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The Magners League Title Run-In

The Magners league format is a rarity in rugby these days in that there are no end of season play-offs to determine the champions.  It's a straight league format.  Now while traditionalists will insist that this is the best way of determining a league, it's major drawback is when one team romps away with it, there is no exciting finale.  Luckily for Magners/Celtic league though, this has only happened once in the four seasons of this format (in 2005 when the Ospreys ran away with it).  In 2004 and 2006, it went down to the wire on the last day of the season and it already looks like doing the same this year.

Before last Friday there was still five teams in contention for the league but the last two matches have reduced that to three.  On Friday, Ulster's last minute defeat to Cardiff effectively ruled them out of the championship.  Even two bonus point wins from their last two games against Glasgow and Edinburgh will only give them a total of 61 points and it would take a remarkable run of results for this total to be sufficient.  So with Ulster not retaining their crown who will replace them as champions?  Well it won't be Llanelli, who's defeat last night to the Ospreys puts them out of the reckoning.  Three bonus point wins from their last three games will give them a maximum of 58 points and that total won't win the league.

So who is left? Well it's down to three teams, Leinster, the Ospreys and the Cardiff Blues.

Leinster

Current Position: 1st (55 pts)
Remaining games:
27/4 v Ospreys (A)
5/5 v Borders (H)
11-12/5 (TBC) v Cardiff (A)
Potential Maximum Points: 70

It's a tough finish for Leinster, but the win against the Dragons (their first in Wales under Michael Chieka) will have been a massive boost.  The two-week break since that match will hopefully revive what was looking a very tired squad of players.  For obvious reasons this Friday's game against the Ospreys is a crunch match, an eight-pointer where a win would put them in poll position.  Defeat wouldn't necessarily be the end of the line but it would essentially mean they'd have to win their last two games.  Borders at home should be a five-pointer, but Cardiff away will be another tough one to finish with, especially if the Blues are still in contention.

The Ospreys

Current Position: 3rd  (50 pts)
Remaining games:
27/4 v Leinster (H)
4/5 v Glasgow (A)
8/5 v Dragons (A)
11-12/5 (TBC) v Borders (A)
Potential Maximum Points: 70

The success of the Ospreys in the EDF cup, where they lost to Leicester in the final, has created a backlog of fixtures.  They now have a finish of five games in 18/19 days, the first of which was last night's win over bitter rivals Llanelli.  That said, the Ospreys probably have the most depth in their squad and are best placed to cope with it.  Leinster on Friday is a crunch match, but it remains to be seen how effective they'll be three days after a gruelling match last night.  In James Hook, they have the form player of the championship but will enough of their forwards be able to lift themselves?  Even if they beat Leinster, their remaining fixtures are no cake-walk either, with three away games in a week.  Leinster can tell them that Glasgow is no easy place to win and the Dragons won't be doing them any favours either.  A win on Friday would make them favourites but there would still be a lot of work to be done.

Cardiff Blues

Current Position: 4th (48 pts)
Remaining games:
27/4 v Borders (A)
1/5 v Dragons (H)
5/5 v Llanelli (A)
11-12/5 (TBC) v Leinster (H)
Potential Maximum Points: 68

The Blues seem to be coming into form at the right time of the season.  They destroyed Edinburgh two weeks ago and won a tight match against Ulster last Friday.  However their run-in is far from easy, with four games in two weeks.  Borders away should be a handy win, but then they have two Welsh derbies in five days, which will stretch the depth in their squad.  If they survive those two games and are still in contention for the title, then they will present a fierce challenge to Leinster on the last day of the season.

So overall, Leinster are in a pretty good position in that they don't have any mid-week games to play.  If they can win on Friday then they could potentially win the league against the Borders (depending on other results), which would be a lovely way to leave Donnybrook.  However, more than likely it will go to the last day and a nerve-jangling finish in Cardiff.  Let's hope the boys can raise their game enough in the last three games to bring home the silverware.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2007-04-25

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