Ulster -V- Leinster Live on RTE Two, Friday night 7pm
Both teams will be hoping to bounce back after disappointing home defeats in the Heineken Cup. Leinster's defeat at the hands of Clermont could be all the more damaging as they face a massive ask to reach the knockout stages of the competition. Ulster remain top of their pool but will be fuming at having managed a bonus point win away to Northampton, only to lose at home to the same opposition a week later. The defeat also ruined Ulster's unbeaten start to the season but they will be hoping to continue their impressive form in the Rabo Direct when they welcome Leinster to Ravenhill on Friday night.
Ulster have made three changes to the side that were defeated by the Saints last week. Tommy Bowe's injury means that he faces a lengthy spell on the sideline. That gives the exciting Craig Gilroy a massive opportunity over the coming weeks. He comes into the starting line up on the left wing with Andrew Trimble switching to the right.
Second-row Dan Tuohy is forced out with a torn calf muscle and is replaced by Neil McComb. Roger Wilson will start from the bench with Mark Anscombe opting to reshuffle his back row. Robbie Diack comes in for Wilson and will start 6, with Nick Williams shifting to his preferred number 8 role.
Joe Schmidt has made a whole host of changes to his starting XV with 7 new faces coming into the side. Richardt Strauss, Shane Jennings and Ica Nacewa all suffered injuries in the bruising encounter at the Aviva last Saturday and their places are taken by Michael Bent, who incidentally makes his first start for the province. Kevin McLaughlin starts at blindside while Andrew Conway comes onto the wing in place of Nacewa.
There are recalls for Cian Healy and Devin Toner, both of whom started from the bench last week. Brendan Macken and Noel Reid both come into the side to make up a very youthful back three for Leinster, the average age of which is 21. After a difficult afternoon against Clermont last weekend, Ian Madigan reverts back to outhalf with Sexton given a well earned rest.
Joe Schmidt has put a lot of fate in the younger guys in his squad but this is still a particularly strong side, especially upfront with 8 Irish internationals starting. In fact the entire starting XV for Leinster are all eligible to play for Ireland with is another strong statement made by Leinster.
Ulster sit top of the Rabo Direct Pro 12 league and are currently 12 points ahead of their opponents, Leinster who lie in third. With the festive season bringing about the usual Irish derbies, this one is all set up to be a real Christmas cracker. Not only will Ulster want to maintain their unbeaten record in the league but they will also want to put one over on the side that crushed them in the Heineken Cup final last May in Twickenham.
Verdict: Ulster's experience to win out.
Ulster: 15-J Payne, 14- A Trimble, 13- D Cave, 12- L Marshall, 11- C Gilroy; 10- P Jackson, 9- R Pienaar; 1- T Court, 2- R Best, 3- J Afoa, 4- I Henderson, 5- N McComb, 6- R Diack, 7- C Henry (c), 8- N Williams.
Replacements: 16- R Herring, 17- C Black, 18- A Macklin, 19- A O’Connor, 20- R Wilson, 21- P Marshall, 22- P Wallace, 23- A D’Arcy.
Leinster: 15- N Reid, 14- A Conway, 13- B Macken, 12- G D’Arcy, 11- F McFadden; 10- I Madigan, 9- E Reddan; 1- C Healy, 2- S Cronin, 3- M Bent, 4- L Cullen (c), 5- D Toner, 6- K McLaughlin, 7- S O’Brien, 8- J Heaslip.
Replacements: 16- A Dundon, 17- H van der Merwe, 18- J Hagan, 19- T Denton, 20- R Ruddock, 21- I Boss, 22- A Goodman, 23- A Byrne.
Connacht -V- Munster Live on TG4, Saturday from 4:45pm
Connacht return to the Sportsground where they enjoyed arguably their greatest ever result when they beat Biarritz in the Heineken Cup two weeks ago. The return game in the South of France last Friday night was a monsoon, making conditions horrendous for both sides. Munster come into Saturday's game on the back of a disappointing away defeat at the hands of Saracens.
Eric Elwood has named a strong side for Saturday's game with just the two changes to the team that started last week's mud bath in Biarritz. Both changes come in the forwards with Nathan White coming into and captaining the side in place of Ronan Loughney who drops to the bench. George Naoupu also starts as he takes his place in the second row alongside Mike McCarthy.
Both Eoghan Griffin and Michael Swift return from injury but must make do with a place on the bench. Former Munster academy player Eoghan Grace also starts from the bench and could feature against his old side.
Munster coach Rob Penney has made a whole host of changes to his starting XV with just 5 players that started last week's game retaining their starting place. The Kiwi will be delighted to welcome Tommy O'Donnell back into the side. O'Donnell has been one of Munster's standout players this season and he makes up a strong back row with Paddy Butler and skipper for the night, James Coughlan. Dave Kilcoyne also returns having missed out last week through illness.
Veteran Peter Stringer is one of 5 changes to Munster the back line and he forms a fresh half back partnership with former Connacht man, Ian Keatley. Denis Hurley is another who returns from injury and starts at full back. Exciting youngster Luke O'Dea comes in on the wing having replaced the injured Felix Jones last Saturday.
Munster's away record has been very poor this season having won just 2 games from their 7 away games. They currently sit in 4th spot in the league and will be eager to not lose further ground on table toppers Ulster. Connacht lie in 10th position and now that they are out of the Heineken Cup, their sole concentration will be on the league. Connacht have won two of their last three inter-provincial encounters and are chasing a clean sweep of 2012 home victories against the three other provinces. They will need little motivation for a clash with neighbours, Munster.
Verdict: Munster to edge a closely fought contest.
Connacht: 15- R Henshaw, 14- T O’Halloran, 13- D Poolman, 12- D McSharry,11- F Vainikolo, 10- D Parks, 9- K Marmion; 1- B Wilkinson, 2- J Harris-Wright, 3- N White (c), 4- G Naoupu, 5- M McCarthy, 6- A Browne, 7- J O’Connor, 8- E McKeon.
Replacements: 16- E Reynecke, 17- D Buckley, 18- R Loughney, 19- M Swift, 20- E Grace, 21- P O’Donohoe, 22- M Jarvis, 23- E Griffin.
Munster: 15- D Hurley, 14- J Murphy, 13- C Laulala, 12- J Downey, 11- L O’Dea, 10- I Keatley, 9- P Stringer; 1- D Kilcoyne, 2- M Sherry, 3- S Archer, 4- D O’Callaghan, 5- B Holland, 6- P Butler, 7- T O’Donnell, 8- J Coughlan (c).
Replacements: 16- S Henry, 17- W du Preez, 18- BJ Botha, 19- D Foley, 20- S Dougall, 21- D Williams, 22- JJ Hanrahan, 23- D Barnes.