Cardiff Blues v Leinster, BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, Saturday, kick-off 14:40 (Live on Sky)
November and December were not good months for Matt O’Connor’s Leinster. In four Pro12 encounters, and two Champions Cup ties, the three-time European champions never once performed at their top level, and drew stinging criticism from the public and media alike, with calls that MOC’s template was akin to Warren Gatland’s Warrenball AKA route one, and devoid of the creativity needed to unlock defences.
Harsh words, and very early indeed to be making them, given the side are the reigning Pro12 champions and are adjusting to the retirement of two of their most influential players over the last five years: Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen.
Add to that the fact that O’Driscoll’s replacement, Ben Te’o, has been ruled out for most of the season with a broken arm, and Cullen’s replacement Kane Douglas has had a very slow adjustment period to European rugby, and it is not that hard to imagine why Leinster have not hit the highs expected of them by the rugby world.
Stack upon that the injuries to Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, the side’s two key ball carriers, and the continuing indecision over who should start at outhalf, Ian Madigan or Jimmy Gopperth, and a full picture of transition surrounds the team.
Against Ulster, in their 24-11 victory, Leinster finally began to purr, especially in the second period, and showed a gelling in the backline, combined with a consistency in the pack and at the breakdown, that will have given new hope that this team is not a spent force in either the Pro12 or in Europe this year.
But that’s all it was, a scent that needs to be confirmed. That confirmation starts this weekend against Cardiff away, followed by Champions Cup ties against Castres at home and Coventry Wasps away. Win those three games, and play well, in the fashion that they did on 3 January at the RDS against Ulster, and there will be a shift in belief both within and outside the squad that could prove crucial heading into the business end of the season.
The team itself is one of change from the outfit that saw off Ulster, 11 changes in total mean that this will not be a continuation of the performance of last week, but a change in tack. Expect a more physical and direct approach with Gopperth at No 10 and Te’o coming into midfield alongside Noel Reid. However, with Rob Kearney and Luke McGrath also earning inclusions in the back division there is plenty of game breaking ability in the side.
Marty Moore’s return at tighthead is a huge boost at set-piece time, and Sean Cronin gives the team a carrier of exceptional quality. In the second row, the earlier mentioned Douglas gets another chance to press his credentials as the man fit to fill Cullen’s boots in the engine room. His performance against Connacht on 19 December was the template he needs to hit every week: huge tackles all over the park and an even more impressive work rate.
The back row against Ulster of Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy and Josh van den Flier (on for the injured Jamie Heaslip) was exceptional, and arguably the best performance from that division in any game they have played this season. Their dominance at the breakdown was complete and their lines of attack with ball-in-hand exceptional. Conan and Murphy start again on Saturday, with Dominic Ryan completing the trio. O’Connor will want to see a repeat of last week as all three push to retain those jerseys for the must-win tie against Castres on 17 January.
Cardiff are going to offer plenty in opposition at the Arms Park, and with a 66% win ratio in their last three encounters, come in with good form, despite lying low in ninth position in the table.
It also appears clear how to silence their threat. A good scrum is essential in negating the threat of Lions Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, while combating Sam Warburton’s efficiency in securing ball at the breakdown is perhaps the most important element to containing the pack. Josh Navidi’s ball-in-hand play from No 8 also must be curtailed.
With that done, Leinster should have the edge in the backline, where the back three of Joaquin Tuculet, Alex Cuthbert and Lucas Amorosino are the main threats. Suffocate them of possession and force line breaks around the 10-13 channel and Leinster have their blueprint for victory in the Welsh capital.
Cardiff have only beaten Leinster once in their last 16 encounters and the Irish province should have enough to make sure that record doesn’t improve on Saturday.
Verdict: Leinster by seven.
Zebre v Munster, Stadio XXV Aprile, Saturday, kick-off 15:00 Irish time
The news that JJ Hanrahan will depart for Northampton Saints next season was met with widespread disapppointement in Irish rugby circles this week. The Kerryman has been one of the standout players of creativity in the Munster squad over the last number of seasons and it appeared that head coach Anthony Foley had backed him to secure the No 12 berth outside Ian Keatley. Next season that team design will be gone and Munster will need to look elsewhere for playmakers outside the halfback channel.
For the moment, he remains in situ, and fills the inside centre slot again in a backline that looks well poised to do damage, with Pat Howard outside him at 13 and Simon Zebo and Felix Jones ready to do damage in the back three.
Lion Conor Murray is in at scumhalf to join the divisions, with a pack that includes Argentine hooker Eusebio Guinazo – who looks a very good signing indeed, the ever improving Dave Foley at lock, and Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the back row. By all accounts it’s a decent side to take on an away trip to the bottom side in the division.
Munster have thumped Zebre in their last thee encounters, coming out 110 to 34 aggregate winners. In fact, in 25 clashes with Irish provinces only Ulster, once, have not come away with victory [last September]. In other words, if Munster don’t do the business, then it will be historic stuff from the Parma team.
There is plenty of talent in the team, with Andrea de Marchi, Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco all named in the pack, and Leonardo Sarto, Tommaso Iannone and Giovanbattista Venditti in the backs. However, in truth, they have not shown an ability to either grind teams down, or outskill them hand-to-hand out wide this season. It’s hard to see that turning around this weekend.
Verdict: Munster by ten.
Benetton Treviso v Ulster, Stadio Monigo, kick-off 14:00 Irish time (Live on BBC NI)
Treviso come into this clash with Ulster after their back-to-back victories over Italian rivals Zebre over the festive period and with that will be bristling with confidence and eager to land a hat-trick of victories, which would push them up to within a point of 10th placed Dragons.
Ulster, by contrast, come into the tie after an extremely poor run of form that stretches right back to 21 November, their last good outing, when they saw off Ospreys in style 25-16 at Kingspan Stadium.
In the Pro12 they’ve shipped defeats to Munster, Ospreys and Leinster, as well as sneaking past Connacht by three points with a very unconvincing performance. In the Champions Cup things have been little better, with a scrappy win over Scarlets followed by a comprehensive defeat to the same team the following weekend.
In short, they’ve been a little all over the shop, struggling for consistency and seeming to lack killer punches in games despite being able to put decent phases together for patches. Inconsistent is the most consistent description for them - so far - this season.
As a result this game becomes all the more important; it’s a chance to stop the tide and put in a very solid away performance built on a strong display from the pack, and finished off by a backline that clicks.
The team selected is definitely good enough to blow Treviso away. Louis Ludik, Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar are all named and make a superb backline. Up front Rory Best, Wihahn Herbst, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack and Roger Wilson provide a spine that I can’t see the Italians living with.
Alessandro Zanni will do his best to disrupt the Ulster platform at openside, Cornelius van Zyl is the enforcer in the pack at lock.
Out wide Andrea Pratichetti, Michele Campagnaro and Angelo Esposito are the danger men. But in truth, only if Ulster deliver an under par performance is this Italian XV capable of taking four points.
If Ulster use their recent black patch as incentive, keep 15 men on the pitch - unlike when they faced Zebre in Parma back in September, and use possession wisely, they should have enough to end their six-match away losing streak, pulling away in the final quarter.
Verdict: Ulster to win by 12.