Ironic, given that they are the two Irish sides given the least amount of praise in Europe this season but Ulster and Munster are sitting second and third on the Pro 12 table in this penultimate round of games and look likely to serve up the game of the weekend this Saturday. As Leinster and Connacht take on the Italian underlings, north and south will be clashing to make one last push on who finishes with that all important home semi-final.
The Pro 12 hasn’t been kind to Ulster over the years. Their best chance at glory game in 2013 when they reached the final only for Leinster to finally break the duck and take the trophy. Ulster were hard done by in a sense, only four losses to their name in the regular season and table toppers to boot, but Leinster simply couldn’t take the sting of losing yet another Pro 12 title at the last hurdle, particularly given the European prowess they were riding on at the time. Now is the time for the Ulstermen to make amends. With no fresh injury concerns and players like Ian Henderson and Paddy Jackson playing right into some fine end of season form, Munster will have all to do in order to prevent Ulster from leapfrogging them into second.
Anthony Foley seems mostly keen to tell Toulon to get back in their box ahead of these last few games as rumours still fly about wildly that Toulon could be entering negotiations with the Ireland skipper. Just a quick note on that, Paul O’Connell will not be joining Toulon, at least not any time before his current contract expires anyway. Glad we could get that out of the way. Like Ulster, Munster have as close to a full squad as they have had all season and heading up to Belfast they should provide one of Ulster’s greatest challenges. Ravenhill hasn’t been all that kind to them in the past however, in face it has been nearly a decade since Munster recorded a victory in this fortress and even that was only a three point affair. Since then Ulster have had an undisputed upper hand and often the southerners have been on the wrong end of a thumping in this fixture.
Not this time though. For the first time since 1999 Munster have had no European rugby to their interest beyond February. They haven’t necessarily used their single focus situation to their full advantage, most notably against Ospreys during the Six Nations window, but arguably even more than Ulster they need this Pro 12 title. Their claiming of it in 2011 proved pivotal in keeping morale up amongst the player and fan ranks and after a lacklustre season they need this all over again. Indeed, not this time though, but there’s a difference between Munster not being likely to suffer a thumping and Munster managing to overcome their bogey team within the island. Ulster are just damn good at the minute and find themselves with just a little more ballast in the ranks to make sure that Munster leave with a bonus point at worst.
Connacht have managed to slip just too far down the ranks for comfort at this stage of the Pro 12. A top 6 place is crucial for them to manage qualification into the European Rugby Champion’s Cup otherwise they will be aiming at a play off position which their current form has suggested will just be too much for them to cope with. Though playing away, this weekend’s fixture against Zebre should prove the lesser of their two mountains to climb before the end of the month. A bonus point win on Saturday is simply a must for Connacht and losses for Edinburgh and Scarlets above them on the table wouldn’t hurt too.
It is a shame, given that they started the season as one of Ireland’s most promising and best to look at teams in the Pro 12, that poor squad depth has finally taken its toll on them. Promise and belief run rife through this squad and some of their displays throughout the season have been simply superb, but it could be all about to come apart in these dying days. That said, aside from Scarlets finishing against Treviso next weekend, there is nothing to say that Connacht are riding on a wing and a prayer. A win against Ospreys next weekend will be a big ask but traditionally they have always managed to pull at least one of these out of the bag. Edinburgh sit ahead of them but have the least enviable run in of the three contenders with Dragons away followed by Leinster at home. A four point return from the two would be a likelihood for the Scots. As for Scarlets, they will be Connacht’s biggest threat with the lowly Italians on the final day of fixtures but stranger things have happened.
Truth be told, non-qualification would be catastrophic for Connacht. The only natural next step from their new found form this season is to move on to the big leagues, anything less could have a detrimental impact on their evolution which has come on in leaps and bounds since August. Step one is on Saturday.
Predicting a Leinster loss against Treviso is a worrying place to be in. Thankfully I don’t think any of us are there just yet, I know I’m not, but that said I doubt there’s ever been shorter odds on it. 12/1 Paddy Power have Treviso at, a year ago that would have been 30 to 40. Leinster have not won a Pro 12 fixture since February and that was against Zebre. Think about that one for a moment. Earlier in the season when they were losing games by fine margins we could chalk it up to injury woes and international duty but now at the tail end, something is rotten. Calls for Matt O’Connor’s head are wasted in truth and the individual talents of the squad are not up for debate. No there is a deep seeded lack of ambition and conservative anxiety within the squad that is just immensely uncharacteristic of them.
No, of course they won’t lose to Treviso, especially not when bidding an RDS farewell to Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Jennings, but they badly require maximum return from this and next week’s fixture in order to avoid dropping out of the top 6 and that they can do so is certainly up for debate. Try scoring has been something they have lacked in most recent fixtures, and even worse is the amount of sure fire opportunities they have let go a begging. Short of Scarlets suddenly turning into a team of the tournament and Edinburgh discovering some long lost mojo, Leinster should be shoe in to finish with European qualification in hand, but they are guaranteed to be no higher than third tier for seeding which will make an already tough competition even tougher. Is the new qualification system ideal and certainly the best method of doing so? Of course not, the behind the scenes of the ERCC is a joke, but Leinster should not have found themselves in this situation to begin with. We’ll carry on trying to ignore the doom and gloom best we can but the clock is only ticking on for Leinster and the silver linings are few and far between.