The United Rugby Championship End Game: The provinces Collide

Leinster need Munster and the Bulls to slip up against Ulster and Challenge Cup winners Sharks to have any chance of topping the table and retaining home advantage to the final. This seems unlikely, as the Sharks have nothing to play for and Munster are in top form. Given their exertions against Toulouse, a win against Connacht can’t even be taken for granted. Leinster will be overtaken by Glasgow if they fail to win with a bonus point as Glasgow have the pleasure of entertaining Zebre for the second time in recent weeks – the joys of being in a much weaker conference.

Benetton are playing Edinburgh and the winner could knock the other out of contention as both are currently on 49 points, level with the Lions, and four points ahead and behind Connacht and Ulster, respectively. The Lions are playing the Stormers away who have little to play for as they cannot finish higher than 5th.  and thus, can only qualify for an away quarterfinal – probably against Leinster if Leinster don’t beat Connacht with a bonus point. Connacht could also be overtaken by Ospreys if the latter beat Cardiff in the last match of the week-end, which also affords them the advantage of knowing exactly what they have to do to qualify.

If Ulster get nothing from their game against Munster, they could therefore be squeezed out of the top seven qualification places for the Champions Cup by bonus point wins for the Lions and whoever wins the Benetton Edinburgh clash. Even a bonus point win for Connacht against Leinster doesn’t guarantee them a pay-off place unless the Lions lose. A Champion’s Cup place is beyond them however – that ship sailed when they couldn’t beat Stormers at home and the Sharks won qualification by winning the Challenge cup.

 

Leinster vs. Connacht: Friday 7.35 TG4 and Premier Sports

My forebodings about the Leinster Toulouse match came to pass with Ross Byrne’s lack of pace and running threat blunting the Leinster attack and Frawley’s inexperience at 10 not helping his drop goal attempts. It’s asking an awful lot of a utility player who has barely played 10 all season and rarely takes place kicks to close out a game of this magnitude. And yet he nailed his place kicks and only barely missed his drop goal attempts, either of which would have been the winning of the game.

Such are the fine margins at this level. Leinster rarely seemed to catch a break, with Lowe’s try being disallowed because of a knock-on that wasn’t, Lowe’s yellow being a harsh call, and the scoring pass to Lebel was not checked for a forward pass. Every marginal call seemed to go against Leinster, while many Toulouse offences at the breakdown went unchecked. But that does not take away from the quality of Toulouse’s performance, and particularly that of their talisman and Captain Antoine Dupont. Surely that was the greatest ever performance by possibly the best rugby player ever?

But neither should it disguise the weaknesses in Leinster’s squad. Porter playing almost 100 minutes at loose head told you all you need to know about Leinster’s lack of back up resources at loosehead, and Leinster’s early scrum dominance vanished when Furlong was replaced. Osborne is another promising young utility player, but he is no Aki or McCloskey at 12, or at least not yet. Ringrose at his best was sorely missed. Hopefully he will be fit for the play-offs.

But let us also not overlook the positives for Leinster. McCarthy came of age with a towering 100 minute display. Baird called the line-outs well, Doris was tireless, and Van Der Flier did what he could to turn things around. If Gibson Park came out second best against Dupont, it is hardly a criticism. He, too, justified his rating as perhaps the second best 9 around.

Leo Cullen will have some job restoring morale amongst shattered dreams and bodies with just a 6 day turnaround to the match against Connacht – a team with nothing to lose and with a play-off place to gain. All going well Leinster could then have three knock-out matches, three weeks in a row, against top teams, and the semi-final and final look likely to be away. Cullen will have to husband his resources carefully.

But it is also make your mind up time. Having rebuffed Connacht’s advances for a Prendergast loan deal, the time has surely come to give the young man his head. The Byrne brothers have had enough chances and have come up short. With Keenan off to play in the Olympic 7’s tournament either Frawley or Jimmy O’Brien or both will be required at full back.

Jacques Nienaber should be dispatched to focus on signing up a test class scrummaging tight head as a replacement for Ala’alatoa for next season. Furlong is unlikely to start in more than 10 matches for Leinster, so another serious scrummager is required to start the other 20. It’s also time Jack Boyle was given more of a chance to prove he is the replacement for Cian Healy after next season. Porter can’t play 80 minutes every match.

After that, it’s all hands on deck as to who is fit and raring to go 6 days after a horrendously physical 100 minutes against Toulouse and the psychological devastation afterwards. No doubt Cullen will again be criticised for fielding a weak team, but players can’t be expected to play at that level week in, week out. Cullen has no choice but to fall back on the rest of his squad.

With only the top 7 teams qualifying for next season’s Champion’s Cup, this is last chance saloon for a Connacht squad which has been showing signs of improvement despite their narrow loss to the Stormers. They will undoubtedly seek to exploit any weaknesses in Leinster’s physical and psychological resilience and Cullen really needs his squad players to step up. Otherwise, they could be playing a semi-final in South Africa, if they get that far.

Peter Wilkins is reputed to be a nice guy who perhaps lacks a ruthless edge. He belied that image by culling 11 players from his squad for next season, including long time regulars Jarrad Butler, Tom Daly and Gavin Thornbury. He is going to have to start being equally ruthless in his team selections, if the inconsistency which has dogged them this season is to be eradicated. JJ Hanrahan being out for much of next season won’t help them, and they badly need to recruit another specialist placekicking 10. Perhaps one of the Byrne brothers may become available?

Connacht, on song, have beaten Leinster before, and look quite likely to do so again given the devastation in the Leinster camp. Professional rugby can be a tough game.

 

Munster vs. Ulster: Saturday 5.15; RTE and Premier Sports

Munster have been showing real championship form in the last few weeks and have a near full strength squad available. With Snyman and Carbery leaving and Zebo retiring, they will never get a better chance of retaining their crown. Win this match, and they are guaranteed a home run all the way to the final, in stark contrast to last season, when they had to do it the hard way. Thomond Park could really find its mojo again and Munster’s finances could receive a welcome boost. With Kilcoyne injured and getting on in years, Munster could really do with recruiting a top class loose head to provide cover for Loughman.

Ulster have lived a charmed existence since Richie Murphy took over and have come out on the right side of some tight encounters. However, playing a resurgent Munster in Thomond Park is another level entirely and they will have to up their game considerably to come away with anything. They have plenty of incentive, however, as a win could guarantee them Champion’s Cup rugby next season and help their troubled finances. A try bonus or losing bonus point could also be sufficient, so I expect this match to be a real belter.

Ulster have recruited Aidan Morgan (22), a New Zealand-born, Irish qualified out half from the Hurricanes for next season as a replacement for Billy Burns who is replacing Carbery at Munster. Let’s hope he is not another addition to the non-tackling school of rugby 10s. Billy Burns, Jake Flannery, and Nathan Doak have not exactly set the world on fire at 10 this season, although Billy Burns has had his moments, and presumably it is financial constraints that have forced his departure.

Richie Murphy may have to make bricks without much straw next season, but perhaps it is time Ulster took the long view and spent time and resources nurturing more indigenous talent to come to the fore. That, after all, has been Richie Murphy’s great strength with the Irish u. 20s.


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