Sunday 22 January 2017

Connacht and Leinster book home semi-final places

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Pat Lam talks to his players after their victory over Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground yesterday. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Pat Lam talks to his players after their victory over Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground yesterday. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

In the end it worked out well enough from an Irish point of view: three teams through to the semi-finals of the Guinness Pro12 - Leinster versus Ulster on Friday, May 2, and Connacht against Glasgow the next night - and the fourth, Munster, good to go to the starting line in the Champions Cup next season.

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This is the first time all four provinces have secured places in the Champions Cup solely on merit.

It was Connacht who had to fight hardest to nail a home draw in the semi-final. It remains to be seen if they take that game to Thomond Park, where the 26,000 capacity is three times that of the Sportsground. A Munster spokesman confirmed to the Sunday Independent last week that Connacht had explored the option earlier in the season, but had not pursued it.

There will be huge interest now in their rematch with Glasgow for whom prop Sula Puafisi was red-carded yesterday. He used his head to take out man of the match Kieran Marmion at a ruck, soon after Gordon Reid had squared the game for Glasgow. Bundee Aki had given the home team the lead in the first half, and the winner then came from Tiernan O'Halloran.

"We've one more shot at, another home game," Connacht captain John Muldoon said. "This is a massive squad effort. Everyone has played this season, the camaraderie is massive. Hopefully we'll come back in two weeks and have two more games.

Leinster secured their home draw in the semis with a hefty 50-19 win at the RDS over Treviso, whose heroics last weekend against Connacht now count for nothing. Their race against Zebre for a seat on the Champions Cup train ended early enough in the day when it was clear they would get nothing from Leinster, just as the Dragons would come away empty handed from Zebre.

Ulster too were rewarded for good timing on the form front with, for an Irish side, a rare bonus-point win at the Liberty where they were comprehensive winners against Ospreys. They scored six tries with Paddy Jackson, mounting a strong challenge for a place on the Ireland tour to South Africa next month, accounting for 21 points.

Munster too had good news to report. Their home win over Scarlets was nowhere near as comfortable as the 31-15 scoreline suggests, but it squared away the sole item on their agenda: a place in next season's Champions Cup.

"There's a lot of relief in the dressing-room," said Anthony Foley afterwards. "You saw a lot of nerves out there, there was a lot of indecision and young guys who were carrying the weight of having to qualify for the Champions Cup. Hopefully, the kind of experience the have gained in the last couple of weeks will help them in the future when hopefully they can be challenging for trophies instead of just trying to qualify for the Champions Cup."

The four Irish sides will be joined in that competition next season by Glasgow, Scarlets and Zebre.

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