Category Archives: Connacht

RaboDirect Round-Up

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Sexton contributed 11 points to Leinster's win over Ulster. (c) Ken Bohane.

Ulster 8-16 Leinster

Fri 20th April @ Ravenhill

Ulster’s play-off hopes look to be almost certainly over after losing to a powerful Leinster side in Ravenhill on Friday night. While the northern province could still mathematically claim 4th spot with an unlikely bonus point victory over Munster in two weeks’ time, a win the same weekend for either the Warriors or the Scarlets would deny Ulster. Even more worrying was the sight of Pedrie Wannenburg, Chris Henry and Paddy Wallace all leaving the pitch injured during Friday night’s loss.

Henry and Wannenburg’s withdrawals looked to be precautionary, but Wallace looked dazed, if not concussed, leaving the field. Fingers will be crossed across the country that those three recover for next Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Leinster were impressive without ever cutting loose. Kevin McLaughlin crashed over after some poor Ulster defence and Jonny Sexton added 11 points, including a smart drop goal. This win confirms top spot for Leinster with a game away to the Dragons remaining.

Here’s the highlights from Ravenhill:

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Connacht 19-16 Aironi 

Sat 21st April @ The Sportsground

Unfortunately, this game was not televised but it sounded like there was great excitement at the Sportsground. This win makes it 3-in-a-row in the PRO12 for Connacht, their best league run since 2004. Aironi, in their last ever away fixture, raced into a 16-3 half-time lead but Connacht gradually hauled themselves back with Rodney Ah You’s 74th-minute try, converted by Miah Nikora, leveling the game. The stage was set for replacement fullback Matt Jarvis to make himself the hero with a long-distance penalty, the final act of the game.

In case you missed it, I wrote a piece on Friday about the progress being made at Connacht. Check it out here. Next weekend, they travel to the Warriors, for whom a win would secure play-off status. A victory for Connacht would see them equal their record for most league wins in a season, set at 8 in 2004. If they were to deny the Warriors a losing bonus point, it would give Ulster a slim, slim chance of sneaking into the play-offs.

Here’s a video of Jarvis’ winning kick. Great scenes of celebration:

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Scarlets 20-20 Munster

Sat 21st April @ Parc y Scarlets

At the end, Munster were clinging on as the Scarlets launched a desperate effort to find a winning score. A draw was a fair result after a game in which neither side managed to take control. The hosts opened the scoring through Sean Lamont’s superb team try but Munster responded swiftly, with Donnacha Ryan strolling through Rhys Preistland’s uninterested tackle to touch down. Simon Zebo was next over after taking Keatley’s intelligent inside pass and using his pace to finish.

Aaron Shingler’s second half score put the Scarlets right back in it, and Priestland’s 70th-minute penalty drew them level. The Scarlets looked the more likely winners in a wildly open last 5 minutes but the visitors held on. The draw means that Munster can’t overtake the 2nd-placed Ospreys for a home play-off. They are now guaranteed an away semi-final though, most likely against the Ospreys. Munster finish the regular season with the chance for revenge over Ulster in two weekend’s time.

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Here’s a look at the PRO12 table with just one round of fixtures left before the play-offs:

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Photos courtesy: 

Connacht Look For 3rd-in-a-Row

Frank Murphy pass

Frank Murphy spins a pass away during Connacht's 26-21 win over Ulster last weekend. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

This week’s IRUPA Player and Young Player of the Season shortlists unsurprisingly failed to include a Connacht player. Ronan Loughney was included on the Medal for Excellence shortlist alongside Shane Jennings and Mick O’Driscoll. That award is basically the ‘Unsung Hero’ prize. Check out the full shortlists for all the awards here.

Surely the lists in the main competitions could have been extended to four to include a player from Connacht, seeing as every other province is represented? Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson, Gavin Duffy and Loughney have been ever-present and instrumental in all of the big Connacht performances this season. In the Young Player category, Tiernan O’Halloran’s superb season deserves mention.

