United Rugby Championship: Playoff dreams hanging by a thread for some while top four already locked in

Dylan Coetzee
Split with Bill Mata (Edinburgh) and Leinster players.

Split with Bill Mata (Edinburgh) and Leinster players.

The United Rugby Championship is entering its final two rounds of the regular season and 11 teams still mathematically remain in the playoff race with some intriguing fixtures awaiting this weekend.

Ahead of Round 17, we take a closer look at the playoff race, breaking down what each team needs to do to qualify and/or stay in the picture.

1) Glasgow Warriors (60 pts) – Qualified

The league leaders are already secure for the playoffs but are fighting for top spot. Glasgow may have lost against the Bulls last weekend but came away with two bonus points from the clash. Now they face the desperate Lions away from home and, if they can manage a win, one would think another should follow in the final round in which case they would stay on top of the pile. The Scots have done the hard work but a clean finish is required.

R17: Lions v Glasgow Warriors
R18: Glasgow Warriors v Zebre

2) Leinster (59 pts) – Qualified

The big guns were back in the mix last weekend and it showed as they put 60+ points on the Ospreys. Leinster are now left with two inter-pro derbies to navigate before the quarter-finals. The province is in a very strong position but must be careful as a slip-up could well cost them a home semi-final spot should they drop below second. Ulster will be a tricky challenge but Leinster are well placed to finish clean.

R17: Ulster v Leinster
R18: Leinster v Connacht

3) Munster (58 pts) – Qualified

A team that has been in strong form at the back of the season which has positioned them very well to challenge for the top two should one of those teams slip up. Their final two games are against sides in the playoff battle making for interesting viewing. They have already qualified but will want to keep winning and take some strong momentum into the playoffs. Two wins in the last two could dramatically shake the playoff picture lower down.

R17: Edinburgh v Munster
R18: Munster v Ulster

4) Bulls (56 pts) – Qualified

The win over Glasgow last weekend was a welcome five points for the Bulls, who have also already punched their ticket for the last eight. Jake White’s men could pretty much guarantee top four with a win against Benetton after which gathering momentum would be the top priority for the Pretoria men.

R17: Bulls v Benetton
R18: Sharks v Bulls

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5) Stormers (50 pts)

It was a nervous 65-odd minutes for the Stormers at Rodney Parade last weekend but a late flurry handed them a full house of points. The job is still not done for the Capetonians who essentially could secure their playoff spot this weekend against Connacht. The Stormers would love to go into the final round against the Lions with no worries about their playoff contention. This weekend will be a big test of their quality in the northern hemisphere.

R17: Connacht v Stormers
R18: Stormers v Lions

6) Ulster (49 pts)

A good win last time out keeps Ulster in the mix but now they face the massive challenge of hosting Leinster in a game where they desperately need to come away with points. The same can be said for their final round against Munster. It is a rough finish to the regular season and, if Ulster are to secure their playoff spot at the end of it all, it would be thoroughly deserved. Knockout mode needs to be activated by the Belfast men.

R17: Ulster v Leinster
R18: Munster v Ulster

7) Edinburgh (48 pts)

The Scots smashed Zebre last time out which was a strong box ticked considering the difficulty of the rest of their games. Edinburgh are right on the edge and a Munster hurdle in front of them is challenging but Sean Everitt’s men will have to get something out of the game to stay in the picture before they face playoff rivals Benetton in the final round. It is also interesting to note, as Everitt did this week, that finishing in eighth this season could mean nothing for Champions Cup qualification if the Sharks win the Challenge Cup, so Edinburgh will be desperate to hang onto seventh.

R17: Edinburgh v Munster
R18: Benetton v Edinburgh

8) Benetton (48 pts)

It was by the skin of their teeth but Benetton’s narrow win in Durban keeps their head above water, but it does not get easier with the Bulls this weekend. The Italians need to come away with some points in Pretoria before ideally beating Edinburgh in the final round. The playoff picture is incredibly tight and Benetton will need to show their worth at one of the hardest grounds to travel in the league.

R17: Bulls v Benetton
R18: Benetton v Edinburgh

9) Connacht (44 pts)

The province were put away last time out by Munster and have described their next match against the Stormers as a ‘cup final’. Connacht are correct as a loss at home this weekend will be the nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. They will be up for the challenge as they hope to exploit the Capetonians’ poor form in the north. It’s now or never for Connacht.

R17: Connacht v Stormers
R18: Leinster v Connacht

10) Lions (44 pts)

The Lions are dangerous at home and showed that against Cardiff but now the massive challenge of Glasgow is in front of them this weekend and, to be frank, a loss means it’s the end of the road. Even with a win, it is still going to be difficult for the Lions but sometimes a team backed into a corner can be the most dangerous.

R17: Lions v Glasgow Warriors
R18: Stormers v Lions

11) Ospreys (40 pts)

The Welsh side are mathematically in the hunt but realistically it may be a bridge too far for the Ospreys who were pelted by Leinster last time out. There is no time to dwell on the defeat as the best thing they can do for themselves is win both derbies in the last two games, ideally with bonus points, and then see where the cards fall.

R17: Ospreys v Dragons
R18: Cardiff v Ospreys

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