The three South African teams hoping to secure a home playoff in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship were handed an early blow this week as Leinster are set to cotton-wool their best players for the key Irish derby against Munster on Saturday.
Having already secured a place in the quarter-finals, the Sharks, Vodacom Bulls and Stormers will this weekend focus on finishing inside the URC top four and, by so doing, earn a home playoff.
However, plenty will hinge on the top-of-the-table derby between leaders Leinster and second-placed Munster.
Leinster have already secured first place in the URC, but will need to beat Munster to give all three South African teams a chance to join them in the top four.
The Irish giants will, however, face La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup final next weekend and head coach Leo Cullen admitted that he could rest a number of his more experienced players against Munster.
“We want to put on a big performance here next week. There are different layers in the group,” Cullen said. “You have guys like Johnny [Sexton] who has experienced lots of positive memories and a few tricky ones along the way, as we all have, and then there is a younger group that is striving for success for the first time.
“We’ll have some players that are desperate to put their hand up, that’s what we want to see from them.
“So that’s the thing that’s probably occupying most of my thoughts at the moment, is getting ready for a [Munster] team that we know are very ambitious to be very successful as well. They’ve come out publicly and said their desperation for trophies and, I guess, investment they’ve put in, in terms of getting some World Cup winners into their squad.
“So, that’s probably the thing that is actually taking up most of my headspace at the minute because that’s the way our minds go to, which is the next challenge.”
Leinster are also sweating over the availability of tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, who suffered an ankle injury in the European semi-final clash with Toulouse, as well as star wing James Lowe, who picked up a leg injury after scoring two tries in that game.
Should Munster beat Leinster, that would mean at most only two of the three South African teams could finish in the URC top four.
The Bulls and Sharks will face the Ospreys and Ulster, respectively, on Friday night, while the Stormers take on Scarlets in Wales on Saturday evening.
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