Guinness Pro 12 – Regular Season Finale

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Exciting end to the season beckons

Bless me father for I have not blogged, it has being a while since my last one chiefly due to travelling across the great country they call USA (expect a blog posting on this in the next couple of days). Plenty of talking points since my last blog posting as we head into the final round of regular league fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the weekend just past, looks forward to the regular season finale and looks ahead to the potential playoff fixtures.

Round 21:

The penultimate round of the competition had just about everything; tries galore, floodlight failures and saw realistically the final four of Leinster, Munster, Ospreys and Scarlets. Glasgow and Ulster exit the competition with regrets. Glasgow after pulling themselves off the canvas against a much changed Leinster at the RDS and taking the lead could not close out the contest and allowed their hosts to win 31-30. Any remote chances of top four were extinguished in the fading light of the RDS.

Ulster’s season was encapsulated perfectly during their defeat to a much improved Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium. Several good periods of play but all too often, attacking threats were undermined by basic errors and lapses in concentration. I am still baffled by the decision to field Ian Henderson at six, the player is a second row and pack leader. The set piece was a shambles; lineout misfired and the scrum was close behind. No platform for the likes of Marshall / Pienaar and Jackson to influence the game.

Ulster have had a most disappointing season; their potential and squad looks impressive with the likes of Piatau, Pienaar, Best, Henderson, Gilroy in their ranks but for whatever reason, consistency was never achieved. Gibbs’ arrival will be a blessing for a pack who were disjointed on set piece throughout this season. Physicality and execution efficiency will be increased as well. There are question marks on Les Kiss and some may look to Gibbs as a potential head coach in waiting. A pivotal close season beckons. Ulster must get better but there are issues in squad depth going into the off season.

Ospreys were dominant at the breakdown and the first quarter dominance laid the foundation for victory.  Their upturn in form is most welcome heading into the playoffs; a trip to the Scarlets will determine who they play in the semi-final. Ospreys to a man stepped up to the plate to produce an efficient performance. The key question now is the fitness of inspirational leader Alun Wyn Jones? Does he feature against Scarlets this weekend? Does he shut it down until the Lions training camp?

The Scarlets are the potential dark horse for the playoffs; their complete dominant display away to Connacht sent a massive statement to the rest of the playoff contenders. Scarlets carved open Connacht at will in the opening period and had already secured the bonus point before the interval. The key players in the side stepped up and led by example. Liam Williams was a revelation with ball in hand. Owens and the pack controlled the set piece and their tempo was on point. Connacht’s team was on paper makeshift but take nothing away from this Scarlets performance, extremely professional and they enter the final game of the season in good form and confidence starting to soar.

Munster secured their home field playoff berth with a twenty point victory over a gutsy but overwhelmed Benetton Treviso. Rassie Erasmus will be delighted that the young players on duty stepped up to the mark; seven of the B&I team made appearances. The downside was the season ending injury to Ronan O’Mahony, a cruel blow for the Munster Pro 12 try scorer. He could be followed on the treatment table by Dave O’Callaghan (scan on a knee injury) and monitoring of the likes of Donnacha Ryan (concussion), Conor Murray (shoulder / neck) and Rory Scannell. The Munster squad suddenly is being tested to its limits; not ideal entering into the business end of the season.

Sweetnam and O’Donoghue stood out for Munster. Sweetnam has had a superb rookie season; his poise and game management belies his first season in senior ranks. His try was classic Sweetnam, created the try from nothing and used his GAA ball skills to the fore with a deft kick ahead before touching down. O’Donoghue was his rampaging best with ball in hand. His pace for a back row is superb and was a constant thorn in the side of Treviso who tried to stick with Munster but with an ever increasing tackle count fell away in the second half.

Regardless of what happens now in the playoffs, this has being a most encouraging season for Munster. It has being shrouded in tragedy with the passing of Axel Foley early in the season but the team has being united throughout and the team work and work rate has being on point. Erasmus has built solid foundations this season but Munster realize that they are far from the finished product evident in their ERC exit to Saracens where squad depth and game plan limitations reared their head. Given how last season went with pretty much the same squad, it has being a surprising turnaround.

Cardiff Blues secured seventh spot in the league with an exciting win over Zebre whose loser point could be pivotal come the end of the season. 30-24; tries galore but Cardiff Blues will need to tighten up defensively ahead of the ERC playoff. Edinburgh beat Newport Gwent Dragons in a dead rubber game 24-20; both sides go into the European Challenge Cup.

