Ruaidhri O'Connor: Irish provinces stand tall to end punishing season on a high note
Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30
This season has often been a struggle for the Irish provinces who will watch on as the moneyed kingpins of France and England do battle for the Champions Cup on Saturday, but there is a glimmer of light at the end of the campaign.
Three of the four teams from this island will contest the Guinness Pro12 semi-finals after all four won their crucial final-day games on Saturday and, while Munster will watch on, at least they will do so from the comfort of knowing they will dine at Europe's top table next year.
At the end of the 22 rounds, Leinster are the Pro12's top dogs, albeit only by virtue of winning one more game than Connacht who finished the league level on 73 points after overcoming Glasgow Warriors 14-7 at the Sportsground. That defeat leaves the champions third, with Ulster securing the final play-off spot with their bonus point victory over Ospreys.
Leo Cullen's team's reward for their seven-try win over Treviso is a home clash with Ulster on Friday week. Connacht, meanwhile, will welcome the champions back to the Sportsground the following day.
For all that the league is maligned, it comes into its own in these final weeks and the semi-finals are both set to attract plenty of interest.
With 67,144 tickets to sell for the Murrayfield final in three weeks time, perhaps the organisers will be hoping for a Glasgow v Ulster final.
Yet that would require both semi-finals going the way of the visitors - a feat that has yet to be achieved in the play-off era.
"It's huge," Connacht coach Pat Lam (pictured) said after his side secured the Sportsground as their semi-final venue. "We only lost one (home) game all season and that was in the 78th-minute against Ulster.
"We have prided ourselves that we can win away; but when we get at home there's something magical about this place. When we come off the field all of our supporters know that as an individual and as a team we've given everything.
"I highlighted last week the quality of all of the teams. Eight teams are finished now, there's four left; three are Irish and that's fantastic for Irish rugby. It's fantastic Munster's made it through, I'm really, really pleased for them too.
"This is a good stepping-stone for all four teams, but it is a huge achievement (for us). It would have been nice to be No 1, it's nice to know we're on the same points and we look at all of the close games that we could have won but the bottom line is a home semi-final is massive."
Connacht must now manage the pressure and focus that comes with the territory. Demand for tickets will be huge and, while Lam wants his players to embrace the occasion, he is wary of them being carried away.
"It is important that you can't shut yourself away," he said.
"You go back to the rugby education of training guys to prepare as an international, to prepare well. There's no difference from the first week of pre-season to now, it enabled us to not to get carried away if we win or we lose.
"This is no different from 21 rounds beforehand. But it is massive. Twenty-two rounds, to finish second in the table, to stay in that top four as the only team to do so is huge for this group of guys."
For the players of Leinster and Ulster, this is familiar territory.
The two teams contested the 2012 Heineken Cup final, before meeting again at the RDS in the Pro12 final a year later. In 2011 and 2014, they came up against each other again in the league semi-finals. Leinster won all four.
Ulster's 30-6 win in the penultimate round of Pro12 action would suggest there is a change in the relationship between the two provinces, but only a knock-out win next week would confirm that suspicion.
"We've come across each other in a good few semi-finals," Cullen said. "A lot of the games have been here. We were fortunate when we played them here in a Pro12 final. Ulster had finished top of the pile that year, but, because their ground was being redeveloped, they gave up their home advantage.
"Ulster have a lot of quality across the board and the players know each other inside-out at this stage. It's going to be one of those very tight games."
For Munster, the season is over and a summer of change awaits.
"The club doesn't want to be in that situation where you're scrambling to get into Europe.You want to be dominating and making sure you're in the knockouts," was Anthony Foley's blunt assessment after they'd beaten Scarlets.
Watching their neighbours in two weeks' time will only cement that feeling.