The RaboDirectPRO12 trundles on this weekend with its fourth series of matches, and to date the only surprise so far has been the two losses by last year’s beaten finalists Leinster, particularly the one at the RDS last Saturday.
And to add a bit of spice to this round, it has four Ireland v Wales match up’s to savour.
At the top of the table the Munster train just keeps on rolling though they’ll travel to Cardiff tonight to face a Blues side keen to reverse the disappointing showing they put in a week ago at Ravenhill.
Danny Barnes is welcomed back to Tony McGahan’s lineup and they will be hoping he and Mafi can resume their centre-pairing which impressed in the opening weeks.
Basically any side which can afford to leave names like Denis Fogarty, Peter Stringer and John Hayes on the bench even with so many on World Cup duty has to be doing well, and Munster will be looking to put a Welsh region to the sword for the third time in this young season.
Still, the Blues have a quality name or two of their own on the bench like Xavier Rush and Casey Laulala though they will miss the rucking of Martyn Williams who fell to a broken arm. All in all it makes for a cracking contest at Cardiff City Stadium to kickstart the weekend.
Connacht fell just short of making it three wins out of three themselves last weekend as they let their former coach Michael Bradley’s new team Edinburgh get away from them when it mattered. They welcome the Dragons to the Sportsground this evening that just got their win column going with a home win over Aironi in the last round.
Eric Elwood has made a few changes from the side that started in Murrayfield with Brian Tuohy taking right wing duties, Dave Gannon coming into the second row and former Samoan international Ray Ofisa back at number 8. With their maiden Heineken Cup adventure drawing ever nearer, Connacht will be keen to make home advantage count this weekend.
Not that playing at home did much for Leinster last weekend, as their impressive run at the RDS which went back all the way to the Magners League final of 2010 was brought to an unlikely end by the Glasgow Warriors.
And with the defeat came an extended injury list which even stretches Joe Schmidt’s vast squad to its outermost limits. As well as long term casualties Shane Horgan and Mat Berquist he also lost Dominic Ryan last weekend, and Jordi Murphy, who skippered Ireland at the Under20 World Championship last June, comes in at 7 for his first senior start.
Luckily for Leinster two of the concerns weren’t as bad as first feared, and Luke Fitzgerald returns to first centre and Leo Auva’a, who had a good outing against Glasgow, wears number 8.
They travel to Llanelli to face a Scarlets side who are also firther down the table than they’d like to be at this albeit early stage of the campaign. They were played off the park by Munster last weekend and so will under pressure from their home faithful to overturn the European Champions.
Then on Sunday Ulster round off the weekend for the Irish provinces as for the second week in a row they face an unbeaten Welsh region. Their trip to Swansea rounds off round 4 of the competition in perfect style and no doubt the Ospreys will fancy themselves to repeat their opening day home victory over Leinster.
However they’ll have to do it against an Ulster backline which has only gotten better over the past few weeks particularly after the inclusion of Jared Payne.
Brian McLaughlin will have to do without the services of Darren Cave this week though, a tightness in a hamstring which dogged him all last season coming back to haunt him.
Luke Marshall takes his place and Ian Humphrey has shrugged off a shoulder injury to resume his place at 10. The outhalf battle between himself and Dan Biggar will no doubt be key to determining the outcome of this one.
Which brings me to my predictions. I’d love to go for another clean sweep of Ireland victories but I think we’ll have our work cut out for us this time around with three tough trips to Wales in store. I fear for my beloved Leinster, particularly its pack and we could well return home yet again with nothing to add to our points tally. I think the Ospreys will overcome Ulster as well though probably by less than seven points.
Not that it will be all doom and gloom the way I see it – Munster should have enough to win in Cardiff which I can see Connacht overcoming the Dragons by a score or two.
Wherever you are watching rugby this weekend, be sure and enjoy it and I’ll be back here on SportsNewsIreland to review the provinces’ matches next week. JLP