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Ulster's European fate now rests on Ospreys play-off

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster's season will have one more game after all with results elsewhere over the weekend failing to deliver them an automatic qualification spot in next year's Champions Cup.

The province will now face off against the Ospreys at home next Sunday (3.05pm kick-off) for the final place in Europe's top tier.

Jono Gibbes' side, who will become Dan McFarland's next summer, needed a number of scenarios to go their way to avoid the play-off requirement, but ultimately the unlikely possibility fell apart at the first hurdle.

Gloucester, who had already qualified for the Champions Cup by virtue of their place in the Challenge Cup final, were needed to maintain their spot in England's top six but, despite drawing 12-12 in the first-half, David Humphrey's men were hammered 62-12 by the Saracens side of his former Ulster team-mate Mark McCall.

With Bath beating Les Kiss and Declan Kidney's London Irish with a bonus-point, it was they who snuck into the top six and secured their own place in the Champions Cup next season.

From an Ulster perspective, that rendered it academic that Pau failed to force their way into France's top six despite beating Oyonnax, nor will it matter for the northern province who wins the Champions Cup final between Leinster and Racing 92 in Bilbao on Saturday.

Ulster's fate instead rests solely in their own hands, with their former player and coach Allen Clarke's Ospreys standing in the way of the Champions Cup pool stages. Ulster's superior points tally at least means the game will be played at Kingspan Stadium.

With tickets on sale already, it will be the side's first Sunday home game in a little over two years, since Scarlets came to Belfast in February of 2016.

Elsewhere over the weekend, Munster saw off the challenge of Edinburgh to book their place in the PRO14 semi-finals and set up an enticing head-to-head battle with old rivals Leinster in the last four of the competition.

Hooker Rhys Marshall scored the host's first try in Thomond Park, taking advantage of an overthrown line-out from his opposite number to crash over.

Keith Earls grabbed the second, only after fantastic work from Simon Zebo who was playing his last home game as a Munster player ahead of his summer switch to Racing 92.

Head coach Johann van Graan admitted the Cork native will be missed next year.

"I said to the team inside and since I came, the thing we will miss the most is his smile and his attitude," said the South African. "I thought he was part of a back-three that really played well today.

"I thought the back-three as a unit really did well and those one or two moments from Zeebs, firstly that chip, to see it and that pass was pretty special…we're going to miss him as a Munster man."

Nathan Fowles pulled back a score for the visitors but a lost line-out at the very death ensured they fell by 20 points to 16.

"I thought it was an arm wrestle," added van Graan.

"I thought we did some good things out there, possibly one or two things we could execute better but certainly in a semi-final away from home coming up against Leinster, we might have to look at one or two things differently.

"I think a few teams are searching for that answer as to what to do to beat Leinster at this stage.

"They're playing incredible rugby going into the Champions Cup final, so we'll have to do our planning very carefully because we're going to do to Dublin and face a very, very talented and very professional outfit.

"If we are to stand any chance of beating them, we'll need to be at our very, very best."

In the other quarter-final, Scarlets set up a last four clash with Glasgow thanks to a 43-8 win over Cheetahs.

The play-offs seemed a game too far for the much travelled South African outfit in their first season in the league, but after an encouraging first go, it is believed further expansion may be on the cards.

It's reported that a further two South African sides, including the Sharks who count the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Louis Ludik among their former players, could join in time for 2019/20 campaign, with another to join the year after.

South African representation this season was worth around £500,000 to each competing team in the league, with the recent TV deals now believed to be delivering £2million per year to the clubs.

Belfast Telegraph

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