Category Archives: PRO12

Leinster Through, Munster Embarrassed

Ospreys 45-10 Munster

Fri 11th May @ Liberty Stadium

Ian Keatley prepares to come on

Keatley’s early try gave Munster fans false hope. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Munster’s season ended with a whimper as the Ospreys cut them to pieces in Swansea. Despite a strong start, with Ian Keatley dotting down inside the first couple of minutes, Munster were comprehensively outplayed in every aspect of the game. The Ospreys were in superb form and scored some spectacular tries from inside their own half. Justin Tipuric continued his excellent season as he ruled the breakdown. Munster’s attacking play was once again devoid of imagination.

The lack of fight shown by Munster was another worry. Kahn Fotuali’i’s try on the stroke of half-time seemed to drain the last morsels of belief from Tony McGahan’s side and they were blown away after the break. All the big hits and incisive plays came from the Ospreys, who showed far more aggression. Rob Penney will now be fully aware of the task facing him at Munster. For the likes of Mick O’Driscoll, Lifeimi Mafi and McGahan, this was a depressing way to say their goodbyes.

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Leinster 19-15 Warriors

Sat 12th May @ The RDS

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A break by Isa Nacewa set up Dave Kearney’s try. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster got the job done in Dublin, ensuring their spot against the Ospreys in the PRO12 Final in two weeks’ time. That match will also take place at the RDS. Joe Schmidt’s men weren’t at their sparkling best on Saturday night, but never looked like losing. But for typically solid Warriors defence, the scoreline would have told a far more comfortable story in the home side’s favour. Johnny Sexton kicked 14 points in total, with Dave Kearney’s second-half try finally settling the game as a contest.

The Warriors did manage to get over for two tries in the last 5 minutes, but they had left it too late at that stage. Leinster’s attention now turns to Saturday’s Heineken Cup final. Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy and Gordon D’Arcy should all be fit to take their places against Ulster. Last Saturday night was simply about getting past the spirited Warriors, regardless of the performance, and that’s exactly what Leinster did.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.

PRO12 Semi-Finals Preview

Ospreys vs. Munster @ Liberty Stadium

Fri 11th May, 19.35 (RTE2)

Congratulations for Danny Barnes copy

Munster beat the Ospreys at this stage last season, with Danny Barnes scoring a brace. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

It’s 2nd versus 3rd in the first of the PRO12 semi-finals tonight. Munster will be desperate to advance in the hope of salvaging something from this campaign, but they face a tough task in Swansea. The Ospreys have been impressive all season in this competition and come into the game on a 5-game winning streak which started with their 23-22 victory over Leinster at the RDS in March.

Ronan O’Gara returns to the Munster bench, meaning Ian Keatley is back in at outhalf. This is a huge game for the ex-Connacht and Leinster man. After a strong start to the season, his form has tailed off and he needs to show that he is ROG’s long-term successor. The rest of the Munster team is as expected, with Keith Earls back at outside centre and keen to show Rob Penney that 13 is his best position. Ivan Dineen comes onto the wing due to a late Felix Jones injury, with Johne Murphy moving to fullback. Dave Kilcoyne is on the bench following his promising recent form.

Up front, the knee injury to Paul O’Connell means Mick O’Driscoll gets another outing before retirement. With James Coughlan still out with a hand injury, Peter O’Mahony continues at No.8. Without O’Gara and O’Connell, Munster haven’t looked the same side this season, so it’s crucial that the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan and Botha step up to the leadership mark.

Mafi magic as Sexton and O'Gara eyeball

Mafi will be out to ensure this isn’t his final game for Munster. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The Ospreys side is largely as predicted, with Dan Biggar set to steer the ship at 10. Interestingly, coach Steve Tandy has gone for Kahn Fotuali’i at scrumhalf rather than the talented youngster Rhys Webb, who is likely to have an impact off the bench. The centre partnership of Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop has been effective for the Ospreys this year, with 22-year-old Beck looking to earn a place on Wales’ summer tour to Australia.

