With three Magners League teams having qualified for the Heineken Cup semi-finals, we welcome the return of Denis Brennan to The Rugby Blog fold for a welcome update on the goings-on in Wales, Ireland and Scotland (and Italy).
Apologies for not being able to contribute anything for a few weeks on the Magners League (except a few comments on comments), but whilst I have been away a number of important events have occurred.
The League has confirmed that two Italian sides will be invited to join from 2010-2011. My views remain the same – good news for Italian international rugby, no news at all for the League. My fear is that it will become a mish-mash of clubs who have no other logical home if they want to play on a big stage. I remain convinced that the real answer is a proper reorganisation of European professional rugby.
The Heineken Cup quarter finals have taken place and three Magners League teams are semi-finalists. My private conviction that the Ospreys would lose heavily to Munster was confirmed as was my other that Cardiff Blues would somehow overcome Toulouse; as it happened they did so thanks to a rock-solid and at times inspired defence. Leinster’s win over Harlequins was another triumph for an all round defensive masterpiece, although the sneaking suspicion lingers that had Leinster been allowed to trust to their instincts the margin might have been greater.
The third event was another round of matches on the weekend of 3/4/5 April. In that action, (another intermittent round, about which something really needs to be done to make the season more coherent) three of the four Welsh regions lost with the Ospreys recording the only, not very impressive win in Belfast. Munster beat their nearest league rivals, Leinster, very comfortably (and now face them again in the Heineken semi-final – a different proposition, perhaps).
The major talking point from the weekend was, however, the Scarlets’ total collapse at home to Glasgow Warriors. With nothing left to play for except pride and respectability, the Scarlets brought back their Welsh stars, almost all of whom contributed to what one respected Welsh journalist called “the worst performance I have ever seen from them”. Glasgow had wrapped up the bonus point by half-time and Scarlets were booed off the pitch at the end. The club claimed an attendance of over 6,000 but as one spectator was heard to say “Not only can I count the people opposite, I can name them!” This result saw both Edinburgh and Glasgow leapfrog the Scarlets who drop to sixth.
So, with four rounds and two postponed matches to go, it’s time to forecast the final positions.
Munster’s win against Leinster has almost guaranteed them the League title and Leinster should comfortably hold second place. The curate’s egg that is the Ospreys are still very likely to take third place, especially as Munster’s victory in the Heineken Cup leaves them with nothing else to play for.
Edinburgh will probably hold fourth place as their chasers repeatedly swap places and I expect Cardiff Blues to emerge as the second-placed Welsh side in fifth place, with home wins over the Scarlets, Dragons and Edinburgh. Should they also manage to pull off a home win against a Munster side that will already have won the title and will probably have the Heineken Cup to play for, they would almost certainly take fourth.
At the bottom, I expect to see Connacht yet again prop up the table. That leaves Scarlets, Ulster and Newport-Gwent Dragons to fight out sixth, seventh and eighth. The qualification rules for the Heineken Cup mean that Ulster will go through wherever they finish but the tussle between the Dragons and the Scarlets promises to be nailbiting for both sets of supporters.
The Dragons have to face Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh and the Ospreys away, none of which are games they can actually expect to win. At home they have Connacht and Leinster. I’d take them to get 5 points against Connacht and a losing bonus point against Leinster and the Blues to take them to 32 points.
The Scarlets are generally accepted to be in crisis. Next week they face the Ospreys at home, coming off the back of a Heineken Cup defeat in Limerick that will have hurt and left them smarting. If the Scarlets lose this game their season could implode. On the road, they have to face Cardiff Blues in a postponed game, as well as Munster and Leinster. It is virtually impossible to see them taking anything from these matches, leaving them to host Ulster in the last match of the season.
Those who witnessed last week’s dismal effort against Glasgow could hardly expect them to beat Ulster if they face them in the last match after a possible run of five defeats. Failure to do so would leave them on 30 points (not allowing for any losing bonus points). Unbelievably, if this all came to pass, the side that has for so long been the Welsh flag-bearer in Europe would miss qualification for the Heineken Cup for the very first time. It may very well happen. Can they beat the Ospreys? I think their season and possibly their future hinges on that.
I’ll stick my neck out and state that, somehow, I think the Scarlets will prevail over the Dragons, probably via losing bonus points, but that is a forecast with no conviction. For what it’s worth, here’s my forecast final league table – I’m sure may of you will disagree.
41 Cardiff Blues
39 Glasgow Warriors
37 Ulster Rugby
32 Newport Gwent Dragons