Exciting weekend of Rabo Pro 12 Rugby

It could be said that Ireland and Wales are the “yin and yang” of European professional rugby.

Less than a week ago the Welsh celebrated their third Grand Slam in eight years as the Irish wrapped up a mostly disappointing Six Nations campaign.  Tonight, their  most successful regions square off at the RDS though I very much doubt the bookies will be using international form to work out their odds!

The Ospreys actually got off to a “flying” start to the season, winning their opening six matches on the bounce including an opening day pummelling of the reigning European Champions Leinster.  Then the Glasgow Warriors knocked them off their perch, and actually completed the double over them in their last Pro12 outing a couple of weeks ago.  Still, the Welsh region are well poised for a fifth consecutive top-four finish in the league.

Leinster have also failed to beat Glasgow in their two Pro12 meetings this season, but when you add that to the defeat in Swansea you have the sum total of their failures in this competition.  14 wins out of 17 have them a whopping 11 points clear at the top, though they will be keen to wrap up home playoff advantage at the earliest available opportunity.

Any team would be delighted to field a second row pairing of Ryan Jones and Alun-Wyn Jones just a week after a famous Grand Slam triumph in Cardiff.  But they surely wouldn’t expect to be facing a 2-time Heineken Cup winning captain and a World Cup winner as their opposite numbers!

And of course neither the return of Leo Cullen from injury nor the competitive début in Leinster colours of Brad Thorn are enough to make the headlines on Joe Schmidt’s team-sheet.  He also has the luxury of selecting a certain Mr BG O’Driscoll in the 13 slot for the first time this season.

But it’s not just those three names who provide the intriguing sub-plot to tonight’s match at the RDS.  Fergus McFadden lines out at 12 hoping to prove he was more than capable of filling in for the misfiring Gordon D’Arcy for Ireland in recent weeks.  Luke Fitzgerald starts on the wing knowing he has to find top form immediately if he is to have a hope of starting the Heineken Cup quarterfinal, let alone travelling to New Zealand in June.

On the visitors side while some Six Nations players like Tommy Bowe don’t feature one noticeable name on the bench is Adam Jones – should the scores be tight going into the final quarter he could make a difference when sent on to scrum down against Leinster’s loose-head sub Jack McGrath.

All in all it makes for a smashing contest in Ballsbridge tonight and it is clearly the tie of the round.

Next up for the Irish provinces are Ulster who travel to Italy to face Benetton Treviso on Saturday afternoon.  Bryan McLaughlin’s men are in a rich vein of form of late having won 5 of their last 6 and though they will of course be mindful of their upcoming Heineken Cup trip to Thomond Park, will also be keen to stay in Pro12 playoff contention.

They will feel they have something of a score to settle with a Treviso side who came away from Ravenhill last October with a stunning 23-12 victory, though their own results of late haven’t been the best with just one league win in their last seven.

Johann Muller returns from injury to skipper the side and also Darren Cave has been able to regain match fitness over the Pro12 break.  Plus I’m sure Tom Court will be more than happy to resume his role on the loose head side of the scrum after his second half struggles in Twickenham last weekend!

Another interesting change in the Ulster lineup sees Ian Humphreys restored to his outhalf role with Ruan Pienaar going back to 9 and Paul Marshall returning to the bench.  Six Nations starters Best, Trimble and Ferris are all understandably rested.

Finally on Saturday evening out in Galway, Round 18 of the Pro12 schedule comes to a close as Connacht host Munster in an Irish derby.

The next few weeks could well define Tony McGahan’s legacy in the southern province.  Although his team could say they are well poised right now lying second place on the Pro12 table with a home Heineken quarterfinal to come, he knows as well as anyone that he will be judged primarily by how he does in relation to the lads at the other end of the N7.

Defeat to Aironi a couple of weeks ago means they now have Ospreys, Glasgow and Ulster all breathing down their necks for that home playoff spot so every point is still vital for them.  Unfortunately I don’t have their starting lineup as I write this but they must do without Conor Murray and Paul O’Connell this weekend for sure as they are yet to recover from their Six Nations knocks.

On the Connacht side of things Eric Elwood will be more than happy to welcome Brett Wilkinson and Mike McCarthy back from the Irish training camp and they both start.  Gavin Duffy leads the side out yet again while Miah Nikora gets the nod at outhalf.

Time to stick my neck out and make some predictions…Leinster should keep their unbeaten streak going, probably without a bonus point for either side.  I expect Ulster to come away from Treviso with a similar result, and over in Galway, though it could be a Saturday night thriller I can’t see the Westerners improving on their dismal record of just one league win in 18 attempts against Munster – I say the visitors by 5.

Elsewhere in the league, I reckon both Scottish sides will emerge victorious tonight, Edinburgh over the Dragons and Glasgow over Aironi, while tomorrow’s other match is a crucial Welsh derby in Cardiff between the Blues and the Scarlets with the losers set to fall out of playoff contention.  I feel the visitors may well fall short on the day.

That’s it for me this week, see you back here next Friday when Munster and Leinster are set to  lock horns at Thomond.  Enjoy your rugby wherever you are in the meantime. JLP

You can read my blog at http://www.harpinonrugby.net/


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