Every Friday I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
I had gotten used to this portion of the calendar cheering me up after yet another disappointing Six Nations campaign…now I’m in a place where anything Leinster can get out of this season will be a bonus!
During the week Leinster Rugby offered prizes for fans who renewed or bought their season tickets early; on the face of it that’s a good idea and I went for it, but there was a degree of concern among the blue faithful on account of there being so much uncertainty surrounding the league.
Sure, we’ve had a stream of articles this week telling us a European deal is “about to be signed”, but still no word on the RaboPRO12, which as far as we know has no sponsor for next season and surely can’t function without some kind of financial backing.
Only thing we can be hope for is that there are concrete plans in place and there is some logical reason why they can’t announce it yet. And there have been events which can give us hope, like Lee Byrne signing for the Dragons next season…you’d like to think he wouldn’t put pen to paper without some kind of confidence that there would be a team to go to next season.
Fingers crossed! On to this weekend’s action.
Friday, March 21
Ospreys v Cardiff Blues, 7:05pm
Let’s face it - this has been a crappy season for Welsh rugby, and the only hope for anything positive to come out of it will be success for one of the regions. Well, if any from the four can do it, it’s the Ospreys, but with Glasgow just three points behind them with two games in hand it’s a big ask (as much as I hate that cliché!). By their lineup it looks like they have chosen to go for it with several players from the Six nations massacre of Scotland starting. We could be in line for another massacre here. Ospreys by 15
Leinster v Zebre, 7:15pm
Should we be reading anything into Fergus McFadden starting at 13? Well I guess from now on we’ll be reading something into every name picked by Leinster & Ireland for that jumper who isn’t BOD!!!
For me the more noticeable name is that of Luke Fitzgerald. I really, really hope he can play but based on past experience I’ll believe it when I see him on the pitch for kickoff.
Obviously this top v bottom clash is as close to a “home banker” as you’ll get and Matt O’Connor will have to be disappointed with anything less than a bonus-point victory.
The real man for the occasion is Ian Madigan. Didn’t put a foot wrong in his enforced cameo last Saturday, he now gets to lead out his province for his 100th cap, and on his 25th birthday, no less.
I’ll be looking for performances from the “fringe” players such as Noel Reid, Darragh Fanning and in particular Tadhg Furlong, who has the potential to add his name to the list of quality Irish tight-heads which appears to be growing by the week.
A satisfying night for me will be five Pro12 points and no injuries. If we let in a try or two more than we should in the process then so be it…no offence to the visitors but there are much bigger fish to fry down the road. Leinster by 20
Edinburgh v Ulster, 7:45pm
Of the six Pro12 ties this weekend, this one seems to be the most likely to have an upset, as Ulster’s massive HCup quarterfinal with Sarries has to be at the back of their minds and Embra still have a fighting chance to catch the Scarlets.
Then you look at the Ulster lineup and even without the injured Ruan Pienaar they are able to put out such a strong lineup that it’s hard to back against them.
After a cameo off the bench last week, Stephen Ferris returns to starting action, my fingers are crossed for him to at least see out the season every bit as much as they are for Luke Fitzgerald.
Only hope for the home side is to try and keep things tight in the forwards because this is an Ulster backline primed to do some serious damage. Ulster by 10
Worcester Warriors v London Wasps, 7:45pm
Clermont v Toulon, 7:45pm
I will of course be at the RDS myself tonight, but if my beloved Leinster weren’t playing I’d definitely be somewhere watching this massive 1st v 2nd clash in the Top14, not least to see how our HCup opposition are faring a couple of weeks before we meet.
Because even with the French national team players from last weekend being rested in the most part, we still have Parra, Rougerie & Hines for the home side and Giteau, both Armitage brothers and Juan Smith for the visitors so it promises to be quite the tussle. Still can’t see past that mighty home streak though. Clermont by 6
Saturday, March 22
REMEAINING WEEKEND PREVIEWS WILL PUBLISH SATURDAY MORNING
Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets, 6:30pm
Even with three games in hand I can’t see Glasgow catching the 3 Irish provinces at the top of the table now, 10 wins out of 14 is a good return but they haven’t gotten near enough bonus point to keep up.
