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After 10 failed attempts, there will finally be an away winner in the Pro12 semi-finals

This weekend’s play-offs are the most evenly balanced since the competition changed structure.
May 18th 2015, 10:35 AM 12,208 8

RECORDS ARE THERE to be broken. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen in the Pro12 this weekend.

This is the sixth season of the Celtic League / Pro12 playoff system and we are still waiting on a visiting team to leave happy.

That’s 10 matches, played at the most taxing point of the season between the best teams in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and still nobody has managed to secure a win on a short trip away from home.

Conor Murray Conor Murray taking on the Ospreys in the 2011 semi-final. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ospreys set the tone in 2010, holding Glasgow to a single score. The same fate awaited Ulster in the RDS the following year. And while the Warriors managed to get under Joe Schmidt’s skin on their two semi-final trips to Dublin, such games can be countered with the thrashings doled out by Ospreys and Ulster to end the respective hopes of Munster and Scarlets.

There have been plenty of good reasons why the home sides consistently triumph. After all, the pairings are decided by seeds with the higher-placed teams in the league handed home advantage. However, as the league grows more competitive, the gap is closing between the best and second best pair of teams in the league.

David Wallace David Wallace in full flight, months before the knee injury that would end his career. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Last year was as close as the hoodoo came to being broken, Ulster led Leinster 9 – 0 in Dublin – before Paddy Jackson’s back injury scuppered his day – and Munster lost by a single point in Glasgow.

Paddy Jackson kicks a penalty Source: James Crombie/INPHO

This year, semi-final number 11 or 12 will be the breakthrough.

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Saturday pits second v third in Thomond Park and the Welsh side have already beaten Anthony Foley’s men in both meetings in this campaign. However, with our all-weather Irish hat on, it’s better for the anxiety levels in The42 office if we don’t dwell on the worst-case scenario in Limerick.

Glasgow is where the home run will, with a bit of luck, end. Ulster’s late charge for a home semi-final may have run out of steam after Munster ended their run of victories at Kingspan Stadium. The dropped points left head coach Neil Doak with a stark choice. And rather than chasing the ‘maybe’ of a home semi-final at all costs, he kept his big guns under wraps, fully recharged and ready to go in to enemy territory.

Playing in difficult conditions, Ulster’s back-up side caused Glasgow enough trouble to give travelling supporters reason to be confident about a second visit to Scotstoun in six days.

Chris Henry’s finish off a maul edged the northern province in to a half-time lead which they held until the 55th minute.  The howling gale at their backs in the opening 40 was more of a hindrance than help as attack after attack was stunted by passes changing trajectory mid-flight.

Finn Russell celebrates winning Finn Russell celebrates Saturday's win over Ulster. Source: Russell Cheyne/INPHO

Then there’s the personnel: Iain Henderson may have played over an hour, but Ulster’s physicality will be increased across the board with the return of fresh first-choice stars. Nowhere more so than at scrum-half, where it’s difficult to see Ruan Pienaar getting run over the way Paul Marshall was bulldozed by Finn Russell as the number 10 opened the floodgates by scoring Glasgow’s second.

It’s far from a whitewash of good omens for Ulster. Franco Van Der Merwe looks likely to miss out after hobbling off in the 18th minutes and Glasgow’s late flurry of tries placed that most indefinable of advantages, momentum, firmly in to their hands.

Sean Lamont challenges Rory Scholes and Louis Ludik Sean Lamont challenges Ulster’s Rory Scholes for a high ball. Source: Russell Cheyne/INPHO

Neil Doak must pit his wits against the best coach in the league in Scotstoun, where 10,000 people with a growing sense of expectation and confidence around everything Glasgow do will be baying for blood.

Ulster have not won in Scotland’s second city since 2011, when the Warriors played at Firhill. Records and losing runs, though, are there to be broken.

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Sean Farrell

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