Anyway, Eric Elwood and his squad will be unconcerned ahead of a weekend where they can earn a 3rd consecutive win in the PRO12 . They host Aironi in the Sportsground tomorrow evening (17.00 KO). If they win, it will be their second best run of form since this competition took on the current league format back in 2003/04. That season, Connacht won 4 games on the trot (Borders, Glasgow, Llanelli and Borders again, for the record). Since then, the best they have managed in the league is two wins in a row.

It’s been a rough ride for Connacht rugby since the Celtic/Magners/PRO12  league’s inception. They have finished in the bottom two positions for seven consecutive seasons. That 4-game run in ’03/04 helped them to 9th of 12 teams, their best-ever final standing since the competition became one league. In the two seasons prior to ’03/04, the tournament was split into two pools of 8, with the top 4 teams in each pool entering the quarter-finals.

Connacht v Munster

Connacht rugby has always been overshadowed by its provincial rivals. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

Both those seasons were particularly successful for Connacht as they reached the quarter-finals in consecutive campaigns, losing to Glasgow in ’01/02 and Munster in ’02/03. In that ’02/03 season, Connacht even had a 5-game winning run (Borders, Cardiff, Leinster, Newport and Bridgend that time). Those seem like relative glory days compared with what the western province’s fans have been watching since. However, as I have mentioned before and truly believe, the signs from Connacht this season have been positive.

Tomorrow’s game at home to Aironi is one that Elwood’s men simply have to be winning if they are to continue moving forward. They are a better team than Aironi and their performance needs to show the confidence that has been building in the second half of this season, highlighted by wins over Harlequins and Ulster. If Connacht can manage to win both of their remaining fixtures (the final one is away to the Warriors) then they have a strong chance of a best-ever 8th-placed finish.

If that is achieved, coupled with a first Heineken Cup win in their debut season, this campaign will have represented superb progress for the province. Elwood has managed to blood some exciting young talent this season in the likes of Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, O’Halloran and Denis Buckley. Ireland U20s’ fullback Shane Layden will hope to join those ranks next season. The signings of Nathan White, Dan Parks and Willie Faloon will certainly add quality to Elwood’s squad too.

Ruan Pienaar

The Connacht defence smothers Ruan Pienaar during the win over Ulster. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

The hope for Irish rugby is that either Ulster or Leinster wins the Heineken Cup, thereby ensuring qualification for Connacht again. Elwood would be better prepared to balance his squad at the second time of asking. This season, Connacht were often stretched, playing largely the same team from week to week. That effected their PRO12 form, manifested in the inability to see out games from winning positions.

Another positive is that Connacht will field an ‘A’ team in the British and Irish Cup for the first time next season. That means decent exposure for more of the province’s Academy and underage players. Furthermore, Connacht are exempt from the IRFU’s succession strategy, which will soon limit the number of Non-Irish Qualified players at the other three provinces. Elwood and his management team will have few restrictions as they aim to bring Connacht rugby to a new level in the coming years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Small steps at a time, inch by inch; that’s the way. It all starts with securing a 3rd consecutive PRO12 win tomorrow in Galway. That would represent clear, statistical progress. Do that and focus will turn to the Warriors, where a win could mean a best-ever finish. It’s impossible to say for certain where Connacht will go from there, but I’m optimistic.

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Photos courtesy: Eoin Gardiner.

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Ian Madigan was superb for Leinster yet again. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster 54-13 Edinburgh

Fri 13th April @ The RDS

Another of those fantastically watchable Leinster nights at the RDS. They had eight different try-scorers as Ian Madigan picked up the Man of the Match award for some superb play-making at outhalf. Declan Kidney has to be taking note. Leinster are now guaranteed a home play-off spot and it’s looking increasingly foolish to bet against them doing a Heineken Cup and PRO12 double. Their strength in depth is frightening, with competition in every position.

Edinburgh were close to full strength but looked tired after their Heineken Cup efforts the weekend before. Some of the tries they conceded were soft but Leinster were emphatically deserving of such a scoreline. On Friday, Leinster travel to Ravenhill to take on Ulster. If both sides decide to rest their first-choice players before H-Cup semi-final weekend, Leinster look to be much, much stronger.

