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URC Round 16 review: It’s tight at the top as the season builds to its climax

12 May 2024 11 minute read
The Dragons in action against the Stormers. Photo via YouTube

Simon Thomas

Tight at the top

Glasgow Warriors are still league leaders, but they’ve got Irish duo Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby breathing down their necks.

Franco Smith’s side remain in top spot thanks to the unlikely two points they picked up in losing 40-34 to Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria – unlikely because they were trailing 37-10 with just 17 minutes to go. More on that eventful encounter to follow.

However, their lead over Leinster is now down to just a point, while Munster are only one point further back. Then you’ve got the Bulls just two points lower in the log.

So it’s getting tight at the top.

Leinster rattled up 40 unanswered points in the second half in Dublin to claim a 60-21 victory over the Ospreys, with wing Jordan Larmour grabbing a hat-trick of tries.

Munster also secured maximum points in beating Connacht Rugby 47-12 at Thomond Park with seven different players touching down for the champions.

The DHL Stormers, Ulster Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby and Benetton Rugby all boosted their play-off prospects with victories over Dragons RFC, the Scarlets, Zebre Parma and the Hollywoodbets Sharks respectively.

Benetton claimed arguably the result of the weekend, beating the in-form Sharks 25-24 in Durban with Jacob Umaga their super-sub hero.

The replacement fly-half went over for a try three minutes from time and then landed the match-winning conversion to earn the Italians a precious victory.

Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, there was another player making a big impact off the bench as flanker Emmanuel Tshituka scored two late tries to earn the Emirates Lions maximum points in a 34-13 win over Cardiff Rugby.

Overall, it’s still really congested in the battle for play-off spots.

The top four have now booked their places in the knock-out stages, but then you’ve got seven teams vying for the other four places, with just ten points separating fifth and eleventh.

With two rounds of matches to go, there’s still all to play for.

“Woeful” win for Stormers

DHL Stormers boss John Dobson was left with very mixed emotions following his team’s 44-21 victory over Dragons RFC at Rodney Parade.

On the one hand, it was their first league win outside of South Africa this season, while picking up maximum points has boosted their play-off prospects.

But in terms of the overall display, he was deeply disappointed, with his team having been trailing 21-16 with just 15 minutes left to play.

“I am really unhappy. It was a woeful performance,” he said.

“But I’ve got to look at how much was the Dragons’ amazing pressure and how much was us being poor.

“We were awful, but I’ve got a funny feeling it was caused by the Dragons.

“My word, the final scoreline was probably one of the more unfair ones I’ve seen in rugby.

“I thought we were in a lot of trouble. The Dragons were clever. They had the territory, the possession, the crowd got behind them. The noise was something else.

“For a team that has nothing to play for to produce that, it’s remarkable credit to them. There is real pride in that team. They didn’t deserve 44-21.”

The Dragons had led 11-10 at the break through a try from flanker Harri Keddie and went back in front just before the hour mark when outstanding Wales No 8 Aaron Wainwright stretched out to the line.

“When they got the rumble at 21-16 and that singing was coming down, we thought there was only one winner here,” said Dobson.
“So credit to us for fighting our way out of it.”

Crucially, the Stormers got on top in the scrum in the final quarter, resulting in a yellow card for Dragons prop Rodrigo Martinez, and they capitalised by racking up four tries in the final 15 minutes, with replacement Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu adding a late double to Angelo Davids’ earlier brace.

“I thought in the last ten minutes, you saw what we can do when the game opens,” said Dobson.

“If we had lost, our season would have ended.

“We are fighting for our lives and we were almost gone.

“I have got really mixed emotions. We have got the points, but we have to be much better.

“We got away with one there, very much so.”

As for the whole experience of visiting Newport, Dobson said: “I absolutely love it.

“I love the drive in here, the people, the pie shops. They are such good people here at the Dragons as well.

“Just the name Rodney Parade evokes so much.

“Growing up, I knew what Newport was. This is something that takes you back in a nice way to the old era, the atmosphere, the people and I hope it goes from strength to strength.

“Listen, I think a lot of teams would have also struggled here tonight.”

The Stormers now travel to Galway to take on play-off rivals Connacht next Saturday before concluding the regular season by hosting the Lions in Cape Town.

“I think one more win should get us into the top eight,” said director of rugby Dobson.

“I think the defeat to the Ospreys took us out of the home quarter.

“We are going to be going away somewhere nasty later.”

Responding to Dobson’s warm words, Dragons coach Dai Flanagan said: “Everyone picks their full strength team when they come to the Parade and there is no coincidence behind that.

“That’s because of our fans and how uncomfortable we make it for away teams and long may that continue.

“This crowd is unbelievable, how they have stuck with us through the hardship of the season, understanding there have been massive financial cuts in Welsh rugby and that they will happen again next year.

“It’s a season where they probably could not have stuck with us. They drive us on really well and we need to give it back to them.”

On the way the game went against the Stormers, he said: “For 65 minutes, we executed everything we had spoken about in the week really well.

“If we can do that physically for 65, why can’t we do it for 75, 80? But, also, losing is a habit like winning is a habit. We need to turn the tide.”

