Munster vs. Blues @ Thomond Park
Friday 24th Feb, 19.05 (RTE2)
The revelation that Tony McGahan will leave the province at the end of the season has dominated Munster news this week. However, that will have to be pushed aside tonight as they look to continue their 4-game winning streak. 3 of those wins have brought try-scoring bonus points, but the Blues, 5th in the league, represent a tougher challenge.
McGahan has made five changes to his starting 15. Ronan O’Gara, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony, all starters against Treviso last weekend, are on the Irish bench tomorrow. Denis Hurley has also been called up as cover in the event of any late injuries. For Munster, Marcus Horan starts at loosehead ahead of Wian du Preez, while Ian Keatley, Tommy O’Donnell and Billy Holland slot in for the internationals with Felix Jones getting his first start of the season at fullback.
Blues’ boss Justin Burnell has made three changes to his side. Richie Rees replaces Welsh squad member Lloyd Williams at scrumhalf, Chris Czekaj comes in at fullback for Ben Blair while Maama Molitika starts at No.8 with Xavier Rush out ill. Munster fans will be denied an early look at recently announced signing Casey Laulala, sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Munster are 3rd in the table coming into this weekend, 4 points behind the Ospreys, with a game in hand. A Munster win, coupled with a favour from Ulster in Ravenhill, would see McGahan’s men into that home play-off position. Verdict: Munster by 5.
Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Danny Barnes, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Tomas O’Leary, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 5 Mick O’Driscoll (capt.), 4 Billy Holland, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Marcus Horan.
Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Wian du Preez, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Dave Foley, 20 Paddy Butler, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 Scott Deasy, 23 Luke O’Dea.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Chris Czekaj, 14 Richard Mustoe, 13 Gavin Evans, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Richie Rees, 8 Maama Molitika, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Michael Paterson, 5 Paul Tito (capt.), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Ryan Tyrell, 1 John Yapp.
Subs: 16 T Rhys Thomas, 17 Nathan Trevett, 18 Sam Hobbs, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Thomas Young, 21 Lewis Jones, 22 Ceri Sweeney 23 Ben Blair.
Ulster vs. Ospreys @ Ravenhill
Friday 24th Feb, 19.05 (BBCNI)
Ulster’s recent good form was brought to an abrupt halt by the Blues last weekend, as the Cardiff side came out 21-14 winners. Brian McLaughlin knows that a win tonight is vital if Ulster, in 6th, are to keep their play-off hopes alive. While the Ospreys have only lost three times in the PRO12 season, they are missing a total of 16 squad players due to international call-ups.
McLaughlin has finally made the call that many, including The Touchline, have been calling for in recent months. David Humphreys has been dropped to the bench, with Paul Marshall coming into the side. That results in Ruan Pienaar moving to outhalf. Pedrie Wannenburg’s return from a foot injury means that Robbie Diack (3 tries in 4) is unlucky to miss out. The only other changes are in the front-row, with Paddy McAllister taking over from Callum Black at loosehead and Andy Kyriacou being restored at hooker in place of Nigel Brady.
As mentioned, the Ospreys are missing a host of internationals, as well as having 7 players out injured. They can still name the likes of Welsh internationals Duncan Jones, Ian Gough, Dan Biggar and Andrew Bishop in their starting line-up. The talented young trio of Rhys Webb, Matthew Morgan and Ashley Beck have curiously been left on the bench, so expect an impact from them at some stage.
There will be no better chance for Ulster to beat a team above them in the PRO12. While the Ospreys are severely depleted, Ulster’s selection is basically first-choice bar Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Rory Best. Verdict: Ulster by 7.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Nevin Spence, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Ian Whitten, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 Chris Henry (capt.), 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Andi Kyriacou, 1 Paddy McAllister.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Tim Barker, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Ian Humphreys, 22 Simon Danielli, 23 Adam D’Arcy.
Ospreys: 15 Richard Fussell, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Andrew Bishop, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Eli Walker, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Joe Bearman, 7 Sam Lewis, 6 Tom Smith (capt.), 5 James King, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Joe Rees, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Duncan Jones.
Subs: 16 Mefin Davies, 17 Ryan Bevington, 18 Will Taylor, 19 Jonathan Thomas/Lloyd Peers, 20 George Stowers, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Matthew Morgan, 23 Ashley Beck.
Connacht vs. Edinburgh @ The Sportsground
Friday 24th Feb, 19.30 (Not televised)
Connacht managed to end a 10-game losing run in the PRO12 against the Warriors last weekend thanks to a last-gasp Niall O’Connor penalty that drew the score level at 13-13. As seems to be the way with Connacht, it could have been so much more. Tonight they take on an Edinburgh side who sit 9th in the league and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Dragons. Prime opportunity for Connacht to secure a rare win.