Here’s all the scores from the Edinburgh game:

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Connacht 26-21 Ulster

Sat 14th April @ The Sportsground

Connacht won an entertaining inter-pro derby thanks to two Miah Nikora penalties in the closing quarter as Ulster’s indiscipline cost them. Following the heroic efforts in beating Munster the weekend before, Brian McLaughlin called on his second-string, many of whom weren’t up to the task. That’s not to take away from a deserving Connacht effort, which featured tries from Nikora, Gavin Duffy and Tiernan O’Halloran (another impressive finish) as well as a commanding Man of the Match performance from George Naoupu.

Ulster remain one place outside the play-off positions after this crucial loss. The Warriors earned a losing bonus point to pull two points clear in 4th, while the Scarlets win in Aironi leaves them a single point behind Ulster. With Leinster’s visit next, then a Heineken Cup semi-final, it’s a testing few weeks for the northern province. Encouragingly, Paddy Jackson gave a promising display at inside centre. Meanwhile, Connacht remain in 10th despite their win. They host Aironi next weekend; a great chance for back-to-back wins.

Here’s the two Ulster tries from the Connacht game:

 

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Munster 35-29 Warriors

Sat 14th April @ Musgrave Park

Conor Murray dives over the line

Conor Murray scored a try in Munster's 35-29 win. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Munster had to work hard for an important win over fellow play-off hopefuls the Warriors on Saturday evening. Tries from Luke O’Dea, Peter O’Mahony and replacement Conor Murray plus 20 points from the boot of Ian Keatley were enough. Scottish star Stuart Hogg scored a hattrick for the visitors in a display which showed his exciting potential. For Munster, O’Dea’s pace was as impressive as ever while O’Mahony was excellent in all facets of the game to earn Man of the Match.

The Ospreys’ win over the now pitiful Cardiff Blues means that Munster remain 3rd in the table. Next up is a tricky trip to the Scarlets on Saturday, who are also still in contention for the play-offs and also looking for revenge after Munster’s double over them in the Heineken Cup. Tony McGahan will hope to welcome back several players from the long injury list, particularly Paul O’Connell. Next weekend promises to be another exciting round of PRO12 fixtures.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.

PRO12 Play-Off Race

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It's going to be an exciting final three weekends in the PRO12. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

With just three games remaining in the regular PRO12 season, there are still 6 sides with a realistic chance of securing one of the four play-off positions. Leinster and Munster currently occupy two of those slots, with Ulster just a point off 4th place. It’s widely agreed that the PRO12 throws up some poor games mid-season, but at this stage there’s plenty on the line in each of the remaining fixtures. At the other end of the table, the fact that relegation is not an issue means Connacht have nothing but pride to play for.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the Irish province’s league run-ins and rate their chances of qualifying for the play-offs. Three Irish sides in the semi-finals for the second year running would be a brilliant achievement, and further underline our dominance of this league.

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Leinster

Cardiff vs. Leinster

Leinster come off the back of their brilliant 34-3 win over the Blues. (c) Ken Bohane.

Current Position: 1st     Points: 68     Remaining Fixtures: Edinburgh (H), Ulster (A), Dragons (A).

Coming into this weekend, Leinster have a ten point lead at the top of the table. Barring a complete disaster (losing all three remaining games without bonus points) they are likely to remain at the summit of the league. A win tonight against Edinburgh at the RDS would make the trip to Ravenhill the following week less important. That Ulster game comes the weekend before the H-Cup semis, so Joe Schmidt may rest some of his front-liners.

Two wins from three would secure top spot for Leinster, while even one win and two losing bonus points might do. The fact that they have only lost 3 of their 19 fixtures so far means Leinster can relax a little more than the other PRO12 sides. It’s difficult for Leinster to put out a weak side these days with so much competition in their squad (just look at tonight’s team). They will confirm top spot and a home semi-final, possibly against Munster or Ulster. What a way to finish the season that would be!

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Munster

Ulster's lineout copy

Munster are looking to bounce back from defeat to Ulster last weekend. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Current Position: 3rd     Points: 56     Remaining Fixtures: Warriors (H), Scarlets (A), Ulster (H).

