PREVIEW: Pro14, Round 14
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: After a fortnight of European action, the Pro14 returns for Round 14 and on the eve of the Six Nations, there is plenty to prove as the race hots up for the Final Series.
Conference A is as tight as it gets with everyone from Munster on top down to Cardiff Blues in fifth still vying for the knock-out berths.
Meanwhile, in Conference B, Benetton continue to catch the eye in a packed field behind runaway leaders and defending champions Leinster. Edinburgh in second and Ulster in fifth are only separated by two points – and the race could take another twist this weekend with some mouth-watering match-ups.
What’s at stake?
Second plays third in Conference A on Friday as Glasgow Warriors (A2) – downed last time out by Benetton – look for revenge when Ospreys (A3) come to Scotstoun. This crucial clash sees Dave Rennie’s side keen to turn a slump in form around that has seen them only win once in their last five games in all competitions. Ospreys meanwhile have only lost once in their last four Pro14 games but have only got one away win to their name in the Championship this season – against Zebre in Round Five. Glasgow have won all six games against Welsh opponents this season and Ospreys have a tough head to head record against the Warriors to overcome – the Scottish outfit have won the last three clashes and counting.
Also on Friday, Conference B is set for a shake-up as Ulster (B5) welcome Benetton (B3) to the Kingspan Stadium. Ulster are on a high after two wins from two in the Champions Cup secured a quarterfinal berth but domestically, they have lost two in a row in the Pro14. By contrast, Benetton have won five in a row in the Championship and are chasing a third away win on the spin – a feat never before achieved by the club. They will have to do it the hard way in Belfast though where Dan McFarland’s side seldom lose – only Connacht have won there since last February.
Saturday sees Dragons (B6) welcome Conference A leaders Munster (A1) to Rodney Parade. The Welsh region downed Munster at Rodney Parade back in December 2015 but have lost the last four meetings between the sides since then. And they meet a Munster side in rich form – they have only lost once in the Pro14 since early October and secured a spot in the Champions Cup quarterfinals last time out. However, Johan van Graan’s side have lost on their last two trips to Wales, both against Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park in February and September of last year.
Over in Bloemfontein, the in-form Cheetahs (A6) put their impressive record against Italian opponents on the line against Zebre (A7). The Cheetahs have won four of their five clashes against Italian sides since joining the Championship and have only lost once in their last four Championship games. Zebre meanwhile are on a six-match losing run in the Pro14 since they downed Edinburgh in Parma back in October of last year. The two sides have met three times already, and the Cheetahs have emerged victorious every time so Michael Bradley’s side have their work cut out to halt their slide.
Defending champions Leinster downed Cardiff Blues (A5) at the Arms Park on the opening day of the season but since then the Welsh region are unbeaten at their home fortress. They put that record on the line this Saturday when the impressive Connacht (A4) come to town looking to steal a march on their Conference A rivals in the battle for a top-three finish.
Andy Friend’s in-form Irish province have lost just twice in their last 10 games in all competitions but are notoriously poor travellers to Wales. They have lost on their last five trips there – in fact their only win in their last nine came in February 2017 at Cardiff Arms Park.
The Southern Kings (B7) have only won once in the Pro14 all season – against the Glasgow Warriors back in September. But this weekend they welcome Glasgow’s near neighbours Edinburgh (B2) to the Madibaz Stadium hoping for lightning to strike twice. However, Richard Cockerill’s side are one of the in-form teams in Europe – they have won seven in a row in all competitions and are in the European Champions Cup quarterfinals for the first time since the 2011/12 season. They have won with a bonus point the last three times these two sides have met, but the Kings pushed the Cheetahs close last time out and will be keen to spring a surprise.
Pick of the Round – Leinster v Scarlets
Friday at the RDS sees a rematch of last season’s Pro14 final as Leinster (B1) welcome Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets (B4). Scarlets have good history in the RDS – they won the 2017 semifinal there on their way to the title. But since then Leinster have only lost once – to Benetton Rugby last April – at the RDS and indeed the defeat to Munster at Thomond Park after Christmas was their only defeat in any tournament since October.
Scarlets meanwhile snapped a three-game losing run in the Championship last time out against the Dragons and have only won once on the road in the Pro14 all season. But they did down Leinster at Parc y Scarlets in round two and could achieve a season’s double over the Irish powerhouses for the first time in their history.
