By Brendan Cole
Leinster face their toughest RaboDirect Pro12 rival from outside the Irish provinces as they take on Ospreys at Liberty Stadium.
Victory would see them surge even further clear at the head of the table.
Matt O’Connor’s men may have suffered a deflating defeat to Toulon in the Heineken Cup last Sunday, but their league form has been exemplary since Christmas with a perfect record of eight wins from eight matches.
That said, the European setback may well have an impact, and part of the challenge this week is to dig in and bring sufficient energy and motivation to a clash that will have a rather different character to the sun-drenched mauling at the hands of Mathieu Bastareaud and co six days ago.
It will be particularly difficult for the forwards who lined out against Toulon to perform at their best and a lot is being asked of Cian Healy, Mike McCarthy, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip.
In total, eight players in the starting XV are retained from the Toulon match.
Some freshness is injected and the likes of Sean Cronin, Isaac Boss and Leo Cullen bring their own strengths to the mix, while Gordon D’Arcy’s move to outside centre, with Noel Reid slotting in alongside at 12, could also bring out a different aspect to his game.
O’Connor has also selected strength on the bench and Mike Ross and Devin Toner are both capable of giving Leinster a boost in the set-piece off the bench.
For their part, the Ospreys have a mix of high-quality performers and unknown quantities.
Traditionally, the Welsh region have based their game on an uncompromising approach up front and they have enough quality players to go toe-to-toe with Leinster with Alun-Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones and Justin Tipuric capable of setting a standard for the others to row in behind.
The Ospreys also look strong behind the scrum.
At out-half, Dan Biggar is not the most stylish passer, but he can take the ball flat and be a running threat while also bringing the men outside him into the play. Centre Ashley Beck and full-back Richard Fussell are two players who have troubled Leinster in the past.
The performances of the lesser lights in the XV will be central.
A key case in point is at scrum-half, where Tom Habberfield keeps a solid performer in Tito Tebaldi on the bench and can deliver the tempo that the Ospreys tend to thrive on when at their best.
All told, Leinster may just find that recovering from Sunday’s exertions and coping with an Ospreys side that is clinging to a play-off place and has that bit more to play for is just beyond them this week.
Outside centre will also be a talking point in the inter-provincial clash between Ulster and Connacht tonight.
Tommy Bowe will wear the number 13 jersey for Ulster while another possible successor, Robbie Henshaw, will start at full-back for Connacht.
Similarly to Leinster, Ulster must also bounce back after a European setback.
As well as giving Mark Anscombe six injuries to contend with, their heartbreaking loss to Saracens may well exact a mental toll too.
There is plenty of quality in the backline, where Bowe is joined by the likes of Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble, who plays despite suffering concussion last week, while the back five of the scrum is also notably strong.
The performances of the front row and Paul Marshall at scrum-half will dictate whether Connacht will have the opportunity to get amongst their opponents.
For their part, Pat Lam’s men have been going well and narrowly missed out on a victory over the Scarlets in Wales in their last outing. Henshaw’s heroics when creating a last gasp try saved two bonus points for his side and kept Connacht in the hunt for a top-six finish.
But for all that their form has been impressive, Connacht have not won at Ravenhill in 54 years.
Despite Ulster’s difficult week, that record is unlikely to be changed.
RaboDirect Pro12 Predictions:
Ospreys 23-19 Leinster
Ulster 29-12 Connacht
Ospreys: 15 Richard Fussell 14 Jeff Hassler 13 Jonathan Spratt 12 Ashley Beck 11 Aisea Natoga 10 Dan Biggar 9 Tom Habberfield 1 Duncan Jones 2 Scott Baldwin 3 Aaron Jarvis 4 Ryan Jones 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c) 6 Joe Bearman 7 Justin Tipuric 8 Dan Baker
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten 17 Nicky Smith 18 Adam Jones 19 James King 20 Morgan Allen 21 Tito Tebaldi 22 Sam Davies 23 Hanno Dirksen
Leinster: 15: Rob Kearney 14: Zane Kirchner 13: Gordon D'Arcy 12: Noel Reid 11: Dave Kearney 10: Jimmy Gopperth 9: Isaac Boss 1: Cian Healy 2: Sean Cronin 3: Martin Moore 4: Leo Cullen (c) 5: Mike McCarthy 6: Kevin McLaughlin 7: Shane Jennings 8: Jamie Heaslip
Replacements: 16: Aaron Dundon 17: Michael Bent 18: Mike Ross 19: Devin Toner 20: Jordi Murphy 21: Luke McGrath 22: Collie O'Shea 23: Darragh Fanning
Ulster: R Andrew; A Trimble, T Bowe, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; A Warwick, R Herring, R Lutton, J Muller (Captain), I Henderson, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: N Annett, T Court, A Macklin, L Stevenson, S Doyle, M Heaney, J McKinney, S McCloskey.
Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Carr; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You; A Muldowney, M Kearney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, E McKeon.
Replacements: D Heffernan, R Loughney, F Bealham, M Swift, A Browne, F Murphy, M Nikora, D Leader.
Live television coverage of Ospreys v Leinster from 19:00 on Friday 11 April on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only)