Two weeks to go and one would think we are already looking at the final top 4 order in the 2015 Guinness Pro 12. Aside from Munster the table toppers showed nearly all their worth over the weekend too and the knock outs are shaping up to be some absolutely mouth watering games.
On Friday night Leinster and Ulster locked horns in an absolutely crucial fixture for the Blues. Out of Europe, sitting outside the top 4 and in direct competition with Ospreys for that coveted spot, kicking off their three game run with a win was more than necessary. It looked like they were more than aware of that fact too as they raced into a 10 nil lead in the first ten minutes. Coming away from their agonisingly close finish against Toulon last week, many expected Leinster to carry over some authority from France but as it happened it turned into business as usual in the worst way possible.
As mentioned, Leinster ran into a nice lead for themselves early on, though it came from an Ulster mistake rather than a Leinster set piece. From there however they didn’t really put a hand near taking ownership of the game. Sean O’Brien in particular had a night to forget, letting his frustrations get the better of him and earning a deserved yellow card in the process, as did Rob Kearney. O’Brien did have reason for frustration after referee John Lacey essentially obstructed him from defending Ian Henderson’s try (though Leinster were going to concede in that passage regardless). Ulster are into their pomp at the most important time and look to be strong title contenders, this was a win well deserved even if they weren’t entirely at peak levels. Louis Ludik in particular is more than proving his worth at fullback, where Ulster have been hit and miss in recent years, and their team synergy seems to be in full swing. Not a season saved given how abysmally they bowed out of Europe however but from little acorns and all that. As for Leinster, they now have two weeks left in a season that has been riddled with peaks and troughs, mostly the latter, and the summer downtime couldn’t come quick enough. They are of course nothing resembling down and out for the future but the coaching team certainly need to rewrite the plan of action.
Ulster 26 – 10 Leinster
Connacht had a less productive day than their Northern cousins against the leaders Glasgow as they were unceremoniously annihilated in their Galway fortress. Even to neutrals Connacht’s season is an infuriating one at the tail end. Lack of squad depth may be to blame for the most part, but they have fallen off in performance from their explosive pre-Christmas form that is for sure. This defeat to Glasgow, coupled with Edinburgh demolishing Zebre 37 nil, means that Connacht have now slipped into seventh and are outside the automatic qualification range as far as Europe is concerned. This would certainly be the worst possible end to their season, given that the only thing they are really missing at this point is genuine top tier exposure.
The game itself was somewhat one sided with Jack Carty failing to find form with the boot after two early penalties. Glasgow crossed first with Niko Matawalu then twice consecutively with Stuart Hogg and Matawalu once more leaving them 19 – 6 up at half time and what came next will haunt Connacht the longest. When your opponents go down to 14 men and you don’t capitalise, it stings. When they do so twice and once again you don’t take full advantage, it burns. But when your opponent matches you for scores during the entire twenty minutes they are down to 14 men, that is when the Monday review is going to sting like no other. Indeed, Connacht took advantage of the first sin-binning period but that Glasgow were the try scorers during the second will cause a bitter taste that won’t leave any time soon.
Look, they were playing the league leaders who, above all else, have far more players at hand. Next week they take on Treviso and should surely secure the points to match Edinburgh if not overtake them on points difference too assuming the Scots fall to Dragons which is a big enough ask. We will wait and see.
Connacht 13 – 31 Glasgow
Finally, Munster made life far harder than they needed to against Treviso in Cork. Of course few teams find themselves needing to bring anything but a competent level of performance to a fixture against either of the Italian sides but with their second place table position, a bonus point before the sixty minute mark would have been a bit of comfort for the home support. If this game is to be taken in a head to head sense in relation to them taking on Ulster next weekend then Munster could be in a spot of bother. It has been a consistent issue with their season that Munster have not only failed on some of the higher stages but that a lack of desire has been present in some of the “lesser” games too.
20 – 7 at half time though, two tries coming in rapid succession at the start of the game – there wasn’t much to complain about really. Until the second Treviso try that is, seven minutes into the second half. For a brief, scary period for Munster, in the second half the Italians looked fit to creep well back into contention. It was only in the sixty seventh minute, after twenty minutes of lacklustre rugby from both sides, that Munster finally put the bonus point – and the game – to bed yet they still managed to find themselves conceding a try at the death. The control and clinical nature of super groups like Munster were very absent through most of the game and especially towards the closing moments. All facets that will operate against them quite strongly come next weekend and into the knock outs. The real test lies ahead.
Munster 30 – 19 Treviso