Benetton Rugby produced one of the performances of the weekend to claim a draw with Leinster, Edinburgh won at the Scarlets while Glasgow Warriors were too strong for Ulster.
Elsewhere, Munster finished off Cardiff Blues in impressive style, Connacht edged out Zebre, the Ospreys downed the Toyota Cheetahs and the Dragons drew with the Isuzu Southern Kings.
Here’s everything you might have missed from a wonderful weekend.
Benetton Rugby 27-27 Leinster
- Both sides were coming off their first losses of the calendar year, but it was Benetton who flew out of the blocks with a blend of powerful running and clever attacking. They were unlucky not to cross more than thrice and showed why other Guinness PRO14 teams need to take extra defensive care when Kieran Crowley’s men come to town.
- Though they have already ensured top spot in the conference and an automatic home Guinness PRO14 semi-final, Leinster’s second-half performance reflects their credentials and shows why they have been the team to fear throughout the campaign. Having conceded the majority of possession and been down for most of the game, the much-changed Irish outfit did brilliantly to secure two points.
- Regardless, the thrilling fixture displayed both teams’ ability to deliver at either end of the pitch – and reflected the strength of competition in Conference B. Benetton’s two points, which took them ahead of Edinburgh, inched the Italian side closer to the Guinness PRO14 Final Series with just two games to go and it was the sublime late Ratuva Tavuyara try that eventually earned them the share of the spoils, allied with Tommaso Allan’s nerveless conversion.
Scarlets 12-20 Edinburgh
- Scarlets have been thrilled with Leigh Halfpenny’s return to action after missing the entire Six Nations, and the full-back was in fine attacking form from the outset at Parc y Scarlets. But it was his mistake that allowed Jaco van der Walt to run the length of the pitch for Edinburgh’s second try that capped their dramatic second-half fightback and turned the game on its head.
- Ill discipline proved Scarlets undoing. Skipper Ken Owens was sin-binned at the end of the first half so was missing for ten minutes either side of the break, and it was during this period that Edinburgh and van der Walt registered their first points of the evening, a landslide 20 unanswered points ensued.
- The defeat is double-damage for Scarlets as they have left themselves with a mammoth task to qualify for the Guinness PRO14 Finals Series while Edinburgh still have much to do as well, sitting in fourth position with two games left to play. One point behind Benetton in third with Ulster another two ahead in second.
Connacht 6-5 Zebre
- Though they secured the win in the end, Connacht will have had this fixture marked down as a great chance to notch a bonus point. It means that, despite Cardiff Blues’ loss last night, the Irish side will be under extra pressure as they prepare to host their Guinness PRO14 Final Series rivals in the next round. Regardless, Round 19, in absolute terms, has seen Connacht take a four point lead above Cardiff Blues with just two games to go.
- Despite a promising start, Zebre’s attacking force was blunted easily by a solid Connacht backline. With only 33 tries to their name throughout the campaign, this was a typically flat offensive performance from the Italian side, and sums up why, despite defending well in the first half, they were unable to take advantage on the other end. Mattia Bellini’s third try of the season was one of the only meaningful attacks from the Italian outfit. Regardless, the four points were up for grabs had they converted one of his two second-half penalties.
- On the other hand, one must credit Zebre’s excellent defence as they kept Connacht from crossing. Their positioning was spot-on for most of the tie, and this was well supplemented by some brilliant last ditch tackles. Though they sit bottom of the Conference, there’s some hope that Zebre may be able to lay a platform for themselves going into the next campaign – with improvement on the offensive end, they could pose a threat for other Guinness PRO14 sides next season.
Toyota Cheetahs 14-31 Ospreys
- Dan Evans kept up his scoring form following his four tries for Ospreys last time out against Scarlets. His opener was crucial at Toyota Stadium, breaking the deadlock with Toyota Cheetahs dominating in the first quarter of the match. The full-back spotted a gap and gave a delightful dummy before racing in.
- Cheetahs threatened to make a game of it as the second half began thanks to Benhard Janse van Rensburg’s searing break. He broke from inside his own 22 just after the kick-off showing his speed and eye for a gap before being taken down inside the Ospreys half. But the centre was involved seconds later as his offload gave Dries Swanepoel enough room to barge over.
