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There were wins for Leinster, Ulster and Connacht in the PRO14 at the weekend, but Munster’s chances of topping Conference A suffered a significant blow as they went down 10-6 to Scarlets in Wales.
The business end of the season has arrived at last and the jostling for prizes has begun in earnest. There are four rounds left in the PRO14 and all eyes are on qualification for the knock-out stages of the competition with all four Irish provinces currently well-placed to make it through.
Leinster secured a home semi-final as they overcame a spirited Cheetahs challenge to record a 19-7 victory at a rainy RDS on Friday evening. Truth be told, it’s been a bit of a canter for Leo Cullen’s men in Conference B this season who, worryingly perhaps given recent developments in Wales and elsewhere, are 22 points clear with four games to go. That’s a massive margin which may mean trouble down the line if it continues into next season and beyond.
Leinster will play the winners of the quarter-final match between the runner-up in Conference A and the third placed team in Conference B. As things stand, that means either Munster or Ulster. Johann van Graan’s outfit surrendered their position at the top of Conference A following their 10-6 defeat to Scarlets in Wales on Saturday. It will be a bitter pill to swallow for the South African who watched his side dominate proceedings for long periods without impacting the scoreboard. The result resurrects the Welsh region’s hopes of a play-off berth in Conference B following a disappointing campaign beset by injury.
Munster now trail Glasgow by three points following the Scottish side’s bonus point win at Zebre. However, they are a comfortable eleven points clear of Connacht and Cardiff Blues in third and fourth place respectively. The Westerners secured a bonus point of their own with a 46-5 rout of Ospreys at The Sportsgrounds on Saturday afternoon. It puts them in a strong position to qualify for the knock-out stages as they are now level with Cardiff Blues on 47 points and lead fifth-placed Ospreys, who have lost their last five on the trot in the competition, by eight points.
Ulster, meanwhile, kept up their push for a play-off place out of Conference B with a fine 28-15 bonus point victory over Dragons at Rodney Parade to move to within a single point of second-placed Benetton who beat Edinburgh 18-10 in Treviso. After some sparkling early season form, Richard Cockerill’s side have slumped alarmingly in recent weeks with just one win in their last four and face a fight to make the play-offs or even qualification for next season’s Champions Cup at this stage (the two fourth-placed teams in each conference play off for the final Champions Cup place). They are now down in fifth place, three points behind fourth-placed Scarlets and seven adrift of Ulster in third.
The race for the top of Conference A looks interesting with both Munster and Glasgow having three home games left. It may come down to bonus points. Munster host Zebre, Cardiff and Connacht. They travel to Benetton in the penultimate round. While all with the exception of minnows Zebre might be considered tricky, they could very conceivably win them the four of them. Glasgow, meanwhile, play Cheetahs, Ulster and Edinburgh at home - all winnable games for one of the league’s powerhouses, it could be argued. However, they travel to Leinster in the penultimate round which is where they could come unstuck. Potential Champions Cup considerations notwithstanding, you can be sure that Leo Cullen will field a strong side for that one, so it could come down to bonus points yet. If the sides finish level, the number of wins over the season will count followed by points difference.
The race for third place in Conference A is finely poised with Connacht and Cardiff Blues currently incumbent on 47 points each, eight ahead of Ospreys on 39. The Welsh side face a tough enough run-in hosting Scarlets and a trip to Thomond Park to face Munster, but the crunch clash is surely round 20 when they travel to The Sportsgrounds. Connacht head coach Andy Friend, whose side also host Benetton and travel to Zebre, will be hoping to have sealed the deal before the final round when they travel to Munster and Cardiff host Ospreys.
Conference B is equally tight with just one point separating Benetton and Ulster on 50 and 49, with Scarlets a further four behind on 45. Benetton probably have the most difficult run-in with a trip to Zebre on the final day looking on paper like their easiest game. Before that it’s an all-Irish affair as they face Connacht and Leinster away and Munster at home, three very difficult games.
However, Ulster’s run-in isn’t much easier. They host Southern Kings in round 18 before travelling to Glasgow and Edinburgh. They then host Leinster in their final match. They will be looking for five points against the Kings and possibly something from their trip to Murrayfield as they won’t want to have too much riding on the Leinster game.
It means that Scarlets aren’t out of it just yet, but they face a couple of tricky games too. First up they face a daunting challenge at the Arms Park against a Cardiff Blues side who are in desperate need of points themselves. Following that they host Edinburgh and Zebre before finishing up with a trip to Rodney Parade to face Dragons. Of the three run-ins, you would say that theirs was slightly easier than their rivals which means we are in for some thrilling PRO14 rugby over the next few weeks.
Watch this space!
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