Johann van Graan’s Munster side heads into this weekend’s Irish derby against Connacht with an opportunity to book their place in the PRO14 final.
The two conference table-topping teams – Munster and Leinster – take on Connacht and Ulster respectively in round 14, two fixtures that could determine the winners of the two conferences.
There are will three full rounds to be played in the regular season, but victory for Munster and Leinster will mean each team will have an unassailable lead at the top of the two conference tables respectively and will thus advance to the final there they will square off for the title.
Here, we take a look at what is riding on the interprovincial matches.
Munster v Connacht – (Friday, 9:35pm)
Munster have been sitting on a comfortable lead at the top of Conference B for some time now and the equation for them is quite simple – beat Connacht at Thomond Park and they will be in the final for the first time since 2017.
Van Graan’s men hold a nine-point advantage over Connacht at the summit and four points on Friday would put them out of the Westerners’ reach with only two further matches to play.
Connacht’s hopes of topping the standings are slim even if they do manage to win at Thomond Park, with Munster at home for all of their remaining fixtures, including the clash with bottom-of-the-table Benetton, who have lost all of their matches this season.
Connacht host Edinburgh and visit the Scarlets after their clash with Munster, who were 16-10 victors in Galway last month.
‘We had a pretty close game at the start of the year in Galway and I’m sure this one will be the same,’ said Van Graan. ‘We are fighting to get into a final and so are they. We each have got three rounds left and whenever you play somebody in your pool it’s a big swing. If we win, it progresses us to the next stage, and if they win then there’ll be a very small gap with two rounds to go. So there is a lot to play for for both teams.’
Ulster v Leinster – (Saturday, 9:35pm)
Leinster’s bid to reach the final was boosted over the weekend when Ulster failed to collect a bonus point against the Ospreys – scoring three tries but having another three disallowed – before Leo Cullen’s side ran out 40-21 winners against Glasgow Warriors.
Sunday’s win in Dublin put Leinster six points clear of Ulster at the top of Conference A, so a bonus-point win in Belfast on Saturday would put them out of the Ulster men’s grasp, as long as the home side do not collect any bonus points of their own.
Even if Ulster pick up bonus points, a defeat would all but end their challenge.
A victory for Ulster would keep the race alive heading into the final two rounds of the season, with Leinster visiting Zebre before hosting the Ospreys, while Dan McFarland’s men head to the Dragons before welcoming the men from Parma.
Leinster coach Cullen said: ‘We know it is going to be a massive challenge for us.’
‘We have a number of guys away and Ulster will be pretty much fully loaded, they are only missing one or two players.
‘It is a great challenge for our guys going up there. We know there are a lot of ex-Leinster men up there as well and I am sure they will be highly motivated for the game.’
Leinster were 24-12 victors when these sides met in January – Ulster’s only defeat of the season.
Munster v Connacht (9:35pm)
Zebre v Glasgow Warriors (3pm)
Ospreys v Dragons (9:35pm)
Ulster v Leinster (9:35pm)
Edinburgh v Benetton (5:15pm)
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