Friday, September 06, 2013

The Pagano Preview Sep 6-8

Every Friday from 12noon I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.

I’m not one of those rugby fans who takes pot-shots at soccer whenever I can…I don’t mind watching the odd game now and again and I certainly do my best to get behind the Ireland team, especially for a crucial World Cup qualifier.

HOWEVER, when fate has them clashing with Leinster or Ireland rugby, there’s no contest.  Well, for me, anyway.  No doubt pubs across Leinster will have their work cut out appeasing 100% of their patrons from 7pm tonight onwards, and the likelihodd is that more often than not it will be the egg-chasing fans who have to make do with the dodgy portable up around the corner in the back bar.

I do have confirmation from old reliables like Kiely’s in Donnybrook that the rugby will take precedence, and thankfully RTE are at least throwing it up to the web, though you’d think they’d have a red button option at this stage.

One way or another, I hope I won’t be missing the kickoff to the new Pro12 campaign - here’s how I see the weekend shaping up…

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Friday, September 6

RaboDirectPRO12

Scarlets v Leinster, 7:05pm

This time last year, the Scarlets waited for the then-Heineken Cup champions in the tall grass and ambushed us on opening day with seven tries.  Given Wales were just off a grand slam, it seemed a new order was emerging in Celtic League rugby.

But the old adage “nothing is won in September” came back to bite Simon Easterby & his squad big time, and for this rematch not only must they do without George North, the one unfamiliar name in the Leinster backline had the Lion more or less in his pocket just seven days ago.

Darragh Fanning has had what many would consider an unconventional journey in pro rugby to date which included a spell in the Australian club scene, but it is good to see that there is still a route back into the provincial setup for those who choose to go that route.

On the other wing for Leinster there’s a very welcome sight, Luke Fitzgerald.  As happy as I am to see him back where he belongs, it could well be torture watching him for the first few weeks because he has had to many different injury setbacks and we couldn’t bear to see another one.  But I am happy he is on the wing for the time being - I know he has ambitions in other areas but on his road to re-establishing himself as a force he should stay in his comfort zone in my opinion.

Noel Reid and Brendan Macken occupied the centre positions in preseason, but although both make the bench they surely won’t have any objections to seeing Messrs Darcy and McFadden assume the roles in Llanelli - they will of course play a key role in the famed Leinster defence.

Obviously all eyes will be on Jimmy Gopperth to see how he gets on at his new club as his old one resumes life in the Premiership.  I thought he looked lively enough in preseason and was good from the tee - now that Eoin Reddan is back in a starting role he will get more quality service to use.

In the Leinster pack Shane Jennings was a strong captain last week and retains the role today in a solid back row that includes Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy.  Martin Moore has another chance to impress at tighthead while Devin Toner is going into a season where he really needs to start showing some leadership in matches like this one.

On the Scarlet side of things, well the absence of North would certainly leave a big hole in their lineup, but this time last year it was names we may not be too familiar with on Irish shores that did much of the damage so they can’t be taken for granted.

Rhys Priestland lines out at 10 on what seems to be him gagillionth road to recovery, while on the wing Liam Williams v Luke will be a very interesting confrontation indeed.

Matt O’Connor will have a strong bench at his disposal in his first full head coach encounter, one with test experience in Ross, Mc'Carthy and Boss.  But watch out for number 23 Jordan Williams for the Scarlets - he was very impressive for the Welsh Under 20s last June.

The bookies have this very close, favouring the home side by just a point.  I reckon it will be close but O’Connor will manage what his predecessor failed to do in three seasons - kickoff with four Pro12 points.  Leinster by 3.

Newport-Gwent Dragons v Ulster, 7:15pm

I reckon the bookies are being extremely generous to Ulster favouring them here by just the six points.  Terribly unlucky not to pick up silverware last season, they have more or less the same squad and Mark Anscombe kicks off the season with an very strong matchday 23, even without Pienaar and Williams.

Luke Marshall at 13 is an interesting choice…though no doubt we will say that about every Irish qualified player who lines out there this season at any club.  Jared Payne who was there against Leinster moves back to his more traditional spot of full-back.

Up front, Muller and Tuohy will look to lead the way against their opposite numbers, international Andrew Coombs and the wonderfully named Matthew Screech.

In fact looking at the Dragons squad it would seem that throughout this season we will be asking but one question when they are playing : “Is TOby playing or not?”  Here he is not.  It could make for long evenings at Rodney Parade when he doesn’t.

Even though last season’s long unbeaten start brought no end product for the Ulstermen, they need to open this campaign with a similar statement and I reckon they have the team here to do it.  Ulster by 13

Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Blues, 7:35pm

Gregor Townsend’s Warriors aren’t a “surprise package” in this league anymore and like Ulster much will be expected of them from the off.  I’m wondering, however, if they’ll have things all their own way against the Blues.

With the backbone of their team Matawalu, Weir and Strauss all missing from Glasgow’s lineup, their squad should get a strong test tonight at Scotstoun as Rhys Patchell looks to make a name for himself at outhalf for the visitors and Navidi and Dubliner Robin Copeland more than capable back rowers.

