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Pro 12 – Connacht To Be Tested In Galway

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It has been an exciting two weeks in Celtic rugby with the opening rounds of the Guinness Pro 12 throwing up a shock result or two, the opening weekend notching a record all time high for tries scored, and generally a grander sense of importance to it all with the European game in the balance. Aside from Munster, who would hopefully be up against little resistance in overcoming Zebre, Irish fans will get to see some true challenges facing their provinces this weekend, not least of all being Connacht up against reigning champions Leinster.

Both of these sides are playing against type  so far in the competition, Leinster rarely dishing out a rout like they did against Scarlets before the leaves have left the trees, and for Connacht so far they have been winning when they would normally fail admirably and the confidence coursing through their camp is palpable. In Galway this evening, both sides will get a better feel for where they stand than either has thus far, though the game is arguably infinitely more important to Connacht as three from three for them would be unprecedented. Pat Lam is thinking as much too, putting out the same starting XV as last week with Aly Muldowney replacing Mick Kearney in the second row for their only change. Leinster meanwhile have more new faces coming in, with Fergus McFadden replacing an injured Zane Kirchner whilst Rhy Ruddock comes in for Shane Jennings. Most notable of all for Leinster fans however will be the sight of Gordon D’Arcy on the bench awaiting what could be his first rugby for Leinster this season. Ian Madigan at 12, albeit due to injury, has the potential to become something of a revelation (though I personally would still rather see him at 10) and D’Arcy could start feeling pressure. A solid show from him from the bench would do him and the fans the world of good.

Both of these sides see coaches under strange pressure. For Pat Lam and Connacht, they see European qualification as a real possibility, yet even their fans would wait until next year knowing that massive strides are bring made. For Leinster, Matt O’Connor is a title defending coach, and he is using the bulk of the national squad in his teams, what more could you ask for in terms of pressure. In terms of calling the game? I’ll go for the best result for Irish rugby.
Connacht win

Munster came up against Italian opposition last week and made a bit of a meal of it. Though we have to remember a few points. CJ Stander and Ian Keatley specifically. Stander kept going like the machine he is and Keatley got some grasp back on his kicking form. Two damp squids does not a poor season make, and Munster could repair a lot with a monster performance against Zebre, hopefully picking up a crucial first win in four games at Thomond Park. The return of Paul O’Connell and Connor Murray to the starting XV won’t hurt in realising this. Both are figureheads of Munster rugby and should bring some stability to proceedings.

As for Zebre. Not much can be said, once more they have a chance to be competitive but this isn’t likely to be their first win this season.
Munster win

Ulster have a similar platform to Munster in that they made tougher work of their Italian opponents last week than they should have. No such simple expectation exists as they travel to meet Cardiff however, who seem to be getting the dark horse tag from all this season. The return of Tommy Bowe to the starting XV will be welcome for the Less Kiss/Neil Doack coached side and hopefully all on and off pitch turmoil is smoothed out now and they can get out and play some rugby.

Ones to watch tonight however will be Paddy Jackson and Paul Marshall, both getting welcome opportunity through Ruan Piennar’s unfortunate injury. Both players are potentially world class on their day but both manage to be held back by the magic South African. These next few weeks now will determine their chances of possibly turning them into regular starters. That said, Ulster just haven’t looked solid enough just yet and so.
Cardiff win

Image courtesy of RTE.ie

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