WELCOME TO THE first Pro12 Cheat Sheet of 2013 and your last of the month.
The majority of the sides in action over the weekend [sorry Newport Gwent Dragons] will be in Heineken Cup action after this round of fixtures.
We will start off with the league’s two best sides and drop you off at Musgrave Park, where third place Munster host Sam Warburton and Cardiff Blues.
Ulster v Scarlets
When: Tonight 7.05
Where can I watch? BBC 2
The story so far: Ulster were finally hobbled last week as they were beaten away to Munster. They still hold a nine point lead over Scarlets in second and have three Pro12 home games on the trot. Wins against Scarlets [tonight], Ospreys and Zebre could secure them a top four spot with seven games to spare.
Scarlets have won five away games from seven in the league and have already beaten Connacht and Munster in their back, and Musgrave, yards. They beat Cardiff but lost heavily to Ospreys over the festive period.
Team news: Some big names return to the Ulster XV, including Andrew Trimble, Ruan Pienaar and Tom Court, but it is a match too soon for Iain Henderson. Jared Payne also misses out. Scarlets have a strong backline but are missing Rhys Priestland [long-term] and Matthew Rees.
Ulster: A D’Arcy, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Herring, A Macklin; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry (c), N Williams.
Replacements: N Annett, C Black, J Afoa, N McComb, R Wilson, M Heaney, P Wallace, R Andrew.
Scarlets: D Newton; G North, G Maule, J Davies (c), K Phillips; A Thomas, T Knoyle; P John, E Phillips, J Adriaanse; S Timani, R Kelly; J Turnbull, J Edwards, R McCusker.
Replacements: K Myhill, R Jones, D Manu, T Vallejos, C Price, G Davies, S Williams, A Warren.
Edinburgh v Leinster
When: Tonight 7.35
Where can I watch? TG4
The story so far: Leinster are wallowing in sixth but they are only three points off Scarlets in second. They could have no qualms about a pre-Christmas loss to Ulster but hit back well to beat Connacht 17-0 after weathering an early storm.
Edinburgh looked a busted flush in mid October after a 45-0 loss to Saracens and shipping four tries against Munster in the Heineken Cup. They rebounded, in the league to defeat Ospreys and Connacht but a double loss to Glasgow over Christmas has left them deflated.
Team news: The big news came three-fold from Leinster as Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luk Fitzgerald were all included in the Blues backline. Joe Schmidt has named a side that will not differ too much from the XV charged with putting a bonus point win on Scarlets in the Heineken Cup. The players to watch on the Edinburgh side are Tim Visser and David Denton – Scotland’s best hopes for earning a Lions touring ticket to Australia in the summer.
Leinster: R Kearney; F Carr, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy; L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; L Cullen (c), D Toner; K McLaughlin, S O’Brien; J Heaslip.
Replacements: A Dundon, H van der Merwe, M Bent, T Denton, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, Andrew Conway.
Edinburgh: G Tonks; D Fife, M Scott, B Atiga, T Visser; P Francis, G Laidlaw (c); A Jacobsen, A Titterrell, W Nel; G Gilchrist, S Cox; S McInally, D Basilaia, D Denton.
Replacements: S Lawrie, R Hislop, G Cross, P Parker, N Talei, R Rees, J King, S Visser.
Connacht v Dragons
When: Saturday 5.00
Where can I watch? Live and in living colour. Snubbed by TV again.
The story so far: Get along to the Sportsground and cheer on Connacht as they look to snap a four-game losing run in the league. Eric Elwood’s men have stuttered badly since a decent start to the league and their wastefulness cost them against Munster and Leinster over the festive period. Dragons lost to Ospreys and Cardiff in low-scoring, late December fixtures and are 11th in the league.
Team news: Elwood gratefully welcomes back Mike McCarthy and Fetu’u Vainikolo to the starting XV and Nathan White is fit to start at prop and captain the side. Dan Parks will be looking to improve his recent kicking statistics – he is partnered by Kieran Marmion. Toby Faletau and Tom Prydie are the Dragons’ two dangermen.
Connacht: R Henshaw: D Poolman, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, N White (c); M Swift, M McCarthy; A Browne, E McKeon, G Naoupu.
Replacements: E Reynecke, B Wilkinson, R Loughney, M Kearney, E Grace, P O’Donohoe, M Jarvis, T O’Halloran.
Dragons: H Amos; T Prydie, A Hughes, A Tuilagi, T Chavhanga; L Robling, W Evans; P Price, S Parry, D Way; A Coombs, R Sidoli; L Evans (c), N Cudd, T Faletau.
Replacements: H Gustafson, O Evans, N Buck, A Jones, T Brown, J Evans, A Smith, J Dixon.
Ulster’s Michael Allen tackles Casey Laulala of Munster. (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)
Munster v Cardiff
When: Saturday 7.30
Where can I watch? RTE 2
The story so far: Munster, barring a home slip-up against Scarlets, are looking good in the league. They came out of the festive fixtures with victories over Connacht and the previously unbeaten Ulster. A home win could see them move up to second in the table. Cardiff are way off the pace, having lost seven matches out of 12 so far. They beat Dragons over Christmas but narrowly lost out to Scarlets at home.
Team news: Fitness boosts for Rob Penney ahead of the Heineken Cup games against Edinburgh and Racing Metro. Ronan O’Gara and Keith Earls return to the starting line-up and Doug Howlett captains. Peter O’Mahony is rested but CJ Stander is on the bench. Cardiff Blues’ two best players [in theory], Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton, start while Leigh Halfpenny is on the bench.
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett (c), K Earls, J Downey, J Murphy; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; D Foley, D Ryan; T O’Donnell, S Dougall, J Coughlan.
Replacements: S Henry, W du Preez, BJ Botha, B Holland, CJ Stander, D Williams, I Keatley, C Laulala.
Cardiff: J Tovey; O Williams, R Smith, J Roberts, H Robinson; R Patchell, L Jones; S Hobbs, R Williams, B Bourrust; B Davies, L Reed; J Navidi (c), S Warburton, R Copeland.
Replacements: K Dacey, P Tamba, S Andrews, J Down, L Hamilton, A Walker, C Sweeney, L Halfpenny.