PREVIEW: Pro14, Round 15
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The Pro14 returns after a short break with a full programme during the first rest week of the Six Nations.
The race for places in the pro14 Finals Series is as tight as ever with two points separating four teams in Conference A, while that is also the case in Conference B.
In Conference A, Munster and Glasgow Warriors have a little breathing space ahead of the chasing pack, while only Leinster look safe in Conference B as teams target a place in the Finals Series.
What’s at stake
The action kicks off on Friday when two teams right in Finals Series contention face off at Brewery Field in Bridgend when Ospreys (A3) host Ulster (B5). The Ospreys have been up and down in recent Pro14 fixtures, with their last game a low-scoring 9-3 defeat to the Glasgow Warriors.
While they are still in the Conference A Finals Series spots, they have very little margin for error sitting just two points clear of the Cheetahs in sixth. Ulster, meanwhile, needed a late penalty try to snatch a home draw with Benetton last time out. That score could prove crucial come the end of the season, but only if Dan McFarland’s can end a run of three straight defeats on the road in the Championship.
Also on Friday, Munster (A1) will look to cement their position at the top of Conference A when they welcome the Southern Kings (B7) to Irish Independent Park in Cork. Having won five in a row in all competitions, Munster come into the game in fine form against a Kings team still searching for a first win on the road in the competition. Munster haven’t lost in 17 successive home games, with their last defeat in Cork coming all the way back in 2016 when Cardiff Blues were victorious there.
The final game of the night sees Edinburgh (B3) welcome the Dragons (B6) to Murrayfield. Richard Cockerill’s side will be looking to bounce back from defeat away to the Southern Kings last time out, leaving them just one point clear of the Scarlets in the race for a top three finish. Prior to that, they had won seven in a row in all competitions, while the Scots have not lost at home since April. The Dragons, meanwhile, were narrowly denied at home to Munster last time out, and are still without a win in Scotland in the Championship since 2013.
The action continues on Saturday when two teams at opposite ends of their respective conferences meet in Viadana with Zebre (A7) entertaining Leinster (B1). It will be the first time that Zebre have played a home game outside Parma, as they go to the Stadio Luigi Zaffanella, which formerly hosted Aironi’s games in the competition. They face a Leinster team that have won all 11 meetings between the sides. Zebre have not won in the Pro14 since the end of October, losing home and away to the Toyota Cheetahs in their last two games.
A big game in Conference A sees Connacht (A4) welcome the Cheetahs (A6) to the Sportsground in Galway. Only two points separate the teams, with Connacht having edged the previous meeting in Bloemfontein 21-17 at the start of December. The Cheetahs have since hit some form, winning their last two games on the road, but they have never managed three successive away wins in the Pro14. Connacht have stumbled a little in recent weeks, following a good start to the season, with just one win in their last four in the league.
Finally on Saturday evening Cardiff Blues (A5) play host to Glasgow Warriors (A2) at the Cardiff Arms Park. The Blues edged past Connacht last time out, and have won three of their last four in the league to stay right in the hunt for the Finals Series. Their only Pro14 defeat of the season at home came on the opening weekend against Leinster, a record they will be keen to extend against the Warriors. After an exceptional start, Dave Rennie’s side had stumbled a little over the Christmas period, but their hard-fought win over the Ospreys gave them a little more margin for error in Conference A.
Pick of the Round – Benetton v Scarlets
A draw that could easily have been a win away to Ulster was enough to keep Benetton (B2) in second place ahead of their clash with the Scarlets (B4). With so little between the four sides battling for two spots – Ulster and Edinburgh the others in contention – it is impossible to predict who will make it with any confidence.
For Benetton, a second win over the Scarlets since 2013 would consolidate their hopes of finishing in the top three, and they face a Scarlets team who have won just once on the road in all competitions this season. Benetton are unbeaten in five in the Championship since a defeat to the Cheetahs back in November.
