Guinness Pro12: Can Connacht cause big upset by beating Leinster?

Guinness Pro12: Gareth Llewellyn-Stevens previews this weekend's round of fixtures

Connacht face champions Leinster this weekend Photo: Connacht

The opening two rounds of the Guinness PRO12 have shown that this season could be the closest yet with tries and points aplenty from across the 12 opening matches and round three should offer more of the same.

Munster open this weekend’s fixtures as they host Zebre in Limerick with talisman Paul O’Connell back in the engine room and Conor Murray pulling the strings from scrum-half. Throw in JJ Hanrahan, Dave Kilcoyne and Denis Hurley, and any early concerns about Munster’s potential to finish in the top four this season are diminished somewhat.

While financial and political issues threaten rivals Treviso, Zebre still have players of note who can cause damage. No 8 Samuela Vunisa and flanker Mauro Bergamasco will always be dangerous given the chance while the 11-12 combination of Guilio Toniolatti and Kelly Haimona is another to keep an eye on.

Having exorcised the demons of their defeat to Edinburgh and with significant reinforcements at home, Munster should have too much for Zebre.

Leinster bounced back in style from their opening weekend defeat as they put the Scarlets to shame in Dublin last week and they are further boosted by the return of Gordon D’Arcy, albeit from the bench. Personnel changes have been kept to a minimum by head coach Matt O’Connor with Rhys Ruddock making his first start of the season at blindside flanker and Fergus McFadden coming in on the right wing to replace the injured Zane Kirchner.

This weekend they face the trip to inter-provincial rivals Connacht, who have surprised many with two wins from their opening two matches – against Newport Gwent Dragons and Edinburgh. Like O’Connor, Connacht head coach Pat Lam has kept changes to a minimum with Aly Muldowney into the second row in place of Mike Kearney.

Rarely would the club from Galway be expected to beat the Dubliners, and that is also true of Friday evening’s match. It would be major upset if Lam’s young team can maintain their 100 per cent record.

Despite defeat last time out, Cardiff Blues have undoubtedly improved on last season even if it is early days for new director of rugby Mark Hammett. Veteran Wales prop Adam Jones is already having an impact in the set-piece alongside familiar faces in Matthew Rees and Sam Warburton, while Manoa Vosawai has already proven to be an able replacement for Robin Copeland.

Preparing for the impending arrival of Gareth Anscombe, Hammett has opted to move first-choice outside-half Rhys Patchell to full-back, a move likely designed to ease the transition when the Kiwi finally reaches the Welsh capital and is handed the 10 jersey on the orders of Warren Gatland and the Welsh Rugby Union.

The juggling of the backline could prove fatal against a confident Ulster team which should have no problem sniffing out the tryline on the artificial pitch at the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, while resting Warburton leaves a sizeable hole which will only be filled in part by Josh Navidi.

The 4G pitch in the Welsh capital will suit Ulster’s dynamic running game, so it is only fitting that Irish internationals Tommy Bowe and Paddy Jackson return to a backline that also features familiar faces in Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall and Darren Cave.

It should be another long evening for the Blues after their travails against the Warriors, and despite securing a surprise win against the Ulstermen towards the end of last season, a repeat on Friday night seems even more unlikely.

Buoyed by wins against Leinster and the Blues in their opening two matches, Glasgow Warriors will have revenge in mind on Saturday as they made the arduous trip south to take on Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade.

The Welsh region were the only club to do the double over the finalists in the league last season in two close matches, but Gregor Townsend’s side will be aided in their efforts by the return to fitness of Scotland outside-half Duncan Weir, with winger Sean Maitland and club captain Al Kellock also in contention.

Decimation of the Dragons backline with Lee Byrne, Jack Dixon and Jason Tovey among the injured, while Wales lock Andrew Coombs begins a three-match ban spells further trouble against one of the league’s most potent attacks. This fixture has the makings of a repeat of the Warriors’ crushing 60-3 win in Newport two seasons ago, which set a new record for the league’s highest away win.

Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac has some major repairs to do to fix a leaky defence which has shipped 74 points in their opening two matches, equal worst in the league with Zebre. Fortunate then for the West Walians that Benetton Treviso are the visitors to the Parc y Scarlets on Saturday night.

The Italian club are tipped by The Sport Review and many others to finish bottom this season, and that’s where they occupy after the opening two rounds.

Neither team has yet confirmed their starting XVs, but after the mass exodus of international talent from Treviso in the summer, there’s no question that the Scarlets will have too much firepower going forward.

The big question will be how generous the Welsh will be in front of a crowd already asking questions of their players. If they’re too generous, as they were to allow Ulster to steal a 32-32 draw in round one, Treviso may have a cheeky shout at getting a point or two.

Finishing off the weekend, top of the table Ospreys will look to maintain their good start to the season as Edinburgh head to the Liberty Stadium. The Welsh region, tipped by many to again finish outside the top four, began with a comfortable win over whipping boys Treviso before a hard-fought win in Newport last time out.

Edinburgh head coach Alan Solomons has rung the changes after a disappointing performance in defeat to Connacht last Friday undid the good work from their surprise opening-match win in Limerick. Both clubs are still very much in transition and it’s a match which could go either way.

The Ospreys are yet to name their team, but it will likely be another relatively young line-up dotted with Wales internationals, led by Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar.

The return of Scotland winger Tim Visser to the Gunners’ backline is a welcome boost, while their latest South African import Anton Bresler gets a first start after coming off the bench last week and club captain Mike Coman also returns to the starting XV, but the bench offers little experience to make a difference in a close game. It’s a match the Ospreys will expect to win on home soil.

Fixtures

Friday 19 September
Munster (6th) vs Zebre (11th), Thomond Park, Limerick (19:30)
Cardiff Blues (8th) vs Ulster (4th), BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff (19:35)
Connacht (3rd) vs Leinster (5th), Sportsground, Galway (19:35)

Saturday 20 September
Newport Gwent Dragons vs Glasgow Warriors (2nd), Rodney Parade, Newport (14:40)
Scarlets (9th) vs Treviso (12th), Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli (18:00)

Sunday 21 September
Ospreys (1st) vs Edinburgh Rugby (7th), Liberty Stadium, Swansea (16:00)

The Sport Review round 3 predictions

Munster win by 14
Ulster win by 8
Leinster win by 8
Glasgow Warriors win by 20
Scarlets win by 7
Ospreys win by 3

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