- They say if at first you don’t succeed try and try again – a formula which worked for Ospreys centre Cory Allen. He saw his score after diving onto Owen Watkin’s grubber kick ruled out in the second half but it was just four minutes later when he made the most of Evans’ offload from the floor to dive over and secure a bonus-point for his side.
Munster 45-21 Cardiff Blues
- Munster’s double assault on the Guinness PRO14 and Champions Cup shows no signs of abating, with a stellar week for the Irish province yielding victory over Edinburgh at BT Murrayfield and a Final Series place closer to home. This current vintage may not be heralded as much as other Munster teams from bygone eras, but the last seven days have proven they still know how to eke out wins in a variety of different contexts.
- Four points behind with 30 minutes left on the clock, Johann van Graan was able to turn the considerable pedigree of CJ Stander and Tadhg Beirne from the bench – and the Ireland duo came up trumps when it mattered. Stander, in particular, was key, adding power in the loose and extra bite at the breakdown. His try shortly after coming on proved to be decisive – and outlined the wealth of options available to the Irish province.
- With nine tries and a series of twists and turns, this was one of the best Guinness PRO14 games of the season so far – and saw several unheralded names come to the fore. In the absence of the injured Joey Carbery, Tyler Bleyendaal showed his class in full for the hosts from fly-half. Blues, meanwhile, may have ultimately paid the price for a leaky defence, but did see Aled Summerhill cross again to continue his strong form. The versatile back dotted down twice against Scarlets a fortnight ago, and showed his scoring prowess again here with a scorching effort. That type of finishing will be vital in the coming weeks if they are to make the end of season play-offs.
Glasgow Warriors 30-7 Ulster Rugby
- Glasgow Warriors used momentum perfectly throughout the game. Despite conceding in the first six minutes, the hosts struck back instantly then again not long after, using the momentum gained to go over for a third just before half time. But, crucially, they got the first one of the second half to put the game to bed early on with a bonus-point try.
- Ulster missed crucial opportunities. Just as the game looked like it was getting beyond Ulster’s reach Jacob Stockdale broke the line and offloaded brilliantly to Luke Marshall, but the centre had the ball knocked out of his arms as he was on his way down over the line by Tommy Seymour and Glasgow came away unscathed. Late on Rob Lyttle was centimetres from the line but again Seymour’s last-ditch tackle saved the hosts and Ulster were denied.
- Warriors bounced back in perfect fashion from European disappointment to keep their foot on the Guinness PRO14 gas. After suffering a heavy quarter-final defeat to Saracens last time out, Glasgow showed they still mean business in the PRO14 as they scintillated in attack and were excellent in defence, keeping on top of Conference A with the victory and Munster in their rearview mirror.
Isuzu Southern Kings 18-18 Dragons
- Not for nothing is Port Elizabeth often known as the windy city and kicking for goal was tricky throughout in the blustery conditions. None of the Isuzu Southern Kings’ three tries were converted – both Masixole Banda and Bader Pretorius tried their hands – and that made Josh Lewis’ nerveless late penalty for the Dragons to secure a draw all the more impressive given the circumstances.
- In the battle to avoid bottom spot in Conference B, it was not hard to see why both sides have struggled this season. Wasteful attacking in the first half from both sides gave way to serious ill discpline in the second, at one point after the hour mark it was 13 men against 13 and that typified the two sides struggles.
- The Dragons are chasing a first away win in the league in four years and while Lewis got them a draw, it could have been so much more. Jordan Williams’ sublime solo score off the bench in the second half was a real highlight but in the first half they butchered a number of golden chances. Rhodri Williams was most guilty and thought he had rescued them in the second half with a fine try but a forward pass denied him and it was left to Lewis to salvage something for the Welsh side who stay bottom of the standings, a point behind their opponents.
The Guinness PRO14 Final is one of the most entertaining games in the rugby calendar and takes place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25. Tickets start at just £25 for adults, £1 for kids. Visit www.pro14rugby.org/finaltickets