by Brendan Cole
Leinster and Ulster are the only Irish sides left standing in the hunt for RaboDirect Pro12 play-off spots and this weekend is unlikely to see them exchange places at the top of the table.
Live television coverage of Zebre v Leinster from 14:45 on Sunday 21 April on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only).
The overall picture is that five sides remain in contention for four semi-final places, with the Ospreys currently outside the top four but level on points on with Llanelli Scarlets. As the current leaders, Ulster and Leinster are in line for home semi-finals, with Glasgow and Llanelli in third and fourth respectively.
A win against Zebre this weekend will put Leinster out of reach of old rivals the Ospreys when they meet in Dublin next week. And given that Zebre are bottom of the table with no wins to show for the season so far, the chance of that shock defeat happening must be considered negligible, even on Italian soil.
With that in mind, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt treads the fine line between giving youth a chance and ensuring that enough calm heads are on the pitch to manage any sticky situations in his team selection. Scrum-half, where John Cooney gets the start with Isaac Boss on the bench, is a case in point.
The major talking point and positive is, of course, the return to the starting XV of Jonathan Sexton. The Paris-bound out-half looks poised to give Schmidt a dilemma ahead of a planned run to the final of both the Amlin Challenge Cup and the Rabo with Ian Madigan having performed superbly in his absence both in general play and as a place-kicker.
Despite Sexton’s track-record for province and country, it would be unfair on Ian Madigan to exclude him from the starting line-ups of the crunch games in both competitions. In practical terms, Sexton’s decision to leave for Racing Metro means Madigan is the future ‘franchise out-half’.
Exposing him to top level knockout rugby this season should, in theory at least, pay dividends next year. A third option, combining them both in the same team, could yet be tried. Madigan is not in the match-day squad this time and Gordon D’Arcy is clearly the man for the job when fit, but it will be interesting to see if Schmidt opts to take a look at the pair as a 10-12 combination over the next weeks.
Leinster also sees the front liners rested with Rhys Ruddock at number eight and Dominic Ryan given the number seven jersey. After a frustrating season, Ryan gets a chance to restate his credentials as potential Ireland openside.
The scrum is potentially a worry with Mike Ross not travelling and Michael Bent entrusted with the tighthead role. Issues there could slow Leinster’s scoring rate but nothing more than that.
Zebre do not often face attacking firepower of the quality of Sexton, Isa Nacewa, in his best position of full-back, and Brian O’Driscoll. Over the 80 minutes, the Italians will surely find Leinster’s that combination of creativity, speed and accuracy at the breakdown to be far too much.
Ulster face a trickier assignment, travelling to Galway to take on a Connacht team that never fails to turn up against an Irish rival. But Ulster’s can focus entirely on the Rabo and having recovered their form and gotten some key men back from injury after a post-Christmas lull, they are in position to name a strong team.
Ruan Pienaar will pull the strings as usual, this time from scrum-half, with Paddy Jackson at ten and the in-form Paul Marshall on the bench. With such quality distribution at half-back and finishers of the calibre of Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe out wide, Connacht cannot afford to allow much room down the flanks.
But they will be hard pushed to retain good shape, as Ulster field a strong looking pack that includes the ball-carrying heft and creativity of number eight Nick Williams with a slew of players capable of bringing breakdown intensity around him.
The impressive looking new tighthead Ricky Lutton is another is another worth keeping an eye on against a Connacht scrum that usually provides a stiff test. Alongside him, Rory Best could also do with a confidence boosting outing at lineout time as the Lions selection draws ever nearer.
For Connacht’s part, relying on the boot of the Dan Parks is the most likely route to success. Ulster’s defence, and their tackling in particular, has been a revelation under Mark Anscombe and the Westerners look to lack the backline zip and breakdown power to take much in the way of contact.
Ulster have not finished their games strongly at times this season, but look well set to continue in the top spot.
For Munster, tonight’s match against the Dragons is a dead rubber and a young and experimental side containing very few of those who will be involved against Clermont in the Heineken Cup semi-final has been named.
The Munster squad is full of young players who will be keen to make an impression, but the second string and half-strength selections have underperformed on more than one occasion in this type of match this year.
South African import CJ Stander, seen tearing up trees and scoring length of the field tries shortly after his arrival in December but not registered in the Heineken Cup squad, is on the bench. Ivan Dineen and Cathal Sheridan, both registered in March, are given starts.
And even thought the Welsh region have not been setting the world alight in the Rabo, they are second from bottom in the table, the powerful back five in their scrum will provide a stern test for Munster in the tight.
The outstanding back-rowers Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau, both likely Lions, will provide a particularly stiff examination with Lydiate needing to demonstrate form and fitness.
RaboDirect Pro12 Predictions:
Newport-Gwent Dragons 28-12 Munster
Connacht 9-21 Ulster
Zebre 10-32 Leinster