By Brendan Cole
Leinster and Ulster will both expect RaboDirect PRO12 wins on Saturday as they seek to continue to contend for vital top-four places before the next rounds of Heineken Cup action.
Matt O’Connor has named an exciting backline for their clash with a Scarlets side that has struggled to replicate their form of last year.
The back three looks like a dangerous attacking unit. Lote Tuqiri has had hamstring trouble during his stint with the Dublin side but showed some form against Treviso last week, and scored his first try for the province.
Fitzgerald put in an energetic stint for Ireland against New Zealand, albeit with a few errors, but looks fit and obviously keen to show what he can do while Kirchner demonstrated his ability earlier in the campaign with a match-winning linebreak against Newport. The backline also includes a high-energy all-Irish 9-10-12 axis of Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan and Gordon D’Arcy while up front, Leinster have given some young tight five players a chance to shine, though with Leo Cullen in the second row they will not be short of direction or leadership either.
The props will be particularly interesting to watch. Jack McGrath was not found wanting during the November series for Ireland, while Martin Moore is that rare thing, a young Irish tighthead who is potentially world class. Mike Ross is on the bench and could be influential against a Llanelli pack that Leinster have tended to have an edge over at scrum time. Jimmy Gopperth, on the bench after rescuing the game last week, could also have an important role to play.
The danger for Leinster is that they have been inclined to put in slack periods in their matches. In recent weeks they have allowed both Newport and Treviso to stay in games they should have closed out better in the last few weeks. They also had a dreadful opening 40 minutes against this opposition before running out easy winners in the very first match of the campaign.
But while Llanelli have improved after a poor start to their season, beating Ulster and Connacht in their last two outings, the Welsh region does not look strong enough to overly trouble a Leinster side that includes eight Ireland internationals, and Springbok star Kirchner, on home turf.
On paper, Ulster have a relatively easy task against Zebre even away from home. The Italians are without a win in their last five games and, unlike neighbours Benetton Treviso, usually struggle against the top sides.
That said, Ulster could only scrape to victory in this fixture last year and will know Zebre can be a potent and creative attacking team on their day. They concede a lot of points, but they usually register plenty of their own as well.
Ulster also have a lengthy injury list to contend with. Key forwards Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Nick Williams among those unavailable at the moment. Johann Mueller, Ruan Pienaar, Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe have also been given the week off.
Even with that lengthy list of absentees, Ulster have plenty of quality in important areas. John Afoa is a powerful anchor for the pack at tighthead and there is plenty of attacking talent in the backline.
Some of the team leaders are not present, and Pienaar’s absence means Ulster are without the control and composure they have at their best.
It will be interesting to see how Ulster cope if they do run into adversity in any shape or form but their well-drilled defence and the quality in the admittedly youthful backline should see them over the line.
Leinster 23-10 Llanelli
Zebre 16-30 Ulster
Leinster: 15 Zane Kirchner 14 Lote Tuqiri 13 Brendan Macken 12 Gordon D'Arcy 11 Luke Fitzgerald 10 Ian Madigan 9 Eoin Reddan 1 Jack McGrath 2 Aaron Dundon 3 Martin Moore 4 Leo Cullen 5 Mike McCarthy 6 Rhys Ruddock 7 Shane Jennings (captain) 8 Jordi Murphy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin 17 Michael Bent 18 Mike Ross 19 Tom Denton 20 Dominic Ryan 21 Luke McGrath 22 Jimmy Gopperth 23 Darragh Fanning.
Ulster: Ricky Andrew, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall, Tom Court, Rob Herring, John Afoa, Neil McComb, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack (captain), Mike McComish, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: N Annett, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, C Joyce, S Doyle, M Heaney, J McKinney, Mike Allen.
Live television coverage of Zebre v Ulster from 13:55 on Saturday 30 November on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only).