Provinces conspire to deliver prospect of an all-Irish final
Hat trick hero: Murray's Munster Magic
The last day of the regulation phase of the Guinness Pro12 went down to the wire and leaves open the prospect of an all-Irish final in Belfast in a fortnight.
Munster secured a home draw, and the payday that goes with it, against the Ospreys in Thomond Park on Saturday afternoon (2.30). The Welsh side won 24-20 in Galway, but, critically, without a bonus point. Connacht trailed at half-time by 24-0.
In the other semi-final, Ulster will travel to Glasgow on Friday, having been beaten there yesterday.
Pat Lam's Connacht side will play away against Gloucester on the Sunday, with the winner then meeting, at home, the best team from the Top 14 not to qualify automatically for Europe.
Conor Murray ran in a hat-trick of tries in Munster's 50-27 hammering of Newport Gwent Dragons at Irish Independent Park.
Munster took only 24 minutes to register their bonus point, with tries from Andrew Smith, CJ Stander and man-of-the-match Murray (2). Paul O'Connell added a fifth on the stroke of half-time. Keith Earls, Murray and Ronan O'Mahony added second-half touchdowns.
As it turned out, three of the provinces ended up doing each other a favour. By beating Edinburgh in Murrayfield, Leinster preserved Connacht's seventh place in the table, giving them the opportunity of advancing to next season's Champions Cup with that play-off. And, by holding the Ospreys, who were chasing their own bonus-point win, Connacht gave Munster the gift of a home draw.
"I guess it's four provinces, one team," Lam said. His team will head back to a venue where they lost narrowly in the Challenge Cup in April.
"Again, we have to take the lesson - they had two opportunities and they took them," Lam said of that game with Gloucester. "It was tricky conditions and, again, we came back strongly in the second half but came up short. We have to start better.
"But there's a lot of walking wounded. My biggest concern is you look at that injury list we have and you could make a pretty good team with the guys who are missing. There's a few more that have taken knocks too. We'll recover."
Despite losing in Scotstoun, Ulster will go into the semis in perhaps the best shape, having rested so many front-liners for yesterday's game.
Connacht's biggest injury concern will be first-choice scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, who went off with an ankle injury in the first half.
Sunday Indo Sport