Munster are two points behind 2nd-placed Ospreys coming into tomorrow’s crucial clash with the Warriors in Musgrave Park. The Scottish side are level on points with Munster, but sit 4th because they have won a game less. Tony McGahan will have to ensure that his side forget about their Heineken Cup disappointment and focus on their potentially tricky PRO12 run-in. The objective will be to finish 2nd. The Ospreys’ run-in looks a little less difficult than Munster’s, with Cardiff away and the Dragons at home next for them. They finish away to Aironi in what will be the Italian side’s last ever fixture. I can see the Italians winning that one.

McGahan and his squad now face three games against direct play-off challengers. Munster are in poor form, having lost three of their last four games in all competitions. They need to bounce back immediately with a win tomorrow, before travelling to the Scarlets. The final regular season game sees a rematch of last weekend’s H-Cup quarter-final with Ulster. Pushing the northern province out of the play-off spots at the final hurdle would be sweet revenge. I’m going for Munster to finish 2nd, level on points with the Ospreys but with one more win than the Welsh side. Here’s the Munster team to face the Warriors.

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Ulster

Simon Zebo Munster's try scorer copy

Ulster now face important games in two competitions. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Current Position: 5th     Points: 55     Remaining Fixtures: Connacht (A), Leinster (H), Munster (A).

Ulster’s Heineken Cup progress has been superbly impressive and it will be hard for them to re-focus on the PRO12 after last weekend’s thrilling win over Munster. They travel to Galway tomorrow for a game in which Connacht will fancy their chances. As expected, Brian McLaughlin has made wholesale changes to his team and it remains to be seen how strong Ulster’s second string is. Three inter-provincial derbies is not the ideal way to finish the league season, especially since two of them have play-off ambitions of their own.

It’s quite conceivable that Ulster will lose all three of these games. A Heineken Cup final would be the most perfect consolation. I’m not writing Ulster out of the play-offs just yet, but McLaughlin hasn’t been in this position, balancing his squad out across two competitions at this late stage, before. I can see them  beating Connacht tomorrow but losing narrowly to Leinster and Munster. Ideally, they beat Leinster too and we get three PRO12 semi-finalists. My prediction at this stage is Ulster missing out on the play-offs by a single point.

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Connacht

ST vs Connacht-34

Connacht can jump a couple of positions up the table with a strong finish. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Current Position: 10th     Points: 29     Remaining Fixtures: Ulster (H), Aironi (H), Warriors (A).

Connacht’s win away to the Dragons last time out was impressive enough to suggest that they will finish the season strongly. They will be keeping an eye on the Heineken Cup too, in the hope that either Leinster or Ulster can win it and secure a 4th qualifier for the Irish sides. The PRO12 is clearly divided into two halves by mid-table side the Blues. In the bottom half, the Dragons, Treviso, Connacht and Edinburgh look to be battling to finish 8th. Connacht’s run-in is quite testing, starting with the visit of Ulster tomorrow (team here).

I can see Connacht taking losing bonus points from Ulster and the Warriors as well as beating Aironi in Galway. If the teams around them play to form, that would probably mean Connacht remaining in 10th. However, the bottom of the table is hard to predict, with these sides’ wins coming out of the blue. Connacht’s final match of the season is away to the Warriors. They could do Ulster and Munster a massive favour by beating the Scottish side. That would probably see Ulster into the play-offs, as well as Connacht into 8th.

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How do you see the remaining three series of fixtures panning out? Do you think we’ll have three Irish sides in the play-offs again? Can Connacht finish out their season with a couple of wins? Comment below with all your views and predictions! I’m going for Leinster, Munster, Ospreys and Warriors in that order for the play-offs and Connacht remaining in 10th at the other end.

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Photos courtesy: Sum_of_Marc, Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan, Pierre-Selim.

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Felix Jones tackles Luke Fitzgerald during Munster's 18-9 loss to Leinster. (c) Linda Molloy.

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Ulster 45-7 Aironi

Fri 30th March @ Ravenhill

Ulster kept themselves in the thick of the PRO12 play-off battle with a comfortable bonus point win over Aironi on Friday night. The tries came from Paddy Wallace, Rory Best, Darren Cave, Tom Court and Pedrie Wannenburg, as well as a penalty try. Ruan Pienaar added 11 points from the tee. Ulster’s league position in unaffected as the Warriors claimed a bonus point win of their own over the Blues. However, the points gap is looking increasingly favourable for Ulster.

