Benetton Rugby pushed Munster Rugby all the way, with a 76th-minute monster penalty from JJ Hanrahan needed to get the Irish province over the line at Thomond Park.
Then it was equally as nail-biting in the following game at the Kingspan, with Ulster Rugby ahead by just a single point until the 77th minute when Marcel Coetzee crashed over to seal the deal.
Now the dust has settled and everyone has caught their breath, here’s some analysis on two classic quarter-finals.
Munster 15-13 Benetton
- When Munster travelled to Treviso in March, JJ Hanrahan changed the game off the bench as the Irish side came from behind to record an impressive victory. Here, Benetton had got their noses in front and were threatening to pull clear when Hanrahan was thrust into the action. He seemed to give Munster some real impetus, and kept the scoreboard ticking over to bring his side back to within a point. The penalty from halfway will be the abiding memory of his performance, but Hanrahan injected a real spark off the bench that goes beyond that one kick. Between Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal, and of course Joey Carbery who was injured for this one, Munster have a trio of intriguing fly-half options.
- Monty Ioane has been a revelation since joining Benetton last season and was deservedly among the three nominees for the Guinness PRO14 Player of the Season award. He played his part again yesterday, but just as impressive was fellow winger Ratuva Tavuyara. A doubt after missing last week through injury, the Fijian made a very difficult finish look routine at the end of the first half. Then in the second, he imitated Ioane with one searing break through the middle that should have led to a Benetton try. When the Italians look back on the game, it will be the two breaks just after half-time, and one rushed pass to Tavuyara when they were on the line, which will be the biggest frustrations. With these two flyers out wide though, the future remains bright.
- Another reason for optimism for Benetton was the performance of tighthead prop Marco Riccioni, playing in the biggest game of his career to date. The battle at the set-piece ebbed and flowed, with both teams enjoying periods of dominance in the scrum. One huge shove by Riccioni earned a crucial penalty late in the first half to give Benetton a little territory. And he also showed his ability on the deck, earning a vital turnover penalty in the Benetton 22. That has become something of a hallmark of his game, and only increases his value. Riccioni has not been capped yet, but is in the wider Italian squad for the World Cup. Conor O’Shea might not be able to leave him behind on this form.
Ulster 21-13 Connacht
- On the subject of the World Cup, another man with a strong case for inclusion is Saturday’s man of the match Marcell Coetzee, as his late try sealed Ulster’s place in the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals. The South African back-rower’s time at Ulster endured a tough start with a major knee injury restricting him to five games in his first two years, but he now looks to be back up to full speed. His powerful carrying hurt Connacht time and again, and it was his half-break and offload that created the first try for Nick Timoney. Coetzee said that he has not heard from Rassie Erasmus, but on this form he should surely be pushing for a South Africa call-up.
- When people talk about the best passing fly-halves around, the two names you hear bandied about most often are Finn Russell and Danny Cipriani. It might be time to start mentioning Jack Carty in that conversation following a fantastic season for Connacht. The fly-half had the ball on a string at times with one pass out to the left to Matt Healy really standing out. It floated and hung just enough to tempt Robert Balocoune to go for the intercept, only to stretch past him and send Healy away. From their own half, that one pass got Connacht up inside the Ulster 22, the only regret will be that they could only turn it into three points, rather than seven.
- There was always going to be a lot of emotion in Rory Best’s last home game for Ulster, but it was fitting that he bowed out with a victory. Coetzee got man of the match, but Best played his part, with one crucial turnover in the second half giving Ulster some real momentum. The only concern for Ulster will have been their lineout, Gavin Thornbury caused them some problems in the first half, and when Rob Herring came on for Best, he also had a few struggles. Against Glasgow in the semi-final, and on the hard track at Scotstoun, Ulster cannot afford to give away possession at the lineout if they want to extend Best’s club career for another week.
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