Saturday, May 16, 2015

There's still some sorting out to do

Irish teams have plenty to play for in round 22, writes Ciarán Duffy

For some, last days of the season are great.  A day spent smugly reciting the implications of various results, and feeling like a messiah enlightening the more casual supporters on how the competition may unfold after each score (and they can just sit there and like it).  

For others, these days are the ice cream headaches of the rugby world.  The frustrating time when something as amazing as rugby is infringed upon by mathematics.  The same mathematics which promised to never rear it’s ugly head after the Leaving Cert.  All the fixtures kick off at the same time, so we won’t get the same type of drama as the we did on the last day of the six nations.  There will be more looking around then looking ahead.  And although the top four has been decided, there aren’t any absolute dead rubbers on the final day.  

In the 22nd round of the 14/15 Pro 12; Connacht host Ospreys, Ulster travel to Glasgow, Munster are at home to Newport Gwent Dragons, Leinster are away to Edinburgh, Scarlets go to Treviso, and Cardiff face Zebre.  I’ve never been so relieved there are only six games because I ran out of ways of saying one team plays another pretty quickly there.  The sorting criteria remains the same as last season, if two teams are level on points, the positioning is decided by number of wins.  If they still need separating, it’s down to point difference (yeah, that again).  If thats still not enough, it goes to number of tries scored, total points scored, the difference between tries scored and conceded, fewest number of red cards, and fewest number of yellow cards, in that order.  Now thats all that out of the way, lets get to the top 4.  

The importance 1st place has shifted this season, with the final venue already having been determined as the Kingspan Stadium.  However, the team that finishes 1st will be a top seed in next seasons European Rugby Champions Cup.  Ospreys, Glasgow, and Munster are all on 70 points at the moment, with Ospreys and Glasgow having won one game more.  Ospreys are in pole position as it stands and a bonus point win would secure top spot unless Glasgow can also get five points while scoring 26 more points than the Ospreys.  Munster, having one less win, will need to better the result of either of the top two.

For Ulster it’s a little more complicated.  However, since they play Glasgow, they still have some of their faith in their own hands.  Beating the Scottish side will move Ulster ahead of them, but they’ll still need either Munster or Ospreys to fail to win.  The minimum that will get Ulster through is a draw, with both Munster and Ospreys losing.  The Ulster line-up would seem to acknowledge the difficulty of the task, Neil Doak has made twelve changes from the team that drew with Munster last week.  Taking into account Glasgows 100% record in the league at home, Glasgow could well get five points against this weakened Ulster team.

I would consider Munster the favourites to get the other home semi-final place.  They would expect to get a bonus point against a poor Dragons team (just the two wins against Leinster this season) with nothing to play for.  Ospreys have to travel to a Connacht side with everything to play for.  A win is still likely, but a bonus point can’t be banked on.  By the end of the round, I think we’ll be looking at Glasgow securing top seeding and a home semi-final against Ulster, with Munster facing Ospreys at Thomond.  

Outside of the top 4, there are still Champions Cup places to play for.  Leinster secured a spot in the competition, but need at least a two points to be sure of 5th and a better seeding.  In truth this better seeding may be some-what of a red herring, as Leinster will still have two teams ranked higher than them.  However, if there’s the possibility of playing an Italian team and a chance to end an abysmal season on a high, Leinster should turn up against a battling Edinburgh.  

Scarlets need at least a win to have any chance of taking 5th, but they will also be looking over their shoulders being only four points above Connacht.  A draw for the Welsh would be enough to achieve automatic qualification.  Connacht can overtake Scarlets if they get a bonus point win and Scarlets fail to get more than a losing bonus point.  If both sides are level on points there will need to be a points differential wing of 28 points for the Westeners to overtake.  Unfortunately, there may not be enough candles for grandmothers to light for Connacht to achieve automatic qualification.  At the moment, Connacht are in the play-off place, and will face Gloucester in a rematch of their Challenge cup tie in the play-off semi-final.  The winner of that game will face the Top 14 team in 7th place, which is currently Bordeaux.  However, the province is only one point ahead of Edinburgh and will need to better their result.  With the point difference between the two sides being 39 in favour of Connacht, Edinburgh will realistically need to win with Connacht failing to do so.  There is still a scenario which could see Edinburgh qualify automatically, but typing such a scenario would do nothing except scream “WORD COUNT” to you, the reader.  

Leinster and Scarlets are in the automatic spots, and I’d expect both teams to do enough to retain their positions.  Connacht are good enough to get at least a losing bonus point at home to the Ospreys, and while it isn’t unrealistic for Edinburgh to pull off an upset against an underperforming Leinster side, I don’t think they will be able to deny either province their current position.  

There’s also the matter of the Italian European cup spot that needs deciding.  While there may have been questions over whether Treviso or Zebre have a future in the competition, there is still something to on the line for the two teams that take the ‘Celtic’ out of ‘Celtic League’.  Treviso are currently 3 points ahead of Zebre, but face a tougher game, at home to Scarlets.  If Zebre can manage to secure their fourth win of the season in Cardiff, and Treviso fail to get more than a losing bonus point, the Parma men will qualify by virtue of having won more games.  

There are also two other Welsh sides with nothing at all to play for.  Newport Gwent Dragons lost their chance at qualifying for Europe’s premier competition a few weeks back, and Cardiff Blues have long been the forgotten middle child of the league during the final few games.  While both teams are guaranteed to finish 9th and 10th respectively, they still have the opportunity to influence how the table looks at the end. 

Oddly, it’s a last day that will have more connotations for next season than this season, but all six games are still alive on a final day with a lot of little things riding on it.  

Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously.  He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.  

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