Here’s all six Ulster tries:

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Dragons 19-27 Connacht

Fri 30th March @ Rodney Parade

Connacht secured their 5th PRO12 win of the season thanks to two tries from Tongan international wing Fetu’u Vainikolo, as well as 17 points from outhalf Miah Nikora. The Dragons staged a late revival, resulting in Toby Faletau dotting down with 7 minutes left, but it was too little too late as Connacht held firm despite yellow cards for Ronan Loughney and Eoghan Grace. Connacht remain in 10th after this morale-boosting win. Eric Elwood’s side have next weekend to rest up before Ulster visit Galway on the 14th.

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Munster 9-18 Leinster

Sat 31st March @ Thomond Park

Saturday night’s game failed to match the levels we have come to expect from this fixture. A fairly poor match by any standards, with no tries served up. A lovely Ian Madigan drop goal was the highlight in terms of scoring as incessant problems at scrum time slowed the proceedings down. Still, Leinster will be delighted to have re-opened a 10 point gap at the top of the table. Munster drop to 3rd, level on points with the Warriors and just one ahead of Ulster. The final three fixtures of this PRO12 season will be fascinating.

Here’s the highlights from the game:

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The latest PRO12 table:

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Photo courtesy: Linda Molloy.

Munster’s Need is Greater

Leading out copy

O'Connell won't be leading Munster out tomorrow night. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Another chapter of one of sport’s great rivalries will be written in Thomond Park tomorrow night. While there’s no immediate reward at stake for this battle, there is plenty to play for. Munster’s need for a win appears to be far greater. We’re into the real business end of the season, with the HC quater-finals to come the weekend after this. While a Leinster loss tomorrow would be a blow for them, failure at home could have catastrophic effects for Munster.

Picture it: a Munster loss at home just 8 days before that massive quarter-final against an Ulster side who have no fear of Thomond Park. How would it affect the side’s confidence knowing that they had failed against even bigger rivals the weekend before? The consequences would reach further than the Heineken Cup too. Munster’s next three PRO12 games are against the Warriors (h), Scarlets (a) and Ulster (h). All three of those sides are still play-off contention. A loss to Leinster tomorrow puts Munster right back in the thick of that battle. A win would allow some breathing space.

Would a loss effect Leinster as much? On the surface, no. They currently have an 8-point lead over Munster at the top of the PRO12. Losing tomorrow would have no effect on their league position, while two of their final three fixtures are very winnable (Edinburgh at home and Dragons away). Next weekend’s quarter-final at the Aviva is against the Blues, who will be boosted by Wales’ Grand Slam. Still, betting against Leinster in that one won’t be on too many people’s agenda. A defeat to Munster is never welcome, but the fact that the game is in Thomond Park would reduce any ill-effects.

Kearney returns for Leinster at fullback. (c) Ken Bohane.

As if Munster’s mission was already not difficult enough, this season’s leading lights of O’Connell, Ryan and Murray have all been ruled out through injury. These losses will be as keenly felt as POC and BOD’s were by Ireland during the Six Nations. Others will now have to step up as Ryan for Ireland. He would have relished this game, still with something to prove after starting only two Six Nations games. Who will provide the leadership without O’Connell? Who will provide the aggression without Ryan?

Leinster’s deck of cards is almost full with the return of their complement of internationals. After some patchy form recently, Joe Schmidt will be keen to get back to their glorious December heights ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final. Last season, Munster got back on top of this rivalry with a narrow 9-13 loss in the Aviva being followed by a 24-23 win in Thomond Park and that 19-9 Magners League Final win. Their only meeting this season resulted in a 24-19 win for Leinster in the Aviva.

Elsewhere, Ulster are in action tonight against bottom side Aironi. It’s a good chance for Brian McLaughlin’s side to secure a try-scoring bonus point in Ravenhill and keep themselves in contention for a play-off spot. Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble return to the side after their Six Nations involvement. Interestingly, McLaughlin has gone for Lewis Stevenson in the second-row ahead of Dan Tuohy, who has had a great season up to this point.

