Ulster vs. Munster @ Ravenhill
Friday 30th December, 19.05 (RTE 2)
Brian McLaughlin’s decision to rest his first-choice fifteen for the Stephen’s Day clash with Leinster lead to an inevitable 42-13 loss. Ulster come into this inter-provincial derby with their front-liners all restored to the starting line-up. The northern province lie 8th in the league after the loss to Leinster so a home win would be a timely boost before the new year.
Tony McGahan also chose a second-string side for Munster’s Stephen’s Day clash with Connacht. However, that team still proved strong enough to give John Hayes a winning send off at Thomond Park. Munster remain in 3rd after that 24-9 win but a loss at Ravenhill could mean dropping out of the play-off places depending on results elsewhere.
For this derby, McGahan has retained only three of the winning team from Stephen’s Day. Those players are captain Mick O’Driscoll, young wing Luke O’Dea and outhalf Ian Keatley. Tom Gleeson gets his third start of the season alongside Lifemi Mafi in the centre. Ian Nagle is included alongside O’Driscoll in the second-row. Surprisingly, given his form last season, this is Nagle’s first start of the campaign.
Elsewhere, Stephen Archer comes in at loosehead and Munster Academy player Dave O’Callaghan starts in the back-row, where he is joined by Tommy O’Donnell. Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Keith Earls are all in training camp with the Irish squad. McGahan has also decided to rest Danny Barnes and Niall Ronan who have featured heavily so far this season.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has named a completely different starting fifteen from Monday’s loss to Leinster. Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Tom Court and Andrew Trimble join the Munster internationals at Carton House for that Ireland training camp. Nevin Spence joins the likes of Paddy Wallace and Simon Danielli on the injury-list. Recent South African signing Stefan Terblanche starts on the wing while Ian Whitten joins Darren Cave in midfield. Ruan Pienaar continues at scrumhalf and New Zealander John Afoa is back in at tighthead.
With home advantage, Ulster will be confident of beating their inter-provincial rivals. However, they have not looked the same team without Ferris and Best when they have been rested this season. Munster have a promising-looking blend of experience and youth. McGahan’s team look narrow favourites for this one. It will be a fiercely contested inter-pro no matter what the outcome. A win either way would not be greeted with surprise.
ULSTER: 15 Adam D’Arcy, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Stefan Terblanche, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Chris Henry, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 Pedrie Wannenburg, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt.), 3 John Afoa, 2 Andi Kyriacou, 1 Paddy McAllister.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Ali Birch, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Chris Farrell, 23 Peter Nelson.
MUNSTER: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Luke O’Dea, 13 Tom Gleeson, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Johne Murphy, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 5 Mick O’Driscoll (capt.), 4 Ian Nagle, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 John Ryan, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Paddy Butler, 21 Tomas O’Leary, 22 Scott Deasy, 23 Will Chambers.
Connacht vs. Leinster @ The Sportsground
Sunday 1st January, 17.00 (TG4)
Well things just don’t get any easier for Connacht, do they? After a record 11th defeat in a row in the Stephen’s Day derby with Munster, Eric Elwood’s team now take on the league leaders Leinster. The sheer depth of the Leinster squad means that even when Joe Schmidt rotates players, it’s usually still a strong team on paper. That competition for places is a luxury that Elwood can only dream of. Even with Munster fielding a weakened team on Monday, Connacht’s first-choice never looked like potential winners.
Leinster are now 6 points clear at the summit of the PRO12 table following their bonus-point victory over Ulster. Connacht, meanwhile, languish in 10th, but the Newport Gwent Dragons have a game in hand which, if won, would see them move above Connacht. Ulster are only 5 points ahead of the western province and a couple of wins would mean Connacht challenging for automatic qualification for the Heineken Cup. However, in their current form, it’s extremely difficult to see where those wins will come from, certainly not against this Leinster team.
Joe Schmidt has once again made changes to his team. Andrew Conway is chosen on the wing after making his comeback from injury off the bench on Monday. The pacy young winger is joined in the back-line by his ex-Blackrock teammate Brendan Macken. This is only Macken’s second start of the season, and he has been more famous for his impressive impersonations than his rugby exploits recently. Up front, there are further recent Leinster Academy graduates in props Jamie Hagan and Jack McGrath. A decision on who will occupy the number 7 jersey, as well as two of the slots on the bench, will be made closer to kick-off.
Connacht were limited in the changes they could make for this match by the lack of depth in their squad. 6′ 5″ Connacht Academy player Mick Kearney gets his first start for the province, replacing the injured Dave Gannon in the back-row. Adrian Flavin gets the nod ahead of Ethienne Reynecke at hooker. In the backline, Kyle Tonetti comes into the centre for the injured Dave McSharry, Paul O’Donohoe is chosen ahead of Frank Murphy at scrumhalf and Brian Tuohy is back on the wing in place of Fetu’u Vainikolo.
Despite the youthful look to their side, Leinster should have too much for a Connacht outfit short on form, confidence and quality. It would be magnificent to see Connacht finally end their long-term slump but it doesn’t look likely that they will be ringing in the New Year with any victory celebrations.
CONNACHT: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Brian Tuohy, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Kyle Tonetti, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Paul O’Donohoe, 8 John Muldoon, 7 Johnny O’Connor, 6 Mick Kearney, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 George Naoupu, 3 Ronan Loughney, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Brett Wilkinson. Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Dylan Rogers, 19 Eoin McKeon, 20 TJ Anderson, 21 Frank Murphy, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Henry Fa’afili.
LEINSTER: 15 Isa Nacewa, 14 Dave Kearney, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Brendan Macken, 11 Andrew Conway, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Leo Auva’a, 7 Kevin McLaughlin/Shane Jennings, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Damien Browne, 4 Leo Cullen (capt.), 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Jack McGrath. Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Nathan White, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Shane Jennings/Jordi Murphy, 21 John Cooney, 22 Noel Reid/Fionn Carr, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.
Photos courtesy: MD+D, Ivan O’Riordan.