Ulster draw at Ravenhill leaves Munster in need of help elsewhere to secure home semi-final, writes Simon Lewis.
It is a day league officials and title sponsors could have only dared to dream of when the Guinness Pro12 kicked off back in September as, 126 games later, it all comes down to the final round, with every one of this afternoon’s fixtures carrying some significance.
More than 10,080 minutes of action has failed to separate the top three, decided the play-off match-ups nor finalised European qualification spots and all this in a competition without relegation issues.
Yet that doesn’t mean the basement dwellers have nothing to play for this afternoon as bottom club Zebre go to Cardiff Blues in the hope of a victory that will see them leapfrog Treviso for the Italian berth in next season’s European Champions Cup.
Treviso in 11th and three points above Zebre, meanwhile, host a Scarlets side desperate to hang on to sixth place, the final automatic Euro qualifying spot, and with a chance of overtaking Leinster to finish fifth and send the outgoing champions further down the Champions Cup seeding ranks.
That’s the Leinster side who will travel to Murrayfield to meet Edinburgh, hopeful themselves of doing better than Scarlets and Connacht by claiming sixth but more realistically seventh place, which comes with a European qualification play-off game at Gloucester early next month as its prize.
You get the picture, and we haven’t even got to the top four. Play-off places have been secured but today is the day Ospreys, Glasgow, Munster, all level on 70 points, and Ulster — a point behind them — battle for the top two positions in the final standings that will deliver the home semi-final that no team in the knockout stages has won a league title without.
Which makes Munster’s plight last weekend in conceding seven points after 80 minutes to Ulster in Belfast all the more exasperating for Paul O’Connell. The Ireland captain, crowned the players’ player of the season at the IRUPA Awards on Wednesday, will be in the side this afternoon in Cork attempting to beat the Newport Gwent Dragons in the knowledge that even a bonus-point victory may not be good enough if leaders Ospreys and second-placed Glasgow match their efforts at Connacht and home to Ulster respectively.
“It was a big opportunity lost,” O’Connell said of the closing minutes at Ravenhill that saw Munster leading 23-16 over 14-man Ulster as the clock passed 80 minutes before Paul Marshall scored a try converted by Paddy Jackson. “If we’d have seen out the game we’d have a crack at a home semi-final and it would be in our control.
“Unfortunately now we’re probably relying on favours from other people.”
O’Connell and Munster will not be daunted by the prospect of an away semi-final next weekend but they could have done without making life difficult for themselves.
“Every game is winnable, it’s just more difficult away from home,” O’Connell said. “It’s just a shame we let those two points drop and took it out of our own control.”
With Ospreys in Galway and the Warriors hosting Ulster at a sold-out Scotstoun, Munster head coach Anthony Foley will keep watch on the action in those games but he knows that will be irrelevant if his own players are unable to get their part of the script right at Musgrave Park.
“From our end, we’ve got a job to do... but there isn’t a points margin to chase. It’s four points or five points, you know, it’s not that you need to score an extra few points or anything like that. It’s pretty straightforward.
“We will keep an eye on it and I think the Ulster-Glasgow game will be a cracking game anyway.
“And Connacht-Ospreys up there, I think Connacht have a lot to play for as well so it will be competitive right to the end as well and that’s the way the league has been all year. You’ve one game to go and there’s three teams all on 70 points, one team on 69, that shows how competitive it is.”
Foley’s logic was yesterday echoed throughout the top four as his counterparts revealed the hands for today’s final assault on a home semi-final, while others such as Connacht’s Pat Lam prepared for a last-ditch attempt for a top-six finish. “We all know the enormity of this game,” Lam said. “Come 5pm, we will know our fate.”
So it comes down to these last six games on the final day of the regular season. All we can do is watch and wait.
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