Four teams remain in the hunt for PRO12 silverware, the three Irish provinces and Glasgow Warriors fighting for Scotland.
It’s the least predictable close season we’ve seen in the relatively short history of the Celtic competition and hopefully a thrilling climax awaits.
Both games are tough to call. You could make a genuinely strong case for each of the sides not only reaching the final but collecting a trophy on Saturday 31st May. Leinster and Glasgow fans have more cause for optimism for not once since the inauguration of the playoff system five seasons ago has an away team claimed a scalp on semi-final weekend – eight games and eight home wins.
Clearly that’s a decent indication that Leinster and Glasgow are set to compete the final with Ulster and Munster unlucky losers – however, things can’t always be that straightforward and there are several decisive head-to-head battles which will influence proceedings this weekend.
Glasgow vs Munster
Josh Strauss v James Coughlan
Gregor Townsend’s Warriors, hosting their first playoff at Scotstoun, boast the best defensive record in the league thanks largely to an explosive line which pressures opponents into errors.
Leading the line is the impressive Josh Strauss, not only defensively, but also in getting over the gain line. He’s one of the most athletic no.8s playing in the league, and without doubt a key cog in the Glasgow machine.
Opposing Strauss at the tail of the Munster pack is James Coughlan. Critics might argue that he’s not quite hit the highs of last season recently but he remains an experienced and effective player, perfectly epitomising the selflessness that has characterised Munster packs of the past and still capable of being a match winner.
Chris Fusaro v Sean Dougall
Another battle in the back row between two players with growing reputations, albeit at different stages in their development, could see fireworks at the breakdown.
Chris Fusaro made a long overdue international breakthrough in 2014, Scott Johnson somewhat reluctantly handing the Kirkcaldy openside two caps in the Six Nations. He’s in prime form and looks destined to impact proceedings tonight, but at 24 he’s still learning the dark arts of his specialised position. These playoffs seem the perfect platform for that.
In contrast, odds are the lesser known Dougall wouldn’t be in the Munster squad for the playoff but for injuries to Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony, who will be sorely missed. Nonetheless, Scottish born Dougall, also 24, has impressed when called upon this season and has the potential to make a huge statement with a good showing against a ruthless Glasgow eight.
His development has not been without complication – after being released by Ulster having spent two years in their academy, he was spotted by Munster during a successful spell with Rotherham in 2012. Dougall has now spent two seasons with the province making 31 appearances and looking steady enough on his feet to kick on to greater things in the next season.
Leinster v Ulster
Cian Healy/Jack McGrath v Andrew Warwick
Without John Afoa (the All Black tight-head has a disc issue in his back, although the cynical say his mind has long since shifted ahead of a summer move to Gloucester), Ricky Lutton and Declan Fitzpatrick, Ulster are down to the bare bones in the front-row.
Step up academy prop Andrew Warwick. Primarily a loose-head, he deserves credit for doing a job on his less-natural side in recent weeks. The Ballymena man whose occupation is listed as ‘metal fabricator’ on the club site put in a steely performance at Thomond Park in Ulster’s surprise win last week.
Mark Anscombe has been quick to praise the doggedness of Warwick after recent performances, but Ulster’s makeshift tight-head will certainly face more pressure as Leinster look to press home their advantage in the front row with international duo Cian Healy and Jack McGrath as ruthless as they are brilliant.
Sean O’Brien v Chris Henry
The tullow tank made a welcome return to Leinster colours against Edinburgh last week having missed Ireland’s crowning moment in the Six Nations. Deputising in his absence, Chris Henry established himself as one of the unsung heroes of the panel, and they’ll go head to head with Joe Schmidt an interested spectator.
It was hardly the vintage O’Brien that showed up against Edinburgh and it will no doubt take a little while for him to get back up to speed, but his return will galvanise the Leinster pack and a world class talent is sure to leave his mark on the game regardless of whether he’s at his peak.
Henry is not only key to Ulster’s, and more recently Ireland’s, disruptive game, but over the past few seasons has taken on more leadership responsibilities. And with Johann Muller on his way out after these playoffs, Henry might be the ideal choice for captain.
Obviously Ulster will be keen to keep 15 men on the park for the duration, if they’re to avoid a third defeat of the season and yet another knockout disappointment at the hands of their rivals, in which case Henry is one of a handful of leaders in the squad who must encourage a controlled intensity.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images