After such a long break due to the coronavirus pandemic, the rugby world took another step towards normality this weekend as the Guinness PRO14 burst back on to the scene following the English Premiership’s return last week.
Over five months since the last ball was kicked in the competition – that sees teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales and South Africa compete for the trophy – all but the two South African sides were in action in the penultimate round of the regular Championship season, in an abbreviated format.
Ahead of the coveted Final Series, Week 14 saw the first of two rounds of derby games in each territory, with the feast of unmissable action producing myriad thrills and spills for rugby fans all over the world.
Italian sides Benetton and Zebre got things off to a breathtaking start in Treviso, with Azzurri internationals Tommaso Boni and Jimmy Tuivaiti dotting down for the largely unfancied visitors in a 17-13 win.
Joaquin Riera scored a consolation for the hosts, but Zebre were the better side for much of the contest and held on for their third win of the season, and first away since November, strengthening their bid for a highest-ever finish in the PRO14’s current format.
Following Friday’s drama, the battle between Irish heavyweights Leinster and Munster went down to the wire at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, as the double-defending champions crawled to a 27-25 win to extend their 100 per cent record at home and in Europe in 2019/20.
Andrew Conway went over to put three-time champions Munster ahead, but scores from Cian Healy, Garry Ringrose and James Lowe gave Leinster an 11-point lead before a dramatic finish.
Keith Earls and Conway dotted down either side of a Ross Byrne penalty, but JJ Hanrahan missed the all-important last conversion as Leinster held on for a 14th straight win of the domestic season.
Edinburgh are among Leinster’s biggest rivals for the title and Richard Cockerill’s men maintained their hopes of lifting the trophy for the first time ever with a 30-15 comeback win over Glasgow Warriors at BT Murrayfield that sealed a home semi-final.
Two tries from Nic Groom, a score from Charlie Shiel and 15 points from the boot of Jaco van der Walt were enough to hand Edinburgh their sixth PRO14 win in succession for only the second time since 2009, after Warriors had led by two points at the break thanks to Pete Horne and Adam Hastings tries.
Scarlets remain hopeful of sneaking past Munster into Conference B’s top two after proving too strong for Cardiff Blues in a bonus-point, 32-12 victory.
Tries from Ed Kennedy, Sam Lousi and Johnny McNicholl added to a double from Wales wing Steff Evans, while Josh Adams and Matthew Morgan got on the board for Blues.
On Sunday, Welsh duo Ospreys and Dragons shared the spoils 20-20 at the Liberty Stadium, with winger George North scoring an early try before being sent off for the first time in his professional career for a dangerous challenge on Ashton Hewitt.
And Connacht edged Ulster 26-20 on their first visit to Irish Rugby headquarters since 1989, with Ireland stars Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion both going over against their fellow countrymen, who have already sealed a semi-final spot.
Over in England, three Friday night games got the weekend’s action underway, with Sam Simmonds, Stuart Hogg and Luke Cowan-Dickie all on target as Exeter Chiefs underlined their title credentials with a 32-22 win at Sale Sharks.
England’s Tom Curry had gone over to help Sale to a 14-10 half-time lead, but Rob Baxter’s men responded to claim their second successive win of the restart and remain firmly on course to reach a fifth consecutive Premiership final.
Second-place Bristol Bears remain eight points behind Exeter – who they meet on Tuesday – after Pat Lam’s men secured a 33-24, bonus-point win at West Country rivals Gloucester.
England back-row Ben Earl notched the Bears’ last score of the day after earlier tries from Max Malins, Henry Purdy, Harry Thacker and Semi Radradra, clinching Bristol’s second win in a row and keeping their title hopes alive.
Elsewhere, Wasps claimed their fifth successive win to continue their surge up the table, with tries from Tom Willis, Gaby Oghre, Premiership debutant Alfie Barbeary and Tom Cruse earning a 32-17 victory.
On Saturday, 18 points from the boot of England captain Owen Farrell and tries from Sean Maitland, Maro Itoje and Aled Davies helped relegated Saracens to a 38-24 win over Harlequins, denting their London rivals’ top-four ambitions.
Bath proved too strong for a young Leicester Tigers side as the Blue, Black and White romped to 38-16 victory at Welford Road, while Northampton Saints kept their hopes of a top-four place alive with a 27-3 win against London Irish.