David Kelly makes his Pro12 predictions and he does not foresee Irish success
Published 12/04/2016 | 02:30
After the caviar, the bread and butter.
Europe and beyond was captivated by the Champions Cup last weekend; the rest of the world will politely draw the curtains as the Guinness Pro 12 returns after the enforced absence of all bar Connacht and Dragons in Europe's second tier.
Whether such a prolonged hiatus continues owes not as much to the strength of the Anglo-French forces, despite the return of the mealy-mouthed Béal Bocht from some parochial quarters, but whether the flagging Celtic cousins can get their act together quite sharpish.
Connacht have shown the way with their endeavour this term in developing a playing style and a commitment to basics that reminds one of the impact made by Joe Schmidt when he first arrived on these shores.
Their Irish rivals have struggled in their slipstream stylistically but will plod on regardless; winning the Pro12 title is a two-pronged process; getting into the coveted play-offs is merely the first stage.
Then, it is play-off rugby, a different beast; some may posit that the Westerners, as their failure to engineer the dropped goal scenario following Fionn Carr's line-break in Grenoble demonstrated, may lack the experience for knockout fare.
They will certainly get another chance to demonstrate that they can marry savvy with sass.
Leinster, for all their manifold faults so indecently exposed in the Aviva two weeks ago, are experienced cup campaigners.
Munster and Ulster like to believe they still are; whether either gets the opportunity to bolster such unsubstantiated claims remains to be seen.
The fact that every game from here until judgement day on May 7 may become the proverbial Cup final, may sharpen their instincts a tad.
Champions Glasgow, the only other team seemingly committed to allowing people to enjoy spectating at games this season, have timed their winning run to perfection; Friday's five-pointer in Zebre extends their lead over fifth-placed Ulster to a yawning six.
Minds will boggle at what needs to be done - or what doesn't; Dave Kilcoyne's rush of blood against Leinster may be costly when the numbers are crunched at 5pm or so in three weeks' time.
"I haven't worked out permutations, because it's very difficult to work out what's going to happen around you," acknowledges Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons.
"All we've done is say we've got a bit of a mountain to climb here, but let's take it one game at a time. Leinster is going to be a massive game."
That RDS clash kicks off proceedings this week and, with the Scottish capital side also travelling to Cork to face Munster in a fortnight, it is fair to say that they will have more of a say than most in determining who makes the final four.
Every team in the top nine, bar Scarlets, moved up or down a notch in round 18 which shows that, whatever about a lack of quality, the league has finally become ultra competitive (unless you're Italian).
Leinster (63 points)
(Regular-season odds 8/11; Title odds 5/4)
Run-in - April 15: Edinburgh (h), April 30: Ulster (a), May 7: Treviso (h)
They may offer more functionality than flair but after last season, many supporters won't mind but a horrendous European campaign showed how far off the pace they remain.
They will have a fortnight to prepare for a difficult trip to Belfast and they may be conscious of remaining unbeaten in order to retain their grip on a vital home semi-final.
Prediction: 76 points
Connacht (63 points)
Run-in - April 16: Munster (h), April 29: Treviso (a), May 7: Glasgow (h)
It remains to be seen how European exit will affect them; if anything, they should be energised at how they are continuing to grow their game and a real statement would be a maiden seasonal double over an average Munster.
Treviso should not be a stumbling block, given the exalted standards set by Lam's men which would leave a sensational finale on the final day in Galway with a home semi-final at stake for the winners.
Prediction: 72 points
Glasgow (61 points)
Run-in - April 16: Scarlets (a), April 29: Zebre (h), May 7: Connacht (a)
Ninth at the turn of the year, the champions have hit form, aided by a handy week in Italy and the taste of five more points to come from our hapless Azzurri representatives. Scarlets' desperation, and developing style, could make this the game of the weekend from which victory will propel the Scots into a home semi-final and, to boot, a home final too.
Prediction: 74 points
Scarlets (58 points)
Run-in - April 16: Glasgow (h), April 30: Dragons (a), May 7: Munster (a)
Derby defeat to Cardiff was an untimely boo-boo and allowed the twin Irish pace-setters to steal a five-point march. They still have their destiny in their own hands.
If they win their three remaining matches, they will make the play-offs regardless of results elsewhere and they are ahead of Ulster on the head-to-head should it come down to that. Doing it will be the hard part, aside from Dragons, who will rest their squad ahead of a Euro semi-final.
Ulster (55 points)
Run-in - April 16: Zebre (a), April 30: Leinster (h), May 7: Ospreys (a)
Another season of crushing disappointment beckons for the northern province, who are struggling to make a second knockout competition of the season and limping over the line against amply illustrated their manifold flaws.
Yet they can conceivably remain unbeaten from here to the end of the season, with the Leinster game the clear obstacle to their chance of sneaking into the top four.
Munster (53 points)
Run-in - April 16: Connacht (a), April 29: Edinburgh (h), May 7: Scarlets (h)
Munster's primary aim is to make sure they qualify for the Champions Cup, fending off Edinburgh and Cardiff in the process.
That those two sides must meet themselves gives Munster a fighting chance to earn themselves an outside crack at a play-off berth come kick-off on the final day.
Edinburgh and Cardiff, lurking outside the top six, will have a say in terms of both the top six play-off qualification and the play-offs.
Semi-finals: Glasgow v Connacht, Leinster v Ulster
Final: Glasgow v Leinster
Champions Cup: Munster, Scarlets, Treviso