United Rugby Championship

United Rugby Championship Round 18 Wrap-Up - Quarterfinals Confirmed

United Rugby Championship Round 18 Wrap-Up - Quarterfinals Confirmed

United Rugby Championship (URC) Round 18 recap as quarterfinals are confirmed with Leinster, Sharks, Ulster, Connacht, Stormers, Bulls, Munster, Glasgow.

Apr 24, 2023 by Philip Bendon
United Rugby Championship Round 18 Wrap-Up - Quarterfinals Confirmed

And that’s a wrap for the 2022/23 United Rugby Championship regular season. 

As half of the league looks towards booking some well-earned summer holidays before the pre-season training resumes. The top eight sides in the competition prepare for what on paper, have the makings of the most competitive quarterfinal series in league history. 

DHL Stormers 38 – Benetton 22 

Friday night, lights hit the raucous university town of Stellenbosch as the DHL Stormers closed out their regular season campaign on a high note. Hosting an in-form Benetton side, John Dobson’s side knew that they had it all to do. Looking to take the sting out of the crowd early, Benetton knocked over a penalty to take a 3 – 0 lead. The lead would be temporary, however, as Manie Libbok combined with Angelo Davids for a sublime crossfield kick try. The visitors struck back with an equally scintillating score as backrow Alessandro Izekor went the length of the pitch to regain the lead. From here, it was all Stormers as the hosts scored the next three tries to settle the contest. It wasn’t all positive news for the defending champions as they received three yellow cards, which will concern Dobson ahead of the play-offs where a lack of discipline could prove costly. More crucially, however, were the injuries to secondrows Ruben van Heerden and his replacement Ernst van Rhyn who both left the pitch. Star winger Seabelo Senatla would worryingly leave the match on a stretcher. Next up for the Stormers is a quarterfinal match-up with bitter rivals the Vodacom Bulls, who will be out for revenge for last season’s final. 

Ulster Rugby 28 – Edinburgh 14

A far tighter contest than the scoreline would lead you to believe, as Edinburgh opened the game with a beautiful long-range try from winger Darcy Graham. Ulster would find their composure following their slow start as Jacob Stockdale crossed the try line following some great interplay with Robert Baloucoune. Ulster scrumhalf John Cooney would once again prove his class as he kicked sensational from the tee in addition to scoring a well-taken intercept try. Edinburgh crossed the line late through prop WP Nel to end what has been a very disappointing season on a higher note. With the win, Ulster wrestled second position on the table back from the Stormers and, as such, now have a home run through the playoffs. Next up is a match-up with local rivals Connacht who have truly found their form of late in what should be a mouth-watering clash in Belfast. 

Emirates Lions 50 – Zebre 35 

A topsy-turvy affair between two sides who were firmly out of the running for the playoffs this season. Having succumbed to a young Leinster side in round 17, the Lions were looking for redemption against a winless Zebre side. What unfolded will not have the left either set of coaches too happy as defence became optional with several ‘soft’ tries being conceded. For the neutral, this was a fun watch between two sides willing to give the ball some air, with most attacks more often than not leading to scores. Picking out highlights for the Lions this season, winger Edwill van der Merwe looks to be a truly exciting talent and has been far and away their best player this season. For Zebre, there is little to take from the season other than they need significantly more squad depth. Showing glimpses of potential, the Italians truly struggled as injuries piled up, thus, having a few more options in key positions will make a significant difference. 

Vodacom Bulls 62 – Leinster Rugby 7 

Men against boys is the only way to accurately sum up this fixture. Not for a long-time has a Leinster side looked so out of their depth that the contest was essentially over within half an hour. Having done exceptionally well against the odds in round 17 by defeating the Lions. Facing a fully locked and loaded Bulls side was always going to be a big ask for the Leinster youngsters. Quite frankly, they were steamrolled by a side stacked with Springbok internationals and seasoned veterans. At no point did Leinster give up, more they just couldn’t crack their far more physical hosts. For the Bulls, this fixture builds on their thumping of Zebre in round 17 and crucially secures both a quarterfinal berth and a position in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Heading into the play-offs full of confidence, the Bulls will fancy their chances against a Stormers side who are facing somewhat of an injury crisis. Above all else for the Bulls, the re-emergence of Johan Goosen as a top-level flyhalf is a significant development for the men from Pretoria. 

