On Saturday at 3pm a new era in the Pro 12 will be born. This year saw a heightened level of significance materialise within the league, as European qualification became solely hinged on Pro 12 table position. It might not be too much of a stretch to say that this relevance somewhat snuck up on some of the teams, with Leinster in particular leaving it until the penultimate game last week to secure qualification. Connacht, Edinburgh and Scarlets too are all finding themselves vying for the last ticket to Europe this weekend too. It is a pleasant sight to see seven teams in the table all still with some tangible reason to give it their all on the final weekend, here’s how they’re shaping up.
Connacht have the cards more stacked against them tomorrow than any other side taking the field. They host current table toppers Ospreys in Galway and realistically need to get a maximum return of five points to stand any hope of avoiding the Champion’s Cup play offs. Ospreys come with a form that is to be expected of them whilst Connacht have been slightly on edge over the last two months. That said, the performance against Zebre from the westerners last weekend, however limited the opponents, was something to inspire some confidence. Earlier this year and late last year you would have said that regardless of the finish, this has been a successful season for Pat Lam. He has had Connacht playing a brand of rugby nobody expected without some more years in top tier contention. Their ommision from the Champion’s Cup turned out to be a blessing in disguise as they put a stranglehold on the Pro 12.
Alas the oft mentioned lack of depth came back to bite them in a big way and now they are hoping for miracles to finish in the top 6. Just to clarify, Connacht are going to need Scarlets to gain no more than a losing bonus point against Treviso and of course for Edinburgh to hopefully fall against Leinster, but even at that they would need to beat Ospreys with a bonus point in order to secure automatic qualification. Should they enter the play offs, things don’t look good as they would go on to face Gloucester followed by the seventh placed Top 14 side in order to hope for access. No small task by any means, though the extra game time of the Challenge Cup may work against Gloucester and the attritional nature of the Top 14 may work against whatever French side (currently Montpellier) makes their way in. Still, automatic qualification against all odds would have been the way to do it and they will rue the missed tackles and slipped passes all the more come the end of the season.
Munster have a far more straight forward task in hand and, like Ulster, will be hoping for a slip from Glasgow and/or Ospreys to help them nab a home semi final. They host Dragons in Cork and, though they let an awful lot slip away last weekend, they will be unlikely to lose in their final home game of the regular season. They have a season to rectify too of course and they know full well that a packed Thomond for the semi would be a great step towards that.
Looking back at last week, the subject of Anthony Foley’s strongest lamentations was of course that they let a 14 man Ulster score at the death. Worse still, it happened because Munster simply ran out of players out wide. Like Leinster, Munster have been somewhat porous at times this season and if there’s one thing Dragons can do it’s sniff a chance. They may not be the toughest opposition Munster will face in the next two or three weeks but certainly they could be a thorn in their side as they cling to home advantage fantasies. End of season flourishes have been something of a Munster trademark in recent years however, only the home semi final need be in doubt.
Ulster are in the same boat as Munster this weekend, with a home semi somewhat in sight. The main difference for them however is that they face one of the top two teams in the league and so; at least half their destiny is in their hands. Back in October Ulster handed the Warriors one of their biggest defeats in Belfast but you would think the Ulstermen would sooner face Ospreys tomorrow, given a choice of the table toppers. Glasgow are just dangerous, doubly so in the closing weeks.
There’s also a slight sense once again that this is a “last chance” of sorts for Glasgow. With a wealth of departures from the squad last season most thought it was their last shot at their peak, but this year sees the further departures of Sean Maitland, Nikola Matawalu and more from the team. Now sure enough, Glasgow are a great team today and three or four departures won’t be detrimental, but they are starting to resemble a pre-2006 Munster; the near victories when trophies are in the offering are just becoming too much.
They will welcome Ulster with a serious fight but they will be greeted in kind, particularly now that Neil Doak’s star power player Ian Henderson has been cleared of any citing. This will be close, and likely the game Mist deserving of your attention.
Connacht have one of the biggest mountains to climb with European Rugby Champion’s Cup qualification maybe just out of reach. They will host Ospreys in Galway and would wish for anyone but the top team with the task ahead of them. Realistically a bonus point win is their only chance if any comfort, and as good as Connacht have proven to be this season that is still a huge ask. Their rivals tomorrow are unbeaten since February, whilst Connacht only broke a losing streak last weekend finally against Zebre.
But we always say it and it’s generally true – Connacht always have one big show in them. Fair enough, they’re incredible comeback against Bayonne in December may have filled that quota, but magic things can happen in the Sportsground. It doesn’t hurt either that Pat Lam has seen the harsh reality of juggling extra game time this season, the Challenge Cup did take a lot out of the squad in the end. For that reason alone he will be under no illusion that having to take part in the play offs would be a good thing for the team. Essentially, Connacht have it in them to do what must be done tomorrow, their problem lies in whether Scarlets and Edinburgh can do them the favours they require.
Finally, Leinster. More eyes will be on team selection today than ever before in Matt O’Connor’s tenure. Qualification for Europe is in the bag, sure table placement is still relevant, but there is an opportunity now for some fresh faces to get one last shot at impressing. The World Cup of course looms large too for all Irish players this weekend and aside from everything else, these games are auditions. Is it going to be all that relevant to let a young player get 60/80 minutes on the pitch to maybe spark O’Connor or Schmidt’s imagination? Probably not, but it would certainly prove more interesting than another lacklustre performance from the top ranks.
Edinburgh may sit at second fiddle to their Glaswegian rivals, and their continued involvement in the Challenge Cup was a little too much for their squad, but it will still be a challenge nonetheless and an away fixture to boot. With Jimmy Gopperth departing for Wasps after this game it may be time for Madigan to start at 10, harsh as it may seem. The absence of both Gordon D’Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald likely make this impossible however. Tom Denton deserves to be seen in a single digit jersey too. Throw Mick McGrath into the mix too, after he was so electric in pre season and early November he has now vanished.
It cannot be ignored that this has been the worst season for Leinster since the early noughties. All that is left to salvage is that they A) hammer Edinburgh or B) blood some new faces. A turgid, scrappy win will help nobody, a loss would be catastrophic.