By Tadhg Peavoy
Cardiff Blues v Munster, Cardiff Arms Park, Saturday, 6.30pm
Munster will look to maintain their spot at the top of the PRO12 table with victory over Cardiff Blues (live on RTÉ Two).
Rob Penney has named a very strong side to face the Welsh side, with Felix Jones (No 15), Andrew Conway (No 14), Casey Laulala (No 13) and Johne Murphy (No 11) forming the spine of a very attacking backline. JJ Hanrahan starts at ten, with Duncan Williams inside him at nine.
The pack is also littered with talent, with Damien Varley (No 2), BJ Botha (No 3), Sean Dougall (No 7) and CJ Stander (No 8) all starting.
It is testament to the strength in depth of the Munster side that in international week they can name a team of such quality, aided by Donncha O'Callaghan, James Coughlan, Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer all returning from Ireland squad duty to be named on the bench.
Cardiff will be buoyed by home advantage, but I feel the strength of Munster’s 23 might prove too much for a side that is missing key players to international duty.
Scrum-half Lloyd Williams and full-back Leigh Halfpenny are both starting for Wales against Tonga on Friday night, and with those two players gone, the Blues lose the player that sets their tempo, as well as the man entrusted with breaking the line on crucial phases in the opposition 22.
Halfpenny’s kicking abilities are also a crucial element of Cardiff’s game.
Lions captain Sam Warburton is the third of their stars missing from the tie. The openside is named on the bench for Wales against Tonga, while Alex Cuthbert remains out with an ankle injury.
Without those four Cardiff will look to Andries Pretorius and Josh Navidi in the backrow to secure the breakdown and provide the links the backs.
But it’s in the backline one feels that Cardiff won't be able to gain parity. Dafydd Hewitt, Gavin Evans and Richard Smith provide plenty of experience, but perhaps not enough creativity to overcome Munster.
Verdict: Munster to win by seven.
Connacht v Scarlets, the Sportsgrounds, Saturday, 5pm
Pat Lam’s Connacht face Scarlets in round eight of the PRO12, and have a golden chance of victory with the visitors missing ten players to international duty.
The absence of those players showed when Scarlets were thumped 51-10 by Saracens in the LV Cup last week. Connacht’s challenge is to capitalize on Scarlets’ tenderness following that defeat.
The winning platform will of course come up front, where Michael Swift and Craig Clarke form a strong second row combination, while Jake Heenan continues at openside flanker.
Alongside him is 20-year-old Eoghan Masterson, starting at No 8, as he makes his debut for the Westerners.
The battle between those two, and John Turnball and Sione Timani, over who can supply clean possession to their backline will prove paramount.
Outside the packs, there is little to choose between the sides. Connacht name a strong team with Craig Ronaldson leading the line at out-half, while Eoin Griffin’s return at centre is a boost.
The strongest part of Scarlets’ backline comes in the form of halfbacks Gareth Davies and Aled Thomas. While outside them Connacht should feel they have the measure of their opponents.
If Heenan can exert enough pressure on Thomas to disrupt his distribution to the extent he can’t get Adam Warren and Gareth Maule enough go-forward ball, it is hard enough to see Scarlets doing real damage to the Westerners.
While, with Gavin Duffy, Darragh Leader and Matt Healy in the back three for Connacht, it would appear they may just have that little bit more firepower in the final third.
Connacht have been well beaten in their last three outings against Scarlets, and a win here would mark a significant scalp.
Verdict: Connacht to win by three.
Benetton Treviso v Leinster, Stadio Comunale di Monigo, 2pm (Irish)
Shorn of their Ireland internationals, Leinster take to the field weakened, but still offering plenty of threat against Treviso.
Jimmy Gopperth has had a superb season so far, and will lead the line at ten, with the very promising centre pairing of Noel Reid and Brendan Macken outside him.
The centres have both given real glimpses of promise this season, and this marks another opportunity for them to show their wares.
The absence of both Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll also reveals an interesting chance to see both players line up in the starting XV together.
Lote Tuqiri supplies some raw power and valuable experience on the right wing, while Darragh Fanning completes the flanks.
Treviso’s danger men in the backline are a few. In Italy international Fabio Semenzato at nine, combined with out-half Matt Berquist – who was formerly on the Leinster books – the Italians have a very experienced duo who will take the ball on themselves plenty, and back themselves to see off the challenge posed by John Cooney and Gopperth opposite them.
In the centre, Christian Loamanu plays 12, with Andrea Pratichetti at 13. Expect Pratichetti to get plenty of ball and be the playmaker for Treviso, as he seeks to punch holes with loose forwards feeding of his runs.
Out wide, Treviso have experience of their own in the form of Ludovica Nitoglia and Brendan Williams. On the left wing, however, is 20-year-old Angelo Esposito. Leinster are likely to ship the ball to Tuqiri and test the young winger’s defensive abilities from the off.
Treviso’s pack is built around Cornelius van Zyl’s abrasive style and leadership qualities at five, while Manoa Vosawai offers the groundhog and carrying abilities in the back row.
But Leinster have that carrying ability in abundance with Rhys Ruddock (No 6) and Leo Auva’a (No 8) named to start.
Shane Jennings at openside is the best breakdown-ball winner on the pitch, and the ever improving Quinn Roux starts at No 5.
With Alberto de Marchi and Ignacio Fernandez named in the Treviso front row, Michael Bent and Martin Moore have their work cut out, but if Leinster can even gain parity in the scrum, the rest of their XV should be good enough for the win.
Verdict: Leinster by ten.
Live television coverage of Cardiff v Munster from 18:15 on Saturday 23 November on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only).