In keeping with the script of this 2023/2024 edition of the Vodacom URC, it was a weekend of tumultuous change in the closely fought battle between the top four teams, while the battle for the top eight spot that confirms playoff qualification saw just one casualty as the logjam from fifth place down remains in place.

The casualty was Connacht, who lost by four points at home to the DHL Stormers in what they had admitted beforehand was a final for them. They are just four points off the top eight bracket with one round to go, but given who is playing who on the final weekend, that is four points too many.

Actually, that’s not completely true, for there is an outside though slightly unrealistic chance of both them and the Ospreys, who are on the same number of points, sneaking in if the teams currently eighth and ninth don’t pick up any points on the final weekend and they pick up a full house. They are both playing away, however, with Connacht going to Leinster and the Ospreys to Cardiff, which is one of the reasons it is so unlikely.

The weekend confirmed a top four finish for the Vodacom Bulls, who - after their bonus point win over Benetton along with Glasgow and Leinster's defeats - are now second and will be playing for top spot when they head to Durban for their final game of the regular season. It also confirmed playoff as well as Champions Cup qualification for the DHL Stormers, who cannot end lower than seventh.

A top seven finish will be necessary for Champions Cup qualification if the Hollywoodbets Sharks win the EPCR Challenge Cup final against Gloucester at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday night. If the KwaZulu-Natalians do win it will guarantee South Africa three teams in the elite competition next year, and it could be four if a series of not completely results fall the Emirates Lions’ way in the final round.

If the men from Johannesburg pick up a bonus point win over the DHL Stormers in Cape Town on 1 June they will still finish behind the Cape team as they won’t have as many wins as the Stormers in the event of a tie (currently 11 wins against nine). But they will lift themselves ahead of the loser in the Benetton/Edinburgh derby, which will give them playoff qualification, and Champions Cup qualification will come their way if Ulster are denied any points in what could be a cracking Irish derby between Munster and Ulster in Limerick.

Cracking would be the right word to describe the exciting and nailbiting Irish derby that was played in Belfast this past weekend. In front of an enthralled packed house at their Kingspan Stadium home ground, Ulster won with a long range penalty from man of the match John Cooney two minutes from time.

It was a deserved win for Ulster who dominated the early parts of the game without being able to convert that dominance into points before Leinster came charging back at them. It looked like Leinster were going to win when their clinical finishing took them into an 11 point lead but Ulster, spurred on by their supporters, came back through an intercept try and then dominated the last parts of the game as they pressed for the win that keeps them in the top six with one round to go.

While the Emirates Lions were excellent in effecting a seismic change to the top four log positioning by comprehensively beating the previous log leaders, Glasgow Warriors, while playing more than half the game with 14 men in Johannesburg, it was arguably the Belfast game that provided the benchmark for what is needed to win the Vodacom URC.

There was a tempo and level of quality to the match that took it to the level of international rugby, and with Munster on the charge after their tight win away to Edinburgh the night before, the Irish challenge looks in a good space.

That isn’t to say that the South African challenge isn’t strong, with the Vodacom Bulls showing us what we knew already, namely that their power game is formidable, particularly at their home of Fortress Loftus.

And the DHL Stormers held their nerve in a playoff atmosphere to beat Connacht at a ground where only one South African team had won before and thus finish their crucial two match tour with nine points out of a possible 10.

By burying their overseas bogey in the Vodacom URC, the DHL Stormers proved to themselves that traveling overseas for a playoff game does not leave them without hope, although how the cards are going to fall in terms of who plays who in the playoffs just adds further to the intrigue of what will be an absorbing final round.

As it stands, the DHL Stormers (fifth) will have to go to Scotstoun Stadium to play the Warriors (fourth), while Leinster and Ulster are now on a derby collision course. The Vodacom Bulls will fancy their chances of beating Edinburgh in Pretoria if that is how it ends, with them second and Edinburgh seventh, which is one of two good reasons why the Bulls will be supremely motivated to round off their league campaign with a win against the Hollywoodbets Sharks.

The other reason is of course that a top two finish means they have home ground advantage in a semi-final should they get that far. But going to Hollywoodbets Kings Park won’t be an easy task for the Vodacom Bulls and there are some other games on the final weekend that could see the log change significantly once more. If the men from Pretoria lose in Durban, Leinster beat Connacht and Munster win against Ulster, it could be Irish teams in positions one and two.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results:
Edinburgh 26 Munster 29
Zebre 18 Scarlets 32
Vodacom Bulls 56 Benetton 35
Emirates Lions 44 Glasgow Warriors 21
Hollywoodbets Sharks 14 Cardiff 36
Ospreys 26 Dragons 13
Connacht 12 DHL Stormers 16
Ulster 23 Leinster 21

Final round fixtures:

Friday, 31 May:
20h35: Leinster v Connacht
20h35: Glasgow Warriors v Zebre

Saturday, 1 June:
13h45: DHL Stormers v Emirates Lions
14h00: Benetton v Edinburgh
16h00: Scarlets v Dragons 
16h10: Hollywoodbets Sharks v Vodacom Bulls 
18h15: Munster v Ulster
Cardiff v Ospreys

Top 10 positions with one round to go:
1. Munster 63 points (12 wins)
2. Vodacom Bulls 61 points (12 wins)
3. Leinster 60 points (12 wins)
4. Glasgow Warriors 60 points (12 wins)
5. DHL Stormers 54 points (11 wins)
6. Ulster 53 points (11 wins)
7. Edinburgh 49 points (11 wins)
8. Benetton 49 points (10 wins)
9. Emirates Lions 49 points (9 wins)
10. Connacht 45 points (9 wins)