Will Irish dominance spread to the URC?

Will Irish dominance spread to the URC?

With Leinster already dominating the United Rugby Championship log, this weekend's fixtures will be crucial to see if the Irish provinces follow their national team's lead.

With Leinster already dominating the United Rugby Championship log, this weekend's fixtures will be crucial to see if the Irish provinces follow their national team's lead.

Leinster's lead is now 11 points over the second-placed DHL Stormers side after 13 rounds of the tournament and with a similar unbeaten run in the Heineken Champions Cup, there will be little to stop them from a run into possible back-to-back finals in Europe and the Vodacom URC in Dublin this year.

But with Leinster virtually assured of home ground advantage for the rest of the season for all their possible playoff games, attention will turn to the ding-dong battle between South Africa's top three sides, who will battle for the remaining top spots to ensure home ground advantage up until the semi-finals.

The DHL Stormers visit the fourth-placed Vodacom Bulls in a game that is very important for both sides, but there will be a similar scenario on Friday night as the two Irish provinces in contention for top four placings take centre stage.

Ulster's return to form and a resurgent Munster have given the Irish claims on supremacy a new lease of life and along with Leinster underpin the magnificent form that Ireland are currently showing in the Six Nations.

The work of David Nucifora and meticulous planning from all four their provinces have ensured a system whereby the national side is now number one in the world and one of the favourites for the Rugby World Cup later this year.

But what is often overlooked is the extreme depth the Irish provinces have built in their time, and how that has contributed to their URC campaigns.

While South African franchises have struggled to balance their top talent with emerging depth, the Irish teams are often just as deadly when they are without their stars, than when they are there.

Munster, in particular, have moulded a potent outfit without their test players and the news that RG Snyman is nearing a return after two years on the injury list will only be a source of inspiration as they head towards the business end of the season.

Their squad selection process was boosted with the news that they will welcome back Ben Healy from the Scotland camp while Irish stars Gavin Coombes, Keith Earls and Roman Salanoa are back from their national squad and will be available for the Thomond Park clash.

Coombes in particular has been in sensational form and earned a nomination for European Player of the Year recently, and he is sure to look to continue that form as Munster will look to build on wins in four of their last five games.

According to the stats, Munster are fifth in the league when it comes to defence, and fourth when it comes to tackles made, giving them a firm foundation to launch their attacks.

Ospreys are 12th with only four wins all season and if Munster are to be stopped taking a step towards a top four spot, the Welsh side will need to find some form very quickly.

Meanwhile Ulster's hopes of starting to close the gap on Leinster face an uphill task against another Vodacom URC form team in Franco Smith™s Glasgow Warriors.

Glasgow received a boost with the return of Jamie Bhatti, Fraser Brown, Simon Berghan, Jack Dempsey, Ali Price, Stafford McDowall and Ollie Smith from the Scottish camp, which will make Dan McFarland™s side™s task a lot tougher this weekend.

Ulster flanker Jordie Murphy believes the next couple of weeks will be "season defining" for the Irish side.

"We are an ambitious side," said Murphy.

"Leinster, to be fair, have a fair amount of points on everyone and we have three tough away games in a row. It's potentially season-defining but we'll take it game by game.

"[Glasgow] are strong at home, so it's a really important game for us so we want to go there and get a result. Then we have to try to back that up by going to South Africa to play the Sharks, so there are no easy games in this league."

Either way, it wouldn't be a surprise if the South African franchises are keeping a very close eye on the two Irish teams on Friday night.