The Scarlets showed good enough form last week to suggest they can make it a tricky and nervous Sunday for Munster as an intriguing final round of the league phase of the Guinness PRO14 is concluded with a fascinating Irish derby at Aviva Stadium.
Just what will be on line when Munster run out against Connacht for the second of two appetising derbies scheduled for the home of Irish rugby will depend what Scarlets do against the Dragons in Newport on Saturday. There have been some close encounters between the two Welsh sides in recent times, but even though they are the traveling team the Scarlets will be confident after their highly impressive return-to-play win over Cardiff Blues.
There’s a sense that summer rugby suits the Scarlets’ playing style and if that proves the case on Saturday and they win well, Munster will find themselves needing to beat Connacht in order to secure a place in the following week’s semi-final round.
Some of the confusion for South African eyes has been cleared up by a closer look at the PRO14 rules. Unlike in Super Rugby, separating two teams that tie on the same number of points does not depend on points differential, but on the number of games each team has won.
And in that regard, Scarlets will be better off if they record their 10th win and Munster fall short against Connacht to leave them on nine. Likewise, if the Scarlets make up the four points separating second from third in the conference by winning without a bonus point at Rodney Parade, Munster will need at least a bonus point from their game.
Even if Scarlets fail in Newport and Munster start against Connacht knowing they've already secured their place in the semi-finals it should be an interesting game. Connacht showed in beating Ulster last Sunday that they don’t need the motivation of having silverware on the line in order to bring out their best, while Munster need to win if they are to go into a play-off against their old nemesis Leinster with any kind of confidence.
Both Sunday’s Aviva Stadium protagonists showed good form last week. Munster would have been disappointed that they fell short against Leinster, but they came within two points of drawing the game and these days just pushing the champions and runaway log leaders means you’ve done well.
Last week’s game would have given Munster’s South African coach Johan van Graan plenty to think about in addition to the headache he would have received when it was learned he’d have to go into Sunday’s game without both his South African born locks, RG Snyman and Jean Kleyn.
Snyman, alongside fellow Bok Damian de Allende Munster’s most important acquisition during the period of coronavirus hiatus, is out for the rest of the season following his ACL injury. Kleyn, who is now qualified to play for Ireland, is out for this week.
In the possible absence of the strong first phase platform he might have been banking on, Van Graan could do worse than look for a different way to win, and it was noticeable that his team’s challenge became stronger when they got quicker ball and were able to inject tempo into last week’s effort.
Former Southern Kings ace fetcher Chris Cloete appeared to make a noticeable difference to Munster when he came on. His defensive stats from the season are impressive, as shown by the fact that he has been responsible for the ninth most turn-overs even though he doesn’t play that many games, but he also contributes to the pace at which the ball is recycled on attack.
So, it will be interesting to see if Van Graan may consider giving Cloete a start. If not, it can be anticipated that he will be onto the field relatively early, as he was last week. Connacht have been praised for their all-embracing approach to the game and their ability to adapt tactics on the hoof and this should be a highly watchable match-up if last week was anything to go on.
Talking of good aesthetics, Friday night’s repeat of the Scottish derby that was won by Edinburgh last Saturday should also deliver. The return weekend from PRO14 lockdown provided plenty of evidence in support of summer rugby in the northern hemisphere, and the Murrayfield clash provided as much on that score as the Leinster/Munster clash did.
Glasgow Warriors’ last flickering hopes of semi-final qualification have now been finally extinguished but that shouldn’t make them any less dangerous. This will be the first match in the next series of the 1872 Cup, which is decided over three matches, and Glasgow will be eager to get ahead in a competition they haven’t won now since the 2017/18 season.
Edinburgh’s pack didn’t function as well as expected last Saturday and they had to depend heavily on their South African halfbacks Nic Groom and Jaco van der Walt. If Pierre Schoeman and company get the bit between their teeth the winning margin of 15 points, which was slightly flattering to Edinburgh, should be similar to what it was a week ago.
There's not much riding on the other Dublin derby, to be played on Saturday, but Ulster do need to bounce back after their loss to Connacht and Leinster are just such a super-efficient side that any game they play is good to watch.
Final round of league fixtures:
Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors (Edinburgh, Friday 20.35 Supersport1)
Dragons v Scarlets (Newport, Saturday 18.15 SS1)
Ulster v Leinster (Dublin, Saturday 20.35 SS1)
Munster v Connacht (Dublin, Sunday 16.00 SS1)
Cardiff Blues v Ospreys (Cardiff, Sunday 18.15)
Zebre v Benetton (Parma, Sunday 20.00)