The big winners in Conference A were Connacht, who confirmed qualification for the Final Series with a win over Cardiff Blues, and Glasgow Warriors, who re-took top spot from Munster.
In Conference B Ulster hit top gear in their crucial clash with Edinburgh and have also qualified in second while Scarlets stayed in contention with a big win over Zebre.
Here’s all the key points from Round 20…
Edinburgh Rugby 7-29 Ulster Rugby
- About as professional a job as they come, Ulster arrived at a raucous BT Murrayfield with one thing in mind. Not to be thrown off by the optimistic home crowd, Ulster kept the hosts quiet largely throughout the contest, scoring at crucial times to keep Edinburgh Rugby always just out of reach as they booked their place in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series.
- Ross Ford came onto the field for his 199th Edinburgh appearance with time running out and the hosts chasing a comeback. Sadly, it wasn’t to be for the great hooker, as Edinburgh failed to give him the send-off he would’ve wanted. Still, a moment to salute Ford – a true mainstay in the Scottish capital for over a decade.
- There’s a lot to be said for coming into a match with a well-drilled, tactical approach – and that’s exactly what Ulster did. Aware that they have the firepower in their ranks, the visitors selected their moments to pounce ruthlessly: Robert Baloucoune’s brilliant finish in the corner at the close of the first half; Rob Lyttle’s destructive run in to score 15 minutes into the second. Ulster won the key battles, stymied Edinburgh going forward, and proved that they will be a tough prospect for anyone when the knockouts get underway.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) April 13, 2019
Benetton Rugby 28-37 Munster Rugby
- With qualification in their hands from this match some Benetton fans may see this as a chance missed but Munster are frequently the toughest of all opponents and the Italians remain in the Final Series driving seat. They currently sit third on 52 points, one ahead of Edinburgh and two ahead of Scarlets heading into that final weekend. Benetton are away at Zebre, Edinburgh travel to Glasgow and Scarlets travel to Dragons – anything could happen.
- The Friday-night encounter at Stadio Monigo had the general feel of a game of two halves, with Benetton edging the first and Munster the second. The Treviso-based side started like a team who knew Final Series qualification was in their grasp and scored excellent first-half tries through Tommaso Benvenuti and Monty Ioane to lead 21-17. In the second half though only seven more points would come while Munster racked up 20, the European giants producing the latest display of their perfect composure in big games.
- The Munstermen lie second in Conference A, three points behind Glasgow Warriors and face Connacht at Thomond Park on 27 April – the Warriors host Edinburgh. There may be a place in the team on that day for fly-half JJ Hanrahan, who won the man of the match award for a tremendous display. Hanrahan applied a firm hand to the tiller all night long and produced a moment of magic for the decisive final try, cutting a searing line through the opposition defence before sending in half-back partner Alby Mathewson for the score.
Isuzu Southern Kings 7-43 Ospreys
- Dan Evans is now up to second in the Guinness PRO14 for tries with a hat-trick in Port Elizabeth as the full-back showed the full range of his talents. The first was a fine dummy that opened up a huge hole, before he was the perfect foil in support for tries two and three. Now 30 years old, Evans won his two Welsh caps for Wales ten years ago. It might be difficult for him to add to them, but there are few full-backs more reliable across a season of Guinness PRO14 action.
- It was a mix of youth and experience for Wales in the second row as Bradley Davies and Adam Beard started. The former spent many years alongside Alun Wyn Jones, the role the second now fulfils. Both were outstanding, with Davies helping himself to two tries and Beard perhaps even better despite not getting on the scoresheet. Davies was influential in the second Evans try with a fine offload, before Beard’s delayed pass put Hanno Dirksen in for another first-half try. And it was only fitting that the two combined for the final try of the game, Beard floating a beautiful pass to Davies to get over in the corner.
- It is hard to take too many positives from a game lost 43-7, but the standout performer for the Kings, as he is so often, was Masixole Banda. Not including in the starting XV, Banda came off the bench in the first half and provided a genuine spark. His feet are exceptional and he caused the Ospreys defence all sorts of problems. One run in particular, in the second half, caught the eye, as he twinkled his way through a non-existent gap before finding a teammate. That the Kings did not score more than one try was no fault of their electric full-back.
It’s time to go home.
