PREVIEW: Munster v Scarlets
PRO12 FINAL: Munster and Scarlets have progressed to this Saturday's Pro12 Final at the Aviva Stadium after they overcame Ospreys and Leinster respectively.
Munster are back in the Pro12 Final for the first time since 2015 when they were defeated by Glasgow Warriors in Belfast, while Scarlets are aiming to win their first Championship title since 2004. Both teams possess tremendous pedigree and either one will serve as a superb successor to Connacht as Champions of the Pro12.
Last Friday Scarlets created a piece of history in the Pro12 when their 27-15 win over Leinster saw them become the first team ever to win a semifinal game away from home.
Scarlets have been in scintillating form in 2017 and having lost the first three games of the season head coach Wayne Pivac has since guided his team to a record of 18 wins out of 20 (including the semifinal).
Although the West Walian's victory at the RDS Arena may have been viewed as a surprise, their form would certainly not suggest that while their defensive performances have peaked since their previous visit to Dublin in March. That night Leinster posted 45 points on Scarlets. However, in the six games played since then, the region have conceded just 71 points – that's an average of 12 points a game.
During that same period, Scarlets also scored 195 points (32.5 average per game) and 27 tries (4.5 average) which makes them a very threatening prospect at Aviva Stadium.
However, Munster command the leanest defence in the Championship having conceded just 316 points (14 average) across the 22-game regular season in the Pro12.
Rassie Erasmus' team saw off the challenge of Ospreys in their semifinal at Thomond Park on Saturday where they held their opponents to no tries while scoring three of their own. Munster will be looking to add another Championship title to the three they have already claimed and a fourth crown would put them on par with Leinster and Ospreys who share the record for most titles.
It has been a rebound season for Munster who failed to reach the semifinal stage last year but under the guidance of Erasmus, the team finished top of the table in 2017. Munster did so in record style by winning 86 matchday points, the highest tally ever compiled by a team in the Championship.
The quality of the two teams on the pitch will be underscored by the number of their British & Irish Lions, who have been selected to tour New Zealand this June and July. Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Christiaan Stander will be Munster's representatives while Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams will represent Scarlets on the tour. Ken Owens, the Scarlets captain, has also been selected but misses the Pro12 Final due to injury.
It promises to a cracking game with the teams boasting very distinct styles of play. However, recent history is on the side of the Irish province with four of the last six teams who topped the table going on to win the Championship. But that should not daunt Scarlets, who have already proved in their semifinal that past results have little bearing on the present.
Prediction: Munster are attempting to win their fourth Pro12 title, and their first since season 2010/11. The Munstermen have won their last seven Pro12 matches, whilst their only defeat in the Championship since Round Six was 21-30 at home to Scarlets in Round 16. Munster have lost on their last three appearances at Aviva Stadium in all tournaments and have won just once there since the old Lansdowne Road was reconfigured: 34-23 against Leinster in Round Five of the Pro12 in season 2014/15. Scarlets have won the Pro12 title once before, in 2003/04 – the inaugural season of home and away league play. The Scarlets Region have played in two previous finals, losing them both, to Munster at Lansdowne Road in the 2005 Celtic Cup Final and to Wasps at Twickenham in the Anglo-Welsh Cup a year later. Scarlets have won their last six Pro12 encounters whilst their only defat in the competition in 2017 was on a visit to Leinster in Round 17. Scarlets have not played at the refurbished Aviva Stadium before but did appear three times at the old Lansdowne Road between 2005 to 2006 losing on each occasion; to Munster in the Celtic Cup Final and twice to Leinster in the Pro12. Both of the Pro12 fixtures between the two sides this season were won by the away side on the day, whilst the last dozen encounters between them in the Pro12 could not be more evenly split with five wins apiece and two draws. No Welsh Region has won the Pro12 title since Ospreys 31-30 victory over Leinster at the RDS Arena in 2012. It will be an arm-wrestle, but Munster will edge it by five points or less.
Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony (captain), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Brian Scott, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Jack O'Donoghue, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Jaco Taute.
Scarlets: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Steffan Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay (captain), 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Lewis Rawlins, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Emyr Phillips, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 David Bulbring, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Jonathan Evans, 22 Hadleigh Parkes, 23 DTH Van der Merwe.
Date: Saturday, May 27
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 18.15 (17.15 GMT)
Expected weather: Rain is expected with a high of 18 and a low of 9. There will also be a strong breeze.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland