By Micil Glennon
Ospreys v Leinster, Liberty Stadium, kick-off 6pm
After an underwhelming and disappointing Heineken Cup run last season, triple champions Leinster will be desperate to get their ERC campaign off to a solid start against Ospreys.
It might not necessarily have to be a winning start but returning from Wales with anything less than a losing bonus point will be a cause for concern in a group that includes Top 14 champions Castres and Northampton, with the latter currently second in the Aviva Premiership.
That the 2011 and 2012 champions must take on the Ospreys minus mainstays Brian O’Driscoll (calf), captain Leo Cullen (Achilles) and long-term absentee Richardt Strauss (heart), as well as new signings Lote Tuqiri and Zane Kirchner, only makes their task more daunting.
The Ospreys are somewhat of a bogey team for the Amlin Cup holders but this is the first meeting of the teams in the Heineken Cup.
Indeed, the sides met as recently as mid-September, with the Welsh men coming away from the RDS with a 29-29 draw.
Coach Matt O’Connor has decided to go with New Zealander Jimmy Gopperth, making his Heineken Cup debut, instead of Ian Madigan at out-half.
Perhaps O’Connor reckons that front-foot ball will be at a premium in the Liberty Stadium and trusts the ex-Newcastle man to run the show better with the limited possession they may have.
Madigan, despite being sin-binned in last week’s defeat to Munster, is entitled to be disappointed after a man-of-the-match showing against Cardiff two weeks ago and it is as worrying from an Ireland point of view that O’Connor doesn’t fully trust the 24-year-old for this trip.
The selection of Isaac Boss at scrum-half suggests that the plan might be to play the percentages on this occasion.
With eight summer Lions between the two packs, the overused expression that this game will be won and lost up front has to spring up somewhere.
Led by third-Test captain Alun-Wyn Jones, the three-time quarter-finalists know that an opening-day defeat in the so-called ‘Pool of Death’ would make emergence from the group almost impossible.
“It's not like a season-long league where you can catch up if you get off to a slow start. Lose your opening games in this competition, and that's it,” said Jones.
How Leinster trio Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip perform against a backrow containing Ryan Jones and Justin Tipuric will be pivotal to any chance of Leinster returning with a point or more.
With an on-form Dan Biggar pulling the strings at out-half, the backs will be very tempted to test out newcomer Brendan Macken, in for O’Driscoll at second centre, early and 225-cap Gordon D’Arcy will have the added task of shepherding the 22-year-old.
The statistics show that Leinster have won their last 11 Heineken Cup games against Welsh opposition, but Ospreys have a formidable home record, losing just one of their last 22 games.
That said, they threw away a 12-point lead against Ulster last week in the PRO12 and went down 18-12.
While that might look encouraging from a Leinster point of view, it would be hard to imagine that Steve Tandy’s men could be so slack two weeks running.
Verdict: Leinster to lose by less than eight
Leinster: Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Brendan Macken, Gordon D'Arcy, Dave Kearney, Jimmy Gopperth, Isaac Boss, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip (c).
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald.
Ospreys: Richard Fussell, Ben John, Andrew Bishop, Ashley Beck, Eli Walker, Dan Biggar, Tito Tebaldi,,Duncan Jones, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones (c), James King, Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric, Joe Bearman
Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Ryan Bevington, Aaron Jarvis, Tyler Ardron, Sam Lewis, Thomas Habberfield, Matthew Morgan , Jeff Hassler
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Edinburgh v Munster, Murrayfield, kick-off 1.35pm
Ronan O’Gara’s name is synonymous with everything Munster have achieved in the Heineken Cup but life goes on, and they must start their first campaign in 16 years without the legendary out-half.
Fresh from a man-of-the-match performance against Leinster last week, Ian Keatley has the unenviable task of filling the boots of the double Cup winner.
But, even as the young Dubliner was helping Munster to record their first win over the PRO12 champions in two years, there were shades of the master in the performance as he kicked 14 of the 19 points and set up Keith Earls’ try with a snappy, pinpoint, cross-field kick.
It’s certainly a positive starting point as they begin their Pool 6 campaign.
Truth be told, if Leinster are in the ‘Pool of Death’, then Munster are in the ‘Pool of Life’ with Perpignan, Gloucester and Edinburgh, hardly European heavyweights by any stretch, providing the impediments – anything less than a home quarter-final would be regarded as a disappointment.
The first task is to get past an Edinburgh side rock bottom of the PRO12 table with just one win in five.
Paul O’Connell captains the 2006 & 2008 champions in the absence of Peter O’Mahony, who doesn’t make the match-day panel despite the province stating that he was not concussed after banging his head off Sean Cronin’s knee last week. The incident happened just before half-time and he didn’t reappear after the break.
Still, no better man than O’Connell to lead the side, and Paddy Butler, making his first Heineken Cup start, comes in alongside Niall Ronan and James Coughlan in the back row
If they can help provide the go-forward ball then Conor Murray and Keatley have exciting runners aplenty outside in the shape of Simon Zebo, Casey Laulala and Earls.
One of the Scottish side’s defeats, in the first game of the season, was to Munster at the start of September, a 34-23 loss in Musgrave Park.
Coach Alan Solomons will hope to see captain Greig Laidlaw marshal his pack to good effect.
Outside that, Tim Visser and Nick de Luca, given space, always pose a threat in the backline.
Conceding his side are in a re-building phase, Solomons said: “We want to perform in such a way that we earn respect. If we perform well then the results will come. That's important for us.”
The teams also met in last season’s pool stages with Rob Penney’s men winning both home (33-0) and away (17-26).
While many an Irish side have come a cropper on trips to Scotland, Edinburgh are unlikely to put together the 80 minutes required to narrow the gulf in class and pedigree.
Verdict: Munster by 12
Munster: Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo, Ian Keatley, Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Stephen Archer, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O'Connell (c), Paddy Butler, Niall Ronan, James Coughlan
Replacements: Damien Varley, James Cronin, BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan, CJ Stander, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley
Edinburgh: Jack Cuthbert, Douglas Fife, Nick De Luca, Matt Scott, Tim Visser, Harry Leonard, Greig Laidlaw (c), Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford, Willem NEL, Grant Gilchrist, Sean Cox, Dimitri Basilaia, Cornell Du Preez, David Denton
Replacements: Aleki Lutui, Lodewicus Blaauw, Geoff Cross, Ollie Atkins, Roddy Grant, Sean Kennedy, Joaquin Dominguez, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Live radio coverage of Ospreys v Leinster on Saturday Sport from 14:45 on Saturday 12 October on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).