round three

5 reasons to watch the Irish provinces in tonight's Pro12 action

International contention, Ulster’s backline, Munster move towards full strength and the form of Jack McGrath.
  • Munster v Zebre [19.30]
  • Cardiff Blues v Ulster [19.35, BBC Wales]
  • Connacht v Leinster [19.35, TG4]

Munster move closer to full strength

Most teams would be boosted by including Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray, but their returns come at an ideal time for Munster. Last weekend’s win away to Treviso alleviated some of the stress caused by an opening day defeat to Edinburgh, although a convincing home win is what Anthony Foley’s side need at this juncture.

Conor Murray Conor Murray makes a welcome return to the Munster XV. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Zebre provide the perfect opponents for attack coach Brian Walsh to demand more from Munster, with the Italians having conceded 10 tries in their opening two games.

After three consecutive losses at Thomond Park – a first in the professional era – a Munster team containing the likes of O’Connell, Murray, Robin Copeland, Andrew Smith, Simon Zebo and Tommy O’Donnell should put things right.

Munster (v Zebre): Felix Jones (capt.), Ronan O’Mahony, Andrew Smith, Denis Hurley, Simon Zebo; Johnny Holland, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha; Billy Holland, Paul O’Connell; Paddy Butler, Tommy O’Donnell, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan, Sean Dougall, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Johne Murphy.

International contention

So much of the action in the coming months will be tinged by the prospect of the 2015 World Cup. A November Test series and Six Nations campaign will give Joe Schmidt opportunities to find his favoured starting team, but provincial form will be crucial too.

Ireland's Stuart Olding Stuart Olding was capped by Ireland in 2013. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Players such as Zebo, Stuart Olding, Copeland, Tadhg Furlong, James Cronin, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Robbie Diack have points to prove before Schmidt decides upon his finalised November squad.

The focus right now is on helping their provinces to succeed, but it is difficult to suggest that the World Cup is not in the back of every Irish-qualified player’s mind.

Ulster’s backline

Olding returns at inside centre for Ulster tonight, having sat out last weekend’s win against Zebre. Such was the quality of the 21-year-old’s display in the draw with the Scarlets the week before, he looks likely to be involved with Ireland this season.

Andrew Trimble scores their fourth try Andrew Trimble was in sharp form against Zebre last weekend. Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO / Darren Kidd/INPHO

Alongside him in midfield is another international hopeful, Darren Cave, while the established Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble are selected out wide. Louis Ludik has looked sharp since joining from Agen and adds to the threat for Cardiff this evening.

Paddy Jackson makes his first appearance of the season and it is perhaps helpful, from an Ireland viewpoint, that he does so without Ruan Pienaar in the team. Paul Marshall provides less playmaking control than the South African, but his sniping breaks are always a danger.

Ulster (v Cardiff Blues): Louis Ludik; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Andrew Warwick, Rory Best (capt.), Wiehahn Herbst; Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe; Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Bronson Ross, Neil McComb, Roger Wilson, Michael Heaney, Ian Humphreys, Craig Gilroy.

Can Connacht’s run continue?

While two games may not quite amount to a streak, the western province have impressed in their wins over the Dragons and Edinburgh. To hear Gavin Duffy reveal to Off the Ball that Connacht’s changing room after the dramatic win in Scotland was actually a sombre one was a further encouragement.

Niyi Adeolokun supported by Darragh Leader and Eoin McKeon Connacht wing Niyi Adeolokun has made a promising start to life in professional rugby. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Pat Lam and his squad have set new standards for themselves this season. A top-six finish is their target, and with Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney still to be added to the mix, there is much to be positive about.

Before those high-profile new signings make their presence felt, Lam’s home-grown talent will look to build on their good start. Leinster provide a potential stumbling block at the Sportsground this evening.

Leinster’s loosehead

Ian Madigan’s retention of the 12 shirt is a point of interest in the Leinster XV, but the fact that Jack McGrath has kept hold of his spot at loosehead prop is also notable.

LeinsterÕs Jack McGrath McGrath is one of the best looseheads in the Pro12. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Cian Healy at his best is among the best in the world, but his understudy remains in the starting team entirely on merit this weekend. The Lion has struggled to get going so far this season, although it would be no surprise to see him burst into life sooner rather than later.

For now, McGrath’s consistent improvement into a high-quality prop continues. Shane Horgan told Sky Sports last weekend that McGrath is already part of the leadership group at Leinster, and the 24-year-old is developing into an extremely rounded player.

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