Connacht’s magnificent midweek win over table-topping Leinster has breathed new life into the last two rounds of the regular Magners League season.
Their 27-13 win in Galway on Wednesday night over the reigning European champions lifted them off the bottom of the table and turned up the heat in the race for the final three Play-Off places.
It also means the battle to avoid being bottom of the table could well go to the final round, when Connacht have to travel to Irish rivals Ulster for a game that could determine which one of them plays in the Heineken Cup next season.
Leinster were delighted to welcome back Brian O’Driscoll into their line-up last night, but not even he could save them from going to defeat against the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finalists. The Dubliners still lead the table by seven points, but they could now be caught over the last two rounds and knocked out of one of the top two places, although they are guaranteed a top four finish.
That is critical for their chances of winning the title via the Play-Offs because the top two teams will have home advantage in the semi-finals. Not only that, the highest ranked team from the regular season that reaches the Magners League Grand Final will also enjoy home country advantage on Saturday, 29 May.
“Results like last night justify the Play-Offs. The weather is getting better, teams are fighting for every point and it makes for a lot of interest,” said Sean Holley, head coach of the second placed Ospreys.
“I’m not surprised by Leinster’s result. I’ve gone on record before as saying how good Connacht are and they are very difficult to beat at the Sportsground.
“Their defeat to Munster last Sunday was their first loss at home since September and they have improved this season. In Michael Bradley’s final year as coach I’m sure they want to do well for him.
“They have a strong resolve and now have a legitimate chance of getting into the Heineken Cup. It’s a great result for the Magners League as it shows the strength in depth we now have in the league.
“We’ve been at the top end of the table for a number of seasons now, but teams like Connacht and the Dragons have realised it’s not just Heineken Cup qualification to play for, but also the chance to reach the Play-Offs.
“The new system has revitalised them and the two Scottish teams are pushing hard to get into the Play-Off places and get something out of the season.
“We want to win our last two games and reach the Play-Offs. We are concentrating on this weekend’s game in Munster, but we have one eye on all the possible permutations. “We have a magic figure of 51 points in mind to reach the top four. I believe two wins would be enough because of the closeness of the games ahead – Leinster go to Glasgow, Munster travel to the Blues, we go to Munster. It’s great!”
The race for the other three Play-Off places is still wide open with the Ospreys (43 points), Munster (43), Glasgow Warriors (42), Edinburgh (40), Newport Gwent Dragons (38) and Cardiff Blues (36) all in with a mathematical chance of making a top four finish.
Munster host the Ospreys at Thomond Park on Saturday in a vital game, while the Warriors face Leinster on Friday night before travelling to Llanelli to meet basement side the Scarlets on the final weekend of regular league matches.