Every Friday I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
This is the weekend when we are meant tell our loved ones just how much we care about them.
And hopefully we don’t just care about the Irish Women’s team because they won a Grand Slam last season, but whatever the motivation, RTE’s announcement that they will be showing their upcoming clash with England live is more than welcome.
The value of covering women’s sport cannot be undersold. I’m sure everyone appreciates that broadcasters have several differing considerations when putting together their schedules, but by the same token there are different reasons for showing sport other than giving us something to bet on & shout at of a weekend.
Exercise is just as important to girls and women as it is to boys and men and ignoring the female realm, particularly when it comes to contact sports, perpetuates the notion that their place is limited, which is far from the reality.
So on Irish shores I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the following are guaranteed live coverage, be it on our national broadcaster or otherwise…
- Rugby - Six Nations, World Cup & Olympics
- Soccer - World Cup qualifiers & Champions League group stages (Irish clubs have made it you know!)
- GAA - Provincial finals & All-Ireland series
Another thing I look forward to when it comes to women’s rugby is a stage when we as hard-core fans can feel free to analyse their performances critically. I don’t necessarily mean George Hook - style pessimism either.
Sometimes I feel the support towards the women’s team is presented in a blind “we’ll support you whatever you do!” style…that’s all well and good when things are going well as they are now, but we’d hope that support won’t go away if they start losing a few matches, and rather than switch off to them, get involved into a debate over what’s going wrong and how we can improve next time. In other words, exactly the same as we do with the men.
But hopefully we won’t face that challenge any time soon. Bravo to RTE for hearing the call of the public and long may that continue. Now to this weekend’s action…
Friday, February 14
Ulster v Scarlets, 7:15pm
Tonight’s Rabo fixtures highlight the gulf in class between the squads at the Irish provinces and the Welsh regions. Even though we’re smack bang in the middle of a Six Nations, both Ulster & Leinster are able to put out very strong sides to tempt fans from their romantic plans.
The Ulstermen in particular seem to have a potent lineup, in that at virtually every position there is either someone world class or with a point to prove to Joe Schmidt.
It’s not as though the Scarlets are “there for the taking” tonight, but it’s not that far off. Only the weather could realistically dampen the hopes of a try bonus for the Ravenhill crowd. Ulster by 16
Leinster v NG Dragons, 7:45pm
I’m tempted to copy/paste my preview from the Ulster match down to here! Almost an identical scenario at the RDS.
With the centre pairing of Noel Reid and Brendan Macken so settled now at Pro12 level, this lineup could be one of the strongest Leinster have ever fielded at this time of year.
Naturally it’s a terrible shame that Luke Fitzgerald hasn’t recovered from injury in time to play, the guy just can’t get a smidge of luck on that front. But there is good news in that Eoin Reddan is back to start and with a good 50-60 minute shift he can put himself in the frame for the bench at Twickenham next week.
The pack is scary. Sean O’Brien injured, internationals away, yet you’d have no problem starting this tight 8 in the Heineken Cup.
And finally we have Fergus McFadden. Another who was unfortunate with timing, he seems to like facing the Scarlets in Ballsbridge and will no doubt be doing all he can to get involved tonight to keep him in the reckoning for next weekend.
Much like Ulster, we’d be disappointed with anything less than 5 points unless the heavens open. Leinster by 17
Ulster Bank League Division 1A
As I have often said in these previews, I am totally in favour of these “Friday Night Lights” matches, but just why we have to have not one but two Dublin derbies played at precisely the same time as Leinster are in action at the RDS baffles me. I know the Rabo fixtures are often announced at the 11th hour but surely the UBL can change if necessary? There’s even the chance of promoting the league…bring your ticket stub on the Saturday for free/reduced admission. I just don’t get the sense that all the stops are being pulled out to promote our premier club competition. Anyway…the championship is shaping up into a straight fight between Tarf and Belvo and both have tricky away fixtures this weekend.
Cork Con v Dolphin, 7:30pm
Lansdowne v St Mary’s, 7:30pm
UCD v Clontarf, 7:30pm
Sale Sharks v Saracens
Grenoble v Clérmont, 7:45pm
Saturday, February 15
Connacht v Edinburgh, 5pm
If the new HCup format is to happen, then the top six in the Pro12 will become as important as the top four as they are likely to qualify, along with Treviso one would presume, for the continent’s premier competition.
