With the Six Nations finishing on a positive note for Irish rugby last Saturday, attention now turns to its four proud provinces as they all resume their Magners League campaigns. While each has enjoyed different levels of success so far this season, they still have much to play for.
First up is Munster on Friday night at the Cardiff City Stadium against the Blues. The Southerners tend to measure their seasons around their progress in the Heineken Cup, but can still be proud of their impressive 14 wins out of 17 in the domestic league so far. With only five games remaining they must be fancied to secure home advantage in the playoffs, and few could bet against them at Thomond Park.
Not only does coach Tony McGahan welcome many of his Irish internationals such as Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell back to his squad, he also has promising back-three man Felix Jones, definitely a contender for the Irish number 15 jersey after the World Cup, returning from injury. You can be sure they will have their sights firmly set on lifting both pieces of silverware still on offer to them.
Then an hour later on Friday it’s the turn of Ulster, who face last year’s semi finalists the Glasgow Warriors. It hasn’t been the best season for Scottish rugby, with the national team barely avoiding the dreaded wooden spoon and both pro clubs failing to make the top half of a table in any competition.
Though Ulster coach Bryan McLaughlin will have one eye on their Heineken Cup quarter-final with Northampton, he’ll be hoping his squad, not too troubled recently by test rugby, will be up for the challenge of pushing for a top four Magners League finish as well.
On Saturday evening we have Connacht travelling to Viadana to face brand new Italian team Aironi Rugby. Aironi have yet to win this season in 17 attempts and while Connaught is usually stronger at home, they might fancy their chances of a win here. Although there’s no silverware for the Westerners to chase, coach Eric Elwood must fancy his boys’ chances of smashing the province’s previous highest finish of 9th, with 7th (note the two extra teams this year!) a reasonable target for them.
There’s also the possibility of Heineken Cup rugby at the Sportsground in Galway for the first time next season, but alas there’s not much the likes of Sean Cronin and John Muldoon can do about that as they have to rely on one of the other three provinces tasting European success in May for them to qualify!
Last but certainly not least there’s my own beloved Leinster, who travel to Newport to face the Dragons on Sunday. The Welsh region have had their troubles this season, losing their long-serving head coach Paul Turner in February and failing to make a mark competitively, but Leinster haven’t always had things their own way at Rodney Parade in recent years.
Joe Schmidt will also be welcoming back his international stars and he’ll be mightily pleased the injury count is minimal. Considering the shaky start we had to the Magners League losing 3 out of 4 in September, it is to his credit that he has lifted to squad to a perfect home record, 3rd spot on the table and a home quarterfinal in the Heineken Cup.
With the possible exception of hooker, he has good depth at every position, though he will need to make his selections wisely as they face a short turnaround before the big derby match at Thomond Park next week and of course the even bigger European showdown with Leicester Tigers at the Aviva Stadium after that.
My predictions for the coming weekend? Well even though all our sides are on the road, I’m going for three wins, with sadly Connacht missing out. They will go into their match as favourites, but I reckon Aironi will see this as their best chance to record their maiden Magners League victory and thus will be priming to repeat their famous Heineken Cup performance against Biarritz back in December.
I feel we have a great opportunity to get as many as three Irish provinces into the final four playoffs of the Magners League and hopefully the results this weekend will keep that dream alive. Of the three I’d say Munster might be run the closest in Cardiff but they should still come out on top.
The internationals may have been a rollercoaster ride for Irish rugby fans, but I have a feeling there will be a lot more for us to cheer about before the season is over. Bring it on!
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