By Tadhg Peavoy
The last of regular season matches in the Pro12 are down for decision this weekend, with Leinster, Glasgow, Munster and Ulster all guaranteed the tournament's four play-off places. What remains to be decided is just who will claim a home semi-final.
Leinster and Glasgow are in the box seats, with the Irish side topping the table on 78 points, four ahead of the Warriors. Munster are breathing down their necks with 73 and and Ulster lag quite some margin behind on 66.
The mathematics of that mean that whatever Ulster do away at Munster this Saturday, they can’t climb higher than fourth and will play the team that finishes top, whatever happens.
Munster need to win that tie to have any chance of jumping into second ahead of Glasgow.
However, the bad news is that Glasgow host Zebre at home in their final regular season game. The Italians are one place off the foot of the table and an away win for them would be one of the biggest upsets of the season.
If Glasgow do the likely and beat Zebre out the gate, Munster could still leapfrog Leinster. If Matt O’Connor’s team were to lose to Edinburgh at home, with no bonus point, and Munster were to secure a bonus point win over Ulster, they would be level on 78 points and it would come down to number of matches won. Munster would have one more victory and that would be enough to book a home semi.
Essentially, it’s all in Leinster and Glasgow’s control. They are both fancied to beat Edinburgh and Zebre, respectively, and with it secure their spots. Munster are hoping they can score four tries against Ulster and do the unexpected.
Leinster have named a strong side for the clash against the Scots, in fact it couldn’t be much stronger. Sean O’Brien returns to the side following a lengthy injury lay-off and is named at blindside flanker in really strong back-row that includes Jordi Murphy and Jamie Heaslip.
Rob Kearney and Ian Madigan are named on the bench, with Jimmy Gopperth and Fergus McFadden coming into the XV at out-half and wing, with Zane Kirchner slipping into the full-back slot.
O’Connor has made eight changes in total, but one would expect little disruption as a result. The rotation that takes place in the squad has worked superbly all year and the freshness it contributes is a necessary given the modern demands of the game.
Edinburgh were thumped 55-12 at home to Munster last week and looked appalling. Their defence was porous, and they lacked passion going forward. They’ve also lost four in succession now in the Pro12 and have nothing to play for in this one. It’s hard to see anything other than a Leinster victory, and I expect they'll get a bonus point with it.
Munster are also heavy favourites to account for Ulster at Thomond Park. Rob Penney has made ten changes from the team that thumped Edinburgh but the quality is still sown through the side.
Felix Jones provides solidity at full-back, with Gerhard van den Heever, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo and Ian Keatley provide plenty of talent in the backline.
The pack is less experienced but Paul O’Connell, Sean Dougall and James Coughlan are all named and will provide the key leadership up front.
Ulster, by contrast, name a side shorn of their big names. Mark Anscombe has made 12 changes to the team that lost to Leinster last week and the entire backline is changed. The only star name in that backline is Craig Gilroy at full-back.
In the pack it’s a similar situation. Essentially, it would appear Anscombe is using the tie as one to give experience to his talented youngsters. With European qualification secured and big play-off ties to come, why not rest the frontline players?
For Connacht the goal this weekend is equalling their highest-ever finish in the Pro12 table of eighth. They go to Ospreys in their attempt to do so.
Everything is against Connacht on paper. They’ve lost their last four ties, and have only beaten Ospreys once in 11 attempts. They haven’t beaten them away since 2004.
Pat Lam has named a stong side, with Kieran Marmion and captain John Muldoon key figures; however, with Alun-Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Dan Biggar, Andrew Bishop and Ashley Beck all down to start, Ospreys are likely to be too strong for the Westerners.
Leinster to win by 25
Munster to win by 20
Connacht to lose by 12