Munster Craig Casey and Jacob Stockdale of Ulster.
# Explainer
All to play for as provinces head into final rounds of URC regular season
All four Irish teams are back in URC action this weekend.

IT’S BACK TO business for the Irish provinces this weekend as the United Rugby Championship resumes following the conclusion of the Six Nations.

The business end of the season is now just around the corner, with the Champions and Challenge Cup knockout stages getting underway next week, and just three rounds of regular season URC fixtures left on the calendar.

Here’s how the four provinces are shaping up ahead of busy weekend of URC action.

Leinster v Stormers – RDS, 7.35pm, TG4/Premier Sports

It’s first versus second under Friday night lights in Dublin and while some big names might be missing from the teamsheets, it’s all set up to be a cracking start to the weekend’s rugby at the RDS.

The two teams have already been named and while Leinster are missing their Grand Slam stars Leo Cullen is still able to name a strong team which includes Jordan Larmour, Ciarán Frawley, Jason Jenkins, Rhys Ruddock and Scott Penny. Leinster remain unbeaten this season but face a tough test against a fully-loaded Stormers side, as captain Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie, and Damian Willemse all return.

jason-jenkins Tom Maher / INPHO Jason Jenkins starts for Leinster. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster are 12 points clear of the Stormers at the top of the table and only need a draw to seal top seeding heading into the knockout rounds – how Cullen would love to have that in the bag before they head into their Champions Cup round of 16 clash with Ulster and a two-game URC trip to South Africa. 

Connacht v Edinburgh – Sportsground, 3pm (Saturday), TG4/Premier Sports

Connacht – who on Thursday announced the signing of Argentina international Santiago Cordero – are the first province out on Saturday, hosting 12th-placed Edinburgh in Galway, the Scottish side preparing for their first game since former Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond came on board as “lead rugby consultant” until the end of this season.

Connacht have won their last four on the bounce in the URC and another victory this weekend would see them win five league games in succession for the first time since their Pro12 title success in the 2015/16 season.

They go into the game without Ireland internationals Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and the injured Finlay Bealham, while captain Jack Carty, Denis Buckley, Josh Murphy, Conor Fitzgerald and Oisin McCormack are all also unavailable.

tom-farrell Andy Watts / INPHO Connacht's Tom Farrell. Andy Watts / INPHO / INPHO

Andy Friend’s side currently sit eighth – the final playoff spot – and will need to finish strong if they are to hang on and make the knockouts, with six teams within 10 points of Connacht heading into the final rounds of the regular season. After this weekend, the province are away to Benetton in the Challenge Cup before closing out their URC regular season campaign with games against Cardiff (home) and Glasgow (away).   

Munster v Glasgow Warriors – Thomond Park, 5.15pm (Saturday), RTÉ/Premier Sports

This has become a tasty rivalry over the years and with the two sides separated by just two points in the table – fourth-placed Glasgow just ahead of Munster in fifth – it should be another hard-fought battle in the race for a home quarter-final.

The bad news for Munster is that Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Keith Earls will all sit this one out, but a string of internationals – including Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes, Jack Crowley, Dave Kilcoyne, Roman Salanoa and Scotland’s Ben Healy – are available, while Tom Ahern and Mike Haley have also returned to full training.

The visitors have Ryan Wilson, Ross Thompson and Murphy Walker all available after injury.

It’s set to be a massive few weeks for Graham Rowntree’s side, in which they’re going to clock up plenty of airmiles. The province are away to the Sharks in the Champions Cup round of 16 next weekend – where a win would see them face either Toulouse or the Bulls a week later – before back-to-back URC games in South Africa against the Stormers and Sharks. 

Ulster v Bulls – Kingspan Stadium, 7.35pm (Saturday), RTÉ/Premier Sports

After coming through a difficult dip in form Ulster have managed to get their season back on track and are aiming to record a third straight URC win when they welcome the Bulls to Belfast on Saturday night.

Dan McFarland’s side sit just five points behind the second-placed Stormers in the URC table with a home quarter-final very much within their sights – finishing in the top two would secure home advantage through to the semi-finals.

Ulster have Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune available but Iain Henderson and Marty Moore are both injured, while Tom O’Toole, Rob Herring and Kieran Treadwell could all sit the game out following their involvement in Ireland’s Grand Slam success.

Following their Champions Cup knockout date with Leinster in Dublin, Ulster close out their URC regular season campaign with home games against the Dragons and Edinburgh.

The Bulls, who sit sixth, have lost their last three in the URC and haven’t won a game in any competition since mid-January.

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