No prizes for picking out the key matchup in round three of the fledgling RaboDirectPRO12 campaign, as the Cardiff Blues, the only side with a maximum haul of ten point from their two outings to date, travel to Ravenhill to face an Ulster side also on a high after two wins, albeit without the try bonus either time.
Bryan McLaughlin’s men are riding the crest of a wave in this competition with ten wins from their last eleven, and things are only getting better for them as they can now boast the inclusion of Jared Payne to their already-impressive backline. The New Zealander will no doubt be keen to win over his home fans early even though he is more used to playing for Blues (in Auckland) than against them!
The unfortunate Adam D’Arcy drops to the bench as Payne teams up with names like Spence, Gilroy and Cave who could well be in line for World Cup contention the next time it rolls round if they keep up their current form.
But the Ulstermen will certainly not have everything their own way, particularly in the pack where Molitika, Martyn Williams & Xavier Rush make a formidable Cardiff backrow. All in all it makes for a contest on Friday night that’s not to be missed even given all the thrilling morning rugby in store for us this weekend!
Of course, Ulster are not Ireland’s only unbeaten province, in fact, only Leinster have one in the loss column to date. Half an hour after things get underway in Belfast, Connacht play Edinburgh in another contest that is full of intrigue.
First, there’s the obvious – former head coach at the Sportsgrounds Mike Bradley now has the reigns in the Scottish capital and will no doubt be keen to show his old charges what his new ones can do.
But the man who succeeded him Eric Elwood is aiming to become the first to lead the Westerners to three wins at the start of a Celtic League campaign since it went to a home-and-away schedule back in 2003/04, and by the looks of things, there’s every chance he’ll be able to manage it.
There’s a great mix of youth and experience in the Connacht backline with Frank Murphy & Gavin Duffy there to bring along the likes of Ireland Under-20 international Tiernan O’Halloran. But it’s in the pack where I expect the visitors to make the most impact, with Mike McCarthy unlucky not to be in New Zealand right now and Muldoon & O’Connor set to make mischief in the loose as only they know how.
As for Edinburgh, well, I wish coach Bradley all the best but I really do feel he has his work cut out for him, particularly at this crucial early stage of the season as he must do without his top players who are down under.
The same thing goes for the Glasgow Warriors, and I fear they may struggle right throughout this season. They won’t exactly relish a trip to the RDS at this stage, given the hiding they got there last season, in fact they have only 5 times in their 16 meeting to date in this competition.
They face a Leinster side getting their momentum back after comfortably dispatching of the Dragons last weekend. They did have an injury blow that week as Kiwi Mat Berquist was ruled out for four months but Ian Madigan is a more than able replacement at 10 and scored an eye-catching try against Newport.
Also Luke Fitzgerald makes a welcome return, at 12 where he was against the Ospreys. Kevin McLaughlin moves into the second row and captain Rhys Ruddock goes to 6 to allow Leo Auva’a to make his first start for the province after playing a role in Leinster’s third try last week.
Last up for the Irish provinces will be Munster, who are of course no strangers to starting the season with three wins on the bounce and will look to do so once again as the Scarlets come to Musgrave Park Saturday evening. Much was expected of the Welsh outfit this season but they were unable to overcome Connacht last week and will be keen to avoid another upset on Irish soil.
Though Tony McGahan is missing Damien Varlay after his World Cup call up and Danny Barnes after his hand injury, he has able replacements in both Mike Sherry and Tom Gleeson respectively to fill the void. Looking at the immense experience in the Munster pack, that plus home advantage can only make your prediction go one way.
And speaking of predictions, it’s time to make mine. Last week I went for a full house of Irish victories, be it province or country. Well guess what – this week I’m doing the same. Why not? Though the international prediction may come more from the heart than the head, I reckon the provinces should all have it pretty handy, with possibly Edinburgh coming closest as they could secure a losing bonus.
As always, enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are, or whatever hour of the day it is! JLP
You can read my blog at http://www.harpinonrugby.net/