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Sixteen rounds of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship gone, two to go, and a huge amount in the melting pot. Thirteen of 16 teams enter the final fortnight trying to secure their Vodacom URC Play-Off position and/or a 2023/24 Heineken Champions Cup place. There are scenarios a-plenty. It could be tricky and complicated. There will yet be twists to end this long season, with some perhaps to come even after Week 18’s results are in the history books.

Leinster, Glasgow Warriors, Benetton, and Scarlets will have European adventures to come, with Leinster facing Toulouse for a spot in the Champions Cup final and the URC guaranteed a spot in the Challenge Cup final. But that is all in faraway time. Before those Semi-Finals in Dublin, Llanelli, and Toulon there is business to be completed on the home front, where just four sides have secured their spots in the URC Play-Offs and the 2023/24 Champions Cup. Leinster, who have locked in the top seed ahead of their trip south to face the Lions and Bulls, the DHL Stormers, Ulster, and Glasgow. Those same sides have also secured their spots in the 2023/24 Champions Cup. After that, not much is clear.

Remarkably, going into Week 17 only Edinburgh, Dragons and Zebre are ruled out of both the URC playoffs and Heineken Champions Cup (HCC) contention via the URC table next season. To help us wade through all of this the stats-boffins at Oval Insights have loaned us their Season Simulator, so we’ll include some Play-Off Probability Percentages along the way.


Edinburgh Sidebar

With two matches remaining the 7th placed Vodacom Bulls have 43 points with Cell C Sharks behind them on 41 points and Benetton in ninth on 40. While both you and Scarlets could still achieve a maximum of 43 points, Edinburgh could have collected only 7 wins. This is important, alongside the fact that in Week 17 the Sharks play Benetton; a Sharks win gets them to 45; a Benetton win gets them to 44; a draw puts Sharks on 43 but with 8 wins already in the bank they (like the Bulls) win any tiebreaker over Edinburgh. Have a good summer.

Play-Off Probability: 0%.

Edinburgh and Dragons being dead and buried directly impacts the race for second place, with the team who secures it getting a potential home advantage for two playoff rounds. While DHL Stormers currently sit on 61 points, two points clear of Ulster, the Irish side host Dragons and Edinburgh while the South Africans look forward to the visit of Munster and Benetton. This one will almost certainly go to the final weekend.


Ulster Sidebar

Be ruthless over the next two weekends, taking two BP wins and putting proper pressure on the DHL Stormers.

Play-Off Probability: 100%.


DHL Stormers Sidebar

Given Ulster’s schedule you need two wins. life gets a lot easier if Ulster don’t take the maximum.

Play-Off Probability: 100%.


Glasgow Warriors Sidebar

You too have a chance of second, but only in the mathematical sense. Very strange things would need to happen in Belfast and Durban over the next two weeks. Keep it simple. Get fourth place locked up and look forward to that Challenge Cup Semi-Final.

Play-Off Probability: 100%.

Skipping to the lower third of the table, the Welsh Shield is the only mini-championship still up for grabs with the winner receiving a 2023/24 Champions Cup slot regardless of overall URC position. Cardiff lead the race on 39 points but face a trip to Galway to face Connacht, who have their own business to conduct in staying in 6th place. Cardiff need favours from teams above to jump into a top eight Play-Off place.


Cardiff Sidebar

To seal the Welsh Shield in Round 17, you need two things to happen; get one more match point than Ospreys secure in Edinburgh and Scarlets to come home from Glasgow with less than three match points. When it comes to the Play-Off hunt, two wins puts pressure on Sharks, Benetton, and Lions. While in theory you can finish as high as 5th, this is not going to happen and the rest of this column will assume accordingly.

Play-Off Probability: 20%.

Happily for neutrals, and Ospreys fans, Round 18 sees the four Welsh sides play each other in the annual doubleheader at the Principality Stadium. Should Connacht stop Cardiff from collecting enough points to seal the Shield in Galway, Judgement Day is set up nicely.


Ospreys Sidebar

If you get a BP win in Edinburgh, your Welsh Shield hopes are alive on Judgement Day no matter what happens anywhere else in Week 17. A win without a BP means a five-point day for Cardiff at Connacht would get them to 44 points and knock you out of contention due to the wins tiebreaker. While you could still in theory get into the other qualifying places, that Sharks v Benetton game means it’s much easier to just catch Cardiff.

