Every Friday lunchtime I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
Well that certainly was a “fast news week” wasn’t it?
O’Connor to Irish, Phillips away from Bayonne, some white smoke from the ERC talks…there has been loads to fill the column inches this week.
For me the biggest news was the announcement of Joe Schmidt’s first Ireland panel, or more to the point, the reaction to it.
We may have changed our coach, but it seems our opinions have remained locked in their parochial dungeons where they have always been. Rather than giving Joe & his coaching ticket even ONE match to show us what he plans to bring to the table, many are already labelling him as Leinster-biased at worst, no better than Kidney at best.
He can only put 15 men out on the park at a time. He has a baptism of fire to navigate against three southern hemisphere nations, ALL of whom are ranked above Ireland as he takes the reins.
I don’t know about you, but I think that earns the man a bit of slack and this blogger is willing to give him some until we’re into the 2014 Six Nations. The reason for that is, I actually want him to do well given that I’m an Ireland supporter.
Anyway…that’s enough pre-ambling for now - domestic action is back this weekend, let’s see how it’s looking.
Friday, October 25
Zebre v Scarlets, 6:30pm
With internationals around the corner, there shouldn’t be much pressure on this round of Pro12 matches, but if the Scarlets are to have any hope of repeating last year’s top 4 finish they need a win here. They start with a Six-Nations winning centre partnership of Scott Williams & Jonathan Davies and with Priestland on the bench should get it done. Scarlets by 16
Ulster v Cardiff Blues, 7:05pm
After an indifferent start Mark Anscombe’s men have come roaring back and are arguably the form team in Europe right now. I say arguably because their visitors are just after turning over the reigning HCup champions, so this one promises to be interesting.
There doesn’t seem to be much let-up in the selection department, with both sides at near to full strength. Stuart Olding is given the full-back role as Jared Payne continues his BOD-succession quest at 13.
In the pack, Roger Wilson is a more-than-able replacement for Nick Williams at 8 and squares up against Dubliner Robin Copeland, who got the nod as man-of-the-match against Toulon.
But if this one looks even throughout the starting XVs, where the home side draw even more advantage than the Ravenhill Roar is in their bench. Afoa, Paul Marshall, Cave and an in-form Mike Allen are all on hand to pitch in if required. I’m not even sure they will be. Ulster by 12
Ospreys v NG Dragons, 7:05pm
You can never rule out those pesky birds but it really does appear that their HCup goose is cooked after two defeats in the Pool of Death. This of course means they will most likely regroup and come storming back in the Rabo. Having said that the Dragons have been no push-overs this season and could be good for a losing bonus at least. Ospreys by 4
Glasgow Warriors v Munster, 7:35pm
Tie of the round on paper as it’s first v second, but will it be on the pitch?
It’s a fascinating lineup that Rob Penney has brought to Scotstoun, with Andrew Conway finally getting a start and Conor Murray acting as out-half backup to JJ Hanrahan.
Up front the DOC/POC duo will lead the pack with both starting props Cronin and Archer looking to show their promise in a contest which is bound to have a Heineken Cup intensity to it.
Glasgow for their part had a disappointing start in Europe but thanks to Cardiff’s win are right back in their pool - still though, they will certainly want to come away from this fixture still unbeaten in the Rabo if they are to crack on from last season.
They will rely heavily on Josh Strauss in the forwards tonight and should the penalty chances come about they have Duncan Weir on hand to rack up the points.
With the “weegie from Fiji” Niko Matawalu and Ruairidh Jackson on the bench I reckon the home side should come out comfortably on top to maintain their 100% start in this competition. Glasgow by 10
Edinburgh v Benetton Treviso, 7:45pm
I suppose it wouldn’t be the worst strategy for new Embra coach Alan Solomons to target their home Heineken matches and if that is the case it has been mission accomplished so far. Still, they’d want to improve on last season’s dismal Rabo showing and given that they are fully “Vissered” up for this one a minimum four-point haul is a must. Edinburgh by 14
Bath v Gloucester, 7:45pm
Bayonne v Montpellier, 7:45pm
Saturday, October 26
Leinster v Connacht, 6:45pm
Some fascinating battles in store for the RDS crowd on Saturday evening, not least in the centre.
