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Pro12 Cheat Sheet: Your guide to this weekend's inter-provincial rugby action

It’s the biggest weekend of the season so far. Ulster host Connacht. Leinster welcome Munster. Let’s get it on.

Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

Ulster v Connacht

When: Tonight, 7.05

Where can I watch? RTE and BBC both have it live.

The story so far: After post-poning their clash with Zebre in the wake of the Spence family tragedy, Ulster returned to the field brimming with perspective.

To watch them tear apart Cardiff Blues in the heart of the welsh capital you would think they hadn’t a care in the world. In rugby terms, they don’t at the minute; sitting top of the league with a game in hand.

Mark Anscombe arrived with massive question marks over his ability to manage expectations in the wake of last year’s Heineken Cup run but with wins away to Ospreys and at home to Munster under his belt, he has extinguished many of the doubts.

Few ever doubted Eric Elwood’s ability as a coach, but Mr. Connacht has decided to take a backward step at the end of the season. The news of his departure on Tuesday shed a little extra light upon the western province’s demolition of Leinster – a game marking the end of 14 games without a win against Irish opponents.

Team news: Connacht’s chances of back-to-back inter-pro victories has been dealt a blow by Anscombe’s selection of his front-line internationals. Johann Muller returns to captain a side containing Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace and Chris Henry.

John Afoa received a belated recall to the front row after Declan Fitzpatrick aggravated a knee-injury in training yesterday.

The departing Elwood has made four changes to his pack for the trip north. Two in the front row where Brett Wilkinson and Ronan Loughney come in, and two in the back as Willie Faloon is given the captaincy duties on his return to Ravenhill with Dave Gannon set to operate at blind-side.

Ulster: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (c), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, N Williams.

Replacements: R Herring, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, M McComish, M Heaney, L Marshall, C Gilroy.

Connacht: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; D Gannon, W Faloon (c), G Naoupu.

Replacements: J Harris-Wright, D Buckley, N White, J Muldoon, J O’Connor, D Moore, M Nikora, M Fifita.

Leinster v Munster

When: Saturday, 6.30

Where can I watch? TG4

The story so far: This is a big one. Both sides have identical records this season – played five, won three, lost two -and just one point separates Munster (in third) from Leinster (sixth).

However, whereas Munster’s losses have come away to the champions and by a narrow margin in Ravenhill: Leinster have punctuated wins over Treviso, Edinburgh and the Dragons with massive 34-6 and 45-20 reverses on the road to Connacht and Llanelli. Joe Schmidt’s side have conceded more tries than any other team in the league (18), only Zebre (15) come close.

©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Despite two losses, the critique of Rob Penney’s work at Munster has been almost exclusively positive. The southern province are no attacking with real width and have even been seen offloading on their own try-line in an attempt to run out of trouble. It’s a brave new world.

One thing that will bring a warm familiarity to the Thomond faithful, though, is the defence. Only Ulster and the Ospreys have conceded fewer than Munster’s eight in five games.

Team news: Leinster’s team almost picked itself as Joe Schmidt gleefully welcomed his international stars back to a squad ravaged by injury. However, hot on the heels of the news that Schmidt would spend an extra year in Ireland, Cian Healy joined Gordon D’Arcy, Rob Kearney et all on the list of unavailable.

Heinke van der Merwe joins Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross in the front row in a pack captained by Jamie Heaslip in the absence of Leo Cullen. As expected, Gordon D’arcy failed to recover in time, but there is an interesting dimension to the back line as Ian Madigan is again asked to run from fullback with Andrew Conway called in on the wing.

Rob Penney has made six changes, all to his pack following the mauling in Wales. BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony came off the bench against the Ospreys, but will hope to run for 80 minutes in Dublin. The promising midfield partnership of Keith Earls and Casey Laulala will be given one of its sterner tests as the duo again keep James Downey on the bench.

Leinster: I Madigan; A Conway, B O’Driscoll, F McFadden, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; D Browne, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip (c).

Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, J Hagan, T Denton, J Murphy, J Cooney, N Reid, F Carr.

Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett capt, K Earls, C Laulala, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; Dave O’Callaghan, S Dougall, P O’Mahony.

Replacements: D Varley, W du Preez, S Archer, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, I Keatley, J Downey.

*TheScore.ie will be covering both Ulster v Connacht and Leinster v Munster live this weekend. Do join us.

VIDEO: ‘The West’s Awake’ goes behind the scenes at Connacht

Sexton eager to get back to business against favourite foe

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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