After doing their level best to prevent two other Welsh regions scrambling into the Play-Offs for the Magners League crown, the Dragons can do both a mighty favour in Newport on Friday evening.
Should Ulster leave Rodney Parade as empty-handed as the Blues did seven days earlier, the Ospreys, for one, will expect to make the last four and avoid beating themselves up over failing to make the top four despite scoring comfortably more tries (56) than anyone else. A bonus-point victory over Aironi, rock-bottom of the table in their debut season, would take them through provided Ulster’s season dissolves into a pointless anti-climax.
If the Blues gain a similar reprieve from a rather more challenging mission against the Scarlets in Llanelli, they will be guaranteed a Play-Off place above the Ospreys by virtue of having won more matches. In such an event they would presumably avoid the short straw of Munster at Thomond Park in the semi-finals for the arguably shorter straw of Leinster in Dublin.
Much of the uncertainty will be resolved by what happens in Newport where Ulster have come unstuck in each of the last two campaigns – 23-6 two seasons ago, 26-16 last season. The Dragons, reinvigorated since Darren Edwards’ appointment as head coach, will settle for nothing less than finishing the season off with a third straight home win and more of the exhilarating rugby which proved too much for the Ospreys and the Blues.
Ulster will have analysed the tapes and recognised the threat posed by a back division under the direction of Jason Tovey, a 22-year-old uncapped fly-half whose current form has surely pushed him into serious contention for a place among the Wales 22 against the Barbarians in Cardiff on June 4.
Aled Brew is another Dragon on fire, his twelve tries in 18 starts putting him second only to Edinburgh’s Tim Visser in the Magners this season. Ulster, who gave Northampton a much more uncomfortable run for their money in the Europen quarter-final at Milton Keynes than Perpignan managed in the semi at the same venue, know that a losing bonus point will see them through to the last four of the Magners.
They will want something far more uplifting than that in readiness for a probable play-off against Leinster. The northerners could conceivably finish second but only if the Warriors rise from the depths and achieve the shock of the season against opponents now one match away from conquering Europe.
It is difficult, almost impossible, to stretch the imagination far enough to see Glasgow’s finest somehow succeeding where the leaders of the English Premiership (Leicester) and the leaders of the French Top 14 (Toulouse) have failed in recent weeks. Leinster, whose status as the best team in Europe this season makes them favourites to regain the Heineken Cup against Northampton at Twickenham on May 21, supply one third of the Magners League Dream Team – Isa Nacewa, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
Why stop there? A case could be made for at least three more – Cian Healy, Jonathan Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, still peerless even when sent to the sin-bin as he promptly proved upon his return against Toulouse.
The advent of the Play-Offs ensures a gripping finale to the regular season in Wales, at the Parc y Scarlets where the Blues make their last stand. The Scarlets will expect to sign off on a high with the double over the capital club whom they beat 16-10 in Cardiff last October when Rhys Priestland accounted for every single point bar the conversion of his own try.
Munster’s concluding match of the regular season, at home to Connacht, affords them an early opportunity to start getting over the trauma of being knocked out of two European tournaments in the same season. Harlequins’ win at Thomond Park last weekend, all the more surprising for the fact that it was no more than they deserved, was a much greater shock to the Munster system than their only previous European defeat in Limerick, inflicted by Leicester in 2006.
The Tigers’ pack then included four English World Cup winners – Julian White, Ben Kay, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry – backed up by a pair of Irishmen – Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings. Leicester that season went into the final as firm favourites only to be outplayed by Wasps in Lawrence Dallaglio’s last match.
Bad enough for Munster to lose to the top team in England, infinitely worse to lose to one currently in the lower half of the Aviva Premiership, seventh behind Leicester, Saracens, Gloucester, Northampton, London Irish and Bath. They will no doubt be keen to bounce back in some style. To lose two games in a row at Fortress Thomond would be almost unthinakble.
And the semi-final line-up?
Munster v Ospreys, Leinster v Ulster.