This morning the top four in the Pro12 are Leinster, Connacht, Glasgow and Scarlets.
The composition of the quartet is interesting. Connacht have done remarkably this season; it’s not that long since they seemed to be permanently moored well down the lower half of the table. That said, Connacht and the Scarlets got a head start this year, partly at least because they had fewer players in World Cup squads than Leinster, Glasgow and the Ospreys, all of whom lost almost a complete XV to their national sides.
Leinster and Glasgow have done very well to recover from what was a well-nigh unavoidably slow start to their campaign. All the same, Glasgow would already be at the top of the table if they hadn’t lost both their matches against Edinburgh in the inter-city cup over the festive period, matches in which they had most of their international players available.
Ulster on 55 points still have a good chance of making the play-offs. They may pick up the maximum five points away to Zebre today, but their last two games are difficult: Leinster, admittedly in Belfast, and then the Ospreys in Swansea.
Munster on 53 points are probably out of it, but they still have an influential part to play. They meet Connacht in Galway today, and in the last round host the Scarlets in Limerick. Munster aren’t quite the team they were two or three years ago, but playing them away is tough for the Scarlets.
Glasgow have been playing catch-up since the early weeks of the season. They play Scarlets away this afternoon, and victory would surely secure them a top-four position, especially since the second of their last three league games is a home match against Zebre. The aim is, of course, to be in the top two so that they get a home semi-final. It’s possible – if other results go their way – that bonus-point wins against the Scarlets and Zebre would be enough to secure this. But it’s more likely that they will go to Galway on Saturday 7 May needing a victory there. That would be a tough proposition, even if, early in the season, they did beat Connacht 33-32 at Scotstoun while without their World Cup players.
They have played the Scarlets three times this season, winning home and away in the European Champions Cup, and losing 10-16 at Scotstoun on 5 September in the first Pro12 round of fixtures. Back at full strength for the European matches they won 43-6 at home and in vile conditions 9-6 away. Glasgow haven’t lost since 12 February, when they went down 10-16 to Ulster during the Six Nations, and are now on a winning run of seven games. Scarlets, however, have lost only twice at home in the league this season. Having been in the top four since the start of the league, they would, as their fly-half Aled Thomas puts it, be “devastated” to lose out on a semi-final place.
Strength in depth is important over a long season, and Glasgow are better equipped in this respect than either Connacht or the Scarlets among their rivals at the top of the table. Their back-up players have served them well during the World Cup and the Six Nations, but now it’s up to their international stars to round off the season in style.
No coach anywhere ever has a full complement of fit players to choose from, but Glasgow have fewer off injured than they might have so late in the season. Among the recent casualties is Peter Horne – concussion, alas. He has been in terrific form, but having Mark Bennett coming in instead of him can hardly be said to weaken the team.
Indeed, if it’s a day for running rugby, a back division of Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and Lee Jones, with Finn Russell and Henry Pyrgos at half-back, looks just about as good as you could wish for. Jones has added strength to his speed and is playing better than at any time since he won four Scottish caps four years ago before an injury cost him a place in that summer’s tour and knocked his career back. Then he found himself unwanted at Edinburgh because Alan Solomons preferred big wingers, and spent more time playing sevens than 15s. Now he finds himself valued by Gregor Townsend and selected today ahead of Sean Lamont and Taqele Naiyaravoro.
It’s a game Glasgow should win – if they can prevent John Barclay and James Davies from dominating the breakdown. But it’s likely to be close. Scarlets are a very good team. So one would not expect to see Glasgow declining opportunities to kick goals and opting to put the ball in touch in the 22, as they did in their last two matches in Italy. In tough games it’s nearly always sensible to take the points – which is what the All Blacks almost invariably do.