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Pro12 set for thrilling run-in as Irish provinces look to secure play-offs

Munster are in the greatest danger of missing out at present.

WHILE THE SIX Nations has commanded most attention over the past two months, the Guinness Pro12 has teed itself up superbly for a thrilling run-in to the play-offs.

Even the briefest of glances through the upcoming fixture list underlines how many crucial games lie ahead before, and including, the final day of the regular season on 7 May.

Tournament organisers couldn’t have planned it any better.

Pat Lam before the game Connacht will have to look over their shoulders in coming weeks. Source: Francesca Soli/INPHO

This weekend, the crucial showdowns begin with first-placed Connacht hosting second-placed Leinster, while play-off hopefuls and defending champions Glasgow welcome Ulster, currently occupying the fourth and final play-off spot, to Scotstoun.

Starting with leaders Connacht when assessing the weeks ahead makes most sense. Pat Lam’s men have been the brightest light in Irish rugby all season and missing out on the play-offs at this point is nigh on unthinkable.

By no means is Connacht’s run-in straightforward, but with Lam’s side currently on a five-game winning streak and brimming with confidence and attacking quality, they have every right to be bullish about their chances of securing a home semi-final.

CONNACHT’S RUN-IN: Leinster [H], Ulster [A], Munster [H], Treviso [A], Glasgow [H].

Three inter-provincial derbies in a row is a testing run, though two of them are at home for Connacht. Lam’s men have lost just once in eight league games at the Sportsground this season, a 10-3 defeat to Ulster.

Their try-scoring record – a remarkable 49 in 17 games, already equal to last season’s entire tally – is hugely encouraging, even if Connacht tend to ship tries too. Already this season is a major success for Connacht, but there is no reason they cannot continue to lead the way and challenge for a trophy.

Luke Fitzgerald Luke Fitzgerald is close to making his comeback. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leo Cullen’s Leinster arrive in Galway on Saturday after last weekend’s defeat to Glasgow ended a four-game winning run. The eastern province moved on admirably well from their European failings and has coped well without their many internationals.

The prospect of the likes of the in-form Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip and Devin Toner coming back into the mix in the next fortnight, along with returning injured players like Luke Fitzgerald and Marty Moore is reassuring for Leinster.

LEINSTER’S RUN-IN: Connacht [A], Munster [H], Edinburgh [H], Ulster [A], Treviso [H].

Not that those men have been sorely missed all the time. Cathal Marsh endured a tough evening in Glasgow last time out, but others like Garry Ringrose, James Tracy, Dan Leavy and Mick Kearney have performed with opportunity.

With their full contingent of returning Ireland players, Leinster will be keen to make a statement against Munster in the Aviva Stadium on 2 April, but will be eyeing Saturday’s meeting with Connacht as their opportunity to step out at the top of the table.

Table

Ulster have been a beacon of inconsistency, a little like Munster, with their recent record reading WLWWWLLW. As is the theme over the remaining rounds, Les Kiss’ side meet three of their direct play-off rivals in their final five regular-season games.

ULSTER’S RUN-IN: Glasgow [A], Connacht [H], Zebre [A], Leinster [H], Ospreys [A].

Paddy Jackson will continue his attempts to garner favour with Joe Schmidt, while captain Rory Best and experienced wing Andrew Trimble will be welcome returnees.

Sixth-placed Glasgow are a real threat to Ulster and Munster, as Gregor Townsend’s side find themselves on a good run and with a game in hand still. Winning away to the Warriors this weekend would be a huge feat for the northern province, both on the table and in terms of stifling some of the Scots’ momentum.

Anthony Foley’s Munster are perhaps more in need of their international contingent that any of the other provinces. The return of CJ Stander will be the biggest boost of all for weary supporters, though Conor Murray has also been dearly, dearly missed.

Darren Sweetnam Darren Sweetnam has been given chances in recent times. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Of their last six games, Munster have won three and lost three, with their performance levels having been far from convincing. Backing against them making the play-offs is certainly justifiable, and Foley must hope the likes of Stander and Murray can invigorate his squad.

MUNSTER’S RUN-IN: Zebre [H], Leinster [A], Connacht [A], Edinburgh [H], Scarlets [H].

With Edinburgh lurking four points behind Munster in seventh place, and with Alan Solomons’ side still to play the Dragons, Zebre and Cardiff, nothing can be taken for granted.

Welcoming Zebre to Thomond Park this weekend could not be any more timely, and a bonus-point win is an absolute must.

Third-placed Scarlets are key players in all of this too, of course, and Wayne Pivac’s men meet both Glasgow and Munster in their own run-in, the latter fixture likely to prove decisive on that final day of the regular season.

While the focus for the Irish provinces is on being part of that top four in order to secure a semi-final spot, it’s worth underlining how the qualification for next season’s Champions Cup works too.

Given the fact that it’s a World Cup season, there will be no inter-league play-offs this time around [Connacht lost to Gloucester in last season's].

The seven highest-ranked Pro12 clubs, based on their regular-season finishing positions, will go into the 2016/17 Champions Cup, though the seven qualifiers must include at least one club from each of Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

Paddy Jackson kicks Paddy Jackson will continue to push for Ireland honours. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

If the table was to stay exactly as it is now, then all four Irish provinces would qualify and seventh-placed Edinburgh would have to give up their spot in order to accommodate Zebre, the one Italian club.

However, if Munster or Ulster were to end the season in seventh place, they would need Connacht to win the Challenge Cup in order to rescue their Champions Cup place for 2016/17.

Without the inter-league play-offs this season, the 20th place in the Champions Cup goes to the winners of the Challenge Cup, which didn’t happen last season.

If the Challenge Cup winner has already qualified for next season’s Champions Cup on account of their finishing position in their league, however, then the next highest-ranked club from the same league [who hasn't yet qualified of course] gets in.

Munster will be hoping and expecting that such a scenario will be avoided of course. If Foley’s men can find form, Ulster can discover consistency and Leinster and Connacht maintain their positions, we may even have all-Irish semi-finals.

The Scarlets, Glasgow and Edinburgh will have something to say about that, while even the Ospreys might think they have an outside chance.

This should be fun.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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