URC final round review

URC final round review

Play-off pathway

So, that’s the regular season over and we now know the make-up of the play-offs, with Benetton Rugby and the Ospreys having secured the last two spots in the top eight.

As a result, the quarter-final draw for next weekend looks like this:

Munster Rugby (1st) v Ospreys (8th): Thomond Park, Limerick - Friday, June 7 (7.35pm).

Vodacom Bulls (2nd) v Benetton Rugby (7th): Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Saturday, June 8 (2.30pm).

Leinster Rugby (3rd) v Ulster Rugby (6th): Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Saturday, June 8 (5pm).

Glasgow Warriors (4th) v DHL Stormers (5th): Scotstoun, Saturday, June 8 (7.35pm).

Reigning champions Munster ensured they ended the 18-round league campaign on top of the table by making it nine wins on the trot with a 29-24 bonus point victory over Ulster in Limerick.

They trailed 17-7 at the break and then 24-14 midway through the second half, but turned things around in the final quarter, with replacement hooker Eoghan Clarke scoring the decisive try.

It was another hooking substitute - Akker van der Merwe - who claimed the crucial late touchdown which saw the Bulls go above Leinster in the table and ultimately finish second to ensure crucial home advantage for the quarter and semi-finals.

The prolific Van der Merwe went over twice in a 26-14 victory over the Hollywoodbets Sharks in Durban to take his try tally for the season up to 11.

Only fellow hooker Johnny Matthews stands above him in the BKT URC try chart, having also claimed a double on the weekend to move up to 14. His brace helped Glasgow survive a scare at home to Zebre as they won 38-26.

In the quarter-finals, Glasgow will host the Stormers who came from behind to beat the Emirates Lions 29-24 in Cape Town, despite having wing Angelo Davids red carded early in the second half.

That result ultimately cost the Lions a place in the play-offs, with the Ospreys pipping them on matches won.

The door had been opened to the Welsh region by the Lions only picking up one point and Edinburgh Rugby ending up with none in losing 31-6 to Benetton in Treviso.

Toby Booth’s team duly grabbed their chance, securing the required bonus point victory over Cardiff Rugby in the Judgement Day double header, winning a thrilling contest 33-29 with two tries from Player of the Match Nicky Smith.

It means all five participating countries will be represented in the play-offs.

There will be three Irish teams, two South African and one apiece from Scotland, Italy and Wales.

Odds-defying Ospreys

Toby Booth says his Ospreys will be taking on the best team in the URC when they face Munster at Limerick’s Thomond Park in Friday’s opening quarter-final.

Booth’s side defied the odds to secure the final spot in the play-offs with a 33-29 bonus point victory over Cardiff on Judgement Day, after a succession of other results had gone their way over the weekend.

They are the first Welsh team to reach the knock-out stages since 2018, an achievement secured by winning 10 of their 18 league matches - double their tally from last season.

Awaiting them in the last eight will be Munster, with head coach Booth well aware of the challenge that lies ahead.

“They are the best team in the competition,” he said.

“I know Leinster would dispute that, but they have finished top, they have won what they have won and they are the defending champions. So, factually, it’s right.

“There’s a reason 1 plays 8, but we are really looking forward to it. You would rather be in it than not.

“We know it’s really difficult, but when it gets to knock-out rugby, it’s about who delivers on the day.

“You’ve got to deal with the occasion first and foremost and then you have to be right on it. As the stakes get higher, the need to execute becomes less forgiving.

“There are no second chances now and that makes it tough.”

Reflecting on making the play-offs, Booth said: “We have become a top eight team for the first time since I’ve been here and that’s a credit to everyone that’s been involved.

“It’s a reward for how competitive we have been. We wanted to earn respect and hopefully we have done that. There is a sense of pride and achievement.

“It’s progress first and foremost - double figure wins. It’s a rough journey and there are plenty of reasons why not, but we have found enough throughout the season.

“We set out on a mission to play a brand of rugby that people will enjoy, we said we would reflect the work ethic of the people we represent and we said we would grow our own players. I think we have done that.

“Sport is hard, sport is cruel, you don’t always get what you deserve. But if you work hard enough for long enough, you will keep loading the dice in your favour and give yourself a chance and I think we have done that well this year.

“We’ve moved the dial a little bit. Progress in sport is very difficult, so we’ve just got to keep swinging for the fence.”

The Cardiff City Stadium clash which booked the Ospreys’ path to the play-offs was an enthralling and thoroughly entertaining contest, with the pendulum swinging back and fore.

There were nine tries in all, plus one red card and three yellows.

The Ospreys’ Leicester-bound prop Nicky Smith and Wales threequarter Mason Grady both crossed twice, while there were a couple of superb team tries, plus a tremendous finish from Cardiff wing Theo Cabango, who unfortunately picked up a hamstring injury minutes later.

