While much attention was focused on the match-ups between the top two Irish provinces, Leinster and Ulster, with South Africa’s DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls, it was the game in Limerick that saw the top four finally take leave of the chasing pack by putting daylight between themselves and the rest.
There are now six points separating fourth placed Glasgow from fifth placed Munster, and that should be too much of a lead with just two games to go. It basically means that the battle for home advantage in the quarter-finals is effectively done and dusted.
Both the Vodacom Bulls and the Cell C Sharks hoped they were still in with a chance of joining the DHL Stormers by playing at home in the first play-off weekend. That was scuppered by the Glasgow win coupled with the failure of the teams from Pretoria and Durban to get any log points from their visits to Ulster and the Scarlets respectively.
But while the two South African teams will be disappointed, they may have been encouraged by what happened in Limerick. The ease with which the Warriors dealt with Munster on their home turf, and at one stage they held a really big lead, came as a surprise, and should also be encouraging to the Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers, who host the Irish team in the last two rounds of the competition.
A Munster fade at the end of the season to match their poor start to the Graham Rowntree era as coach should encourage the Vodacom Bulls too. For Munster are still catchable for both South African teams, who are currently down in seventh and eighth and struggling just to make the play-offs and qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Two losses for Munster in South Africa will make it possible for both the Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks to overtake them on the log provided they win both their remaining matches. But here is the catch – although the men from Pretoria will be playing both games at home, one of their remaining fixtures is against Leinster.
The perennial champions in the Vodacom URC’s previous incarnation as the Guinness PRO14 clinched top spot when they managed to get three log points from their tough, intense clash with the second placed DHL Stormers at the weekend.
This might suit the Vodacom Bulls if it means Leo Cullen opts to send an under-strength team to South Africa, where they also play the Emirates Lions, who are suddenly charging and in strong contention for a top eight finish.
But those who’ve been following the Vodacom URC for a while will tell you that there is no such thing as a weak Leinster team, no matter which players are selected.
And this past weekend’s draw at the RDS Arena was an example of that – although Leinster were without their Ireland Six Nations winners, they still had more international players than the DHL Stormers and twice as many Vodacom URC caps.
Leinster are renowned for their depth, and neither the Vodacom Bulls nor the Emirates Lions will find them easy to play against, even given their big ally, which is the altitude.
In fact, mention of altitude cues the possibility that Leinster might want to embrace the challenge of winning at Loftus Versfeld and Emirates Airline Park, and let’s not forget they have a score to settle with the Vodacom Bulls, who knocked them out of the competition in last year’s semi-final.
So, the Cell C Sharks and Vodacom Bulls’ fate depends heavily on their games against the two Irish teams, and you can argue that the DHL Stormers’ does too. John Dobson’s men desperately want to repeat last year’s second place because they know the leg up home ground advantage gives you in the playoff phase.
That quest was helped by the two points they picked up in the draw in Dublin, but the Vodacom Bulls’ failure to hold onto the strong advantage they built in the first half against Ulster in Belfast means that the DHL Stormers will probably have to win their remaining two games to be sure of second.
Ulster have a relatively easy run-in to the end of the league phase with fixtures against the Dragons and the out of form Edinburgh.
The DHL Stormers will be confident they can do the business in their last game against Benetton, so the clash with Munster in Cape Town on 15 April has become all important to them.
The Connacht thrashing of Edinburgh in Galway at the weekend has lifted them to sixth, meaning there are now four Irish provinces in the top six of the Vodacom URC log, the DHL Stormers and Warriors being the odd men out.
Connacht face Cardiff next and that will be a tough game as the team from the Welsh capital still hold a slender lead over the Ospreys, who easily dealt with the Dragons at the weekend, in the battle for the Welsh Shield.
Hosting Cardiff though is an easier task than beating Glasgow away, which is what they face in the last game. Much could hinge on what the Warriors need from that final league game. It could be that Connacht will travel needing more than their opponents.
But with the Emirates Lions hovering just outside the top eight, and a logjam between positions five and 11 on the current log, the last two rounds are going to be decisive and the visits to South Africa by the two Irish teams will go a long way towards both determining who finishes in the top eight and the finishing order.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Zebre Parma 30 Cardiff 34
Leinster 22 DHL Stormers 22
Ospreys 37 Dragons 19
Benetton 28 Emirates Lions 32
Connacht 41 Edinburgh 26
Scarlets 32 Cell C Sharks 20
Munster 26 Glasgow Warriors 38
Ulster 32 Vodacom Bulls 23