Exciting Guinness Pro12 campaign goes down to the wire
Munster and Ulster looking for home semi-final, Connacht a place in Champions Cup
“Sometimes the margins between winning and losing can be really small,” says Munster’s Paul O’Connell. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.
The injection of importance which the new meritocratic European qualifying order has given the Guinness Pro12 is amply demonstrated by the ramifications for today’s final round of regular season matches. Super Saturday and all that.
All six matches kick-off simultaneously and while the semi-final contestants have been known for a couple of weeks, who gets home advantage in the semi-finals has still to be resolved, as has the sixth and last automatic qualifying place for next season’s European Champions Cup. The other outstanding issues are who finishes seventh and earns a two-match play-off for the Champions Cup, and the shoot-out between Treviso and Zebre for the sole Italian slot in the cup. Hence, in each of the half dozen matches there is something at stake.
Although only a point covers the top four, having contrived a draw last week, Munster and Ulster go into the final round in third and fourth place. Were Munster to secure a home semi-final, it would go ahead next Saturday afternoon at Thomond Park, as the Limerick ground is in use for a conference on Friday evening. Thus, were Ulster also to secure a home semi-final, that would be the Friday night game.
Jury is still outConnacht
To a degree, the jury is still out on Munster’s season. “We haven’t won anything in a while,” admits Paul O’Connell. “Sometimes the margins between winning and losing can be really small. In a three- or four-point loss, the margins can be even bigger than they seem sometimes and to be able to get over that hurdle of winning games and winning trophies is not an easy thing to do. If we could do that and finish the season with silverware, it would be a really big positive step forward.”
“There would still be a load of challenges next season. We all want to win trophies. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all. It’s not the ultimate definition of success, but I think if we can pick up a trophy, certainly guys would feel very good about themselves.”
It would bridge a four-year gap since the last trophy, and in some ways mean that a baton has been passed on from Munster’s golden generation, which won Heineken Cups in 2006 and ’08.
“Yeah, definitely,” says O’’Connell. “Who knows, this generation of players could be a golden generation as well. When I look around anyway, I see some guys who are as just as good as anyone else in the world, and I see other guys who have the potential to be as good as anyone else in the world. So if we can keep developing them and getting better, and become better as a team people could be talking about this group of players in that way in a few years, and I hope they will be.”
No away team has ever won a semi-final. “Yeah, I read that recently and that try last weekend took it out of our hands unfortunately. But I suppose the same as our final Six Nations game, we’ll have a job of work to get through to give us a chance.”
Deficit Connacht need to win and hope that the Scarlets, currently in
sixth, lose away to Treviso, with Connacht also picking up a bonus point (or the Scarlets failing to obtain a losing one) in order to make up the four-point deficit on the Welsh region.
However, Connacht also need to protect their standing in seventh, and with it the play-off route into the Champions Cup. They are one point above Edinburgh, who entertain a Leinster side who themselves need to win to avoid the further indignity of finishing sixth and with it the near certainty of a fourth seeding in the pool draw for the Champions Cup.
Were Connacht to finish seventh, they would play Gloucester away tomorrow week, with the winners at home to the seventh-placed finisher in the Top 14 a week later, on Sunday, May 31st, most likely Montpellier or Bordeaux.