By Phil Rice
After a weekend of mixed results for the Irish provinces, the season really gets under way this Saturday when the old rivals Munster and Leinster come to grips with each other again at the Aviva Stadium in the PRO14.
Munster took a while to get going against Cardiff Blues last Saturday but with Ian Keatley rediscovering his best form and CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray all returning from their recovery period after the Lions tour, they really turned on the style in the second half to win 39-16.
JJ Hanrahan has spent the past two seasons at Northampton but has now returned to his home province and looked in fine form when he came off the bench with 15 minutes to go and scored two welltaken tries.
Joe Schmidt will be keen to get him back involved with Ireland, especially in light of the dearth of fly-halves at his disposal at the moment.
Whether JJ gets game time at 10 with Munster may be an issue, with Tyler Bleyendaal and Ian Keatley both also vying for the shirt.
Leinster too welcomed back their Lions brigade to the RDS, but there was evidence of some rust and Edinburgh will count themselves unlucky not to even get a losing bonus point in their 21-13 defeat to the home team.
Johnny Sexton looked sharp but Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong and Sean O’Brien all looked in need of some game time.
Edinburgh dominated the game for long periods and Leinster will be aware that a big improvement will be needed for Saturday’s derby match.
With such strength in depth at his disposal, Leo Cullen will have some interesting decisions to make this week.
Jack Conan has been a key figure for the team this season and was badly missed at the weekend.
He is likely to return to number 8 with O’Brien moving to openside and perhaps Rhys Ruddock on the blindside.
Munster and Leinster both lie second in Conference A and Conference B respectively.
Glasgow head the A group as the only team left with a 100% record. Ulster lost their unbeaten record at the weekend with an unbelievable defeat at the hands of the perennial whipping boys Zebre.
After some excellent results of late, including the defeat of Champions Scarlets, it looked as if Ulster had finally found some consistency, but as their supporters will be only too aware there always seems to be a nightmare performance just around the corner.
Coach Les Kiss will be tearing his hair out trying to understand where these rogue performances suddenly spring from.
Having beaten Southern Kings last week Zebre will be celebrating consecutive wins for the first time in a very long time.
Ulster will be keen to get back on track quickly with the prospect of a difficult Champions Cup tie against Wasps on Saturday week.
They face Connacht in a local derby at the Kingspan this Friday. Connacht put in their best performance of the season at the weekend against Scarlets.
With a two-point deficit and just three minutes remaining they were pressing for a big win, but a late breakaway from the home team and Irishman Tadhg Beirne crashed over for a converted try to deny them even a losing bonus point.
However Coach Kieran Keane will be encouraged by the performance and Ulster will be aware that a big improvement will be needed from them to get back to winning ways.
A full house will be expected at the Aviva this Saturday as the season builds momentum.
The Champions Cup begins the following week and all teams will be looking for a confidence boost before setting out on their European conquests.