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More than Champions Cup warm-ups: There's a hell of a lot to play for in the Pro12

Today’s inter-pros aren’t going to be the most heated clashes ever, but they will have a big bearing on the season.

Image: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

WITH THE TRADITIONAL powers of Leinster and Munster riding high in two competitions while Ulster and Connacht stutter through some infuriatingly patchy form, it’s tempting to give up hope and interest in the business end of the Pro12.

Don’t. Not yet.

Provinces in the north and west of the island, but not out of the running for accolades even with three tough matches ahead of them in rounds 20, 21 and 22 of the regular season of the Pro12.

Let’s start with Connacht

Because the (enjoy this title for a few more weeks) reigning champions have the biggest cliff to climb to turn this season into part of their success story

A top six finish and automatic qualification is going to be just out of reach after the Warriors’ bonus point win over Zebre last night, but Pat Lam can console himself in the knowledge that his side will at least contest a Champions Cup play-off for the chance to return to the tournament next season through the back door — Qualifiers, to borrow a second GAA terms.

Edinburgh have already been cut adrift from the season-extending seventh and eighth-place* spots. Cardiff and Connacht will be sent forward to challenge for the 20th and final spot in the Champions Cup, they just have to sort out who travels to France and who’s off to England.

The back door fixtures are scheduled for the weekend of 20 May, the same weekend as the Pro12 semi-finals, and will pit the seventh place Pro12 team against seventh from the Top14 with the team finishing eighth in the Pro12 taking on seventh-place Premiership team. The winners of those two qualifiers will then face each other on the weekend of 27 May.

Matt Healy scores his side's third try Matt Healy scoring when Connacht met Gloucester in a play-off thriller in 2015. Source: Kevin Barnes/INPHO

Currently in the running for the English and French places?

Well, in the Top14 just four points separate fifth-place Pau and Ian Madigan’s Bordeaux in 11th. Ronan O’Gara’s Racing 92 currently occupy seventh with Castres, Brive, Lyon and Stade Francais very close by. In the Premiership, Northampton Saints and Harlequins are level on points in seventh and sixth place respectively, with Gloucester six points below and Bath five above.

Taking on any of those clubs away from home will be a tall order at the end of the season. The importance of the games is clear, but while it’s tempting for Connacht to take the foot off the pedal, so much of their game is built around continuity. So building up form and momentum heading to a tough away fixture will be almost as important as keeping key men fit.

Now to Ulster. Ah, infuriatingly inconsistent, unfocused, soft-centred Ulster…

The inability to defeat the Blues last Friday night means Les Kiss’ side slipped out of the play-off berths in the top four. There is still hope, however, despite their tough run-in of Munster (a), Ospreys (a) and Leinster (h).

Okay, so closing the regular season against the top three is difficult, but rather than talk up possible intangible positives that may fall nicely for Ulster (such as, say, Munster being slightly distracted by the Champions Cup semi-final) we’ll look at the numbers. The northern province are just two points behind third-place Ospreys and level on points with Scarlets. And it’s not as if the Welsh regions have easy run-ins either.

Iain Henderson and Owen Watkin Source: Craig Thomas/INPHO

‘Judgement Day’ in the Millennium Stadium has made itself a seriously competitive derby day and the Ospreys will have contend with the in-form Blues before Scarlets meet Dragons.

While Ospreys begin round 20 just seven points off second-placed Munster and keen to look up rather than down, after coughing up a win at home to a sub-strength Leinster, Steve Tandy’s side could easily find themselves on a slide of sorts when they host Ulster (while Scarlets travel to Connacht) before closing out the regular season with a clash against the men from Llanelli.

tablefri

Round 20

Blues v Ospreys
Dragons v Scarlets
Munster v Ulster
Connacht v Leinster
Treviso v Edinburgh

Round 21

Blues v Zebre
Edinburgh v Dragons
Treviso v Munster
Leinster v Glasgow
Ospreys v Ulster
Connacht v Scarlets

Round 22

Scarlets v Ospreys
Glasgow v Edinburgh
Ulster v Leinster
Munster v Connacht
Dragons v Blues
Zebre v Treviso

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*In an attempt to avoid confusion, we’re sticking with calling the teams who qualify for the Champions Cup play-offs ‘the seventh and eighth-ranked’ teams from the Pro12.

The EPCR label them eighth and ninth, this is due to the necessity of including an Italian side among the first seven automatic qualifications for the Champions Cup.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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