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Dublin: 4 °C Thursday 20 February, 2020
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An openside question for Munster and more talking points as the Pro12 comes down to the wire

Three Irish provinces have a lot to play for tomorrow.

1. Connacht’s day in the sun

AND SO IT comes down to this.

Connacht are, as ever, in the role of the underdog on Saturday. Not only because they are facing the league leaders, but because Scarlets can slam the Champions Cup qualification window shut with an uncomplicated victory over Treviso.

Pat Lam Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Where there’s a home fixture out west, though, there’s a way.

Pat Lam has had his team geared towards one goal and one goal only all season long, and to achieve it, they know they have to beat Ospreys.

Rediscovering the winning feeling with last weekend’s drubbing of Zebre was an important step. So if they can set their scrum to work on the Welsh side and limit the error count from half-back, then they have a chance of causing the upset that’s needed. They won’t be lacking for intensity anyway.

2. Ulster cool their jets

10 Pro12 teams have something worth playing for this weekend, yet a team with real title ambitions and a chance of finishing top of the table have kept all of their big guns under wraps.

Ulster’s starting XV this weekend resembles a Ravens line-up. Only Chris Henry (who captains the side), Franco van der Merwe and Louis Ludik remain from the draw with Munster. It’s undoubtedly a weakened outfit, but it’s also a hugely exciting one – particularly in the back-line.

Stuart McCloskey Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

The 9-10-12 axis of Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys and Stu McCloskey isn’t a big reach down the depth chart. But the addition of Sam Arnold, who starred at 12 for Ireland’s under 20s during the Six Nations, at outside centre is an intriguing one.

As are the wingers: Michael Allen is too good of a player to be forced overseas for next term and Rory Scholes is a powerful ball-carrier with a tremendous knack of finishing opportunities.

3. Red hand province ready for the road

Among the reasons for complaining about setting Ravenhill as the venue for the Grand Final was that it gives Ulster an unfair advantage. However, the team selected by Neil Doak would suggest that he is ready take the hard road to glory.

The Ulster team huddle after the game Ulster react to last year's playoff defeat at the RDS, a game they led 9 - 0 at one point in the second half. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

We’ve said it often, but it bears repeating. No team in five years of Celtic League play-offs has managed to win a semi-final away from home. Keeping their front-liners on ice for this weekend makes it incredibly difficult to win, but gives the northern province the best possible chance of ending that home run.

Whichever of the three teams above Ulster act as their hosts next weekend, it will be an almighty contest. And if Doak’s men come out clean the other side and manage to win on home soil on 30 May, nobody can say they had it easy.

4. Munster’s back row balance

It wasn’t just Ulster ringing in a few changes. Munster have shelved Peter O’Mahony for the week with a reported ‘knock’ so Anthony Foley’s back-row has an extremely solid look to it.

With CJ Stander flanked by Donnacha Ryan and Paddy Butler, the Reds won’t want for heft among their loose forwards and as a result they may aim to keep their attack relatively narrow with a lot of focus on the maul in Musgrave Park.

Tommy O'Donnell leaves the field injured Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The question is, how will that back row look when the semis roll around? Tommy O’Donnell’s torn hamstring means he will spend the summer in rehab and Foley is left with Sean Dougall as his only natural openside.

Selection for the Dragons clash shows that Dougall is behind Butler in the thinking for the number seven jersey, but presuming Peter O’Mahony is fit and well in a week’s time, he would surely promise more of a cutting edge and balance to the trio.

5. Leinster’s last hurrah

The only province who definitely play their last game of the season on Saturday. Leinster still have a part to play in the final shake-up and can help Connacht secure a Champions Cup playoff spot as a minimum reward.

To that end, Matt O’Connor has picked an exciting back-line on paper. Benching Jimmy Gopperth for his last game with the club is an odd call, but with Ian Madigan handed the reins and Noel Reid outside him, the ingredients for the attack that Leinster fans dream of are there.

Matt O'Connor Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Midweek, Sean O’Brien seemed to promise that Leinster would cut loose a bit now that European qualification is assured. The problem for supporters is, they’ve heard all season that the team is just a fraction away from clicking, just about to put the whole gameplan together. And yet it has never quite materialised.

A big display at the site of Ireland’s Six Nations success would be welcome, but it won’t make supporters of the eastern province feel better about their season outside the playoffs.

Where can I watch the gripping final weekend of the Pro12?

Here’s what Munster, Ulster and Connacht need to happen in the Pro12

Marmion and Carr return as Connacht aim to shoot down Ospreys and enter Champions Cup

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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