Up front, the Ospreys are highly experienced. The front-row of Paul James, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones have been around the block once or twice and will be confident of scrum dominance. Behind them, Joe Beardman is the only of the five who is not a Welsh international. Openside flanker Justin Tipuric has had a fantastic season, showing that Wales have depth behind Sam Warburton.

It’s a strong, solid, grizzled Ospreys team who have been doing the business all season. The Welsh side have lost only 3 of their 17 home fixtures, and they’ve already beaten Munster home and away. With the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll and coach Tony McGahan all set to leave Munster, the province will be keen not to end their season on a losing note. However, the Ospreys appear to have too much. Verdict: Ospreys.

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Leinster vs. Warriors @ The RDS

Sat 12th May, 19.35 (TG4)

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Leinster’s record vs. the Warriors this season is P4, W2, D1, L1. (c) Ken Bohane.

Joe Schmidt will be ignoring the unfounded speculation of a return to New Zealand as Leinster look to stay on course for an historic double. They host the Glasgow Warriors is the second semi-final on Saturday night. The Scottish side confirmed 4th place with a 24-3 win over a disappointing Connacht last weekend. Regardless of the teams Sean Lineen and Schmidt pick (as yet neither side has been revealed), Leinster should have too much quality to be overcome by the Warriors.

The Scottish side have obviously been doing something right to find themselves at this stage of the competition. Lineen has built a solid, unspectacular outfit who are difficult to break down. They have obvious limitations in attack, highlighted by the fact that they have only bettered 3 other teams in terms of tries scored in the PRO12. The main attacking spark they possess is Stuart Hogg at fullback.

The 19-year-old Scottish international has lightening quick feet and pace to burn so Leinster will need to watch him closely. Duncan Weir has been given the nod over Ruaridh Jackson at outhalf. Weir offers more solidity in the 10 jersey, as well as a reliable boot, but expect to see the creative Jackson off the bench if the Warriors have to chase the game. Lineen’s backline really won’t strike fear into the Leinster squad. Big Graeme Morrison at 12 will look to put dents in the Irish side’s defence but is limited.

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Richie Gray will be a danger to Leinster’s lineout. (c) Ken Bohane.

Up front, Richie Gray and Ally Kellock form a complete second-row, which will cause problems for Leinster at the lineout in particular. At No.8 John Barclay has ball-carrying ability, but his form has been patchy this season. For Leinster, the only real surprise is that Eoin O’Malley starts at 13. This season’s PRO12 stalwarts in Devin Toner and Dave Kearney have earned their right to start. Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney are in competition for a H-Cup final spot so expect big efforts from both

Schmidt has picked a team that’s close to full strength, in what doubles up as a test run for the Heineken Cup final. It would be foolish to completely write off the Warriors. Despite the two wins for Leinster in Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup, the Warriors beat Schimdt’s side at The RDS in September and Leinster could only manage a draw in Firhill in February. However, Leinster should be close to full strength and the Warriors cannot match that quality. Verdict: Leinster.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

RaboDirect Round-Up

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Sexton contributed 11 points to Leinster's win over Ulster. (c) Ken Bohane.

Ulster 8-16 Leinster

Fri 20th April @ Ravenhill

Ulster’s play-off hopes look to be almost certainly over after losing to a powerful Leinster side in Ravenhill on Friday night. While the northern province could still mathematically claim 4th spot with an unlikely bonus point victory over Munster in two weeks’ time, a win the same weekend for either the Warriors or the Scarlets would deny Ulster. Even more worrying was the sight of Pedrie Wannenburg, Chris Henry and Paddy Wallace all leaving the pitch injured during Friday night’s loss.

Henry and Wannenburg’s withdrawals looked to be precautionary, but Wallace looked dazed, if not concussed, leaving the field. Fingers will be crossed across the country that those three recover for next Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Leinster were impressive without ever cutting loose. Kevin McLaughlin crashed over after some poor Ulster defence and Jonny Sexton added 11 points, including a smart drop goal. This win confirms top spot for Leinster with a game away to the Dragons remaining.