14 days ✔️
2 wins ✔️
10 points ✔️
Job done ✔️
Now it’s all eyes on Judgement Day
— Ospreys (@ospreys) April 14, 2019
Scarlets 42-0 Zebre
- Scarlets came into this game knowing only a win would keep them in contention for the Guinness PRO14 Final Series with a game to go. Following today’s bonus-point victory, they sit just two points behind third-placed Benetton going into the crucial final round and will hope Zebre do them a favour next week against their fellow Italians.
- While Zebre held off Scarlets’ siege for a while, Uzair Cassiem’s second try – the fourth of the game – was pivotal in opening up the floodgates. Brilliant tries from Ioan Nicholas and Kieran Hardy within the final five minutes embellished the scoreline in a phenomenal win for Wayne Pivac’s men in west Wales, who are finding their swashbuckling feat and would be a match to anyone in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series.
- Zebre will have wanted to end their last road trip on a high, but this was always going to be a difficult trip and so it proved against the determined Scarlets. They did provide some early pressure and a second-half foray from Edoardo Padovani was a real bright spark for a team who will be frustrated by the scoreline. No doubt those frustrations will come out next week in the Italian Derby, with Benetton desperate for points and Zebre surely in no mood to submit.
Leinster Rugby 24 – 39 Glasgow Warriors
- It was 364 days since Leinster had last lost at home in the Guinness PRO14, so a daunting task awaited the Glasgow Warriors as they made the intimidating trip to the RDS Arena, but Dave Rennie’s men were not to be cowed. In spite of their going behind on several occasions, they never allowed Leinster to dominate, offering grinding defence in the face of the hosts’ infamous phase play and incisive attack with the ball in hand.
- Another milestone toppled in Dublin was Rob Kearney’s try-scoring drought. The full-back hadn’t crossed the whitewash for the province since 2016, and when he scored once, a second seemed inevitable when it arrived. Doing his best to usurp his brother, however, was Dave Kearney, who matched Rob’s achievement with a superb double of his own.
- The Kearneys weren’t the only try-scoring brothers on the RDS pitch on Saturday afternoon. In fact, despite their numerical inferiority – they scored just two between them compared to the Leinster duo’s four – the Fagersons made the telling contribution. Up stepped Matt, with the Warriors trailing 24-18, to give Glasgow a lead they would never relinquish, before Zander made sure of a famous win – one that could prove vital with the Guinness PRO14 Final Series now just around the corner.
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) April 14, 2019
Connacht 29-22 Cardiff Blues
- Connacht have found a winning formula. Their fourth successive Guinness PRO14 victory saw them secure a top-three spot and more importantly a place in the Final Series. They kept level-headed when they conceded late on, instantly scoring back from the restart, and turned over the ball crucially when the clock was in the red to seal the win.
- Jack Carty has got flair in spades. Not only did the Irish international score a brilliant try by chipping past the Cardiff Blues full-back to score the hosts’ third try, his use of the wind was exquisite. Instead of clearing the ball downfield from his own try line, Carty drilled it low out to his winger and let the wind carve it behind the defence for the most unexpected exit.
- Cardiff did well against the gale-force winds in the first half. Despite not being able to kick the ball more than 10 yards forward, Blues put pressure on Connacht throughout the first half and were clinical with ball in hand, Owen Lane breaking through to level the score not long after they went behind. To be just a converted score down at the break was credit to the visitors’ defence.
Toyota Cheetahs 38-13 Dragons
- It took a while, but Cheetahs finally hit their stride and raced away at the end. For an hour it was incredibly tight at Toyota Stadium, with Josh Lewis kicking the Dragons 13-10 in front; but Cheetahs persisted and once they found a way through, the tries came pouring in – testament to their patience and ability to finish the game strongly.
- Dragons were well in it and do look to have improved their away form recently. After 42 games without a positive result on the road, a dramatic draw away to the Kings last time out had given them hope taking on Cheetahs. For much of the game they were dominant in the breakdown and pegged the South Africans back, if they can find a way to close out games in future a huge points increase will follow.
- After a string of poor results for Cheetahs this win was exactly what they needed. They may have reached the Guinness PRO14 Final Series qualifiers last season, but Cheetahs have struggled to put in the displays we saw throughout last year. However, this strong finish against Dragons will give them confidence going into a crucial South African derby next week where they’ll hope to claim the bragging rights over the Kings.
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