United Rugby Championship: Five storylines to follow ahead of the quarter-finals including possible Irish domination
The regular season of the United Rugby Championship has come and gone. Now only eight teams remain in the pursuit of glory.
Ahead of the quarter-finals in the URC, Planet Rugby unpacks the major storylines to follow in what is set to be a blockbuster weekend filled with drama, elation and fine margins.
Leinster look to avoid knockout exit to another South African team
The Dublin side are undoubtedly the team to beat, with only one loss during the entire regular season at the hands of the Bulls – albeit it was a young Leinster side.
The situation is not hugely different to this time last year when the Irishmen were the clear favourites. However, it was the Pretoria outfit once again who spoiled the party in Dublin with a stunning semi-final win, leaving Leo Cullen’s side trophyless.
They have grown in leaps and bounds since then and now look like a side seeking vengeance in the form of silverware – the fuel to the ever-impressive engine of the club.
Leinster welcome the Sharks to their own backyard, and they will do everything in their power to avoid going down to another South African side.
The Durbanites are missing the star power of Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi, which may prove costly, but ultimately the ball is in Leinster’s court as the Sharks will need to be practically perfect if they are to overcome the title favourites.
Ulster favourites for inter-pro quarter-final
The Belfast-based side have gone about their business this season with aplomb and little fuss. The way in which Ulster finished the regular season so strongly by snatching second position in the table from defending champions the Stormers was outstanding. That could well prove crucial in the semi-finals.
However, they first have Connacht as the immediate hurdle in front of them. The Galway outfit must be commended for a late charge of their own that saw them rise into the play-off spots.
With respect to Connacht and the quality outfit they are, it will be an uphill battle for them against a very organised and very powerful Ulster squad, who finding form at the right time.
Inter-pro derbies in Ireland are never a given, but it would certainly be a shock to see Connacht upset their rivals.
Massive crowd expected in Cape Town
On Wednesday, the Stormers confirmed that a whopping 30,000 tickets had already been sold for the north-south derby between the Cape Town side and the Bulls this weekend at DHL Stadium.
Expect that number to climb as supporters look to help their team defend their title. It won’t be one-sided, though, as many Bulls supporters will be making the journey to the Mother City. The current record attendance at a URC game in South Africa is 41,205 at Loftus Versfeld. We may just see this shattered as fans gear up for one of the biggest rivalries in the country.
The north-south derby is as old as the hills and in many ways is the most vivid expression of South African rugby. One does not have to look too far to find when the bitter rivals last met in a knockout clash as the teams fought in the inaugural final last season.
The hosts have dominated recent meetings between the two but, as Bulls director of rugby Jake White reminded everyone this week, that all falls away in the knockouts.
Strap in because the Mother City is set to host another fierce derby.
Which Munster will turn up?
It has been an interesting season for Munster, who have been plagued with inconsistency throughout their campaign. Initially, the club was adjusting to the changes at the top, with Graham Rowntree replacing Johann van Graan as head coach.
They then found form after spectacularly beating South Africa ‘A’ in November last year, but the end to the regular season has been mixed. There were certainly highs in their run-in, including ending the Stormers’ 19-game win streak in Cape Town, but can they maintain that level of performance?
A strong finish to the season earned the side a better position on the table, which meant they avoided away ties with fellow Irish provinces Leinster and Ulster, as well as defending champions Stormers.
Instead, they head to Scotstoun to face Glasgow Warriors. It is perhaps not the type of challenge which the top three would present but it is still an incredibly tricky match-up against Franco Smith’s men, who have been in inspired form of late and only last week booked their spot in the Challenge Cup final.
Smith has the Scottish side absolutely purring, and Munster will know that only their best can help them advance.
Irish teams to dominate semi-finals?
On the international scene, Ireland are deservedly the top-ranked side in the world, and that does not happen by mistake. One only has to look at the performances of their provinces to see why.
All four teams from the Irish Shield are competing in the quarter-finals with at least two expected to advance. The Ulster and Connacht clash guarantees one outfit in the last-four whilst it would be a huge upset if the Sharks prevailed in Dublin.
Munster has the opportunity to make it three out of four to qualify for the semi-finals should they find a way past a very good Glasgow team.
It is richly deserved to have such strong representation at the business end of the season as the players and clubs are clearly managed ever so well. The commitment to producing outstanding players is felt across the board, and the quality of coaching and support is simply superb.
The Irish sides did not find themselves in this situation by chance and they should be praised for their impressive efforts.
READ MORE: United Rugby Championship: Seven South African players to watch during the quarter-finals including Damian Willemse, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Johan Grobbelaar
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