By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
THE MAGNERS LEAGUE finalists will be decided this weekend with Ireland guaranteed at least one team in the season’s climax. Ulster visit Leinster on Friday night and the following evening Munster host defending champions the Ospreys.
It will be the fifth time the Ospreys have played Munster this season, with results currently 3-1 in the Irish province’s favour. However, in their most recent meeting at the Liberty Stadium last month the Ospreys had Munster in all sorts of bother in the scrum and if they are to have any chance of becoming the first side to win back-to-back Magners titles they need to exert similar pressure this weekend and, more importantly, capitalise on it.
The Ospreys have scored more tries (56) than anyone else in the league this season, but Munster have conceded the least (22), so they will need to be at their attacking best if they are to break down a stingy defence. James Hook must be brought into the game more and they need to be more direct in their attacking play – don’t try lots of intricate moves behind the gain-line; the most important thing is to get over it first.
Munster have threats of their own with Keith Earls and Lifeimi Mafi finding plenty of holes in the Ospreys defence last time, attacking out wide and through the middle. In Ronan O’Gara they also have one of the most consistent goalkickers in world rugby so any infringements by the Welsh side are likely to be punished.
The shock of losing to Harlequins in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals is sure to have woken Munster up to the fact that they’re not invincible at home, but they have dominated the league all season, finishing 13 points clear in the table, so I make Munster favourites – but I expect it to be a close-run game.
The first semi-final is an all-Irish affair. Ruan Pienaar has been the signing of the season in the northern hemisphere and it’s little surprise he was named Magners League Player of the Year. He guides Ulster extremely well from scrum-half and they are more dangerous in attack than many might expect with the likes of Adam D’Arcy and Nevin Spence coming to the fore this season. They have plenty of South African grunt in the pack too.
However, this Leinster team are on fire, reaching the Heineken Cup final as well as the knockout stages of this competition. Mike Ross has provided much-needed stability at scrum time alongside Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss, while the latter two also offer plenty in the loose too.
They play a 15-man game with strong ball-carrying forwards like Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien teaming up well with a potent back-line containing such star names as Brian O’Driscoll and Johnny Sexton.
This has been a good season for Ulster, Heineken Cup quarter-finalists and Magners League semi-finalists, but – as against Northampton in Europe – I think Leinster are too good for them to live with for the full 80 minutes, especially in Dublin.
So my predicted final is: Munster v Leinster – and what a cracker that would be, though the Ospreys and Ulster will be gunning for a different outcome.