By Brendan Cole
Leinster’s clash with Cardiff Blues (live on RTÉ Two) is the standout fixture as the RaboDirect Pro12 returns after two rounds of European rugby in which the Irish teams just about broke even.
Overall, the provinces have yet to full spark into life in any competition, with even unbeaten Ulster playing in fits and starts.
Leinster’s form is probably the worst of the quartet.
Their narrow escape against an Exeter team that was well-organised committed but short on cutting edge should serve as a real warning, while they had the scrum to thank
Any team would struggle to maintain their levels in the absence of Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and Brad Thorn.
Scoring tries, once almost effortless, has become a problem and there has been a lack of a confrontational edge in the knockabouts around the ruck.
Leinster will doubtless recover the scoring knack at some stage – and there looked to be a bit more to their play around the ruck last week against the Scarlets.
Even if they don’t hit their best form, Leinster should be able to exert enough control against a Cardiff team that is barely treading water. Cardiff were soundly thrashed the last time the sides met in last season’s Heineken Cup quarter-final – and that was just the latest in a long line of defeats stretching back to 2007.
And Cardiff have weakened considerably since that meeting, particularly in the pack with Gethin Jenkins, Paul Tito and Xavier Rush all having either retired or left.
The boost for the Blues is that Sam Warburton, who missed last season’s European knockout clash, is fit and starts. With the Wales captain in the team, it is no surprise to see the Blues openly stating that they will look to make the breakdown the main contest. For Leinster’s 21-year-old openside Jordi Murphy, the head-to-head is about as tough as it gets and it will be a point of interest to see how he fares against a top class opponent.
There are dangermen in the backline to contend with as well – Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny and centre Jamie Roberts chief among them. On the wing, Alex Cuthbert also poses a threat.
Brian O’Driscoll will doubtless be keen to show that last week’s missed tackle which allowed Gareth Maule to run in a try was an aberration and not, as some have suggested, evidence of a long term decline. The Ireland captain will also be keen to connect with a few more offloads than has been the case of late.
Even if Leinster do encounter patches of trouble, the scrum and the top-class half-back pairing of Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan is well-placed to deliver relief as they did against the Scarlets last week.
Next week’s clash against the Ospreys (also live on RTÉ television) is likely to be a much more difficult assignment.
Connacht look set for a difficult assignment against an Ospreys side that dramatically restated its credentials in European competition over the last fortnight.
The Welsh side have picked their frontline stars. Kahn Fotuali’i, Dan Biggar and Justin Tipuric among those set to start and with Connacht making seven changes, it has the look of a tough outing.
Munster also make changes, the most interesting of which sees JJ Hanrahan picked at inside centre, for their clash with Zebre. A glut of scoring in the final 10 minutes of last week’s meeting with Edinburgh gave the scoreline a gloss. But the attack still looks blunt, lateral and, for all the width being employed, one-dimensional. Zebre, needless to say, will find it hard to expose any deficiencies.
In the other Friday night clash, it is interesting to see Tommy Bowe shifted to full-back for Ulster’s away meeting with the Dragons with Ireland needing to develop options fast in the position ahead of the November series. Wingers across all the provinces will have taken note.
Ruan Pienaar’s move to out-half gives Paul Marshall a valuable chance to show that he is worth a go alongside the Springbok in the big games.
Ulster have yet to meet a team capable of putting them under sustained pressure but the Dragons are not as bad as their League position suggests, and this is likely to be a tight one.
Ulster may just squeak it to add an eighth win to their sequence.
RaboDirect Pro12 Predictions:
Newport-Dragons 12-16 Ulster
Munster 48-8 Zebre
Ospreys 30-6 Connacht
Leinster 32-9 Cardiff