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United Rugby Championship: Quarter-finals Preview

The inaugural United Rugby Championship has reached the Final Eight stage with Leinster strongly fancied to bounce back from their European disappointment to clinch the title.

Johnny Sexton and co are 4/11 to be crowned champions, having won the four previous editions of the Pro 12/14 before it became the URC.

However, Leinster face a new challenge in this season's play-off in the form of a trio of South African teams eager to make their mark in their maiden campaigns.

The Stormers finished as runners-up in the regular season and lead the contenders from Africa at 9/1 for the URC title, alongside the Bulls and Sharks.

Completing the quarter-final field are some more familiar faces in Ulster, Munster, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the majority of whom know what it takes to negotiate the play-offs, but face an uphill battle if they are to reach the final on 18th June.

One of that quartet will bow out at the first hurdle with Munster and Ulster kicking off the Final Eight stage in a mouth-watering showdown on Friday night.

Tough to separate high-quality duo

What: Ulster v Munster

Where: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast

When: 19:35pm, Friday 3rd June, 2022

How to watch: Premier Sports 2

Odds: Ulster 4/7, Munster 6/4

Munster missed out on the opportunity to secure a home quarter-final in the final round of the regular season, slipping out of the top four with a 35-25 defeat to an understrength Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.

That forces them to go on the road to Ulster, who have only lost once at home in the URC so far this season.

However, that sole loss was inflicted by Munster just last month with the visitors getting their noses in front before digging in after the break to complete a season double over Ulster.

That was the first time in five years that this fixture has produced an away winner and Ulster have since bounced back to form, getting the better of Edinburgh and the Sharks in their final two fixtures to secure a top-four finish.

This is a game stacked full of quality operators, particularly amongst the backs with the midfield showdown between Stuart McCloskey and James Hume of Ulster and Munster's duo of ex-Ulsterman Chris Farrell and South African World Cup winner Damian De Allende particularly intriguing.

There's some electric pace on the wings too, with Ireland man Robert Baloucoune having enjoyed a good season for Ulster, scoring 10 tries in 16 matches, while Munster can call upon Andrew Conway and Keith Earls.

With the respective packs also carrying some big hitters in the likes of Duane Vermeulen, there appears little to separate the sides on paper and the three-point handicap seems a fair mark.

Given Munster have yet to show they are over their heart-breaking Champions Cup loss to Toulouse and Ulster’s excellent record on home soil, the Ulstermen should feel confident of avenging their two regular season defeats on route to the semi-finals.

In-form Bulls charging towards last four

What: Bulls v Sharks

Where: Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria

When: 12:45pm, Saturday 4th June, 2022

How to watch: Premier Sports 2

Odds: Bulls 8/15, Sharks 8/5

Only a point separated the Bulls and the Sharks in the table at the end of the regular season but all the momentum appears to be with the home side heading into this quarter-final.

The Bulls won eight of their last nine matches to move into the top four with their sole defeat in that time a narrow two-point loss at the Stormers.

Jake White's men have really clicked in an attacking sense, averaging over 38 points per game over the course of the last nine matches, while Kurt-Lee Arendse and Madosh Tambwe top the URC charts for clean breaks and metres made.

In contrast to the Bulls' ball-in-hand style, the Sharks will look to their kicking and power games to get them over the line, which it did do in both regular season encounters against the Bulls.

An early red card for the Bulls aided the Sharks' cause the last time they visited Pretoria but their record generally at the Loftus Versfeld is poor and they head into the game off the back of a defeat at Ulster which cost them a home quarter-final.

Warriors wary of Leinster backlash

What: Leinster v Glasgow Warriors

Where: RDS Arena, Dublin

When: 15:15pm, Saturday 4th June, 2022

How to watch: Premier Sports 2

Odds: Leinster 1/12, Warriors 13/2 

Leinster were outfoxed by Ronan O'Gara and La Rochelle in Marseille last week as they saw a fifth European Champions Cup slip through their grasp.

How they respond to that disappointment will likely decide the outcome of this game with Glasgow massive 16-point underdogs to oust the Irish powerhouse.

The Warriors will take some heart from a couple of wins over Leinster in the last three years but have been comfortably beaten on their last two trips to the RDS and head into this quarter-final on a four-match losing run which cost them a place in next season’s Champions Cup.

Richie Gray says Glasgow were "flattened" by the most recent of those losses to Edinburgh and they’ll need to pick themselves up to avoid a crushing loss.

Despite mixing and matching their side throughout the URC season to cope with the demands of Europe, Leinster still finished the regular campaign having scored the most points (546) and tries (73).

The hosts have an abundance of threats amongst the backs and a pack that could overpower a Glasgow side that lacks grunt.

Edinburgh braced for a storm

What: Stormers v Edinburgh

Where: DHL Stadium, Cape Town

When: 18:00pm, Saturday 4th June, 2022

How to watch: Premier Sports 2

Odds: Stormers 2/7, Edinburgh 11/4

Edinburgh have enjoyed an excellent first season under Mike Blair and will take plenty of confidence into this meeting with a Stormers side that finished second in the regular season standings.

The Scots are one of only two northern hemisphere teams to have won a URC game in South Africa this season, beating the Sharks in March, while they held the Stormers to a 20-20 draw at home last October.

Morale is high in the camp after their win over Glasgow but they face an extremely tough test against a Stormers side that’s won eight on the bounce and has only lost once at home all season.

A powerful pack lead by soon-to-be-Springbok Evan Roos is ably supported by a backline featuring the URC's leading tryscorer, Leolin Zas, and the Stormers are nine-point favourites for the last of the Final Eight series.

Edinburgh's away record is middling at best, but it's a team full of belief who could run the Stormers close.

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