Every Friday lunchtime I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
The Rabo has been with us for three weeks now but as I said in my writeup of Glasgow v Leinster, many of the sides seem to be using the month of September as a kind of extension of the pre-season, which in turn plays into the arguments of the English & French clubs in that confounded HCup saga.
This weekend sees the kickoff of the Ulster Bank League and for the sake of the clubs involved I hope the return of the Lions to the provincial sides will mean they’ll be able to field their best available sides. Though I doubt somehow Gordon D’Arcy will be togging out for Lansdowne…
It’s a big year for the UBL as it sees the return to the top flight of an Ulster side for the first time in a while, best wishes to all at Ballynahinch RFC. Check this link for the full list of fixtures across the divisions and try to make it to a match near you.
In the meantime, allow me to put my head on the block for some of this weekend’s top flight fixtures…
Friday, September 27
Zebre v Glasgow Warriors, 6:30pm
Two of the Rabo’s in-form teams clash in Parma! Bet you never thought that could be said about a match like this one! The Warriors may have just defeated the reigning champions but Gregor Townsend will no full well there’s a whopper of a banana skin awaiting his side at the XXV Aprile Stadium. He welcomes back some key players like Al Kellock and Sean Maitland, plus feisty scrumhalf Niko Matawalu returns to the bench for a potentially fascinating last quarter battle with Brendon Leonard. I reckon the Scots will make it 4 wins from 4 but they’ll need to kick their goals this week to do it. Glasgow by 6
Ulster v Benetton Treviso, 7:05pm
SEVENTEEN POINTS??? No offence meant to Ulster fans , but the bookies seem to be off their rocker this week offering such a big spread for a side which should have beaten Connacht by at least that much last week and didn’t, against a side that has no qualms about getting a result in Ravenhill.
In fact Treviso completed a rare double Italian success last weekend by overcoming Munster at home, though it came with the help of Mat Berquist’s boot and apparently some favourable calls from the ref.
Now it’s true…Ulster are getting ever closer to full strength with the return of Court, Best, Tuohy and most of all Tommy Bowe to their starting lineup, but after losting their two opening matches Mark Anscombe will need them to hit the ground running tonight.
If that spread is to be made it may have to be in the final quarter, and for this Ulster have Nick Williams primed and ready to spring from the bench so I’m not saying it isn’t do-able, I’m just surprised at the size of the forecast, as Treviso have some beef of their own in reserve in Dean Budd who’s late try brought them within a conversion of victory at the same venue last season.
I’d be inclined to shave at least a converted try off of that spread. Ulster by 10
Leinster v Cardiff Blues, 7:35pm
I like to do these previews with the two starting lineups in front of me. Thing about that is, as a Leinster fan I can be forgiven for having trust issues.
This business of “last-second-switching” goes back into last season (even the Pro12 final wasn’t sacred) and it makes me wonder just what is the point of naming a team in the media at all during the week? I mean I understand that things can happen in the warmup but when it happens so often you wonder if players should be named if there is any doubt surrounding their inclusion. Fans often buy tickets based on players they think will be appearing so perhaps it would be better to say nothing rather than something that will probably change.
Rant over - or at least on that topic. Next one is…will Cardiff actually come to play in Dublin this time? Between Dec 2011, Apr 2012 and Oct 2012 Leinster have emerged from these “capital v capital” clashes victorious with a combined score of 145-34. And one of those was a Heineken quarterfinal.
And it’s not as though the Blues have sent the much-maligned “weakened” Celtic League squads across the water either - they have usually had their “elite” players like Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny on show, as they do tonight.
All of which makes it nigh-on impossible to predict the outcome, though the bookies seem to think we’ll win by a similar margin to Ulster. You’d think that their history here plus a home defeat to Zebre last week would light a fire under them, but with these Welsh regions you simply never know.
On the Leinster side of things, eight Pro12 points is decent haul when compared to past Septembers but Matt O’Connor will know that performances have been on the decline over those three weeks and whatever resistance the visitors put up tonight, he will need a strong 80-minute outing from his squad.
We’re not without elite players of our own, with Brian O’Driscoll formally launching his “One More Year” tour and Jamie Heaslip taking the captain’s armband from the luckless Shane Jennings. Fergus McFadden also makes a welcome return, though while many would rather see him at 12, the back three injury crisis necessitates him going to the wing.
This means the Blues may see our inside centre Noel Reid as something of a tender spot in the Leinster defence and it will be interesting to see how he stands up to the challenge.
The biggest change in the home lineup is the return of Ian Madigan to outhalf. I joked on twitter during the week that he’d be good on University Challenge. This is just the kind of match he will want to seize by the scruff of the neck, and he will provide a stern challenge to young Rhys Patchell opposite him.
Provided the starting fifteen named on Thursday’s teamsheet can survive at very least the first half hour of play, I reckon Leinster should be good for a win. But with Brendan Macken named at 23, probably to replace BOD around the 50 minute mark, one nasty knock in the back line could throw us into complete disarray.
Finally we must be sure and keep an eye on Dominic “Dippy” Ryan at 7 - he has been waiting a long time for a decent run in the side and he won’t get a much better test than tonight with the Lions skipper opposite. Leinster by 9
Edinburgh v Scarlets, 7:45pm
The turf accountants make this too close to call. I’m not so sure. A very close to full-strength Scarlets side could well make mincemeat of a Visser-less Embra still finding its feet under a new regime. Both home fans might celebrate a losing bonus but I’m not sure there’s one forthcoming - there’s plenty of Williams in the visitors’ lineup to do damage. Scarlets by 8
Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks, 7:45pm
Stade Francais v Montpellier, 7:45pm
Second plays third in the Top14; the temptation is to apply the French Away Apathy Rule but I have always found Montpellier to be the exception to such rules so I’m tapping M Trinh-Duc & co as my latest Upset of the Week and they will overturn the bookies’ spread. Montpellier by 7
Free State Cheetahs v Western Province, 4:05pm
MTN Golden Lions v Natal Sharks, 6:10pm
Saturday, September 28
PREVIEWS WILL PUBLISH SATURDAY MORNING
Connacht v Ospreys, 5pm
Munster v Newport-Gwent Dragons, 6:45pm
Ulster Bank League - Division 1A
Ballynahinch v Cork Constitution, Ballymacarn Park, 2:30pm
Garryowen v Dolphin, Dooradoyle, 2:30pm
Lansdowne v UCD, Aviva Stadium, 2:30pm
Old Belvedere v Clontarf, 2:30pm
St Mary’s v Young Munster, 2:30pm
Bath v London Irish, 3pm
London Wasps v Worcester Warriors, 3pm
Harlequins v Saracens, 3:15pm
Oyonnax v Toulon, 1:55pm
Bayonne v Biarritz, 5:30pm
Castres v Racing Métro, 5:30pm
Grenoble v Brive, 5:30pm
Perpignan v Toulouse, 7:35pm
South Africa v Australia, 4pm
Argentina v New Zealand, 11:40pm
Otago v Southland, 3:35am
Manawatu v Taranaki, 6:35am
Auckland v Canterbury, 8:35am
Griquas v Blue Bulls, 1pm
Sunday, September 29
Exeter Chiefs v Leicester Tigers, 2pm
Newcastle Falcons v Gloucester, 3pm
Clérmont v Bordeaux, 11:30am
Hawke’s Bay v North Harbour, 2:35am
Bay of Plenty v Counties Manukau, 4:35am
Wednesday, October 2
Tasman Makos v Waikato, 7:35am
Thursday, October 3
Southland v Hawke’s Bay, 7:35am
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP