We’re all set for the latest installment of a fascinating season – one that has seen nine sides occupy a coveted Play-Off place at one stage or another.
As we enter Round 17, that race for a top-four spot is really hotting up. Although Munster’s impressive form sees them clear out in front, the gap between the teams in second and sixth is just six points.
And that gap could narrow even further when fifth-placed Cardiff Blues and sixth-placed Ulster play their game in hand on the four sides currently occupying the semi-final berths, making this weekend’s fixtures even more important for the sides chasing a place in the Play-Offs.
With just a point separating Leinster in third and the Scarlets in fourth, Friday night’s clash between those two teams in Dublin clearly carries huge significance. Whoever loses that particularly encounter could find themselves out of the Play-Off places if the Blues or Ulster pick up a win in Edinburgh or at home to Aironi respectively.
But it’s not just the teams who have Grand Final glory in their sights who will be desperate for success this Friday and Saturday.
Edinburgh and Glasgow may be further off the pace than they would like but, while they won’t have given up on a Play-Off spot, there’s also the small matter of national pride to play for in the final few weeks.
Scotland’s capital-city outfit have finished above their national rivals in four of the past seven seasons but it was Glasgow who were better placed last term as they reached the inaugural Play-Offs. And with the Warriors retaining the 1872 Cup in the closest of two-legged contests back in December, Edinburgh will no doubt be keen to make amends by finishing as high as possible, even if the Play-Offs do eventually prove a bridge too far.
And then there’s Heineken Cup qualification. Dragons second row Luke Charteris insisted that his side are still hopeful of making the top four with a stunning end-of-season run in but he also highlighted the importance of finishing among the top three Welsh regions. Such a finish would ensure entry into the top-tier of European competition and, with the Ospreys, the Blues and Scarlets all in or around the Play-Off places, Charteris and co know the importance of returning from this weekend’s trip to Munster with what would be a huge win.
The Dragons will look to repeat their November win against Munster
Connacht have never finished above ninth in the standings but they currently sit just two points behind both Edinburgh and Benetton Treviso in eighth and ninth spot respectively meaning the current campaign could yet be an historic one for Eric Elwood’s men.
And while history could be in the making for the Galway-based province, it’s already been made as far as our two Italian sides are concerned. Treviso and Aironi’s debut season has been a huge success for the League as a whole and both teams will be determined to end on a high. Treviso’s seven wins mean they could still make the Play-Offs, while Aironi will be keen to secure the victory their efforts have surely deserved.
As the Magners League takes centre stage once more with the Six Nations on a week’s break, a special mention should also go to two players who stood out in the most-recent round of international action.
Firstly, congratulations to Munster’s Ronan O’Gara. The Ireland outside-half is now just two points short of becoming only the fifth player in history to notch 1,000 Test points after his 11-point haul in the win over Scotland. O’Gara was named man-of-the-match for good measure at Murrayfield just a week after leading his province to a Magners League win over Edinburgh.
Another player to catch the eye in the Test arena was Treviso scrum-half Fabio Semenzato. The 24-year-old picked up the man-of-the-match award against Wales on Saturday just a fortnight after making his international debut for Italy.
Semenzato’s fine individual performance was yet another reminder of how the Italian presence in the Magners League is already having a positive impact on the international stage.
O’Gara and Semenzato may not be involved in domestic action this weekend but it won’t be long until all our international stars return to League action. The Magners League takes a two-week break for the conclusion of the Six Nations after this weekend before returning for Round 18 on March 25.
No doubt all 12 sides would love to enter that break with a win under their belts.
Round 17 fixtures
Friday March 4
Connacht vs Benetton Treviso
Ulster vs Aironi Rugby
Edinburgh vs Cardiff Blues
Leinster vs Scarlets
Saturday March 5
Ospreys vs Glasgow Warriors
Munster vs Newport Gwent Dragons