Every Friday lunchtime I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
If I had to liken Premier Rugby Chief Mark McCafferty to a Star Wars character (you know the way you do), a week ago I’d have been tempted to go for Darth Maul - an agent of the dark side who appears every so often wreaking havoc with his double-edged sword, all for a mysterious shadowy master in the background.
But after this latest palaver over the Heineken Cup where he has attempted once more to both bully and publicly devalue the Pro12, I’m now likening him more to Jar Jar Binks - a CGI monstrosity who gets too many lines for someone nobody really wanted to be there in the first place.
(OK, so I thought the prequels were better than popular opinion suggests, sue me!)
Anyways…a look at the fixture lists for the three top domestic leagues this weekend has but a few clashes that leap off the page. Quins v Saints in the Premiership I suppose, while in France there’s a re-match of last seasons championship final, Castres v Toulon.
But not only does Round 2 of the Rabo offer two cracking looking contests, neither of them involve two teams from the same nation, which has to say something for the way this league has developed in recent seasons.
Only someone in complete denial could suggest that Ulster v Glasgow and Leinster v Ospreys won’t offer a product every bit as appealing as those of its Anglo-French rivals and all the teams involved (and other Celtic teams as well of course) must be included in a pan-European competition to give it any kind of credibility.
Rant over. let’s have a look at the weekend shall we.
Friday, September 13
Cardiff Blues v Connacht, 6:05pm
Sorry Zebre, but this will be Pat Lam’s first real test as Connacht boss, and they should certainly believe they can get something from CAP.
First of all, yes, Robbie Henshaw is playing at 13. And yes, he is an amazing prospect. Now - what say we spare him the BOD-successor talk and let him get on with it? I certainly wish him all the best but he doesn’t need the pressure.
Him slotting in at outside centre allows for the welcome return of Gavin Duffy to the starting lineup, one which is getting very close to the strongest Lam can put out, it just seems to need Craig Clarke to finish it off.
Although noone batted an eyelid when the Blues went under in Scotstoun in week one, they weren’t exactly put to the sword in what were typically awful Glasgow conditions. Lion Alex Cuthbert returns to the starting lineup and Rhys Patchell continues to pull the strings at 10.
In the Cardiff pack, even without Warburton there seems to be a decent amount of nous with the likes of Matthew Rees and Bradley Davies. This will most certainly be a stern test for the Westerners and one that the Welsh region will be targeting for a W to help them earn justification for their existence.
The bookies are offering 8 points to the home side - I reckon that’s generous, though it has become a bit of a tradition in my previews where I bet against Connacht and they prove me wrong. So although I couldn’t do that last week against Zebre, I’ll return to it this week…hopefully the Fiday the 13th bad luck will go against both me and the Blues. Cardiff by 3
Ulster v Glasgow, 7:05pm
I had heard that Ulster were poor in Newport last Friday, but I had to watch for myself to be sure. And yes, although the Dragons played out of their skins, especially tactically on defence, both Mark Anscombe and Paddy Jackson in particular will be immensely disappointed.
Having said that, maybe it was just what they needed. They won over a dozen games on the bounce to start last season and in the end it got them feck all. No doubt the midweek sessions were used to regroup and prepare for what is a massive encounter for many reasons…first competitive home match in the new Ravenhill, a fellow top-four finisher from last season in town, and of course unbelievably the one-year anniversary already of the Spence family tragedy. RIP.
The loss to injury of Andrew Trimble is a big one for Ulster and they must go into this key clash with youth on the wings in Mike Allen and David McIlwane. But elsewhere on the park there are some mouth-watering matchups as Nick Williams returns to face Josh Strauss at number 8 while at full back it’s Jared Payne v Stuart Hogg.
Anscombe will know full well that even without their talismanic scrum half Matawalu, Glasgow won’t be happy with a losing bonus and will be looking to play the full 80 minutes…Ulster have the likes of Chris Henry, Iain Henderson and Paul Marshall to call on for the final quarter.
I’m backing the Ulstermen to stand up for the occasion and beat both the opposition and the spread, but it should be close up until late. Ulster by 8
Zebre v Munster, 7:30pm
Playing Zebre has become a bit like a game of Jenga…they’re bound to win at some stage to bring the tower crashing down so each opponent will be a bit nervous removing the next block.
And as I said going into the season, Rob Penney will need a perfect September to convince us he has turned a corner that that heaps more pressure onto his squad. It’s up to him to turn that pressure into motivation because they should have enough to start this Italian doube-header with a victory.
Seeing former Rock boy Andrew Conway in a Munster jersey certainly won’t be easy, but by the same token I also certainly wish him all the best, and I still believe he has the ability to be a top try-scorer in this league.
And another youngster looking to impress will be JJ Hanrahan, and this is a perfect opportunity for him to show us where he fits in to the early days of the post-ROG era. He is partnered at half-back Cathal Sheridan, who is no doubt getting a slagging or two from his team-mates after his time mis-management last week against Embra.
I am baffled by the meager 7-point spread, even if Munster are the away side. They should be looking to comfortable beat that - the Stripes are awful, probably always will be awful, and should be put away every time. Cue Munster stuffing them and Leinster losing next time up. Munster by 14
Edinburgh v Newport-Gwent Dragons, 7:45pm
If you fancy a chat to the fan sitting nearest you at this one, you’d better bring a megaphone.
Two Embra heroes return to action at Murrayfield - Tim Visser on the wing for the home side, and at 8 for the Dragons, Netani Talei.
