Gerry Thornley: Anti-climactic final round of derbies – especially for Ulster
Risk that Ulster-Leinster and Munster-Connacht would be dead rubbers comes to pass
Robbie Diack in action during Ulster’s costly defeat to Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium. Photograph: Simon King/Camerasport/Inpho
It always seemed too contrived and flawed a strategy to keep a full schedule of six derbies for the 22nd and last round of the Guinness Pro12.
Why risk taking them away from the meat of the season when they would have been guaranteed full houses in many instances by corralling them into the final Saturday when there might be nothing on the line?
Sure enough, results have led to a largely anti-climactic finale to the regular season which has served to take away some of the lustre from every derby bar the meeting of Zebre and Treviso, which is effectively an Italian play-off for European Champions Cup qualification.
Leinster secured home advantage in the semi-finals with two full rounds remaining and Munster emulated them with their win away to Treviso in last weekend’s penultimate round. Ulster effectively bade farewell to their play-off hopes by failing to extract even a bonus point from their defeat to the Ospreys.
Connacht have long since been consigned to the play-offs, and indeed once they lost to Leinster were more or less destined to finish eighth in the table, therefore rendering last Saturday’s game against the Scarlets fairly meaningless.
They will play away against the seventh-ranked English side, which could be Northampton, Newcastle, Harlequins or Gloucester, in their European Champions Cup semi-final qualifying tie, with Cardiff destined to play the seventh ranked French side, on the weekend of the Pro12 semi-finals (May 19th-21st). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the winners of the English-Connacht semi-final will have home advantage the following weekend.
For sure, Leinster and Munster have still some jostling to do for first and second place, as do Scarlets and the Ospreys for third and fourth, but only the exact match-ups of the semi-finals remain to be decided by next week’s round of derbies.
Ulster would not only have to beat Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium with a bonus point, and hope that the Ospreys earned nothing from their match away to the Scarlets, but would also need to make up 70 points in the sides’ respective points differentials for them to finish above the Ospreys in fourth place.
Effectively therefore, the Ulster-Leinster and Munster-Connacht derbies are dead rubbers, and ditto the Scarlets-Ospreys and Dragons-Cardiff matches, given Cardiff, like Connacht, are marking time before their play-off semi-final.
Indeed, with Glasgow long since consigned to a sixth-place finish, Gregor Townsend’s final season has petered out with scarcely a whimper, and their meeting with Edinburgh has long since become an irrelevancy in terms of anything but bragging rights.
The Pro12 organisers have, of course, been a little unlucky in that things have panned out this way, but it still makes for a relative waste of six derbies which, earlier in the season, would have had far more currency.
Besides which, were there to have been more up for grabs on the final weekend of the regular season, supporters would have turned up regardless, so why take the risk of keeping back derbies for a potentially dead Saturday?
Ulster’s final league game of the season against Leinster at the Kingspan has lost even more of its lustre by the likely absence of Ruan Pienaar due to the back spasm he suffered early on at the Liberty Stadium.
Allowing for a game against the Barbarians on Thursday, June 1st, in the heel of the hunt, Ulster’s season is over, and that Leinster, Munster and Connacht all still have something to play for will only acerbate the sense of anti-climax with the northern province, all the more so when also comparing Ulster’s pool exit in the European Champions Cup with the progress of Leinster and Munster to the semi-finals of that competition as well.
In finishing fifth, they will miss out on the play-offs for the first time in five seasons, since finishing sixth in the 2011-12 campaign. Yet were they to beat Leinster next Saturday, they would have the same number of wins, 14, as they had last season, and having drawn one game this season, would actually have one less defeat, seven, than last season.
They have scored more points (504 compared to 488) and tries (66 to 61) than last season, albeit they have conceded more points (358 to 307) and tries (46 to 29) than last season. Ultimately, were they to win next Saturday with a bonus point, they would exactly match their final tally of 69 points last season, which was enough to get them fourth place and a place in the play-offs a year ago.
Ultimately, much of the focus for Ulster’s failure to reach the play-offs has been on their back-to-back away defeats to Munster and the Ospreys. Their narrow defeat in the former could in large part be attributed to the several unforced errors which undermined their performance and also the lack of patience in the endgame which led to Paddy Jackson’s wayward drop goal. The scale of last Saturday’s defeat in Swansea was more disappointing given their season was basically at stake.
However, there is no great shame or surprise in losing in Thomond Park and the Liberty Stadium. After winning their first five matches, the damage was done before the last two matches.
They have always been lacking in real physicality up front, and it was always likely they would miss the go-to, go-forward momentum given them by the departed Nick Williams although they have been desperately unlucky to have only had Marcell Coetzee for four games (and they won them all). The way Charles Piutau’s spectacular early season form fell off – six tries in his first 13 games compared to three in his last nine – suggests he has been playing with an injury.
In the final analysis though, given their talent, Ulster’s inconsistency has been infuriating for their supporters and ex-players turned pundits, who will expect an improvement next season given the arrival of Jonno Gibbes in a reshuffled coaching ticket.