The eyes of the rugby world may be fixed on New Zealand on Friday morning, but back in the northern hemisphere, a few will be straying briefly back towards the RaboDirectPRO12 as the second round of matches takes place.
First to kickoff will be reigning champions Munster who will be looking to capitalize on their opening victory against the Newport-Gwent Dragons as they travel to Glasgow to face a Warriors side still smarting from their unsuccessful visit to Ravenhill.
Munster make just one change to their backline as Simon Zebo starts for Denis Hurley. They also added to their ranks during the week securing the short-term services of Queensland Reds’ utility back Will Chambers, and will be hoping to boast an unbeaten record when he joins up with the squad.
In the forwards there’s an entirely new front row of du Preez, Varley and John “The Bull” Hayes, who is winding down his illustrious career while the World Cup stars are missing.
Glasgow make changes all over the park though Duncan Weir retains his number 10 jersey and will no doubt be relied upon to keep the home side’s scoreboard ticking over. I have a feeling the Warriors are going to find most difficulty in the backrow, particularly in dealing with James Coughlan, who was a deserving man-of-the-match last Saturday.
Just five minutes after things get underway at Firhill, the Leinster faithful welcome their Heineken Cup winning heroes back to the RDS, hoping their traditional early-season demons have been well and truly exorcised since their mauling in Swansea last week.
They welcome the Dragons who must have thought the fixture computer was conspiring against them when they were forced to open the season with two visits to last year’s grand finalists!
Still, they certainly didn’t go to Musgrave Park last Saturday night to make up the numbers and were unlucky not to come away with at least a losing bonus point, so they’ll be hoping to put in a similar display in Ballsbridge.
They make just three changes to the side which impressed in Cork and Jason Tovey retains the out-half responsibilities. There is also some Irish interest in the Dragons squad as Jamie Smith could come on from the bench to make his début for the Welsh region after his summer transfer from Ulster.
Joe Schmidt has rung the changes at halfback, clearly mindful at the poor ball retention last Friday and starting at 9 is Cillian Willis with Ian Madigan wearing 10.
There will be much expected of the Leinster back three of Isa Nacewa, Fionn Carr and David Kearney, but keep an eye out for number 23 Darren Hudson should he be called upon – he had an eye-catching outing in preseason against the Melbourne Rebels including a superb try.
The pack remains unchanged and hopefully the promising home backrow of McLaughlin, Ryan and captain Rhys Ruddock can work better with Willis when the ball is presented at the breakdown.
Then on Saturday afternoon Ulster make a trip to face an Aironi squad possibly more hurt than most by World Cup absentees, thus making it an ideal time to face them.
Brian McLaughlin welcomed his exciting new arrival Jared Payne from the Auckland Blues during the week but he’s not quite ready to join the matchday squad so will watch his new teammates from the stands.
The only actual change from the side that beat Glasgow last week is in the pack where lock Tim Barker comes in to replace Lewis Stephenson. Once again it’s hard to find a weak spot in a backline that includes Humphreys, Spence, Darcy & Gilroy.
Last of the Irish provinces to kickoff this weekend are Connacht, who’s home fans no doubt will pack the Sportsgrounds to welcome their side to what surely must be their most exciting ever campaign.
And what a start to the season they had last week with a plucky 11-9 win in Treviso, the Westerner’s first away success in this competition in just under a year.
Sadly I don’t have the Connacht starting lineup at the time of writing but they do welcome back to their squad prop Brett Wilkinson, who was bitterly disappointed to be injured during the World Cup warmup period but will no doubt be keen to get back into action as soon as possible.
Their visitors the Scarlets kicked off the season with a convincing win over Aironi but they certainly won’t expect to get things their own way in Galway having lost on their last two visits there.
Which brings me to my predictions. Maybe the World Cup hype has gotten the better of me, but for this weekend anyway, I’m going for a full house of Irish victories, including of course the international team.
I reckon Leinster, Munster and Ulster should be looking at double-digit margins of victories, though I’m only tipping Leinster to get a try bonus. Meanwhile I expect the Galway faithful to keep the visiting Welsh outfit honest with the home side scraping a tight one by no more than three.
That’s me for this week, as always enjoy your rugby wherever you are – there sure is a lot of it to savour! JLP
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