Here’s the highlights from Ravenhill:

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Connacht 19-16 Aironi 

Sat 21st April @ The Sportsground

Unfortunately, this game was not televised but it sounded like there was great excitement at the Sportsground. This win makes it 3-in-a-row in the PRO12 for Connacht, their best league run since 2004. Aironi, in their last ever away fixture, raced into a 16-3 half-time lead but Connacht gradually hauled themselves back with Rodney Ah You’s 74th-minute try, converted by Miah Nikora, leveling the game. The stage was set for replacement fullback Matt Jarvis to make himself the hero with a long-distance penalty, the final act of the game.

In case you missed it, I wrote a piece on Friday about the progress being made at Connacht. Check it out here. Next weekend, they travel to the Warriors, for whom a win would secure play-off status. A victory for Connacht would see them equal their record for most league wins in a season, set at 8 in 2004. If they were to deny the Warriors a losing bonus point, it would give Ulster a slim, slim chance of sneaking into the play-offs.

Here’s a video of Jarvis’ winning kick. Great scenes of celebration:

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Scarlets 20-20 Munster

Sat 21st April @ Parc y Scarlets

At the end, Munster were clinging on as the Scarlets launched a desperate effort to find a winning score. A draw was a fair result after a game in which neither side managed to take control. The hosts opened the scoring through Sean Lamont’s superb team try but Munster responded swiftly, with Donnacha Ryan strolling through Rhys Preistland’s uninterested tackle to touch down. Simon Zebo was next over after taking Keatley’s intelligent inside pass and using his pace to finish.

Aaron Shingler’s second half score put the Scarlets right back in it, and Priestland’s 70th-minute penalty drew them level. The Scarlets looked the more likely winners in a wildly open last 5 minutes but the visitors held on. The draw means that Munster can’t overtake the 2nd-placed Ospreys for a home play-off. They are now guaranteed an away semi-final though, most likely against the Ospreys. Munster finish the regular season with the chance for revenge over Ulster in two weekend’s time.

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Here’s a look at the PRO12 table with just one round of fixtures left before the play-offs:

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Photos courtesy: 

Connacht Look For 3rd-in-a-Row

Frank Murphy pass

Frank Murphy spins a pass away during Connacht's 26-21 win over Ulster last weekend. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

This week’s IRUPA Player and Young Player of the Season shortlists unsurprisingly failed to include a Connacht player. Ronan Loughney was included on the Medal for Excellence shortlist alongside Shane Jennings and Mick O’Driscoll. That award is basically the ‘Unsung Hero’ prize. Check out the full shortlists for all the awards here.

Surely the lists in the main competitions could have been extended to four to include a player from Connacht, seeing as every other province is represented? Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson, Gavin Duffy and Loughney have been ever-present and instrumental in all of the big Connacht performances this season. In the Young Player category, Tiernan O’Halloran’s superb season deserves mention.

Anyway, Eric Elwood and his squad will be unconcerned ahead of a weekend where they can earn a 3rd consecutive win in the PRO12 . They host Aironi in the Sportsground tomorrow evening (17.00 KO). If they win, it will be their second best run of form since this competition took on the current league format back in 2003/04. That season, Connacht won 4 games on the trot (Borders, Glasgow, Llanelli and Borders again, for the record). Since then, the best they have managed in the league is two wins in a row.

It’s been a rough ride for Connacht rugby since the Celtic/Magners/PRO12  league’s inception. They have finished in the bottom two positions for seven consecutive seasons. That 4-game run in ’03/04 helped them to 9th of 12 teams, their best-ever final standing since the competition became one league. In the two seasons prior to ’03/04, the tournament was split into two pools of 8, with the top 4 teams in each pool entering the quarter-finals.