The Dragons now travel to Swansea to take on the Ospreys next weekend before concluding their campaign with a Judgement Day clash with the Scarlets at the Cardiff City Stadium.

“It’s superb for us – two derbies. What a way to finish the season,” said Flanagan.

“We have got nothing to lose and it’s an opportunity to go and express ourselves.”

Edinburgh set their sights on the champs

Edinburgh coach Sean Everitt is convinced they can beat reigning champions Munster next Friday night to nail down a spot in the play-offs.

Everitt’s team moved up two places to seventh thanks to a 40-14 bonus point victory over Zebre Parma, with Player of the Match Ewan Ashman touching down twice from hooker.

Now they turn their attention to welcoming Munster to the Hive Stadium, ahead of travelling to Benetton in the final round.

Everitt said: “The way we worked it out is we had to win 12 games to make the play-offs and we are on 11 now.

“So another win gives us that. I think five points will get us over the line.

“It’s also about where you want to finish on the log. You must remember the Sharks will take the eighth position from the URC for the Champions Cup if they win the Challenge Cup.

“So you don’t want to be in the eighth spot.

“We have got to go out and try and win both of our last two games.

“We have got Munster at home next week. I know they are on form at the moment, but if we play well we can beat them.”

Reflecting on the six-try victory over Zebre, Everitt said: “I’ve got a bit of mixed feelings.

“I thought we controlled the game well in the first half, but then made heavy weather of it. We didn’t make life easy for ourselves.

“Credit to Zebre, they are a nuggety bunch. They really fly into you defensively, put a lot of pressure on your breakdown and make life difficult for you. They don’t go away.

“It was consecutive errors that cost us and put us under the pump (at 19-14), but credit to us for getting back on top, with our bench making an impact.

“We know we have got to be better against Munster next week, but I am very happy with the five points.

“I am proud of the guys the way they have handled the pressure.”

Match of the weekend

Vodacom Bulls 40, Glasgow Warriors 34

It had all the makings of a cracker at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld with fourth hosting first – and so it proved.

Yet it had seemed over as a contest when the Bulls led 37-10 inside the final quarter, having built on a 24-10 half-time advantage.

But three converted tries in the space of eight minutes from Glasgow turned the game on its head and set up a grandstand finish.

The Scottish outfit then looked to have been denied a bonus point double when Chris Smith landed a long range penalty three minutes from time.

But, with the final kick of the match, replacement fly-half Duncan Weir bisected the posts to ensure the league leaders came away with a precious two points.

Given where they were with 20 minutes to go, that is some result.

In the end, it finished four tries apiece, with home fly-half Smith landing eight shots at goal for a 20-point haul, while second row Ruan Vermaak was named Player of the Match.

So, five points to Jake White’s Bulls and two for Franco Smith’s Glasgow who remain top of the table.

A fluctuating and thoroughly entertaining encounter.

Player of the weekend

Alex Nankivell (Munster)

The Kiwi centre has proved an excellent acquisition since coming on board from the Chiefs last summer.

He has such a fine all-round game, as he demonstrated with a consummate Player of the Match display in Saturday’s 47-12 victory over Connacht in Limerick.

There was the awareness and pace he showed in picking up a loose ball and racing 65 metres for Munster’s third try early in the second half.

Then there was the superb try-saving tackle on Shamus Hurley-Langton in the corner which epitomised his defensive work-rate.

He really is a class act.

Speaking about playing in front of a 20,183 crowd in gorgeous weather at Thomond Park, he said: “It was unreal. It was good to see some sun in Limerick. It’s probably the best day I’ve had since I’ve been here.

“It’s amazing to have a crowd like this turn out every week to watch us play. It was a great day for us.

“That’s our seventh win on the trot. I feel like we are just building confidence and momentum going into the business end of the season. The boys are happy.”

He added: “I am loving it here at Munster. It’s some place. The people are amazing. They just make you feel really welcome. It’s home away from home for me. It feels like I’ve been here for a long time even though I’ve only been here for a few months.”

Quote of the weekend

Ulster coach Richie Murphy after his team came from 6-3 down to claim a 31-20 bonus point win over the Scarlets in Llanelli:

“We made quite hard work of it in the first half. We weren’t accurate enough and didn’t build enough pressure. So I gave the lads a bit of a rocket at half-time.

“With the Scarlets down to 13 at the start of the second half after two yellow cards, we managed to put some pressure on and got what we needed in the end.

“Our next game now is Leinster, so it’s a massive one.”

What’s coming next?

It’s Round 17 next weekend and it’s not just the weather that’s hotting up!

There are some crucial contests in terms of the top of the table and the play-off race.

League leaders Glasgow continue their tour of South Africa by taking on the Lions in Johannesburg, while second-placed Leinster travel to Belfast to face Ulster.

Munster, in third, are also on the road as they head for Edinburgh, with the Bulls the only one of the top four at home as they entertain Benetton.

Elsewhere, there’s a Welsh derby in Swansea with the Ospreys hosting the Dragons needing a win to revive their play-off hopes, with the other games being Connacht v Stormers, Zebre v Scarlets, and Sharks v Cardiff.

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