Ulster vs. Scarlets @ Ravenhill
Friday 2nd November (19.05) on BBCNI
Rory Best returns at hooker. Photo via Alex Sanz
Ulster are the first province into action this weekend when they take on the in-form Scarlets at Ravenhill. Ulster are on a poor run in the PRO12, winning only one of their last six fixtures. However, their form at Ravenhill is reassuring. Brian McLaughlin’s side have lost only one of their last twelve games in Belfast. Meanwhile, the Scarlets are on an eight-match unbeaten run in all competitions, seven wins and one draw away to the Ospreys. Last weekend, the Scarlets had a 22-12 victory over the Newport Gwent Dragons to move up to sixth in the table. Ulster lost 19-9 to Glasgow to drop to eighth.
The Scarlets are missing 8 of their key players who are in camp with Wales ahead of the international clash with Australia. There are still familiar names in their side with Stephen Jones captaining at outhalf and strong-running Scot Sean Lamont on the wing. New signing Viliame Iongi starts on the other wing. The pacy utility back featured for Tonga at the recent World Cup. Welsh international Rob McCusker starts at openside while Fiji captain Deacon Manu lines up at tighthead. Elsewhere, the Scarlets Head of Rugby, Nigel Davies, has put his trust in youth with the likes of Daniel Evens, Nick Reynolds, Gareth Davies and Mat Gilbert all under the age of 23.
Ulster are boosted by the return of their big-name players. Stephen Ferris, Rory Best, Chris Henry and Craig Gilroy all return after being rested last weekend. New Zealand international John Afoa has returned from a trip home and comes in at tighthead. Ruan Pienaar is back in the squad for the first time since injuring a hamstring when Ulster travelled to the Scarlets in October. Adam D’Arcy holds onto the fullback slot as Simon Danielli drops out of the match-day squad.
These sides met as recently as the 29th of October, when the Scarlets came out on top with a 24-17 win at Parc y Scarlets. The line-ups were similar to this weekend’s, but crucially Ulster were without Ferris and Best. The Scarlets haven’t won in Ireland since beating Connacht in January 2009. This is a vital match for Ulster’s season as they aim to make a move back up the PRO12 table. For that reason, expect an improved Ulster performance and a win to go with it.
Connacht vs. Treviso @ The Sportsground
Friday 2nd November (19.30)
Brendan Williams is on the wing for Treviso. Photo via Alex Sanz
Connacht have now gone seven matches without a win in all competitions following their 17-9 loss to the Ospreys last Saturday. It was late September the last time Eric Elwood’s men enjoyed a win and they need to arrest this run of form this weekend. Treviso certainly don’t present an easy opportunity to get that elusive win, as they have been increasingly impressive this season, securing a draw with the Ospreys and running Leinster close in their two most recent fixtures. Treviso sit seventh in the league table, two places above Connacht, but only four points separate the sides.
After last weekend’s poor showing against the Ospreys, Elwood has made several changes in a bid to freshen his team. Ethienne Reynecke and Ronan Loughney come into the front row while Michael Swift comes into the second-row. David Gannon drops back to blindside. There’s a new half-back partnership with Frank Murphy and Niall O’Connor given the chance to impress. With Eoin Griffin injured, recent signing Kyle Tonetti comes into the centre and will hope to inject some creativity into the Connacht backline. Out wide, Mark McCrea starts on the right wing.
For Treviso, a big, experienced pack includes Italian internationals Michele Rizzo, Franco Sbaraglini, Ignacio Rouyet, Manoa Vosawai and Paul Derbyshire. Scrumhalf Fabio Semenzato is Italy’s first-choice 9 and can be a tricky customer. Kris Burton is dropped after missing three important kicks against Leinster last weekend, so South African Willem de Waal comes in at outhalf. The 34-year-old Ezio Galon comes into the centre and Connacht’s Tonetti should look to use his pace against the ex-Italy international.
This is a Treviso side who are starting to believe in themselves as they become more and more accustomed to the PRO12 league. The days of an easy win against this Italian team are long gone. Still, with home advantage, their strong desire to end their long losing streak, and a fresh-looking team, Connacht should end their losing streak this weekend.
