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