Three weeks remain in the Pro 12 regular season and for the first time this decade Leinster are looking at a slim chance of Top 4 qualification. Munster and Ulster sit relatively comfortably with Munster travelling to Edinburgh and Ulster heading West to Connacht but Leinster, en route to face the Dragons on Sunday, are staring down a real possibility of not making the league knock outs whilst also trying to figure out Toulon before their European Semi Final. A lot to ask, no question.
First up this weekend Ulster are Galway bound for a meeting with Connacht that looks exciting to say the least. With Robbie Henshaw back among their ranks as well as Tiernan O’Halloran finally rejoining the squad, Connacht look healthy and have a spirited defeat to Gloucester last week to maybe bolster their spirits. Ulster meanwhile have their own returning Internationals and will be hoping that the likes of Tommy Bowe and Rory Best can return to the fold this weekend.
On recent form there can be no denying that Ulster are in a much better place. Connacht were always a risk that they would falter in the business end of the season due to a simple lack of player numbers and it is something that’s starting to creep in these last few weeks. Ulster meanwhile have only the one loss in the last handful of fixtures and not by much. Underperforming is still perforating both sides however. Connacht have slipped off massively from their early season form whilst Ulster have been infuriatingly inconsistent all season.
In all likelihood this will break down into home advantage versus squad depth and unfortunately for Connacht, depth will likely win out.
Munster are sitting pretty with their third place position due to a lack. Of European action keeping them distracted and a glut of Internationals such as Connor Murray and Paul O’Connell returning to the fold. They travel to face Edinburgh tomorrow but the Scots won’t likely present too much for them to fear.
It has been a strange season for Munster, finding themselves with no European silverware to compete for beyond the pools yet now looking favourites for the league. This is mostly down to two factors : firstly, their Champion’s Cup pool couldn’t have been any less forgiving and secondly their injuries. Though they may not have had as long of a list as Leinster and Ulster, the absence of key players like Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls and the premature retirement of Damien Varley are all facets that Anthony Foley just didn’t need in his first year at the helm.
The next four weeks are now crucial to Munster’s season and will stand as a testament to whether this never ending period of transition can come to an end. It won’t be easy but
Finally we come to Leinster. Through to the Champion’s Cup Semi Finals, only four points outside of Pro 12 knock outs and yet they are receiving more vitriol and loathing than any team in Ireland at present. How did this happen? Their style of play since 2013 is mostly to blame. The last two seasons Leinster have found themselves chasing games or hanging on for wins far more often than normal. When Matt O’Connor started his tenure his remit was that Leinster were already one of the best ball distributing teams in the Northern Hemisphere, he wanted them to become one of the best defences. And for a time he succeeded, but that mantra now seems to have taken the place of any attacking shape and further to that their defence in recent fixtures has been awful.
Travelling to Wales Leinster find themselves in poor form too, having fallen to this same opposition at home and you need to go back as far as January to find evidence of their last comprehensive away victory, which was over Cardiff. We seem to be past they days of writing off the league with the assumption that the likes of Leinster will just come good at the end and qualify. For that reason it’s hard to look past it.
Image courtesy of southwalesargus.co.uk