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Munster joined Leinster as they sealed their place in the PRO14 play-offs with two games to go, while Connacht and Ulster remain on course to make it a clean sweep for the Irish provinces.
There is no room for any more slip-ups. It’s the last-chance saloon. With just two games to go, even the smallest error could prove costly. Connacht and Ulster are fighting to secure their play-off places and, while Leinster are guaranteed top spot in Conference B, Munster are still battling it out with Glasgow Warriors for first place and a home semi-final out of Conference A.
Anything less than two wins from their trip to Italy to take on Benetton and home date with Connacht in the final round will surely see Johann van Graan’s men forced to play a quarter-final against the third-placed team from Conference B followed by a possible semi-final date with Leinster at the RDS. Remarkably, Connacht may have already secured third place by then which means the result may not be as important to them as it might be for Munster.
In Conference B, meanwhile, Ulster travel to Edinburgh on Friday night (LIVE on eir sport 2 from 7pm) who are also chasing a play-off spot which means that a victory for Benetton over Munster could hand the Italian side a significant advantage going into the final weekend when they travel to Zebre.
With some choice fixtures to come in rounds 20 and 21, including a round of derby matches, it’s still everything to play for.
Munster secured a play-off berth and kept themselves in contention for top spot in Conference A and a potential home semi-final with a comprehensive 45-21 victory over Cardiff Blues at Irish Independent Park on Friday evening. The visitors, sitting fourth in the table on the same points as Connacht, had plenty to play for themselves and showed no shortage of intent in the opening 50 minutes before Munster sealed victory with a trio of five-pointers from Conor Murray, Andrew Conway and Sam Arnold which ensured that the Welsh outfit, who led early in the second half, eventually left Cork empty handed.
Munster face a tricky test on Friday night at the Stadio Communale di Monigo against a resurgent Benetton side (LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, the eir sport app and eir sport 1 Xtra from 6.45pm) who will be relishing the challenge of taking on one of the tournament’s big boys. Anything less than a win is likely to rule them out of contention for top spot in Conference A.
Van Graan will undoubtedly have one eye on next weekend’s Champions Cup semi-final showdown with Saracens (EXCLUSIVELY LIVE on the eir sport pack) so his team selection should be interesting. We already know that Joey Carbery will miss out which, even with Tyler Bleyendaal proving an able replacement, will make it slightly more difficult to rest key players in other positions.
Munster’s result opened the door for Connacht, but they almost suffered a major disaster in Italy as they were forced to desperately hold on for a 6-5 win over minnows Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi. A defeat would surely have derailed their season with Cardiff Blues breathing down their neck, but Andy Friend’s side are now four points clear of their nearest rivals whom they welcome to The Sportground on Saturday afternoon.
It’s a must-win game for the visitors while Connacht luckily still have a little bit of wriggle room, but the Westerners will be hoping to get the job done on the day rather than having to get something out of their trip to Thomond Park in the final round.
Ulster retained second place in Conference B despite suffering a 30-7 thrashing at the hands of Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun on Friday night. Rob Herring crossed to put the visitors ahead with just seven minutes on the clock, but that was as good as it got for Dan McFarland’s outfit who were outplayed for long spells by a flamboyant home side who had secured a bonus point within minutes of the restart as Fraser Brown, Adam Hastings, Tommy Seymour and Zander Fagerson all dotted down to secure an easy win for the hosts.
Perhaps a less-than-inspired performance was on the cards following Ulster’s agonising loss to Leinster in the Champions Cup just six days earlier, but it certainly puts them under pressure to win at least one of their two remaining fixtures. They have a chance of revenge against Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium on the final day, but face a huge challenge against Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Friday night. They are currently three points ahead of Richard Cockerill’s men, so a win would guarantee them at least third place. However, a defeat may not be completely disastrous as Edinburgh make the short journey to Scotstoun to take on Glasgow in round 21 and may need to get something from that game if Ulster can beat Leinster on the same day.
It’s quite simple really…….
Benetton have been the surprise package of the PRO14 season and are easily the most improved outfit in the league. They have played an exciting brand of rugby throughout the campaign and have taken some notable scalps along the way, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Scarlets since the turn of the year. They came close to adding Leinster to that list at the RDS on Saturday evening as they competed for the full 80 minutes against the reigning champions to earn a 27-27 draw which keeps them firmly in the hunt for a play-off place.
Leinster may have had one eye on next weekend’s Champions Cup semi-final, but there is no denying that the Italian side were full value for the draw. They host Munster on Friday night knowing that two wins in their final two games should see them qualify at the expense of either Ulster or Edinburgh. Leo Cullen’s men, meanwhile, could become the toast of Thomond if they can beat Glasgow at the RDS on Saturday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 2.15pm) before heading north to the Kingspan on the final day.
Like I said earlier, there’s everything to play for……
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