Pro 12 – Big Guns Returning For The Provinces

Felix Jones returns to 15 for Munster tonight

Felix Jones returns to 15 for Munster tonight

Firstly, apologies. Yes there was no preview/review of the opening weekend of the Guinness Pro 12 last week, lack of planning and timekeeping are at fault for that one. For what it’s worth, I would’ve predicted every game entirely wrong so that’s something! Normal service can now resume however and we can now look ahead to this weekend’s upcoming fixtures.

As can tend to be the tradition with the domestic league, all four provinces are seeing a lot of their heavy hitters return to the pitch and bench on this second round. Nobody needs it more than Munster, who got off to probably the worst start last week given their pedigree. Along with Leinster, both teams let an unlikely win fall through their fingers at the death and have wrongs that need to be fixed. Munster have rung the changes to the starting XV this week, mostly in the pack and most excitingly with Robin Copeland and Tommy O’Donnell coming in at 8 and 7 respectively. Both of these players could potentially have massive seasons ahead of them, with excellent groundwork laid down over the last two years by both. Alongside the proven skill of CJ Stander, this back row could wreak havoc. In the back line, Andrew Smith moves to 13 in the next step to rectifying Munster’s centre issue. With the Brumbies, Smith proved his worth at outside centre, but doing so in the Munster red is an entirely different story and with the weaker opposition of early season Treviso ahead of him this should prove interesting. Finally the extremely skilled Felix Jones coming in at fullback should add a little dynamism to the attack that was clearly missing last week. For Treviso, well they were competitive for fifteen minutes last week. Look, the Italian teams are now three years in their current form playing the Pro 12, and yes for a lot of it they are still the whipping boys. But there is improvement to be found, and if anyone is going to suffer the early season slump severely, it will be the Italians. Don’t write them off, ever. We’ve moved past that. Yes, it’s likely Munster, a stung Munster at that, will give them hell this weekend. But Treviso will hopefully stay more competitive on home soil.

Verdict: Munster

Ulster are carrying an odd mix of deflation and momentum, having turned a near hammering into a thrilling last minute draw. Going away from home to open your campaign always throws up any number of possibilities, but this outcome was certainly least likely. As such, certain bench figures from last week are being rewarded, having proved crucial in the end game. Most notable, and least surprising of these are Andrew Trimble and Nick Williams, who both brought extra meat to Ulster’s form and Trimble of course scored the titular try allowing Ian Humphrey’s winning conversion. Like Munster, they find themselves against Italian opposition tonight, and better still for their odds of correcting the ship they are playing at home. That said, Ulster still haven’t yet turned Ravenhill/Kingspan into an impenetrable fortress á la Thomond Park or the RDS. They’re nearly there, certainly, but certain opponents have managed to get the upper hand in the unlikeliest of fixtures. Zebre will as per usual be looking towards talismanic figures like Mauro Bergamasco for some inspiration, but keep an eye on new fullback signing Hennie Daniller who, having switched over to Europe from the Cheetahs should be of some help in that area where Italian teams both club and country have always struggled, meaningful attack. Like Treviso, Zebre today are a fairly different unit to when they first came into existence two years ago. That said, Ulster at home, with arguably their prime centre pairing of Luke Marshall and Darren Cave, as well as the consumate leader Rory Best returning to the pitch, should have it easy enough.

Verdict: Ulster

Connacht came away from their opener with the best result of the lot when they, somewhat unexpectedly, started their season with a win over the Dragons. Doing so with a late Danie Poolman try too made it only sweeter, given that situation has gone against them so much in the past. They will face a sterner test this evening as they travel to Murrayfield to take on Edinburgh, no doubt bolstered by their win over Munster last week. This should be far more tangible to Connacht now however, the prospect of picking up these on the road wins with ease. The league means far much more to them now this season of course, with a minimum seventh place finish the only thing that will bring them into tier 1 European rugby next season. They do not have the luxury of ringing the changes like their cohorts, but the small changes they have made could be massive, with Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw coming back into the team. Both of these players represent two of the great young and exciting prospects for Irish rugby, but prospecting and proving are two very different things. In a way the fixtures have fallen ideally for Connacht, with an away trip to Leinster, Glasgow or Ospreys say being far more daunting a prospect than what lays ahead of them tonight. Edinburgh cannot be taken lightly. The biggest saving grace for Connacht will be that wonder wingers Dougie Fife and Tim Visser are both ruled out of this game due to knocks picked up against Munster. The lack of available wingers to Edinburgh due to a myriad of unfortunate reasons means Connacht will square off against a utility back and a centre on the wings, something Danie Poolman and Niyi Adeolokun should be looking forward to. And of course this will be the first real test of the new hybrid playing surface in Murrayfield, whatever difference to smoother and more flowing rugby that may make. It’s hard not to have that little extra faith here to be hoenst.

Verdict: Connacht

It seems Leinster don’t want a repeat of last week’s opening game with some of the drafting into the squad done by Matt O’Connor. Jamie Heaslip returns to the pitch at the expense of Sean O’Brien who is out of the squad, so too Fergus McFadden is ousted entirely in favour of Zane Kirchner making way for Rob Kearney at fullback. It all still bangs of O’connor making some experimental calls to make sure as much of the training squad as possible gets a little taste of competitive action. Ian Madigan at inside centre will of course have many salivating at the possibilites but it is indeed only temporary as Noel Reid’s first minute ankle injury has him out until next month. Jack McGrath and Devin Toner join the pack to build upon fantastic seasons last year, and in all Leinster look even better on paper than they already did last week. But then there’s Scarlets. Unpredictable at best, they will come with slightly less intensity than Glasgow last week for sure but based on their initial tour de force against Ulster last week they could easily present Leinster with a pestering problem around the pitch. The home side will be happy to see Gareth Davies omitted from the squad as he and Priestland were the points machines last week that helped kick into that lead against Ulster, but the threats still remain. Liam Williams has been cleared to play after his double yellow red card last week was deemed enough without requiring a ban. He can be some player, when he stays on the pitch, and Kearney will be happy with the challenge to kick off his season. I could see Leinster losing this one to be honest, simply based on their awful start of season track record, but I’ll give it a nod for a provincial clean sweep.

Verdict: Leinster

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