This weekend’s Irish provincial clashes will be dictating more than bragging rights. Wins for Munster and Leinster will seal their place in the Pro 14 final. Defeat for either Connacht and Ulster will mean another domestic campaign will come to a close.
Munster vs Connacht
Despite having only lost two games all season and having already defeated Connacht in January, Munster are not yet guaranteed a final berth. They head into Friday night’s clash with Connacht atop Conference B, nine points clear of their provincial rivals.
Connacht have uncharacteristically struggled at home, only winning three of their seven home ties. Five wins from seven on the road, including an impressive 24-35 win over current Pro 14 champions Leinster, demonstrates how dangerous the west Ireland side can be.
What will be troubling for the Cork based outfit is the inclusion of Connacht’s Ireland internationals. With names such as Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane and Jack Carty being either currently omitted or released from the Irish camp, Munster can expect nothing but Connacht’s best.
Despite the many positives, Connacht forwards coach, Jimmy Duffy, knows how tough a test a trip to Thomond Park represents.
“There’s a number of international players they have away with the Irish team at the moment, but what’s remaining there will be another full international pack, with another five or six guys who have played international rugby in the backline,” he said.
Coach Johann van Graan will hope that standards don’t drop despite the lack of his core Irish talent for the crucial clash. Although Munster are missing big name, such as captain Peter O’ Mahony, they have won their last three games in a row.
One look at the stats tells you why ‘The Red Army’ has more talent in their ranks than just their Irish stars.
Take South African Damian De Allende as an example. A nightmare for any opposition’s midfield. The 2019 Rugby World Cup winner leads the team in clean breaks (7) and defenders beaten (22).
What will bolster Munster further is how much of a fortress Thomond Park is. Since the beginning of 2019, Munster claimed 19 victories from their 23 ties. Add in Connacht’s record of only one solitary win at this venue in 35 years, and you can understand why Munster feel they can get the job done.
The South African-born coach knows, however, that their season will be summed up this month: “What I’ve learned since coming to the northern hemisphere is what you do in the first part of the season doesn’t win you anything.”
Ulster vs Leinster
This can only be described as a must win for the Belfast based outfit. Six points adrift of the current holders, Ulster must come out of this titan clash with nothing but victory.
A failure to perform when they need it most has plagued Ulster for consecutive seasons. An impressive season to date hangs in the balance and that famous ‘what if’ phrase could be seen in papers on Sunday morning.
Ulster’s only defeat this season was to their Conference A rivals, a 24-12 defeat back in January. Although Ulster have only won one of their last eight against Leinster, the narrow defeat demonstrated that the gap was beginning to close.
A lack of Ireland call ups has bolstered Dan McFarland’s side for this weekend.
Despite missing captain Ian Henderson to Ireland duty, Ulster will still be able to field a strong side. Former Leinster-men Ian Madigan and Jordi Murphy will likely be included in the match day squad alongside a returning Jacob Stockdale.
Forward’s coach, Roddy Grant, knows Ulster’s season comes down to this one game: “This is a big game that we want to win. Leinster are the benchmark, but our mindset is to give it our all,” he said.
Leinster arrive in Belfast in red hot form. The reigning champions have won five in a row, averaging over 30 points during an impressive run.
Leo Cullen’s side could be hampered by the number of players missing due to Ireland duty, particularly in the backline.
Leinster will be without captain Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan and Garry Ringrose. A significant loss to any side.
The good news is the return of Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock alongside Scott Penny in the back row. That should mean that both back rows will match up evenly in terms of versatility and power.
Assistant coach, Robin McBryde, knows how significant this game is: “They’re up there competing with the best in Europe, it’s an all or nothing match,” he said.
What can be guaranteed is that this all Irish affair should provide some blockbuster rugby entertainment.