By Brendan Cole
Leinster will face an inexperienced Ospreys on Sunday (4.00pm, RTÉ One) and despite some patchy displays of late, Joe Schmidt’s side may just have enough to snatch a valuable away win.
Leinster did appear to roar back into form against Cardiff a week ago.
But the awfulness of the Blues that day has to be taken into account: at home, it is fair to expect the Ospreys to at least be motivated to play properly.
The changes in personnel brought about by international call-ups could also see Leinster struggle to recreate the all-singing, all-dancing form that saw them score at a point a minute for almost three-quarters of that clash with the Blues.
On the other hand, the Ospreys are badly affected by call-ups and injury and, with the ‘sugar-daddy’ days firmly in the past may struggle to match Leinster’s depth.
The scrum has tended to be a key battle whenever these sides meet but that may not be the case this time with neither side looking to have enough destructive power to really dominate the other (Leinster are without Mike Ross and Cian Healy, while the Ospreys will not be able to call on Adam Jones, who would have been with the Wales squad had he not injured his knee).
Leinster have not selected the recently arrived Michael Bent, instead giving Jamie Hagan a chance to show what he can do as a starter at tighthead.
Arguably, Bent’s arrival can be traced back to Hagan’s catastrophic outing against Jones at the RDS last year. In a sense, this is a chance at redemption.
Much rests on Hagan’s ability to hold up his side.
"Much rests on Hagan’s ability to hold up his side."
If he can, Leinster do have a strong looking lineout with Hagan, Devin Toner and Rhys Ruddock the key men, and an exciting backline that looks well suited to playing attacking, ball-in-hand rugby.
Work-rate, organisation and the ability to carry and protect well will be vital with much resting on the ability of Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan to get everyone humming around them.
It will also be interesting to see what inside centre Andrew Goodman, who, like Bent, arrives from ITM Cup rugby in New Zealand, brings to the party.
For the Ospreys part, George Stowers is the hard man in the pack and if Leinster can subdue the big Samoan, it will go a long way towards establishing a winning position.
Leinster must also be wary of the Ospreys bench, which features a potential game changer in the shape of Stowers’ international team-mate Kahn Fotuali’i.
Leinster’s own bench is entirely made up of young Academy players: if the game is tight, Fotuali’i has the skills to shake things up in the final quarter.
It could be decisive.
Even though they are away from home, Leinster will need to play some loose rugby as, despite the Ospreys’ inexperience, they do not look capable of winning an attritional battle.
But if they can get into a good rhythm, Madigan may just be able to orchestrate a win.
Elsewhere, Connacht face Benneton Treviso at what is always a key part of the season for them.
It could end up being a difficult enough assignment at The Sportsground against a team that is improving all the time.
On the plus side, having rested a host of players last week Eric Elwood is able to name a strong, well-rested side with all the key men in place.
Despite some difficult outings, Connacht’s play has been excellent at times this year.
At home and with close to the best XV, Connacht should do the business.
Elsewhere, Munster look likely to face a better-motivated Cardiff Blues side than Leinster did last week and, like everyone else, will have to cope with plenty of chopping and changing.
Cardiff are without 15 players due to injury and call-ups and like the Ospreys, look to lack cover in some key areas.
It is hard to see why both JJ Hanrahan and James Downey are overlooked with Ian Keatley slotting in at 12 but even so, Rob Penney has picked a team that looks capable of securing an away win.
Ulster look to have a much easier job on their hands with Edinburgh visiting Ravenhill.
Despite losing a few players to the international window can call on Stephen Ferris, Paul Marshall, Jared Payne, Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa.
RaboDirect Pro12 Predictions:
Ulster 48-12 Edinburgh
Cardiff Blues 18-28 Munster
Connacht 22-15 Benetton Treviso
Ospreys 23-24 Leinster