Connacht v Munster

Connacht rugby has always been overshadowed by its provincial rivals. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

Both those seasons were particularly successful for Connacht as they reached the quarter-finals in consecutive campaigns, losing to Glasgow in ’01/02 and Munster in ’02/03. In that ’02/03 season, Connacht even had a 5-game winning run (Borders, Cardiff, Leinster, Newport and Bridgend that time). Those seem like relative glory days compared with what the western province’s fans have been watching since. However, as I have mentioned before and truly believe, the signs from Connacht this season have been positive.

Tomorrow’s game at home to Aironi is one that Elwood’s men simply have to be winning if they are to continue moving forward. They are a better team than Aironi and their performance needs to show the confidence that has been building in the second half of this season, highlighted by wins over Harlequins and Ulster. If Connacht can manage to win both of their remaining fixtures (the final one is away to the Warriors) then they have a strong chance of a best-ever 8th-placed finish.

If that is achieved, coupled with a first Heineken Cup win in their debut season, this campaign will have represented superb progress for the province. Elwood has managed to blood some exciting young talent this season in the likes of Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, O’Halloran and Denis Buckley. Ireland U20s’ fullback Shane Layden will hope to join those ranks next season. The signings of Nathan White, Dan Parks and Willie Faloon will certainly add quality to Elwood’s squad too.

Ruan Pienaar

The Connacht defence smothers Ruan Pienaar during the win over Ulster. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

The hope for Irish rugby is that either Ulster or Leinster wins the Heineken Cup, thereby ensuring qualification for Connacht again. Elwood would be better prepared to balance his squad at the second time of asking. This season, Connacht were often stretched, playing largely the same team from week to week. That effected their PRO12 form, manifested in the inability to see out games from winning positions.

Another positive is that Connacht will field an ‘A’ team in the British and Irish Cup for the first time next season. That means decent exposure for more of the province’s Academy and underage players. Furthermore, Connacht are exempt from the IRFU’s succession strategy, which will soon limit the number of Non-Irish Qualified players at the other three provinces. Elwood and his management team will have few restrictions as they aim to bring Connacht rugby to a new level in the coming years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Small steps at a time, inch by inch; that’s the way. It all starts with securing a 3rd consecutive PRO12 win tomorrow in Galway. That would represent clear, statistical progress. Do that and focus will turn to the Warriors, where a win could mean a best-ever finish. It’s impossible to say for certain where Connacht will go from there, but I’m optimistic.

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Photos courtesy: Eoin Gardiner.

Foley and Umaga – Risk or Reward?

Red Army

What next for Munster? (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

This week has seen Munster interview both Rob Penney and Tana Umaga for the Head Coach role at the province next season. An intelligent appointment will be absolutely crucial for Munster Rugby, especially as Ulster look to move above them in the pecking order of Irish clubs. Much has been made of Munster’s transitional state, but a smart move now will bring fresh ideas and a new impetus.

Tony McGahan has been criticised by factions of the Red Army throughout his time in charge. While I am in agreement with certain points of the dissent, I feel that the Australian has done a decent job. It’s unnecessary to go through the number of players who have moved on during his tenure at Munster. However, McGahan has done as good a job as anyone could have with the resources at his disposal. The manner in which Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo have become first-team players is particularly praiseworthy.

McGahan will move on, hopefully with a third Magners League winners’ medal to show for his work. After Munster’s loss to Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, it’s easy to suggest that the next coach will have a thankless job on his hands as Munster go backwards. However, they are still one of the most renowned clubs in the world. They have a huge fan base and, thanks to McGahan’s good work with the Academy, are now producing promising young players. Bringing Munster back to the pinnacle of European rugby would be an attractive challenge for any coach.

Cup Winners

Munster will be hoping to return to 2008's heights. (c) Martin Dobey.

