United Rugby Championship Round 17 Wrap-Up - Play-off Berths Sealed
United Rugby Championship Round 17 Wrap-Up - Play-off Berths Sealed
United Rugby Championship round 17 recap as the quarterfinals of the 2022/23 season draw closer with just one round of regular season action remaining.
Upsets, demolitions, and a potentially generational talent making their debut. Round 17 of the 2023 United Rugby Championship had it all.
Heading into the weekend’s action it was all to play for in an exceptionally tight season. Featuring one of the murkiest play-off pictures we have seen in quite some time, 13 of the 16 teams had a realistic chance of featuring in the postseason.
As is so often the case, the cream certainly rose to the top, with several big-time teams putting in performances befitting of their reputation.
Now with the dust firmly settled and just one round of action to go, the quarterfinals are all but set, with one or two changes possible. So let’s get right into just how the weekend unfolded.
*Please note that bar Leinster winning the Heineken Champions Cup or any of Benetton, Scarlets or Cardiff winning the Challenge Cup. Predicted places in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup are based on the final finishing positions on the URC Table. *
Cell C Sharks 44 – Benetton Rugby 33
Yet another European victim fell foul to an ambush at the Shark Tank in 2023 as Benetton Rugby had their quarterfinal ambitions ended.
The Sharks were back to their physical best as they held off the plucky and frankly impressive Benetton in a do-or-die clash.
Striking with several lethal counterattacks, the Sharks doubled down on their impressive showing away to Toulouse last weekend with a reminder that on their day, they are serious title contenders. One highlight, in particular, stood above the rest as Springbok scrumhalf Grant Williams burned the Benetton defence for a sublime score.
Now sitting in the dreaded eighth position that will secure a quarterfinal spot but not a Heineken Champions Cup berth. The Sharks will be hoping for either the Bulls or Connacht to falter in round 18 whilst securing a win of their own over Munster.
Alternatively, the Sharks could backdoor their way into the Champions Cup should the Scarlets win the Challenge Cup trophy or Leinster win the Champions Cup, thus freeing up an extra qualification spot.
Glasgow Warriors 12 – Scarlets 9
One for the purists, Glasgow continued their march towards a home quarterfinal with a gutsy if an unflashy win over Scarlets.
Now sitting on 58 log points with one round to play, the Warriors are all but locked into fourth position. Thus, the option to rest several front-line players against Connacht in round 18 could have far-reaching consequences.
Should the Warriors lose to Connacht without a losing bonus point and Munster win with a bonus point, then the Glaswegians would fall out of the top four.
Thus, the question of a fresh squad heading into the quarterfinals versus a potential home playoff game will be mulled over by head coach Franco Smith and his team.
For the Scarlets, the loss has all but ended their chances of replacing Cardiff as the top Welsh team in the competition. This will see them miss out on Champions Cup action unless they go all the way in this season’s EPCR Challenge Cup.
Ulster Rugby 40 – Dragons RFC 19
As significant a win as there has been all season for Ulster has seen the Belfast side leapfrog the DHL Stormers into second position on the table.
Should all go according to plan for Dan McFarland’s side in round 18, they will secure not only a home quarterfinal but a potential home semi-final to boot.
Quite simply, the turnaround in Ulster’s fortunes has been a remarkable insight into the quality of McFarland and his coaching staff. Their ability to right what looked to be a sinking ship has firmly re-established their role as title contenders.
For the Dragons, another mark was chalked up in the loss column. Outside of a stunning piece of individual brilliance by backrow Taine Basham, the Newport side looked like they were cooked and thinking ahead to the offseason.
Vodacom Bulls 78 – Zebre Parma 12
An old-school drubbing that reminded the league of the power game that the Bulls possess in spades.
At times it was men against boys as the giant Bulls forwards battered their visitors into submission before their backline showed their cutting-edge ability when given space.
Having been, by and large disappointing throughout the season, the Bulls’ Springbok players stood up and will have taken the pressure off head coach Jake White.
Stars such as Canan Moodie, Johan Goosen, Embrose Papier, Marco van Staden and Bismarck Du Plessis found their form in a major development for the Pretoria side ahead of the quarterfinals.
Zebre, on the other hand, offered little in this game and now look destined for a winless season as they remain in the highveld for a round 18 clash against the Lions.
Unfortunately, for the team from Parma, their inability to close out early-season leads has come back to bite them. Lacking the depth of their competitors, it was always going to be a long season, but results like this do little for their standing in the competition.
Emirates Lions 36 – Leinster Rugby 39
A contender for game of the week saw a youthful Leinster side keep the club’s unbeaten run alive with a last-second victory over a powerful Lions team.