Who in their right minds would have envisaged Noel Reid & Luke Fitzgerald vs Craig Ronaldson & Robbie Henshaw in a full-blown interprovincial derby? Not me, anyway.
The matchup may not tell us an awful lot about the future of the Irish 12 jersey, but it could speak volumes about the 13. Sure - the likes of Cave, Payne and yes, even Earls are well in the mix but with Luke’s impressive cameo last weekend plus the promise of young Henshaw we certainly have lots of options.
We’ll also have our first Dublin taste of one, possibly two stalwarts of Super Rugby, with Craig Clarke starting for the visitors and Zane Kirchner set to make his debut off the bench for Leinster.
Clarke is joined in the second row by Michael Swift and the pairing will no doubt do all they can to dominate the forwards against Toner and Roux.
Overall it is a strong lineup for Matt O’Connor, with McLoughlin, O’Brien & Heaslip remaining as the first string back row and the “Ferg & the Kearney Bros” show in the back three.
But at out-half, the coach has gone for Ian Madigan, who will have every motivation to prove himself, if indeed that is the right choice of words. I still think he could have made things a lot easier for us last weekend, now it’s up to him to show why.
Connacht are always a danger in these derbies, we know this full well. But looking at the bench where Leinster not only have Kirchner but also former Sportsground hero McCarthy, Boss, Gopperth and the returning Shane Jennings, the home crowd will have to be disappointed with anything less than victory. Leinster by 12
Ulster Bank League Division 1A
Cork Con, Dolphin, Young Munster & UCD avoid each other once again in round 3 and so all have the chance to improve on their 100% starts to the campaign. Champions Lansdowne, who host the Cookies on the Aviva back pitch, are attempting to register their first win.
Dolphin v Clontarf, 2:30pm
Garryowen v UCD, 2:30pm
Lansdowne v Young Munster, 2:30pm
Old Belvedere v Cork Constitution, 2:30pm
St Mary’s College v Ballynahinch, 2:30pm
Harlequins v Sale Sharks, 3pm
Exeter Chiefs v Worcester Warriors, 3pm
Northampton Saints v Saracens, 3:15pm
Amid all the Heineken Cup palaver, the Premiership has a perfect opportunity to show us just how wonderful it is as Sarries put their 100% record on the line at Franklins Gardens. The Saints on the other hand will be tested over the coming weeks because while they will no doubt feel they can challenge for top spot on the table at home, with a back-to-back series to come against Leinster they must surely feel the 3pt-deficit in Pool 1 is within their reach as well. And on top of all of that, they also have epic LV Cup battles with Gloucester and London Irish on the horizon. Perhaps I'm being sarcastic with that last bit. I fancy them to come out on top today. Saints by 5
Toulouse v Toulon, 1:55pm
What a match in prospect…2nd v 3rd, 4-time HCup champs v reigning champs, both with lineups which are a who’s who of world rugby. If only we could be sure both sides would actually give a damn on the day! As always the Top14 has gotten off to a start where we’re just 9 to 10 games in and nobody is taking the lead…Montpellier top the table on Saturday morning with as many wins & losses as Racing who are EIGHTH. So if Toulon come to play, it could be interesting. But with internationals around the corner, it could also be the sort of match where there could be a YouTube moment or two while as an 80-minute contest being blah. Hopefully it’s the former but I don’t hold out much hope. Toulouse by 10
Clérmont v Brive, 5:30pm
Castres v Biarritz, 5:30pm
Perpignan v Bordeaux, 5:30pm
Grenoble v Oyonnax, 5:30pm
Racing Métro v Stade Francais, 7:35pm
ITM Cup Final
Wellington v Canterbury, 7:35am
Currie Cup Final
Western Province v Natal Sharks, 4:30pm
Sunday, October 27
London Wasps v Leicester Tigers, 2pm
Newcastle Falcons v London Irish, 3pm
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP