Every Friday lunchtime I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
I normally use this “preamble” section of my weekly preview to have a mini-rant about something that happened during the week which annoyed me.
This week my plan was to highlight both the BBC’s virtual anointing of Warren Gatland as Lions coach for 2017 as well as the Premiership clubs’ stubborn refusal to engage with the rest of Europe on the Heineken Cup.
Suddenly none of that seems to matter any more.
Friday, December 6
Castres v Ospreys, 8pm
Sky understandably went for the all-British affair to show live tonight, but I reckon this one could be closer than the 11-point handicap offered by the bookies suggests.
The justification for the Welsh regions being poor has been that the national team is a priority, well after another awful November for them I have to at least expect the Ospreys to have a bit of pride in their Heineken Cup performance and though they must travel to the home of the French champions, they do have some firepower to come away from Castres with something.
The loss of Adam Jones won’t help the Ospreys cause however and Castres may well seek to gain early superiority in the scrums. I think they will get the win but unconvincingly enough for their visitors to at least get off the mark in the points column. Castres by 7
Cardiff Blues v Glasgow Warriors, 8pm
To say this pool is evenly poised is something of an understatement…Exeter and Toulon who face each other have 6 points each, while there two Pro12 outfits both have 5. So it’s needless to say that every point gained from here on in is vital.
How those points are gained will all come down to attitude. Perhaps Gregor Townsend would rather focus on the Pro12 for now, while the Blues may be in the exact opposite position having turned over the reigning Heineken Cup champions and are stuggling domestically?
I guess we won’t know until this one kicks off, but the bookies anyway seem to be basing their judgement on Pro12 form alone. This makes me want to nominate this match as my Upset of the Week and I reckon the Blues can do it tonight. Cardiff by 4
Bayonne v Viadana, 7pm
Newport-Gwent Dragons v Bordeaux, 7:15pm
British & Irish Cup
Moseley v Ealing Trailfinders, 7:30pm
This is the other match in Leinster A’s Pool One, and given that the two sides have little hope of progressing in this competition AND lie 10th and 12th in the 12-team RFU Championship respectively, I dare say neither wants anything to do with this fixture. As if there weren’t enough English clubs reluctant to play in cross-border tournaments…
Plymouth Albion v Munster A, 7:45pm
Saturday, December 7
Zebre v Saracens, 1:35pm
If England can’t win by a cricket score down in Australia, they may as well do it in Italy playing rugby, and though this particular club seems to prefer to play South African opposition I can’t see them failing to get the job done here with ease. Sarries by an embarrassing margin.
Exeter Chiefs v Toulon, 1:35pm
Simply put, if Cardiff can turn over these Galacticos then Exeter definitely can. Lunchtime kickoff or no you can be sure Sandy Park will be hopping for this one. Sadly though I can’t see the Chiefs quite managing it though it could well take a couple of late Wilko penalties to seal it. Toulon by 6
Clérmont v Scarlets, 1:35pm
From the RDS to the Marcel-Michelin has a bit of a “frying pan to fire” feel for the Scarlets, doesn’t it? Even with their fit internationals back I can’t see the Clérmont home streak being under any threat here. I expect early home tries with the foot coming off the pedal and perhaps Llanelli can make the score a bit more respectable towards the end. Clérmont by 10
Racing Métro v Harlequins, 3:40pm
So Mike Phillips’ punishment for his dishonourable discharge from Bayonne was a transfer from the Amlin to the Heineken? Wonder how Maxime Machenaud will feel about that as he looks over his shoulder waiting for the Welsh Lion to replace him from the bench today. Sexton is only fit enough for the bench and since you really want to rest a tweaked hamstring the Racing folks will hope he won’t be needed, though I fear he might. Quins are due a big performance and could pinch an upset here but I’ll stick with the Parisiens, just. Racing by 2
Ulster v Benetton Treviso, 6pm
Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster. Not only is that the 4 Irish provinces listed in alphabetical order, it is also them listed in order of the degree of difficulty they each face with their round 3 ties. Going from toughest to easiest, of course.
I notice Ulster fans are trying to be cautious saying 8 or 9 points would be plenty from this back-to-back series but I’m having none of that! These days they are expected to be challenging at the business end of every competition so for me, anything less than 10 points should be considered a disappointment.
Sorry, but such are the standards at the top and even without Iain Henderson and Tommy Bowe Mark Anscombe’s men should comfortably get the job done on Saturday.
As for Darren Cave, these next couple of weeks will be a good opportunity for him to go back to letting his rugby do the talking so there can be nothing more to be taken out of context. Ulster by quite a bit
Northampton Saints v Leinster, 6pm
I really thought I’d have to wait until the Six Nations before I saw a starting XV made up of capped Irish internationals, but with this selection Matt O’Connor has given us an extra pre-Christmas bonus!
[Speaking of the Six Nations…keep this to yourselves but I stumbled across a page on the IRFU site where they are selling selected tickets for our matches with Scotland, Wales and Italy, check out this link]
Anyway, this is quite a starting lineup Leinster are sending to Franklin’s Gardens, and arguably the most notable name on the team sheet is that of Rhys Ruddock…he has been powerful in the Pro12 in recent weeks and thoroughly deserves his reward, harsh though it may be on Kevin McLaughlin.
