Final Round of Pro14 Matches
The biggest talking point from last week’s matches was that Leinster were able to make 15 changes and still didn’t need to get out of second gear to beat Ulster.
It was a real statement from Leo Cullen that whatever team they put out can get the job done and has left their first 15 fresh for their semi-final engagement with Munster.
Munster on the other hand had a must win game again Connacht that was all but over inside the first half with the two red cards for Connacht.
We know that player safety is paramount in the modern game and in my opinion, they were both the correct decision, but this won’t go down as a classic.
Munster did what they had to do however after the Scarlets had put the pressure on and will move on to the playoffs. Connacht fans can take plenty from the Ulster performance two weeks ago and in the form of Bundee Aki in particular, heading into the new season.
Leinster v Munster, Friday 7:35pm, Aviva Stadium
The five-day turnaround is going to be very tough on the Munster players here.
For some like CJ Stander, who is used to blasting out games, maybe less so but even Peter O’Mahony had said how shattered he was after the Leinster game two weeks ago so this will be a huge challenge on the body.
Leinster’s key men on the other hand have had two weeks to prepare for this and will be ready to go.
Leinster did show some vulnerability at the maul against Ulster conceding a try and offering little in attack so that will surely be one area that Munster will go after. Munster also enjoyed 56% possession the last time they played and if they can replicate that on Friday they will give themselves an opportunity.
Leinster seem to have an air of invincibility around them at the moment and it seems to have intimidated some teams.
Munster shouldn’t be too fazed by this though and will look to meet them head on at the breakdown where Stander, O’Mahony, Beirne and O’Donoghue are fantastic operators and have adapted well to the new breakdown rules.
JJ Hanrahan has also returned in fine form and gives hope that if Munster could have their noses in front at 50-60 minutes or at least be in touching distance, anything could happen.
Munster +8 on the handicap would appeal to be reasonable value despite the short turnaround but I would be slightly concerned about Leinster’s recent ability to find a score as soon as things get tight in matches and it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone if they ended up winning by 15-20 points.
Semi-finals tend to be tight affairs though and Munster won’t be rolling over for anyone and are worth chancing on the handicap getting more than a converted score from Leinster.
Edinburgh v Ulster, Saturday 7:35pm, Murrayfield
Edinburgh are coming into this on the back of a scrappy dead-rubber against Glasgow last weekend with lots of errors and not many scores but had previously put together a decent performance also against Glasgow that should leave them in good shape for this.
Ulster did manage to beat Edinburgh in Murrayfield last year, but their away record has been dreadful with only one win from seven this season which came against the struggling Southern Kings.
Richard Cockerill has been deflecting the pressure from his team all week suggesting that Ulster have the stronger squad and are clear favourites but in my mind, Edinburgh look the stronger outfit right now and the odds agree making them (-5) on the handicap.
The inaccuracy that Ulster have shown over the past few weeks has been poor and they are coming into this game low on confidence which you can’t afford away from home.
I will be interested to see the Ulster squad when it is announced as at the time of writing Jacob Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey and Jordy Murphy are all question marks for Saturday.
I expect we will see a similar line up to last weekend with the possible inclusion of Billy Burns, Craig Gilroy, Marty Moore and Jack McGrath.
I can tell you sitting here in Belfast that the fans have not been happy with the level of performance in the last two weeks and they and the players will want to see a reaction.
Ulster are used to playing big games in a packed Kingspan Stadium over the years and the huge atmosphere has sometimes carried them over the line so playing now in empty stadiums seems to have affected Ulster more than others.
I think from what we have seen since the return Edinburgh should be able to turn it on at home even with a very limited crowd and look capable of covering the five-point spread against an out of sorts Ulster.
Munster (+8) v Leinster – 10/11
Edinburgh (-5) v Ulster – 10/11
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing