Fierce fight in store as nine teams scramble for Pro14 playoffs

Leinster secure home semi-final as Glasgow face Munster and Connacht battle Cardiff

Leinster celebrate their Pro14 title win against Scarlets on May 26th, 2018. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Leinster celebrate their Pro14 title win against Scarlets on May 26th, 2018. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Akin to a Bond villain stroking the cat, Leinster can watch the scramble for the Guinness Pro14 play-offs below them over the last three rounds; for the other nine teams still in the mix, it is shaping up to be some scramble.

As things stand, Leinster have already secured a home semi-final in defence of their title in Conference B, thereby bypassing the two quarter-final matches, with Glasgow and Munster vying for the same prize in Conference A.

Then it really is all to play for.

Connacht and Cardiff are in a fierce fight for third place in Conference A, and with it a place in the play-offs and also automatic qualification for next season’s Heineken Cup.

Ulster lead the peleton behind Leinster in Conference B in the four-way race for two play-off spots, but they have a tough run-in and there are three teams hot on their trail: Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh and the Scarlets.

The latter are back in fifth place but have a favourable run-in. Helpfully for Ulster, though, the Scarlets and Edinburgh meet in Parc Y Scarlets on Saturday evening, and so at least one of them will drop points.

Seventh place

There is also a seventh place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup to be decided by a play-off between the two teams which finish fourth in each Conference. Conceivably, there could be an eighth place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup, were Leinster or Munster to win this season’s tournament and all of the four Challenge Cup semi-finalists to qualify for the Champions Cup by dint of finishing in the top six of the Premiership and the Top 14.

It’s also possible, as things stand, that there would be four Irish teams in the play-offs, and none from the Welsh regions. Indeed, were the sides to finish as they currently sit, Ulster would host Connacht in one quarter-final, with the winners away to Glasgow in the semi-finals.

Connacht’s Matt Healy scores a try in their Guinness Pro14 match against Benetton at the Sportsground on March 22nd.Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Connacht’s Matt Healy scores a try in their Guinness Pro14 match against Benetton at the Sportsground on March 22nd.Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

In the other half of the draw, Munster are currently in line to host Benetton in the quarter-finals, with the winners away to Leinster in the semi-finals. So winning Conference A would avoid that trickier route to the final for Munster.

However, there’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip.

While the Warriors lead Conference A by three points and have the additional carrot of the final being in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25th, Munster look to have the better run-in. A lucrative home semi-final would also be important given Munster are still servicing their debt on Thomond Park, albeit they have to balance their desire to achieve this goal with their daunting Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens in Coventry after their upcoming games against Cardiff on Friday night and Benetton away next Friday.

Penultimate round

There’s also a couple of hugely pivotal head-to-head match-ups next weekend in the penultimate round. After Ulster face Glasgow on Friday night, just six days after their epic European quarter-final against Leinster and on the Scotstoun artificial pitch where the Warriors have won 18 of their last 20 Pro14 games, Dan McFarland’s team are back in Scotland next Friday to face Edinburgh, currently seven points behind them in Conference B.

The Pro14 takes a break for the European semi-final weekend before concluding with a round of derbies

In the Sportsground the next day, Connacht host Cardiff in their final home game of the season. As both teams have the same number of wins, Andy Friend’s team currently lead the Blues only on points difference, and in that by just six points. In other words, this looks like a season-defining game.

The Pro14 takes a break for the European semi-final weekend before concluding with a round of derbies, in which Munster and Ulster will host Connacht and Leinster, and the likelihood is that there’ll be some scrambling.

Munster’s Mike Haley scores a try in their Guinness Pro14 match agains Zebre in Thomond Park on March 23rd. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Munster’s Mike Haley scores a try in their Guinness Pro14 match agains Zebre in Thomond Park on March 23rd. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Conference A

GLASGOW

Pl 18 Pts 66.

Run-in: Friday night v Ulster (home), Sat 13th v Leinster (away), Sat 27th v Edinburgh (home).

Still may need three wins for home semi, although Glasgow’s form at Scotstoun augurs well for the visit of Ulster, while Leinster won’t be the only ones hereabouts who might be distracted by European matters. However, Edinburgh are the only team to have won there in the last two regular season campaigns.

MUNSTER

Pl 18 Pts 63.

