Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht locked and loaded, plus transfer news.

Match previews and latest transfer news in this post will be updated with match reports later today.

All four provinces have picked near full strength sides, allowing for injuries, in preparation for their third last regular season matches in the United Rugby Championship. The table is spectacularly tight right now, and every last point could be crucial in determining who ends up in the 8 play-off places. If the Sharks beat Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final, only the top seven will qualify for next season’s European Cup in addition to the Sharks.


Preview: Scarlets vs. Ulster: 3.05pm, Premier Sports

Scarlets have announced they are letting 14 players – including 4 of the match day squad – go at the end of the season, so it is difficult to know what their morale will be like. Stuck in 14th. Place in the table, they have nothing to play for except their future careers if they want to attract the attention of another club. However, this is precisely the sort of match in which Ulster, in the past, have struggled to impose themselves on the opposition. Let’s hope it is the Ulster side we saw against Benetton rather than Cardiff, who show up for this match.

Ulster have announced the recruitment of Werner Kok from the Sharks and the promotion of back rows Lorcan McLoughlin, James McNabney and prop Scott Wilson from their academy with Wilson starting this match at tight head. With Steven Kitshoff and Billy Burns off to join Stormers and Munster respectively, and Angus Curtis and Luke Marshall retiring, there are still some holes in their squad to be filled, notably at 10 and loose head.  Luke Marshall played 166 times for Ulster in a 14 year career and also featured eleven times for Ireland.  Prediction: Ulster to Win.

ULSTER: Mike Lowry; Ethan McIlroy, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Scott Wilson; Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor (capt); Cormac Izuchukwu, David McCann, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Andrew Warwick, James French, Harry Sheridan, Reuben Crothers, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore, Dave Ewers.


Live Blog: Scarlets 20 Ulster 31

Scarlets started playing like they wanted it more and took a 3 -0 lead. Ulster gradually got on top and had three “tries” disallowed for held up over the line and one kick ahead which just went dead. As a result, Scarlets started the second half 6-3 up despite conceded two yellow cards. Ulster will be wondering how they couldn’t have scored more.

Stockdale got involved in the play all over the pitch but for me he is still too easy to catch and take down. He just doesn’t break many tackles for such a big man, and doesn’t have the speed to out run a defence. McCann was prominent in the loose and McCloskey made good ground, but Ulster will have to step it up considerably in the second half if they are to get the bonus point win they so badly need.

McCloskey finally makes the breakthrough through a paper thin defence just after half time. He seems like the adult in the room after a lot of scrappy and indecisive play. James French is the very definition of a journeyman player, but he does a good job winning a scrum penalty and Lowry intercepts to make great ground up field. Timoney scores from the back of the scrum against poor tackle attempts. 6-17.

Ulster are well on top now in every phase and McCann gets over from close range. 6-24 – and as I say that they let Scarlets in for a soft try. 13-24. Ulster haven’t been competing well for high balls but Stockdale claims one and almost creates a try but earns a penalty for a tackle in the air. A few phases later and he gets the bonus point try out wide. Cooney makes no mistake 13-31.

Determined to give a sucker an even break, Stockdale and a few others fall off tackles to gift the Scarlets an easy try. What is it about Ulster that they cannot concentrate for 80 minutes? 20-31. Ulster’s line-out has held out well, as has their scrum, despite the early loss of Scott Wilson. This has been a generally poor quality match with Ulster not having to play particularly well to get a bonus point win. Tougher tests await, but it was mission accomplished here.


Preview: Munster vs. Connacht: 5.15pm RTE, Premier Sports

Munster are still in with a shout of topping the regular season table and thereby gaining home advantage all the way to the final, so they will not be lacking motivation for this match. Missing only Mike Haley and long term injury absentees Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn, they have picked a particularly strong bench. For next season Munster have recruited Billy Burns from Ulster and Diarmuid Killgallen from Connacht but will be losing Joey Carbury and RG Snyman to Bordeaux and Leinster, respectively. Lock Edwin Edogbo, out-half Tony Butler, scrum-half Ethan Coughlan (all 21) and 22-year-old prop Mark Donnelly have been promoted from the academy to the senior squad.

