Vodacom United Rugby Championship Play-Off Pathway in Place
And then there were eight! Following the last round of league matches, we now know the make-up of the Quarter-Finals on the weekend of May 5-6 and the route to the title.
Table-topping Leinster will take on the Cell C Sharks in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, with the winners of that tie progressing to a Semi-Final against whoever comes out on top in the Scotstoun showdown between Glasgow Warriors and Munster.
Then the winners of the all-Irish meeting of Ulster and Connacht in Belfast will face the victors of the Cape Town-clash between South African rivals the DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls.
The Semi-Finals will be played on the weekend of May 13, with the teams with the highest league seeding in each match having home advantage.
As for the Grand Final, that will take place on Saturday, May 27, with the venue to be confirmed.
Six Vodacom URC teams are now guaranteed places in the Heineken Champions Cup next season – Shield winners Leinster, DHL Stormers, Glasgow and Cardiff, plus Ulster and Munster.
Cardiff confirmed their spot with a 38-21 bonus point victory over the Ospreys at the Judgement Day double-header which drew a crowd of 41,139 to the Principality Stadium.
The Vodacom Bulls and Connacht – in sixth and seventh respectively – hold the other two Champions Cup qualifying berths, but that could change if Scarlets or Benetton win the Challenge Cup and/or the eighth-placed Cell C Sharks claim the Vodacom URC title. Turning to the rest of the action in Round 18, Leinster’s season-long unbeaten run finally came to an end and in emphatic fashion.
Fielding a young team against the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria, they suffered a record league defeat, going down 62-7 as they leaked nine tries. That surpassed losing by 37 points to Connacht in 2018 and conceding 52 against the Scarlets in 2007.
Munster fared far better on South Africa soil, coming from 19 points down to draw 22-22 with the Sharks in Durban. That nailed down their Champions Cup qualification and left the Sharks having to win the Vodacom URC crown to make it into Europe’s elite event.
Ulster responded to the Stormers’ 38-22 victory over Benetton by beating Edinburgh 28-14 to claim the all-important second spot which secures home advantage in the Play-Offs up until the final.
The weekend’s action concluded with fourth-placed Glasgow defeating Connacht 29-27 in a tight old tussle to leave the Irish in seventh spot and waiting on knock-out results to find out if they will be in the Champions Cup next season.
Cooney’s aiming high
Having finished the regular season as the second-highest points scorer in the Vodacom URC, John Cooney is now aiming to help Ulster move up to another level again in the Play-Offs. The scrum-half produced a try-scoring 18-point performance in Friday night’s 28-14 victory over Edinburgh in Belfast to earn the Player of the Match award.
That took him up to 134 points in the league this term, with only Stormers fly-half Manie Libbok (167) having racked up more. Ulster’s win saw them move back ahead of the Stormers and secure the second-place finish that will give them home advantage in the semis if they can beat Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium in the quarters.
“It was huge. We had to win. We knew four points was going to be enough,” said Cooney.
“It was frustrating at times. We need to be better again. We are going into championship rugby now. I think we have another level and we need to bring it.
“Having a quarter-final at home is huge and we know if we win that game we are going to have a home semi-final. We are going to have a couple of weeks to really prepare and no matter what happens when we are at home it’s always a great day.”
It’s been a big couple of weeks for the 32-year-old Cooney who has recently signed a contract extension to stay at Ulster for another couple of seasons.
“This is home. My mum loves it. She was here as usual in the crowd,” he said after pulling off an interception try and landing five shots at goal. She can’t watch the kicks, so I am going to have to go home and show her every kick, but she loves it and she’s a big why for me.
“I just want to make her proud and keep playing here to experience this crowd. I try and give my all all the time. I probably bark a little bit too much when I get frustrated, but it’s just amazing to be here in front of everyone.”
With a bumper crowd inside the ground, Ulster fell behind early on to a Darcy Graham try and were scoreless for the first 25 minutes, but a sparkling move rounded off by wing Jacob Stockdale helped them take an 11-7 half-time lead. Then, after the break, they secured the victory and that crucial second spot as Cooney and flanker Nick Timoney went over.
