RaboDirectPRO12 Irish Preview
The RaboDirectPRO12 comes back into focus for a couple of weeks and most of the teams are either licking their wounds or counting their blessings after the kickoff to their European campaigns.
And for the first time this season, all four Irish provinces are having their matches screen live on television, so there is much for us to savour this weekend.
No doubt both clubs at Firhill tonight will count themselves in the wound-licking category. Although Glasgow and Ulster each scored impressive victories in their opening Heineken Cup encounters, they followed it up with humbling defeats on the road against previous champions and will be hoping to find some domestic form to get themselves back in the groove.
Bryan McLaughlin must rest Rory Best and Stephen Ferris as part of the IRFU player management programme and they are replaced by Andi Kyriacou and Robbie Diack respectively. Also getting a break are Chris Henry, whose place goes to Wille Falloon, and Craig Gilroy.
Gilroy makes way for Adam D’Arcy who comes in at full-back where Simon Danielli was made look very uncomfortable by the Tigers last weekend – the Scottish international moves over to his more familiar wing position in Glasgow.
The Ulstermen will be looking to build on their win over Connacht in their last Pro12 outing which halted a 4-game losing streak before it.
The remaining provinces play one after the other on Saturday, with Leinster starting things off as they take to the road with a visit to the home of Benetton Treviso. The Italian outfit scored a famous 29-13 victory over Joe Schmidt’s men in September 2010 which makes their Stade Comunale di Monigo ground the only one in the league where Leinster have yet to win.
Still, presuming Treviso saw the Heineken Cup champion’s demolition of Glasgow last Sunday, they won’t be taking anything for granted as their visitors will be keen to keep their own 5-game winning streak going in this competition.
Leinster must do without the likes Sexton, Kearney, O’Brien & Nacewa but still field a formidable squad. Ian Madigan assumes the out-half duties and has had an impressive season when called upon – he needs a good outing on Saturday to keep his name in contention with Mat Berquist close to a full recovery.
The centre pairing is the same one that tore Glasgow to shreds last Sunday with Gordon D’Arcy lining up alongside Eoin O’Malley – they combined for three of Leinster’s five tries that day. Also it’s great to see Fergus McFadden having recovered from his dead leg and able to start on the wing.
In the pack Leo Cullen sits out so Shane Jennings assumes the captain’s duties, a role I’m not altogether sure he’s comfortable with, but hopefully he’ll prove me wrong. Cian Healy gets a much needed start at prop and although Heaslip travels he is on the bench so watch out for big Leo Auva’a who will no doubt seek to make an impression.
Next up on Saturday are Connacht, who as we know put up two valiant displays to start their maiden Heineken Cup voyage only to end up with nothing to show for it. And as if having the Top14 leaders over to Galway last weekend wasn’t enough, now they must welcome the Ospreys, who sit atop the Pro12 table on points difference.
Only a late conversion by Matthew Jarvis secured a one-point victory for the Welshmen in the corresponding fixture last season, and I’m pretty sure coach Scott Johnson would be happy with a similar result this time around.
Eric Elwood has some forced selection changes and is hit hardest in the second row, with Mike McCarthy serving a 2-week ban and Michael Swift nursing a knee injury. Stepping into the breach for the Westerners are Dave Gannon and George Naoupu.
In the backline Paul O’Donoghue and Miah Nikora continue their halfback pairing, Tiernan O’Halloran will be hoping to continue his try-scoring form of late and Gavin Duffy skippers the side from the full-back position.
Round 9 comes to a close at Thomond Park. We all know of Ronan O’Gara’s heroics in their Heineken Cup openers but although Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh also won both of theirs, bizarrely they were by even tighter margins, so neither will be taking anything for granted on Saturday evening.
The most interesting aspect to the team named by Tony McGahan is the list of players missing…not only does the IRFU policy deny him his heroic out-half as well Paul O’Connell, but he has to contend with an injury list which includes Flannery, Wallace, Donnacha Ryan, Leamy, Earls & Felix Jones.
Still, even with Conor Murray also being protected, they can afford to send Peter Stringer over to play with the Barbarians, and not surprisingly the Munster legend was saying during the week that his days with the province may be numbered.
What’s left is a squad which will be looking to names like Donncha O’Callaghan and Mick O’Driscoll (who captains the side) to bring on the younger players as they look to reverse their defeat in Murrayfield back at the end of September.
With Edinburgh being the visitors Munster would expected to see a man name Visser wearing the 14 jersey and as it turns out there will be, only it’s Tim’s younger brother Sep who will be making his first competitive start for the Scottish club. Elsewhere Chris Paterson returns from injury so the home side will be keen not to give away too many soft penalties.
Prediction time – I’m going for a grand slam of Irish wins this weekend, and I hope that’s not a bad omen for them all!
I have a feeling Adam D’Arcy will be keen to show his talents at full-back and could get the Ulster backline going again despite the absentees. Leinster, despite their ommissions should prove too strong for the Italians. Meanwhile out in Galway the crowd there deserve a big result and with the Welsh internationals gearing up for their match with the Aussies next week, there’s no better time to be playing their top region. Finally, despite their injury woes, Munster should have enough firepower to get the job done, but it could be close.
Elsewhere in the league, Leinster’s next opponents Cardiff have already beaten Aironi, and handily so, on Thursday evening while I expect the in-form Scarlets to come out on top in their local derby against the Dragons tonight.
Fingers crossed those results will pan out…if not I’m sure I’ll have some excuses made up for my column next week! Enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP
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