The European Cup pool stages are over, and the regular Pro 14 season is nearly halfway through. This season saw all four Irish sides in Europe’s premier competition, and enter the league campaign as favourites to reach the knockout stages. While Connacht and Munster saw their European adventure come to an end, Leinster and Ulster have plenty to look forward to. Let’s take a look at how the 4 provinces have gotten on.
Traditional the weakest of the provinces, outside of a remarkable 2016 title win, Connacht have shown fight, but at times lacked that bit of class. Despite going away empty handed away to Scarlets in the opening game of the season, the Westerners would go on a strong run early on, beating Benetton, Dragons, Cheetahs, and Ospreys in the Pro 14. It looked as though they would have plenty of momentum going into the first European round.
Then, like so many teams this season, they ran into a rampaging Leinster side. It was a very un-Connacht like performance at the Sportsground, probably their worst of the season. Connacht were already very much the underdogs in their Heineken Champions Cup pool, and it seemed like it may be a series of heavy defeats.
They would however edge Montpellier in a game that showed the spirit we would see a few times this season, before falling short to a strong Toulouse side. Back in the league the had a routine win against Southern Kings, failing to pile on the scores like they had threatened to in the first half.
Then came the back to back meetings with Gloucester. In the away game Connacht couldn’t keep up and fell without a losing bonus point to their name. The reverse fixture looked to be over with 10 minutes to go, but Connacht produced a remarkable turnaround to steal a win at the death. They were still in with a shot of qualifying, albeit an unlikely won.
In the winter interpro series, they couldn’t quite comeback against Munster in the first game. They were then comprehensively beaten by Ulster and Leinster. They scored just 24 points in those games, conceding 108.
Then came the final rounds of pool games. Connacht needed an unlikely scalp in Toulouse, not to mention for other results to go their way as well. The boys in green hung in there for large parts, but in the end didn’t have enough to topple the French giants. The final game saw them playing only for pride, and it produced a cracker. It looked like they would be destroyed by Montpellier at halftime, but Connacht would come back and almost seal the win before losing late on.
Connacht finished 4th in pool 5, level on points with 3rd place Montpellier. In the Pro14 they sit 4th in conference B, 5 points behind Munster, and just a point ahead of Cardiff Blues. As things stand they would face Dragons in a play-off for a Champions Cup place.
The boys in blue have been relentless in their quest to regain their European crown and win a 3rd consecutive Pro14 title. Despite missing multiple key players early in the campaign due to the World Cup, Leinster have won all their games.
A narrow win away to Benetton in the first game, and a sluggish performance away to Zebre in round 4 were the only hiccups early on. In between those Leinster ran riot against Ospreys and Edinburgh. More heavy victories against Dragons, Connacht, and Benetton would follow.
Leinster then entered a deceptively tricky Champions Cup pool. They’d see off a fighting Benetton, and battle past their French hosts Lyon for early points. A game away to Glasgow looked like Leinster’s most difficult test, but a young side saw off the Scots comfortably in the end.
The Pro 14 champions continued to rampage on in the double-header rounds. Leinster beat Northampton Saints comprehensively on consecutive weekends. This meant Leinster were the first team to qualify from their pool this season.
The interpros saw Leinster cement their place as the top of the Irish sides. A bizarre game against Ulster saw 96 points scored, with Leinster seeming to be out of sight at halftime. It finished 54 – 42 to Leinster. Next was a trip to Munster, where Leinster’s defence held up solidly to secure the win. The decade began with a route against Connacht.
Leinster went in to the final rounds of pool games looking to secure a home quarter final (and potential semi-final. An ultimately easy enough win against Lyon followed by an ugly victory over Benetton saw them top the rankings.
Leinster topped Pool 1, and will now face Saracens at the Aviva. A win would see them progress to a semi-final against either Clermont or Racing 92. In the Pro 14, Leinster are well clear at the top of conference A, as things stand they’d face the winner of Scarlets and Glasgow in the semi-finals.
It hasn’t always been pretty, and at times they’ve lacked that spark. But Munster have managed to keep themselves in contention in their conference. It was a good start, aside from a hammering away to Cheetahs. Munster picked up wins against Dragons, Southern Kings, Ospreys, and Cardiff Blues during the World Cup period. They sat top of conference B early on.
A further win against Ulster set them up well for the European games. A comfortable win against Ospreys, and a dramatic late draw against Racing 92 saw them well in contention to qualify. It looked like we could be in for another special European season for Munster.
A surprise loss at home to an admittedly strong Edinburgh brought them back down to earth. They then went on to face a Saracens side in the middle of a tumultuous season. Munster secured an ugly win in Thomand Park, before coming up short at Allianz Park.
Then came the interpros. The men in red secured a narrow win against Connacht without being overly impressive. They then failed to breakdown a stern Leinster despite late chances. To open the decade they were beaten off the park by Ulster.
Munster would lose their 5th pool game against Racing 92 despite leading for parts of the game. They were eliminated before the final round due to results elsewhere. They finished on a high with a good win against an Ospreys side that have been thoroughly abysmal this season.
Munster finished 3rd in their pool, two points behind Saracens. In the Pro 14 they sit 3rd in their conference, just 4 points off the top. Conference B is shaping up to be incredible tight, with just 11 points between 1st and 6th. As things stand Munst would travel to Ulster in the Quarter Finals of the Pro14, with a potential semi-final away to Edinburgh.
Dan McFarland has instilled fight into this Ulster team, and it really has shown this season. A hammering away to Cheetahs was the only blip during the World Cup period. The Ulstermen beat Ospreys, Southern Kings, Cardiff, and Zebre while eyes were on Japan.
A defeat to Munster was disappointing as Ulster looked stronger. That disappointment was then made up for with two battling wins in the Champions Cup, against Bath and Clermont. A win against Scarlets and two wins against Harlequins saw Ulster well positioned.
Despite losing to Leinster, Ulster put more points on the Pro 14 champions than anybody else has this season. Ulster would prove themselves to be the 2nd best province with strong victories over Connacht and Munster.
Ulster went in to the final two rounds of pool fixtures on top. However, a loss to Clermont meant they would likely go through as runners-up. A win against Bath secured qualification.
Ulster finished 2nd in their pool and will now face Toulouse. The winner of that game will have a home country semi-final against Exeter Chiefs or Northampton Saints. Ulster sit 2nd in Conference A, a considerable difference behind 1st and ahead of 3rd.
As Ireland men and women face into the Six Nations, there is a very real prospect of at least one All-Irish final this season. Elsewhere Leinster Women won the Women’s interpro series last September, and put up a good showing in a losing effort against Harlequins at Twickenham.
Things are generally looking could for the 4 provinces this season, with all 4 in with a chance of knockout rugby in the Pro 14, and once again qualifying for the Heineken Champions Cup.