URC sides facing key battles after weekend of success in Europe
After a highly successful weekend for the BKT United Rugby Championship sides in the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup, all 16 teams remain in with a shout of reaching the knock-out stages.
There were 13 wins in all for the BKT URC contingent, with the Welsh and Scottish sides recording clean sweeps.
In the nine matches against opposition from France’s Top 14, there were seven wins, while the encounters with English Gallagher Premiership teams brought five victories and just one defeat. In the other match, the Scarlets overcame a stern Challenge Cup test from South African outfit the Cheetahs.
The extremely positive results suggest the intensity and physicality of the BKT URC derbies over the holiday period, along with the very competitive nature of the league this season, has prepared the teams well for the EPCR competitions.
In the Champions Cup, four of the top six in Pool A, including table-topping Leinster, and three of the first six in Pool B are from the BKT URC.
Then in the Challenge Cup, the league provides three of the leading five in Pool A and four of the top five in Pool B, with Welsh sides Cardiff and the Scarlets out in front of the respective sections.
Attention now turns to the final round of group matches this coming weekend, with places in the last 16 of the two competitions up for grabs.
Leinster, the Cell C Sharks and Edinburgh Rugby have already qualified with a game to spare in the Champions Cup, while Cardiff Rugby, Connacht, Glasgow Warriors, the Scarlets and Benetton have done the same in the Challenge Cup.
They will all be looking to secure home ties in the last 16, while the other eight BKT URC teams will be aiming to join them in the knock-out stages.
Looking at the fixtures, Irish provinces Munster and Ulster face massive games as they attempt to progress in the Champions Cup.
Graham Rowntree’s Munster face a tough trip to Toulouse, who are three from three in the competition, while Ulster have a must-win game at home to Sale who are also after a victory to keep their own hopes alive.
Reflecting on the impending journey to the south of France, Rowntree said: “Regardless of what the qualification looks like, we need to go there and win and what a challenge. It’s one of the toughest places in the world to go and win a game of rugby and I think we can.”
Ulster coach Dan McFarland will have to lift his team after the heartbreak of a last play 7-3 defeat away to Champions Cup holders La Rochelle, but was proud of their effort, saying: “It’s an indicator that, although we have lost a few games, we are not that far away from where we need to be to win a lot of games.
“I was 100 per cent proud of the effort the guys put in. They were excellent. We were 60 seconds away from beating the European champions in their home.”
The Ospreys also have a big fixture ahead of them as they travel to English title holders Leicester needing to take something out of the game to guarantee a spot in the last 16 of the top tier competition.
They already have one foot there thanks to completing the double over French champions Montpellier with a thrilling 35-29 triumph at the Swansea.com Stadium on Saturday night.
Head coach Toby Booth said: “I was really proud of the players. You could see what it meant to them. Montpellier are massive but we matched them in the arm wrestle and I thought we played smart, which was great.
“It’s important to be in this competition because we want to test ourselves and have days and evenings like that. We also want to get into knock-out rugby and see where we can go. That’s us moving forward. We’re in a good place and enjoying ourselves.”
There were also victories for Cardiff Rugby, the Scarlets and the Dragons RFC in the Challenge Cup as all four Welsh sides won in Europe on the same weekend for the first time since October 2016.
Dai Young’s Cardiff team completed the full house by beating Newcastle 42-10 on Sunday, with a match-day 23 that were all Welsh qualified.
Young said: “I watched the other regions before us and they had three good wins. I felt a bit of pressure coming into our game, to be honest, because we didn’t want to spoil the party.
“It’s a great filip for Welsh rugby with the Six Nations around the corner. A lot of it boils down to getting your best players out on the pitch, while some of the younger players are growing with the more rugby they are playing and we are starting to pick up the results.”
Cardiff head for Brive this weekend looking for a win to secure a home tie in the last 16, with a top two finish in their pool meaning they would also be at home in the quarter-finals if they reach that stage.
“We are through, which is the first tick in the box, the second tick in the box is to go to Brive and make sure we get a win out there to give us a home draw,” said Young.
“We can’t go down the path of thinking we only need one or two points because that will trip you up. We are going there to win and if that means we finish in the top two, that gives us a real shot then.”
Dragons RFC have a winner-takes-all clash with the Emirates Lions at Rodney Parade with the two sides locked on the same number of points and both looking to secure a home tie in the last 16.
Dai Flanagan’s Dragons will be in good heart, having won 21-15 out in Pau on the weekend. Flanagan said: “I thought we played some fantastic rugby. We’re limiting our errors now and becoming tough. I’m really proud of the group. There is loads more in us and that is what excites me.”
Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors will also have their eyes on home ties in the last 16 as they host Saracens and Bath in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup respectively having both claimed excellent wins out in France at the weekend.
As for the Italian duo, Benetton lie second in their Challenge Cup pool as they await the visit of Stade Francais, while Zebre Parma head out to already qualified Toulon needing a win to have a chance of staying in the competition.
The Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers will be aiming to nail down qualification in the top tier event when they travel to Lyon and entertain Clermont Auvergne respectively. Looking at the tables, it seems very likely that all four South African teams will make the EPCR knock-out stages in their first season on board.