Glasgow Warriors vs Munster
A few Scottish eyebrows were raised at the recent PRO12 Awards ceremony when Munster’s departing coach Rob Penney was awarded coach of the season over Glasgow’s Gregor Townsend. Glasgow have, to my mind, clearly been the most improved side in the Pro12 these last two seasons. An awful lot of that improvement has been down to the hard work done by the coaching staff over at Scotstoun. Glasgow are sitting on a club record eight wins in a row, they are hosting the first ever PRO12 semi-final in Scotland and have seen record attendances these last few weeks for a sport that barely gets any recognition in this town. They even broke their previous attendance record just last week against bottom ranked Zebre, who tend not to draw too much of a crowd. This is a team with form, momentum, a real sense of camaraderie amongst the players, and a growing fan base who queued up in the pouring rain after that Zebre game to snap up tickets for tonight’s match. Glasgow have played in four semi-finals in the competition, and lost them all. Tonight’s home semi against Munster represents their best chance of finally getting to the final.
Think of a sporting cliché: it’s been written about Munster. I’m not going to re-hash them all over again. Simply put, they’re a tough team to beat at home or on the road. They have this uncanny ability to hang on in there and grind out a win against form or the run of play in these pressure games. Coming to Glasgow, a place they’ve already triumphed this season, will not hold the same trepidation as those trips they’ve had to the south of France. They also have a similar hunger and belief in themselves that Glasgow do, having also played in four PRO12 semi-finals in the last five seasons, the difference being that they were successful in one of those and went on to lift the title at the end of the season. But their recent form has not been stellar. It’s true they whooped Edinburgh two weeks ago but last week’s loss to Ulster and a frankly shocking result against Glasgow (score-wise at least), both at ‘Fortress Thomond’, indicate a dip in form. They’ve also recently lost to Leinster, meaning that they’ve done so to each of the other play-off teams in the last month and a half. Not a record you want to take with you in the finals.
I was surprised to see Hogg being omitted from the Glasgow squad, especially after his performance against Zebre, scoring a try in the opening minute, a second later on and almost a third. I was less surprised to see Matawalu being named on the bench, though. He’s a fantastic player and the last thing a tired team want to see in the last 20 minutes of a tough game is Niko warming up to come on. All signs point to a Glasgow victory, which again at the risk of resorting to clichés, is just how Munster like it. Last year’s two point loss to Leinster after a missed conversion was the closest Glasgow have ever been to a PRO12 final – the pain of that, the form they’re currently in and home advantage should see them through. Munster will keep it close though. Glasgow by 3.
Leinster vs Ulster
Leinster will be saying goodbye to two key players at the end of this season: Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen. While the former has been rightly honoured by all and sundry, Leo Cullen’s absence from the pitch by Leinster next year will be felt almost as keenly, though his new role as forwards coach will allay that somewhat. No other captain has lifted the Heineken Cup as many times as Cullen, nor will any ever again. When you recall how the Ireland squad played against the ABs last November and again during this year’s Six Nations, in the full knowledge that it was Brian’s last go round, then you know that this Leinster team will bring something special to the end of the season to send their legends off with one last taste of glory. Leinster have made it to every play-off series in this competition and are undefeated at home all season. They’ve only lost once in their last 12 PRO12 matches. Simply put, they’ve been here before time and again and know exactly what it takes.
It’s been a tough few years for Ulster. A loss to Leinster in the 2012 Heineken Cup Final, losing last year’s PRO12 final (again to Leinster), narrowly losing to Sarries in this year’s Heineken Cup quarter final despite being a man down for almost the entire game… they’ve played some great rugby, but have just not quite found a way to get over the line. Just like Leinster, Ulster will be bidding farewell to several steadfast members of their squad. Paddy Wallace, Johann Muller and Tom Court all depart and this will be their last chance as this group of players to finally get some silverware. Johann Muller’s words as Ulster went in leading at half time during that Sarries game were: “Boys, if we pull this off it will the greatest rugby achievement of my career and I’ve won a World Cup!” That just goes to show how tight-knit this squad of players are. If this is to be their last roll of the dice, you know they will give it their all.
Some would argue that this game is the easier to call of the two, even without seeing the teams. Leinster come into it with almost all the cards: history, form, pedigree all favour a home win. In the regular season they’ve already beaten Ulster twice. Ulster’s ace-in-the-hole is that they are the last PRO12 team to actually win on this ground a little over a year ago. They will also be buoyed by their recent win away to Munster, while at the exact same time, a very nervy Leinster barely saw off an Edinburgh side on the cusp of causing one of the upsets of the season. Will Leinster bounce back from that blip, or does this current Ulster team have what it takes to make it to the final? I would love for Ulster to win this game, but my head says Leinster should triumph. Leinster by 7.
By John O’Brien (@tiptackler)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images