One Burning Question For Each URC Team Heading Into The Final Two Rounds
One Burning Question For Each URC Team Heading Into The Final Two Rounds
The United Rugby Championship 2022/23 season is firmly on the home stretch as the quarterfinals draw closer. Here is one question facing each team.
As teams across the United Rugby Championship finalise preparations for the home stretch of the season, several teams face a number of questions that could define their season.
In a major endorsement of the quality across the URC, 13 of the 16 sides enter the final two rounds with a mathematical chance of making the quarterfinals. Of these fourteen, only one stands alone with no implications on the line. Due to their domination from start to finish, Leinster has the luxury of resting their top players ahead of a torturous play-off stretch in both the Heineken Champions Cup and URC.
So without further ado, here are the burning questions facing each of the URC sides heading into the final two weeks of regular season action.
Can Andy Friend’s men avoid a slip-up?
On the precipice of one heck of a season turnaround, Connacht have gone from a winless and seemingly clueless outfit to play-off contenders. Entering the final two rounds in 6th position, the Galway-based outfit are the masters of their own destiny. Two wins will secure not only a quarterfinal berth but also a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. In what is head coach Andy Friend’s last season in charge, this outcome will set the province up for immediate success both on and off the pitch next season.
Is Irish Rugby’s next great star set to make his mark?
Few players have had quite the fanfare surrounding their future as Irish U20 Six Nations Grand Slam winning flyhalf Sam Prendergast. Touted from a young age, the 6’4” playmaker was utterly dominant in an Irish side that wiped the floor with their Six Nations rivals this season. Pulling the strings masterfully whilst possessing a big-game mentality, Irish fans will be watching with anticipation should he get his shot over the final two rounds.
This was a sensational 50:22 kick from Ireland U20s out-half Sam Prendergast.— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) February 27, 2023
He hits a 22:22 here! Stunning spiral kick.
Ireland scored from the ensuing lineout. pic.twitter.com/5mstRIVIPZ
Can Munster rebound as Champions Cup obscurity sits alarmingly close?
Starting the season worse than any other Munster side in recent memory, Graham Rowntree’s side removed any margin for error straight off the bat. Whilst their midseason renaissance brought with it renewed hope around the province, concerns around their defence have proven to be justified. Shipping a remarkable 130 points in their last three outings will have infuriated Munster defence coach Denis Leamy. Whilst there several signs pointing towards growth in the Munster game. They will know that two losses to close the season will have them watching the quarterfinals at home. Adding extra pressure to the men in red is the very real possibility that they could miss out on next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Thus, the pressure is firmly on to secure at the very least one win against two powerful outfits, the Stormers and Sharks.
Been a tough start for Munster in the @URCOfficial but some really promising youngsters starting to emerge. Jack Crowley is one that has really taken his chance and could become a key man in Mike Prendergast attack. #URC pic.twitter.com/41OMQPTjdF— Bernard Jackman (@bernardjackman) October 31, 2022
Is the Ulster turnaround for real?
“Cause you're hot, then you're cold, You're yes, then you're no, You're in, then you're out, You're up, then you're down.” Starting a rugby article with a Katy Perry lyric is perhaps a direct reaction to just how mind-boggling Ulster Rugby has been to follow this season. Starting the season like a bat out of hell, winning six out of seven to start the season with the sole blemish being a one-score loss to Leinster. Dan McFarland’s side looks every bit at the title contenders they were last season. Yet, as if being possessed by a vengeful Irish Druid, Ulster would go on to lose seven of their next eight fixtures. This run of results had alarm bells screaming in Belfast, with calls for wholesale changes growing louder by the day. As the pressure hit boiling point, as quickly as the downfall came, it miraculously vanished. Five wins in the last seven fixtures now have the Ulstermen within touching distance of a home run to the final. All they need now is to see off two of two bottom-dwelling sides in the Dragons and Edinburgh whilst hoping the Stormers slip up in one fixture. Truly remarkable.
Meanwhile, Jacob Stockdale just did this 🔥— Cian Tracey (@CianTracey1) March 13, 2021
Brilliant Ulster try 👏🏻 pic.twitter.com/UDHmc6R78E
Can they hold onto the Welsh Shield?
Currently top of the pops in terms of the Welsh sides this season, 10th-placed Cardiff has it all to play for over the final two rounds. Still, within touching distance of the quarterfinal spots, Cardiff will have to win out and hope for other sides to lose to secure a place in the final eight. What is in their control, however, is a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. All they need to do is beat the Ospreys in round eighteen, which will ensure that neither the Ospreys of Scarlets can catch them.
