After a thrilling climax to the GUINNESS PRO14 regular season last Saturday, the first stage of the final series, the quarter-finals, get underway this weekend, an interprovincial derby and a first Italian team at this stage visit Belfast.
The focus is narrowing on the PRO14 final on Saturday, May 25, which will take place at Celtic Park in Glasgow – fans can book their places now by clicking here to get their hands on the best seats.
GUINNESS PRO14 QUARTER-FINALS:
Saturday, May 4 –
MUNSTER (2nd, Con A) v BENETTON RUGBY (3rd, Con B), Thomond Park, 3pm (live eir Sport 1/Premier Sports 1/DAZN/deferred TG4)
Benetton Rugby made history as the first Italian team to qualify for the GUINNESS PRO14 final series – their reward is a trip to Thomond Park to take on a Munster side that finished the season on a high with a 27-14 derby victory over Connacht.
Johann van Graan’s men won nine of their last ten PRO14 encounters and completed an unbeaten regular season at home by seeing off fellow final series qualifiers Connacht in Limerick on the final day of the campaign.
Led by the province’s Player of the Year Peter O’Mahony, Munster are looking to reach a third final in five seasons, but you have to go back to 2011 for their last title, something of which van Graan, captain O’Mahony and the rest of the Munster squad will be acutely aware.
For Benetton, a 25-11 bonus point win over Italian rivals Zebre clinched a spot in the post-season and a quarter-final clash in Limerick, with Kieran Crowley determined to show that the Leoni are ready to seize the opportunity and book a semi-final date with Leinster, the Conference B winners, in two weeks’ time.
After winning the round 21 derby fixture in Parma, the Benetton head coach said: “I’m very proud of everything we have done off the pitch. The medical staff, the physios, the other coaches, and everyone who works behind the scenes to help the 15 on the pitch. We don’t want to stop here. We have nothing to lose because nobody expected us to get here.”
Keeping their season alive for a further week will not be easy against a Munster side who have had the edge in recent meetings, most notably a 37-28 win in Treviso last month. Victory at the Stadio di Monigo made it 22 in a row for Munster against Italian opposition – you have to go back to 2013 for Benetton’s last win over the Irish province.
But with the attacking talents of the likes of Monty Ioane and Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara out wide, and Tommaso Allan pulling the strings, Benetton arrive in Ireland looking to upset the odds once again.
ULSTER (2nd, Con B) v CONNACHT (3rd, Con A), Kingspan Stadium, 5.35pm (live Premier Sports 1/eir Sport 1/DAZN/deferred TG4)
What a difference a year makes for both Ulster and Connacht. The two provinces have been revitalised this PRO14 season with new men at the helm in Dan McFarland and Andy Friend respectively, and now a clash in Belfast to return to the semi-final stage.
McFarland’s arrival at Kingspan Stadium has brought the Ulstermen back into the final series and the European knockout rounds for the first time since 2016. And with captain Rory Best and centre Darren Cave bidding farewell to Belfast this weekend before retirement, they have all the motivation they need to extend their season.
But a semi-final trip to Glasgow Warriors is certainly not beyond Connacht who have been a team reborn under Australian Friend. Last year they ended up down in sixth in Conference A, fast forward a year under Friend and they were third and back in the final series for the first time since their fairytale title win under Pat Lam.
Recent history is also on Connacht’s side, they achieved a season’s double over Ulster in the interprovincial derbies, including a first win (22-15) in Belfast since November 1960. It is worth noting that victory owed much to a Matthew Rea red card for the hosts, but make no mistake about it, Connacht will not fear their provincial rivals.
They have won three in a row against Ulster for the first time since the 1950s and have a out-half in Jack Carty in career best form, according to former Ulster scrum half Paul Marshall.
“I think Jack Carty is probably the key man for Connacht at the minute. He is in superb form, playing so well,” said Marshall. “He can find chinks in a defence and certainly he will be a key man to try and put pressure on.
“What we have seen from Ulster, however, is a team that has been building character and resolve and consistency throughout the season so hopefully that can continue on Saturday.”
Semi-Final 1: LEINSTER (1st, Con B) v MUNSTER/BENETTON RUGBY, the RDS, Saturday, May 18, 3pm
Semi-Final 2: GLASGOW WARRIORS (1st, Con A) v ULSTER/CONNACHT, Scotstoun Stadium, Friday, May 17, 7.35pm
Final: Celtic Park, Glasgow, Saturday, May 25, 6.30pm – click here to buy your ticket(s) for the final
TOP PERFORMERS IN GUINNESS PRO14 AFTER ROUND 21 (Powered by Opta Statistics):
TOP POINTS SCORERS –
Jack Carty (Connacht) 149
Sam Davies (Ospreys) 149
Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues) 143
Tian Schoeman (Toyota Cheetahs) 134
Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors) 116
TOP TRY SCORERS –
Sibahle Maxwane (Toyota Cheetahs) 14
Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets) 11
Dan Evans (Ospreys) 10
Shaun Venter (Toyota Cheetahs) 10
Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh) 9
METRES GAINED –
Dan Evans (Ospreys) 1299
Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets) 1182
Sibahle Maxwane (Toyota Cheetahs) 1138
Jordan Williams (Dragons) 1091
Malcolm Jaer (Toyota Cheetahs) 1060
MOST CARRIES –
Bill Mata (Edinburgh) 290
Stuart McCloskey (Ulster) 211
Ruan Lerm (Isuzu Southern Kings) 205
Dan Evans (Ospreys) 195
Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets) 190
CLEAN BREAKS –
Sibahle Maxwane (Toyota Cheetahs) 34
Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets) 29
Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh) 28
Monty Ioane (Benetton Rugby) 23
Iliesa Ratuva (Benetton Rugby) 22
Dan Evans (Ospreys) 22
Rey Lee-Lo (Cardiff Blues) 22
DEFENDERS BEATEN –
Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets) 70
Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh) 65
Monty Ioane (Benetton Rugby) 65
Dan Evans (Ospreys) 62
Rey Lee-Lo (Cardiff Blues) 57
MOST OFFLOADS –
Monty Ioane (Benetton Rugby) 31
Tom Farrell (Connacht) 30
Iliesa Ratuva (Benetton Rugby) 27
Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets) 26
Marco Barbini (Benetton Rugby) 22
MOST TACKLES –
Tienie Burger (Isuzu Southern Kings) 277
Olly Robinson (Cardiff Blues) 274
Olly Cracknell (Ospreys) 259
John-Charles Astle (Isuzu Southern Kings) 258
Jarrad Butler (Connacht) 255
TURNOVERS WON –
Olly Robinson (Cardiff Blues) 26
Nick Williams (Cardiff Blues) 23
Owen Watkin (Ospreys) 20
Marcell Coetzee (Ulster) 20
Gerhardus Olivier (Toyota Cheetahs) 18
LINEOUT STEALS –
Tadhg Beirne (Munster) 9
Junior Sipato Pokomela (Toyota Cheetahs) 7
James King (Ospreys) 7
George Biagi (Zebre) 7
Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) 7
Federico Ruzza (Benetton Rugby) 7
Braam Steyn (Benetton Rugby) 7
For more statistics, please visit www.pro14rugby.org/statistics/powered-by-opta/