By Brendan Cole
Leinster are in do-or-die mode a week early while Ulster could actually seal their place in the knockout stages with a round to spare.
Live coverage of Leinster v Scarlets on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1 on Saturday 12 January from 2pm.
LIve coverage of Ulster v Glasgow on a specially extended Sport at Seven on RTÉ Radio 1 tonight.
Munster also have to win two games in a row but in their case, the task is tantalisingly achievable.
Munster probably need a bonus point in at least one of their remaining games, with Racing Metro set to visit Thomond Park next week.
Getting that bonus a week early would certainly make things more comfortable, though taking on Edinburgh in a near-empty Murrayfield in a 12.45pm kick-off will not make for an ideal atmosphere.
The abysmal performance against Cardiff last week may prompt a game plan change and with Edinburgh lacking size in the midfield, the timing looks right for putting the emphasis on physical confrontation via the centres and back-row.
Frustratingly, due to the fact that James Coughlan had to be added to the squad in December, South African import CJ Stander remains outside the eligible squad and will play for the B & I Cup team this weekend.
Munster have not been earning the right to go wide of late.
Fundamentally, powerful ball-carriers like James Coughlan, James Downey and Peter O’Mahony need more opportunities to carry at speed.
For the Scottish region, Nick De Luca was ruled out for two months due to an eye socket injury but wing danger man Tim Visser is named despite picking up an injury last week.
Loosehead Allan Jacobsen and number eight David Denton are the standout starters in the pack.
A win certainly looks achievable, and if the game plan kicks Munster may well manage those four tries on the big Murrayfield pitch.
Leinster’s task begins in the more cramped environs of the RDS.
Surprisingly, given the need to score four tries, Brian O’Driscoll is named on the bench.
That said, the Ireland captain’s record of late try-scoring heroics for both province and country could make it a shrewd move.
If Leinster need a couple of five-pointers with 20 minutes to go, bringing their best creator and finisher on at that point could provide a crucial boost.
Elsewhere, Isaac Boss gets the nod at scrum-half with Eoin Reddan missing out.
As with O’Driscoll, Reddan’s ability to inject pace and urgency in the second half could prove important if Leinster do find themselves needing something special.
Try-scoring has been an issue in this competition and while Leinster ran in a shedload of tries against Cardiff, the attack has also looked blunt in the tighter Pro12 games.
The amount of tries conceded in the Rabo (29) is also a concern; the stingy Ospreys have allowed just 10 over their 13 games.
The returning personnel should go a long way towards fixing the issues with Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and O’Driscoll all coming back on stream just in time to rescue the season.
As for Llanelli, they suffered a thumping at the hands of Ulster last week but are to be respected given they have eight RaboDirect Pro12 wins so far this season.
The XV is not particularly strong with George North not risked due to a slight injury worry and Rhys Priestland out long-term with a ruptured Achilles.
But the pack looks like the weak link and with that in mind, Joe Schmidt looks to have picked a team to work Llanelli over up front before opening things up for a final flourish in the last quarter if needed.
In front of a home crowd and with Llanelli playing solely for pride, Leinster should be able to complete phase one of the great escape plan.
Ulster could become the first team to seal qualification for the knockout stages if things go their way tonight.
Some important players will miss the match – notably Stephen Ferris, Johann Mueller and Luke Marshall among them – and there are also injury concerns about returning full-back Jared Payne.
But Glasgow have worries of their own, and only travel with 22 players due to an injury crisis in the front row. Ruaridh Jackson is rested and left out of the squad while Stuart Hogg is only named on the bench.
Ulster have been a potent attack this season and with Ruan Pienaar in situ and a core of strong operators in the pack, they look well capable of creating enough pressure to score plenty of points in front of their home fans.
If they can get the fourth try and bonus point, a no-bonus point win for Northampton, who play at home against Castres, would see Ulster through a week early.
Connacht name a strong team to take on Aviva Premiership leaders Harlequins but are without out-half Dan Parks, with Matt Jarvis starting instead.
Eric Elwood’s men can take heart from the fact Quins almost suffered a shock loss to strugglers London Welsh in the English League last week.
But Quins are taking no chances with Nick Evans and Danny Care selected to steer the ship at half-back, and the likes of Nick Easter, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler starting in the pack.
The back-three of Mike Brown, Tom Williams and Ugo Monye is also notably dangerous.
Parks’ conservative style would probably not have been effective in this particular clash and Connacht’s best chance is probably to take a few risks and see if they can set a tempo that upsets the hosts.
They will also need big plays to rally around from the likes of Mike McCarthy and Johnny O’Connor.
But Quins have been superb as an attacking force for most of this season and look too strong.
With the number one seeding in their sights, they will be too hard to knock over this time.
Heineken Cup Predictions:
Ulster 35-9 Glasgow
Leinster 30-12 Llanelli
Edinburgh 16-24 Munster
Harlequins 35-10 Connacht
Munster team: Jones; Howlett capt, Earls, Downey, Zebo; ROG, Murray; Kilcoyne, Varley, Botha; D O'Callaghan, Ryan; POM, TOD, Coughlan.
Replacements: M Sherry, W du Preez, S Archer, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, I Keatley, C Laulala.
Leinster team: R Kearney, I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald, J Sexton, I Boss, C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross, L Cullen, D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip
Replacements: Aaron Dundon,: Heinke van der Merwe, Michael Bent, Tom Denton, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Brian O'Driscoll
Ulster team: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, L Stevenson, I Henderson, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Neil McComb, Roger Wilson, Paul Marshall, Michael Allen, Chris Cochrane.
Connacht team: R Henshaw, T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo, M Jarvis, Marmion, D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, N White (capt), M Swift, M McCarthy, A Browne, J O'Connor, E McKeon
Replacements: E Reynecke, B Wilkinson, R Loughney, M Kearney, E Grace, P O'Donohoe, M Nikora, J Loxton