Play-Off Probability: 0%.

Thirteenth-placed Scarlets could be very unlucky for Glasgow, whether in the URC or on their European adventures. The resurgent Welsh side has enjoyed a remarkable run of form since Christmas and despite their lowly position are a side with, in theory*, three routes to a 2023/24 Champions Cup place. Essentially, for Scarlets the mantra over the next month, on every front, is simple: beat Glasgow.

*When the Oval Insights Season Simulator runs it simulates the season 10,000 times and calculates the percentages from there. According to Oval Insights, Scarlets qualified for the Play-Offs in precisely zero of those 10,000 iterations.


Scarlets Sidebar

While you enter Round 17 on the same 33 points as Edinburgh, you’re in the fortunate position of the Welsh Shield still not being sewn up and Cardiff and Ospreys playing each other in Round 18. Six wins in the bank also means that the Sharks v Benetton game doesn’t deliver a final death blow to your hopes of 8th place, but don’t get too excited. Anything other than a draw in that game is a death blow. Remember your mantra.

Play-Off Probability: 0.0000…?%

Apologies to the Emirates Lions, who we skipped in our Welsh excitement. The lowest-ranked South African side is in weirdly good shape given their position in the table. Their eight wins already secured ensures they can’t fall into the same tiebreaker trap faced by Ospreys and Edinburgh, while Zebre’s visit in Week 18 offers a potential five pointer. Before that, the small matter of some Leinster tourists who have locked in their top seed status and could afford to leave their front liners in Dublin to rest up for the Toulouse battle at the end of the month. It’s still Leinster, and that -96 points difference could yet be crucial, and it’s not in their own hands, but there is hope in Johannesburg.


Emirates Lions Sidebar

You need to make hay in Week 18 against Zebre. However, to even get to the stage where that will matter you need the Bulls to slip up against that same Zebre side in order to get away with not beating Leinster. Similarly, a draw between Sharks and Benetton would be very, very useful.

Play-Off Probability: 18%.

Now, to the meat of the matter. From Munster in fifth (48pts) to Benetton in ninth (40pts), there could be a lot of twists and turns. Over the next two weekends any of Munster, Connacht, Bulls, Sharks, and Benetton could yet find themselves both without a slot in the URC Play-Offs (top eight), or having secured a place in next season’s Champions Cup (currently top seven).

Munster find themselves with the honour of being leaders of this pack, with 48 points, 9 wins, and a +111 points difference. There are worse places to be than four points clear of Connacht in sixth; on the face of it, it’s all in their hands with just two points required to secure a Play-Off spot. The bad news for Munster comes in the shape of away games against the Stormers and Sharks, both of whom have plenty to play for.

While the Irish side are virtually guaranteed a Play-Off spot a lot can go wrong here for an out of sorts Munster if they were to ship two losses in South Africa with Connacht, Bulls, and Sharks all with a reasonable shot of overtaking them and even, in a worst-case scenario, leaving Munster without Champions Cup rugby or a URC Play-Off spot. On the positive side a good mini-tour combined with a bad couple of weeks for Glasgow means that a home URC Quarter-Final at this stage technically isn’t out of the question.


Munster Sidebar

Going into Week 17 you need to come away from Cape Town with some sort of a result. A win makes Week 18 very interesting indeed, while even a draw or a close loss helps you avoid very bad things happening when it comes to your 2023/24 Champions Cup prospects. In theory you also want Scarlets to continue their recent incredible form against Glasgow. For European concerns consider your magic number to be 53 points: you could not finish lower than seventh and would almost certainly finish in fifth.

Play-Off Probability: 99%.

Connacht and Bulls, sixth and seventh with 44 and 43 points respectively, have a solid puncher’s chance over the next couple of weekends of either maintaining or improving their position. The South Africans host Zebre and a third-string Leinster while Connacht host Cardiff before travelling to face a Glasgow side who could have nothing to play for. With Munster’s very tough run-in we could easily see three teams tied on 48 points after this weekend and everything on the line in the final week.


