This weekend sees the second set of festive interprovincial ties as the Pro12 season enters its second half. Cormac O' Keeffe previews the action...
"Ulster's scrum and lineout are more impressive and they have more backs in top form. Ulster to win by under 12.5 points."
Ulster kept their perfect league form intact with a hard-fought win over Leinster and are now only one win shy of their entire tally for last season's league campaign. Their front row was top class, dominating for almost the entire match and winning a penalty try. They are the tournament's most prolific try scorers and have a very solid defence, which traditionally was their major weakness and they showed both of these facets of their game in an impressive win.
Munster prevailed against Connacht in tough conditions at the Sportsground and have now won four of their last five league games and have moved into third place in the league. Their victory owes much to an incredible try-saving tackle by Ian Keatley, who also kicked impressively once again, including a great strike from halfway on the stroke of half time. It was a great all-round display from the man who has only missed three of his 22 attempts at goal this season. The Munster scrum was also excellent and they forced the penalty try just before half time. However, the lineout was pretty weak and they will need all facets of their game to operate efficiently if they are to halt the Ulster juggernaut.
Munster have won five of the last six league games at home but have lost their last three matches against the men from north of the border, including last year's Heineken Cup quarter final. They had won the last four ties between the sides prior to that poor run but I think that Ulster will secure a rare win in Limerick this weekend. Their scrum and lineout are more impressive and they have more backs in top form. They made a mess of a good Leinster scrum last week and their driving mauls at lineout time were a potent threat throughout. It should be a close game so I'll also be backing Ulster by under 12.5 points.
Leinster should bring their three-game losing streak to an end and finish 2012 on a high note with a comfortable win over Connacht at the RDS on Saturday. They fought well against Ulster but have now lost more league games than they did in all of last season and find themselves in the unaccustomed position of trailing the leaders by 16 points. Leinster's success in recent years has largely been built on the foundations of a solid defence but only four sides in the league have worse defensive records than the three-time European champions. However, they should have too much trouble against a Connacht side who have barely averaged a try per game this season.
Connacht's terrible run against Munster continued with yet another narrow defeat on Saturday. They dominated much of the match but once again their inability to score tries proved costly as they let two golden opportunities slip and Dan Parks also missed a couple of kicks. The started 2012 with a defeat to Leinster and will end the year with another defeat to the European champions.
Despite some progress in recent years Connacht must be frustrated that their role in Irish rugby is largely limited to developing talented players to be harvested by the other provinces. They have lost five of their last six league games and that poor run will be extended this weekend. Leinster suffered a surprise 34-6 in the reverse fixture at the Sportsground in September. Prior to that they had won 17 of 19 matches between the sides and they have won all home ties against the Westerners in the various incarnations of the Celtic league. Leinster have only lost one of their last 14 league games in Dublin.
Connacht have only won two of the last 14 road games (Zebre and Treviso) in the league and their wait for number three will have to wait until 2013. Leinster are stronger in every department and they should win by about 15 points.