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Rabo Direct Pro 12: The Leinster-Munster Juggernaut Returns

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Ah its back again. Post-Six Nations hangovers are worse when you’re successful, no doubt about that. There’s little to win in the muddling Rabo games that arise between the end of the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup resumption. But then along comes the colossus, the manly Munstermen versus the Leinster ladyboys, a fixture that defies all logic and at times elevates above European standard. Ah yes, it’s good to be back.

Leinster versus Munster has actually proven more thrilling down south in recent years rather than this return fixture. That said however, with the somewhat fabricated Six Nations inter pro friction there can be no doubt about the intensity tomorrow. Both sides have called in some massive individuals, whilst also fielding some gaping omissions.

For Munster, James Downey finds himself out of the squad entirely, presumably with Toulouse on the horizon threatening large. Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray of course all return, and Sumon Zebo starts out wide. All in all, a bloody strong side with Ian Keatley tasked with pulling the strings over JJ Hanrahan. Having won the first encounter this season, and still searching for that elusive win over Leinster in the Aviva after three years of asking, Munster are in a better position to claim this scalp than they have anytime since 2009.

But Leinster of course are fielding equal strength, and as Rob Penney noted in slightly petulant fashion, the Six Nations champions. Be that the case or not (everyone was wearing green at the end of the day) Leinster return Jamie Heaslip, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Rob and Dave Kearney and more to the fold as well as the evergreen centre pairing dreams are made off. The two standouts on the team sheet however are Ian Madigan and Michael Bent. With Cian Healy and Jack McGrath injured, the prodigal son we never knew we had starts at loose head and you would have to think this could prove crucial. The game has flipped in recent years, Munster bringing a bit more of the flare Leinster were always famed for and Leinster through scrum and maul playing some very Munster-esque rugby. Bent has pressure on for a big game, and may of course be needed in a week’s time for the French connection. Madigan at out half too seems to be getting that one last shot, a final trial run before the Heineken selection. He was given this opportunity in October in Thomond and uncharacteristically truly bottled it; no pressure Mads.

Expect more slice and dice rugby from both sides than previous meetings for this one, with one to fifteen for Munster fighting back some pride possibly lost during the Six Nations. For Leinster, a team full of winners is always a dangerous thing. You can’t call it on anything but home advantage really.
Leinster win

Connacht face arguably the most important game of their calendar this weekend, taking on the Scarlets who are currently keeping them out of qualification range for whatever European competition we have next season. They are on somewhat of a hot streak at the minute, having won their last four games while also adding an extremely impressive bonus point win at Rodney Parade last week. Yet we’ve seen them disappoint before so let’s put the foot on the brakes a second.

Pat Lam has seen fit to stick with the same side that was so composed last week and the grand hope is they will do the business once again. Qualification is no more than they deserve, having shown more year on year progression than any other team in the Rabo but it is mental strength that Connacht have always lacked above all. Snaring the bonus point at the death last week was a crucial moment for the team, much like Ireland snaring late tries against Wales and Italy in the Six Nations in that Connacht need to be this team that doesn’t quit. Given how many of their fixtures have been lost in the second half, and so many more lost at the death, the old system of Dan Parks ticking over points for the remainder after a few tries has to go and thankfully looks to be doing so. Lam wants them to be winners, as do their fans and on recent results, that will hopefully be the case against one of the better, but still struggling like all others, Welsh sides.
Connacht win

Finally the weekend wraps up with what could be absolute carnage, as Stephen Ferris is to be let loose on Cardiff. The Blues have allowed 110, a figure second worst only to Treviso thanks to their Ospreys mauling. It’s been some time since Cardiff showed any product of their considerable parts, though their Heineken Cup efforts were surprisingly admirable, whilst Ulster have run rampant on the Heineken and indeed have only lost three competitive games this season. This could get messy.

That being said, Mark Anscombe certainly couldn’t be pleased with his squads most recent performance limping over the finish line against Edinburgh, though they can admittedly be a stickler of a side on their day. But with returning faces such as the aforementioned Ferris and Chris Henry returning from international duty, as well as Andrew Trimble slotting back in alongside Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Luke Marshall and Darren Cave in what certainly is the most potent back line of the weekend, Ulster look to be in good stead.

One glaring drawback is the absence of Ruan Pienaar through injury and whilst Michael Heaney is a fine player, the South African’s presence and influence will certainly be missed. Paddy Jackson has evolved as a player however to a level that he can certainly fill in a large part of that loss. With a crucial game to come next week of course this is somewhat of a prep game for Ulster, but still with a table topping points tally to maintain at the same time. With cards falling the right way, this could be a romp for Ulster, but regardless of the deal the result should be the same either way.
Ulster win

Image courtesy of Pembroke Communications

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