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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 28 November, 2014

5 reasons to get excited for the final regular season round of the Pro12

SOB’s comeback, Ulster’s prospects in the backs and Connacht ending their season on a high all feature.

Ulster's Craig Gilroy will be hoping to do damage against Munster in Thomond Park.
Ulster's Craig Gilroy will be hoping to do damage against Munster in Thomond Park.
Image: Darren Kidd

Sean O’Brien fit again

THE LEINSTER BACK row returns to action sooner than expected, starting on the blindside flank and surely eager to get his hands on the ball as often as possible. Those present at the RDS may wince as the Tullow Tank goes into contact for the first time, but O’Brien himself should enjoy being back amongst the collisions.

How Leinster have missed his presence in recent months, as would most teams in top-level rugby. When fully fit, the 27-year-old is a world-class player and his comeback looks to be exactly the lift Matt O’Connor’s men need heading into the play-offs.

Ulster’s young backs unleashed against Munster

Fresh from being named Ulster’s Academy Player of the Year, 21-year-old Stuart McCloskey has been given the nod at inside centre, while Michael Allen, 23, is selected alongside him in midfield.

Rory Scholes – who shone for the Ireland U20s last season – lines up on the left wing, with James McKinney given a rare starting chance at out-half. Craig Gilroy is at fullback and the 23-year-old will be desperate to show his attacking ability.

While there is a distinct lack of experience and physicality in the Ulster backline, their pace, creativity and energy may cause Munster serious problems.

Chance for Connacht to finish on a high

Eoin Griffin

Eoin Griffin plays his last game for Connacht before joining London Irish.

Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There is a sense of optimism around the western province at present, mainly on foot of the exciting recruitment they have made for next season. On the pitch, Connacht have lost their last four games and Pat Lam will be focused on heading into the summer break on a winning note.

Last weekend’s collapse against Cardiff after leading 15-3 with 45 minutes elapsed brought back memories of the side’s poorer form earlier in the current campaign, when they repeatedly finished games unconvincingly.

The Ospreys will end the season in fifth position no matter what the result, so with Eoin Griffin, Conor Gilsenan and Dan Parks in the match-day squad for the final time before leaving, Connacht may have the greater motivation.

Leo and Brian say their goodbyes

Whether or not some of us [players included] are sick of it, both Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll are hugely deserving of the reception they will receive after Leinster’s clash with Edinburgh in the RDS.

While O’Driscoll’s mentality was an obvious driving force, the influence of Cullen on Leinster’s transformation into three-times Heineken Cup winners was probably even more important.

Leo Cullen

Cullen has been a driver of the shift in Leinster's attitude.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Two seasons with Leicester allowed the lock to understand what goes into creating a winning culture, knowledge he then imparted on returning to Leinster. He rarely made the headlines, but Cullen helped to set the tone in training every single day.

Will Glasgow’s form continue?

The only obstacle standing in the way of an Irish trophy success in this year’s Pro12 is the Glasgow Warriors. Head coach Gregor Townsend has his men doing the basics superbly, with his Josh Strauss-inspired pack rucking, mauling, scrummaging and tackling efficiently.

In the backline, the likes of Niko Matawalu and Stuart Hogg provide flair to complement that base layer. As a result, Glasgow are on a seven-game winning streak in the Pro12 and should book a home semi-final by beating Zebre at Scotstoun this evening.

If that proves the case, Rob Penney’s Munster will be forced to travel to Scotland in the last four. Not an easy task, and with confidence flowing in the Warriors’ set-up at present, it would take an excellent effort to prevent Townsend’s men from reaching the final.

Final regular season round:

  • Glasgow Warriors v Zebre [Scotstoun]
  • Leinster v Edinburgh [RDS]
  • Munster v Ulster [Thomond Park]
  • Dragons v Treviso [Rodney Parade]
  • Ospreys v Connacht [Liberty Stadium]
  • Scarlets v Cardiff [Parc y Scarlets]

All games kick off at 18.30 this evening.

Sean O’Brien starts at blindside for Leinster as Ulster send weakened team to Munster

Robbie Henshaw happy to remain at Connacht after Ireland assurances from Joe Schmidt

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