Pro12: All four provinces go down to the wire
Connacht and Leinster both chasing crucial home advantage for prized semi-final berths
Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki: among nine players Pat Lam has brought back in to the side for the crucial meeting with Gregor Townsend’s in-form Glasgow at the sold-out Sportsground. Photograph: James crombie/Inpho.
And so it has all gone down to the wire. They might not quite have everything to play for, but each of the Irish provinces has something on the line in this afternoon’s 22nd and simultaneous final round of Guinness Pro12 matches, and each of the four has their destiny pretty much in their own hands.
For Connacht and Leinster, at home to holders and league leaders Glasgow Warriors and Treviso respectively, the prize at hand for victories is advantageous and lucrative home advantage in the semi-finals, where no home team has ever failed to reach the final, two weeks hence.
For Ulster, there is a place in the play-offs at stake away to the Ospreys. They need to match the result of fifth-placed Scarlets, who are away to a Munster side who need to draw or win in ensuring they join their fellow provinces in the pool draw for next season’s European Champions Cup.
The Sportsground will host another sell-out for Connacht’s summit meeting with Gregor Townsend’s in-form Glasgow, and Pat Lam has predictably strengthened their hand by making nine changes from the team which suffered a last-kick defeat to Treviso.
Kieron Marmion, Aj McGinty, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and leading try-scorer Matt Healy all return, as do Finlay Bealham, Aly Muldowney, Ultan Dillane and skipper John Muldoon, the league’s most capped player. For Marmion and full-back Tiernan O’Halloran, the occasion will also mark their 100th appearances for the province.
One of the two is likely to miss out on a home semi, presuming Leinster beat Treviso at the RDS, although the game finds Leinster at a low ebb and Treviso fighting to stay above Zebre and secure Champions Cup qualification after last week’s win over Connacht.
Leinster are also enduring a week of navel-gazing after Sexton’s public critique of the decline in the organisation’s culture, which he said would take more than a few weeks to fix.
“Johnny’s a very passionate guy,” said Leo Cullen yesterday, “He’s very passionate bout Leinster Rugby and he wants us to be good all the time.
“Of course there’s a change, but that’s the name of the game. The club went through a very successful period, but some players have moved on. When a club like Leinster is successful talent gets recognised elsewhere,” added Cullen, citing the departure of Joe Schmidt, S&C coach Jason Cowman, scrum coach Greg Feek and skills coach Richie Murphy. “So a lot of talent has moved on. Things are different.”
For the first time this season, Anthony Foley names an unchanged team from the one that kept its collective nerve with some help from its bench to see out a timely bonus point win over Edinburgh last week. The challenge posed by the Scarlets, especially their ability to pounce on mistakes from anywhere on the pitch, makes this an altogether different challenge for Anthony Foley and his players.
“You’ve got to predict where you are going to get the ball and train accordingly, make sure you understand that every game is different,” says Foley. “Scarlets are a tough side at the breakdown, with Barclay and Davies. They have a decent scrum, an international front row. They have a cracking No 9, it’ll be an interesting contest between Conor and Davies, he’s a cracking ‘9’.”
Similarly, Les Kiss is able to recall leading try-scorer Craig Gilroy in an otherwise unchanged side and match-day squad for their meeting with an in-form Ospreys who have also won three in a row, but all with a maximum five-point return.
As an aside, Ulster and Munster can each do the other a favour. An Ulster win in Swansea would ensure Munster’s qualification provided Ulster match Swansea’s return from the afternoon, while an Ulster win would likewise pretty much guarantee Munster’s top-six standing regardless of their result.