Pro12 play-offs followed by multiple South Africa matches requires strong Irish team
By Phil Rice
The season ending Pro12 play-offs take place this weekend and with Ireland’s three match series against South Africa to follow shortly afterwards the Irish Coach will be praying for a clean bill of health for his squad. It was announced last week that the draw for the 2019 World Cup will take place in May 2017.
Watch the preview of Leinster v Ulster here:
The seedings for the draw will be based on the world rankings at that date. During the course of the next 12 months Ireland have a severely demanding schedule with series against both the Springboks and the All Blacks.
Our ranking at present is seven and the top eight teams are seeded, meaning that should Ireland slip out of the leading eight countries they will face the dilemma that Wales, England and Australia encountered in the most recent World Cup.
Three of the world’s leading rugby playing nations fighting for two quarter-final places. The host nation England missed out on that occasion but in fact it was Wales who were the ninth seed who created the issue.
So in fact you can still be unlucky enough to be included in a strong pool but when you are outside of the top eight you are guaranteed to face that situation.
This puts added pressure on Ireland to get something from the upcoming series against South Africa.
Already Schmidt knows he will be without two of his best flankers, Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, as well as Tommy Bowe, Cian Healy and Simon Zebo. This year’s play-offs feature three Irish provinces for the first time. At the start of the season who would have predicted that one of those teams would be Connacht.
They have been the Leicester City of the Pro12 league, confounding all the critics by finishing level on points with Leinster at the top of the table. They face a daunting task against the holders, Glasgow Warriors in Galway this Saturday evening. However in their final league match they beat the Scottish team at the same venue in a close fought game.
Glasgow Coach Gregor Townsend was fulsome in his praise for Connacht after that game, but don’t be fooled by those pleasantries, Glasgow will be desperate to retain their crown and will know what to expect from the hostile capacity crowd at the Sportsground.
Connacht will be without Dennis Buckley at loose-head prop, he has been a key player for them this year and was many people’s favourite to replace the injured Cian Healy in the Irish squad for South Africa.
Throughout the season Connacht have made light of their injury worries as replacements have stepped up to the mark and helped sustain their winning sequence. Rugby has attracted enormous attention in the West of Ireland during this season, leading to demands for the development of a new stadium.
The current capacity of 7,500 spectators at the Sportsground is woefully inadequate as demand for tickets has considerably exceeded supply during the season.
The success of the Connacht team was reflected in the selection of seven of their players in the Pro12 Team of the season. Bundee Aki was voted player of the season and Glasgow will be aware of the threat he poses in the centre both as an attacking force and as a powerful defender.
The other semi-final takes place at the RDS this Friday evening, between Leinster and Ulster. No team is finishing the season stronger than Ulster, with big successive wins over Leinster and Ospreys.
Watch the preview here:
The marked improvement in Ulster’s form recently has coincided with the return of the immense presence of Iain Henderson. Ireland badly missed his impact during the Six Nations.
He is the most effective ball-carrier in Irish rugby at present but his contribution doesn’t end there, he is a strong scrummager and more than useful line-out jumper. He reads the game particularly well and drives players back in the tackle. Joe Schmidt will be particularly anxious that he comes through the playoffs unscathed.
Paddy Jackson upstaged Johnny Sexton in the recent match at the Kingspan and the Leinster man will be well aware of the threat posed to his Irish jersey by the Ulster fly-half. Ruan Pienaar is among the leading scrum-halves in world rugby and Leinster will know they can’t afford to let the Ulster half-backs dictate the game as they did in Belfast.
Rhys Ruddock has finished the season strongly for Leinster and he will be fighting for a place in Schmidt’s squad for South Africa. Along with Jordi Murphy, Ruddock will be charged with containing the threat posed by the Ulster half-backs. It promises to be a closely fought affair in Dublin, but the recent surge in Ulster’s form and confidence may prove too much for the home side.
The Pro12 final will be held at Murrayfield on Saturday week. Glasgow will be desperate to reach the final in front of their home fans.
However after everything that has happened this season it would be fitting for Connacht to reach the ultimate stage and as with Leicester City they would be universally popular winners. While Joe Schmidt will just be hoping that no further damage is inflicted on his squad for South Africa.