10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
Saturday sees both Connacht and Munster at home to Scottish and Welsh opposition respectively, with Ulster away to Glasgow. Both will be targeting wins and northwards movement in table terms.
Connacht, having survived a real scare against The Borders a fortnight ago, perhaps enjoyed the win of the season to date in earning a bonus point win away to Llanelli last week. A further win would see them in a position to really generate a challenge in the competition, particularly if Leinster (or somebody) can stop the charge of the flight brigade that is The Ospreys. Currently on 17 points, a win would see them leapfrog Leinster, should they fall to The Ospreys.
Michael Bradley welcomes back Darren Yapp from injury for his first start of the season, and Matt Mostyn joins him in the centre, also returning from injury. Niall O'Brien and James Downey, both impressive this season, step down. Youth had its fling up front for Connacht last week, and generally produced. This week, there is a reversion to experience with .
Edinburgh are no soft touch, but cannot buy a win away from home. They showed a lot of commitment, good handling and an organised defence last week (at least until Leinster hit them with a brilliant triple whammy in the last quarter), but, reflective of Scottish rugby generally, they lack genuine 'fast twitch fibres' and hence penetration.
It won't be easy, but Connacht ought to have too much forward power for Edinburgh and enough resilience to contain them in defence.
Munster are slowly coming together in advance of the Heineken Cup (with wins over Llanelli and Glasgow on consecutive weekends) and one can expect the graph to continue on that trajectory this weekend at home to Cardiff in Thomond Park on Saturday evening (5.15).
Donncha O'Callaghan still isn't recovered from his calf injury and so Paul O'Connell is partnered by Trevor Hogan. Hogan has shown sufficiently good form to get the nod ahead of Tom Bowman (which is a bit of a 'glass half full or half empty' situation).
The other interesting calls are in the backrow and centre. Denis Leamy continues to be conspicuous by his presence, as Alan Quinlan and David Wallace make way for Jim Williams and Leamy. Wallace was sensational with ball in hand last week, rising to Leamy's challenge, but will have to cool his jets again this week.
Shaun Payne and Rob Henderson form the centre partnership. A good performance off the bench last week from John Kelly sees him retain the jersey with Payne moving infield at Mike Mullins' expense and with Henderson returning from injury, there is promised in the partnership.
Cardiff haven't been beaten in three visits to Ireland, so can be expected to challenge. There is but a point between the two in the table (Munster on 12 points to Cardiff's 11). But there is the sense that Munster are a coming team while Cardiff, rested last week but beaten 35-16 by Edinburgh last time out, are going the other direction. And it is at Thomond Park, so the vote has to go with the home side. They could do with Ronan O'Gara making a return to form, though, in advance of the Heineken European Cup. Despite his last-gasp heroics last week, his all-round game has been decidedly moderate.
Glasgow and Ulster, despite bright starts from both, are locked together on 9 points each. Both sides are desperate for a win to achieve mid-table respectability at this stage. Mark McCall's side are possibly happy enough to be playing away this weekend, as the pressure of avoiding a fourth consecutive defeat at Fortress Ravenhill would almost be too much to contemplate. And they have had some comfort earlier in the League in Scotland where they beat Edinburgh dramatically. But they have significant problems in the backrow, with Roger Wilson picking up an injury last week to add to Andy Ward and Neil McMillan's absences. Cameron Feather and new-boy Gary Brown will have to step up to the mark. Changes have been made in the front row as Paul Shields and Ronan McCormack make way for Nigel Brady and Rod Moore. It's a pack that will have their work cut out as the Glasgow unit looks solid, though they had no real answer to Munster's rolling maul and ability up front last week.
The backline looks more solid, but needs to find a greater creative spark than shown to date. Humphreys will be an important figure in that he has a relatively inexperienced pack in front of him and, with Kieran Campbell in for Neil Doak at scrumhalf, a relatively inexperienced halfback partner. As much as anything, though, this one can be expected to be about toughing it out.
Once again, there is a huge amount to look forward to. Get yourself down to The Sportsground or Thomond if you can. Failing that, retain a firm grip on the remote!
Munster (5.15) and Ulster 97.15) are live on Setanta on Saturday, with Leinster on BBC 2 Wales on Friday.