Falling two scores behind, the Dubliners, spearheaded by one of Rugby’s brightest prospects in flyhalf Sam Prendergast remained true to their systems.
Coming back inside the last ten minutes, Leinster floored their hots with two tries before Prendergast knocked over the winning penalty.
If ever there was a reminder needed that Leinster is far and away the best team in the competition, this was it. Fielding arguably a third-string side as their stars rest ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals, the depth of Leo Cullen’s squad was tested.
Coming through with flying colours as their more senior players served reminders that they are only just behind their first-choice counterparts. Whilst Prendergast emerged as a bonified superstar ready to push the Byrne brothers for the first-choice role as soon as next season. Leinster proved again why they are regarded as the best producer of rugby talent in the world.
The Lions, on the other hand, were left flummoxed as to how they let a two-try lead slip to a side primarily made up of players under the age of twenty-three.
Coming into the weekend, the Johannesburg side was within touching distance of the quarterfinals, only to emerge on the other side firmly out of contention.
In what has been a rollercoaster of a season, the Lions enter the offseason with several questions marks both on and off the pitch.
DHL Stormers 24 – Munster Rugby 26
A second Irish win on South African soil was a true reflection of the strength in the Irish game at the present moment.
Entering the game with their backs firmly to the wall, Munster did as they’ve done on so many occasions and came out swinging.
Blitzing the defending champions, Graham Rowntree’s side raced into a 12 – 0 lead early in the first half.
From here, it was time for them to batten down the hatches as the Champions came roaring back to equalize on the stroke of halftime.
Now firmly in the ascendancy, the Stormers attacked their hosts with reckless abandonment, only to be repelled time and again.
As the clock entered the red, Munster held an unassailable 26 – 17 lead thanks in large part to a brutally poor day from the kicking tee for Stormers Flyhalf Manie Libbok. The usually reliable Springbok pivot landed just one of his six shots, whilst his Munster counterparts took the bulk of their opportunities.
Now firmly locked into the quarterfinals and next season’s Heineken Champions Cup, Munster travels to Durban looking to avenge their recent loss to the Sharks. Still in with a slim chance of hosting a quarterfinal should Glasgow fall to Connacht, Munster will no doubt give the hosts a far tougher outing than their last meeting.
For John Dobson’s Stormers, the loss was a double whammy as their coveted home record slipped away. But even more crucially, the prospect of hosting a semi-final has been snatched away and now firmly rests in Ulster’s hands.
Edinburgh Rugby 45 – Ospreys 21
Bitterly disappointed by their season to date, Edinburgh showed their quality with a resounding win over the Ospreys on Saturday evening.
Powerful from the off, Edinburgh highlighted just why observers have been left scratching their heads as to why they have been so poor all season.
Strolling to seven tries with relative ease, Mike Blair’s side rarely looked challenged outside of incidents of their own making.
Argentinean star Emiliano Boffelli was impervious from the kicking tee, whilst his wing partner Darcy Graham played exceptionally well following a spell on the sidelines due to injury.
In a mirror image of their season as a whole, Ospreys looked off the pace, with their ageing squad struggling to match the tempo of their hosts.
The one positive to emerge from the weekend for the Ospreys is that they remain in the hunt for the Welsh shield and, with it, a place in the Heineken Champions Cup next season.
Connacht Rugby 38 Cardiff Rugby 19
A farewell party of the highest order for a number of Connacht’s departing stars as the Westerners closed out their final home game of the season on a resounding note.
Racing into a 19 – 0 lead, Connacht set a fierce pace that Cardiff struggled to live with.
Leading from the front were Connacht’s prominent Irish internationals in, Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham, who were a handful for the hosts.
It wasn’t all negative for the visitors, however, as they showed plenty of fight despite being 26 – 7 down at halftime.
Clearly, the biggest positive for the visitors was the performance of young centre Mason Grady, who continued his Six Nations form with a powerful showing.
Led by the likes of Grady, Cardiff squeezed out two more tries but crucially fell short of a bonus point which means their judgement day clash with the Ospreys will now be for the Welsh shield.
Returning to Connacht, the win clinches both a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup as well as a quarterfinal berth. Now leaving Galway having turned things around in remarkable fashion, outgoing head coach Andy Friend can confidently say he has set the province up for future success.
Sitting in sixth position, Connacht would face the defending champion Stormers in the quarterfinals should things remain the same following the conclusion of round 18. Yet, a bonus win against Glasgow and Munster loss could see them jump into fifth position and set up a more preferable quarterfinal clash with the Warriors.
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