This means that with two games in hand, Edinburgh will feel they have a shot at catching the Scarlets, and even though the Welsh region had a bye this weekend, they will have to travel to Ravenhill eventually so there is a definite chance at gaining some ground here.
None of this augurs well for Pat Lam’s Connacht, for whom the amazing win in Toulouse is now but a distant memory. Unlucky to lost in Glasgow last week they may have been, but they cannot afford to rely on luck anymore as they seek to avoid the wooden spoon and with talismanic skipper Craig Clarke out of action indefinitely, they have their work cut out.
Normally when I bet against them with my preview it is out of superstition, especially when they are playing at the Sportsground, but this time I reckon I’m being realistic. It’s up to them to prove me wrong. Edinburgh by 3
Cardiff Blues v Glasgow Warriors, 6:30pm
I never thought I’d describe a Cardiff Blues lineup as “interesting”, but the starts of both Gethin Jenkins and Sam Warburton just six days before the French come to Cardiff do raise an eyebrow or two. Is the Lions captain fighting for his test place after Dublin with Tipuric breathing down his neck? He is bound to be well tested by a hungry Warrior side keen on keeping in touch at the top of the table with Leinster picking up maximum points and the others likely to do similar. I reckon the Scots will edge it but without the try bonus. Glasgow by 2
Munster v Zebre, 6:45pm
As if going back to the top of the table wasn’t enough motivation for Munster to win this one comfortably, we can add to it the fact that it would be replacing Leinster plus the need for so many to prove themselves worthy of test consideration.
And even though I’m a bluer than blue Leinster fan I have to say I’m delighted to see Donncha Ryan back in action and if he can prove his fitness I would want him at least on the bench at Twickenham because with no offence meant to Iain Henderson, Ryan’s is just the sort of attitude we will need over there.
But going back to focusing on this contest, there will be opportunities for Tommy O’Donnell to impress and on the wing there’s Simon Zebo though given the quality of opposition I wonder just what he’d have to do here to haul himself up Joe Schmidt’s pecking order.
This should be all wrapped up by half time. Munster by 20
Ulster Bank League Division 1A
Ballynahinch v Old Belvedere, 2:30pm
Young Munster v Garryowen, 2:30pm
Northampton v Worcester Warriors, 3pm
London Wasps v London Irish, 3pm
Harlequins v Newcastle Falcons, 3pm
Exeter Chiefs v Bath, 3:15pm
Toulon v Castres, 1:55pm
Biarritz v Toulouse, 5:30pm
Racing Métro v Bayonne, 5:30pm
You’d like to think that no professional rugby player would ever go out to intentionally hurt another. Still, the fact that now only France and Ireland can win the Grand Slam makes me a little extra paranoid over Johnny Sexton’s name on the Racing team sheet, even if it is up against the number 21 not 10. I wonder if Mike Phillips being on the bench is as much for his own personal safety against his former team-mates than it is for the Welsh? Anyway…no predictions on a scoreline for this one as I couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about the result, just the injury count.
Montpellier v Perpignan, 5:30pm
Oyonnax v Bordeaux, 5:30pm
Brive v Stade Francais, 7:35pm
Don’t get me wrong…I love Super Rugby and I’m happy it’s back, but apart from the odd Saturday morning half-watching a match based in NZ while my four-year-old runs around screaming, I don’t really have the time to take the comp too seriously until the latter stages. Would be interested to see how Victor fares on his comeback, though. Reds still my favourite team.
Cheetahs v Lions, 3:05pm
Sharks v Bulls, 5:10pm
Sunday, February 16
Ospreys v Treviso, 4pm
When an Italian team which has just said it no longer cares about the Pro12 goes to visit pretty much the only Welsh region who ever has, there can only be one result, right? I’m thinking yes. Ospreys by 18
Leicester Tigers v Gloucester, 2pm
Be sure and enjoy your rugby with your Valentines this weekend wherever you are. JLP