Cardiff Blues make their shortest journey of the season on Friday with Andy Irvine expecting them to represent the rest of the Celtic nations against Ireland’s finest in the play-off for the Magners League.
The only one of the current top six not to have won the title, the Blues need one win from their two remaining Welsh derbies, starting with the local one twelve miles down the road in Newport against the Dragons at Rodney Parade where the Ospreys came to grief last week. Ulster go there for the final round on Friday week needing a win against tricky opponents to secure their place in the last four.
Irvine, the distinguished Scottish Lion in his first season as chairman of a tournament whose first Grand Final last year featured considerably more Lions than the English equivalent at Twickenham, has a hunch that the Blues will make the most of the Ospreys’ double stumble by making the semi-finals.
If they are to do it this week, they will have to manage despite a clash of fixtures depriving them of their most-capped international, Martyn Williams. The veteran flanker has been given the day off to attend some important business at Westminster Abbey as a guest at the Royal wedding.
With a commendable sense of timing, Sam Warburton’s recovery from the knee he damaged during the Six Nations’ finale in Paris last month affords the Blues the luxury of exchanging one Wales openside flanker for another.
A fierce sense of pride generated by a Newport-Cardiff rivalry going back over a century will add to the sense of occasion on an evening when the Blues will be anxious to avoid having to confront the Scarlets in Llanelli the following week with their Play-Off fate still in the balance.
"My gut feeling is that the Blues will probably make it," said Irvine, one of the finest backs of the Seventies at a time when he competed against some of the greatest of all-time.
"It looks to me like three Irish teams for the Play-Offs plus one from Wales, probably the Blues, although it’s such a tough call that I wouldn’t put any money on it.
"I was a little surprised that the Ospreys lost their last two games, especially taking into account the size of their squad. I am sure they will be kicking themselves but then you are always liable to get upsets at this time of the season.
“Munster and Leinster have proved their quality consistently throughout the season and you have to hand it to Ulster for being up there as well on the basis of some very good recruitment. Irish rugby is certainly a force to be reckoned with."
Andy Irvine has been impressed by Ulster this season
Having passed the post first by a country mile, Munster will be home in one semi-final and Leinster, surely, in the other. The duel for third and fourth place, headed by Ulster and the Blues, ought to determine who goes to Limerick and who goes to Dublin, not that Wales’ highest-ranked region dare look that far ahead.
Victory in Newport would guarantee fourth place at the worst, even if the Ospreys return from Italy next week with all five points from Aironi, because the Blues will have won more matches than their Swansea-based rivals.
"We know that if we don’t match the Dragons’ attitude, we’ll come off second best," Blues’ director of rugby David Young said.
"We want to get the job done as soon as possible so that the Scarlets’ match becomes a dead rubber."
The Play-Offs brings the season to a climactic finish with the Grand Final on May 28, an event which proved an immediate hit when the Ospreys went to Dublin last year and beat Leinster in their own backyard.
"The concept of the Play-Offs generates great interest and really gives a number of clubs a huge incentive. Munster have finished top quite comfortably but there is no guarantee that will end up as champions," added Irvine.
The position of the Scottish and Italian teams in the nether regions of the table provides a sharp contrast to the other end of the standings. But Irvine, whose 60 Test matches including nine for the Lions during three tours of duty starting with the invincibles in South Africa in 1974, remains convinced that Benetton Treviso and Aironi will be all the stronger next season for their first campaign.
"Maybe they haven’t done as well as some would have expected but I think their involvement has been really exciting," he said.
"Italian rugby has come on leaps and bounds as is evident by their first victory over France during the Six Nations. Apart from a very disappointing performance against England, they gave Ireland, Wales and Scotland a real run for their money.
"In five or 10 years time, the Italian teams in the Magners League will be quite formidable. As for the Scottish professional teams, we have to be realistic and accept that they don’t have the same strength in depth.
"That’s something which the SRU is very well aware of. Ulster are a good example of how much better a team is for extra funding and you have to admire the IRFU for having put their hands in their pockets. The SRU doesn’t have the money but both Glasgow and Edinburgh are bringing through a lot of very good youngsters.
"Whatever happens from here on in, it’s going to be a great finish to a thrilling season."