What’s on the line in round 16 of the URC?
Zebre Parma v Cardiff Rugby (Stadio Lanfranchi, Parma; 7.10pm Friday)
If Cardiff Rugby are to keep alive their hopes of making the end-of-season play-offs, they simply have to beat bottom-of-the-table Zebre Parma out in Italy.
Dai Young’s team are currently tenth, five points adrift of Connacht who sit in that all important eighth spot. If they can win this weekend, it would set up a huge clash in Galway on April 15.
As well as looking up, Cardiff will also be casting an eye over their shoulder as they bid to remain the highest-placed Welsh team, which would guarantee them Champions Cup rugby next season. They are currently just four and five points ahead of the chasing Ospreys and Scarlets respectively, so can’t afford any slip-ups.
They are boosted by having Thomas Young, James Botham, Rhys Priestland and Liam Belcher back from injury, while Wales Six Nations squad members Mason Grady, Rhys Carre and Teddy Williams are also available.
For Zebre Parma, it’s their final home game of the season before they round things off with two matches out in South Africa, so they will doubtless be targeting this one big-time as they look to avoid going through the whole season without a league win.
Leinster v DHL Stormers (RDS Arena, Dublin; 7.35pm Friday)
First plays second in what could yet prove to be a dress rehearsal for the Grand Final at the end of May.
The DHL Stormers’ hopes of reaching that showpiece occasion will be significantly increased if they can hold on to second spot, which would give them home advantage through to the semi-final stage of the play-offs.
Ulster are hot on their heels, just five points behind, so victory in Dublin would be a precious result for the reigning champions.
Yet that’s easier said than done with Leinster unbeaten in all competitions this season. The Irish province are already guaranteed a top two finish, but they would love to go through the entire league campaign winning every game, while victory this weekend against the title holders would also lay down a marker ahead of a potential re-match in the final.
Assistant coach Andrew Goodman said: “It’s a serious test. The DHL Stormers are bringing over their full-strength squad. We like the challenge of welcoming the BKT URC champs from last year.
“It’s been a while since we have played South African opponents as well, so you are coming up against a different style of play which brings excitement into the building. It’s the last league game of the season at the RDS, so we are looking to put on a good show in front of our faithful crowd.
There’s been a good buzz around the place and everyone is really excited about getting stuck in on Friday night.”
Benetton v Emirates Lions (Stadio Monigo, Treviso; 1pm Saturday)
Benetton are just one point outside the top eight so they will be aiming to heap the pressure on the teams above them by getting the better of their guests from Johannesburg. To stay in the play-off hunt, they really do need to win this one as it’s their last home game of the regular season ahead of spending the final two rounds out in South Africa.
The Emirates Lions, for their part, have put themselves right back in the mix with victories over Glasgow Warriors and the Vodacom Bulls.
Although they are down in eleventh, they are only six points off eighth spot and can’t be discounted, especially as their last two fixtures are at home. If they win out in Treviso, they become serious play-off contenders.
Ospreys v Dragons RFC (Swansea.com Stadium; 1pm Saturday)
The Ospreys have Cardiff Rugby firmly in their sights as they look to retain the Welsh Shield which they won last season. They are just four points behind the Arms Park outfit who they face in the final game of the campaign at the Principality Stadium on Judgement Day.
Overhauling Cardiff to finish as the top Welsh team would also earn the Ospreys another crack at the Champions Cup, a competition where they have performed heroics this term.
They have further motivation this weekend as they seek revenge over the Dragons RFC who beat them 32-25 at Rodney Parade in October, when Wales wing Rio Dyer bagged a brace of tries. The Men of Gwent will be equally keen to complete the double, so it should be an enthralling derby clash.
Connacht v Edinburgh Rugby (The Sportsground, Galway; 3pm Saturday)
Eighth-placed Connacht will be feeling the chasing pack breathing down their necks, with six sides within ten points of them as the play-off race enters the final straight.
However, they are a team in form, having won their last four league matches, seeing off the Cell C Sharks, Emirates Lions, Zebre Parma and Dragons RFC to shoot up the table.
Edinburgh Rugby simply have to end that run if they are to have any chance of making the play-offs. They are currently down in twelfth, seven points adrift of Connacht after three successive defeats.
This will be their first outing since the appointment of former Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond as “lead rugby consultant” until the end of this season.
Scarlets v Cell C Sharks (Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli; 5pm Saturday)
Like the Ospreys, the Scarlets are on the trail of Cardiff Rugby in the quest for the Welsh Shield. They are now only five points behind them having turned their season around after winning just one of their first nine matches.
They have scrum-half Kieran Hardy returning from Wales squad duty, but experienced backs Johnny McNicholl (knee) and Jonathan Davies (calf) are sidelined, with Davies set to miss the rest of the season.
The seventh-placed Cell C Sharks have lost their last two league matches and will know another defeat could well see them drop out of the all-important top eight.
On the flip side, victory would leave them really handily placed with home matches to come in the final two rounds.
Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Thomond Park, Limerick; 5.15pm Saturday)
This is a humdinger of a clash with fifth hosting fourth and so much to play for.
There are just two points between the sides going into the game and both of them have been in fine form over the last few months.
They will be acutely aware of the importance of a top-four finish as that will secure a home quarter-final in the play-offs.
You would think Munster really must win this one to have a chance of achieving that goal as their last two regular season matches are out in South Africa against the DHL Stormers and the Cell C Sharks.
So they will be glad to have Ireland squad members Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes, Jack Crowley, Dave Kilcoyne and Roman Salanoa back from Six Nations duty, along with new Scotland international Ben Healy.
Glasgow Warriors have Ryan Wilson, Ross Thompson and Murphy Walker available again after injury, but their Argentine star winger Sebastian Cancelliere is still rehabbing a knee problem, with Scotland lock Richie Gray (rib) also sidelined.
Ulster v Vodacom Bulls (Kingspan Stadium, Belfast; 7.35pm Saturday)
Ulster know the score. They have to win their remaining three matches and hope the DHL Stormers slip up, as they look to leap above the reigning champions into second spot and secure home passage through to the final.
First up, it’s the sixth-placed Vodacom Bulls who are also in need of points as they aim to nail down a play-off spot and potentially push for a top-four finish.
The men from Pretoria will be looking to turn things around after a run of six successive defeats in the BKT URC, Champions Cup and Currie Cup. You have to go back to mid January for their last win in any competition.
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