At the time of writing it seems all six RaboDirectPRO12 Round 15 clashes are going ahead, definitely a significant improvement on last weekend for Irish fans!
And all four provinces find themselves in the thick of what is shaping up to be a fascinating battle for the playoff positions.
First up we have Ulster who makes the trip to Cardiff to face the Blues. With the two sides lying just outside the top four in 5th and 6th respectively, this is definitely the stand-out tie of the round with vital league points at stake.
Bryan McLaughlin has made a few changes to the line-up that overcame the Dragons at Ravenhill last week and will be happy to welcome Paddy Wallace, Tom Court and Chris henry back from international duty.
As is the norm these days the Ulster line-up is a blend of international experience and promising young Irish talent. They will be looking to not only Ruan Pienaar for inspiration but also Steffen Terblanche at full-back who has been proving a key asset to the side of late.
As for the youth there’s Gilroy, Spence and Whitten in the backline with Marshall and D’Arcy to spring from the bench when needed.
On the Cardiff side there has been much speculation about Dan Parks’ future since his international retirement but for tonight he assumes out-half duties for the Blues. Gavin Henson lines up at inside centre but the most notable aspect of the Cardiff team is its bench with much experience to call on in Molitika, Rees & Martyn Williams.
Also tonight down at the RDS Leinster will be hoping to build on not only their 10-point lead at the top of the Pro12 table but also their 17-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. Trying to end the run will be the team they beat to begin it last September, the Scarlets.
Despite their cushion at the top, it’s a game Joe Schmidt will be keen to take points from as the schedule has his side playing 5 of their remaining 7 Pro12 matches away from home.
Luckily for him he is also able to call on some players dropping down from the senior Irish squad.
No doubt there are managers all over the league envious of Leinster in that having dispatched Treviso 42-8 last week, they can add names like Reddan, O’Malley, McFadden, Dave Kearney and Rhys Ruddock to their starting XV even during Six Nations season.
Plus in the forwards there are opportunities for promising talent to show what they can do, particularly in the front row where props Jack McGrath and Jamie Hagan will be keen to take a rare opportunity to start. Also in the back row they welcome young openside flanker Dominic Ryan to the bench after a long injury lay-off.
On the Scarlets side they will be looking to the experienced Stephen Jones to pull the strings along with players with World Cup experience like Scott Williams and Deacon Manu. Plus on the bench they have Ben Morgan who is pushing for a place in the English starting Six Nations line-up.
Next up from the provinces are Munster who were denied a trip to Italy last weekend yet make another one this week as they visit Treviso.
They too are welcoming back talent to their bench as Felix Jones returns after his pre-World Cup injury. But still it’s an extremely strong team that Tony McGahan is putting on the pitch with O’Leary and O’Gara at halfback, try-scoring sensation Simon Zebo on the wing and in the forwards, Ryan and O’Mahony who are both knocking on the door of the Irish team.
They come up against a Treviso side no doubt still smarting after their heavy recent defeat in Dublin but they did put up a good fight for three quarters and will be keen to get revenge on Irish opposition in front of their home fans.
Finally Connacht hosts the 3rd-placed Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground. This is ironic for two reasons – first the rumours surrounding ex-Warrior Dan Parks have him Galway-bound, plus this sees the return of Troy Nathan who lines up at 12 for the visitors.
As for Eric Elwood’s selection, an injury sustained by Ray Ofisa last week means a rare starting opportunity for Eoghan Grace who has seen much of the treatment table himself this season. Niall O’Connor assumes out-half duties where he will square up against Scottish test hopeful Ruaridh Jackson.
Elsewhere in the backline there is the promising Kyle Tonetti in the centre with the ever-improving local talent of Tiernan O’Halloran on the wing.
Which brings me to my predictions: Each week in this competition I have been tempted to go for four Irish wins but I have to restrain myself! This time round I think Ulster may fall short. I much prefer their line-up with Marshall at 9 and Pienaar at 10 but without the Ravenhill factor I reckon they won’t come away with more than a losing bonus.
Things are looking good for the other three provinces; however…Leinster and Connacht should be able to score narrow victories while I fully expect that strong Munster line-up to put Treviso to the sword claiming the full complement of points. In the other Pro12 matches, Ospreys should make light work of Aironi in Swansea while I’d fancy Edinburgh to come away from Newport with the spoils.
That’s it for me this week…enjoy your rugby wherever you are and I’ll be back in seven days with round 3 of the Six Nations to look forward to. JLP
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