By Rob Cole
Forget Brexit, the real cliff-edge moment has arrived for the Welsh regions and their place in Europe.
The next three rounds of Guinness PRO14 matches will determine whether or not the Scarlets fail to reach the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in their history and if the four Welsh regions have any teams in Europe’s top tournament next season.
There is so much to play for to ensure the domestic season doesn’t go out with a whimper after such a thrilling Six Nations campaign. Surely, one Welsh region – either the Cardiff Blues or the Scarlets (the Ospreys are a long shot) – is good enough to make the play-offs and play in the Europe’s top-tier in 2019/20.
The Welsh teams need to get their act together, otherwise they are heading for no deal – that is, no Welsh side in Europe’s top tier where the seven places could be given to four Irish, two Scottish and one Italian outfit.
The league returns this weekend with two matches on Friday, four on Saturday and one on Sunday. Glasgow Warriors still hold a slight advantage over Munster in Conference A, while reigning champions Leinster have already secured a home semi-final.
It looks to be going right down to the wire for second place in Conference B. Benetton Rugby and Ulster will both need to be wary of Edinburgh and Scarlets, as well as each other, especially as Ulster have to play Edinburgh in Round 20.
– This is how it looks with 3 Rounds to go:
Guinness PRO14 Final Series
Quarter-Final 1: Munster (A2) v Benetton Rugby (B3)
Quarter-Final 2: Ulster (B2) v Connacht (A3)
Semi-Final 1: Leinster (B1)* v Munster or Benetton
Semi-Final 2: Glasgow Warriors* (A1) v Ulster or Connacht
*Qualified for Final Series
Champions Cup Play-Off: Cardiff Blues (A4, 52 pts) v Edinburgh (B4, 47 pts)
SO WHAT’S COMING UP THIS WEEKEND?
The Scarlets (B5) host an Edinburgh (B4) side still reeling from their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Munster. The Scarlets simply have to win to keep themselves in the running for Conference B second spot.
Mathematically, Edinburgh have some leeway but, if Scarlets win, then they’d go above Edinburgh and the Scottish side would have three sides above them in the race for second spot going into the final two rounds.
Fortunately for both Edinburgh and Scarlets, Ulster and Benetton are both facing top placed sides this weekend. A draw would be the ideal result for both Ulster and Benetton, severely hindering their threat from below, making it more of a two-team shoot-out for spot B2 in the final rounds.
These sides share a very close head to head record, Edinburgh just edging it 16-14 in their previous 31 meetings. Scotland’s capital side also won their most recent meeting, 31-21, at Murrayfield in November.
Scarlets marginally edge the form guide entering this crucial game. They’ve won two of their last three, most impressively defeating Munster two rounds ago. Edinburgh have won just one of their last three, but that was an even more impressive defeat of Leinster, 28-11, last time out.
The weekend kicks off with Glasgow Warriors (A1) v Ulster (B2) at Scotstoun Stadium. Warriors have a Final Series berth already secured, but are battling Munster in the final three rounds for top spot in Conference A. Ulster have three clubs breathing down their necks battling it out for second and third spot in Conference B, but currently lead the charge by four points.
Ulster prevailed 36-15 in Belfast last April, taking their head to head to 17-14, including some pretty titanic battles between these two great clubs.
The other Friday night kick off is across the Irish Sea in Cork, where it’s Munster (A2) v Cardiff Blues (A4). Munster are looking to beat Glasgow to top spot, while Cardiff Blues aim to pip Connacht to the final Conference A Final Series spot.
Cardiff Blues came out on top, 37-13, in the Welsh capital last September and come into the game on the back of wins over Scarlets, Southern Kings and Edinburgh in their last three outings.
Saturday’s action commences with the Cheetahs (A6) v Ospreys (A5) at the Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein, South Africa. There is little but pride riding on this one as the Cheetahs are already
out of the Final Series equation, while the Ospreys would need to win all three of their remaining games, and see both Cardiff Blues and Connacht lose all three remaining fixtures.
Zebre (A7) face Connacht (A3) at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi. Zebre have won three times to date this season, while Connacht have beaten Benetton Rugby and Ospreys in recent rounds since losing to Glasgow in February.
If Connacht win and Munster beat Cardiff Blues then the Galway-based side will have their best chance of sealing a quarter-final berth. Two of the top three in Conference B do battle on Saturday as Leinster (B1) meet Benetton Rugby (B3).
Leinster are well clear at the top of Conference B and the Italians will arrive with clear intentions on repeating last year’s surprise win in Dublin. Leinster will be eager to build momentum after their Heineken Champions Cup win over Ulster.
The Sunday fixture will be played at the Madibaz Stadium in Port Elizabeth, where the Southern Kings (B6) will host the Dragons (B7). This will go a long way to deciding who avoids finishing bottom in Conference B.
The Dragons edged a high-scoring match 27-22 at Rodney Parade last September.