Connacht are still missing Mack Hansen and Santiago Cordero, and with JJ Hanrahan and Cian Prendergast added to their injury list and may not have quite the same strength in depth as Munster.  Connacht have been active in the transfer market for next season and have recruited ex-Ulster hooker Adam McBurney from Edinburgh, full back Piers O’Conor from Bristol Bears, ex-Ulster lock David O’Connor from Ealing Trailfinders, and Temi Lasisi (prop) and Ben Murphy (scrum half and son of Ulster coach Richie) from the Leinster academy. Matthew Devine and Hugh Gavin have been promoted from their own Academy – Gavin having been outstanding for the Irish u.20’s thus season and Devine having had a very impressive debut for the senior side recently. Tiernan O’Halloran is retiring after 15 seasons and 236 appearances for Connacht; he also has 6 caps for Ireland in a distinguished career.

These inter-provincials are traditionally extremely competitive and quite feisty affairs and Connacht badly need a win to secure their place in the play-offs and European Championship next season. Nevertheless, I expect Munster to win.

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Calvin Nash, Alex Nankivell, Seán O’Brien, Shane Daly; Jack Crowley, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; RG Snyman, Tadhg Beirne (capt); Peter O’Mahony, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Donoghue.

Replacements: Eoghan Clarke, Mark Donnelly, Oli Jager, Tom Ahern, Gavin Coombes, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Antoine Frisch.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Shane Jennings, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Byron Ralston; Jack Carty (capt), Matthew Devine; Peter Dooley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Joe Joyce, Oisín Dowling; Shamus Hurley-Langton, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Jordan Duggan, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Sean Jansen, Caolin Blade, Cathal Forde, Jarrad Butler.


Live Blog: Munster 47 Connacht 12

Dooley was in the trenches early digging Connacht out of sundry holes, but Munster were relentless, fine handling keeping the pressure on Connacht and drawing a yellow card for Hurley-Langton for repeated infringements. Snyman got the try, even it the actual touchdown looked more like a knock on. You felt it was going to be a long day for Connacht. 7-0

Craig Casey is so low to the ground its difficult to tell whether he is running or crawling rather fast on all fours. Calvin Nash then beats Tom Farrell for speed on the outside and dots down in the corner despite the despairing attempt of Ralston to prevent the grounding. Crowley nails the touch line conversion at the second attempt. 14-0

Connacht then show they can do the running and passing thing too, as well  mix it in the scrums and score a fine try off first phase through Ralston in the corner off a fine long pass by Carty.  14-7 h/t.

Some excellent attacking by Connacht almost yields a second try, but the move breaks down and Nankivell score a breakaway try. It can be a cruel world…21-7. Munster bring on Frisch, Coombes and Jager to demonstrate their superior bench. The front rows desperately try to look sincere and interested as they listen to one more lecture on scrummaging by the referee Adam Jones…

A foot in touch denies Hurley Langton a fine try – the fine margins are killing Connacht in what has been an excellent performance by both teams. Ahern, Carbery and Murray come on for Munster to further emphasize the disparity in resources. Murray scores the bonus point try after another flowing move by Frisch, Nankivell, and Zebo. Not to be outdone Carty throws another fine scoring pass out wide to Ralston.

Connacht are badly missing Hansen, Jennings is not nearly at the same level and knocks on. Munster do not look a gift horse in the mouth and Carbery scores. 35 -12. Connacht mistime their line-out and Ahearn gobbles it up, brushes off a tackle attempt and takes the next 20 metres to fall over the line from his great height. 40-12.

This has become a rout, which is hard on Connacht as they have contributed mightily to an entertaining match. But they  cannot prevent Daly getting in for a final try. 47-12. Aki fought hard to make the hard yards all match but got little change from a resolute Munster defence. O’Mahony lasted the full 80 and Crowley controlled things nicely. This is Munster in Championship mode. Connacht are now in shark infested waters after Benetton’s away win against the Sharks in Durban and slip down to 9th. place in the table.


Leinster vs. Ospreys: 7.35pm TG4, Premiersports

Leo Cullen has made good his pledge to field strong teams for the remainder of the URC with just five changes to the starting team that beat Northampton. Jimmy O’Brien makes his first start of the year and Tommy O’Brien is also back from injury, but there is still no sign of James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, or Hugo Keenan coming back from injury, although Cullen says all three could be fit for the European Cup final.

Ospreys are 10th. in the table overall and still very much in the hunt for a play-off and Champions league place. They will undoubtedly give this match a good rattle, but it is hard to see them staying with Leinster, especially when the respective benches come on. Leinster will be hoping that Glasgow come a cropper against the Bulls in Johannesburg to allow them to reclaim top spot in the table. Prediction: Leinster to win

For next season Leinster have recruited RG Snyman and Jordie Barrett (from December to the end of the season) and promoted loose head Jack Boyle, tight head Paddy McCarthy, and back row James Culhane from their academy. Paddy McCarthy has only spent one year in the Academy, following a successful Ireland u.20 campaign. It is highly unusual for Leinster to offer a full contract to a prop so young. Perhaps they feel he is on course to follow his brother Joe McCarthy to international stardom.

Cian Healy (36) has signed a one year contract extension, but Michael Ala’alatoa (Clermont), Jason Jenkins (Sharks), Ross Molony (Bath), and Ed Byrne (Cardiff) will be leaving the club. A pity another Irish club couldn’t have picked them up. There is, as yet no sign of any major signing of a proven test class tight head – the most glaring weakness in the Leinster squad.

LEINSTER: Ciarán Frawley; Jordan Larmour, Jamie Osborne, Robbie Henshaw, Jimmy O’Brien; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Jason Jenkins; Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Caelan Doris (capt).

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Michael Milne, Thomas Clarkson, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Charlie Ngatai, Tommy O’Brien.


Live Blog: Leinster  61 Ospreys 14 f/t

Leinster started off like an express train scoring two excellent converted tries in double quick time. But then they appeared to switch off and allowed Ospreys back into the game with a try straight off a scrum. Worse was to follow when the referee awarded a penalty try and yellow card against Frawley for tackling the player in the air. My understanding of the rules is that you are allowed to tackle a player in the air if they are diving for the try line – what else are you supposed to do – allow them jump into the air to score untouched? I will await expert opinion on that  one!

Suitably chastised, 14 man Leinster didn’t allow the 14-14 score-line last long with Larmour scoring in the corner off a Ross Byrne dink. 21-14. But Ospreys have come to play and Leinster are forced to dig deep at a scrum on their own 5 metre line. They destroyed the Ospreys scrum but Osprey survived at the next scrum by having a hand on the turf throughout the scrum – refereeing of scrums seems to be a complete lottery. 21-14 H/T.

Within the first minute of the second half Jenkins scores off a brilliant pass from Henshaw and mazy run by Jimmy O’Brien – who has come back from injury in top form. 28-14. Leinster bring on their bench and run through the gears – Larmour beating three would be tacklers on the way to the line. Ross Byrne continues his perfect form from the tee. 35-14.

A great chip and chase by Tommy O’Brien sets up a try for Osborne 42-14. Leinster are enjoying themselves at this stage. Larmour gets his hat trick after relentless Leinster attacks. 54-14. A deft grubber by MOTM Jimmy O’Brien leads to a try by Tommy O’Brien 61-14. f/t.

It sounds like a humiliation for Ospreys, but they stayed in the fight for as long as they could as well as they could. Leinster’s cup of back-line resources, with Jimmy O’Brien and Tommy O’Brien back fit and Frawley, Osborne, Larmour, and Henshaw in fine form, over-floweth. Ringrose and Keenan must be worried about getting back into this side.

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