Opta Top Performers – Round 13:
Most tackles: 25 Matthew Screech (Dragons)
Most carries: 26 Adam Ashe (Glasgow Warriors)
Defenders Beaten: 10 Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh)
Offloads: 4 Hallam Amos (Dragons)
Clean Breaks: 4 Sibhale Maxwane (Cheetahs)
Metres made: 144 Matthew Morgan (Cardiff Blues)
Turnovers Won: 3 Cian Kelleher (Connacht)
Line-out Steals: 2 Justin Tipuric (Ospreys)
Opta Top Performers – Overall:
Most tackles: 155 Josh Turnbull (Cardiff Blues)
Most Carries: 168 Bill Mata (Edinburgh)
Defenders beaten: 50 Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh)
Offloads: 22 Tom Farrell (Connacht)
Clean breaks: 22 Sibhale Maxwane (Cheetahs)
Metres made: 821 Malcolm Jaer (Cheetahs)
Turnovers won: 19 Olly Robinson (Cardiff Blues)
Line-out steals: 7 Junior Pokomela (Cheetahs)
We take a closer look at the action in Round 14:
Friday, January 25:
GLASGOW WARRIORS v OSPREYS
(Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Glasgow Warriors only victory in their last five matches was 33-24 at home to Cardiff Blues in Round Five of the European Champions Cup. The Warriors have lost just twice at Scotstoun this season, to Saracens in October and to Edinburgh in the Pro14 in December. Glasgow have won all six matches they have played against Welsh opponents in all tournaments this season. Ospreys have lost just once in the last four rounds of the pro14, by a single point to Dragons on December 30. Ospreys only away win in any tournament this season was at Zebre in Round Five of the Pro14. Glasgow have won their last three matches against Ospreys, whilst the Welshmen’s only previous victory at Scotstoun was 22-5 in the Pro14 in November 2016.
Glasgow: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Lee Jones, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Stafford McDowall, 11 Niko Matawalu, 10 Brandon Thomson, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Adam Ashe, 7 Matt Smith, 6 Rob Harley (captain), 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Siua Halanukonuka, 2 Kevin Bryce, 1 Alex Allan.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Smith, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 D’Arcy Rae, 19 Tevita Tameilau, 20 Thomas Gordon, 21 Robbie Nairn, 22 Alex Dunbar, 23 Rory Hughes.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Cory Allen, 11 Luke Morgan, 10 Sam Davies (captain), 9 Tom Habberfield, 8 Rob McCusker, 7 Sam Cross, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 James King, 4 Lloyd Ashley, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gareth Thomas.
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten, 17 Rowan Jenkins, 18 Gheorghe Gajion, 19 Will Griffiths, 20 Will Jones, 21 Matthew Aubrey, 22 Luke Price, 23 Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Dave Sutherland (Scotland), Rob Sullivan (Ireland)
TMO: Charles Samson (Scotland)
LEINSTER v SCARLETS
(RDS Arena, Dublin – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Leinster have lost just once since October in any tournament: 17-26 to Munster at Thomond Park in Round 12 of the Pro14. Leinster’s only defeat at the RDS Arena since the 2017 Pro14 semifinal against Scarlets was to Benetton last April. Scarlets beat Dragons 22-13 in Round 13 to end a three-game losing run in the Championship. Scarlets have won just once away from home in any tournament this season: 41-34 at Southern Kings at the end of October. Scarlets beat Leinster 23-21 in Round Two but have never achieved a season’s double over Leinster in the Pro14. Scarlets have won on two occasions at the RDS, 52-23 in October 2007 and 27-15 in the 2017 semifinal.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney (captain), 14 Barry Daly, 13 Rory O’Loughlin, 12 Conor O’Brien, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ciarán Frawley, 9 Hugh O’Sullivan, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Scott Penny, 6 Max Deegan, 5 Mick Kearney, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Michael Bent, 2 James Tracy, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Bryan Byrne, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Vakh Abdaladze, 19 Jack Dunne, 20 Oisín Dowling, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Noel Reid, 23 Jimmy O’Brien.
Scarlets: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 Ioan Nicholas, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Steff Hughes (captain), 11 Paul Asquith, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Kieran Hardy, 8 Josh Macleod, 7 Dan Davis, 6 Tom Price, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Marc Jones, 1 Phil Price.
Replacements: 16 Dafydd Hughes, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Simon Gardiner, 19 Josh Helps, 20 Ed Kennedy, 21 Jon Evans, 22 Morgan Williams, 23 Tom Prydie.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant referees: Frank Murphy (Ireland), Vincenzo Schipani (Italy)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
ULSTER v BENETTON
(Kingspan Stadium, Belfast – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT; 20.35 Italy time)
Ulster have won their last two matches, both in the European Champions Cup, but in the Pro14 they have lost their last two fixtures, both on the road at Connacht and at Leinster. Ulster’s only defeat at Kingspan Stadium since February in any competition was 15-22 to Connacht in Round Six of the Pro14. Benetton have lost only once in their last eight matches: 9-20 away to Harlequins in Round Four of the European Challenge Cup. The Italians have won their last two away games in the Pro14, they have never before won three in a row on the road in the same season in the Championship. The two sides have met on 23 previous occasions in all tournaments, with Benetton gaining a solitary victory by becoming the only Italian side ever to have beaten Ulster in Belfast, in October 2011.
