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The South African Vodacom United Rugby Championship franchises will be wary of the fact that a massive effort will be required to topple the opposition in crucial matches for their playoff hopes when they return to the field in the big north versus south showpiece this weekend.

The pick of the weekend’s matches will be the table-topping clash between Leinster and the second-placed DHL Stormers in Dublin on Friday evening, while a jam-packed Saturday awaits with Benetton hosting the Emirates Lions in Treviso, the Scarlets taking on the Cell C Sharks in Llanelli and Ulster welcoming the Vodacom Bulls to Belfast.

With only three pool rounds remaining, including this weekend’s matches, the domestic franchises are expected to feel the pressure, as Ulster trail the DHL Stormers by only five log points, meaning a bonus-point victory for them if the Capetonians fail to bag a point at the RDS Arena, could see the defending champions being displaced from second place on the log.

With only 10 points separating the sixth-placed Vodacom Bulls and 11th placed Emirates Lions, the Pretoria outfit and the seventh-placed Cell C Sharks also risk dropping out of the top eight if they do not get the desired results in the next few weeks.

The clash between Leinster and the DHL Stormers is expected to serve as a good benchmark for where the teams lie a few weeks out from the quarter-finals, as both sides will want to build winning momentum going into the closing stages of the competition.

With the Irish giants boasting a 12-point lead on the standings over the Capetonians, the pressure will be squarely on the visitors. What’s more, the DHL Stormers can feel the heat from Ulster, who are chomping at the bit to work themselves into the best position to possibly claim a home semi-final if they were to progress to the top four.

Leinster will bank on their home ground advantage and superior attack and defence in the first 15 rounds of the competition to give them an edge, but with everything to play for and the Cape side coming off morale boosting back-to-back wins, they will have all the motivation they need to deliver a top-class performance.

The Emirates Lions will enter their clash against Benetton in Italy equally hungry for a victory, especially since a bonus-point win if they deny the hosts a bonus point would leave the teams equal on points and nudge the Johannesburgers closer to a possible playoff spot.

The visitors will draw confidence from the fact that there have been small margins between the teams on paper so far in the competition, with Benetton winning eight of their 15 matches compared to seven by the Lions, while the Italians have only scored 21 more points and conceded 16 fewer points.

The Emirates Lions will also have a new-found confidence after pulling off two important wins against Vodacom Bulls and the Glasgow Warriors a few weeks back, which saw them leap into 11th place on the table and reignited what once appeared to be faint playoff hopes.

The clash between the Scarlets and Cell C Sharks is also expected to be a gripping affair, with the Durbanites set to unleash some of their top Springboks, who are back in action after an eight-week rest and regeneration block, which will undoubtedly strengthen the team.

The KwaZulu-Natalians will enter the match as favourites with three more victories during their campaign and a better defence to add to a more effective attack, but with this marking the Scarlets last home game and the team holding only a mathematical chance of fighting their way into the playoffs, they will want to leave their fans satisfied.

The Cell C Sharks will also be wary of the fact that a defeat – if other results go against them – could see them fall out of the top eight, which will place immense pressure on them going into their final two round-robin matches. Luckily for the team from Durban, however, they are both home games.

The match-up between Ulster and the Vodacom Bulls in Belfast has all the ingredients to be a humdinger with the hosts fighting for the second spot on the log, while the Pretoria outfit will be desperate to hold onto their place in the top eight.

While Ulster come off back-to-back wins – both away from home against the Cell C Sharks in their rescheduled clash and then against Cardiff – the Vodacom Bulls are hurting from two successive narrow defeats, which the hosts will want to take advantage of.

Similarly to their Durban counterparts, a defeat for the team from North Gauteng could either leave them on the fringe of the top eight or see them drop out, however, the fact that this match marks their last tour game in the pool stages will inspire them to leave everything on the field.

All these permutations will certainly set the scene for a gripping round of Vodacom United Rugby Championship action, with all the matches live on SuperSport.

Match information:

Leinster v DHL Stormers

Date: Friday, 24 March

Venue: RDS Arena, Dublin

SA Time: 21h35

Referee: Sam Grove-White

TV: SuperSport

Benetton v Emirates Lions

Date: Saturday, 25 March

Venue: Stadio Monigo, Treviso

SA Time: 15h00

Referee: Frank Murphy

TV: SuperSport

Scarlets v Cell C Sharks

Date: Saturday, 25 March

Venue: Parc Y Scarlets, Llanelli

SA Time: 19h00

Referee: Andrea Piardi

TV: SuperSport

Ulster v Vodacom Bulls

Date: Saturday, 25 March

Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast

SA Time: 21h35

Referee: Craig Evans

TV: SuperSport

 

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