There’s a big weekend of Guinness PRO14 action coming up with places in the Final up for grabs as well as huge Champions Cup play-off tie for the Ospreys in Belfast on Sunday.
It has been another terrific season as the Guinness PRO14 continues to go from strength to strength with attendances up 16 per cent, another new try-scoring record set with a tally of 861 while in European competition teams from the Championship continued to best their rivals from other leagues.
The introduction of the Conference format means that more teams will compete in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series, with six teams involved compared to four in previous seasons. This means more jeopardy and more drama than ever before at the tail-end of the season which is renowned for producing incredible rugby.
Another new innovation is the introduction of the Champions Cup Play-Off game to decide who will take the Guinness PRO14's seventh place in EPCR's top competition. This weekend Ulster Rugby will represent Conference B against Ospreys Rugby, who are representing Conference A.
GUINNESS PRO14 SEMI-FINAL PREVIEWS:
GLASGOW WARRIORS v SCARLETS
Friday, May 18, Scotstoun Stadium (KO 19:45) – Sky Sports Action, BBC ALBA, BBC Wales
To sum up the challenge awaiting the defending champions in Glasgow, consider this: out of a possible 50 match points Warriors have won 49 at Scotstoun this season. It is such incredible form that has made Glasgow Warriors’ home a true fortress under new coach Dave Rennie and with their artificial surface the hosts know exactly how to step on the accelerator.
But Scarlets made their name – and won last season’s title – by playing a dashing brand of rugby that is predicated on fearless offloading and hunting like a pack at the breakdown. Scarlets’ tally of 158 turnovers in the Opta rankings, is second only to Cardiff Blues (169) and players like Tadhg Beirne and James Davies will be in position to punish any loose play by Glasgow Warriors.
In order do that, Scarlets will have to try and restrain their hosts who led the Guinness PRO14 in metres gained and clean breaks. For Scarlets the rejuvenation led by head coach Wayne Pivac over the past couple of seasons has created a team that pays little heed to the records of others. Last season Scarlets became the first team to ever win a Semi-Final away from home and that will provide so much belief in this fixture.
LEINSTER RUGBY v MUNSTER RUGBY
Saturday, May 19, RDS Arena (KO 15:15) – Sky Sports Action, TG4
If you wondered if the heat had cooled from this age-old rivalry then today’s affair should prove the folly in that argument. Coming off their fourth European Cup title Leinster now aim to complete a double by winning the Guinness PRO14 while Munster are desperate to claim their first silverware since 2011 having lost two domestic finals in the past four years. In Leinster their former players spoke of how Munster’s European success sparked a drive within the blue province to be better, more consistent and to claim trophies at home and abroad.
Since 2008, the year Munster won their last European Cup, Leinster have won the Championship three times and triumphed in Europe four times, five if you include their Challenge Cup win in 2013. Doubtless, Munster take little joy about fuelling Leinster’s ambition – and success – and today’s encounter provides the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and CJ Stander with the opportunity to take on Europe’s best and claim a scalp of their own.
Scarlets’ Semi-Final win in Dublin last season was the first for an away team the Championship knock-out stages so history will provide no barrier to the men in red. Energy supplies may also be on their side having had two weeks lead-in to prepare whilst Leinster were busy in Bilbao dealing with an incredibly physical Racing 92 team.
PLAY OFF PREVIEW:
ULSTER RUGBY v OSPREYS RUGBY
Sunday, May 20, Kingspan Stadium (KO 15:05) – BBC NI, S4C
A new contest but a familiar prize at stake for two teams used to mixing it with Europe’s elite year after year. For the first time the Guinness PRO14 hosts a Play-Off game for the final place in the European Champions Cup as a result of adopting a Conference format this season.
Ulster, represent Conference B as the highest-placed team not to automatically qualify for the Champions Cup while Ospreys have benefited from the performances of Cardiff Blues and the Toyota Cheetahs’ EPCR ineligibility to represent Conference A.
For both teams it has been a season of mixed fortunes, big results in Europe did not translate into qualification in for the knock-out stages while inconsistencies in the Guinness PRO14 prevented them reaching the Final Series – an expectancy in both Ulster and Ospreylia.
Littered with international quality, however, either side would be a fitting representative for the Championship in Europe’s top competition next season. Both teams boast British & Irish Lions of Test class with Iain Henderson, Rory Best and Tommy Bowe among the Ulster ranks and Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Justin Tipuric leading the way for Ospreys.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 78th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Mike Adamson (SRU), Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR)
Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (SRU)
Overall Guinness PRO14 head to head record:
Played 29, Ulster won 15, Ospreys won 14.
Did you know?
The Ospreys team to play Ulster will be announced at midday on Friday.