This weekend was all about qualification security for the provinces, with Leinster ensuring they will see top tier rugby next season and Connacht doing everything in their power to try do the same. For Ulster and Munster however it was all about trying to sway the balance of power in these last two weeks of regular season and in one of the only entertaining games of the weekend both sides did all and more to best each other and the result was as close to enthralling as the Pro 12 has come this season.
It has been nearly a decade since Munster recorded a win in Belfast and after Saturday the wait continues. Truth be told Munster were the architects of their own demise as they let a seven point lead against 14 men disappear at the death but Ulster are just not ones for quitting in the money making end of this season and full credit for them to salvage the draw. The red card shown to Ian Henderson was certainly debatable though Nigel Owens has probably done the back row power house a favour as a yellow may have meant the disciplinary committee would see reason for a ban whereas the red will likely be deemed sufficient and he will be free for Ulster through the rest of their two or three games.
The night stood as a battle of the out halves for the most part with Keatley flawless from the tee (until the missed conversion which inevitably would have been the winning of the game of course) and Paddy Jackson, whilst completely flawless with the boot, controlled the game in a manner not seen from him since his return from injury. Ian Madigan will feel a lot of eyes on his back running into the World Cup pre-season, that’s for sure. Ulster owned the first half, even if the scoreboard would suggest the opposite initially. Poor discipline allowed Munster to run up a a nine nil lead in an opening thirty minutes they could be delighted with aside from the loss of Simon Zebo, but Ulster showed good attacking strength throughout and it paid off with Tommy Bowe’s brilliantly taken try at the stroke of half time, coupled with a Jackson penalty to give the hosts the lead at the break. What happened next will be of the most concern for the visitors, as Munster ran into a 23 – 13 lead which they managed to allow turn into 23 – 16 and eventually the finishing scoreline of 23 a piece which was confusing to see given how much the southerners seemed to have upped the ante in the second half. Anthony Foley has had anything but a smooth sailing season and so a finish within the top 4 is more than encouraging but there’s no denying that his charges let a guaranteed home semi final slip through their fingers this weekend with a relatively straight forward game against Dragons in Thomond whereas their second place table toppers Glasgow slipped to Ospreys and face Ulster next weekend. With no European rugby and so less hands having gone in pockets thus far both Munster and Ulster’s fans would appear in their droves for a home knock out however it would appear for all the world as though neither teams will reach that goal. Still, good rugby from all and an absolutely mouth watering final pairing should both these sides reach that goal.
Ulster 23 – 23 Munster
I’ll be brief, Leinster were awful. Matt O’Connor out, shadow of their former selves, limping through their season – there’s nothing I can say about Leinster that hasn’t been said a thousand times already since November or thereabouts. What I will say is that they were truly worse than I have ever seen them play as they hosted Treviso in a 10 nil snooze fest and once again I can only maintain that the players look more than uninterested on the pitch. Attrocious weather conditions can forgiven the horrendous number of handling errors on the pitch to a certain extent but there has been just no sign remaining of the individual talents available to the province for most of this season.
Treviso showed up with a defensive shape that is rarely seen from them, I’ll give you that, and it took until the final ten minutes for them to collapse as the Italian sides so often do (Edoardo Gori will be a lucky man to not be cited for his extremely dangerous tackle on Gordon D’Arcy). Regardless of defensive prowess however, Leinster shot themselves in the foot far more often that Treviso intervened at try scoring opportunities. Look, we’re beyond the point of just being unable to take the fact that post-Schmidt Leinster don’t win everything, they have now hit a point where they look as though they could nearly fall to an AIL team. Tactically, there’s not much criticism I would personally think could be aimed at Matt O’Connor. As has been mentioned here repeatedly, nearly every goal he has had for the team’s abilities he has met, particularly his defensive ones, but what he seems to be failing at is taking control of the squad. When you see the likes of Ian Madigan, Zane Kirchner and Rob Kearney making the same mistakes week in week out on the pitch you know that they are not feeling correct repercussions on the Mondays video session. Add to that how often Sean O’Brien seems to be letting his temper get the better of him ten times more than normal on the pitch, it all seems a little…off.
Edinburgh await in Murrayfield next week and though Leinster have their European qualification in hand, they will still have pressure on to finish the season on some sort of a shining light (as well as the favour they could do Connacht with a win). One more push before a massive regroup.
Leinster 10 – 0 Treviso
Connacht did all they could and more on Saturday as they ran in six tries against table doorstops Zebre. John Cooney was in particular fine form with two tries for the province where he has settled extremely well after swapping over from Leinster. Scarlets took a ten point win over Cardiff on Sunday to put that bit more pressure on Connacht for qualification however and with the westerners facing table toppers Ospreys next weekend whilst Scarlets will take on Treviso, it does look like Connacht’s European Rugby Champion’s Cup chances will hinge on a play off position. More games are nothing but beneficial for a team like them however they will unfortunately be most likely to be out on their feet come that time.
Still, taking Saturday on its own merits, it is encouraging that in a season where their thin squad has let them down that Connacht were able to clinically reap maximum points from this encounter. Zebre rarely present all that much in the way of a tangible challenge but there is still a job to be done when taking them on and as Leinster showed the day before, the Italians aren’t always a given walk over. Pat Lam can be proud of his second season in charge, no question, but there has been enough of a decline at certain stages that was avoidable to leave him wondering what if, should they miss out on Europe. Still, they are a damn sight further on that anyone would have given them 12 months ago and for that the Connacht faithful can be satisfied.
Zebre 10 – 40 Connacht