Magners League Round 9 Preview
'Tis the season for a derby
December 24, 2009
Edinburgh's Chris Paterson will hope for easier kicking conditions at Firhill on Sunday © Getty Images
Cardiff Blues 42 - 13 Dragons Glasgow 25 - 12 Edinburgh Munster 35 - 3 Connacht Leinster 15 - 3 Ulster Scarlets 14 - 21 Ospreys
For those who find the peace and love a little bit too much at this time of year there comes a weekend of Magners League action that should see no love lost across the fields of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The top two fight it out in Scotland in our Game of the Week as Edinburgh take the trip to Firhill on Sunday level on points with leaders Glasgow. It's the first of two Scottish derbies in seven days and the games will go a long way to testing the title credentials of both sides.
They don't call December 26 Boxing Day in Ireland, but that might change after an evening which will see Munster host Connacht and Leinster welcome Ulster to the RDS.
Munster's preparations have been completely overshadowed by the news that Denis Leamy has been ruled out of action for between four and six months with a knee injury. The versatile back-row pulled up in the closing stages of Sunday's Heineken Cup victory over Perpignan and was forced to undergo surgery at a clinic in Dublin on Tuesday. The reigning Magners League champions will also take to the field without captain Paul O'Connell and four others who started at the Stade Aime Giral.
The man who pulled the strings in France, Ronan O'Gara, leads the side on Saturday and two of the try scorers, Denis Hurley and Jean de Villiers are also included in the starting line-up while Man of the Match Paul Warwick can be called on from the bench should the need arise. Ireland A international Felix Jones gets a run at fullback and Ian Dowling replaces Doug Howlett on the left wing.
Fullback Gavin Duffy will captain the Connacht side, while centre Keith Matthews and flanker Johnny O'Connor return to the side after injury.
Ulster will look to bounce back from their Heineken Cup loss to Stade Francais by recording a league double over Leinster. However, the Ulstermen travel south without four key players in Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace, Tom Court and Stephen Ferris, all of whom have been rested after their exertions in Paris. Academy player Jamie Smith starts at fullback, with Darren Cave and Ian Whitten paired in the centre while Niall O'Connor starts at fly-half in the place of Ian Humphreys, who moves to the bench. Bryan Young replaces a rested Tom Court as loosehead prop. Ferris is replaced at by David Pollock at blindside with TJ Anderson at openside with Chris Henry leading the side at No.8.
Leinster, meanwhile, will be without CJ van der Linde for the visit of Ulster. The South African prop was forced off after just 28 minutes of last weekend's Heineken Cup victory over the Scarlets in Dublin with a calf problem and has been left out of the squad completely. Nathan Hines has been included, though, despite the fact that the Scotland lock had be replaced three minutes into the second half of the Scarlets clash because of an injury. However, Jonathan Sexton remains sidelined with the broken fingers he sustained in Ireland's win over South Africa last month. The fly-half is now expected to make his Leinster return in the January 2 clash with Connacht.
There are two changes to the pack that started last weekend's 39-7 victory over the Scarlets with Stan Wright coming into the front row to line up alongside Cian Healy and John Fogarty. Malcolm O'Kelly, a second half replacement for Hines, starts alongside skipper Leo Cullen with Kevin McLaughlin continuing his back-row partnership with Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip. The backline remains unchanged which means that there are five full Ireland internationals including Eoin Reddan - who again partners Shaun Berne at half-back - and Brian O'Driscoll who starts at centre alongside Gordon D'Arcy.
The aforementioned Scarlets will look for a Boxing Day boost against the Ospreys in a mouthwatering Welsh derby at Parc Y Scarlets with the hosts expecting a record crowd. Scarlets welcome back winger Morgan Stoddart following his recovery from a hamstring injury while Phil John gets the nod at loose-head for Iestyn Thomas. "If there ever needed to be any added significance for this game - there certainly is for this one on Boxing Day," said head coach Nigel Davies who has been boosted by top-ranking Scarlets players Matthew Rees, Ken Owens, Daniel Evans and Iestyn Thomas all signing new deals this week. "This fixture is about more than individuals, it is a massive game in its own right and is all about passion and pride and the team that wants it most will win it."
Ospreys head coach Sean Holley is also hoping for a performance to match the occasion with with lock Ian Gough set for his 50th appearance for the region. Elsehwere fullback Lee Byrne is named on the bench after a length lay-off with a foot injury where he is joined by prop Adam Jones. "We've shown signs in the last few weeks that we are heading in the right direction, and we've posted some decent results, particularly in our last Magners League match against Munster," he said. "But, we are realistic about where we are at the moment, we know that we aren't performing as well as we would want to be in certain areas, and that has been the focus in training this week. We'll face a Scarlets team on Saturday who have shown several times already this season what they are capable of, so we know that we are going to have to raise our game another level again if we are going to get anything from the match."
Fourth placed Dragons will look to regain their Magners League form after back-to-back European defeats to Biarritz with a visit to Cardiff on Sunday. Winger Tom James has recovered from his groin injury to make the Blues' starting line-up while Dragons fullback Jason Tovey and captain Tom Willis have overcome ankle and calf injuries respectively in time for the Cardiff City Stadium clash. Hugh Gustafson and Pat Palmer feature in a new-look front row for the visitors, Rhodri Gomer Davies is preferred to Matthew Watkins at centre and Lewis Evans will pack down at No.8.
Blues skipper Paul Tito is well aware of the tough challenge facing his side. "The Dragons have been on fire this season and they deserve to be fourth in the table," he said. "But we have to get on with the job ahead us. We have to stand up and get in their faces. We really have to rip into them if we are to stand any chance of winning."