Regular magnersleague.com contributor Peter Jackson gives us his thoughts on this week’s Play-Off semi-finals.
It took the defending champions a mighty long time in Italy last week to avoid being knocked out of the Play-offs for the Magners League by opponents with only one win to their name all season.
The Ospreys squeezed through thanks to James Hook's eleventh-hour penalty and some unwitting assistance from their local rivals in Llanelli where the Scarlets did the neighbourly thing and saw off the one-dimensional Blues.
Had Hook not got his team out of Alcatraz four minutes from time, the Scarlets would have clinched the triangular Welsh scrap for the last play-off place behind the Irish trio of Munster, Leinster and Ulster.
Having come off the ropes to deny Aironi their most famous win since their creation, the Ospreys are now obliged to go from one extreme to the other, from the bottom of the table to the very top. All they have to do to hang onto their title for at least another week is to knock Munster out at Thomond Park.
Rugby may be as funny as any other game when it comes to the occasionally odd result but none of those who have come to expect home wins in Limerick almost by divine right felt like laughing when Harlequins took their citadel by storm a fortnight ago to deny Munster another European final in Cardiff, their favourite home from home.
It meant that, for the first time, the Red Army witnessed their mighty province eliminated from both European competitions in the same season -definitely no laughing matter. The way they see it, a third knock-out would be unthinkable, all the more so because it was the Ospreys more than anyone else who gave the former double champions the heave-ho from the Heineken Cup by beating them in Swansea before Christmas.
Head coach Tony McGahan used that as a major motivational tool when his team went some small way towards avenging that defeat by retracing their steps to Swansea the other week and stealing away with a win secured by Ronan O'Gara's last-minute penalty.
Tommy Bowe and the Ospreys are desperate to retain their crown
The fact that the Ospreys have limped into the last four makes Munster all the stronger favourites to equal the Welsh region's hat-trick of Magners League titles. The Ospreys’ form in recent weeks is in stark contrast to this time last year when Ryan Jones' team swept all before them and won the trophy in the true manner of champions, outplaying Leinster in the Grand Final at the RDS.
At least the Ospreys can only get better after their close encounter in Italy last week. 'Our form the other night was appalling,' Scott Johnson, their director of coaching, said. 'It was terrible. Welsh sides don't seem to thrive on being favourites so it's probably a good opportunity to throw the gauntlet down.'
They have done that before and lived to tell the tale. Munster will need no reminding of how they wound up on the receiving end of the Ospreys' charge to the title towards the end of April last year when a 15-11 win for the combined force of Swansea and Neath paved their way to the final while sending Munster to a losing semi-final in Dublin.
Unless the real Ospreys stand up on Saturday evening, there will be no going back to Ireland for the second Grand Final on May 28 to play the winners of the first semi-final, Leinster against Ulster in Dublin on Friday night.
Ulster, champions five seasons ago for the only time, will not be daunted by Leinster's status as Europe's premier team, nor by the fact that they must succeed where the champions of France and England have failed in recent weeks.
The challenge from north of the border will test Leinster's professionalism and the mental discipline required to wipe any thoughts of the Heineken Cup final from their mind. They know that any distraction caused by their date with Northampton at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday week is liable to have serious consequences.
All logic points to a Munster-Leinster Grand Final at Thomond Park on May 28 and rightly so given their positions first and second, respectively, at the end of the regular season.