The headline game of the weekend is surely the one on Friday between table-topping Leinster and the DHL Stormers, the defending champions from 2022 who also happen to be second on the log and poised to repeat their feat last year of finishing as runners up in the league phase if they can retain their current momentum.
But the game at the RDS Arena is not the only one on a weekend which could have a significant impact on finishing order and the chances the various teams have of finishing in the positions they want to heading into the play-offs and of course also with qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup in mind.
The ongoing narrative around the South African derbies might easily dupe some into thinking that the tussle for Vodacom URC supremacy is an ongoing series of battles between the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls, but of course that isn’t the case.
Indeed, this weekend the Cape team will find themselves in the rare position of being supporters of the team from Pretoria, who they beat in the inaugural final to become the first winners of the trophy. For the Vodacom Bulls are travelling to Belfast to play Ulster in a game that will impact on the Capetonians’ quest for a top two finish.
As it stands, the DHL Stormers have a five point advantage on third-placed Ulster with three games to go. So, a Vodacom Bulls win – or even if they just deny the Belfast team a bonus point – will be a huge help for the defending champions.
With the DHL Stormers already installed as SA Shield champions again, they will have a lot to gain from a good Vodacom Bulls performance.
Leinster are really too far ahead now to be caught in the battle for top position on the final log, but Friday night’s top of the table clash will give a good indication of what might happen should the two teams meet again in the final.
The sides have met just once before, but not too much should be read into the DHL Stormers’ win in Cape Town last April as Leinster sent a second string team to South Africa.
There’s a chance Leinster might be relatively understrength again as there was talk of Ireland’s international players being rested just one week after the end of their successful Six Nations campaign, particularly as the Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 comes up next and it’s no secret how desperately Leinster want to be kings of Europe once more.
The DHL Stormers will be close to full strength, at least in a manner of speaking. The qualification is an acknowledgement that while Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie, Damian Willemse and the other Boks who have just completed their resting protocols are back in training and are poised to play in Dublin, they won’t have the sharpness and momentum that comes with having played recently.
For DHL Stormers coach John Dobson the appearance of his Boks in Friday’s game is more about getting them ready for the following week’s important home Heineken Champions Cup play-off against Harlequins. That’s not to say the Capetonians won’t be going to the RDS Arena with every intention of winning, and Dobson said a few weeks back that his men will give it their best shot.
They do have a lot to gain from bringing points back from Dublin if you look at the narrow gap between the DHL Stormers and Ulster.
And after sending a DHL WP team laced with youth and experience to Pretoria last week and winning against a full-strength Vodacom URC team in the second round of the Currie Cup, neither will the DHL Stormers be holding out much hope of a Vodacom Bulls win.
Winning is important for the Vodacom Bulls though, as they need to halt what has now become a six-match losing sequence in all competitions. With games against Leinster and Zebre to come after this, the team from Pretoria’s position in the Heineken Champions Cup qualification bracket is suddenly looking precarious. Or will be if that losing sequence stretches to seven.
Should they fail, the Cell C Sharks – who are also welcoming back a phalanx of top Boks this weekend – stand to go past them on the log by beating Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday. A few months back this looked an easy game for the KwaZulu-Natalians, but the Welsh side was galvanised by their recent good win over the Vodacom Bulls and are suddenly playing with a lot of spirit, as evidenced by their recent gutsy fightback against Munster.
Speaking of Munster, they are also involved in what could be a tense top part of the table spat this weekend when they play Glasgow Warriors.
Munster have two games against the Cell C Sharks in their future – one in the Heineken Champions Cup and the other in the Vodacom URC – plus a visit to Cape Town, so it could be argued theirs is also a desperate need to win.
However, the Warriors are fighting to make their impressive first season under Franco Smith’s coaching meaningful by clinching a top four finish.
Weekend Vodacom URC fixtures (SA times)
Friday, 24 March
21h10: Zebre Parma v Cardiff Rugby (Parma)
21h35: Leinster v DHL Stormers (Dublin)
Saturday, 25 March
15h00: Ospreys v Dragons (Swansea)
15h00: Benetton v Emirates Lions (Treviso)
17h00: Connacht v Edinburgh (Galway)
19h00: Scarlets v Cell C Sharks (Llanelli)
19h15: Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Limerick)
21h35: Ulster v Vodacom Bulls (Belfast)