By Brendan Cole
The season kicks up to a new level this weekend with Munster v Leinster (live on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie, kick-off 6.45pm) starting a busy period that will also include the first Heineken Cup clashes of the year and three November internationals.
Leinster have been able to set the agenda in this fixture in recent seasons, winning all but two of the last 11 clashes. A win this time would be a fifth in a row.
Neither Munster or Leinster have had particularly good starts to the season. Munster had easy opening four fixtures and could conceivably have won all of them with a few bonus points tacked on. But they lost to Treviso in Italy despite dominating for much of the match, picking up four yellow cards as they gave up a winning position is not a good sign.
Leinster have two wins and a draw from four games, but it is worrying that the biggest test they have faced to date, the clash with Glasgow, saw them outplayed. They were also fortunate to come away with a draw from the clash with the Ospreys after losing the forward battle for much of the second half.
Both Leinster and Munster have been guilty of loose play, and both have conceded an average of over 20 points a game so far. That is a concern for both, though this match should up the defensive intensity step up a notch and that should limit the points totals.
On the attacking side, Munster believe they have upped their effectiveness from last year. The worry is whether or not the speed and accuracy at half-back, where Ian Keatley and Duncan Williams start, will hold up under pressure in a fixture at this level. If it does, Munster have big strengths elsewhere in the team.
Those looking for signs that Munster may be able to change the pattern of this fixture will be heartened by the powerful and settled look of the home pack.
The return of Paul O'Connell to the starting line-up is huge and gives Munster a real playmaker at the heart of the team. But Donnacha Ryan, Peter O'Mahony and James Coughlan also bring presence, while Dave Kilcoyne at loosehead is another very effective carrier.
Leinster have struggled to contain bullying forward packs and despite recruiting a big-hitting second row in Mike McCarthy, the evidence so far is the converted back-rower's impact hits are more effective in the open field than the trenches around the ruck.
Munster may be able to get an edge in the tight exchanges, if they can work well off Williams at scrum-half.
The Munster backs are dangerous individually and bring a mix of strengths to the table. James Downey's ability to set a target for his pack has not always been used well but could be a key platform if brought to bear properly. Outside him, the issue is the tendency towards an individualistic approach.
Simon Zebo is classy and dangerous but the tendency of key playmakers like Keith Earls and Casey Laulala to favour elaborate steps and dicey offloads over cohesive team play has cost Munster in the past. Coaches like the idea of playing 'heads up' rugby, but if too many players are assessing situations and making complex decisions as the ball shifts across the line, it can create problems.
The simplicity, discipline and cohesion Leinster's back play, despite the presence of brilliant individuals, has been a huge factor in separating them from their domestic rivals over the last couple of seasons.
Munster need to show consistent discipline in their wide attack.
They have an advantage on the bench, with Conor Murray, BJ Botha, Damien Varley and CJ Stander all picked to start there. That infusion of size, pace and power could pay huge dividends in the second half.
For Leinster, the main concerns are the scrum, and whether or not the quality of the back play can hold up with Lote Tuquiri coming in to the key outside centre role. The Australian is an exciting and dangerous runner but he has played most of his rugby on the wing, and Munster would be justified in gambling that his ability to connect with those around him is not at Brian O'Driscoll's level. If they can cramp Leinster out wide, and restrict their ability to get around the edge, Ian Madigan's role becomes that bit tougher. The young out-half was outstanding last week, but the key for to Leinster's back play has been the play between 10, 12 and 13, with perfect timing absolutely key. Can Tuquiri fit in to the of system after such a short time with the Leinster squad?
The scrum has been a key platform for Leinster's dominance in this fixture in recent years but they have had issues with both Ospreys and Glasgow getting on top of them. It is not all about Mike Ross – Munster may just have more power in the tight five.
Leinster bring back a trio of Lions in the pack in Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip and they will do damage. They also have an edge at half-back.
But if Leinster's standards do slip in the backline and set-piece, Munster may just be able to win an arm-wrestle, with their need for the project to start showing real progress spurring them on.
Elsewhere, Ulster will seek to continue their recovery from a poor start to the season but will have it all to do against the Ospreys at Liberty Stadium. Ulster's defence is particularly strong and that should keep them in the match, but they won't be at their best until John Afoa and Ruan Pienaar return, and against and Ospreys team that boasts a pack full of bruisers, strong kicking and some good pace in the backline will struggle.
Connacht face a difficult task against Treviso away from home with the improved challenge posed by both Italian clubs one of the stories of the season so far. There have been encouraging signs, but the trip to northern Italy is a difficult one and despite making extensive changes, Connacht may just come up short again.
Munster 22-17 Leinster
Treviso 25-16 Connacht
Ospreys 28-17 Ulster
Munster : F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilycoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; D Ryan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), N Ronan, J Coughlan.
Replacements: Damien Varley, James Cronin, BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley.
Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, L Tuqiri, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; I Madigan, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; M McCarthy, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt).
Replacements: A Dundon, J McGrath, M Moore, R Ruddock, D Ryan, I Boss, J Gopperth, L Fitzgerald
Ulster: C Gilroy, A Trimble, J Payne, L Marshall, M Allen, P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick J Muller (captain), D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: R Herring, C Black, B Ross, I Henderson, R Wilson, M Heaney, S Olding, D Cave
Connacht: G Duffy, T O'Halloran, D Poolman, E Griffin, F Carr, D Parks, P O'Donohoe, R Ah You, S Henry, R Loughney, A Muldowney, C Clarke (capt), A Browne, J Heenan, G Naoupu
Replacements: J Rael, B Wilkinson, N White, J Muldoon, M Fifita, K Marmion, J Carty, M Healy.