Round 22 Fixtures:

The key fixture this weekend let us face it is the Ospreys’ trip to the Scarlets; the fixture which will determine third place in the league and most likely a trip to Thomond Park to face an injury hit Munster outfit. The strategy of both sides ahead of this fixture will be intriguing. Does Tandy and Pivac resist the lure of resting marquee players ahead of the playoffs? I think both head coaches will field strong sides to secure third spot this weekend.

Leinster at the RDS has being a fortress this season. The squad depth at the disposal of Cullen / Lancaster is the best in the league and I doubt if either Welsh region would fancy a trip to Dublin for the semi-final.

Munster on paper right now look vulnerable; the injury count is mounting. The absence of Conor Murray at nine despite the best efforts of Duncan Williams was exposed against Saracens and could be targeted again in the semi-final. The return to play protocols is being followed by several players; expect Munster to field a team full of fringe and B&I players for the home regular season finale against Connacht in order to rest up the front line players for the playoffs. The injury list is not ideal heading into the playoffs.

Scarlets will not fear Munster; their win at Thomond Park earlier in the season is evidence of this. Ospreys will feel that there is unfinished business with the Munster province this season; two regular season losses and the home loss to Munster is still raw. Given that there is two weeks to the semi-final playoff fixture after this weekend, both Welsh sides will leave it on the line.

I am giving the slight edge to Scarlets this weekend, impressed me with their running lines and performance in Galway last weekend. The hard ground suits this team and the likes of Liam Williams will revel in the open spaces. Ospreys need to keep it tight and test the Scarlets front five at the set piece throughout. Yes, Ospreys have options out wide but this is a game where the pack needs to assert dominance from minute one. Without Wyn Jones, it may be an arduous task. Presuming Wyn Jones will not line out and this could be decisive. It is going to be an amazing fixture; should be a full crowd at the Scarlets.

The Irish provinces face off against each other. Connacht need a win to improve morale and confidence heading into the ERC playoffs. The lengthy injury list is long and the pack has struggled to gain parity in recent weeks. Pat Lam’s regular season home finale did not go according to script; too many mistakes and Scarlets fast tempo resulted in several missed first time tackles / misreads leading to try concessions.

Thomond Park is not the place to be going to look for a much needed result but given Munster have secured home field playoff advantage, the hosts lineup could potentially aid Connacht in this respect. The performance levels need to improve; key players need to return and set the tone. It is extremely hard to see Connacht securing an ERC berth given their recent form. A trip to Saints / Quins is daunting given the injury list. I give Connacht a good chance to win at Thomond Park given the personnel that could feature for Munster at the weekend in order to save front line players for the playoffs.

Ulster’s home finale will be a subdued affair. Leinster at home should stir the local rivalry but that is about as much as it will be. Leinster will continue to give youngsters and fringe squad members game time so it will be an opportunity for Ulster to perhaps sign off with a much needed league win. Top four ambitions are over so it is a chance to showcase what might have being. Wondering if Kiss fields the likes of Best, Henderson for this fixture with the Lions tour looming?

It has being disappointing to say the least from Ulster. Pienaar’s departure is most unwelcome; great shame that a mercurial talent that wants to stay in the province cannot due to IRFU player policy. There is a lack of squad depth in the position even with the signing of McGrath. A position which could be problematic next season and even more onus on the pack to be a more cohesive unit; something they were not this season in set piece and loose exchanges.

The Italian derby will decide who gets the Italian representative ERC spot. A damning indictment of the league given their league positions. Zebre have the edge given that they are home but it will be a close affair. Treviso have showed competitiveness in recent fixtures but Munster exposed defensive gaps at will in the second half last weekend. Zebre came away from Cardiff Blues with a loser point; attacking side has improved, defensively maybe not so but I think they will edge it given home field advantage.

Glasgow and Edinburgh end the season with a local derby finale as does Cardiff Blues’ trip to Newport Gwent Dragons. Dead rubber fixtures. Cardiff Blues may rest players ahead of the ERC playoffs. Dragons cannot wait for the season to end; get the likes of Zane Kirchner into the setup come the close season. Glasgow should beat Edinburgh; again interesting team selection for the Warriors. Does Hogg play? If he does, Warriors win with a bit to spare. The regular season is then in the books. Roll on the playoffs!