After a disappointing week in the Heineken Cup for the four Irish provinces attention turns to the first of the traditional Christmas interprovincial ties. Cormac O' Keeffe previews the action and expects two close-fought affairs.
"Leinster's backline is significantly weakened, as evidenced by a back three of Noel Reid, Andrew Conway, and Brendan Macken."
The tie of the round is the mouth-watering clash at Ravenhill, where last year's Heineken Cup finalists lock horns. Both sides suffered disappointing European losses last week, with Leinster's defeat likely to prove more terminal to their chances of retaining their crown. Ulster's record against Leinster is abysmal. The Northerners have lost the last five league games between the sides, including a playoff match two seasons ago and they were also hammered in the Heineken Cup final by Leinster. Ulster have only won two of the last 20 games between the sides and even at Ravenhill they have only won once in the last eight meetings.
However, it goes without saying that Ulster are a different animal this season and they have won each of their last 13 league games and 13 of their last 14 league games at Ravenhill. The match takes place on the shortest day of the year and there won't be much daylight between these two sides. If both sides were at full strength I'd fancy Leinster to cause an upset but they are weakened to a greater extent than Ulster. Their pack is relatively strong but the backs are significantly weakened, as evidenced by a back three of Noel Reid, Andrew Conway, and Brendan Macken. Isa Nacewa joins the missing Irish internationals and the injured pair of O' Driscoll and Kearney on the sidelines. There is also a lack of strength in depth on the bench.
In contrast, Ulster's back line looks strong despite the absence of Tommy Bowe. Andrew Trimble is in great form and he switches to the right wing with Craig Gilroy lining up in the number 11 jersey. The remaining backline of Payne, Cave, Marshall, Gilroy, Jackson, and Pienaar is considerably stronger than the Leinster equivalent.
Richardt Strauss and Shane Jennings miss out with injury for Leinster, although Strauss would have been forced out due to the player management programme anyway. The front row of Healy, Cronin and Bent is quite strong but will find it tough against Court, Best, and Afoa.
Leinster have only lost once in their last 12 league games against Irish opposition and their form this season has picked up after a mixed start. They have already lost three times as many road games in the league this season than they did in the entire campaign last season. Their weekend defeat will have hurt them deeply, as they out-thought and out-muscled by a very strong Clermont side. However, I expect another close loss this weekend for the reigning European champions.
Connacht host Munster on Saturday in the second of the inter-provisional ties. Of the three Irish teams, Connacht tend to struggle most against Munster, who have done the double over Connacht in each of the last three seasons. The Westerners have only won one of the last 20 matches between the sides in the various guises of this competition and that was at Christmas time four years ago. In all they have only won one match between the sides in over a quarter of a century and have only won two of their last 18 games against Irish opposition. Remarkably, Munster have kept them scoreless on four occasions and Connacht also failed to register a point in their European defeat to Biarritz at the weekend.
The matches at the Sportground are usually close affairs with an average winning margin of six points in the last six encounters. The hosts tend to struggle to score heavily and have only registered an average of 10 points in their last eight matches at home to Munster. Connacht's home record has worsened in recent months and they only have four wins in 12 league games at the Sportground.
Munster have lost their last three matches against Irish sides in the league and have been poor on the road this season. However, they played well enough in defeat to Saracens on Sunday and have won three of their last four league games. The playing field is levelled somewhat by the player management programme, which means that the internationals that started in the November tests will not feature. This will weaken Munster to a greater extent but they have morestrength in depth and no fresh injury concerns after the weekend's game. I fancy Munster to win a close encounter so suggest backing them in the straight market and to win by under 12.5 points.