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
Promising so much at the start of the season as they beat Munster and pushed the Sharks to the final buzzer. Despite possessing a squad with plenty of young talent, the Dragons have once again flattered to deceive as they sit with a measly three wins in 15th position. Now facing a rough two-game stretch to close out the season, it is imperative that the Dragons show some fight. Picking up a win over either Ulster or a red-hot Scarlet would, at the very least, send them into the offseason on a good note. Outside of this, it is difficult to have any positive takeaways for a side that looks set for a heavy rebuild.
Brace yourself. The young dragon is about to be unleashed 🐉— BKT United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) November 4, 2022
Rio Dyer makes his @WelshRugbyUnion debut 🆚 @AllBlacks#BKTURC #URC | #AutumnNationsSeries #WALvNZL | @DragonsRugby pic.twitter.com/xPjqN0yUda
Does the changing of the guard begin in the final two rounds?
Possibly the closest iteration to Dad’s army in the URC, the Ospreys have routinely rolled out a squad so far past their sell-by-date that fans had to double-check it wasn’t 2009. Yes, this summation may verge on being rude, but in a true microcosm of the issues facing Welsh Rugby, the spine of this Ospreys squad could never have been expected to compete for a full season. Despite this, all is not lost for the Ospreys, as there are some pockets of young talent within the squad who will likely form the backbone of the club going forward. Therein lies the question, will head coach Toby Booth start them to close out the season as the planning for next season begins?
"I was chuckin' a rugby ball about as soon as I could walk."— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 20, 2023
From playing alongside his father at Brynamman RFC, to lining up beside Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric for @WelshRugbyUnion.
🖤 Jac Morgan of @ospreys has been on quite the journey.#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/bYCeCl4h76
Can the Scarlets wrestle the Welsh shield away from Cardiff?
The one true bright spark in what has been a historically tough season for Welsh Rugby has been the resurgence of the Scarlets. Winners of twelve of their last fourteen outings, the Scarlets are red hot yet must rely on other sides slipping up to qualify for the playoffs. One target that would appear more achievable, however, is the opportunity to claim a spot in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Should the Ospreys stutter down the stretch, then a place in Rugby’s biggest club competition is ripe for the picking.
Scottish And Italian Shield
History Beckons, but can Benetton fulfil their potential?
A hugely positive development this season, Benetton Rugby’s elevation from basement dwellers to play-off contenders is significant for both Italian rugby and the URC. Yet for this to truly be a fairy-tale season in Treviso, their side must scale the highest of heights. Standing in their way are a pair of genuine title contenders in the reigning champions, the DHL Stormers and a Springbok-laden Cell C Sharks. A win this weekend over the Sharks is an absolute must as would likely be at least a bonus point against the Stormers. Do this, and there will be no doubt that this has been the greatest season in the club’s history in the competition.
Where to now?
Bitterly disappointing is the only way to sum up Edinburgh’s campaign so far this season. Possessing a squad packed to the gills with international players, the Scottish capital side have faltered so significantly this season. Such has been their nosedive that head coach Mike Blair relinquished his position as head coach, opting instead for a more hands-on position within the club. No left with nothing but pride to play for, the question for Edinburgh is, do they rotate their squad to see what lies below their top-line talent? Finding out more about their fringe starters and back-ups makes the most sense for a club that is now clearly planning for next season.
Can the Warriors solidify their place in the top four?
In direct contradiction to their Scottish brethren, Glasgow have been one of the most fascinating sides to follow this season. Emerging from a spell of below-par performances, Glasgow had rebounded in fine fashion, with their thumping of Munster proving to be a highlight. Now sitting pretty in the top four, there is an outside chance they could get all the way up to second should results fall their way. But in all likelihood, given the quality of the sides ahead of them, the Warriors will need to focus on the two tough challenges facing them with clashes against the Scarlets and Connacht to close the regular season. Should they lose both clashes, they could plummet out of a home quarterfinal berth.
Is a zero-win season beckoning?
So close but yet so far was the case for Zebre in the early portion of the season. Playing a sublime style of rugby, the Italians so nearly pulled off several shock victories. Yet, as injuries piled up and the other squads welcomed back their stars, Zebre fell away. Now firmly staring down the barrel of an 0 – 18 season, it is all hands on deck for the men from Parma. Just how they defeat two powerful South African sides away from home is an interesting question on its own. The one glimmer of hope they can cling onto is the lack of consistency both the Bulls and Lions have shown this season. Should they catch them napping and get a few early scores, then perhaps a momentous victory could occur.
