good old inter-pro derby between two teams that are both in the play-off picture but on different ends. Defending champions Munster are in a strong position and are in with an outside shot at the top spot and well in the conversation for the top two which could guarantee a home semi-final if they made it that far. It would be hard to bet against a side looking so strong after a flawless South African tour.

Connacht are in the mix but one bad result could set off a spiral especially considering their last two games are against the Stormers and Leinster. Ultimately for the Irish side they have to try to get results in at least two of their final three games and a trip to Thomond Park lie in wait. It is time for the team to stand up or it might be too late.

Lions (11) v Cardiff (12)

It’s now or never for the pride of Johannesburg who lie five points adrift of the top eight and welcome Cardiff this week before games against Glasgow and the Stormers. With that in mind there is no option other than a full house of points that keep the Lions in the mix. They have been strong at home and it has to be an all out performance. Big players need to step up in these moments.

Cardiff are out of the play-off picture but have been a thorn in the side of several teams of late. They will be out to poke the Lions as it were and showcase their improving quality.

Leinster (2) v Ospreys (10)

While the Irish giants sent a weakened side to slaughter in South Africa for two games it may not cost them in the long run. Of course Leinster lost their top spot but with Glasgow in South Africa it may open the door for the Dublin-based side to charge up the table yet again. Leinster’s quality is obvious as their Champions Cup final berth shows and they will be looking to tick the final few boxes of the regular season.

For the Ospreys, it was a fall from grace as the Bulls threw 60+ points on them last time out essentially putting them in knockout mode. It is a brutal match-up considering the Welsh probably need to win this weekend to stay in the race.

READ MORE: United Rugby Championship: Top eight closer to taking shape as 11 teams remain in play-off race