Yesterday was not a good day at the United Rugby Championship offices as the organization struggled to deal with the aftermath of a TikTok post that made a joke about one of its players suffering a head injury.
In the end, the competition terminated their contract with the agency tasked with keeping the account and issued an unreserved apology to Cardiff winger Aled Summerhill at the end of an episode that left them red-faced and open to the accusation, the most serious issue of the game to have taken it lightly . This was grist to the mill for those who believe this to be an underwhelming competition, but there is little doubt that the URC are finally starting to deliver on some of their promises on the pitch.
The pandemic has destabilized the season and organizers were forced to tear up and reschedule as games fell by the wayside around Christmas, but we’re coming out with a competitive table now and a feeling that there’s something for every team to come up with is at stake, at the close of business five rounds of competition.
This year’s tournament was supposed to be largely on hold during the Six Nations, but Covid-19 thwarted those plans. At the end of this window, with the competition largely in the shadows, the table looks very different and the South Africans have started to make some serious moves upwards.
Munster have just returned from two defeats in the Rainbow Nation, while Ulster are now in Cape Town. While Leinster and Connacht will spend two weeks between the Champions Cup round of 16 and the quarter-finals.
While the Sharks (6th), the Stormers (7th) and the Bulls (8th) initially struggled to adjust to their new competition, they are now firmly in the playoff fight with one game left each ( a round of South African derbies) in hand.
In a competition in which the Irish provinces have largely gone their own way in recent years, the arrival of the four South African franchises has made things more difficult and therefore more interesting.
The decision to scrap pure meritocracy as the basis for qualifying for Europe hasn’t helped them and in that respect Connacht – whose fixture schedule is more difficult because they have to play the three other Irish provinces twice – is in real danger at Champions- to miss out on cup action next season.
The recent hammering against Edinburgh means Andy Friend’s side have little room for error and their run-in is difficult.
The picture is further clouded by the two-legged European round of 16 fixtures, a prospect that won’t matter as much for third-placed Glasgow and fifth-placed Edinburgh, who are in the Challenge Cup, or the South African sides, who are in the Challenge Cup aren’t in Competition. Connacht play Leinster three times in the next four weeks and while the two-legged Champions Cup games will bring attention and prestige, it’s arguable if this week’s league game is the one they need most to win.
It will help that the Eastern Province international contingent largely got the week off, but Leo Cullen’s side will be determined to hold Ulster back and finish at the top.
They’ll be conscious not to give Westerners even a shred of momentum ahead of the European battles, knowing that momentum is key to weathering an unrelenting end to the campaign where they expect to go deep in both competitions.
Even a defeat in Galway doesn’t move that number, while for Connacht a win would increase their odds from the current 17 per cent to 53 per cent.
It’s not just about reaching the knockout stages, a home game means a lot too – especially if you could cross hemispheres to play a quarterfinal or semifinal.
Outgoing Munster manager Johann van Graan, who has endured all his seasons losing to Leinster in Dublin, knows only too well that an away game can be a killer, and losing to the Bulls and the Lions in their newly arranged games has it She’s in need of some big results in the coming weeks.
Playing Leinster twice and Ulster away makes this all the more interesting as they reintegrate their internationals and prepare for a very difficult home and away clash against Exeter Chiefs in Europe.
Leinster and Ulster currently hold those golden top-2 positions and have a cushion, but the schedule could see that eroded if they lose sight of the ball.
Things are heating up nicely as eyeballs return after the international window. And rather than chasing those hoax figures on social media, hopefully rugby will offer the league something to sell itself on in the months to come.
THE DRIVING IN
Leinster (1st, 50 points)
Connacht (a), Munster (a), Stormers (a), Sharks (a), Munster (h)
Ulster (2nd, 49 pts)
Stormers (a), Bulls (a), Munster (h), Edinburgh (a), Sharks (h)
Munster (4th, 42 points)
Benetton (h), Leinster (h), Ulster (a), Cardiff (h), Leinster (a)
Connacht (10th, 28 points)
Leinster (h), Benetton (a), Lions (a), Sharks (a), Zebre Parma (h)
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/little-room-for-error-in-urc-finale-as-connacht-chase-europe-while-munster-look-for-home-advantage-41485523.html Little room for error in URC final as Connacht chases Europe as Munster seeks home advantage