As much as we love to look forward to a weekend of competitive rugby, I can pretty much guarantee there’s nothing the final round of RaboDirectPRO12 matches can do to top last weekend for the Irish provinces.
Not only was the first ever all-Irish Heineken Cup final secured but doing so handed Connacht a second crack at the competition while not to be undone, Munster’s A side lifted the British & Irish Cup.
That’s not to say, however, that our four representatives in the league don’t have something to play for in Saturday’s matches, all of which take place at the same time as has become the tradition.
Probably the match with the least riding on it is at Rodney Parade in Newport where the Dragons face Leinster. The home side have only pride to play for as far as the standings are concerned, but they will be bidding farewell to some of their leading players like captain Luke Charteris and winger Aled Brew so no doubt they will be keen to take a big scalp in front of their home crowd before they go.
As for the visitors well Joe Schmidt is in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose which of his main players to rest before the big knockout games around the corner without fear of compromising his team’s 1st-place standing.
So not even one of his starters from Bordeaux last Sunday will be on the field at kickoff…Kevin McLaughlin will skipper the side with Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin the other two senior players starting. Isa Nacewa makes the trip and should he come off the bench it will be his 100th appearance for the province, a fitting way to end a week where he tacked on an extra year to his contract.
The province with the most difficult task is no doubt Connacht. Any kind of victory in their final match should secure them 8th spot which would be their highest ever finish in this league which would mean that despite their long losing streak in the middle of the campaign, this would definitely be their most successful one yet.
However they must travel to Firhill to face a Glasgow Warriors side who not only need a win to seal a playoff spot but also wouldn’t mind avoiding Leinster in next week’s semifinal. So Sean Lineen will be putting out a full strength XV which includes Richie Gray who is another lock making his final appearance in front of his home crowd before a move abroad.
You can be sure Eric Elwood’s men won’t make things easy for them however and with some new signings set to arrive in the summer there will be many such as flanker Johnny O’Connor keen to show they won’t give up their starting spot without a fight.
Ulster can still mathematically reach the playoffs but not only must they secure a bonus point victory at Thomond Park they must also rely on more than one result elsewhere to go their way. With this in mind, plus the fact that they don’t have the strength in depth that Leinster do, one can hardly blame Brian McLaughlin to placing greater emphasis on the trip to Twickenham.
There are still some starters from their Aviva Stadium victory over Edinburgh on show in Limerick however such as Andrew Trimble and Dan Tuohy, but the youngsters also get a chance as Irish Under-20 stars Paddy Jackson and Ian Henderson also start.
With the news that Iain Humphreys is on his way to London Irish next season, no doubt Jackson will be keen to let the Ulster faithful know their future is safe with him in the squad.
Munster of course have plenty of motivation of their own. Victory will give them the arguably more favourable semifinal trip to Swansea to face the Ospreys, while of course there is the small matter of revenge to be sought after their Heineken Cup quarterfinal defeat to the same Ulstermen.
But the order of the day for Munster should be goodbyes and see-you-soons. David Wallace announced his retirement during the week and will no doubt be honoured. Also as it is likely to be the last match at Thomond Park Mick O’Driscoll’s retirement cannot be forgotten either, plus if Tomás O’Leary comes off the bench he can bid farewell before his move to the Aviva Premiership.
And of course on the coaching front, Tony McGahan will be there to say farewell to the Limerick faithful with his replacement Rob Penney having been announced during the week…some of the youngsters he will be inheriting such as Tommy O’Donnell and Simon Zebo will be on show.
Predictions will be tough this weekend. I expect a few upsets. Like the Dragons defeating my beloved Leinster for one! Hey, we began the Pro12 campaign with a defeat in Wales I don’t see why we can’t end it with one as well, especially as it will do no harm. I expect the Warriors to overcome Connacht and Munster to gain their revenge at Thomond Park – those results will set up a playoff series of Leinster v Glasgow and Ospreys v Munster.
Elsewhere in the league, the only game of any importance to the table sees the Scarlets hosting the Cardiff Blues. I expect the home side to secure a comfortable bonus-point victory though it won’t be enough to get them into the top four. Meanwhile Aironi bow out of the league as they host the Ospreys, can see them going out on a high note if only narrowly, and Michael Bradley should draw his successful first season as Edinburgh head coach to a close with a win over the visiting Treviso.
That’s it for me this week – I’ll be back next Friday to look ahead to the Pro 12 playoffs. Enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are! JLP