Three first-half tries from Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow Warriors side were enough for a famous win in Limerick which moved the Scottish side into contention for a home semi-final in the RaboDirect Pro12. Few would have predicted an away win despite the Warriors’ three wins from their last three matches, but their intent was clear from the kick-off and brought their first try after just five minutes when lock Jonny Gray went over. CJ Stander replied with his second try in a week after his European heroics last week, but the Warriors were easily on top and went further ahead with tries from Sean Maitland and Josh Strauss. The unexpected result was the first win for a Scottish side in the province for six years and ended Munster’s unbeaten record at home this season which had stretched to 13 matches after their convincing Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Toulouse last weekend. To make matters worse for the hosts, the Warriors were as impressive in defence as they were in attack and to hold Munster to five points—which was the lowest points haul for a Munster side in a league match since a 30-0 thrashing at the hands of Leinster at the RDS in October 2009—further highlights why the Warriors have the best defence in the league. It was an assured performance from a Warriors side without in-form try-scorer Niko Matawalu who was part of a squad of 10 Warriors players to win the Melrose Sevens at their first attempt earlier in the day.
A 22-5 defeat at home, and Ulster’s demolition of Connacht on Friday, sees the red Irish province drop to third and just three points ahead of the Warriors, who have a game in hand. Any thoughts that Munster’s famous win over Toulouse to reach an 11th European semi-final in 18 seasons would be a catalyst for a typically robust win against Scottish opposition with ideas above their station were quickly forgotten. Despite dominating possession in the final half an hour as Munster threw everything at the Warriors, they failed to find a way through as neither side scored after the break. The performance was far from the free-scoring riot in the second half at the same venue seven days earlier. The stark reality for head coach Rob Penney is that Munster have lost three of their last four Pro12 matches—to the Warriors, Leinster and the Scarlets—and that 14-3 win at home against Benetton Treviso was far from impressive. Two of Munster’s final three league matches are on the road against Connacht and Edinburgh either side of what will be a brutal European semi-final against Toulon in Marseille. Provincial rivals Leinster were battered on their visit to France last week and lost their league match on Friday against the Ospreys, and there has to be real threat that the same could happen to Munster later this month. The last thing they need is to pin their play-off hopes on a win against Ulster in their final league match on 10 May. With the Warriors gaining ground and the Ospreys—who play Newport Gwent Dragons, Zebre and Connacht in their final three matches—coming back into the mix, Munster are flirting with the possibility of finishing outside the top four for a second successive season.
The Pro12 has, for so long, been seen as a second-rate competition compared to the Aviva Premiership and the French Top14, but this season has proven that standards are definitely rising. The impasse over the future of European rugby may be over with a new more meritocratic qualification and revenue distribution agreement, but there are still big issues of inequality for the professional sides across the Celtic countries and Italy. In terms of resources, the Irish provinces are way out in front of their league rivals and recent news that the Irish Rugby Football Union is set to pump more money into Connacht—often an afterthought among the behemoths of Irish rugby—could be worrying for the Welsh and Scottish clubs which aren’t as well funded and with support bases which pale in comparison to the bumper crowds witnessed in Ireland. Despite the well-documented disadvantages around resources, recent results have shown that the gap is narrowing. Few would have expected a woeful Cardiff side defeating Ulster, the Scarlets defeating Munster, an inconsistent Ospreys side defeating Leinster or the Warriors getting a result in Limerick, but they have all happened in recent weeks, while the Italian sides Treviso and Zebre have also secured unlikely wins over the Welsh regions. Absolute routs have been a rarity in the Pro12 this season and narrow wins aplenty. Standards in attack and defence have shown an improvement and, as the Warriors and Ospreys have proved this week, nothing is decided until the final round of matches in May. Leinster, Munster and Ulster may have dominated the top three positions in the league so far this season, but with three rounds still to play there could still be a few more surprises along the way.
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