The starting out-half jersey went to Ian Madigan, which will certainly please his many supporters while still putting pressure on him to deliver. He certainly has plenty of quality around him in the back line to help him along, that’s for sure.
In the pack Ruddock joins Lions O’Brien and Heaslip, the latter of whom leads out the side. Leo Cullen is consigned to one of the strongest benches Leinster have ever put together, all of whom are well capable of making an impact late on.
On the Northampton side of things, they are without two of their three key off season signings, though with the form scrum half Lee Dickson has been in of late I reckon Corbiseiro’s absence will be felt more than that of Fotuali’i.
Jim Mallinder’s bench is not without experience either, with Mercey, Day and Clark all left over from that 2011 final in Cardiff, but they will be hoping to establish themselves early on through their forwards, counting on the likes of Hartley, Lawes and Tom Wood to keep the 3-time champions at bay.
For me the opening 20 minutes will be akin to a game within a game. If either side gets a strangehold it will be key - I have a feeling Leinster will be looking for a similar defensive display to that they brought to Swansea inn round one, while the Saints must turn territory into points from the off.
With this being the first outing for so many of the players involved in that All Blacks classic, I’m hoping for some frustration to be taken out and while it will probably go right down to the wire, I reckon we can nick this one. Leinster by 3
Leinster v Connacht, 4:30pm
As I said during the week, if you can’t make it to Northampton, there are still a couple of great alternatives here in Dublin on both north and south sides - the Leinster Women will be looking to capitalise on their thumping of Ulster in Ravenhill last week to possibly set up a title decider down in Thomond next time around.
Mogliano v Bath, 1pm
Cavalieri Prato v Lusitanos XV, 1pm
Bucharest Wolves v Brive, 1pm
Grenoble v London Wasps, 8pm
Standout Amlin tie of the round by a mile, though interestingly Grenoble’s Irish-born scrum half is consigned to the bench after his heroics last week. Wade is going to be a huge loss for Wasps but I think they can get a win here to stay unbeaten in the pool. Wasps by 3
British & Irish Cup
Connacht Eagles v Bedford Blues, 2:30pm
Leinster A v Cross Keys, 2:30pm
My biggest interest today will be the return of Jordan Coughlan to a Leinster jersey as he faces another return from injury and attempts to get more game time in at his new 12 position. Fingers crossed he gets in a full shift. I expect the Welsh club to front up bravely today but anything other than a home win will have to be seen as a shock. I also expect a try or two from Leo Auva’a - surely he has to be this competition’s all-time leading try-scorer, not that it’s an honour to be particularly proud of, mind!
Ayr v Ulster Ravens, 3pm
Sunday, December 8
Munster v Perpignan, 12:45pm
A bit like Ulster, the Munster faithful have been trying to talk up the challenge they are faced with when they face the Catalans over 160 minutes…and a bit like Ulster, I’m having none of it.
Not that I expect a maximum 10-point haul for Rob Penney’s men, but they certainly would have to be disappointed if they don’t win both matches, especially with the first being at Thomond so USAP would be less inclined to give a damn for the return match if they lose on Sunday.
Ian Keatley gets the nod at out-half while Keith Earls moves out to the wing to allow for the return of Casey Laulala.
In the pack the continued absence of Ryan means the legendary DOC/POC pairing appears at Thomond for a HCup outing once more.
On the Perpignan side James Hook will no doubt see this as an opportunity to put his hand up for Six Nations consideration since I reckon Wales could have done with him last Saturday…though he lines out at full back on Sunday.
Can’t see anything here but a comfortable home win, though a try bonus may only be scraped. Munster by 14
Edinburgh v Gloucester, 1pm
Both have been awful domestically yet have one win each in the HCup so this match could well define their respective seasons. I watched Gloucester against the Tigers last weekend…for their sakes I hope they have been practising their placekicks during the week because they will probably need them at Murrayfield. I’d back them to get over the yips and nick this. Glaws by 4
Toulouse v Connacht, 3pm
The four-times champions are flying well under the radar in this year’s competition, but with two wins out of two they will be hoping to wrap up a quarterfinal berth by the end of round four.
As for Pat Lam’s men, well the pounding at Edinburgh last week highlighted grave problems for his squad, which is a shame because this season in particular there is plenty of quality throughout.
Hopefully they will be able to perform some damage limitation at the Stade Ernest Wallon but I can’t see it happening. If the score stays within the 26 point spread it will be because the home side takes the foot off the pedal. Toulouse by 21
Leicester Tigers v Montpellier, 3pm
Obviously Ulster want this back-to-back series to be shared, and all signs seem to point to that happening. The Tigers’ domestic form has been iffy, not least because of a chronic injury list, but they should be able to pull it together at Welford Road today. Leicester by 6
Munster v Ulster, 1pm
London Irish v Stade Francais, 3pm
Newcastle Falcons v Calvisano, 3pm
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP