Head to head: Key battles that could decide two eye-catching Irish match-ups

Peter White
20 December 2019

Share this article

Sitting pretty in the top two spots of both Conferences, the four Irish sides have stood out from the rest so far this season and will be looking to cement their title credentials at the expense of rivals close to home.

Unbeaten in all competitions so far, two-time defending champions Leinster have the most points scored and the fewest conceded in the Guinness PRO14, but face potentially their toughest test of the season at home to Ulster on Friday night.

Dan McFarland’s men are fresh from back-to-back wins against Premiership side Harlequins in the European Champions Cup and will be confident of combatting recent history and claiming their first win at the RDS Arena since March 2013.

On Saturday, Conference B’s big-hitters Connacht and Munster face off at the Sportsground, and with just one point currently separating them in the table – and top spot at stake – expect fireworks to fly.

Andy Friend’s outfit have been beaten at home just once since January, but the Munstermen have lost only one of their last six encounters with Connacht, suggesting fine margins could well be the difference in Galway.

With intriguing match-ups across the park in both games, we’ve picked a key battle from each which could steer the bragging rights in either side’s favour.

CAN SHANAHAN FILL COONEY’S BOOTS?

As well boasting the league’s tightest defence, Leinster are the highest scorers in the Guinness PRO14 and Jamison Gibson-Park’s finest year in Dublin has proved instrumental to their attacking prowess.

The 27-year-old former Hurricanes star leads the assists standings with five so far, and his commanding performances in the No.9 jersey saw him called into Andy Farrell’s 45-man Ireland training camp.

The absence of Ulster’s league-topping points scorer John Cooney at scrum-half piles the pressure on replacement David Shanahan, who comes into the side looking to fill the void left by another man to have received recent international recognition.

Cooney’s absence will undoubtedly be a loss for the Belfast-based side, but 26-year-old Shanahan has deputised well when called upon so far this year, and if he can stop Leinster scoring – and set up chances himself – he could prove key to what would be a famous Ulster win.

BATTLE OF THE BACK ROW

In a game that could go down to the wire, Connacht will be counting on all of skipper Jarrad Butler’s experience as he looks to lead the Galway-based side towards their first Guinness PRO14 title since 2015/16.

The 28-year-old lies second in the standings for most tackles in the campaign with 92, and he could prove pivotal to preventing Munster gaining a firm grip on the game, while also offering a threat in attack.

His opposite number – Peter O’Mahony – is similarly crucial to his side’s credentials however, and having been earmarked as a potential Ireland captain, will be determined to boost his reckoning this weekend.

Having inspired Munster to an impressive win over defending Champions Cup winners Saracens earlier this month, O’Mahony will be vying to continue such impressive form on the domestic stage this time out.

Share this article