Happy New year everyone! Hope 2012 has been treating you well so far!
It certainly finds most of the Irish provinces well poised for glory but as we all know, trophies aren’t handed out in January so they will all be keen to get the right result this weekend with crucial Heineken Cup clashes on the horizon.
First up tonight is an interesting tussle at Murrayfield as Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh play host to Ulster. Both find themselves in the wrong half of the Pro12 table yet top of their respective Heineken Cup pools, but took different routes over the holiday period.
The Scots had their derby series with Glasgow to contend with, and though the 1872 Cup was up for grabs, Bradley chose to rest several key players for the return match at Firhill and they ended up on the losing side.
Colin Paterson and Tim Visser both return to the lineup this week as Bradley looks to give them some game time ahead of the crucial trip to Paris the following week.
Bryan McLaughlin took the opposite route over Christmas, sending a virtual 3rd team to Dublin on Stephens Day before bringing back some key players for the clash with Munster, a tactic that paid off in spectacular fashion as they helped themselves to a bonus point win at Ravenhill.
Ruan Pienaar, Stefan Terblanche and John Afoa were key to that victory last Friday and Ulster will be further boosted by the return of Irish internationals Andrew Trimble, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris who rejoin the fray.
Next up on Saturday afternoon Eric Elwood brings his Connacht team to Viadana to face Aironi. Many would consider such a trip as an opportunity to rest key players particularly before the final two rounds of European games, but I’m not sure the Westerners can afford to do anything but try and halt their 12-game losing streak in its tracks.
Frank Murphy returns to the scrum-half position and partners Matthew Jarvis, who found out he was starting against Leinster at the 11th hour and probably wishes he hadn’t. Dave McSharry also returns after a nasty chin injury and partners Kyle Tonetti in the centre, while on the wing Vainikolo replaces the unlucky Brian Tuohy who began 2012 with a broken leg.
In the forwards Michael Swift, the provinces’ most capped player, tacked an extra year to his contract during the week and starts alongside Mike McCarthy in the second row. Dylan Rogers joins Flavin and Wilkinson in the front row.
Later that evening things get underway at Cardiff City Stadium, where the Blues will be extra keen to erase the memories of their own visit to Dublin last December. If you’ll recall they were forced to travel without the likes of Halfpenny, Jenkins & Davies who were on international duty and were promptly trounced to the tune of 52-9.
Those players all return to the lineup along with Gavin Henson who claims he has his sights set on making the Welsh team for the upcoming Six Nations campaign.
Leinster’s lineup isn’t exactly without its top names either – though Isa Nacewa takes an unusual spot on the bench, Rob Kearney starts at full back while Sexton returns to the outhalf position. On the wings it’s a chance for two fringe players to show their promise as David Kearney and Andrew Conway get the nod.
And in the forwards there should be quite the battle in the back row with McLaughlin, O’Brien & skipper for the day Jamie Heaslip set to take on Molitika, Warburton & Rush. Leo Cullen sits this one out as Browne and Toner take the lock duties.
Last up from the Irish provinces are Munster, who also have a result from the festive period they’d rather forget. Defeat at Ravenhill was largely due to a couple of horrendous mix-ups at the back of the scrum, something that surely doesn’t go down well at Thomond Park, and they will be looking to keep themselves in the top 4 places with victory over the visiting Italians of Benetton Treviso.
Tony McGahan makes as many as ten changes to the side from Belfast and with the ink barely dry on his new Munster contact, Ireland’s Six Nations skipper Paul O’Connell will be proud to lead out his side. In the back row Peter O’Mahony will be a sight for sore eyes as he returns from his jaw injury.
In the backs the top halfback duo of Murray and O’Gara return and Luke O’Dea makes way for Simon Zebo on the wing though Johne Murphy swaps sides to accommodate him. All in all it’s a formidable lineup for Munster, one that will no doubt be very close to the Heineken Cup selection in the weeks to come.
Prediction time. While I feel 2012 could well be a successful one overall for Irish rugby, something tells me we won’t be so sure of that after this weekend. I’m only seeing a Munster victory from the four provinces in this series.
Cardiff is always a tough place to visit and while no doubt Joe Schmidt will have his troops battle-ready after their close call in Galway, I’m thinking the home side will not only be well-pumped for this one but also have the talent to make full use of home advantage.
Ulster are certainly capable of pinching the spoils in the Scottish capital but I still think the home side will have enough to edge them. As for Connacht, I’m simply going for an Aironi victory in the hope that it will ensure the exact opposite happening as I’d really like them to halt this losing streak in its tracks!
Elsewhere in the Pro12 we have a Welsh derby at Rodney Parade where I expect (or should I say hope!) the Dragons will upset the Ospreys, while the Scarlets should have enough to complete a series of all home wins by proving too strong for Glasgow.
That’s it for me this week – as always, enjoy your rugby wherever you are and I’ll see you back here next week as I look forward to a fascinating Round 5 of Heineken Cup pool matches. JLP
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