THE PRO12 JUST got real.
We’re at the semi-final stage. Win or bust for four teams who have fought through 22 games to form the cream of four nations’ crop.
Tonight, Ulster – league leaders for almost the entire season – welcome the Llanelli Scarlets who managed to leap-frog the reigning champion Ospreys into the playoffs on the final weekend.
Ravenhill, you can be sure, will be rocking as Mark Anscombe nears his stated goal of delivering silverware to the northern province.
Nick Williams v Rob McCusker
The Pro12 and IRUPA player of the year faces up against the hardy figure of Llanelli’s captain.
Williams provides so much of Ulster’s go-forward ball, so McCusker’s duty will be to hit him low and early to prevent him making holes in the red defence.
If the Kiwi does manage to punch through, Ulster will have players on his shoulder and Williams will hope to have powerful strike runners like Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe to take up the baton.
For Williams, defensive positioning has never been his strong suit. The and the solid, workmanlike visiting pack won’t leave without testing his resolve here.
Paddy Jackson v Rhys Priestland
Two of the most maligned young out-halves in the league take up their place in the final four.
Jackson will again have the benefit of taking back seat on kicking duties. However, here is another big fixture in the season when the man outside him is even less experienced than he is and another opportunity for Jackson to prove the wisdom beyond his years.
Jackson’s strength this season has been the authority he holds with the ball in hand. He has conducted his backline with aplomb and once in the final third, will look to push and probe for an opening again tonight.
Priestland is capable of the sublime and ridiculous. But his side will badly need the former in a white-hot atmosphere against a superior pack .
Tommy Bowe v George North
As end-of-season match-ups go, you’re not likely to find many more direct Lions jersey playoffs than this one.
There’s not much left to say about either man; one a powerful wing by almost any comparison, the other one of the most instinctive finishers ever to grace an Irish jersey.
WIth Bowe being slightly farther back on the fitness trail than his younger stronger counter-part, it could well end up being a telling evening for both men.
Bowe can make Gatty sit up and take notice tonight by showing not only his own physical prowess, but also the added unquantifiable rugby smarts that can give him the edge in any test.
Do that, Tommy, and you’ll have one more game to play (and perhaps a trophy to hoist) before lifting the Lions kit-bag for the summer.