Leinster need try-fests to have any chance in the Pro12
The champions’ exertions in Marseilles won’t help them overcome the odds
The extra 20 minutes Leinster played against Toulon will have taken a lot of the fuel out of the tank for Friday’s match against Ulster at Ravenhill. Photograph: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images
To bring the twice defending European champions to extra-time is no small thing. Sunday’s European Cup semi-final was, in truth, a dour affair. A messy, error-strewn grappling match that could easily have gone either way. In the end it will be remembered for one pass, one intercept, and a sense of what might have been as Toulon applied an extra-time chokehold to set up a repeat of the 2013 final. A new competition but the same cream has risen to the top.
That extra 20 minutes played on Sunday will not have helped Leinster’s Pro12 cause. Seven Leinstermen played the full 100 minutes in Marseilles; while next week’s break for the European finals will afford time to rest and heal, that’s a lot of fuel out of the tank before Friday night at Ravenhill.
Looking at the broader Irish rugby picture, the table is a pleasant sight. With just three rounds to play all four provinces are in the top six slots that merit automatic qualification for the Champions Cup; Treviso and Zebre will have their own battle for the seventh. Munster are in a happy place; a straightforward final three games to sew up a home semi-final. Bar the politics of glory, finishing top doesn’t really matter this season now that the final has already been placed in Ravenhill.
Connacht have a highest ever league finish in their sights. But first, three tricky games ending in a potential cracker at the Sportsground against the Ospreys on the final day. An eighth place finish would mean another year in the Challenge Cup. Seventh? A playoff against either the seventh placed Premiership side (currently Sale) or Gloucester, were the cherry and whites to beat Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup final.
With 13 players on Connacht’s “injured or unavailable” list, the shallowest squad in the country will find themselves stretched to the limit as they try to keep hold of that vital sixth spot. Connacht are tied with Scarlets on 44 points and behind on points difference but ahead on games won, the Pro12’s first tiebreaker.
That tiebreaker is not good news for Leinster. A meagre total of nine wins all season, four fewer than the 13 of Munster, Ulster and Ospreys above them, means that points difference is irrelevant for Matt O’Connor’s team. While one could dream of overcoming a vast points-difference deficit by putting a cricket score on Treviso, no amount of mathematical wizardry can turn 12 wins into 13. This moves the goalposts. Leinster need try-fests and damn the debit column as long as they finish one point ahead.
If Leinster were to take five points in Belfast on Friday evening, however, both Ospreys and Ulster would have to take at least a cursory peek in the rear-view mirror. As of now, Ospreys know that seven points from their last three games will be enough to be safe even if Leinster take all 15. In the case of Ulster, that magic number is just five.
The last three-game stretch when Ulster took fewer than five points from three Pro12 games is not that long ago. It happened over Christmas when losses at Leinster and Ospreys sandwiched a home win over Connacht. Ospreys took just three points from their three games in February.
Realistically the big issue is whether Leinster can score the tries to get the bonus points they’ll almost certainly depend on if there’s something to play for in Murrayfield. The last time Leinster had three successive bonus-point wins was 14 months ago; Zebre, Dragons and Cardiff the victims. It was part of a 10-game winning streak in all competitions. Happier times, European semi-final appearance notwithstanding.
Leinster are 27/1 to win the Pro12 Grand Final on May 30th. That’s five wins in a row with a few bonus points and a lot of luck along the way. In the words of Dumb and Dumber’s Lloyd Christmas: “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?”