Ulster: 15 Michael Lowry, 14 Robert Baloucoune, 13 James Hume, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Louis Ludik, 10 Billy Burns, 9 Dave Shanahan, 8 Greg Jones, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Ian Nagle, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Alan O’Connor (captain), 3 Marty Moore, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Andy Warwick.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Matthew Dalton, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Jonny Stewart, 22 Darren Cave, 23 Rob Lyttle.
Benetton: 15 Luca Sperandio, 14 Ratuva Tavuyara, 13 Tommaso Iannone, 12 Marco Zanon, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Ian McKinley (captain), 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Toa Halafihi, 7 Michele Lamaro, 6 Marco Lazzaroni, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Irné Herbst, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Hame Faiva, 1 Nicola Quaglio.
Replacements: 16 Tomas Baravalle, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Simone Ferrari, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Giovanni Pettinelli, 21 Marco Barbini, 22 Edoardo Gori, 23 Ignacio Brex.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Rhys Jones (Wales)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
Saturday, January 26:
DRAGONS v MUNSTER
(Rodney Parade, Newport – Kick-off: 15.00; 15.00 GMT)
Dragons only win in the last four rounds of the Pro14 was by the narrowest of margins, 23-22 at home to Ospreys on December 30. Dragons have lost twice at Rodney Parade in their last six Championship fixtures, to Cardiff Blues in Round Six and to Leinster in Round 10. The Welshmen’s most recent success against an Irish opponent was 21-8 at home to Connacht in September 2017. Munster have lost just once in the Pro14 since early October: 12-19 away at Ulster on December 21, their only defeat in their last four away games in the Championship. Munster have lost on their last two trips to Wales, both against Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park in February and September 2018. Munster have won their last four encounters with Dragons since the Welshmen’s 22-6 success at Rodney Parade in December 2015.
Dragons: 15 Jordan Williams, 14 Jared Rosser, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Will Talbot-Davies, 10 Josh Lewis, 9 Rhodri Williams, 8 Ollie Griffiths, 7 Nic Cudd, 6 Harrison Keddie, 5 Matthew Screech, 4 Joe Davies, 3 Lloyd Fairbrother, 2 Richard Hibbard (captain), 1 Brok Harris.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Lawrence, 17 Rhys Fawcett, 18 Dan Suter, 19 Lewis Evans, 20 Taine Basham, 21 Rhodri Davies, 22 Jason Tovey, 23 Zane Kirchner.
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Dan Goggin, 12 Tyler Bleyendaal (captain), 11 Ronan O’Mahony, 10 Bill Johnston, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Conor Oliver, 6 Fineen Wycherley, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Jeremy Loughman.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 Liam O’Connor, 18 Ciaran Parker, 19 Darren O’Shea, 20 Gavin Coombes, 21 Neil Cronin, 22 Calvin Nash, 23 Jaco Taute.
Referee: Ben Blain (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Keith Allen (Scotland), Finn Brown (Scotland)
TMO: Dave Pearson (Scotland)
CHEETAHS v ZEBRE
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein – Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 Italy time; 13.00 GMT)
Cheetahs only defeat in their last four Pro14 matches was 17-21 at home to Connacht on December 1. Cheetahs have won only two of their last seven games in Bloemfontein – against Cardiff Blues in October and Benetton in November. The Cheetahs record against Italian sides is won four lost one. Zebre have lost their last six Pro14 matches since beating Edinburgh in Parma on October 26. The Parma-based side’s most recent victory outside Italy in the Championship was at Connacht in February. Zebre’s record against South African opponents is won two lost three. The two sides have met on three previous occasions with Cheetahs triumphant every time.
Zebre: 15 Francois Brummer, 14 Paula Balekana, 13 James Elliott, 12 Tommaso Boni, 1 Gabriele Di Giulio, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Joshua Renton, 8 Giovanni Licata, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Iacopo Bianchi, 5 George Biagi (captain), 4 Samuele Ortis, 3 Eduardo Bello, 2 Luhandre Luus, 1 Daniele Rimpelli.
