Munster take on the Stormers and Sharks. Bryan Keane/INPHO

Debuts, farewells, tours, and drama - Irish provinces set for URC run-in

The closing two regular-season rounds of the league promise to be riveting.

THIS IS THE season that simply never lets up. The improvement of the URC has made it so. The wider interest in rugby has ebbed and flowed as always, peaking for Ireland’s Grand Slam, but there have been exceptionally few dull moments for the diehards.

Gone are the days when the Pro12 included some weekends that were simply boring. The URC is more competitive than under any of its previous guises. Leinster are favourites again this season, but that was the case last time around and the Stormers walked away with the title.

More drama awaits in the play-offs next month but before that, there are two more regular-season rounds to go with everything on the line for several teams.


Still unbeaten, Leinster have already earned top spot in the URC table regardless of what happens on their two-game tour of South Africa. That’s why they’ve been able to leave key players at home, as they did at this stage last year when they narrowly lost to the Sharks and Stormers.

Despite those defeats, last season’s trip to South Africa was extremely beneficial for many of Leinster’s younger players and Leo Cullen is hoping for the same this time around.

rhys-ruddock Rhys Ruddock and Leinster are in South Africa. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Their 30-man squad includes four uncapped players. Ireland U20s out-half Sam Prendergast, scrum-half Fintan Gunne, back row Liam Molony, and second row Conor O’Tighearnaigh are all set for their senior debuts if called upon in South Africa.

With several Ireland internationals also in the Leinster squad, they’ll be targeting a win against the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday before a tough task against the Bulls in Pretoria a week later.

The 11th-placed Lions aren’t out of the running for the top eight yet and have two home games against Leinster and Zebre, while the seventh-placed Bulls host Zebre before their own clash with Leinster. So the Irish province can expect ferocious battles in both games.

Whatever happens, Leinster will still be first in the table ahead of the play-offs, meaning they will enjoy home advantage for the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final if they advance through each stage.

So while there isn’t a huge amount of jeopardy for Leinster in that sense, this tour should be of major value. They’ll be playing at altitude in temperatures of over 20°C against athletic and large South African sides who have so much on the line. 


Graham Rowntree’s men are also in South Africa for their final two regular-season games and these fixtures against the Stormers and Sharks are of the utmost importance.

It’s double jeopardy in that Munster, currently in fifth, are fighting for their place in the URC play-offs but also for Champions Cup qualification next season. They’ll probably need a top-seven finish for the latter objective, or even a top-six finish given that Benetton or the Scarlets could still win this season’s Challenge Cup.

graham-rowntree Munster boss Graham Rowntree. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

While there are worries about the teams below them in the table, it should be said that Munster could still finish in the top four of the URC if they win both games in South Africa and Glasgow, currently in fourth, slip up in their home matches against Scarlets and Connacht. Given the Glaswegians’ form, that looks unlikely.

To get what they need, Munster might not even need to win either of these upcoming games in South Africa. Two losing bonus points could do the trick if others can do them a favour.

The permutations are plentiful but Rowntree and co. will be going all out to pull off big results in Cape Town and Durban. They were hammered by the Sharks two weekends ago on their recent visit to Durban and will hope to instantly implement the lessons from that Champions Cup disappointment.

The warm, humid weather conditions are at least now vividly familiar and Munster’s self-inflicted wounds can be avoided with more accuracy and energy. 


With their South African travels and challenges behind them, Dan McFarland’s side have already secured a top-four finish that will give them a home quarter-final. 

The next target is pushing past the Stormers, who are two match points ahead, to claim second position in the table.

nathan-doak-celebrates-scoring-a-conversion-kick Nathan Doak and Ulster can still finish second. Leah Scholes / INPHO Leah Scholes / INPHO / INPHO

John Dobson’s Stormers welcome Munster and Benetton to Cape Town in their two final regular-season games so there is a strong chance that it’s all out of Ulster’s control. The northern province will hope for a Stormers slip-up in one of those games as they target maximum points in their own.

First up, it’s the visit of the Dragons to Belfast this Friday. The Welsh region have won only three games this season so Ulster will be aiming for a ruthless bonus-point win.

Then Round 18 sees Ulster hosting an Edinburgh team whose season is essentially already over in competitive terms. Languishing down in 14th in the URC table, the Scots won’t have much to play for and, again, McFarland’s side should be aiming for the bonus point.

This hasn’t been the smoothest of campaigns for Ulster, with a big dip in results in the middle of it, but they can now build some momentum into the URC play-offs in response to their Champions Cup exit at the hands of Leinster.


The end of the Andy Friend era is nigh but it’s not here just yet. Having won five URC games in a row, Connacht have stormed up to sixth in the table and given themselves a great chance of being in the play-offs. Champions Cup qualification is there for the taking too, even if they have the same concerns as Munster in that regard.

Connacht had a miserably tough opening run of fixtures this season to leave them chasing but more recently, they’ve taken full advantage of having the statistically-easiest run-in of anyone towards the play-offs.

andy-friend Andy Friend's time in charge of Connacht is close to an end. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Their regular season concludes with the visit of 10th-placed Cardiff to Galway this Saturday and then a trip to take on Glasgow in the final round a week later. 

Cardiff are only two match points off the play-offs as things stand so there’s huge motivation for Dai Young’s side this weekend.

This is set to be the final home game for Friend and a few of his players, so it promises to be a big occasion as Connacht fans bid farewell to favourites including the ever-popular Friend, Kieran Marmion and Shane Delahunt.

Really, there’s not much room for losing focus on the business at hand. Connacht will then hope that Glasgow’s top-four place is already secured by the time they’re in Scotstoun in Round 18.

Either way, it looks like a huge fixture for Connacht and it will be the last game of the URC regular season, so they’ll know exactly what they need.



Round 17

  • Sharks v Benetton, Hollywoodbets Kings Park, Friday 14 April, 5.30pm Irish time [URC TV]
  • Glasgow v Scarlets, Scotstoun Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm [TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Ulster v Dragons, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm [Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Bulls v Zebre, Emirates Airline Park, Saturday 15 April, 12.00pm [TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Lions v Leinster, Emirates Airline Park, Saturday, 3.00pm [RTÉ/Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Stormers v Munster, DHL Stadium, Saturday, 5.15pm  [RTÉ/Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Edinburgh v Ospreys, DAM Health Stadium, Saturday, 7.35pm [Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Connacht v Cardiff, Sportsground, Saturday 7.35pm  [RTÉ/Premier Sports/URC TV]

Round 18

  • Stormers v Benetton, DHL Stadium, Friday, 5.30pm [TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Ulster v Edinburgh, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm [Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Lions v Zebre, Loftus Versfeld, Saturday, 12.00pm [Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Bulls v Leinster, Loftus Versfeld, Saturday, 3.00pm [TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Dragons v Scarlets, Principality Stadium, Saturday, 3pm [Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Ospreys v Cardiff, Principality Stadium, Saturday, 5.15pm [Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Sharks v Munster, Hollywoodbets Kings Park, Saturday, 5.15pm [TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV]
  • Glasgow v Connacht, Scotstoun Stadium, Saturday, 7.35pm [TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV]

- This article was updated at 8.48am to correct ‘tour’ to ‘four’ in the 13th paragraph.

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