Run-in: Friday night v Cardiff (home, Musgrave Park), Fri 12th v Benetton (away), Sat 27th v Connacht (home, Thomond Park).

Munster seek to extend an unbeaten 19-game home run dating back to December 2017 on Friday night. If they win all three remaining matches, and Glasgow slip up once, a home semi beckons against the Conference B runners-up. Otherwise they’d face a home quarter against the third-placed side in B, and a semi-final away to Leinster to reach the final.

CONNACHT

Pl 18 Pts 52.

Run-in: Saturday v Zebre (away), Sat 13th v Cardiff (home), Sat 27th v Munster (away).

Connacht could qualify for the play-offs by winning away to Zebre on Saturday and at home to Cardiff next Saturday if Munster beat the Blues in Cork on Friday night. Given their last game is away to Munster, they’ll be keen to do that, but however you dress it up, that Connacht-Cardiff match looks like a decisive shoot-out.

CARDIFF

Pl 18 Pts 52.

Run-in: Friday night v Munster (away), Sat 13th v Connacht (away), Sat 27th v Ospreys (home, Principality Stadium).

Cardiff’s 41-17 win over the Scarlets was their fifth in their last six games, and coach John Mulvihill believes they can add another three, beginning with visits to Munster and a crunch game against Connacht. A five-point haul on the last day against the Ospreys looks entirely plausible.

OSPREYS

Pl 18 Pts 44.

Run-in: Saturday v Cheetahs (a), Fri 12th v Southern Kings (a), Sat 27th v Cardiff (away, Principality Stadium).

A four-game losing run before beating the Dragons has left the troubled Ospreys decided long shots. After one away win in seven, they’d require a profitable South African safari and most likely two defeats for Cardiff to give the sides’ last-day meeting any meaning.

Conference B

LEINSTER

Pl 18 Pts 72.

Run-in: Saturday v Benneton (home), Sat 13th v Glasgow (home), Sat 27th v Ulster (away).

The supposedly faltering champions have given themselves elbow room by securing a home semi with four rounds remaining, and also reaching a home Euro semi. Already have two points more than last season. Their games will have a big bearing on the play-off picture, not least for Munster and Ulster, whom they meet on the last Saturday.

ULSTER

Pl 18 Pts 54.

Run-in: Friday night v Glasgow (away), Fri 12th v Edinburgh (away), Sat 27th v Leinster (home).

A four-game winning run ensures Ulster control their own fate but, six days after going toe-to-toe with Leinster, they face Glasgow on Friday night and next week a crunch clash with Edinburgh. Could all come down to Leinster at home. One win might be enough, two should do it, but anything from second to fifth is still possible.

BENETTON RUGBY

Pl 18 Pts 50.

Run-in: Saturday v Leinster (away), Fri 12th v Munster (home), Sat 27th v Zebre (away).

Seeking to reach the play-offs, and qualify on merit for the Champions Cup, for the first time since joining in 2010. Leinster on Saturday is a free hit before hosting Munster at the Stadio Monigo, where they’ve won 10 of 12 this season. Then it’s their derby. Two wins would do it, one might, or might not.

EDINBURGH

Pl 18 Pts 47.

Run-in: Saturday v Scarlets (away), Fri 12th v Ulster (home), Sat 27th v Glasgow (away).

Although stronger in Europe, they’ve already lost three more Pro14 games than last season (and still 21 shy of that 68-point haul). One away win in nine before facing the Scarlets on Saturday in what amounts to a play-off eliminator for both. Then crunch game at home to Ulster before Glasgow derby. Need two wins, possibly three.

SCARLETS

Pl 18 Pts 45.

Run-in: Saturday v Edinburgh (home), Sat 13th v Zebre (home), Sat 27th v Dragons (away, Principality Stadium).

Likewise, three defeats more than last season already and still 25 points shy of their 70-point total. Their season comes down to beating Edinburgh on Saturday, but they have won eight of nine at Parc Y Scarlets, and would fancy 10 points from last two games. So 59/60 points still possible and hence the dark horses.

Betting to win Grand Final (Paddy Power): 4/6 Leinster, 4/1 Munster, 5/1 Glasgow, 18/1 Ulster, 33/1 Cardiff, 33/1 Connacht, 33/1 Scarlets, 40/1 Edinburgh, 50/1 Benetton, 500/1 Ospreys.

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