After succeeding in getting three of the four Heineken Cup semi-finalists, the Rabodirect Pro12 resumes this weekend with just three rounds to go and half the league still in with a shout for the title.
Leinster kicks things off from an Irish perspective and welcome Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh to the RDS this evening.
A glance at the current table suggests this could be a one-sided affair but when you consider the fact that both have put four-time Heineken Cup winners Toulouse out of the competition the past two seasons it levels things up just a little bit.
Many would forgive the Scots for sending over a virtual “Academy XV” with a much bigger visit to Dublin just a few weeks away, but there are actually several names on their team sheet from last weekend’s historic victory at Murrayfield – in fact, no less than the league’s top two try-scorers will be on show in Ballsbridge tonight.
Edinburgh’s Dutch-born and soon-to-be Scottish-qualified winger Tim Visser has 12 tries this season and is fast gaining on the Irishmen ahead of him on the all-time list, Tommy Bowe and Shane Horgan. Two of his dozen were scored as his side lost to Joe Schmidt’s men at Murrayfield last October.
Playing at outhalf for the home side tonight is Ian Madigan, who has put together a fine season in Jonny Sexton’s shadow, notching seven tries and more than making up for the early-season injury to Mat Berquist. It was his cheeky drop-goal that put Munster out of reach two weeks ago, and he will certainly be keen to end the campaign on a high.
Elsewhere on the Leinster side there are as many as 12 changes from the starting XV that handily defeated Cardiff…Jamie Heaslip takes the captain’s role once again as Devin Toner and Damien Browne pair up for the second row although the two will no doubt be vying with each other for a bench spot in Bordeaux for the upcoming semi-final with Clermont.
Meanwhile the Scots have quite a strong bench should it be required – it includes Ross Rennie and David Denton, both of whom impressed for the national side at the Six Nations.
Next up from the provinces is an Irish derby on Saturday afternoon at the Sportsground where Connacht entertains Ulster.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Eric Elwood had little to gain from the remainder of his season but the facts speak differently.
Not only is there a possibility of another Irish Heineken triumph giving him a second campaign in the continent’s premier tournament, he also needs a full look at his squad as his “A” side will be competing in the British and Irish Cup for the first time next season.
Ulster on the other hand were brought back down to earth after their amazing victory in Thomond Park by the news that their pivotal prop John Afoa must sit-out the next few weeks after a ban for a dangerous tackle on Felix Jones. Still, the northerners won’t want to drop out of the Pro12 playoff picture and will be looking for vital league points on Saturday themselves.
Connacht’s most welcome sight on their team sheet will be the name of Johnny “Concrete” O’Connor – back to match fitness after an eye-socket injury sustained on New Year’s Day against Leinster – he takes a spot on the bench. Also back is Eoin Griffin but otherwise it’s virtually the same side that recently ran Munster close and gained an impressive victory in Newport.
Despite Ulster’s amazing triumph I was very surprised that Paul Marshall wasn’t introduced at any stage…in fact they didn’t make a single substitution all match! He starts on Saturday while Ruan Pienaar is on the bench. Irish Under-20 skipper Paddy Jackson togs out at inside centre while flanker Wille Falloon gets a taste of action at the Sportsground before he makes it his home over the summer.
Munster face Glasgow Warriors at Musgrave Park on Saturday evening and will no doubt be extra keen to retain their league title after all that has happened in recent weeks. The standings prove that they will have to recover from the disappointment quickly as the visitors lie just one place below them and level on points.
Tony McGahan’s treatment room is full to bursting this week and he must do without names like O’Connell, O’Gara, Earls, & Wallace with number 8 James Coughlan having to call an early end to what was an impressive season thanks to a hand injury.
All this means Mick O’Driscoll will lead out the side and partner O’Callaghan in the second row with fellow Irish internationals Ryan & O’Mahony behind them. Ian Keatley and Tomas O’Leary take the half-back duties as Conor Murray takes to the bench along with Scott Deasy, who starred in Munster A’s B&I Cup, semi-final win at the RDS last Friday.
All of which leads me to my predictions. Tonight I can see the Dragons comfortably defeating Treviso while Leinster will be run close but should have enough to overcome Edinburgh by less than a converted try.
I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those rousing occasions for the home side in Galway and they will nick it against Ulster while in the Welsh derby I fancy Cardiff to get over their horrible spell and defeat the Ospreys.
Munster will also bounce back and overcome the Warriors while on Sunday it will be sad to see Aironi wind down for the remainder of the season but I still can’t see them registering a win from their final matches so I’ll plump for their visitors the Scarlets by a double-digit margin to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Of course there is also a full programme of Ulster Bank League action around the country as the divisions reach their climax – clearly the tie of the weekend is Clontarf v St Mary’s – just one point separates them at the top of the Division 1A table so this will go a long way to deciding the destination of this season’s league title.
That’s it for me this week – enjoy your rugby wherever you are and I’ll be back here next Friday to preview Round 21 of the Pro12 which includes a possible preview of the Heineken Cup final up at Ravenhill. JLP