By Phil Rice
With two rounds of matches to go the competition for play-off places in the Guinness Pro14 is well and truly on.
Ulster kept their hopes alive last Friday with an impressive away win in Edinburgh – their closest rivals for the third qualifier place in Conference B – while Munster and Leinster both recorded bonus point victories. Connacht slipped into fifth place in Conference A.
Six Nations man of the tournament and top try scorer, Jacob Stockdale, became provider as he set up tries for Darren Cave and John Cooney. The bonus-point victory gives Ulster a life-line in their battle for a place in the play-offs.
They currently lie in fourth place, eight points behind Edinburgh but with a game in hand. The top three sides in each conference qualify for the play-off places.
A much-weakened Leinster side took their time to gain control of their game with Zebre at the RDS. Eventually they got into their stride and ran in seven tries in a 41-6 victory. The popular Australian James Lowe crossed twice as did Number 8 Max Deegan, who improves with each game.
Deegan is a player in the mould of his predecessor Jamie Heaslip, an intelligent ball handling player who reads the game well. He was shortlisted for player of the Under 20s World Cup three years ago and has thrived in Leinster’s Academy, and is now impressively repaying the input of his coaches.
With Heaslip’s recent retirement and Jack Conan’s injury, Leo Cullen may be tempted to start Deegan in their Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets next week.
Before that crucial game Leinster face Benetton Treviso this weekend at the RDS. They are hopeful that Sean O’Brien will recover in time to play against Scarlets, and he may well start this week in an effort to prove his fitness.
Rhys Ruddock came on as a substitute against Saracens in the last round, but slightly aggravated his old leg injury. He will also have to prove his fitness this week if he is to play a part in the semi-final.
Jordan Larmour has played no rugby since the knock he received in the Grand Slam match at Twickenham. He will be hoping to be fit enough to at least get a place on the bench on Saturday week.
Munster are enjoying a two-week break in South Africa before their Champions Cup semi-final away to Racing 92.
They scored a bonus-point victory over Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth last Saturday after coming back from a 15-13 deficit at half-time. They have an important match this week at the home of the Cheetahs.
The Bloemfontein based side are just six points behind Munster in Conference A and Munster will want to maintain their advantage to guarantee a home game in their first play-off match.
Munster have a long injury list as they prepare for their tricky match with Racing 92 at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux. They overcame Toulon in their quarter-final despite having a weakened team, but Racing 92 in France will be an even tougher proposition.
The unfortunate Tommy O’Donnell has undergone surgery for the shoulder injury he sustained against Scarlets in their recent Pro14 meeting. He will play no further part in Munster’s season and with Chris Cloete also injured the open side flanker position is a concern. Jack O’Donoghue had an excellent game against Toulon but he is more at home on the blindside.
Other long-term injured players include, Keith Earls, Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams, Jaco Taute and Chris Farrell. But if Munster show the same commitment as they did against Toulon who would bet against them?
Simon Zebo is hopeful of being fit for the semi-final and may play in this week’s match against the Cheetahs to prove his fitness.
Andrew Conway, fresh from his match winning ‘wonder try’ against Toulon, played no part in last Saturday’s game but is expected to turn out this week, along with other first-choice players Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, who were also rested at the weekend.
There are many who believe that a Munster v Leinster final in the Champions Cup is on the cards, but both coaches, Johann van Graan and Leo Cullen, will be very aware of the threats posed by their semi-final opponents.
Leinster lost their Pro12 semi-final to Scarlets last season and will be prepared for a very competitive match at the Aviva.
Connacht needed to beat Ospreys last weekend in order to qualify for a Champions Cup place next season. The Welsh side recorded a facile 39-10 victory and almost certainly crushed Connacht’s hopes of making the elite European competition.
Failure to finish in fifth place in Conference A will mean that the Westerners will be destined for the Challenge Cup again next season.
The Ospreys, who have had a poor season to date, are finishing strongly and are now in prime position to take the final Champions Cup slot. Connacht’s final fixtures are away to Glasgow and home to Leinster, both daunting opponents for their last two matches.