Having led Leinster to the RaboDirect PRO12 title last season, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt took the RBS 6 Nations crown at the first time of asking in a tense finish to the Championship last weekend.
Following on from Ireland’s success, it is perhaps appropriate that as the RaboDirect PRO12 returns to centre stage three of the top four teams are Irish provinces.
Joe Schmidt’s former team, Leinster, are in action at the RDS on Friday night, they and Munster both host Italian opposition in round 17 and while the records seem to point in favour of two home wins, neither side can afford to slip up as they chase a top two finish.
Third-placed Ulster also play on Friday. Their bonus point win over the Scarlets in their rearranged game has pulled them closer to the leaders as the battle for home advantage in the play-offs intensifies.
The Ospreys, the only non-Irish side currently in the play-off zone, know they have a fight on their hands to maintain that position as Glasgow Warriors are just three points behind them but still have two games in hand.
The Ospreys face fellow Welsh region Cardiff Blues on Friday night, whereas Glasgow Warriors welcome the Scarlets to Scotstoun Stadium on Saturday. The Lllanelli outfit did not make up any ground on the top four in their rearranged fixture in Belfast.
Round 17 wraps up on Sunday afternoon as ninth-placed Connacht, who have won three games on the bounce, travel to Newport to take on the Dragons who are just a point better off than Pat Lam’s men.
The next two weeks could be critical in any team’s aspirations of making the semi-finals as the pressure starts to build towards the season finale.
RABODIRECT PRO12 – ROUND 17 FIXTURES:
Friday, March 21 –
Ospreys (4th) v Cardiff Blues (10th), Liberty Stadium, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Wales)
LEINSTER (1st) v Zebre (12th), the RDS, 7.15pm (live RTÉ Two/Sport Mediaset)
Edinburgh (8th) v ULSTER (3rd), Murrayfield, 7.45pm
Saturday, March 22 –
Glasgow Warriors (5th) v Scarlets (6th), Scotstoun Stadium, 6.30pm (live BBC ALBA/S4C)
MUNSTER (2nd) v Benetton Treviso (11th), Thomond Park, 7.15pm (live TG4/Sport Mediaset)
Sunday, March 23 –
Newport Gwent Dragons (7th) v CONNACHT (9th), Rodney Parade, 3.05pm (live BBC 2 Wales/highlights TG4)