The margin of error has been reduced to zero in this season’s top European domestic leagues, with the regular season finished and just 14 teams left vying for silverware across the Magners League, Aviva Premiership and Top14.
The playoff series kicks off in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 on Friday evening as Leinster will no doubt be happy to go first as it gives them an extra day’s rest before their Heineken Cup outing the following weekend.
Their opponents Ulster will be looking to that very final in Cardiff to help them reverse the humbling they received at the RDS just a few weeks ago. With injuries to such key players as Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace in their own ranks, they’ll need more heroics from Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys to capitalise on any daydreaming by the home side.
But according to Leinster coach Joe Schmidt, his squad are determined to retain their focus and given the outstanding recent league performances from the likes of Fergus McFadden, who wasn’t considered good enough to start against either Leicester or Toulouse, you’d have to fancy a home win.
Whoever prevails on Friday will set up a final clash against the winner of the second playoff tie, taking place in Thomond Park on Saturday evening between Munster and the Ospreys. Again, the formbooks don’t exactly favour the visitors, but they can lay claim to being one of the rare sides to leave Limerick victorious in recent years, having done so in April 2010.
The Welshmen are also hampered by injuries, particularly to superstar winger Shane Williams, but they also have players set to leave such as James Hook and Jerry Collins, neither of whom will be keen on this being their last outing for the region.
For Munster it’s time to put the European disappointments behind them and find a way to tap in once more to their famous 16th man at Thomond. As always they will look to their established stars, but they still owe top prospects like Felix Jones, Conor Murray and worthy Player of the Year James Coughlan for their amazing 19 Magners League wins out of 22 this season.
Across the Irish Sea, Leinster’s Heineken Cup opponents Northampton have the perfect challenge to prepare them for Cardiff as they face the Aviva Premiership champions & table-toppers the Leicester Tigers.
The Saints have been busy since they reached the European showpiece and have not only re-signed such key players as Lee Dixon and Tom Wood, but they have also added to their ranks with Leeds lock James Craig and Spanish international Cesar Sempere announced only this morning.
But the Tigers, particularly their halfback pairing Ben Youngs and Toby Flood, will no doubt still be smarting from their defeats in Dublin this year so the home side will be extremely reluctant to relinquish their crown.
In the other semi final on Sunday, Saracens face Gloucester at Vicarage Road. The Sarries have literally had a rollercoaster season, with their dip in form coming at Heineken Cup pool stage time, fortunately for Leinster. But since January they have been on quite the run, winning their last ten league matches on the bounce to seal a home playoff.
Gloucester have already won silverware this season, taking the Anglo-Welsh Cup and the Heineken spot that now comes with it, and although they won’t lay down before Schalk Brtis and his teammates, should be happy whatever the result with much to build on for the next campaign.
Not to be outdone we have the Top14 in France, who are also at the playoff stage, although there they have six qualifiers and thus have an extra round of playoffs. Reigning holders of the Bouclier de Brennus Clermont Auvergne host Biarritz while Castres entertain Montpellier for the right to join Toulouse and Racing Metro in the final four.
And as if THAT isn’t enough top-quality rugby for you this weekend, we mustn’t forget that down under the Super15 tournament is entering its 13th week. I’ll be covering this competition in more detail once the European season is over, but it’s hard to ignore the top clash of the round as the two sides atop the overall ladder, the Queensland Reds and the Auckland Blues, go head-to-head at SunCorp Stadium Friday morning our time.
So, after I was able to predict six out of six Magners League winners in my article last week, how will I fare this time round? Well, I feel I should pick at least one away victory, so I’ll plump for Montpellier to do that, with Leinster, Munster, Leicester, Saracens, Clermont & the Reds all making their home fans happy.
As always, enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are.
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