Preview - Gunners v Leinster
Third place on the line as Hadden withholds Scotland Stars
So after all the huffing and puffing it comes to this: at 7:10 pm on Friday night Leinster and Ulster will each attempt to win their final match of the season and with it (perhaps, in Leinster's case) the Celtic League title.
Meanwhile, much more importantly, the Gunners will be going for their best-ever league finish!
The Ospreys lie in sixth place, six points behind, so the Gunners are guaranteed at least 5th place, which ties their best ever. Our opponents Leinster, in second, are nine points clear, so we can't catch them. But it is possible to catch the teams in third and fourth place, Cardiff three points and Munster one point in front respectively.
Intriguingly, Munster play host to the Blues in the league's very last game of the season on Saturday afternoon, at 5:30pm, a game you can see on S4C. Munster of course will be showing-off their hard-earned and richly deserved silverware and will want to go out in a blaze of glory. Yet they may also find it hard to give this match their full attention after last Saturday's heroics. Anyone who thinks the Gunners lost the plot in the Celtic League should look at Munster's recent form - they've won only two of their last seven league games as they have focused all their efforts on the Heineken Cup. Cardiff meanwhile have been the form team of the second half of the season, winning seven of their last eight. A Cardiff win is not out of the question.
Now, rule 3.5 of the Celtic League Tournament Rules 2005-2006 states:
"If two or more Teams finish with the same number of League points their placings will be determined by the following criteria in descending order;
· number of matches won;
· the difference between points for and points against;
· the number of tries scored;
· the most points scored;
· the difference between tries for and tries against; or failing which;
· there will be a play-off match ( for top placing only) and for other placings it will be dependent upon the fewest number of red and yellow cards received"
Looking at these factors, this is how the three stand going into the final weekend:
||League Points||Wins||Points Difference||Tries Scored||Points Scored||Tries Difference||Cards|
So, if the Gunners can win on Friday and provided there's a result in Limerick, Edinburgh will probably finish fourth. Only if Cardiff pick up two bonus points in a losing effort will the Gunners be stuck in fifth, and even in those circumstances a bonus point win for the Gunners would still ensure at least fourth place.
Which brings us to the really interesting scenarios. If the Gunners can pull off a bonus point win against Leinster then they could finish third. However, whilst this is a necessary pre-condition it is not a sufficient one. For the Gunners to claim third spot, besides them getting the bonus point win, one of the following things must happen:
a) Cardiff-Munster Draw AND Cardiff don't collect a 4-try bonus point: Cardiff & Gunners tied on 65 league points; Gunners take third by virtue of winning twelve games
b) Munster Win by a smaller margin than the Gunners AND without picking up a bonus point: Munster & Gunners tied on 65 league points and on 12 wins each; Gunners take third by virtue of superior points difference.
c) Munster Win by the same points margin as the Gunners AND without picking up a bonus point: Munster & Gunners tied on 65 league points and on 12 wins each and on points difference; Gunners take third by virtue of having scored more tries.
In all other circumstances that I can conceive the Gunners would end up in fourth - although I admit I gave up when my head threatened to explode!
Having said all that the most difficult part of the whole thing may be for the Gunners to collect a try bonus, something they've done only twice this season, the (joint with Llanelli) worst record in the league.
However, a bonus point without the win is neither use nor ornament. On their previous visits to Scotland this season, Leinster beat Glasgow by three and scraped past the Borders by a single point. Nevertheless, both those sides managed to beat us handsomely in the equivalent fixtures. And overall, Leinster's form on the road this season has been impressive, chalking up away wins at Bath and Toulouse and losing in Bourgoin by just two points. However, last time out they lost in Cardiff, so there is hope on that score.
Here's another ray of hope and it may surprise you - in the seven previous encounters between these sides Leinster have won just once and managed one draw, both those at Donnybrook. In the first match between them this season in Dublin the Gunners notched up an impressive 27-13 victory. Edinburgh's recent impressive run is another source of hope. The last time they won three in a row they went on to win four - and their fourth victim was Leinster in last season's equivalent fixture (Dickson Display Dispatches Leinster).
Yet somehow this time I don't think history can repeat itself. Leinster have too much to lose and Edinburgh's form has been too variable. Besides, Frank Hadden has indicated he wants Scotland players rested prior to the Barbarians match next week, potentially stripping the Gunners of many of their best players and making a mockery of the league once again. And while a Scotland victory over the Barbarians may be good for Scottish rugby I can't help feeling that once again we're building a house on sand - for the national side to flourish in the long-term there needs to be a strong professional tier below it and these sort of short-sighted decisions can only help to undermine our professional sides. Edinburgh finishing third in the league would do as much for Scottish rugby as a meaningless win over an increasingly irrelevant Barbarians side, perhaps more.
My scepticism may be misplaced - after all I do have some humble pie to scarf down. I really didn't think the boys could beat the Dragons last time out, but they did, and in some style. So hats off to you, lads, and for your reward, you get to do it all over again!