Guinness PRO14 takeaways: Semi-Finals and Champions Cup play-off

Luke Baker
21 May 2018

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There is just one game left in this thrilling Guinness PRO14 season as Leinster and Scarlets booked their place in next Saturday’s Final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

For the second year in a row, Scarlets won an away semi-final by beating Glasgow Warriors on Friday night before Leinster edged past old rival Munster by a single point in their all-Irish battle at the RDS Arena.

Ulster also beat Ospreys to seal Champions Cup rugby next term to round off a scintillating weekend of action and we’ve given you the key takeaways below if you missed any of the action.

Glasgow Warriors 13-28 Scarlets

1. After the disappointment of their European semi-final defeat to Leinster, Wayne Pivac’s defending Guinness PRO14 champions have hit top gear in the season run in. Three first-half tries sealed the deal against the Warriors at Scotstoun and Leinster will be wary of the Welsh region’s attacking threat. Pivac’s men carried all before them last season, including Leinster in the semi-finals, and they will take some stopping once again on their return to Dublin for the final. Rhys Patchell is pulling the strings with aplomb at fly-half while his siege gun of a right boot keeps them playing in the right areas of the field. Johnny McNicholl’s return also alleviated the loss of Leigh Halfpenny to injury and in Tadhg Beirne they have a departing hero desperate to go out on a high.

2. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that the Glasgow Warriors have struggled since the turn of the year to maintain their lofty standards of earlier in the season. Even with their sluggish form though, they had not lost once all season in the league at home, claiming 49 points from a possible 50. But they saved their worst home performance of the campaign for their biggest game as the Scarlets came out on fire at a sunny Scotstoun and never looked back. The Warriors kicked too long and were punished by the Scarlets back three and while Jonny Gray and Nick Grigg did grab late consolations, a realistic fightback never really looked on the cards. Dave Rennie in his first season at the helm has guided the Warriors to the top of Conference A, but they will need to redouble their efforts next season in order to peak for the play-offs, and cope without the departing Finn Russell.

3. John Barclay’s ankle and Achilles injuries – sustained inside the first ten minutes of the clash with the Warriors – are going to rule him out of the final next weekend. That is a bitter pill for the Scotland skipper to swallow and means he has now played his last game for the region. The 31-year-old has enjoyed a magnificent five-year spell in west Wales that has rejuvenated his international career. But the region will have to cope without him in Dublin next weekend against Leinster. Pivac is not short of options however, with Will Boyde and Lewis Rawlins in contention to come in or indeed they could move the versatile Beirne into the back row.

Leinster 16-15 Munster

1. It’s Leinster’s unrivalled squad depth that has put them on the verge of an historic double. Just seven days after a gruelling 15-12 victory over Racing 92 to lift the Champions Cup, Leo Cullen made six changes to his side for this semi-final and they didn’t miss a beat. Two of the players to come in combined for their only try as James Lowe – whose powerful running all afternoon earned him man-of-the-match honours – breached the defence and produced a sumptuous offload to send Jack Conan over. Meanwhile, Ross Byrne impressed in Johnny Sexton’s stead at ten, leaving Leinster just one win away from a first Champions Cup-domestic title double in their history.

2. Isa Nacewa’s calf will a key storyline in the build-up to next Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 final at the Aviva Stadium. The inspirational Leinster skipper, who is retiring at the end of the season, struggled with a calf injury in training during the week and only lasted 40 minutes in his final match at the RDS Arena before being replaced by Rory O’Loughlin. Cullen seemed fairly hopeful in his post-match press conference that the 35-year-old Kiwi would be fit to face the Scarlets and after leading Leinster to the title in his last game before his first ‘retirement’ in 2013, it would be fitting if Nacewa’s decade of service concluded with another Guinness PRO14 crown

3. Munster’s wait for a first piece of silverware since 2011 goes on and they couldn’t quite give all-time record try scorer Simon Zebo a fairytale ending ahead of his departure for Racing 92 this summer. Zebo has electrified the Thomond Park faithful for the past eight years and produced one last moment of magic to set up Keith Earls for a try early in the second half – drawing in two defenders and producing an overhand offload to release his fellow speedster into the corner. The 28-year-old was clearly emotional after the game but did leave the door open for a future return to Munster with a post-match tweet.

Earls also deserved to end a season where he has re-asserted himself as one of the very best outside backs in Europe with a trophy but despite his best efforts – he brilliantly bounced off one defender and burrowed under another to dot down for his try after being fed by Zebo – Munster’s last-gasp attack to try and pinch the game ultimately fell just short.

Ulster 35-17 Ospreys – Champions Cup play-off

1. Ulster remain the only team to have played in every season of the top-flight European competition since its inception. But that run looked like it could come to an end after a season of struggles that saw both Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes announce their departures. However, they pulled it together when they needed it most to produce a dominant performance against Ospreys at the Kingspan Stadium. Alun Wyn Jones may have crossed for an early try but after some nervy moments in the first half, it was Ulster who deserved the victory. John Cooney ran the show from kicking tee and base of the ruck while Craig Gilroy was deadly out wide.

2. The Welsh region came to Belfast a month ago and went down to a stodgy 8-0 defeat. This time around things started much better for them when Jones went over early on. But in the end Ulster had too much and it will be another season back in the Challenge Cup for Allen Clarke’s boys. They made a poor start to the campaign, which cost Steve Tandy his job, and ultimately left themselves with too much to do. It will be a new era next season for the region as Dan Biggar moves on but George North returns.

3. Gibbes will be replaced at Ulster by Dan McFarland as head coach for next season in Belfast and it will be a much-changed squad that the latter presides over. The great Robbie Diack is hanging up his boots and this was his final game in the white jersey – going off to a rapturous reception in the second half. He is joined in retirement by Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Paul Marshall while Charles Piutau is heading to Bristol to reconnect with Pat Lam. All will be missed by the Kingspan faithful but with Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore joining as well as Sale’s Will Addison – there is hope for the future. And Gilroy’s double on Sunday afternoon proved he could be back to something approaching his best. If they can get him fit and firing on the opposite wing to the breakout star that is Jacob Stockdale, then they will take some stopping.

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