Leinster vs. Cardiff Blues @ The RDS
Friday 2nd November (20.05) on TG4
McFadden starts at inside centre. Photo via M+MD
Leinster are the third Irish province in action on Friday night as they host the Cardiff Blues at the RDS. Leinster had a hard-earned 30-20 win over Treviso last weekend, while the Blues ran riot in the second half to beat Aironi 38-0. Cardiff have won their last four, including Heineken Cup wins over Racing Metro and London Irish. Leinster also come into this tie in great form, unbeaten in eight games. Cardiff have been greatly weakened by international call-ups for Wales’ match with Australia on Saturday.
Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny are amongst the eight Blues players away with the Wales squad. Despite those losses, the Blues can still name Wales internationals outhalf Chris Czekaj, Tom James, John Yapp, Richie Rees and Ceri Sweeney in their side. The New Zealand-capped Xavier Rush starts at No.8 while Paul Tito captains their side from second-row. Centre Casey Lualala has been capped by the All Blacks too and can be a real threat when he’s in the mood.
For Leinster, Isa Nacewa returns at fullback. David Kearney comes in on the right wing, meaning Fergus McFadden moves to inside centre. Eoin O’Malley and Fionn Carr keep their places in the backline. Ian Madigan is retained at outhalf after a confident showing against Treviso. Isaac Boss replaces Eoin Reddan at scrumhalf. In the front row, Richardt Strauss and Nathan White are chosen alongside Cian Healy. Steven Sykes is given a chance to impress beside captain Leo Cullen in the second-row. Sean O’Brien has been selected at No.8 and he is joined in the back-row by Rhys Ruddock and Shane Jennings. Joe Schmidt has also named a strong bench including Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney and Mike Ross.
It’s a formidable-looking Leinster squad on paper. With Cardiff missing so many of their stars Leinster are odds-on favourites for a win at the RDS. Schmidt will hope Munster can do him a favour by beating the Ospreys on Saturday. With a win of their own, that should leave Leinster sitting pretty with the outright lead of the PRO12.
Ospreys vs. Munster @ Liberty Stadium
Saturday 3rd November (18.30) on RTE2
Gough and Bennett add experience to the Ospreys pack. Photo via Chris Jobling
Munster travel to the table-topping Ospreys for a Saturday evening kick-off. The Ospreys have only lost one match in their nine PRO12 fixtures so far. That loss came at the end of October away to Glasgow. Since then, the Ospreys have won two of their four matches, drawing the other two. Last time out, the Ospreys had a 17-6 win over a poor Connacht side. As with the other Welsh sides this weekend, the Ospreys are weakened by the poorly-scheduled international test against Australia.
The Ospreys have six players in that Welsh match-day squad, including hooker Huw Bennett and outhalf Dan Biggar. Shane Williams plays his last game for Wales before retiring from international rugby. Despite these losses, the Ospreys can still field a decent team. Munster’s backline will be well aware of the threat Tommy Bowe poses. Richard Fussell on the opposite wing can be dangerous on the ball too. Welsh international Andrew Bishop starts in midfield, while 19-year-old outhalf Matthew Morgan is a real prodigy. 22-year-old scrumhalf Rhys Webb is another young player with fantastic potential.
In the front row, 57-times capped Duncan Jones and Richard Hibbard are ex-internationals. Jonathan Thomas and the combative Ian Gough have 131 Welsh caps between them in the second-row. Tom Smith captains the Ospreys from the back-row, where he is joined by Joe Bearman and James King.
For Munster, there is an exciting blend of youth and players on form. Denis Hurley keeps his place at fullback, as does Simon Zebo on the wing. Doug Howlett makes up the back-three. Will Chambers and Danny Barnes are both retained in midfield. The half-backs are also unchanged, Ian Keatley and Tomas O’Leary.
In the pack, BJ Botha returns and is joined in the front-row by Damien Varley and Marcus Horan. Donnacha O’Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan make up the second-row. In a completely new back-row, Denis Leamy and Niall Ronan are alongside captain Peter O’Mahony. It is a strong Munster team and clearly Tony McGahan is targeting this opportunity to move ahead of the weakened Ospreys. Even without their front-line international players, the Ospreys are still a formidable proposition. However, Munster don’t often miss opportunities like this one. An away win for Munster should be the outcome.
Photos courtesy: Alex Sanz, M+MD, Chris Jobling