I’ll go for the home win, but it could take a late score to do it. Glasgow by 3

Premiership

Newcastle Falcons v Bath Rugby, 7:45pm

Saturday, September 7

RaboDirectPRO12

Connacht v Zebre, 5pm

Ewan Mackenzie recently started his new coaching role with not one but two clashes with the World Champions. Pat Lam’s baptism in Galway is the exact opposite of that.

By the end of this season, no team will know the stripey Italians better than Connacht who will have faced them eight times! And I fear they will also have the most competitive victories against them too. With eight of course.

Sure, Zebre have added Brendon Leonard to their ranks and have a dangerman or two in skipper Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco, but you can’t help but wonder if they are to have another long season which could possibly see them go the way of their Aironi-ous predecessors.

Still, you can only play what’s before you and Lam has a strong matchday squad to start the season, even without Super Rugby superstar Craig Clarke. Michael Swift leads them out and he has Andrew Browne alongside him but watch out for another new lock signing in Aly Muldowney on the bench.

In the backs, the will no doubt be a warm welcome back to the Sportsground for Fionn Carr on the wing while Robbie Henshaw will be aiming to build on an impressive rookie season.

It will probably in the half-back tandem where Connacht will look for inspiration, as the Marmion/Parks axis did for them many a time last season. At inside centre Danie Poolman may be throwing his hat into the “BOD successor” ring - he may still have some way to go to be Irish qualified but at 24 still has youth on his side.

Paddy Power only give the home side an 8-point spread? That’s just mean. With as far as they have come under Eric Elwood to this point, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t smash that today. Connacht by 16

Benetton Treviso, Ospreys, 6:30pm

Whatever question marks there may be over the future of Zebre in this league, no team will ever visit Treviso expecting a handy victory. The Ospreys clearly recognise this with a bench that contains both hair bears, Richard Hibbard and Ian Evans. Ryan Jones interestingly starts at lock and the Welsh region give a debut to their Italian scrum half Tebaldi. I’m officially putting this down as my Upset Of The Week, though I wonder if we can say that of a home Treviso win anymore. Treviso by 2

Munster v Edinburgh, 7:15pm

I’m a Leinster fan so of course I’m happier when we do better than our southern cousins but despite their reaching the Heineken semis last year it really was a dismal campaign by their standards and the gulf between the two (and indeed Ulster for that matter) needs to be narrowed for the good of Irish rugby.

And looking at their schedule, I can’t see anything but four wins out of four in September that will convince us they have turned a corner, though they should have enough to put away a Visser-less Edinburgh side who had a much worse time of it last season.

Ian Keatley begins the post-ROG era in the drivers’ seat for the regular starting 10 jersey but no doubt he will have top prospect JJ Hanrahan breathing down his neck at every turn. Inside him at scrum-half if seems Rob Penney is persevering with Duncan Williams despite all the derision he received from Munster fans last season.

The visitors won’t be push-overs even without their Dutch-born try machine; Piers Francis impressed me against Leinster last season, for example, but they really should be no match for a Munster outfit that has the likes of O’Donnell and Kilcoyne ready to join the fray if needed.

I believe Munster will start the season with four wins out of four. Five out of five may be a bit beyond them, though ;-) [no prizes for guessing who their game 5 opponents are!Munster by 12

Rugby Championship

New Zealand v Argentina, 8:35am

A few tweaks for the All Blacks but with Carter back in the starting lineup and the likes of the Three Smuths and Izzy Dagg on show I fear for the Pumas here.  New Zealand by 34

Australia v South Africa, 11:05am

Very, very tough one to call. Form gives the nod to the visitors. Home advantage plus the return of Quade Cooper to a starting role makes you think the Wallabies have a chance of giving Ewan Mackenzie his first victory. Meanwhile Zane Kirchner and Ruan Pienaar will give their Irish provincial employers some headaches as both start for the Springboks. I’mgoing against the bookies here I reckon Link will have to wait to face the Pumas to break his duck. Also if this Rugby Championship is to be anything of a contest a Bok win is crucial. South Africa by 5

Premiership

London Irish v Saracens, 2pm

Gloucester v Sale Sharks, 3pm

Northampton v Exeter Chiefs, 3pm

London Wasps v Harlequins, 6:30pm

ITM Cup

Taranaki v Auckland, 3:35am

Hawke’s Bay v Counties Manukau, 5:35am

Currie Cup

Griquas v Golden Lions, 2pm

Blue Bulls v Free State Cheetahs, 4:05pm

Western Province v Natal Sharks, 6:10pm

Sunday, September 8

Premiership

Leicester Tigers v Worcester Warriors, 2pm

Top 14

Montpellier v Toulouse, 2:30pm

Brive v Bayonne, 5pm

Biarritz v Toulon, 5pm

Grenoble v Bordeaux, 5pm

Oyonnax v Castres, 5pm

Racing Métro v Perpignan, 5pm

Stade Francais v Clérmont, 8pm

ITM Cup

Manawatu v North Harbour, 3:35am

Northland v Wellington, 5:35am

Wednesday, September 11

ITM Cup

Taranaki v Hawke’s Bay, 8:35am

Thursday, September 12

ITM Cup

Wellington v Bay of Plenty, 8:35am

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Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP

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