The big question of who can stop Leinster from defending their PRO14 title is set to be answered as the tournament resumes with mouthwatering derby games this weekend.
With two rounds of derbies before the semi-finals start sorting the also-rans from the title contenders, a lot can happen as several sides need to hit the ground running and find some form before going into the business end of the tournament.
Leinster have been runaway leaders in defending the title they won last year, including a 50-point thrashing of last season’s finalists, Glasgow Warriors, earlier in the season. But, with an almost six-months break since teams have played any rugby, the question now is who will restart the season in form, and will it be enough to secure a semi-final spot.
Leinster have already qualified for the playoffs and can’t be hauled in – claiming a home semi-final in the process – but will face some tough opposition in the next two weeks to galvanise them in the defence of their title.
Ireland could have as many as three teams in the semi-finals to underline their dominance of PRO14 of late, but a series of interesting permutations are in play that make the restart both unpredictable and intruiging at the same time.
Ulster, for instance, are the other team in Conference A that look set to qualify, with Marcell Coetzee’s team needing just one point from their final two games to secure their semi-final spot. They can’t haul in Leinster, but they can be overtaken if the wheels come off in their final two weeks by Glasgow Warriors, who have an outside chance of making it into the playoffs.
Glasgow’s big South African contingent – one that includes the likes of Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, Oli Kebble and Brandon Thomson – will give them hope as they need two bonus-point wins to overtake Ulster if the latter do slip up.
The Cheetahs, Zebre, Dragons and Ospreys are already out of the running but while the Cheetahs and Southern Kings won’t be playing, the other derbies will put pride on the line in local clashes that will still have enough passion to fuel them.
In Conference B the big question will be how much Munster can draw from the arrival of their two World Cup-winning Springboks in Damian de Allende and RG Snyman. Sitting two points behind Edinburgh and with tough games against Leinster and Connacht, the Red Army need a boost to ensure there are three Irish teams in the semis.
Edinburgh have been in superb form, especially with Duhan van der Merwe (brother of Springbok Akker) crossing the tryline almost at will, while the front row of Pierre Schoeman, Michael Willemse and WP Nel have not stood back for anyone this season.
Edinburgh need just one point from their two games to ensure their spot in the playoffs and, if they hit form, could pip Munster for the home semi-final spot. But in their two games against a desperate Glasgow Warriors side they may have more resistance than they would like.
Scarlets and Connacht both have chances of making the playoffs, but need Munster to slip up badly – and bonus-point wins of their own – with the Irish side just ahead on points difference if this does come to pass.
Weekend PRO14 fixtures:
Benetton vs Zebre (Friday, 8pm, SuperSport 1)
Scarletts vs Blues (Saturday 4pm)
Edinburgh vs Glasgow Warriors (Saturday, 6:15pm, SuperSport 1)
Leinster vs Munster (Saturday, 8:35pm, SuperSport 1)
Ospreys vs Dragons (Sunday, 3:15pm)
Connacht vs Ulster (Sunday, 5:30pm, SuperSport 1).