By Brendan Cole
Munster and Connacht are both in action on Friday night, and both Irish provinces have long-running streaks to their name.
Connacht are looking to break a winless run that is now seven matches long, while Munster are looking to stay on a roll.
The men in red remain on top of the RaboDirect PRO12 after efficiently accumulating points over the international window through a relatively easy win over Cardiff last week and an important 12-6 victory over top-of-the-table rivals the Ospreys.
That was preceded by an excellent October which saw both Leinster and Glasgow beaten.
With that run of form in the book, Munster will be reasonably confident that they can secure a sixth positive result on the bounce against Newport-Gwent Dragons tonight, though it may not be as easy as the form book suggests.
Munster did beat Newport at the end of September but they lost to the same opposition away from home last year. For their part, Newport have strong form at Rodney Parade, with a home-record that includes wins over Ulster and Glasgow. Their only defeat at the ground so far was a four-point loss to a Leinster side which admittedly lost focus in the final quarter.
The Newport XV is unchanged from the team that beat Glasgow last week with Robert Sidoli captaining from the second row and key kicker and playmaker Jason Tovey at out-half. Warren Gatland’s Wales side take on Australia on Saturday, which means Newport are without Toby Faletau.
For their part, Munster have picked a strong starting team with James Downey, Keith Earls and Ian Keatley all returning from injury.
That trio start in the centres and at out-half respectively, while South African speedster Gerhard van den Heever is set to make his first start for the province on the wing.
Munster may miss Casey Laulala’s knack for springing midfield defences open with his acceleration and offloading, but overall looks to have the right combination of size and pace to pose plenty of problems out wide.
The pack also looks strong, with a combination of good set-piece operators and ball-carrying power in the shape of the bulked up CJ Stander and James Coughlan. It promises to be a more awkward encounter than last week, but if the half-backs can exert sufficient control, a confrontational outing from Downey and the pack should create the enough space for Earls, van den Heever and co to score enough for a valuable away win.
Connacht have had a tough time of it this season. Bottom of the table with only an opening day win over Zebre and two losing bonus points to show for their efforts, the Westerners have had more than their fair share of hard luck under new head coach Pat Lam.
This weekend’s trip to Scotland to take on fellow strugglers Edinburgh is an opportunity to add one to the win column, though Connacht’s form means they will travel low on confidence.
Edinburgh have also struggled against the big guns, and only barely beat Zebre at home a couple of weeks ago, albeit during the international window.
But they have accumulated three wins this season, and also beat Munster in the Heineken Cup a few weeks ago.
With a particularly strong looking back row and a good organiser in Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half, they will strongly fancy their chances of securing a fourth Rabo win.
For their part, Connacht welcome back Robbie Henshaw at fullback, while number eight Eoin McKeon returns from a three-month injury absence, albeit with an outing in Buccaneers’ easy win over Dungannon last week in the Ulster Bank League under his belt.
The western province have Craig Clarke at the core of a solid pack, and in-form Kieran Marmion at scrum-half and the big boot of Dan Parks alongside. The formula has not been producing wins to date, but Connacht’s luck will surely turn at some point, though they may have to wait a while longer.
RaboDirect Pro12 Predictions:
N-G Dragons 12-23 Munster
Edinburgh 18-11 Connacht