By Tadhg Peavoy
Leinster v Edinburgh, the RDS, Friday, 1935
One name has dominated all build-up to this match and will continue to do so during and after. That lad is Ben Te’o. The Australian rugby league second row has been brought in by Matt O’Connor to fill the void left by Brian O’Dricoll in the No 13 shirt, and this is the very first glimpse Leinster fans will get of the centre playing in blue.
Te’o comes to rugby union having played second row in rugby league with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. On the surface, he would appear to offer a more direct and physical option than O’Driscoll did in his latter years, however, no doubt he, and the Leinster management, will be keen to show he has more to his game than bulldozing opponents. Time will tell.
Back-to-back Champions Cup victories for Leinster have raised hopes that this squad is beginning to gel with the effect that is needed to compete for silverware come May 2015, and the goal this Friday is to keep that momentum alive with a victory over Edinburgh, and improve a level of back play and interchange that has still been not quite mesmeric this October, even though Leinster saw off Wasps and Castres efficiently enough after poor first halves.
There are eight changes to O’Connor’s team, but they look strong regardless. Ian Madigan is not in the XV - as he is away on international duty with Ireland - and his place-kicking and creativity need to be compensated for by the backline starters.
Jimmy Gopperth will take over duties from the tee, while Te’o, Luke Fitzgerald and Zane Kirchner will be expected to create the magic in midfield.
Madigan has been superb this season, and is beginning to develop into the player he has long been expected to become. But Leinster need to avoid over-reliance on him, and tonight is the chance to work on patterns without him, and build other strengths within the back division.
Richardt Strauss, captain Kevin McLaughlin and Kane Douglas supply the ballast in the pack, and will lead a relatively inexperienced eight.
The worry for Leinster would be that Edinburgh will come to Dublin looking to beat-up the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Tom Denton and Jack Conan, and from there cut off ball-supply to Leinster’s backline and starve them of possession.
However, with 18 players out injured, and two away on Scotland duty, whether they have the squad to do so is the question.
Leinster too have the same squad issues, but on the surface at least, their strength in depth would appear to give them the upper hand going into this encounter.
David Denton at No 8 will be crucial to Edinburgh’s attempts to pull off an upset. His direct lines of running and offloading create space for other to run into and breach defences, and Edinburgh will need plenty of that at the RDS.
But, possession could well be the problem, with a pack shorn of maturity. WP Nel at No 3 will be the pillar for all set-piece work. But with the pack filled with youngsters such as Allan Dell, Ben Toolis and Magnus Bradbury, one would think that dominating Leinster away is a stretch for the Scottish side. Without that platform, it’s hard to see past a home win.
Verdict: Leinster to win by 14
Ospreys v Connacht, Liberty Stadium, Friday, 1935
Connacht’s 33-13 Challenge Cup humbling at the hands of Exeter Chiefs was not exactly what the doctor ordered, and can’t have done much for confidence ahead of the trip to one of the Pro12’s most stylish sides.
But, Pat Lam’s rotation policy was largely behind such a poor return, as he targeted the bread and butter of the Pro12 and put Friday’s visit of Ospreys in the micro focus.
Ospreys form is purring, with six from six in the Pro12 thus far and a swagger that has not been seen for many a year at Liberty Stadium. However, they too come into battle on the back of a drubbing, having been gunned down 34-6 by Northampton.
With that in mind, and given that Ospreys are missing star men Alun-Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb, this is a perfect time to face the league leaders.
Lam has made nine changes to his team and they are far stronger on the team sheet then they were last weekend. Like Leinster, the Westerners have a big, bruising new centre on display in the form of Bundee Aki, and how he performs this weekend, and this season, could prove crucial to how the season goes for the Galway-based team.
The exciting duo of Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty start at half-back. And there is a real flash of youth at full-back where 22-year-old Shane Layden starts, and in the front row where 21-year-old Jamie Denver makes his debut.
John Muldoon, Eoin McKeon and George Naopu form a very strong back row.
A few years back Connacht wouldn’t have been given a snowball’s chance in hell in this fixture, and it’s testament to how far they’ve come that this is expected to be a real contest.
Ospreys have eight players in the starting XV born in 1990 or later, which highlights their youth.
They also have two superb talents in Justin Tipuric at openside flanker and Andrew Bishop at second centre. Those two players are key, and their presence should see the home team through, but Connacht could have a real rattle at this one.
Verdict: Ospreys to win by five