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There were some tight contests in the games that mattered to the fight for Vodacom United Rugby Championship log position during an absorbing tenth round of the competition, but none was more meaningful to the top two South African teams than the game that ended the round.

Ulster have been a constant presence in the top four in the first few seasons of the Vodacom URC, and are considered to be one of the teams standing firmly in the path of the Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers’ quest for the top four position that guarantees home ground advantage in the playoffs.

The team from Belfast made some ground when they knocked over Leinster on the New Year weekend, but in a round which saw the two South African challengers both make strong statements of intent, and solidify their challenges, the team that Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff now represents took a significant backward step in Swansea in the only game to be played on the Sunday.

Jake Flannery probably felt he had clinched his team victory over the Ospreys when he kicked a late penalty goal to take the Irish side into the lead in a game that was always tight.

But the young 20-year-old Ospreys flyhalf Dan Edwards, who we may hear a lot more about, raised the decibel levels of the nearly 6 000 strong home crowd by kicking a brilliant 80th minute drop-goal to clinch a dramatic victory for the Welsh club.

Almost unnoticed, the top Welsh teams have made improvements this season and become stronger challengers, and that certainly does count for the Ospreys, who with their win have now lifted themselves to seventh on the log, with Ulster now eighth.

No Welsh team made it into the top eight in the first two seasons of the Vodacom URC, so if the Ospreys do nail down a playoff spot it will be a first for Wales in this version of what started out as the Celtic league.

The Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers won’t be considering the Ospreys too formidable a challenge to their own positions on the log just yet, and the Welsh side, like Ulster, still have to come to South Africa, so they will be celebrating the win for what it does to their own challenge.

Ulster are now under acute pressure as they have to head to South Africa, where they face the Hollywoodbets Sharks and the DHL Stormers, after their next game against the Dragons in a fortnight.

The Capetonians are now sixth on 30 points – the same as the Edinburgh team coached by former Sharks mentor Sean Everitt – but one spot lower on the log due to points’ difference.

The Scottish team will be hugely relieved to have snuck home by five points in a tight game against a motivated Zebre unit in Parma as they join Ulster in touring South Africa at the end of March, with the two coastal sides being the teams they will be playing against.

The KwaZulu-Natalians are of course desperately in need of a few wins to turn around their mood, and although their chances of qualification for the playoffs and Investec Champions Cup qualification through a top eight finish are now all but gone, meaning their main focus should be the EPCR Challenge Cup now, they will be looking to the Vodacom URC games to give them momentum.

Certainly they can help both the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls by knocking over Ulster and Edinburgh when they visit Durban.

Benetton, who were second on the log going into their clash with Leinster but were given a beating that wasn’t entirely unpredictable in Dublin, also have to travel to South Africa later in the competition, as do most of the teams that are cohabiting the top end of the log with the now third placed Vodacom Bulls and the DHL Stormers.

Of course, those two local teams are due for a seismic clash at what could be a packed out Loftus Versfeld and a record crowd for a league Vodacom URC game on 2 March, but after that they are playing overseas opposition until the final round in June, when the Vodacom Bulls are due to go to Durban and the DHL Stormers host the Emirates Lions.

The Emirates Lions were disappointing as they failed to follow up their good performance in an ultimately unlucky loss at Loftus a few weeks ago on their home ground, and they won’t join the other South African teams in celebrating the Ospreys win as it makes their own quest for a top eight position more difficult.

After losing to the visitors from Pretoria and failing to get a bonus point, the team from Johannesburg have now dropped one place to 11th, and are five points off the top eight bracket.

Connacht, who were involved in another tight game involving teams near each other on the log in Cardiff at the weekend, are four points ahead of the Emirates Lions and their hard fought away win at Cardiff Arms Park will leave them believing they can repeat last year’s feat of making the top eight.

The loss means that Cardiff have dropped off the pace a bit but there is still a logjam between positions seven and 12, and even the fifth and sixth placed Edinburgh and DHL Stormers are not out of the woods when it comes to the battle for top eight.

The Capetonians though, with so many home games to come at a stadium where they seldom lose, will be confident that Investec Champions Cup qualification won’t be a problem for them – they are aiming at the top four, which at this point means they just have two points to make up on the now fourth placed Benetton.

Glasgow Warriors, who upped a gear to comfortably beat the Dragons, and the Vodacom Bulls join Leinster as the teams most likely to be in the top four.

Defending champions Munster hit their straps away against Scarlets and lie ninth, which at this point means they could have to do it the hard way, meaning playing their playoff games away, if they want to retain their trophy. The beauty of it though is that there are only three points between them and the fourth placed team.

Indeed, there are three teams, from positions seven through to nine, locked together on 29 points, three off the fourth placed team. It makes for a great final eight rounds of league play.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results:
Emirates Lions 10 Vodacom Bulls 25
Hollywoodbets Sharks 21 DHL Stormers 25
Leinster 47 Benetton 19
Glasgow Warriors 40 Dragons 7
Cardiff Rugby 12 Connacht 16
Ospreys 19 Ulster 17
Scarlets 7 Munster 42
Zebre 19 Edinburgh 24

Vodacom URC top 12 after 10 rounds
1 Leinster 39 points
2 Glasgow Warriors 36
3 Vodacom Bulls 35
4 Benetton 32
5 Edinburgh 30
6 DHL Stormers 30
7 Ospreys 29
8 Ulster 29
9 Munster 29
10 Connacht 28
11 Emirates Lions 24
12 Cardiff 22

>>>Story courtesy of www.sarugby.co.za/news-features<<<

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