As the 2022/23 Vodacom United Rugby Championship wraps up the regulation part of the season, there is still plenty to play for in the final round of the season, with half a dozen teams still with a chance to secure a playoff spot. Here is a deep dive as to what is stake with each match of round 18.
DHL Stormers v Benetton (5.30pm, Friday)
Having been in second spot for so long this season, the DHL Stormers relinquished that all-important position with last weekend’s 26-24 defeat at home to Munster. They are now down in third, a point behind Ulster.
So the reigning champions have to beat Benetton in Stellenbosch and then hope Ulster lose at home to Edinburgh later in the evening. Finishing second is crucial as it secures home advantage for both the quarter-finals and the semi-finals in the play-offs.
Scrum-half Paul de Wet makes his 50th appearance for the re-jigged DHL Stormers who will be presented with the South African Shield for the second year in a row after the game.
Head coach John Dobson said: “We have made a few rotational changes to make sure everyone will be ready to perform in the knock-out phase of the competition. We want to raise our game and put in a confidence-building performance to take some momentum forward.” Ulster v Edinburgh Rugby (7.35pm, Friday) Any kind of victory would be enough to secure second place – and that crucial home advantage in the play-offs – for Ulster as they would finish above the DHL Stormers on matches won if the two sides finish level on points.
They will be looking to make it five wins in a row in the Vodacom URC, with a bumper crowd set to roll up at the Kingspan Stadium for what should be a memorable occasion.
Having set a new try-scoring record for the competition last weekend, Tom Stewart moves down to the bench, with Rob Herring taking over at hooker.
Scrum-half John Cooney, who recently committed his future to the province with a new two-year contract, commented: “On paper, Edinburgh have one of the best squads in the league. They haven’t got what they wanted from this season, but we will not be taking them for granted. This is a really important game for us.” Emirates Lions v Zebre Parma (1pm, Saturday) This is Zebre’s final chance to avoid going through the entire league season without winning a game. As for the Emirates Lions, they will want to bounce back from last weekend’s dramatic home defeat to Leinster which ended their hopes of reaching the play-offs. This will be the opening game in a Vodacom URC double header at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld. Dragons RFC v Scarlets (3pm, Saturday) The first leg of another double header, this one at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, with Judgement Day returning to the famous ground after a break due to Covid.
Dragons RFC haven’t won a game since mid-January, so Dai Flanagan will be eager to end the season on high against the team he previously coached. They have Sio Tomkinson available again after completing a two game ban, while fellow centre Steff Hughes is also in the mix once more having passed concussion protocols.
From the Scarlets’ point of view, they will be seeking to warm up in style for their big Challenge Cup semi-final at home to Vodacom URC rivals Glasgow Warriors. They will be without No 8 Sione Kalamafoni who has played his last game for the region after picking up an Achilles injury. The Tongan powerhouse, who has made such an impact over the past three years, is joining French club Vannes at the end of the season. Vodacom Bulls v Leinster (3.05pm, Saturday) So, just one more hurdle for Leinster to overcome to go through the entire league season unbeaten, but it’s going to be a sizeable one for Leo Cullen’s young team at Loftus Versfeld. The seventh-placed Vodacom Bulls will be going all out for the win as they look to qualify for the Champions Cup. They may need to finish in the top six to do that, should either Benetton or the Scarlets win the Challenge Cup. So they will doubtless be looking for a bonus point win as they set their sights on Connacht and Munster above them.
Where the Vodacom Bulls end up in the table will also determine where they travel to in the play-off quarter-finals on the weekend of May 6. Ospreys v Cardiff Rugby (5.15pm, Saturday) The final league game of the season in Wales and it all comes down to this.
It really will be Judgement Day for these two sides, with the Welsh Shield and qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup on the line.
Cardiff Rugby are four points clear and have won three more games. So to overtake them, the Ospreys must claim a bonus point win and deny Dai Young’s side a losing bonus.
Given his thoughts, Cardiff Rugby skipper Josh Turnbull said: “It’s massive in the context of the season for us. It’s knockout rugby now.
“Winning the Shield gives you entry into Champions Cup rugby and the opportunity to play the top teams in Europe. That’s ultimately what you want, to test yourselves against the best.
“It’s also massive in terms of coming to the national stadium, playing in front of friends, family and supporters from all four regions.
“There’s been some pretty good games on Judgement Day over the years. Because of the size of the pitch, you can throw the ball around a bit and have a pretty expansive game. I think people don’t realise how big it is until you’re out there.”
Turnbull added: “There are a lot of players moving on and the squad will look completely different next year. Ultimately, we want to give those boys the best send-off.”
It’s been a positive few days for the Ospreys with the news that young stars Jac Morgan and Keiran Williams have both signed new deals. Now Judgement Day will decide which European competition they will be playing in next season. Cell C Sharks v Munster (5.15pm, Saturday) As the table stands, the Sharks would miss out on Champions Cup rugby. They are in eighth place and that wouldn’t be good enough as the winners of the Welsh Shield would qualify for Europe’s elite event instead of them. So they will be seeking a victory and hoping that either the Bulls or Connacht slip up above them.
Munster, in turn, will be looking for a win to stay in fifth and absolutely nail down Champions Cup qualification, while a losing bonus point will be enough to secure the top six finish that should be enough to book their passage. Glasgow Warriors v Connacht (7.35pm, Saturday) Connacht really need a win to stay in the top six and remain on course for the Champions Cup with both the Vodacom Bulls and the Cell C Sharks breathing down their necks. Defeat could well see them drop down to eighth spot which would see them competing in the second-tier Challenge Cup.
Glasgow Warriors have already nailed down a top four finish and a home quarter-final, but will want to end the regular season by maintaining their winning ways as they head into a Euro semi-final against the Scarlets and then the play-offs.