So they now have their sights set on the 4th-placed Ospreys and with them also winning last night with a try bonus, the Warriors need everything they can get tonight. Thing is though, the Scarlets need the points too just in case this new Euro comp makes 6th place on the table worth fighting for.
The Llanelli-based region have Jonathan Davies back in their centre, but Glasgow also have a welcome returnee from injury - Sean Maitland has recovered from the injury he picked up in Dublin and is on the bench and surely will feature. Not sure the home side will get 4 tries but I’d fancy them denying their guests a bonus. Glasgow by 8
Munster v Benetton Treviso, 7:15pm
The last thing Munster want is to have everything they do defined by Leinster but at this stage of the season it’s hard to avoid it. Have had their lead worn down by their rivals in recent weeks, not only do they also host an Italian team this weekend, they also face Leinster next Saturday.
So although Matt O’Connor’s men barely impressed last night in their 27-0 bonus-point win over Zebre, Rob Penney will surely be using that score as a benchmark to his squad tonight to show they are ready for next week’s challenge.
All of the above motivation, of course, is on top of the gauntlet laid down by Denis Leamy…
There’s no rest for Six Nations hero Paul O’Connell as he goes straight back into the side, though with O’Callaghan on the bench surely it’s not for a full 80 minutes.
JJ Hanrahan has the out-half duties and Keith Earls is one of many who will be keen to show form.
One or two interesting names on the Munster bench…hooker Quentin McDonald was thought to be a Leinster target earlier in the season and you can be sure Simon Zebo will be itching to get on to bag a few more tries.
Treviso also feature some of Italy’s better performers from the Six Nations like Campagnaro and McLean but I can’t see them stopping a determined Munster surpassing Leinster’s margin from last night. Munster by 28
Ulster Bank League Division 1A
Time is running out in the race to the title and this could be a key weekend. Clontarf have a game in hand on Belvo at the top but still won’t want that 4-point gap to get any wider, they will need a win today and won’t find it easy away to Garryowen who are fighting for survival and with Eddie O’Sullivan’s help are starting to put points on the board. Old Belvedere themselves are at home but it’s to a UCD side who have blown hot and cold over this campaign. The other key match today is down at the bottom of the table as Ballynahinch, level on points with Garryowen, host Young Munster.
Lansdowne v Cork Constitution, 2pm
Ballynahinch v Young Munster, 2:30pm
Garryowen v Clontarf, 2:30pm
St Mary’s v Dolphin, 2:30pm
Old Belvedere v UCD, 2:30pm
Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints, 2pm
Gloucester v Newcastle Falcons, 3pm
Saracens v Harlequins, 3:15pm
London Irish v Bath, 5:30pm
Stade Francais v Toulouse, 2pm
Bayonne v Bordeaux-Begles, 5:30pm
Castres v Brive, 5:30pm
Oyonnax v Montpellier, 5:30pm
Perpignan v Biarritz, 5:30pm
Grenoble v Racing Metro, 7:35pm
Blues v Cheetahs,
Brumbies v Stormers,
Western Force v Chiefs,
Lions v Reds,
Bulls v Sharks,
Sunday, March 23
Newport-Gwent Dragons v Connacht, 3:05pm
Is it possible for Connacht to claw back the 9-point gap between themselves and the Scarlets to snatch for themselves another campaign in Europe’s top competition? Probably not, but they have been in great form of late and Pat Lam surely must have them thinking it’s doable.
The Westerners certainly have their best side out to get the job done, particularly in the backline, while in the forwards there’s the experience of Nathan White and Michael Swift to bring on late if required.
The Dragons have some talent of their own in reserve as Toby Faletau makes a welcome return for the Men of Gwent and they too will see their season as having some life which could make this a battle right to the end.
Not for the first time in recent weeks, I bow to this blog tradition with my Connacht tradition but in truth I reckon they can do it. Dragons by 5.
Leicester Tigers v Exeter Chiefs, 2pm
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP