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Sixteen become eight: Five nations contest the quarter-finals

While both the Welsh and Italian teams have missed the playoffs in Vodacom URC's last two seasons, performances from Benetton and the Ospreys in particular allowed them to sneak into the quarter-finals and secure their places in what is expected to be a closely contested playoff round.

The drama of the match – from the Emirates Lions' defeat to the DHL Stormers in Cape Town, which still saw them secure a losing bonus point, to the Vodacom Bulls' last-gasp bonus point in Durban which put them top of the table, to Munster's substitute saving the team against Ulster – was a combination of the passionate, top-class rugby that has become the norm in this competition.

In the end, the Ospreys' bonus point win over Cardiff saw them edge out the Emirates Lions to finish eighth, but the Hollywoodbets Sharks' victory in the EPCR Challenge Cup meant the Welsh side can only qualify for the Investec Champions Cup if they win the Vodacom URC from here.

It will be no easy task for Toby Booth's team, who face a tough quarter-final in Limerick against Munster, where Graham Rowntree's team are favourites to defend the title they won in Cape Town last year.

Rowntree paid tribute to his Welsh opponents in the coming week, especially after Booth led the Ospreys to a top-eight finish despite budget cuts that hit the squad hard last season.

“We have a lot of respect for what Toby (Booth) did there,” Rowntree told the media after his team’s victory over Ulster.

“What he's done as a club, the challenges in terms of availability and budget. They're a tough team. We had a good fight with them in February or March, they're a tough team. This is the next game, we're in the play-offs and we finished top of the league. I'm incredibly proud of that as a club.”

Rowntree said Munster had done it the hard way, including two big wins in South Africa and a late victory over Ulster: “We don't make it easy for ourselves, do we? I think we were 11th on January 2nd, we had our injuries around Christmas and since the Connacht game we've picked up 44 points out of a possible 45.”

“We were in South Africa and I'm really happy with how we did. We may not get a trophy for it, but I'm incredibly proud of what we achieved. Now it's on to the play-offs… I can't wait.”

The Vodacom Bulls host Benetton at Loftus Versfeld in a replay of their Round 17 match, which the Pretoria side won 56-35.

While Jake White said it was not a perfect performance against the Sharks, the 26-14 win was a hard-fought victory, built largely on the performance of the forwards and a front row that overshadowed the front row of the Rugby World Cup-winning KwaZulu-Natalians.

“Our front row was outstanding,” said White afterwards. “That is not to be underestimated, they are world champions – it is Ox, Vincent and Bongi – and what gives us confidence is the fact that our front row can compete with what is touted as the best front row in the world.”

Leinster's third-place finish meant a repeat of their Round 17 match against Irish side Ulster, who beat them in Belfast last time out. This time, however, Leo Cullen's team will play in Dublin and will be hoping for a big crowd to make the city a fortress.

After losing the Champions Cup final to Toulouse, Leinster are now under pressure as they seek their first Vodacom URC title.

“We will ask the fans to really step on the gas next week because we have a quarter-final down at the Aviva Stadium,” said Cullen.

“Remember, it’s the fans who make the event, so we hope lots of people will come along.”

The Glasgow Warriors face potentially their toughest quarter-final against last season's runners-up and 2022 champions, the DHL Stormers, after Franco Smith's team had to fight hard to beat the weaker Zebre team on Friday night.

Smith praised the Scotstoun crowd for getting the team through on a night when they were far from their best and said they would need the fans again next week against the Stormers, who have plenty of firepower of their own.

“I think tonight [the crowd] got us through,” Smith said. “They put us on the spot and the boys responded well to the support, so it will be fantastic to have this place completely full next week.”

“I can't say for sure now. We need to discuss it and on Monday we will contact the review board again to find out why, but I think there was a bit of over-eagerness. We all knew that with a certain number of points we still had a chance of finishing first.

“I think they just wanted to make amends and sometimes the public doesn't realise how much they want to make amends for a loss like the one against the Lions.

“They get a bit nervous and irritable and then an execution error happens, so that's understandable this week. We've finished the season and now a new phase of this competition is starting and of course it looks very different.”

With eight teams remaining, the competition takes on a different shape. It's all to play for and the winner will have no room for error. And given the drama of the past weekend, it's going to be extraordinary.

Results of the 18th round:
Leinster 33 Connacht 7
Glasgow Warriors 38 Zebra Parma 26
DHL Stormers 29 Emirates Lions 24
Benetton 31 Edinburgh 6
Scarlet 32 ​​Dragons 15
Hollywoodbets Sharks 14 Vodacom Bulls 26
Munster 29 Ulster 24
Cardiff 29 Osprey 33

Quarter-final matches:

Friday, June 7:
20:35: Munster (1) – Ospreys (8) (Quarter-final 1)

Saturday, June 8:
15:30: Vodacom Bulls (2) vs Benetton (7) (Quarter-final 2)
18:00: Leinster (3) – Ulster (6) (Quarter-final 3)
20:35: Glasgow Warriors (4) vs DHL Stormers (5) (Quarter-final 4)

The winners of QF1 and QF4 will meet in Semi-Final 1, while the winners of QF2 and QF3 will meet in Semi-Final 2.