By Alan Dymock
PLAY-OFF RUGBY is as nerve shredding as it is rewarding. Months of hard work can be undone in one high-pressure showdown. It is completely different to regular-season rugby and for the four teams participating in the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-finals, winning the whole thing would mean a change in league fortunes.
Table-toppers Ulster last won the league in 2006. Opponents Llanelli Scarlets last triumphed in ’04. Leinster have been waiting since 2008 to win the league and Glasgow Warriors have never lifted the trophy. Which undoubtedly makes for a tense weekend.
Ulster v Scarlets
Should Ulster defeat Scarlets tonight then they will be the home side for the final, a final that, due to capacity problems with Ravenhill, means that the province will opt for Dublin’s RDS as their ‘home’ venue.
It is expected that Ulster will do it against a Welsh province that just squeaked into the play-offs at the expense of the Ospreys. Mark Anscombe’s side started the season in red-hot form and looked likely to steamroller their way to finals in the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup. They spluttered like a jumbo jet running on chip fat halfway through the season, but they still possess the potential to menace their way to the title.
Scarlets, on the other hand, have the potential to counter-punch with vivid brutality but arrive off the back of a shambolic show against Treviso.
George North is a known threat, as are Jonathan Davies and Aaron Shingler. However, Andrew Fenby on the other wing is a dangerous and undervalued striker and captain Rob McCusker and Ken Owens grow in stature when they are on the front foot. So in the fight for momentum it is the bankable talents of Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and a pummelling pack against the hustler Rhys Priestland and an array of forward-falling talents.
If you are one fond of Lion watching, Tommy Bowe will line-up opposite North and Davies will bristle in the centre.
Friday 10 May: Ulster v Scarlets. At Ravenhill, 7.45pm. Live on BBC NI/RTE/S4C
Leinster v Glasgow
On Saturday, Leinster will host Glasgow Warriors at the RDS – a place that, if they win, could host their remaining games as it would be the venue for the Amlin Challenge Cup final and perhaps the Pro12 final – as the leagues top try-scorers and second stingiest defence rush over from Scotland.
There will be scant opportunity to catch breath in this semi with Lions Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland zipping around in front of future team-mates Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien (if he passes a late fitness test), Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney.
There will also be a heightened sense of importance to the semi-final, with Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt looking to finally win the Pro12 title with his side this season before moving on to take the Ireland job. Pro12 coach of the year Gregor Townsend and his squad of snappy rascals stand in the way.
It is achingly beautiful patterns and plays against the all-action blitz of the Warriors. It will be quick and there will be a fine balance between balletic play and ugly slapping into hits. Much may come down to Sexton’s play against irregular stand-off Pete Horne.
As well as this, Leinster have the knockout mentality and they have history behind them. Glasgow are the cheeky upstarts capable of sticking a wet finger in the Irish side’s ear.
Saturday 11 May: Leinster v Glasgow Warriors, 7.45pm. Live on TG4 and BBC ALBA
For the first time in five years someone other than the Ospreys and Munster will lift the silverware. Which of these four will survive the semis?
The June edition of Rugby World magazine includes interviews with Leinster and Ireland’s Cian Healy, Glasgow and Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and Scarlets’ Liam Williams. Don’t forget to buy your copy! It’s on sale now, until 4 June.