Connacht Sidebar

If Munster come away from Stormers with anything less than three match points Glasgow will have fourth place pretty much locked up. Theoretically you could get there, but it would need two BP wins along with a massive points difference swing. To secure a Play-Off spot, get five match points. To secure a Champions Cup slot, aim higher and hope for other teams to falter. Step one, beat Cardiff. Then hope that Glasgow will enter Week 18 looking forward to their Challenge Cup Semi-Final the following weekend.

Play-Off Probability: 87%.


Vodacom Bulls Sidebar

Like Munster and Connacht, finishing in the Play-Offs is in your own hands. Munster’s horrendous final two fixtures mean that realistically two wins for you locks in a top 8 finish, with a very good chance of seventh and a coin flip of sixth, with that higher position being potentially very important this season given events that will play out elsewhere. If you can get a BP win over Zebre any kind of win over Leinster’s travelling contingent puts you in a very, very strong position indeed.

Play-Off Probability: 85%.

The key match of Week 17 takes place in Durban where Sharks (41pts) and Benetton (40pts) will decide not just each other’s URC fate but also potentially, half the teams in the league. The winner puts huge pressure on Bulls and Connacht, and potentially Munster, while a draw this Friday evening (without any try bonus points) keeps Cardiff, Lions, Ospreys, and even Scarlets in 13th potentially still interested in 8th place.

With Sharks having a 63-point advantage over the Italians in the Points Difference column, a win would see Benetton needing lots of upsets happen to the teams above them to keep them with a realistic chance in week 18 where they still need to face the Stormers. Otherwise the season’s focus shifts to the Challenge Cup Semi-Final at the end of the month.


Cell C Sharks Sidebar

Do not lose to Benetton. Nine match points over the final two weeks guarantees you a Play-Off spot no matter what happens above you. Losing to Benetton is bad. Stormers beating Munster and Cardiff keeping Connacht in check would be very useful.

Play-Off Probability: 72%.


Benetton Sidebar

Even from ninth place a playoff spot is in your own hands. Two bonus point wins would see you leapfrog the Sharks and keep ahead of Cardiff no matter what the Welsh side can do. But you are playing away from home against the Sharks and Stormers. It wouldn’t guarantee a Champions Cup slot. It’s not easy. But then neither is a trip to Toulon in the Challenge Cup. You are still alive. Enjoy the ride.

Play-Off Probability: 17%.

That might look to be all she wrote. After all, come the end of Week 18’s matches we will have a final championship table for the URC. If we assume that the winner of the Welsh Shield finishes in eighth place or below, then the remaining qualifiers for the 2023/24 Champions Cup will be the sides in fifth, sixth and seventh place.

But that will not be confirmed until a few weeks later. There could be more twists in this season’s tale. Theoretical twists, but eminently possible.

A Quick History Lesson

When the most recent version of the Champions Cup and URC came into being, the winners of the Champions Cup, Challenge Cup, and the URC were not guaranteed a slot in the following season’s Champions Cup.

This season, things have changed.

On May 19, if the winner of the Challenge Cup final is a URC side who has not already qualified for the Champions Cup, they will take the position of the lowest-ranked URC team who is not a Shield-winner. While Glasgow are already qualified for the 2023/24 Champions Cup, if Scarlets and/or Benetton win the Challenge Cup final while finishing Week 18 in eighth place or lower they would knock out whoever finishes seventh.

But we’re not finished yet.

If the winner of the URC Grand Final on May 27 has not already qualified for the Champions Cup, they will take the position of the lowest-ranked URC team who is not a Shield-winner.

That’s right. We are in a world where a team finishing sixth in the URC could lose their Champions Cup place to a team in seventh or eighth who had completed a magnificently improbable title-winning charge that will have involved at least one away win over Leinster, Stormers, and/or Ulster.

When the dust settles on Week 18, and we cast our eye over the wins and wreckage, only two things will be clear:

  1. We will have eight URC Quarter-Finalists.
  2. Only the side in 5th place in the league can join the top four in feeling perfectly secure in the knowledge that they are definitely, without question, playing Champions Cup rugby next season.

This could be chaotic and wonderful. Hold on to your seats.

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