Knowing they had to claim maximum points, the Ospreys secured their all-important fourth try on 63 minutes when Luke Morgan went over out wide.

But Cardiff refused to lie down, with Grady’s second try in the final play earning them two points - taking their tally of bonus points from defeats this season to a remarkable 11.

Their coach Matt Sherratt commented: “I thought it was a great advert for Welsh rugby. It did Judgement Day proud.

“There’s obviously been a fair bit of negativity around the game in Wales, but there were some good players out on the pitch there. You had two teams where you could tell the players are really proud to play for the shirt.”

He added: “I am pleased there is a Welsh team in the play-offs. I think it’s good for the game in Wales.

“Not many teams will want to play the Ospreys. They have got a good all-round game. I genuinely think they can beat Munster away.”

In the opening Judgement Day fixture, the Scarlets beat Dragons RFC 32-15 with wing Tomi Lewis crossing twice before damaging his Achilles. It was their fifth league win of the season and it saw them move above the Sharks to finish 13th in the table.

Cullen’s call to fans

Leinster coach Leo Cullen is calling on the team’s supporters to “really go hard” in next Saturday’s all-Irish quarter-final against Ulster at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

Cullen’s charges bounced back from their Investec Champions Cup final defeat to Toulouse with an emphatic 33-7 victory over Connacht Rugby in their final game at the RDS before it undergoes redevelopment.

Full-back Jimmy O’Brien went over for two of their five tries in front of a crowd of 17,225.

Cullen said: “I thought we acquitted ourselves pretty well over the course of the game.

“We were pleased to get the win. A big thanks to the crowd that was out there. It was amazing, playing in front of a full house at this time of year.

“We will ask the fans to really go hard now next week because we will have a quarter-final down at the Aviva Stadium.

“Remember, it’s the fans that make the occasion, so hopefully we will get a big turn out there.”

It was an emotional night at the RDS as the retiring Rhys Ruddock played his final match at the ground, with the stalwart flanker receiving a huge ovation when he left the field on 49 minutes.

Player of the Match Ross Molony, who is also leaving the province - to join Bath - said: “I was delighted to see Rhys get such a big cheer when he went off. It was brilliant.

“There are a couple of lads that have put a serious shift in over the years and the club made it special for us during the week and I was really delighted with how the day went.”

Second row Molony added: “It was a big week for the club after the disappointment of the Champions Cup final and it showed the character of the group to bounce back.”

Match of the weekend

DHL Stormers 29, Emirates Lions 24

There were plenty of strong contenders with the Munster-Ulster and Cardiff-Ospreys derbies both being belters.

But the Cape Town tussle was something special and it was to prove a crucial result in the final play-off shake-up.

The Lions looked odds on to claim the victory that would have earned them entry to the knock-out stage for the first time when they were handed a one-man advantage early in the second half by a red card for Stormers wing Angelo Davids.

They were already winning 21-15 and were now surely in the box seat.

But going down a man seemed to galvanise the hosts, particularly No 8 Evan Roos who galloped away for an outstanding solo try, fending off four would-be tacklers on his burst to the line.

With the clock ticking away, the Lions went back in front through the boot of centre Jordan Hendrikse.

They were now in dreamland, but those dreams were to be shattered as Stormers replacement lock Adre Smith claimed the match-winning score just four minutes from time.

The Lions could now only sit and wait and their day of heartbreak was completed as they were pipped for eighth spot by the Ospreys.

Player of the weekend

Calvin Nash (Munster)

It’s been a great season for the 26-year-old winger who really broke through on the Test stage as he shared in Ireland’s Six Nations title triumph and he is now looking to help Munster retain their URC crown.

His razor-sharp attacking threat was there for all to see as he produced a try-scoring Player of the Match display in Saturday evening’s 29-24 victory over Ulster at Thomond Park.

Reflecting on the reigning champions finishing top of the table thanks to a ninth straight league win, he said: “It’s unbelievable. It’s nice to do it in a sunny Limerick.

“Thanks to all the crowd for coming out.

“We knew Ulster were going to put it up to us and they didn’t disappoint. They are an unbelievable side, so we are very happy to get the win. We pulled it together in the second half and got the result we wanted.

“It will be a tough game (against the Ospreys) next week, but we are happy we have the home quarter and we will focus on that.”

Quote of the weekend

Benetton skipper Michele Lamaro after his team’s play-off clinching 31-6 victory over Edinburgh in Treviso which has earned them a quarter-final against the Bulls.

“It’s the best day of the season for us, 100 per cent. It’s unbelievable,” said the Italy skipper.

“We knew all the supporters were by our side and would give us a really big push to get the edge. We are fully happy with the result and now we are looking forward to next week.

“We want to keep going and give our best shot. Whatever happens happens, but we will be ready 100 per cent.”

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