Anthony Foley will retain his position as part of the province’s coaching staff, but whether he moves the position of Head Coach remains to be seen. He’s the clear favourite, but the fact that Munster have interviewed other candidates shows that they have doubts. Foley has no experience as a Head Coach. Many will highlight his undoubtedly good work as Forwards Coach, but that is a far more technical role. As pointed out by the Demented Mole, matching a more experienced figure such as Graham Henry or Ian McGeechan with Foley would make sense.

Do Penney or Umaga offer that crucial experience and know-how? Not particularly. Penney has a good track-record with the Canterbury ITM Cup provincial side, having won the tournament in each of the last four years. At the end of last year, he was appointed as the New Zealand U20 Head Coach, replacing Ulster-bound Mark Anscombe. Umaga’s coaching experience involves a stint with Toulon where he did more good on the pitch than off it as well as his current position in charge of ITM Cup side Counties Manukau Steelers, which began in December. Not the most impressive CV.

Rather than experience, what they would bring to Munster is a fresh approach and high levels of motivation. Both have plenty to prove as coaches and would be keen to make an impact in their first top-level roles. The word is that Penney specialises in coaching forwards, so that would appear to give Umaga an increased chance of employment at the province. The 74-times capped All Black would bring a new approach to Munster’s back play, something I would definitely welcome.

The Farewell Match

Umaga playing his final game for the Hurricanes in 2007. (c) Dean Pemberton.

As a player, Umaga was intelligent, skillful and aggressive. Looking at Munster’s backline options for next season – Murray, Stringer, O’Gara, Downey, Laulala, Earls, Zebo, Howlett, Jones, Murphy, Hurley, Hanrahan, Deasy, O’Dea and Barnes – it’s clear that there is lots of talent there for a new backs coach to work with. If Umaga can translate his playing style and ability into the realm of coaching, then Munster could be onto a real winner. It’s worth stressing that a great player does not automatically make a good coach though. Umaga represents a risk.

A coaching duo of Foley and Umaga looks the most likely outcome presently. In a dream world, Wayne Smith would have loved a shot at the Heineken Cup with Munster, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Both just 38, Foley and Umaga are relatively wet behind the ears in coaching terms. However, they will have raw motivation to bring Munster back to the forefront of European rugby. It’s worth remembering that McGahan has been at Munster since 2005, and even before succeeding Declan Kidney as Director of Rugby, he had a big say in how Munster played.

Foley and Umaga would be a breath of fresh air to the entire province. There are plenty of similarities between the pair. Both have 60+ caps for their country, 200+ caps for club/province and both retired in the ’07/08 season. These are guys who understand modern rugby. They are current and know what it’s like to be a professional player in the game today. Both come across as honest, to-the-point guys who don’t take any bullshit. While they lack top-level coaching experience, their appointments could be an exciting change for Munster.

*Who would you like to see take charge at Munster? Would a Foley/Umaga pairing work do you think? Or do they lack the required experience to be successful? Comment below with your views on where Munster should look to go with this appointment.

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Photos courtesy: Dean Pemberton, Martin Dobey, Ivan O’Riordan.

RaboDirect Round-Up

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Ian Madigan was superb for Leinster yet again. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster 54-13 Edinburgh

Fri 13th April @ The RDS

Another of those fantastically watchable Leinster nights at the RDS. They had eight different try-scorers as Ian Madigan picked up the Man of the Match award for some superb play-making at outhalf. Declan Kidney has to be taking note. Leinster are now guaranteed a home play-off spot and it’s looking increasingly foolish to bet against them doing a Heineken Cup and PRO12 double. Their strength in depth is frightening, with competition in every position.

Edinburgh were close to full strength but looked tired after their Heineken Cup efforts the weekend before. Some of the tries they conceded were soft but Leinster were emphatically deserving of such a scoreline. On Friday, Leinster travel to Ravenhill to take on Ulster. If both sides decide to rest their first-choice players before H-Cup semi-final weekend, Leinster look to be much, much stronger.

