The weekend’s United Rugby Championship (URC) action should help to provide a more definitive slant on the table as the top six teams square off against one another.
There are just three rounds of fixtures remaining including this weekend’s matches before the knock-out stages of the competition, where the top eight teams in the standings will contest the quarter-finals.
Leinster, 12 points clear at the top of the table, will face their closest pursuers and the defending champions, the Stormers, at the RDS on Friday night (7.35). The South African club are believed to have brought their contingent of Springboks who recently returned to their teams following a three-week conditioning camp in Cape Town and Stellenbosch.
The Stormers, who are training in St Michael’s College this week, know that victory against Leo Cullen’s unbeaten Leinster will see them take a giant stride towards a top-two seeding that would guarantee home advantage in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
Springbok tighthead prop Frans Malherbe admitted that it was less of laying down a marker for a potential rematch later in the tournament and instead all about winning the game on Friday.
“They [Leinster] are a very, very good side. I don’t think it’s about laying down a marker or looking ahead to the playoffs. We have to have very good plans against a top Leinster side and execute them as well as we can.
“If we meet them again later, then we can have clarity on whether those plans worked. We can bin those things that didn’t work and focus on stuff that got you rewards in this game.”
Leinster, for whom a draw or a better result will guarantee number one seeding, will be without their Ireland players in the matchday 23 from the victory over England, based on game time/celebrations. Garry Ringrose, who missed the match, Hugo Keenan and Caelan Doris are all following the return-to-play protocols following head trauma.
Jamie Osborne (knee), Rónan Kelleher (shoulder), Charlie Ngatai (hamstring), Joe McCarthy (ankle), Cormac Foley (hamstring) and Martin Moloney (knee) are injured while Johnny Sexton underwent a scan on his groin.
The injury could be season-ending if there is an adductor issue or a tear, and at best the Irish and Leinster captain is likely to be out for several weeks. That would see him miss Saturday week’s Heineken Champions Cup clash with Ulster at the Aviva Stadium and a potential quarter-final were they to reach it, along with the two subsequent URC matches in South Africa. Tommy O’Brien and Ed Byrne are available for selection.
Leinster follow the Stormers match with their European clash with Ulster and, if they win that, would then face a Champions Cup quarter-final against either Leicester Tigers or Edinburgh. Cullen’s side then switch back to the URC and complete their league schedule with two fixtures in South Africa against the Lions and the Bulls.
Dan McFarland’s Ulster, hoping to chase down a top-two seeding, host the Bulls in Belfast on Saturday, a contest that pits the third against sixth in the standings. The Irish province’s final three matches are all at home. There is a certain irony in the fact that Leinster could do their provincial siblings a big favour by beating the Stormers before the two Irish sides meet in Europe.
Tom O’Toole, Rob Herring, who scored a try, and Kieran Treadwell came off the bench in Ireland’s win so might not be available, but there was good news for Ulster in that wing Rob Baloucoune is available after injury. They face the Dragons and Edinburgh, both at the Kingspan Stadium, in their final two league matches.
Munster must embrace a ridiculous travel itinerary that could take them to South Africa, France and back to South Africa between European competition and the domestic league over a four-weekend period.
But first Graham Rowntree’s side, who are fifth in the URC standings, host the side one place and two points above them, the Glasgow Warriors, at Thomond Park on Saturday.
Munster will be without Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, but Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes, Jack Crowley, Dave Kilcoyne, Roman Salanoa and Scottish debutant Ben Healy are available, while Tom Ahern and Mike Haley are back in full training.
Munster then head to Durban to take on the Sharks in the Champions Cup round of 16 on Saturday week and if they win that would face the winner of Toulouse/the Bulls the following weekend before returning to South Africa in the URC for their final two matches.
Connacht will look to maintain their remarkable improvement in URC results of late by beating an Edinburgh side under new coach Steve Diamond. They then go to Italy to play Benetton in the European Challenge Cup.
Currently in eighth, the final playoff spot, they will then host Cardiff before travelling to Glasgow in their final two URC matches.
March 24th: v DHL Stormers, RDS (7.35)
April 15th: v Emirates Lions, Emirates Airline Park (3.0)
April 22nd: v Bulls, Loftus Versfeld (3.0)
March 25th: v Bulls, Kingspan Stadium (7.35)
April 14th: v Dragons, Kingspan Stadium (7.35)
April 21st: v Edinburgh, Kingspan Stadium (7.35)
March 25th: v Glasgow Warriors, Thomond Park (5.15)
April 15th: v DLH Stormers, DHL Stadium
April 22nd: v Sharks, Kings Park (5.15)
March 25th: v Edinburgh, Sportsground (3.0)
April 15th: v Cardiff, Sportsground (7.35)
April 22nd: v Glasgow Warriors, Scotstoun (7.35)