Eric Elwood has given Academy prop Denis Buckley his first start for the province with Brett Wilkinson away covering for the international squad. The only other change to the side sees scrumhalf Frank Murphy return after recovering from a groin injury. Dave Moore is unfortunate to drop out of the match day squad after some promising cameos in recent weeks.
Michael Bradley makes four changes to his Edinburgh side after that loss ot the Dragons. Chris Paterson comes in at fullback, Jim Thompson is selected at 13, while 20-year-old Gregor Hunter should add some flair at outhalf. Up front, Scotland A international Andrew Kelly starts at hooker. The prolific Tim Visser is on the left wing, and Connacht will need to cut him down early.
It’s not the most intimidating Edinburgh selection, and this is a game that Connacht will most likely have been targeting for a home win. Whether or not they start finishing the chances they have been creating will be the deciding factor. Verdict: Edinburgh by 3.
Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Kyle Tonetti, 12 Henry Fa’afili, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Frank Murphy, 1 Denis Buckley, 2 Adrian Flavin, 3 Ronan Loughney, 4 Michael Swift, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 John Muldoon, 7 Eoghan Grace, 8 George Naoupu.
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Dylan Rogers/Brett Wilkinson, 18 Stewart Maguire, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Ray Ofisa, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Eoin Griffin.
Edinburgh: 15 Chris Paterson, 14 Tom Brown, 13 Jim Thompson, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Gregor Hunter, 9 Chris Leck, 1 Kyle Traynor, 2 Andrew Kelly, 3 Jack Gilding, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 5 Sean Cox, 6 Stuart McInally, 7 Roddy Grant (capt.), 8 Netani Talei.
Subs: 16 Alun Walker, 17 Mike MacDonald, 18 Ulises Gamboa, 19 Esteban Lozada, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Alex Black, 22 Phil Godman, 23 Dougie Fife.
Warriors vs. Leinster @ Firhill
Saturday 25th Feb, 18.00 (TG4)
Fergus McFadden’s complete individual performance helped Leinster to a narrow 16-13 win over the Scarlets last weekend. That win saw them maintain a 10 point lead at the top of the PRO12. The Warriors were denied a victory in Galway as Niall O’Connor kicked Connacht level with the last action of the game. The Warriors remained 4th after the draw, but will be feeling the pressure of Ulster, the Blues and the Scarlets breathing down their necks this weekend.
Joe Schmidt has made several changes to the team which scrapped past the Scarlets. Young centres Collie O’Shea and Brendan Macken return, hoping to continue the promise they showed two weeks ago against Treviso. At scrumhalf, Isaac Boss comes in with Eoin Reddan on Ireland duty. In the front-row, Richardt Strauss is joined by Heinke Van der Merwe and Connacht-bound Nathan White. Mark Flanagan gets his 2nd start of the season in the second-row, while Dominic Ryan is at blindside. There’s plenty of youth on the Leinster bench, including promising 20-year-old wing Andrew Conway.
The Warriors show four changes to the side which drew in Galway. Alex Dunbar comes into midfield with Graeme Morrison selected for Scotland. Sevens specialist Colin Shaw is on the left wing in place of ex-Ulster man Tommy Seymour. In the pack, Mike Cusack is chosen at tighthead, with Scottish Rugby Elite Development player Nick Campbell starting in the second-row. Ruaridh Jackson will run things from outhalf.
Leinster were far from their sharpest last weekend, and with the Warriors under pressure in the last of the play-off spots, this is a big test for Schmidt’s side. Incredibly, they haven’t lost in any competition since the 17th of September 2011, an 18-game unbeaten streak. That loss was at the RDS against the Warriors, with fairly similar line-ups. Crucially, the likes of Ian Madigan, Leo Auva’a and Dave Kearney have grown as players since then. Verdict: Warriors by 2.
Glasgow: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 David Lemi, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Troy Nathan, 11 Colin Shaw, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Rob Harley (capt.), 5 Tom Ryder, 4 Nick Campbell, 3 Mike Cusack, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Ryan Grant.
Subs: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Jon Welsh, 18 Gordon Reid, 19 Rob Verbakel, 20 Calum Forrester, 21 Scott Wight, 22 Federico Aramburu, 23 Tommy Seymour.
Leinster: 15 Isa Nacewa,14 David Kearney, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 Colm O’Shea, 11 Fionn Carr, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 1 Heinke van der Merwe, 2 Richardt Strauss, 3 Nathan White, 4 Damian Browne, 5 Mark Flanagan, 6 Dominic Ryan, 7 Shane Jennings (capt.), 8 Leo Auva’a.
Subs: 16 Aaron Dundon, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 John Cooney, 22 Eoin O’Malley, 23 Andrew Conway.
Photos courtesy: Jason Miller, Martin Dobey, Pierre-Selim, Ken Bohane.