James Crombie/INPHO Connacht are fighting to get into the play-off spots.
# Competition
The URC is becoming a less forgiving place as Irish provinces feel more heat
Leinster have continued as before but the other three provinces are battling.

IF THERE WERE a few smug grins around the URC head offices early this week, you couldn’t really blame them.

All eight of the URC sides involved in the Champions Cup qualified for the round-of-16, a strong showing in comparison to three Top 14 clubs and a representation of five from England’s Premiership.

To be fair, the URC is made up of five different nations. And there’s no doubt that two of the French clubs and perhaps one of the English sides are among the trophy contenders. Making assumptions based on one season is dangerous too.

But still, it’s a satisfying return for the URC, a league that has improved drastically in the past two seasons thanks to the introduction of South Africa’s four leading franchises – the Bulls, Sharks, Lions, and Stormers.

With another big TV market added to the mix, viewing figures are naturally up. The South African branch has added more money to the mix for participating clubs, even if the URC still trails well behind the Top 14 and Premiership.

Perhaps the most welcome development, though, is the fact that the URC is now more competitive. Two South African clubs in the final last season, winners Stormers and the Bulls, shows just how much they have upset the applecart.

It has forced everyone to up their game and, while there are new issues such as the travel difficulties for the South African sides and their decisions to bring weakened squads for some of those trips, there’s no doubt that their addition has been positive for the URC.

bongi-mbonambi-celebrates-after-the-game Steve Haag Sports / Steve Haag/INPHO The South Africans have changed the URC. Steve Haag Sports / Steve Haag/INPHO / Steve Haag/INPHO

So things have improved quickly, but old perceptions about the league linger in some quarters. In fairness, the Pro14 in its various guises wasn’t all that compelling when viewed from the outside. It was difficult to argue with those who espoused the values of the Top 14 and the Premiership while talking down the Pro14 and Pro12 and Magners League. They were right, those other leagues were better.

But the URC has really started to make up ground. The signs are that it will continue to grow and the hope is that the WRU can steady their domestic game to help the likes of the Ospreys become genuine title contenders over the next few years. Scottish Rugby also needs to play its part in having at least one of its two teams competing or even winning, as Glasgow Warriors did in 2015. Benetton have been representing Italian rugby strongly in recent years, even if Zebre remain uncompetitive.

All of this is why life has suddenly looked a little less comfortable for the Irish provinces, although last night’s affair in Belfast wasn’t a good example.

A less comfortable existence is exactly what the IRFU wanted in voting for the inclusion of the South Africans. The URC is offering greater challenges than before, even if the new guise means slightly fewer opportunities for emerging young players.

Coming into last night, Ulster were in great need of a big result over the visiting Stormers and they got it. Dan McFarland’s side are back up to third place in the table after their recent rocky patch but nothing is guaranteed yet with six more regular-season games left for them to play. The battle for home advantage in the knock-outs is only heating up.

Today, Munster have a huge clash against fellow play-off contenders Benetton [KO 2.30pm, TG4], who are above them in the table. Graham Rowntree’s men have clearly improved in recent months, but they are still chasing in the URC after their poor start to the season.

There is little margin for error in their remaining six regular-season games, beginning at Stadio di Monigo this afternoon.

Leinster, to be fair, are cruising once again this season and will hope to make it 13 wins from 13 in the URC when they host Cardiff at then RDS [KO 5.05pm, RTÉ]. With so many players away in Ireland camp, we get a glimpse of the next layer of youthful talent and Leinster will still expect to have enough quality to keep their run going.

johnny-sexton-celebrates-with-jamison-gibson-park James Crombie / INPHO Leinster have still been cruising in the URC. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Connacht’s need is most pressing of all as they start the day 11th in the URC table, having lost seven of their 12 games so far. They have the most favourable run-in of any side in the league, though, and Andy Friend is hoping for a big response to last weekend’s Challenge Cup defeat in Newcastle. That was a bad defeat that left Connacht fans deeply frustrated.

We need to see a ruthless and error-free edge from Connacht as they face the Lions in Galway this evening [KO 7.35pm, TG4]. This game marks the the end of a long block of consecutive games since the autumn, but Friend will ask for a convincing last push.

The URC is a much less forgiving place these days and Connacht are staring at another season of Challenge Cup rugby if they can’t find consistency.

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