ULSTER SET THEIR SIGHTS ON TOP TWO FINISH
Ulster boss Dan McFarland is targeting a top two finish in the Vodacom URC following his team’s 42-20 bonus point victory away to Cardiff Rugby at the Arms Park.
McFarland’s men are currently third in the table five points behind reigning champions the DHL Stormers. But their last three games are all at home whereas the Stormers have to travel to unbeaten league leaders Leinster in the next round.
Finishing in the top two is all-important as it would secure home advantage through to the semi-finals of the Vodacom URC play-offs.
“We are in a battle at the top of the league,” said McFarland. “It was a weekend where the teams around us in the table had home games and were putting up bonus point wins. It was important we got a result and I thought the lads played well.
“Our target is the Stormers. We want to finish second. I know that’s not in our control. We are obviously reliant on other results, but that has to be our aim.
“To have a chance of achieving that, we are going to have to win our last three games. That’s going to be really tough, but that’s the objective. The top two has to be the target.
“Getting home ties in the play-offs is important. We understand that. Not having a home semi-final was a big difference last season. We know we can win away from home, but we would much rather be playing in front of our fans.”
Ulster’s three remaining regular season fixtures will be in front of those fans as they entertain Vodacom Bulls (March 25), Dragons (April 14) and Edinburgh (April 21).
“It’s nice to have three home games definitely. We love playing at Ravenhill/Kingspan but the bottom line is the next team that comes are the Bulls,” said McFarland.
“We know what they can do in Ireland when they are on form. They lost at home to the Lions this weekend, so they are going to be smarting. They will come fully loaded. We know that’s going to be a tremendous challenge.
“Everybody is fighting for something in this league. That’s why it’s such an exciting league to be involved in.”
Ulster scored six tries against Cardiff including a first competitive touchdown since 2021 for Ireland squad winger Jacob Stockdale, who produced a classy chip and chase finish.
McFarland commented: “Jacob demonstrated in attack what he is capable of. His running was really good and he was good under the high ball. As for his try, there are not many players that can do that kind of thing. He is such a dangerous threat in attack and it was really good to see him on fire there. It was nice to see him back running with the ball and beating defenders.”
Giving his verdict on the match, Cardiff Rugby’s director of rugby Dai Young said: “We saw tonight what a top three side looks like. To be honest, I thought they were better than us in most areas. They were full of size, power and pace and we just couldn’t handle it.”
It was a cleansweep for the Irish sides over the weekend, with Munster defeating the Scarlets 49-42 in a 13-try thriller, Leinster making it 15 wins out of 15 by triumphing 47-27 away to Edinburgh and Connacht beating the Dragons RFC 22-20 at Rodney Parade.
Elsewhere, Glasgow hooker Johnny Matthews provided further proof that he really enjoys facing Zebre Parma. He scored a hat-trick of tries against the Italians for the second year in a row amid Friday night’s 50-8 demolition job at Scotstoun.
Then on Saturday evening, there was a dramatic finish in Swansea as Ospreys replacement fly-half Jack Walsh had a touchline conversion to win the match against Benetton in the last minute. But he struck an upright with what was the final kick of the game and the Italians were able to celebrate a crucial 21-20 victory.
STORMERS RETAIN SOUTH AFRICAN SHIELD
The DHL Stormers have been confirmed as the Vodacom URC South African Shield winners for the second season in a row following the weekend’s derby action in the Rainbow Nation.
They held off a spirited comeback from the Cell C Sharks to claim a 29-23 bonus point victory in Cape Town and then came the clinching result in Pretoria as the Emirates Lions pulled off a surprise 29-25 win away to the Vodacom Bulls.
That means the Stormers can’t be overtaken by the Bulls in the Vodacom URC table, so John Dobson’s side retain the Shield and they’ve done it with three matches to spare.
Their meeting with the Cell C Sharks drew a crowd of 30,721 to the DHL Stadium in Green Point, their highest attendance since 2017.
It looked as though they were cruising to victory when they led 26-6 on 55 minutes with Player of the Match Clayton Blommetjies having crossed twice from full-back.
But the Sharks cut the deficit to a single score with a three-try blitz, while the Stormers were reduced to 13 men for the final eight minutes following two yellow cards.
Yet, in the end, the home side held on and then came the news from Loftus Versfeld, confirming they had retained the Shield.
Dobson said: “We’ve worked incredibly hard on the shape and depth of the group, so that everybody feels a sense of belonging, no matter who you are. That’s really important to us.
Another quality we stress is resilience. That’s a very big part of who we are.”
Reflecting on the win over the Sharks, he added: “I said to the team before the game that this was our biggest crowd since we played the Chiefs in 2017.
“And that’s for an ordinary league game, not a knock-out game and without the Springboks. We feel that’s great and a brilliant experience for the players.
“It shows we are in a new direction and we’re building something special here at Green Point.”
MATCH OF THE WEEKEND – Munster 49, Scarlets 42
Anyone who switched this off at half-time would have been left rueing their decision on seeing the final scoreline.
It was 35-7 to Munster at the break and seemingly over as a contest, but the Scarlets proceeded to win the second-half 35-14 and leave a sold-out Musgrave Park with two losing bonus points.
There were 91 points and 13 tries in all, with wingers Calvin Nash and Shane Daly both claiming a brace amid seven touchdowns from the home side who held on to record a fifth straight league win.
Reflecting on a Cork cracker, Scarlets head coach Dwayne Peel said: “We spoke half-time and we had two choices. Either we rolled over or we fought. We came back well. We showed spirit and we showed what we are capable of. It was quite exciting at the end, but ultimately conceding 35 points in the first half was too much.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEKEND – Sanele Nohamba (Emirates Lions)
The former Cell C Sharks scrum-half racked up 24 points in the shock 29-25 victory over the Vodacom Bulls at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, claiming a try, two conversions and five penalties.
The Emirates Lions were actually outscored by four tries to two, but Nohamba’s boot proved the difference between the sides.
After the game, he said: “It’s always special to play at Loftus. There’s a lot of history behind this stadium, so it’s really good. The Bulls are a quality side, they put us under pressure.
“We hadn’t beaten a South African side, so it was really good to put one over on one. The boys are just really proud about that.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEKEND
DHL Stormers second row Ruben van Heerden after playing against the Cell C Sharks in front of a crowd of 30,721 in his first appearance at Cape Town’s DHL Stadium since joining from Exeter:
“It was a great experience. Now I understand why people call it the faithful. It was great seeing everyone come out. The crowd was roaring, it was electric. I really want to urge all the people of Cape Town to keep coming to the stadium. It wasn’t a pretty win, but winners are grinners, so we will take it.”
Connacht and Benetton were the big winners in the play-off battle over the weekend thanks to narrow victories in Wales.
Facing the Dragons RFC at Rodney Parade, Connacht held on to take the spoils 22-20 in the face of a spirited effort from their hosts who were down to 14 men for more than half the match following a red card for second row Matthew Screech.
That sees the Galway-based team occupying the final play-off spot, with Benetton just a point behind them in ninth after claiming an even narrower victory (21-20) away to the Ospreys.
The Emirates Lions can’t be discounted either as back-to-back wins over Glasgow Warriors and the Vodacom Bulls have put them right in the mix, one point behind tenth-placed Cardiff.
They now face a crucial showdown in Round 16 later this month when they travel to Treviso to take on Benetton, while Connacht can solidify their position and effectively end Edinburgh’s hopes when they host the Scots.
The Sharks are looking a little vulnerable in seventh after successive defeats and they won’t find it easy when they travel to the Scarlets who showed their attacking threat in their second-half comeback against Munster in Cork.