We preview this weekend’s Celtic League action as Munster visit Ravenhill and Leinster host Connacht. Plus the remaining fixtures.
The Celtic League returns with a ‘derby’ weekend in which Leinster entertain Connacht on Friday evening at Donnybrook (K.O. 7.30) and Ulster host Munster at Ravenhill on Saturday (2.30).
Donnybrook should be all smiles, before the event at any rate, given the performances of the two sides last weekend. Both will feel that their seasons are really kicking on now, but will be looking to sustain that momentum with a win in the ‘bread and butter’ of their season.
The formline suggests a home win, not just because Leinster are third versus Connacht’s fifth in the Celtic League , but because Connacht have won only once (a 26-23 win in the Celtic League in 2002) in their last nine visits to Donnybrook. Leinster are on a run of seven matches unbeaten at the venue.
But Leinster will have to contend with international call-ups (O’Driscoll, Horgan, Dempsey, Hickie, Easterby, Shane Byrne, Corrigan, Miller, O’Kelly) and injury (D’Arcy, Costello). Nonetheless, it offers a further chance to impress to those that had done so well in the early stages of the league.
Connacht don’t have such selection issues, but have only won one of their last nine away fixtures, albeit a good win against Llanelli. That said, they love coming to Donnybrook to put it up the locals and they did beat Leinster (35-24) in Galway last season.
Munster travel to Ravenhill with a remarkably poor recent record against the Northerners. Ulster have won five of the last six meetings between the two, including a double in the Celtic League last year, when they won 36-13 at home and 16-15 away when an Adam Larkin penalty in the last minute won it for them. Such thoughts will be needed to offer Ulster comfort going into this, though, for the 55-13 defeat last weekend to Gloucester will have cut deep. The aforementioned Larkin is at outhalf in the absence of David Humphreys, with Jonny Bell returning for Kevin Maggs. The Ravenhill faithful will be looking for a backlash from last weekend.
Despite international call-ups and a few players being rested, Munster will field a strong-looking pack including Donncha O’Callaghan and an especially strong backrow of David Wallace, Alan Quinlan and Denis Leamy. With Christian Cullen, Shaun Payne out wide and Paul Burke and Jason Holland pulling the strings, there is no shortage of quality in the backline either.
One senses though that Ulster’s need is greatest and, if they can overcome the inevitable pressure that brings, they may just shade it.
Elsewhere in the League this weekend, The Dragons take on The Ospreys at Rodney Parade on Friday evening in a meeting of the top two. Certainly, the remainder of the league would welcome a home win in this one to compress matters at the top. An Ospreys win plus a defeat for Leinster would see the Ospreys take a possibly definitive 14-point lead in the tournament.
While the Borders have struggled manfully, in particular when pushing the Ospreys all the way, it’s hard to see them upsetting Glasgow and avoiding a joint-record 14th straight defeat in the competition, equalling Caerphilly’s (remember them?) unfortunate landmark.
Sunday sees two more sides in desperate need of a shot in the arm when Llanelli visit Cardiff. Both sides have lost their last four matches, including two Heineken Cup matches each.