BY: Grant Fisken
With only six points separating the Pro12 top four at the end of the regular season, it should have been no surprise that the two play-offs produced a combined winning margin of only five points. Glasgow Warriors and Munster were the two teams to progress to Saturday’s final at Kingspan Stadium, but Ulster and Ospreys will still be reflecting on what might have been.
The first play-off on Friday night saw Ulster travel to Scotstoun Stadium for the second week in a row, but as expected it proved to be a much closer contest than six days previously. Ulster coach Neil Doak recalled many of the usual starters who sat out the 32-10 defeat on the final day of the regular season, and the men from Belfast led 14-9 late in the match and heading for a final on home turf.
However, with five minutes remaining Canadian international DTH van der Merwe, who is moving to Scarlets at the end of the campaign, scored the try that allowed Finn Russell to kick the match-winning conversion from the right touchline and send the Scots through 16-14. The result ensures the Warriors maintain their 100% league home record this season, and Ulster will have to wait another season to try and win their first trophy since the 2005/06 Celtic League.
Saturday’s second play-off had an even more thrilling finale as Munster held off a stirring Ospreys comeback, with a little help from video referee Gareth Simmonds. The home side led 16-3 and 21-8, but allowed the Welsh side to close the gap to three points, mainly due to the profligacy of Ian Keatley’s kicking, successful with just two of his seven attempts. It appeared as though the failure to kill off the men from Swansea had proved costly when in injury-time Josh Matavesi crossed for what would have been the match-winning score, but referee Nigel Owens, on consultation with the television official, penalised Rhys Webb for a knock-on in the build-up.
It is difficult to argue with the merits of a Glasgow v Munster final when you consider they finished the regular season joint-top of the league, locked together on 75 points. Both regular season encounters were won by the home side, 21-18 in Glasgow and 22-10 in Cork.The Warriors will be looking to go one further than last year when they lost 34-12 against Leinster in the final. Munster are in their first season finale since they won the 2010/11 Celtic League, and could go level with Leinster and Ospreys on a record-equalling four title victories.
Since the league adopted the play-offs to settle the championship in 2009/10, only last year has the final produced a winning margin of more than 10 points. Expect another close encounter at Kingspan Stadium and do not rule out the possibility of a draw after 80 minutes, but without the home advantage that has proved so formidable for Glasgow this campaign I am going to go for a Munster win by between five and 10 points.