Here’s all the scores from the Edinburgh game:

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Connacht 26-21 Ulster

Sat 14th April @ The Sportsground

Connacht won an entertaining inter-pro derby thanks to two Miah Nikora penalties in the closing quarter as Ulster’s indiscipline cost them. Following the heroic efforts in beating Munster the weekend before, Brian McLaughlin called on his second-string, many of whom weren’t up to the task. That’s not to take away from a deserving Connacht effort, which featured tries from Nikora, Gavin Duffy and Tiernan O’Halloran (another impressive finish) as well as a commanding Man of the Match performance from George Naoupu.

Ulster remain one place outside the play-off positions after this crucial loss. The Warriors earned a losing bonus point to pull two points clear in 4th, while the Scarlets win in Aironi leaves them a single point behind Ulster. With Leinster’s visit next, then a Heineken Cup semi-final, it’s a testing few weeks for the northern province. Encouragingly, Paddy Jackson gave a promising display at inside centre. Meanwhile, Connacht remain in 10th despite their win. They host Aironi next weekend; a great chance for back-to-back wins.

Here’s the two Ulster tries from the Connacht game:

 

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Munster 35-29 Warriors

Sat 14th April @ Musgrave Park

Conor Murray dives over the line

Conor Murray scored a try in Munster's 35-29 win. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Munster had to work hard for an important win over fellow play-off hopefuls the Warriors on Saturday evening. Tries from Luke O’Dea, Peter O’Mahony and replacement Conor Murray plus 20 points from the boot of Ian Keatley were enough. Scottish star Stuart Hogg scored a hattrick for the visitors in a display which showed his exciting potential. For Munster, O’Dea’s pace was as impressive as ever while O’Mahony was excellent in all facets of the game to earn Man of the Match.

The Ospreys’ win over the now pitiful Cardiff Blues means that Munster remain 3rd in the table. Next up is a tricky trip to the Scarlets on Saturday, who are also still in contention for the play-offs and also looking for revenge after Munster’s double over them in the Heineken Cup. Tony McGahan will hope to welcome back several players from the long injury list, particularly Paul O’Connell. Next weekend promises to be another exciting round of PRO12 fixtures.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.

PRO12 Play-Off Race

RaboDirect Pro12

It's going to be an exciting final three weekends in the PRO12. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

With just three games remaining in the regular PRO12 season, there are still 6 sides with a realistic chance of securing one of the four play-off positions. Leinster and Munster currently occupy two of those slots, with Ulster just a point off 4th place. It’s widely agreed that the PRO12 throws up some poor games mid-season, but at this stage there’s plenty on the line in each of the remaining fixtures. At the other end of the table, the fact that relegation is not an issue means Connacht have nothing but pride to play for.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the Irish province’s league run-ins and rate their chances of qualifying for the play-offs. Three Irish sides in the semi-finals for the second year running would be a brilliant achievement, and further underline our dominance of this league.

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Leinster

Cardiff vs. Leinster

Leinster come off the back of their brilliant 34-3 win over the Blues. (c) Ken Bohane.

Current Position: 1st     Points: 68     Remaining Fixtures: Edinburgh (H), Ulster (A), Dragons (A).

Coming into this weekend, Leinster have a ten point lead at the top of the table. Barring a complete disaster (losing all three remaining games without bonus points) they are likely to remain at the summit of the league. A win tonight against Edinburgh at the RDS would make the trip to Ravenhill the following week less important. That Ulster game comes the weekend before the H-Cup semis, so Joe Schmidt may rest some of his front-liners.

Two wins from three would secure top spot for Leinster, while even one win and two losing bonus points might do. The fact that they have only lost 3 of their 19 fixtures so far means Leinster can relax a little more than the other PRO12 sides. It’s difficult for Leinster to put out a weak side these days with so much competition in their squad (just look at tonight’s team). They will confirm top spot and a home semi-final, possibly against Munster or Ulster. What a way to finish the season that would be!

