Gerry Thornley: Pro12 campaign provides fillip for Irish rugby

Were four teams to qualify for the Champions Cup it would be some feat

Rory Scannell: one of the young playes who has come to the fore with Munster during a tough campaign for the province. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Rory Scannell: one of the young playes who has come to the fore with Munster during a tough campaign for the province. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Let’s hear it for the Guinness Pro12 then. Never before has there been so much at stake for the 22nd and last full round of fixtures which kick-off simultaneously next Saturday. All four Irish sides have something to play for, with the potential for two of them to earn home semi-finals, a third to reach the play-offs and the entire quartet to earn four of the seven Pro12 qualifying spots in next season’s European Champions Cup.

That is some achievement, especially when one considers that there is the distinct possibility of only one Welsh side, the Scarlets, qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup, with the Ospreys and Cardiff, along with Edinburgh, all set to miss out. That really would put the Irish achievement into perspective, and given that trio are sure to rally next season and beyond, it’s unlikely that it will ever be repeated.

Going into next Saturday afternoon’s games, three teams (Glasgow, Connacht and Leinster) are vying for home semi-finals, with the first two meeting at the Sportsground while Leinster host Treviso knowing that a win could suffice and a bonus point win definitely would.

Ulster and the Scarlets are vying for the fourth and last semi-final place, with Ulster required to match the Scarlets’ result away to Munster when Les Kiss’s team go to the Liberty Stadium. The Ospreys, standing four points behind Munster, can still mathematically reach the top six and thus claim the last Pro12 place in next season’s Champions Cup.

Bonus point

Even Zebre at home to the Dragons has the one Italian place in next season’s Champions Cup up for grabs. Zebre are a point behind Treviso, but should Zebre take even a bonus point from that game and Treviso emerge empty-handed from the RDS, Zebre would finish above their Italian rivals and qualify for the Champions Cup as they have won more matches.

It’s said that a team is only as good as its weakest link, and in that case the competitiveness of the Italians hardly merits a place in the Champions Cup. But against that, time was when Connacht were one of the League’s weakest links. But not now!

Second Captains

All of which, coupled with the events of last weekend, underline how the Pro12 has become both more meaningful and competitive than ever. A more merit-based qualification process for the European Champions Cup has assuredly been a primary factor in this.

Being in the top six, whatever about the top four, is imperative. The likes of Leinster, Munster and Ulster can no longer afford to drift in a given season, or experiment with selection, secure in the knowledge of their place in the premier European competition. Hence, Connacht and meritocracy have bother been brilliant for the league.

Les Kiss last week claimed that any team in the PRO12 can beat any other team on a given day – and as if to prove the point 12th-placed Treviso duly beat second-placed Connacht on the ensuing Friday. Meritocracy has underlined this and going into last weekend’s penultimate round of matches, Kiss noted only the Dragons had nothing to play for.

Not only were Connacht 500/1 outsiders at the start of the season, but no less than Pat Lam’s side in Ireland, the Scarlets were not expected to be the leading team in Wales ahead of the season. Streaks of form have been commonplace, with Leinster, Connacht, the Scarlets and others all having runs of wins. Reigning champions Glasgow have hit their straps since the Six Nations and now travel to Galway on the back of nine successive wins; the last four of with bonus points.

Viewed in that light, it really would constitute Ireland’s best ever league campaign were four teams to qualify for the Champions Cup and, better still, three to reach the playoffs and two to host semi-finals. If so, coming after the most draining international season in yonks and in with the moving on of a golden generation, most notably in Munster, it could be attributed in large measure to the way young players have come through the academy/developmental structures.

That has certainly been the tale of Connacht’s injury ravaged campaign, when you consider how Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Shane O’Leary, James Connolly, Sean O’Brien, Peter Robb and others have seamlessly slipped into a side playing both winning and inventive rugby.

This has not been heralded to the same extent further south, but the same is true in many ways of Munster. Despite a tough time, no-one really wants to hear about Munster’s hard luck stories, about how their primary overseas’ signings, BJ Botha, Tyler Bleyendaal and Mark Chisholm have all been ruled out for the second half of the season or longer, as well as missing their captain Peter O’Mahony for the entire season.

The Scannell brothers, hooker Niall and inside centre Rory, have become mainstays of the team this season as has Johnny Holland in the last six weeks. Yet prior to this season, that trio had only started five games between them, whereas in this campaign Niall Scannell has started nine of 22 appearances, and his brother Rory has started 16 of 19 appearances. Before this season, Jack O’Donoghue had started just two of ten appearances, whereas this season he has started 18 competitive games and appeared off the bench in a further seven games.

So in many ways, the Pro12 has provided a modest pick-me-up for Irish rugby after the post-World Cup hangover. gthornley@irishtimes.com

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