Dramatic final day in store for Ulster and their PRO12 rivals
Guinness PRO12: Ospreys v Ulster
(Saturday, 3pm, live on BBC2 & Sky Sports 1)
A FULL year’s work for no fewer than nine teams will come down to 80 simultaneous minutes on Saturday, with Ulster looking to keep alive hopes of their first trophy for a decade.
If the final day of the tightest Guinness PRO12 in the competition’s history goes to form, then there are sure to be twists in the races for home semi-finals, top-four places and European Champions Cup qualification.
Ulster’s task is quite clear: a bonus point win in Wales gives them a place in the last-four alongside Glasgow, Connacht and Leinster. Their 30-6 win over the latter last weekend kept them ahead of Scarlets, who could still finish in the top-four if they win at Munster, but could equally miss out on a spot in Europe’s premier competition.
That will happen if they lose in Thomond Park and the Ospreys win here - a set of results that would still see Ulster into a semi-final, regardless of how much Munster were to win by.
Anthony Foley’s side aren’t assured of Champions Cup qualification themselves. And with the Ospreys primed to snatch a top-six place from them in the event of a Scarlets win, Ulster shouldn’t need to worry about their inter-provincial rivals’ attitude to their final game.
There is an outside chance of Ulster getting a home semi-final, if they were to snatch a bonus-point win and Connacht and Leinster both lost, but that seems highly unlikely, with the latter at home to Treviso.
The permutations, though, would be enough to make your head spin. Les Kiss will send his Ulster players out at the Liberty Stadium knowing they may need to score four tries.
He reintroduces Craig Gilroy in an otherwise unchanged side from that impressive win over Leinster. The winger comes in for Rory Scholes - who drops out of the 23 altogether - having been a late withdrawal last Saturday because of a virus.
Pete Browne has recovered from injury to take his place in the second-row alongside Franco van der Merwe, while Sean Reidy is retained in the middle of the back-row alongside Chris Henry and Iain Henderson.
Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson have combined to brilliant effect all season and they led the charge against Leo Cullen’s men in the Kingspan, the former somewhat surprisingly named man of the match when the latter scored 18 points.
With both teams chasing the bonus point, Kiss is expecting a loose encounter: “We know the permutations that exist with bonus points elsewhere. A winning bonus point elsewhere can put us under real pressure," he said.
“Ospreys will be really chasing a bonus point and a win, we know they need that. For us to put it to bed, a try bonus is the deal. We understand that, if both teams are trying to play footy, it’s an open, expansive game.
"If we’re organised and disciplined like we were the other day and play smart rugby with quicker thought and quicker feet, I think we’ll be able to score four tries. I think we have the capacity to do it. It’s a good pitch over there and it suits the guys playing on top of the ground. It’s absolutely massive and all to play for.”
The Ospreys have won their last three to stay in contention for a top-six finish, but remain without Alun Wyn-Jones (foot) and Justin Tipuric (concussion). Their own international half-back pairing of Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb will provide a particular threat to the visitors.
A big crowd, in relative terms, is expected to descend on the Liberty Stadium, but it will still remain echoey, devoid of the electricity of a tighter venue. Their average attendance in the 20,750-capacity stadium is just shy of 9,000, but Ospreys head coach Steve Tandy hopes for a bigger crowd to roar them into the top-six.
“We are looking at a big crowd at the Liberty, it’s going to be the kind of occasion that players should thrive on and we need those supporters to do their part. We’ve seen so many times the difference they can make, they need to understand they are part of this effort. It should be a great afternoon.”
Ulster have failed too many crunch tests in recent years. The time has come to stand and deliver.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (c), R Lutton, P Browne, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, S ReidY; Replacements: R Herring, K McCall, A Warwick, R Diack, R Wilson, P Marshall, S Olding, D Cave
Ospreys: D Evans; B John, O Watkin, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin, D Arhip; R Bernardo; R Thornton; D Lydiate, S Underhill, J King; Replacements: S Otten, G Thomas, A Jarvis, J Bearman, O Cracknell, B Leonard, S Davies, T Grabham