The final weekend of this years regular season saw an intriguing round of Pro12 fixtures. The Ospreys were poised to claw their way into next season’s Champions Cup, albeit needing a little help from the Scarlets, who themselves needed a victory against Munster – and needed the Ospreys to beat Ulster – in order to reach the semi-final stages of the Pro12.
Exciting stuff, especially as the European qualification rule means teams have more to play for at this late stage in the season.
Alas, it wasn’t to be, as both Ospreys and Scarlets were well beaten by their Irish opponents, meaning the Scarlets qualify for Europe but miss out on the league play-offs, while the Ospreys find themselves in the European Challenge Cup for the first time since their 2003 inception.
Both Scarlets and Ospreys will reflect on ultimately disappointing seasons. I believe Scarlets featured in the top four of the league until round 21, so to miss out on a semi-final berth is borderline criminal. Wayne Pivac and his coaching staff (which includes the legendary Stephen Jones) have had the West Walians playing some enterprising attacking rugby at times this season, but I just felt they didn’t have the strength in their squad to see out the season. They looked particularly exposed in an admittedly brutal Champions Cup group. Let’s hope their promising recruitment for next year can help them maximise their potential. They will be Wales’ only flag bearers in the main European competition, so I expect some real quality from them next term.
The Ospreys – like the Blues – have paid a high price for a poor start to the 2015/16 season. They just left themselves too much to do in the closing rounds of the league. Wily operators like Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric have been sorely missed during the tail end of the season. Rhys Webb’s scintillating performances, together with the emergence of Sam Davies as a serious contender to Dan Biggar, mean it’s not all doom and gloom for the Swansea based region. For too long they’ve underachieved in Europe’s premier competition, so maybe a season in the Challenge Cup will be a launchpad for some of their academy players and for the region’s European aspirations alike. That being said, they have high standards and anything less than a Challenge Cup semi-final, as well as a top six Pro12 finish for next season, will be deemed unacceptable.
Elsewhere in the league, Zebre reached the Champions Cup via hammering the Dragons in Parma. The Men of Gwent will be glad to see this season draw to a close, their Challenge Cup semi-final appearance perhaps one of few positives to take from the year. They will regroup, and with some management changes on the horizon, will undoubtedly come back stronger in September.
Cardiff Blues ended the season on a high note, beating Edinburgh in the Scottish capital in order to finish seventh in the table. Eleven wins this season has seen the Blues announce themselves as a tough nut to crack. They’ve beaten some big teams, and restored some much-needed pride in the jersey. Next year they will be hoping to reach the Champions Cup as a bare minimum.