United Rugby Championship: How the play-off picture is shaping up with two rounds left including the battle for second and the fight for the last four spots

Dylan Coetzee
United Rugby Championship: Split with Nortje, Blade, Kolisi and Lamaro

Following the conclusion of the European quarter-finals, clubs turn their attention back to league action with the United Rugby Championship having only two rounds of regular-season fixtures to play.

The race for the eight play-off spots is really heating up, with several teams eyeing a late surge and a place in the post-season.

Planet Rugby breaks down the play-off picture, looking at which sides could make the cut.

Top four security and the battle for second

The value of finishing high on the table is earning the right to host play-offs and in turn, increasing the chances of advancing. All the teams in the top four have already qualified and will likely host the URC quarter-finals.

Top spot is well and truly locked up with unbeaten Leinster at the summit on an impressive 74 points. This means should the Dubliners progress through the knockouts they will have the right to host the clashes at any stage including the final.

The battle for second is much closer and is important in bettering chances of advancing as far in the play-offs as possible. Defending champions the Stormers currently sit in second on 61 points only two ahead of Ulster, who have been brilliant this season. Second is crucial because if Leinster lose a play-off game then there could be a chance to host a final.

Only a slip-up from the South Africans in the last two rounds will let Ulster in, but with two home games, against Munster and Benetton, odds are in the champions’ favour considering their imperious form in Cape Town. Ulster will just look to finish neatly with two wins and give themselves the best chance.

Meanwhile, Franco Smith’s Glasgow Warriors sit comfortably in fourth with 54 points after hitting a purple patch later on in the season. With two home games left, against Scarlets and Connacht, one would expect the side to remain where they are on the table.

The last four

This is where the final two rounds get very, very interesting. There are eight teams in with a chance of qualifying in the last four play-off spots.

Munster are in fifth, eight points below Glasgow, meaning there is little threat to the top four. On the surface, it would seem the Irish side will probably make it through, but their final two games are against the Stormers and the Sharks away from home. Considering how northern teams have struggled to find victories in South Africa and the form of both sides at home it could mean Munster may leave their southern tour with nothing, putting themselves at risk.

Connacht, four points back, will be watching closely whilst looking to claim at least one win from their final two games, which sees them host Cardiff and travel to Glasgow. One win would surely seal a play-off for the Irish side.

The Bulls are one point behind but have two home games to finish the regular season, starting with Zebre Parma and finally Leinster. It would be expected for the Pretoria side to beat their Italian visitors and quite possibly Leinster depending on whether a weakened squad will be sent. Nevertheless, one win should take Jake White’s side through.

Meanwhile, the Sharks are currently on the cut line in eighth with 41 points but have a favourable draw for the last two. The Durbanites host Benetton and Munster, and they will expect to claim wins in both, particularly after their result against the Irish side in the Champions Cup. It should be a more simple route than most for Neil Powell’s side.

The hopefuls

There are four more teams with an outside chance of qualifying for the play-offs but given how the table is spread currently they would need the Sharks or Bulls to significantly slip up. Given the schedule and home form it is fairly unlikely either side will lose both of their last two games.

Nevertheless, Benetton are only one point behind the Sharks but face the Durban side this weekend and the Stormers in the final round, meaning it would be a crazy achievement to push into the play-off spots.

In tenth is Cardiff, who are a point behind the Italians but have a better chance to gain some points from their final two games. A tricky trip to Connacht lies ahead this weekend before a derby day at home against Ospreys in the final round. Mustering two wins from two could put the side in an interesting position.

The Lions’ chances of reaching the top eight are pretty stretched, and two impressive home victories against Leinster and Zebre Parma might put them in contention but it may not be enough as they sit three points behind the Sharks who should win their closing games.

Finally, the Ospreys are the last hopeful, and ‘hopeful’ is the operative term. Their last two games are away to Edinburgh and home to Cardiff. One would think only a full house of two bonus-point wins could put them in contention, but being six points behind the Sharks it may not be enough.

READ MORE: Champions Cup Team of the Week: Thomas Ramos stars as Toulouse, Leinster, Exeter Chiefs and La Rochelle dominate selection