It’s been a long and torrid Pro12 season for the Welsh regions, with success and failure in equal measure. The Scarlets can be proud of the season they’ve had, sprinting past the finish line and besting their 5th place finish last season by finishing 3rd.
The Ospreys were helped out by the Blues to squeeze past an unfortunate Ulster to nip the final playoff position, after they were held to a pivotal surprise draw at the Kingspan in early April by the Cardiff team.
The Blues finished an average season in 7th on 53 points, equalling last season’s position and just shy of their 56 points. The Dragons, amid takeover talks, fared the worst, finishing second from bottom on 23 points, losing 18 of their 22 games.
Scarlets vs Leinster – The Pro12 equivalent of ‘The Irresistible Force Paradox’
The Scarlets thoroughly deserve to be where they are, having secured their highest finish since they won the league in 2003-04 (before the semi-final system was introduced). The 40-17 scalping of rivals Ospreys was the cherry on top of a great run of five consecutive victories for the Llanelli based club. In fact, their last defeat came on the 4th of March, away to a Leinster side that outplayed them for 45-9, despite the scores standing at a more respectable 12-9 at halftime. That was, of course, six days before a large contingent of Scarlet players featured for Wales to beat Ireland in the Six Nations.
That 45-9 result does not bode well for the upcoming semi-final match in the RDS arena on Friday 19th at 19:45. Playing away is always hard, no less in Dublin, but the Pro12 has an ominous record: the last fourteen semi-finals have all been won by the home team.
But Wayne Pivac and his men can cross the Irish sea with a degree of optimism. Confidence is high and they can take comfort in victories over all the semi-finalists, whilst the momentum and great individual and team performances will see them head to Dublin with a plan: Tie up the Leinster pack in a game of attrition, slow the game down and hit on the break with the fluidity of the Scarlets’ signature attack. But above all, smother Sexton. Keep him from controlling the tempo, from kicking for territory and releasing Ringrose and Henshaw. And keep playing consistently throughout, particularly in the last quarter where Welsh rugby has a habit of stepping off the gas, hence the 45-9 scoreline.
Do that, and the West Wales team may just silence the crowd and nullify the home advantage putting them in a real position to steal passage into the Grand Final and keep it from being an all Irish affair. It’ll be tight and cagey at points and Scarlets need to ensure Leinster don’t run away with it in the final quarter.
Munster vs Ospreys – The quiet confidence of the underdog
The Ospreys would probably be the first to count themselves lucky to have entered the playoffs ahead of Ulster, and despite a fantastic albeit short effort (and dazed Biggar) against Leinster in early April, they seemed to lose steam in the closing stages. They lost 5 of their last 6 games, with their only victory since early March coming over Ulster to rectify the loss of the return fixture.
The Ospreys play Munster in Thomond Park on Saturday at 18:15, and have been thoroughly cast as the underdogs. Of course, league leaders Munster are a strong unit and will surely fancy themselves against this Ospreys team, despite the return of the much needed Alun Wyn Jones. An emphatic Munster win over Connacht (50-14) concluded a strong finish of six Pro12 games won on the trot with their last defeat against Scarlets back in late February.
The Ospreys’ coach, Steve Tandy, will be all too aware of the talent his opposite number, Rassie Erasmus, can call upon with the likes of Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and Stander as well as in-form fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal. The Ospreys’ chance creators of Biggar, Matevasi and youngster Keelan Giles will look to surprise Munster, with the Wales and Lions fly-half able to turn the game on its head and provide plenty for Giles to chase. Tipuric will have his game cut out as he tries to counteract the combined efforts of captain O’Mahony and Stander.
Whilst the odds are against them and this writer concedes a victory unlikely, the Ospreys have a habit of performing for the big games; no doubt in part to Alun Wyn Jones’ passionate pregame speeches. They can remind themselves of how close they came in the 2015 semi-final defeat to Munster. They’ll head to Limerick with realistic expectations, a quiet confidence and keen to put the favourites under pressure.
Who knows, an upset might just be on the cards.
By Dave Beach
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images