There are just two rounds to go in the Magners League regular season, with still much jostling to be done in the standings to see who will join Munster in the final four.
Mathematically all teams down to the 6th-placed Scarlets can qualify, though I’m sure even their coach Nigel Davies will admit his side is probably out of contention so it’s between Leinster, Ulster, Ospreys & Cardiff to fight for the remaining three slots.
Of those four teams it could be argued that it is Leinster who face the toughest task, even though they face the League’s bottom team, new Italian franchise Aironi Rugby.
Joe Schmidt will have been very satisfied by his squad’s maximum bonus point haul against Ulster last weekend but with a massive European semi final just a week after their trip to Viadana, he will need to be careful with his selection so he can field his best possible XV against Toulouse.
His already impressive squad received a massive boost at the RDS last Saturday by the return to action of Shane Jennings and no doubt he will feature in the away fixture as he needs the game time, but there are other key players such as Richardt Strauss and Isa Nacewa who might best serve the province by staying in Dublin.
Aironi have won just two matches all season, the first an historic win over 2-time Heineken Cup finalists Biarritz back in December, the second a maiden Magners League victory over Connacht a few weeks ago.
It certainly can’t be easy for a newly formed team in such a competitive league but you can be sure they will have their sights set on an upset to round off their home schedule and Leinster will have to rely on further impressive outings from the likes of Eoin O’Malley and Fergus McFadden to keep them in pole position for a 2nd place finish and its reward of a home semi final.
Sadly it’s the first big Leinster match not to be televised in a long time, so those not lucky enough to be travelling to northern Italy you be thankful for live score updates from www.sportsnewsireland throughout!
Meanwhile the Ulstermen will be looking to bounce back from their defeat in Ballsbridge which was far more one-sided that the 8-point victory margin suggests. Connacht are their second Irish opponents in a row and the Westerners are winding down before a summer break that will see a huge turnover of players, even for them, so a home win at Ravenhill seems the likely outcome.
Bryan McLaughlin however was rocked during the week by the news that two of his Ireland internationals Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace must sit out the rest of the campaign due to injury, so he will have to rely on such up and coming talent as Darren Cave, Nevin Spence and Craig Gilroy, that last of whom was a leading light against Leinster, to see them through.
Munster, meanwhile, have a European semi final of their own to consider and with 1st place on the Magners League ladder now secure, will surely send a predominately second string squad to face the Ospreys in Swansea.
The Welshmen will be no doubt be reeling after their loss to the Dragons last Friday and with the Cardiff Blues breathing down their necks must to field their strongest side to keep them in the hunt to retain their Magners League crown.
Cardiff for their part will be under pressure to secure the try bonus point on Thursday night against the other Italian side Treviso, for although that will bring them level with Leinster on the table, it is their last home match and they face two tricky away Welsh derbies in the weeks to come.
So with so much at stake this weekend, I predict victories for all four clubs still in realistic contention for the semi finals, though what could play a key factor will be their abilities to get the fourth try and the precious bonus point that comes with it. I fancy Cardiff (by 20+ pts) and Ulster (12-14) to do it, with Leinster (6-8) and the Ospreys (4-6) falling short.
One thing is for sure – the final round of matches, all played simultaneously on the evening of Friday, May 6, will produce some classic knockout rugby the “Top 4” format was designed for.
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