South African Shield
Can the Bulls rediscover their mojo before the quarterfinals?
Entering round 17 in the most precarious of positions, the Bulls have caught the most fortunate of breaks in welcoming a struggling Zebre and third-string Leinster to Loftus Versfeld. Just how far last season’s losing finalists have slipped is immensely disappointing for a union that is used to success. Two strong wins in games they are heavy favourites in do not paper over the cracks, but it does help with squad morale. Should they display more than just their route one power game and get their dynamic backline playmakers involved, then Bulls fans will have a glimmer of hope to grab onto. Thus, two bonus point victories are crucial for Jake White’s side to enter the knockouts with some momentum.
Coach Jake on Johan Goosen’s selection for tomorrow 🎙️ pic.twitter.com/npcLNLR3cb— Official Blue Bulls (@BlueBullsRugby) April 14, 2023
Are play-offs a step too far or can the Lions come roaring back?
In the same vein as both Cardiff and Benetton above them, the Lions will need results to go their way in order to qualify for the final round. Focusing on what they can control wins over a weakened Leinster side who are resting their stars, and Zebre are non-negotiable. Given their inconsistent showings so far this season, it is highly plausible that they struggle to beat Leinster. To prove that they are merely a step behind the top teams, the Lions will have the same objectives as the Bulls and will look to pick two comprehensive victories.
Double the action, double the fun! You don’t want to miss this one!— Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) April 13, 2023
📅: Saturday, 15 April
1️⃣: Vodacom Bulls 🆚 Zebre Parma - 13H00
2️⃣: Emirates Lions 🆚 Leinster - 16H00
🎟: https://t.co/PDXLJlQR8E #LionsPride🦁@Vodacom | #URC | #UnitedWeRise pic.twitter.com/rxpKivJzJ5
Cell C Sharks
Has the Champions Cup taken too much out of the Sharks?
Immensely impressive in both victory and defeat, the Sharks made their mark on this season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Thumping Munster before giving Toulouse all they could handle, the Durban side showed they are a force to be reckoned with. Now returning home to take on two of their closest play-off rivals in Benetton and then Munster once again. There are several questions facing Neil Powell’s side. Firstly, how much has the travel to and from France taken out of their legs? Secondly, can they overcome injuries to key players Eben Etzebeth and Jaden Hendrikse? Finally, could four play-off style games on the bounce be too heavy a load to overcome?
Will the Stormers be sluggish in the final two rounds?
Just like their coastal rivals the Sharks, the Stormers have been yoyoing their way around the world in recent weeks. Firstly, a trip to Dublin resulted in a draw against a second-string Leinster before a dominant victory so nearly evaded them at home against Harlequins. Next up was a trip back up north with a by all accounts hellish trip to Exeter where they were roundly thumped out of the blocks. Now they have returned to Cape Town where they will face an under-pressure Munster side that is packed with quality operators. Just how any side handles this much travel is a marvel. Therefore, the questions must be asked, should Munster hang around or build a lead, do the Stormers have enough in reserves to pull off a win? A loss in either game would in all likelihood see their home advantage for a potential semi-final slip away and force them on the road again.
- Replay: ASM Clermont Auvergne vs Edinburgh - 2023 ASM-Rugby vs Edinburgh | Dec 8 @ 8 PM
Dec 8, 2023
- Replay: Connacht vs Union Bordeaux - 2023 Connacht vs Union Bordeaux | Dec 8 @ 8 PM
Dec 8, 2023
- Replay: Glasgow Warriors vs Northampton Saints | Dec 8 @ 8 PM
Dec 8, 2023
- Top Five Under-25 Backs to Watch in the 2023-24 Investec Champions Cup
Dec 8, 2023
- How To Watch La Rochelle Vs. Leinster Rugby In 2024 Champions Cup Round 1
Dec 7, 2023
- Craig Casey Discusses Munster's Champions Cup Quest Following URC Triumph
Dec 7, 2023
- Top 14 Clubs In 2023-2024 Champions Cup: Previews, Predictions, Matchups
Dec 6, 2023
- Munster's Attack Shines, But Maul Woes Taint Victory For Graham Rowntree
Dec 3, 2023
- Investec Champions Cup Explained European Rugby's Finest Return
Dec 5, 2023