Replacements: 16 Massimo Ceciliani, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Apisai Tauyavuca, 20 James Brown, 21 Riccardo Raffaele, 22 Maicol Azzolini, 23 Giovanbattista Venditti.
Cheetahs: 15 Malcolm Jaer, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12 Nico Lee, 11 Rabz Maxwane, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Tian Meyer (captain), 8 Gerhard Olivier, 7 Abongile Nonkontwana, 6 Junior Pokomela, 5 Walt Steenkamp, 4 Sintu Manjezi, 3 Johannes Coetzee, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Reinach Venter, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Luan de Bruin, 19 Justin Basson, 20 Jean-Pierre du Preez, 21 Niell Jordaan, 22 Shaun Venter, 23 Louis Fouche.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ben Crouse (South Africa), Paul Mente (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
CARDIFF BLUES v CONNACHT
(Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff – Kick-off: 17.15; 17.15 GMT)
Cardiff Blues have won two of their last three Pro14 matches, which coincidently were all against fellow Welsh Regions. Blues only home defeat this season in the Pro14 came in Round One by a solitary point to Champions Leinster. Connacht have lost just twice in their last ten fixtures in all tournaments, both on the road in the Pro14, to fellow Irish provinces Leinster and Munster. Connacht have lost on their last five visits to Wales, whilst their only victory in their last nine trips there was over The Blues at Cardiff Arms Park in February 2017. Cardiff Blues have won their last two fixtures against Connacht but have not won three in succession against the Irish province since 2012. Connacht’s three previous victories at The Arms Park in the Championship were against Cardiff RFC in August 2001, and The Blues in February 2013 and February 2017.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Owen Lane, 13 Harri Millard, 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Aled Summerhill, 10 Steven Shingler, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Olly Robinson, 6 Shane Lewis-Hughes, 5 Rory Thornton, 4 George Earle, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Kristian Dacey (captain), 1 Brad Thyer.
Replacements: 16 Liam Belcher, 17 Rhys Carré, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 James Botham, 21 Lewis Jones, 22 Dan Fish, 23 Willis Halaholo.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Cian Kelleher, 13 Kyle Godwin, 12 Tom Daly, 11 Matt Healy, 10 David Horwitz, 9 James Mitchell, 8 Jarrad Butler (captain), 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 Cillian Gallagher, 4 James Cannon, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Matthew Burke, 18 Dominic Robertson McCoy, 19 Joe Maksymiw, 20 Paul Boyle, 21 Angus Lloyd, 22 Conor Fitzgerald, 23 Stephen Fitzgerald.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Adam Jones (Wales), Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
TMO: Ian Davies (Wales)
SOUTHERN KINGS v EDINBURGH
(Madibaz Stadium, Port Elizabeth – Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 UK & Ireland time; 15.15 GMT)
Southern Kings have lost their last eight Pro14 matches since beating Glasgow Warriors 38-28 at Madibaz Stadium in September – their only previous win against a Scottish opponent. Edinburgh have won their last seven matches in all competitions since their defeat to Munster in Cork in Round 10 of the Pro14. Edinburgh’s most recent victory outside Scotland in the Championship was on a visit to Connacht in March 2018. Edinburgh were defeated in their first fixture against a South African opponent in the Guinness Pro14 (at Cheetahs in November 2017) but have won the four fixtures since. he two teams have met on three previous occasions in the Pro14 with the Scotsmen gaining a bonus point victory every time.
Southern Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Harlon Klaasen, 12 Tertius Kruger, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Ntabeni Dukisa, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Andisa Ntsila, 7 Martinus Burger, 6 Cyril John Velleman, 5 John-Charles Astle (captain), 4 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 3 Luvuyo Pupuma, 2 Michael Willemse, 1 Schalk Ferreira/Alulutho Tshakweni.
Replacements: 16 Alandre Van Rooyen, 17 Lupumlo Mguca, 18 Alulutho Tshakweni/Nicolaas Oosthuizen, 19 Stephan Greeff, 20 Henry Brown, 21 Sarel Pretorius, 22 Bader Pretorius, 23 Meli Rokoua.
Edinburgh: 15 Dougie Fife, 14 Tom Brown, 13 George Taylor, 12 Chris Dean, 11 James Johnstone, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Ally Miller, 6 Luke Crosbie, 5 Callum Hunter-Hill, 4 Fraser McKenzie (captain), 3 Pietro Ceccarelli, 2 David Cherry, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Darryl Marfo, 18 Murray McCallum, 19 Jamie Hodgson, 20 Mungo Mason, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Juan Pablo Socino.
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)
Assistant referees: Stuart Berry (South Africa), Ruhan Meiring (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)