Oval Digest: Push For The Playoffs Becomes A Lot Clearer
With the season coming to an enthralling climax, Irish title contenders had a good league weekend, while Munster won’t be too worried about their tenth defeat of the season.
Facing a sticky trip to the Sportsground, Ulster put their European debacle behind them. Tommy Bowe continued his try-scoring form, becoming the first player to 50 tries in this league, while Nick Williams excelled in getting go forward ball. To their credit, Ulster look likely to finish the league on top of the log, though the unfortunate need to play a possible home final in the RDS will temper this advantage slightly.
Opponents Connacht suffered again from the performance of their stand-offs, with both Parks and Nikora failing to control the game. The arrival of AIL winning Lansdowne 10 Craig Ronaldson will provide some much needed depth in this position for next year and the Kilkenny College man could prove a shrewd capture.
In Italy on Sunday, Leinster put
in a slightly Jekyll and Hyde performance against a poor Zebre side. Leading 17-3 after the first quarter, some defensive lapses and excellent attacking from wing Sinoti Sinoti gave the home team some impetus. The quality shone through in the second half however, with Toner, Ryan, O’Driscoll and Nacewa putting in fine performances.
John Cooney showed up well at 9, and may be needed before the season is out, while Sexton got his Lions chances back on track with 7/7 kicks and some nice playmaking.
Joe Schmidt will have more than any impending job offers on his mind this week, with both Madigan and Sexton putting forward strong cases to start against Biarritz.
Munster gave their ‘A’ team a run out in sunny Newport, going down to the Dragons in an action-packed 80 mins, though this won’t have much of an impact on their preparation for the Clermont game.
Elsewhere, surprise package of the Rabo season Glasgow were the big winners of the penultimate round. Welcoming the imposing Ospreys to Scotstoun, Warriors needed a win to keep the pressure on Leinster and Ulster, and they certainly obliged.
Rugby in Glasgow has, quite understandably, been a second citizen after the mighty Old Firm rivalry, but with Rangers stuck in the lower leagues, crowds at the new stadium have dramatically increased, and the team has replied with some top class performances. In Matawalu, Hogg, Strauss and Grant, Glasgow have top quality players in key positions, and will worry their semi final opponents.
A likely win for each of the top 4 in two weeks time will see Ulster v. Scarlets and Leinster v. Warriors in the semis.
The focus for Munster and Leinster turns to European adventures this week, with the Red Army set to converge on Clermont on Saturday. Munster will likely look to make the game scrappy and tight, with the performance of the backrow and snarling defensive aggression the key to upsetting the French side. This is a bigger task than facing down Quins, and is possibly a bridge too far, but again, never say never when Munster are playing.
Brace for an action packed season end and don’t be surprised if Irish rugby enters the ‘Joe Schmidt era’ by the end of the week.