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Munster

Ulster's lineout copy

Munster are looking to bounce back from defeat to Ulster last weekend. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Current Position: 3rd     Points: 56     Remaining Fixtures: Warriors (H), Scarlets (A), Ulster (H).

Munster are two points behind 2nd-placed Ospreys coming into tomorrow’s crucial clash with the Warriors in Musgrave Park. The Scottish side are level on points with Munster, but sit 4th because they have won a game less. Tony McGahan will have to ensure that his side forget about their Heineken Cup disappointment and focus on their potentially tricky PRO12 run-in. The objective will be to finish 2nd. The Ospreys’ run-in looks a little less difficult than Munster’s, with Cardiff away and the Dragons at home next for them. They finish away to Aironi in what will be the Italian side’s last ever fixture. I can see the Italians winning that one.

McGahan and his squad now face three games against direct play-off challengers. Munster are in poor form, having lost three of their last four games in all competitions. They need to bounce back immediately with a win tomorrow, before travelling to the Scarlets. The final regular season game sees a rematch of last weekend’s H-Cup quarter-final with Ulster. Pushing the northern province out of the play-off spots at the final hurdle would be sweet revenge. I’m going for Munster to finish 2nd, level on points with the Ospreys but with one more win than the Welsh side. Here’s the Munster team to face the Warriors.

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Ulster

Simon Zebo Munster's try scorer copy

Ulster now face important games in two competitions. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Current Position: 5th     Points: 55     Remaining Fixtures: Connacht (A), Leinster (H), Munster (A).

Ulster’s Heineken Cup progress has been superbly impressive and it will be hard for them to re-focus on the PRO12 after last weekend’s thrilling win over Munster. They travel to Galway tomorrow for a game in which Connacht will fancy their chances. As expected, Brian McLaughlin has made wholesale changes to his team and it remains to be seen how strong Ulster’s second string is. Three inter-provincial derbies is not the ideal way to finish the league season, especially since two of them have play-off ambitions of their own.

It’s quite conceivable that Ulster will lose all three of these games. A Heineken Cup final would be the most perfect consolation. I’m not writing Ulster out of the play-offs just yet, but McLaughlin hasn’t been in this position, balancing his squad out across two competitions at this late stage, before. I can see them  beating Connacht tomorrow but losing narrowly to Leinster and Munster. Ideally, they beat Leinster too and we get three PRO12 semi-finalists. My prediction at this stage is Ulster missing out on the play-offs by a single point.

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Connacht

ST vs Connacht-34

Connacht can jump a couple of positions up the table with a strong finish. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Current Position: 10th     Points: 29     Remaining Fixtures: Ulster (H), Aironi (H), Warriors (A).

Connacht’s win away to the Dragons last time out was impressive enough to suggest that they will finish the season strongly. They will be keeping an eye on the Heineken Cup too, in the hope that either Leinster or Ulster can win it and secure a 4th qualifier for the Irish sides. The PRO12 is clearly divided into two halves by mid-table side the Blues. In the bottom half, the Dragons, Treviso, Connacht and Edinburgh look to be battling to finish 8th. Connacht’s run-in is quite testing, starting with the visit of Ulster tomorrow (team here).

I can see Connacht taking losing bonus points from Ulster and the Warriors as well as beating Aironi in Galway. If the teams around them play to form, that would probably mean Connacht remaining in 10th. However, the bottom of the table is hard to predict, with these sides’ wins coming out of the blue. Connacht’s final match of the season is away to the Warriors. They could do Ulster and Munster a massive favour by beating the Scottish side. That would probably see Ulster into the play-offs, as well as Connacht into 8th.

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How do you see the remaining three series of fixtures panning out? Do you think we’ll have three Irish sides in the play-offs again? Can Connacht finish out their season with a couple of wins? Comment below with all your views and predictions! I’m going for Leinster, Munster, Ospreys and Warriors in that order for the play-offs and Connacht remaining in 10th at the other end.

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Photos courtesy: Sum_of_Marc, Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan, Pierre-Selim.