Dragons 31 – Scarlets 14 

Agonisingly frustrating for supporters of both sides for two very different reasons. Starting with the winners, the Dragons have promised so much at times this season yet have failed to deliver consistently. Stacked with some of the brightest young talents in Welsh Rugby, they feel like a side who have yet to truly come of age. Certain positions remain in need of upgrades and more depth, but by and large, they have the brightest future of the Welsh regions. On the flip side, the Scarlets, who have more of a mix between youth and experience, should be the top Welsh side on paper. Yet, they have won just six fixtures in the league this season, finishing 14 points short of a quarterfinal berth and third in the Welsh shield. This fixture proved to be a different reflection of two teams on very different trajectories. As Stef Evans went over unopposed to seal the victory, there was a real sense that a changing of the guard was unfolding in Welsh Rugby.   

Cell C Sharks 22 – Munster Rugby 22

It is days like these when Munster Rugby leave their mark, when the chips are down, there is no better side in club rugby to deliver a performance. Heading into round 17, Munster Rugby was on the verge of a crisis with the very real prospect of no quarterfinal appearance nor a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Yet, a bonus point wins in Cape Town over the Stormers sprung them back into contention. Needing just a single point from this fixture to secure their position, Munster was once again on the ropes as the Sharks raced into a 22 – 3 lead. Feeling a real sense of déjà vu that a repeat of their Heineken Champions Cup last sixteen defeat to the same opposition was on the cards. Munster fans would’ve sat uneasily as the second half got underway. In a throwback to their heydays of European dominance, Munster gutted out an incredible comeback to the level the scores. Ending the fixture over the Shark's line on the verge of a possible victory before the referee, Mike Adamson, ruled they were held up. Graham Rowntree’s side sent shockwaves around the league that they are a very real threat to push any side on their day. For the Sharks, letting such a dominant position slip will have had head coach Neil Powell pulling his hair out. Not only do they now have to go on the road to face what will be a full-strength Leinster side, but they are now likely to miss out on the Heineken Champions Cup next season. Throw into the mix injuries to key players Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Jaden Hendrikse, and the Sharks could be staring down the barrel of a very poor season, given their talent. 

Ospreys 21 – Cardiff Rugby 38 

The Thomas Young show was the hot ticket for this clash as Cardiff asserted their dominance over their Welsh brethren to claim the Welsh Shield and a spot in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. In a rather eerily repeat of the Dragons vs Scarlets clash, Cardiff showed their potential as they thoroughly outclassed their visitors. Like the other judgement day clash, it was the Cardiff youngsters who led the way whilst the ageing Ospreys squad looked off the pace as they have done for the majority of the season. Simply put, the Ospreys couldn’t live with the pace of the Cardiff attack, as they conceded a number of long-range tries. Tomos Williams was nippy around the ruck, thoroughly outplaying his biggest rival for the Welsh number nine shirt in, Rhys Webb. In the backline, Max Llewellyn and Mason Grady were in dominant form as they each crossed for long-range tries. Finishing just four points outside the play-offs will be a bitter pill to swallow for Cardiff, who now also look set for a coaching change with Dai Young firmly on the hot seat. For Toby Booth and his Ospreys side, next season could look vastly different in several ways. Likely to lose a significant number of veteran players, the Ospreys are on the verge of a major rebuild. 

Glasgow Warriors 29 – Connacht Rugby 27 

The game of the week didn’t disappoint, as Glasgow and Connacht went toe-to-toe in a highly entertaining fixture. Shorn of stars Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen, Connacht went into the fixture knowing they could finish as high as fifth on the table. Yet, with Munster claiming a draw with the Sharks, 6th position looked to be the best-case scenario, with 7th being as low as they could fall. In a rather strange twist of fate, finishing in 7th now looks to have been the preferable option, as they will travel to Belfast to tackle Ulster rather than heading to Cape Town to face the Stormers. For Glasgow, the win cemented their fourth position, a position they knew coming into the clash was unlikely to change and sets up a quarterfinal date with Munster. The game itself was a scorcher between two of the best attacking sides in the game. In a well-balanced display, there were no easy scores for either side, with every try coming courtesy of a well-worked move or simply from clean execution. Trading the lead throughout the contest, it would take a late George Horne penalty to seal the contest for the Warriors.