By Brendan Cole
Leinster take on Treviso looking to bounce back after having a lengthy run of Rabo Direct Pro12 victories ended by Ospreys in Wales last week.
Treviso are not the soft touch of old and have been competitive on their travels this season. They also came within a point of handing Leinster a defeat at Stadio Monigo in the reverse fixture back in November.
The Italians have quality sprinkled across the team.
Italian internationals Luke McLean and Michele Campagnaro are the obvious danger men in the backline and have the class to take advantage of any lapses on Leinster’s part.
Alongside Campagnaro, Christian Loamanu brings an interesting history as well as a physical presence.
The Tongan-born inside-centre was banned from playing Test rugby by his adopted country Japan several years ago after a series of incidents including a fight with a Japanese female wrestler and a failed marijuana test.
If in the right mood, he has the power to knock Leinster’s defensive systems out of alignment from time to time. Treviso also have a pair of capable operators in the back-row in Robert Barbieri and Paul Derbyshire, while captain Leonardo Ghiraldini is a tough character capable of leading a smart operation in the tight.
It is at half-back and the set-piece where things could fall down for the away team.
Cian Healy is about as destructive as they come at loosehead and even up against Lorenzo Cittadini has the technique and power to give Leinster a physical edge while perhaps winning the odd penalty.
Leinster will also be strong out of touch. Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip give them a quartet of lineout players capable of winning the vast majority of their own ball while also causing problems for Treviso from front to back.
If Leinster can get on top in those areas, half-backs Isaac Boss and Jimmy Gopperth are well capable of tuning that platform into good field position.
That alone would probably suffice, but Leinster would surely prefer to skip clear early in the second half.
If they are to do so, much will rest on the performance of Brian O’Driscoll. The games are starting to run out and the 35-year-old’s artistry and ability direction will be badly missed when he does go. If he can get involved often enough, Leinster should be able to get the scoreboard ticking along quickly enough.
Also playing on Friday night, Ulster have by far the tougher task, taking on a Glasgow side that is on something of a roll after a victory at Thomond Park a week ago. Warriors coach Gregor Towsend has not played down the importance of the clash – describing it as the "biggest game of the season”.
He added: “We're playing another team who are sitting above us in the league who are also very keen to get a win to stay in the top four and we can't wait."
That enthusiasm, along with Glasgow’s liking for sunshine and hardening pitches, should stand them in good stead. The home side have made an important change at out-half, where the inexperienced but highly rated Finn Russell comes in alongside captain Chris Cusiter with Ruairidh Jackson named on the bench.
Ulster have had a rougher time of it than over the last few weeks, exiting the Heineken Cup in brutal fashion and shipping a truckload of injuries into the bargain. Last weekend’s blowout win over Connacht may have injected some momentum back into their season but this is a major step up and the continued absence of a half-a-dozen big names is more than unhelpful.
Jared Payne is suspended for one more week and John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar, Robbie Diack, Stephen Ferris and Rory Best are among the big names either out injured or resting up ahead of the final push.
The run-in doesn’t get any easier for Ulster, who have to face Leinster and Munster in successive weeks over the final two rounds of the regular season. Glasgow may just be able to ride the momentum they have created since running Leinster close at the RDS at the beginning of March to a fifth win on the bounce.
RaboDirect Pro12 predictions:
Leinster 38-8 Treviso
Glasgow 21-15 Ulster
Leinster: 15: Rob Kearney 14: Zane Kirchner 13: Brian O'Driscoll 12: Noel Reid 11: Darragh Fanning 10: Jimmy Gopperth 9: Isaac Boss 1: Cian Healy 2: Sean Cronin 3: Martin Moore 4: Devin Toner 5: Mike McCarthy 6: Rhys Ruddock 7: Jordi Murphy 8: Jamie Heaslip (c).
Replacements: 16: Richardt Strauss 17: Jack McGrath 18: Michael Bent 19: Tom Denton 20: Dominic Ryan 21: Luke McGrath 22: Ian Madigan 23: Brendan Macken
Benetton Treviso: 15 Luke McLean 14 Ludovico Nitoglia 13 Michele Campagnaro 12 Christian Loamanu 11 Angelo Esposito 10 Mat Berquist 9 Tobias Botes 8 Robert Barbieri 7 Paul Derbyshire 6 Marco Filippucci 5 Valerio Bernabò 4 Marco Fuser 3 Lorenzo Cittadini 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (captain) 1 Matteo Muccignat.
Replacements: 16 Giovanni Maistri 17 Ignacio Fernandez-Rouyet 18 Pedro Di Santo 19 Antonio Pavanello 20 Dean Budd 21 Fabio Semenzato 22 James Ambrosini 23 Brendan Williams.
Ulster: R Andrew, T Bowe, D Cave, L Marshall, A Trimble, P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Herring, R Lutton, J Muller (Captain), I Henderson, C Henry, S Doyle, N Williams.
Replacements: N Annett, A Warwick, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, M McComish, M Heaney, J McKinney, C Gilroy.
Glasgow: 15. Peter Murchie 14. Sean Maitland 13. Mark Bennett 12. Peter Horne 11. Tommy Seymour 10. Finn Russell 9. Chris Cusiter (Captain) 1. Gordon Reid 2. Dougie Hall 3. Jon Welsh 4. Tim Swinson 5. Jonny Gray 6. Josh Strauss 7. Chris Fusaro 8. Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: 16. Pat MacArthur 17. Ryan Grant 18. Geoff Cross 19. Leone Nakarawa 20. Rob Harley 21. Niko Matawalu 22. Ruaridh Jackson 23. Richie Vernon.