By Brendan Cole
Leinster begin an important phase of their season against the Newport-Gwent Dragons tonight in Wales after what has been an unconvincing start to their RaboDirect PRO12 campaign.
Three wins and a draw is not a terrible return from their opening six matches, but Leinster’s league setbacks have come against big rivals, and Matt O’Connor’s men are now at the rear of a group of five at the top of the PRO12 table.
With three games against smaller teams over the next three weeks, this November is a chance to make up some ground. On the other hand, slip-ups could see a gap between Leinster and the play-off places begin to open.
For O’Connor, this period is a major test of squad cohesion and depth. On the strength front, Leinster have been particularly affected by internationals call-ups, losing 17 players to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad.
Combining the remaining mix of up-and-coming talent, imports and fringe players into a winning unit is a huge challenge, particularly as the remaining corps does not look as strong as it has been in recent seasons.
Leinster will also miss Leo Cullen, who is still out after having a procedure done on his ankle.
Isaac Boss, Devin Toner and Ian Madigan are among those who might have been available had there been no regime change at international level. On the import front, the loss of Isa Nacewa will also be keenly felt.
However, Leinster are not completely bereft. South Africa international Zane Kirchner comes in for a well-timed first start at full-back, while Lote Tuqiri and Luke Fitzgerald can potentially bring a certain amount of cutting edge to the backline.
Jimmy Gopperth is also capable of eye-catching plays, though a question mark remains over whether he can orchestrate the complex backline play Leinster have used to such good effect in recent seasons.
Jennings and the 31-year-old Aaron Dundon aside, the Leinster pack is on the young side, with four 22 year-olds in the mix and an average age of 25. Leinster will hope for some impetus from the back row, where Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan will both be looking to make an impression after seeing their meteoric rises stall slightly over the last 12 months or so.
What of the Dragons? They have suffered just two losses to the Wales international squad, with forwards Toby Faletau and Andrew Coombs the only men brought into Warren Gatland’s troop.
The backline is boosted by the return of Jason Tovey at out-half and Pat Leach at outside centre. Neither are world beaters, but Tovey has an effective boot while Leach brings size and weight that could be effective against an undersized Leinster centre pairing. The feeling in Wales is that the backline will be stronger than in recent weeks.
Elsewhere, the Dragons have little in the way of big names, but their record this season is three wins out of three at Rodney Parade, including an opening day surprise against Ulster that showed they are not to be taken lightly.
Leinster have won the last six encounters between these sides, but they may well struggle to maintain that record this time.
Meanwhile, Ulster and Munster have been less affected by the November call-ups and both should also benefit from having a more bedded in group of imports, while Connacht are among the teams who will be looking for big wins with the international squad call-ups tilting things their way.
Ospreys make the trip to face Munster at Thomond Park without the core of their formidable pack and with Munster looking particularly strong up front, they should be able to get a home win and stay top of the table. The Welsh region will still pose a challenge, and there is enough history between these sides for there to be plenty of spice in the encounter.
Even with several absentees, Ulster will field a top class XV against a Scarlets side that has struggled this season. Mark Anscombe's men have recovered momentum after a stuttering start to their season, winning four on the bounce, and with Ruan Pienaar in harness at out-half and quality across the team from Jared Payne at full-back to John Afoa at tighthead they look capable claiming a valuable away win.
With only Robbie Henshaw's call-up to contend with, this should be Connacht's time to shine - even with injury problems in some areas.
Andrew Browne and John Muldoon are still out injured, which means the 21-year-old Jake Heenan gets another chance to impress in the back row, while fellow New Zealand import Craig Clarke is again named at lock.
Connacht will face a difficult task against a Glasgow team that has shown itself to have an excellent culture, as well as big-name players, over the last couple of seasons. But like Leinster, the Scots have 17 players on international duty and that should weaken them enough for an improving Connacht side to make up for last week's last-minute defeat with a win at the Sportsground.
Leinster 12-17 Dragons
Scarlets 11-25 Ulster
Connacht 15-9 Glasgow
Munster 28-14 Ospreys