This weekend sees the eighth round of the RaboDirectPRO12 campaign and for all clubs it is easily the most important match so far, not only because in most cases it’s a local derby, but also it’s the last chance for coaches to iron out any kinks before the European campaign begins.
Going by the majority of coverage in the Irish media, you’d be forgiven for thinking the only match in the universe was happening at the Aviva Stadium tonight, although to be fair, you’d also think that going by ticket sales. Even before a ball is kicked I can safely say the attendance in Ballsbridge will easily beat that of the other five matches!
Promoters are labelling the latest instalment of the Leinster v Munster saga as “Fever In The Aviva 2” and looking at the starting lineups there is plenty to justify a title that promises so much.
On the Munster side, the outhalf pairing that Declan Kidney decided was his best one in New Zealand is reunited and no doubt a certain Mr J Sexton will go into this contest feeling he has something of a point to prove. He certainly laid down a marker last Friday at Murrayfield when he landed 7 placekicks and a drop goal in blustery conditions.
Joining him behind the scrum is Isaac Boss who also had a fine outing in the Scottish capital including a try. He too will be keen to impress, particularly up against the man who leapfrogged him to full international recognition when the former Ulster player had been showing consistently good form in recent times.
The most notable name in the Leinster selection is the one that is missing – Brian O’Driscoll’s shoulder stinger injury he picked up against Wales is still troubling him so he gets rested and one of the potential heirs to his number 13 jersey Fergus McFadden assumes his duties. He was another who shone last week albeit at inside centre but he has showed since he rose to the top level of the game he can play comfortably anywhere from 11 to 15.
Elsewhere in the Leinster backline we finally discover how Joe Schmidt chooses to settle the conundrum over his full-back position, re-instating Rob Kearney there and moving the starter at 15 on everyone’s all-Heineken Cup team from last season Isa Nacewa over to 14. The move gives Leinster an extremely formidable back tree of Kearney, Nacewa and Fitzgerald that is no doubt going to put considerable pressure on O’Gara’s kicking game.
On Munster’s side only Keith Earls returns from international duty and Australian Will Chambers will get his first taste of this unique Irish occasion at outside centre. He and Lifemi Mafi lineout together for the first time and will certainly be tested by their opposite numbers.
In the pack, the call for Joe Schmidt was relatively straightforward. Sean Cronin didn’t do enough in Edinburgh to wrest the hooking duties from Richardt Strauss and he is flanked by Ireland’s first choice props Healy and Ross. In the second row Devin Toner has added aggression to his game this season and joins his skipper Leo Cullen. The backrow sees Shane Jennings fending off a challenge from pretender Dominic Ryan and joins Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
Things weren’t quite so simple for Tony McGahan, and he opted for Niall Ronan ahead of Peter O’Mahony in the backrow. BJ Botha starts at prop although anyone in the Munster front row will be anxiously looking over their shoulders at the bench which contains Denis Fogarty, John Hayes and Marcus Horan.
In actual fact there is much talent on both benches as Leinster can call on the likes of Eoin Reddan, Kevin McLaughlin and also Ian Madigan, who did extremely well at outhalf in blue while Sexton was away and Mat Berquist injured.
All in all it promises to be a cracker of a contest, and when it comes to predictions I’m afraid both my heart and my head are telling me a home win is on the cards, though no doubt it will be tight.
Of course we must not forget the other Irish derby at Ravenhill on Saturday evening. Eric Elwood’s men face the daunting task of travelling to the Stoop the following Friday against English table-toppers Harlequins to kick off the Heineken Cup and will surely need a tough contest under their belts.
They should get one from an Ulster side reeling after a dismal run of four successive defeats in the competition. Of course they have Europe on their minds themselves with none other than Clermont Auvergne visiting Belfast next week so the last thing they want is to extend their losing streak beforehand.
The starting lineups are yet to be named as I write this but with Brian McLaughlin missing one of his signings from the Auckland Blues in Jared Payne, he will be relieved to know another one, World Cup winning prop John Afoa, has arrived and is available for selection.
On the Connacht side competition for starting places is understandably fierce and their squad includes 3 former Ulster players in outhalf Niall O’Connor, flanker TJ Anderson and winger Mark McCrea.
Given that the Westerners have never won in Belfast since the Celtic League went to a round robin format, my prediction can only go one way, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out a losing bonus point for the visitors.
Elsewhere in the league, the Welsh also have a pair of derbies to ready themselves for Europe. Round 8 begins in Newport where the Dragons host Cardiff and although the winners at the Aviva Stadium will briefly sit atop the RaboDirectPRO12 table, the Ospreys can regain 1st place with a home victory over the Scarlets. I reckon they’ll manage it, with the Dragons also earning the spoils in their encounter.
The Scottish & Italian regions prefer to have their derbies over the Christmas period, so they have a couple of crossover matches to look forward to, both taking place in Italy. Glasgow have had a rollercoaster season to date and should go into their tricky Heineken Cup pool on a high with a win at Aironi, while I fully expect Treviso to extend their remarkable winning streak to five matches by overcoming Edinburgh.
So that’s another weekend’s rugby action set up for you, hope you can make it to a match or two yourself. I for one cannot wait to take my pitchside seat for Leinster v Munster – no prizes for guess the colour of jersey I’ll be wearing! I’ll be back here next week to preview an historic Heineken Cup weekend for the Irish provinces. JLP
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