Newport impressed me greatly last week against the Ulstermen…I had them written off for the season but it looks like they have a plan to be to the Pro12 what teams like Stoke City are in the Barclays Premiership…stubborn, organised and hard to put away.
For this reason I have this as my Upset of the Week which would make it a difficult opening few weeks for new Embra boss Alan Solomons. Dragons by 4
Harlequins v Northampton Saints, 7:45pm
Sale Sharks v Newcastle Falcons, 8pm
Perpignan v Montpellier, 5:45pm
Free State Cheetahs v MTN Golden Lions, 6:10pm
Saturday, September 14
Leinster v Ospreys, 6:15pm
Sure, this match has an edge about it what with our opponents being Those Pesky Ospreys, Leinster’s nemesis for many years who also happen in our Heineken Cup pool this season.
But it doesn’t need all that to get me pumped. Leinster Rugby is back at the RDS and I’ve got the same season ticket I’ve had for years. Nuff said.
The bookies are favouring the home side by as much as 9 points - I reckon that’s a brave spread. Even though the Ospreys’ hair-style trio of Jones/Hibbard/Jones is on the bench and they are without the likes of Alun-Wyn/Ryan Jones or Justin Tipuric, they never come to Dublin to do anything but play solid rugby for the full 80 minutes and I expect nothing less here.
Most welcome sight on the Leinster team sheet has to be Luke Fitzgerald after his early withdrawal in Llanelli made it seem that his luck was out. His inclusion means the backline is identical to that which started that impressive opening day victory - despite the fact that Ian Madigan is available for selection, Jimmy Gopperth’s man-of the-match efforts on his competitive debut for his new side keeps him his place.
There is a spot of shuffling in the Leinster pack, however, and we will see if that makes us more comfortable with the new scrum laws. Richardt Strauss will have a go at hooking while Martin Moore will feel a bit unlucky to be on the bench as Mike Ross gets the start.
In the second row Mike McCarthy starts alongside Toner as fellow international Kevin McLaughlin replaces Ruddock at blindside. But after a scintillating display last week all eyes will be on Jordi Murphy who’s stock could rise even more with another impressive outing.
The visitors should beat the spread but once the Pro12 champions can match last week’s form they should go home to Swansea with only a losing bonus to show for it. Leinster by 4
Scarlets v Benetton Treviso, 6:30pm
Not sure why any team should start a season with either two home or two away matches, but this is the second match in a row at Parc y Scarlets and Simon Easterby will badly need a win to put last week's disappointment to bed.
He make a tweak or two to his side, with the full quota of Williams being met by the addition of Jordan to Liam and Scott in the backline, but the best sight for the home crowd will be that of the Best Outside Centre In The Home Nations Jonathan Davies (yeah I'm still bitter) on the bench.
Treviso always come to play, but it shouldn't be enough here. Scarlets by 11
Exeter Chiefs v London Wasps, 3pm
Worcester Warriors v London Irish, 3pm
Bath Rugby v Leicester Tigers, 3:15pm
Castres v Toulon, 1:55pm
Bordeaux v Oyonnax, 5:30pm
Clérmont v Grenoble, 5:30pm
Stade Francais v Brive, 5:30pm
Toulouse v Biarritz, 5:30pm
Bayonne v Racing Métro, 7:35pm
New Zealand v South Africa, 8:35am
Rugby badly needs a Springbok victory here. And I mean BADLY. Unfortunately, I’m not sure wishing will make it so.
But if anyone can do it, it’s this South African vintage, and once again Ulster & Leinster fans will be watching with interest as both Ruan Pienaar and Zane Kirchner start.
Naturally though, it’s in the forwards where they will hope to make the most gains and this is the sort of match where Eben Etzebeth can show he is the true heir to the likes of Matfield and Botha with a strong display here.
You might think the absence of Ruchie McCaw might offer a glimmer of hope for the visitors but he has more than able replacements in Sam Cane and Matt Todd.
At 11/4 I’d certainly be tempted to part with money for an away win but the All Blacks are just too awesome at home for me to make it my actual prediction. Either way, as good an excuse to get up for 8:30 of a Saturday morning as you’re going to get this weekend. That involves keeping your clothes on, that is. New Zealand by 6
Australia v Argentina, 11:05am
Rugby needs a Springbok win in Auckland…but a Wallaby victory in Perth wouldn’t hurt either as Ewan Mackenzie badly needs his first W because a wooden spoon heading into a Grand Slam tour in November isn’t exactly the ideal start to a tenure in one of the game’s top jobs.
And Link seems to feel drastic times call for drastic measures as he leaves senior team member Will Genia on the bench in favour of the Brumbies’ Nic White.
It certainly won’t be made easy for them as this is one of the most experienced lineups Santiago Phelan can put on the park with Dr Phil, JM hernandez and JM Fernandez-Lobbe all well accustomed to the big match occasion.
Still though, I have faith in the new Aussie chief, plus the visitors could well be targeting the return fixture. Australia by 14
Waikato v Auckland, 3:35am
Canterbury v Otago, 5:35am
Griquas v Natal Sharks, 2pm
Blue Bulls v Western Province, 4:05pm
Sunday, September 15
Saracens v Gloucester, 2pm
Counties Manukau v Taranaki, 3:35am
Hawke’s Bay v Northland, 5:35am
Wednesday, September 18
Bay of Plenty v Southland, 8:35am
Thursday, September 19
Auckland v Northland, 8:35am
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP