With the Six Nations done and dusted, it’s time for the provincial game to take the front seat again. Many supportes will be delighted to get back to supporting their home team, especially after the inconsistent Irish displays over the last couple of months. With only 5 games left until the play-offs, Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all well in contention while Connacht are hoping to rise as high as possible in the table. Even with the Irish internationals getting a precious weekend off, there are plenty of big names to whet the appetite.
Leinster are first up on Friday night against the Ospreys. They welcome Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen back into the fold after recovery from shoulder and achilles injuries respectively. The initial prognosis on BOD after his surgery in November was that he could miss the remainder of the season. The fact that he is back already speaks volumes for the man. He is a legend of the game and will play a huge part as Leinster look for PRO12 and Heineken Cup glory.
Captain Cullen coming back into the mix on the same day that Brad Thorn is set to make his Leinster debut is more good news. Leinster have been stretched for numbers in the second-row department in recent times, but now look well-stocked. Thorn’s obvious pedigree should help Leinster maintain, and possibly improve, the high standards they have set for themselves over the last few years.
On Saturday afternoon Ulster are in Italy to take on Treviso. Sitting 5th, just one place off the play-offs, Brian McLaughlin’s men face a tough run-in. This Treviso game and Aironi at home the weekend after are must-wins. Ulster’s final three games are away to Connacht, home to Leinster and away to Munster. Not ideal. After a good first half to the season Treviso have faded away and are no longer in contention for the play-offs. Clearly, a win for Ulster is essential.
Darren Cave and captain Johann Muller make their returns from injury to give Ulster a lift. Cave’s foot injury was unfortunately-timed in the build-up to the Six Nations as he was in excellent form. He’ll be looking to pick right up where he left off in a bid to secure a place on Ireland’s tour to New Zealand this summer.
Finally, on Saturday evening it’s the big derby in Galway, Connacht vs. Munster. Tony McGahan’s side come into the game placed 2nd, on course for a home play-off. Connacht are at the other end of the scale in 10th, just 5 points off the bottom. It would appear that Munster have more to play for, but this is exactly the type of game that Eric Elwood and his team will have targeted for a win. Expect another ferocious battle in front of a capacity crowd at the Sportsground.
There’s been plenty of positive news coming from Connacht relating to next season’s squad, which we will look at in more depth over the next few days. For now, minds will be focused on this term’s run-in. Elwood will be keen to at least match last year’s 9th-place finish and 7 wins. With only 4 wins registered up to this point, a good finishing streak is needed. Home fixtures against Munster, Aironi and Ulster offer hope, as well as the clash away to the Dragons. Here’s the Connacht team.
Munster will be unconcerned with aiding their nieghbours’ positive finale to the season. They are focused on securing that crucial home spot for the play-offs in May. Ireland squad members Damian Varley and Tomas O’Leary are involved this weekend. O’Leary will be keen to get straight back into action after his involvement at Twickenham. Meanwhile, David Wallace and Felix Jones both continue their resurgence after long-term injuries.
The underestimated PRO12 is often demeaned as a dull league when pitted against the Heineken Cup and Six Nations. However, it’s vitally important to the game in Ireland, and gives our talented youngsters a chance to get on the pitch. With just 5 games left, Leinster look safe at the top of the table. Behind them, there are 6 teams, including Munster and Ulster, with realistic hopes of a play-off place. Further down, a successful run-in for Connacht could give them their best-ever final position. Plenty of reasons to tune in.
Friday 23rd March
Leinster vs. Ospreys @ The RDS. Kickoff – 19.05 (RTE2)
Saturday 24th March
Treviso vs. Ulster @ Stadio di Monigo. Kickoff – 15.15 (BBCNI)
Connacht vs. Munster @ Sportsgrounds. Kickoff – 19.45 (TG4)