Thomas turns in superb display
Thomas Young took a starring role in the absence of his dad as Cardiff beat the Ospreys 38-21 to clinch the Welsh Shield and Champions Cup qualification. Director of Rugby Dai Young wasn’t at the Principality Stadium for the Judgement Day showdown having been suspended by the region ahead of the game.
His son Thomas scored two tries and set up another for wing Mason Grady with a sublime one-handed pick-up and kick ahead, while the flanker crossed for a third time only to be denied a hat-trick because of a forward pass.
Defence coach Richard Hodges said: “It was a tough one for Thomas. Obviously it’s his dad involved at the end of the day, so we had a chat and made it 100 per cent ‘We want you to play’.
“He said ‘Yep, I’m not going to turn this down’. “You could see how much it meant to him. That was probably his release out there. He performed superbly well against esteemed opposition. He’s got an X-Factor to his game that not many other forwards have. He’s a class act.”
Cardiff captain Josh Turnbull added: “Thomas was visibly upset in training (on Friday) and it’s going to be emotional for him. “At the end of the day, that’s his father and there’s always going to be that emotional connection to it. You just have to get around people like him, put an arm around him, be there for him and make sure he’s focused on his job.”
Asked about the atmosphere within the Cardiff camp, Hodges said: “The proof is in the pudding with the performance the boys put together. “Anybody that wants to point the finger about a split in the camp or the boys not performing towards the end of the season is talking rubbish. Have the players delivered the messages the coaches wanted this week? Absolutely. Have they shown how tight knit they are as a group? Absolutely. That’s what I think we should focus on.”
Backs Max Llewellyn and Grady both crossed, along with Young, as Cardiff took a 24-0 half-time lead, with the openside going over to seal the bonus point and prop Rhys Carre adding a fifth late on after the Ospreys had come into the game with front row tries from Sam Parry, Gareth Thomas and Dewi Lake.
In the opening Welsh derby fixture on Judgement Day, the Dragons claimed their first Vodacom URC victory since October by beating the Scarlets 31-14. Centre Steff Hughes secured the bonus point late on against his former team, with flanker Taine Basham named Player of the Match.
Match of the weekend
Emirates Lions 50, Zebre Parma 35
Zebre Parma may have gone through the whole season without winning a game but they have certainly been involved in some entertaining encounters and this 13-try jamboree was another case in point.
Their new international winger Simone Gesi once again shone in defeat, claiming a first-half hat-trick of tries as the visitors twice led and perhaps started to dream of ending their barren run.
But the Emirates Lions responded to go into the break 31-22 up and the final try count was 8-5 in their favour with scrum-half Sanele Nohamba and wing Edwill van der Merwe both crossing twice in this opening game of Saturday’s Loftus Versfeld double header.
Player of the weekend
Rory Darge (Glasgow Warriors)
The Scottish international flanker is some player and he is still only 23. His work-rate on either side of the ball is phenomenal, particularly in terms of his tackle and turnover count, and that tireless endeavour was on display in the 29-27 victory over Connacht at Scotstoun.
Reflecting on the contest, he said: “That was seriously tough. Fair play to Connacht, they were outstanding. They made it really difficult for us, so we have got to be happy with the win. We showed some good things, but there are definitely things we can work on to get better at.”
Glasgow now move on to knock-out rugby, with a Challenge Cup Semi-Final trip to the Scarlets next weekend followed by a Vodacom URC Quarter-Final at home to Munster. “It’s hugely exciting and we are looking forward to the next wee while. It’s a big game next week,” said Darge.
Quote of the weekend
DHL Stormers skipper Steven Kitsoff on receiving the South African Shield after the bonus point victory over Benetton in Stellenbosch:“I’m very proud of the boys going back-to-back seasons winning the Shield. It’s been a great team effort. There’s been a lot of hard work and sacrifice gone into it. I am extremely chuffed and proud of the boys.”