Cell C Sharks v Benetton (5.30pm, Friday)Just one point and one place between these two play-off contenders going into a vital Durban duel. The eighth-placed Sharks can go a long way to booking their spot in the knock-out stage with a victory that would in turn seriously damage the hopes of Benetton, who lie just below them in ninth. The two sides come into the match on the back of very different EPCR experiences last weekend. The Sharks suffered a heavy 54-20 defeat at the hands of Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals, while Benetton beat Cardiff 27-23 in a Challenge Cup nail-biter. Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets (7.35pm, Friday) Franco Smith’s Glasgow will guarantee themselves a top four finish and home advantage in the play-off quarter-finals if they beat the Welsh visitors to Scotstoun. They are on a roll once more, having followed up a crucial URC victory away to Munster with Challenge Cup knock-out wins over the Dragons and Emirates Lions. Those Euro wins have set up a semi-final against the similarly in-form Scarlets on April 29, so this weekend provides a dress rehearsal for that encounter, although Dwayne Peel’s side are likely to have a bit of a different look in a fortnight’s time. Ulster v Dragons RFC (7.35pm, Friday) The home side will be looking for maximum points to keep up the pressure on the DHL Stormers in the battle for second spot which would secure all-important home ties through to the final. They are currently just two points behind the title holders and ready to capitalise on any slip-ups. The Dragons have lost their last six games in all competitions and are without a win since mid-January, so go in as firm underdogs. Vodacom Bulls v Zebre Parma (12pm, Saturday) The first leg of a double header at Emirates Airlines Park in Johannesburg, with the seventh-placed Bulls no doubt looking for a bonus point victory to stay on course for the play-offs. They will be firm favourites with Zebre not having won a game so far this season. The Bulls ended a losing run of their own last weekend by thumping the Griquas 40-3 in the Currie Cup, running in six tries. Emirates Lions v Leinster (3pm, Saturday) Successive URC victories over Glasgow, the Bulls and Benetton have put the Lions right in the mix for the play-offs. They are still down in 11th but are just three points off eighth and their last two fixtures are at home, starting with this second installment of the Jo’burg double bill. Already guaranteed top spot, league leaders Leinster have travelled to South Africa without the 23 players that figured in last weekend’s Champions Cup victory over Leicester so this will be a real test of their renowned strength in depth as they look to maintain their unbeaten record this season. DHL Stormers v Munster (7.35pm, Saturday) Victory is a necessity for the reigning champions as they attempt to hold off the challenge of Ulster and retain second spot. They have racked up 19 straight wins at the DHL Stadium since their last defeat on home soil in December 2021, so securing home advantage for the first two stages of the play-offs is clearly a huge incentive. Scrum-half Paul de Wet commented: “It is great to have Munster in Cape Town. They are one of the top teams in the competition and have a lot of internationals with a wealth of experience. We will defend the home record and continue to make our fans proud of the team.” The return of No 8 Evan Roos, who is back after a long lay-off, is a timely boost for the Stormers in the absence of injured flanker Deon Fourie. Fifth-placed Munster still need a couple of points to be sure of making the play-offs, while they will also be aware they will likely have to finish in the top seven to qualify for the Champions Cup, with the winners of the Welsh Shield guaranteed automatic entry. As such, they have selected a strong squad for their two-match stay in South Africa, with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Keith Earls, RG Snyman, Joey Carbery and Gavin Coombes all on board. Connacht v Cardiff Rugby (7.35pm, Saturday) Another huge game in the play-off context, with the sixth-placed hosts five points clear of tenth-ranked Cardiff, who simply have to win to keep alive their hopes of a top eight finish, while also having an eye on remaining in pole position for the Welsh Shield.
Connacht’s Aussie coach Andy Friend said: “We have a big opportunity. Cardiff’s season is in the balance too. They are out of the Challenge Cup and have got everything to play for in the URC. They will be seeing this as an opportunity to come across and get a much-needed win and be the number one Welsh team, so we have got a job to do ourselves.”
After facing Connacht, Cardiff take on Welsh Shield rivals the Ospreys on Judgement Day at the Principality Stadium on April 22.
Director of rugby Dai Young said: “It’s a long old slog and you want to get to the business end of the season with something to play for.
“We have got two hugely important games now if we want to achieve something this year.”
Looking ahead to Saturday night’s showdown at the Galway Sportsground, Connacht are lifted by the return of Finlay Bealham, Jack Carty, Dennis Buckley and Jarrod Butler, while Cardiff continue to be without Harlequins-bound fly-half Jarrod Evans.
Edinburgh v Ospreys (7.35pm, Saturday)Both teams are still mathematically in with a shout of reaching the play-offs but it looks a long shot with them lying down in 14th and 12th respectively. For the Ospreys though, there is still much at stake as they look for a win that could pile the pressure on Cardiff in the race for the Welsh Shield, which brings with it qualification for the Champions Cup. They are currently just four points behind the Arms Park outfit and meet them on Judgement Day at the Principality Stadium in the final round of matches.