Ulster Aironi

Ulster have already beaten Aironi 3 times this season, twice with bonus points. (c) Fabio Beretta.

McLaughlin has stated that a number of places are still up for grabs ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final in Thomond Park. Tuohy will be devastated if this is an indication of his coach’s thinking before that Heineken Cup outing. A bonus point tonight looks even more important when you look at Ulster’s three remaining PRO12 fixtures, where they face three inter-pro derbies in a row: Connacht (a), Leinster (h) and Munster (a).

Connacht also play tonight as they travel to take on a Dragons side who have enjoyed a superb turn-around of form recently. They’ve won 4 of their last 5 games, and welcome back Grand Slam trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and captain Luke Charteris for this game. The pressure is on Eric Elwood to finish this season with a few more Connacht wins. It would be disappointing to let the season simply peter out.

This week brought more good news for Connacht ahead of next season with the announcement of Willie Faloon’s signature. The 25-year-old openside joins from Connacht with plenty to prove. He will relish the opportunity for more game time at the western province. Along with Dan Parks and Nathan White, Faloon should help improve this inconsistent Connacht team.

It’s another PRO12 weekend with so much at stake. Enjoy!

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane, Fabio Beretta.

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Leinster 22-23 Ospreys

Fri 23rd March @ The RDS

Drico played 58 minutes for Leinster. (c) Jack Arigho.

Leinster’s incredible 20-game unbeaten run finally came to an end on Friday night at the RDS. Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard bounced over for a 76th-minute try and Dan Biggar showed big cojones to win the game for the Welsh region with the conversion. An opportunistic try from Ian Madigan and 17 points from Fergus McFadden’s boot had seemingly put Leinster on course for yet another win.

Tries from George Stowers and then Hibbard’s late effort, along with a total of 13 points off Biggar’s tee did the damage for the Ospreys, who solidified their position of 3rd in the league. More positively for Leinster, the returning Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen as well as debutant Brad Thorn all came through unscathed. Joe Schmidt’s side remain top of the league, 8 points ahead of Munster. Next Saturday will see the rivals battle it out at Thomond Park.

The full Leinster vs. Ospreys game is available on the RTE Player. Here’s the highlights:

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Treviso 23-27 Ulster

Sat 24th March @ Stadio di Monigo

Ulster won in dramatic circumstances on Saturday as substitute Ian Whitten crossed for a try in the last minute. Alberto di Bernardo’s 69th-minute score, converted by Kris Burton, looked to have secured a win for Treviso with a 23-13 lead. But Paddy Wallace immediately replied with a try of his own for Ulster, converted by Ruan Pienaar, and that set the scene for Whitten’s late intervention.

Chris Henry scored Ulster’s other try in the first half, with Pienaar contributing 12 points overall. A loss for Ulster would have seriously dented their play-off ambitions but this win keeps them 5th, just a single point behind the Warriors. Brian McLaughlin’s men return to Ravenhill on Friday to host bottom side Aironi. The target there has to be a bonus point win.

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Connacht 16-20 Munster

Sat 24th March @ The Sportsground

Connacht were narrow losers yet again on Saturday night. (c) Olly Griffin.

Eric Elwood will have been livid to see his side once again lose from a winning position on Saturday night in Galway. Mia Nikora’s penalty after 65 mins put Connacht into 16-13 lead but Munster hit back swiftly when Tommy O’Donnell finished powerfully after a Tomas O’Leary break. Ian Keatley’s conversion was the final score of the game as Connacht failed to find a winning score.

Hooker Ethienne Reynecke scored Connacht’s only try in the first half, with Nikora adding the province’s other 11 points. Simon Zebo got on the scoresheet for Munster, finishing off a good team effort which featured a beautiful Denis Hurley offload. Keatley converted both tries as well as knocking over two penalties. Neither side’s league position is affected by this result. Next up, Connacht travel to the Dragons on Friday while Munster host Leinster on Saturday.

Catch the full Connacht vs. Munster game on the TG4 player (click ‘Sport’ then ‘Rugbai Beo’).

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The latest PRO12 table:

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Photos courtesy:  Olly Griffin, Jack Arigho.