Another season comes to a close and once again the top 4 can be hardly debated. Ospreys, Munster, Ulster and Glasgow now all stand in contention for the Pro 12 title, something which has eluded them all bar Ospreys in 2010. It’s never been more competitive up here.
First up Ulster will return to Scotstoun for their clash with Glasgow. We can pretty much write off last week’s loss, such was the dearth of front line players on the pitch. Neil Doak played it coy and as a result has no selection issues outside the pre-existing injury concerns. Of the two Irish provinces, it’s hard to tell who truly needs this title more, Ulster or Munster. On the one hand, Ulster are without silverware of note for nearly twenty years, and must make amends for their annual progression coming to a halt last season. Munster need to regain the faithful, true, but we’ll go into that shortly.
For the Ulstermen it will be nothing but focus tonight, particularly given that they will be going home for the final. Added incentives may not be necessary but they’re welcome all the same. Glasgow will be the tough opponents they always are however, with their own trophyless monkey on their shoulder to boot. Year on year they have found themselves coming up short for the league title, on more than one occasion after having topped the table. They have the discipline and pride within their ranks to know this simply isn’t acceptable. Whether a Paddy Jackson inspired Ulster can overcome them is a question for the pitch though. Both sides have experienced peaks and troughs this season, who will peak tonight is the question.
Munster welcome Ospreys to Thomond Park and resume what has become a delicious rivalry over the years. Though not always a thriller exactly, when either of these sides decide they want to do a number on the other they bring a huge game. Munster will be delighted to have injury free heroes Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony amongst their ranks, alongside the authoritarian Connor Murray and of course Paul O’Connell. To envision anything but a win here in past seasons would be sacrilege.
It may not be however. Ospreys could have imploded in the early part of the decade as more and more players sought warmer weather and bigger wages but to their credit they have more than clung on. What they haven’t done however is retain their knock out rugby credentials. Like many other teams of past and present, Ospreys are missing that one final clinical stroke, the big game winner. It will be up to Munster to exploit this and we can only presume they will do so based on one thing – their now traditional end of season final fight. With Europe eluding them year on year recently, Munster have taken on the importance of the league as compensation more than any other team. Fair enough, they haven’t won it since 2011, but they have been building year on year. In World Cup year, a week ahead of the majority of the Leinster squad likely lining out against the Baa Baas, this is when Munster must finally hit the sweet spot.
Connacht will be hoping to keep their Champions Cup chances alive with a trip to Kingsholm tomorrow. They take in Gloucester in the first play off for European qualification. The Gloucester remained in the Challenge Cup up to the final which they won could be seen as an advantage with regard fatigue, except for the greater squad depth of the hosts and that they are coming off the back of a rest week.
Aside from the unfortunate season ending injury to Kieran Marmion, Pat Lam is in a good enough position regarding selection. John Cooney has been in fine form as understudy to Marmion and it makes sense that only injury would seperate them. I’ve talked here before about Connacht seemingly always managing that one big performance, this will have to be it. In their narrow loss to Gloucester in the Challenge Cup they showed that they can be more than competitive, save for Gloucester getting an early upper hand. If Connacht get an early score this could be a cracker.
Finally, a word on the departure of Matt O’Connor as Leinster head coach. When a player or coach departs a team it can be easy to forget that this person is losing their job. With that in mind it may be prudent to reserve some of the more heartfelt opinions I have on his tenure. What I will say is that Leinster was not a good fit for him. There were high points, no doubt, and his CV will read Pro 12 Winner, European Quarter and Semi Finalist, but with two legends like Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton returning next season the knives would have been out in an irreversible way had results not followed. For that reason it is best for all that he ply his trade elsewhere. As for Leinster? Who knows. All of the most viable candidates for the job are at mid points in their contracts with their current employers. For now Leo Cullen has the reins and there’s worse they could do for the interim. Yet another new era dawns, all the best Matt.