PREVIEW: Pro14, Quarterfinals
ROAD TO GLASGOW: After a thrilling climax to the Pro14 regular season last Saturday, the first stage of the Final Series, the quarterfinals get underway this weekend.
One quarterfinal will be an all-Ireland derby and the other will see a first Italian team at this stage visit Belfast.
We take a closer look at each quarterfinal below:
MUNSTER v BENETTON
(Thomond Park, Limerick – Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 GMT; 16.00 Italy time)
Benetton made history as the first Italian team to qualify for the Pro14 Final Series – their reward is a trip to Thomond Park to take on a Munster side that finished the season on a high.
Johann van Graan’s side won nine of their last ten Pro14 encounters and completed an unbeaten regular season at home by seeing off fellow Final Series qualifiers Connacht on the final day of the campaign.
The Limerick-based side are looking to reach a third final in five seasons, but you have to go back to 2011 for their last title, something of which Van Graan, Peter O’Mahony and the rest of the Munster squad will be acutely aware.
For Benetton, a bonus-point win over Zebre clinched a spot in the post-season and a quarterfinal in Limerick, with Kieran Crowley determined to show that the Leoni are ready to seize the opportunity and book a semifinal date with Leinster.
After seeing off their Italian rivals in Parma, the head coach said: “I’m very proud of everything we have done off the pitch. The medical staff, the physios, the other coaches, and everyone who works behind the scenes to help the 15 on the pitch.
“We don’t want to stop here. We have nothing to lose because nobody expected us to get here.”
I Leoni hanno raggiunto lo storico traguardo dei Playoff nel Guinness @PRO14Official! Una delle novità introdotte quest’anno è l’allenamento isoinerziale con le pedane @go_exxentric #kBox4, che ha dato una marcia in più ai nostri ragazzi!
— Benetton Rugby 🦁 (@BenettonRugby) May 2, 2019
Keeping their season alive for a further week will not be easy against a Munster side who have had the edge in recent meetings, most notably a 37-28 win in Treviso last month.
Victory at the Stadio Monigo made it 22 in a row for Munster against Italian opposition – you have to go back to 2013 for Benetton’s last win over the Irish province.
But with the attacking talents of the likes of Monty Ioane and Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara out wide, and Tommaso Allan pulling the strings, Benetton arrive in Ireland looking to upset the odds once again.
Prediction: Munster, who are attempting to reach their fourth semifinal in the last five years, have lost just once in the Pro14 in 2019: 6-10 at Scarlets in Round 17. The Munstermen have not been defeated at home in any competition since Leinster won at Thomond Park in December 2017. This is Benetton’s first appearance in the play-offs in their ninth season of involvement in the Pro14. The Italians have lost just twice in their last thirteen first team fixtures, both in the Pro14, away to Connacht in Round 18 and at home to Munster in Round 20. Munster have won their last eleven encounters against Benetton in all tournaments whilst all three Italian victories in this fixture were in the Guinness PRO14 at Stadio Monigo, in 2011, and twice in 2013. No Italian side has ever been victorious at Thomond Park in any tournament. Munster will take this one by 14 points.
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Chris Cloete, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 Jeremy Loughman, 18 John Ryan, 19 Billy Holland, 20Arno Botha, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Dan Goggin.
Benetton: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Ratuva Tavuyara, 13 Marco Zanon, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Tommaso Allan (captain), 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Toa Halafihi, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Marco Lazzaroni, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Nicola Quaglio.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Derrick Appiah, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Irné Herbst, 20 Dean Budd, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 23 Antonio Rizzi, 23 Alberto Sgarbi.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse (Wales), Dan Jones (Wales)
TMO: Ian Davies (Wales)
ULSTER v CONNACHT
(Kingspan Stadium, Belfast – Kick-off: 17.35; 16.35 GMT)
What a difference a year makes for both Ulster and Connacht.
The two Irish provinces have been revitalised this Pro14 season with new men at the helm and now a clash in Belfast to return to the semifinal stage.
Dan McFarland’s arrival at the Kingspan has brought the Ulstermen back into the Final Series and the European knockout rounds for the first time since 2016. And with Rory Best and Darren Cave bidding farewell to Belfast this weekend before retirement, have all the motivation they need to extend their season.
But a semifinal trip to Glasgow Warriors is certainly not beyond Connacht who have been a side reborn under Andy Friend.
Last year they ended up down in sixth in Conference A, fast forward a year under the Australian and they were third and back in the Final Series for the first time since their fairy-tale title win under Pat Lam.
Recent history is also on Connacht’s side, they did the regular season double over Ulster in the interprovincial derbies including a first win in Belfast back in round six since 1960.
It is worth noting that victory owed much to a Matty Rea red card for the hosts, but make no mistake about it, Connacht will not fear their provincial rivals.
They have won three in a row against Ulster for the first time since the 1950s, have a flyhalf in Jack Carty in career best form – according to former Ulster scrumhalf Paul Marshall.
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) May 1, 2019
“I think Jack Carty is probably the key man for Connacht at the minute. He is in superb form, playing so well,” he said.
“He can find chinks in a defence and certainly he will be a key man to try and put pressure on.
“What we have seen from Ulster however is a team that has been building character and resolve and consistency throughout the season so hopefully that can continue on Saturday.”
Prediction: Ulster have made it to the play-offs for the first time since 2016 and have lost just one of their last eight Pro14 matches: 7-30 at Glasgow in Round 19. Ulster’s only reversal at Kingspan Stadium in any tournament since February 2018 was to Connacht in the Pro14 in October. This is only the second time that Connacht have reached the play-offs since they were re-introduced in 2010, previously it was in season 2015/16 when they won the title. Connacht’s 14-27 defeat at Munster on Saturday ended a four-game winning streak in the Pro14. Connacht have won just twice away from home in 2019: at Bordeaux in round 6 of the European Challenge Cup and at Zebre in Round 19 of the Pro14. Connacht have won their last three matches against Ulster since the Ulstermen’s 16-8 victory at Kingspan Stadium in October 2017, a run which included their first victory in Belfast for over 57 years. Ulster will edge it by five points.
Ulster: 15 Michael Lowry, 14 Rob Baloucoune, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Rob Lyttle, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 8 Marcel Coetzee, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Nick Timoney, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Ross Kane, 2 Rory Best, 1 Eric O’Sullivan.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Alan O’Connor, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Darren Cave, 23 Angus Kernohan.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Stephen Fitzgerald, 13 Tom Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Jarrad Butler (captain), 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 Gavin Thornbury, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Conor Carey, 19 Eoghan Masterson, 20 Paul Boyle, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Tom Daly, 23 Darragh Leader.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)