By Phil Rice
The Pro12 league reaches the playoff stage as the Irish teams strive to meet in the final Having led the Pro12 league for most of the season, Leinster stumbled at the final hurdle against Ulster and Munster grabbed top qualifying spot for this weeks play-off semi finals.
The significance of this occurrence is that Leinster will now face the in-form team of the league in Llanelli Scarlets, this Friday evening. Despite the match being played at the RDS the Leinster management team will be very aware of the threat posed by this talented Scarlets side.
“Scarlets certainly are in form,” Head Coach Leo Cullen warned. “Go back to the start of the 22 games and they lost the first three.
“They have come a long way since then. They’ve got a real bounce and momentum from being together with a very steady team. We came unstuck over there in November.”
He further explained: “Over the course of the league a lot of clubs have two teams, there is one with the internationals and one without. Scarlets had a very settled team, particularly without their internationals and probably more so than any other team.
“Their front-row are all unbelievably good footballers. and whatever back-row combination they have they are very competitive at the breakdown.”
Ironically it may be one of ‘Leinster’s own’ that causes them as much trouble as any.
Tadhg Beirne joined Scarlets from the Leinster Academy at the beginning of the season and he has been one of their stand out players of the season with some barnstorming performances for the Llanelli based side.
Beirne is a product of the prolific Lansdowne RFC Academy and after two years at Leinster without breaking through to the first team, Scarlets swooped. He is a mobile second row with a flanker’s instincts. He loves to have the ball in his hands and he has added an extra dimension to the offloading game the Scarlets play so well.
Joe Schmidt will be particularly interested in watching Beirne as the Irish second-row cupboard is looking a bit bare, particularly after Donnacha Ryan’s impending departure to France. Beirne would have to return to Ireland to be considered for the national team, but after his form this season there would be considerable interest from the provinces in welcoming him home.
Scarlets are not a team of household names, at least outside of South Wales, but they have a number of players who are on the fringes of the Welsh team who have gelled well as a unit and are very well drilled by their coaching team. They smashed Ospreys 40-17 in their final league game.
Leinster will be without Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney who are still recovering from surgery. Sean O’Brien is hoping to be fit after a persistent hamstring problem has restricted his game time recently.
The game will be highly attritional from the outset and Leinster will be hoping for a better start than in their Champions Cup semifinal against Clermont.
Munster expect Conor Murray to make his first start for six weeks after his shoulder injury against Wales. He had 20 minutes against Connacht last week but should begin this weeks game. He will be in direct opposition with his competition for the Lion’s test jersey, Rhys Webb.
Webb has been in superb form for both the Ospreys and his national side this season. Murray will be rusty but desperate to impress the watching Lions Coach Warren Gatland.
Munster were very disappointed with their timid exit to Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final and they are desperate to finish the season on a high.
The season has been a roller-coaster for Rassie Erasmus’s team. After Anthony Foley’s sudden demise the team were galvanised into some heroic performances. They will be desperate to finish the eventful season with a final, possibly against their oldest foes at the Aviva.
Both games will be close affairs but historically the home teams in the play-offs have prevailed. Victory for the Irish sides would lead to a tremendous finale to the season in Dublin the following week.