Opta Top Performers – Round 14
Most tackles: 27 Michele Lamaro (Benetton)
Most carries: 20 Viliame Mata (Edinburgh)
Defenders Beaten: 10 Monty Ioane (Benetton)
Offloads: 5 Giovanni Licata (Zebre)
Clean Breaks: 5 Monty Ioane (Benetton)
Metres made: 126 Mike Haley (Munster)
Turnovers Won: 3 Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), CJ Velleman (Isuzu Southern Kings), Shane Lewis-Hughes (Cardiff Blues)
Lineout Steals: 2 Cillian Gallagher (Connacht)
Opta Top Performers – Overall
Most tackles: 171 Olly Cracknell (Ospreys)
Most Carries: 188 Bill Mata (Edinburgh)
Defenders beaten: 50 Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh)
Offloads: 22 Tom Farrell (Connacht)
Clean breaks: 24 Sibhale Maxwane (Cheetahs)
Metres made: 930 Malcolm Jaer (Cheetahs)
Turnovers won: 19 Olly Robinson (Cardiff Blues)
Lineout Steals: 7 Junior Pokomela (Cheetahs)
We take a closer look at all the Round 15 action:
Friday, February 15:
EDINBURGH v DRAGONS
(Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Edinburgh’s seven-game winning run in all competitions ended in South Africa in Round 14 with their 21-25 defeat to Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth. Edinburgh have won their last eleven home games in all tournaments since Ulster beat them at Murrayfield in the Pro14 last April. Dragons have won just once in the last five rounds of Pro14: 23-22 at home to Ospreys on December 30. Dragons only two away victories in any tournament since April 2016 were both in the European Challenge Cup, at Enisei in Moscow in October 2017 and Timisoara Saracens in Romania a year later. Dragons most recent victory in Scotland was when they beat Glasgow at Scotstoun in November 2013. Dragons beat Edinburgh 18-12 at Rodney Parade in Round Nine but have not achieved a season’s double over the Scotsmen since 2011/12.
Edinburgh: 15 Dougie Fife, 14 Darcy Graham, 13 James Johnstone, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Luke Crosbie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Ben Toolis, 4 Fraser McKenzie, 3 Pietro Ceccarelli, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 David Cherry, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 Murray McCallum, 19 Callum Hunter-Hill, 20 Ally Miller, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Juan Pablo Socino.
Dragons: 15 Jordan Williams, 14 Jared Rosser, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Jarryd Sage, 11 Will Talbot-Davies, 10 Josh Lewis, 9 Rhodri Williams, 8 James Benjamin, 7 Ollie Griffiths, 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 Gavin Henson, 23 Zane Kirchner.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Sam Grove-White (Scotland), Paul Haycock (Ireland)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
MUNSTER v SOUTHERN KINGS
(Irish Independent Park, Cork – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Munster have won their last five matches in all competitions since losing to Ulster in Belfast in Round 11 of the Pro14. The Munstermen are unbeaten in their last 17 home games at their two venues in all tournaments, a run which includes one draw, against Ulster in April. Munster’s most recent reversal at Irish Independent Park was by a solitary point to Cardiff Blues in September 2016. Southern Kings have faced Irish provinces on nine previous occasions in the Pro14 and lost them all. The two side have met just once before with Munster winning 39-22 in George last April.
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Darren Sweetnam, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal (captain), 9 Neil Cronin, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Chris Cloete, 6 Fineen Wycherley, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Jeremy Loughman.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Liam O’Connor, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Darren O’Shea, 20 Gavin Coombes, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Dan Goggin.
Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Meli Rokoua, 12 Berton Klaasen, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Bader Pretorius, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Tienie Burger, 6 Stephen de Wit, 5 JC Astle (captain), 4 Andries van Schalkwyk, 3 De-Jay Terblanche, 2 Michael Willemse, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Alandre van Rooyen, 17 Alulutho Tshakweni, 18 Pieter Scholtz, 19 Stephan Greeff, 20 Andisa Ntsila, 21 Sarel Pretorius, 22 Tertius Kruger, 23 Ulrich Beyers.
Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy)
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher (Ireland), Matteo Liperini (Italy)
TMO: Alan Falzone (Italy)
OSPREYS v ULSTER
(Morganstone Brewery Field, Bridgend – 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Ospreys last six matches in Pro14 have all been won by the home side on the day. Ospreys only home defeat in the Championship since November 2017 was when Glasgow visited Liberty Stadium last November. Ospreys have played two previous Pro14 encounters at Morganstone Brewery Field, beating Celtic Warriors there in October 2003 (an away game) and overcoming Connacht 22-17 last October. Ulster are unbeaten in their last three matches in all tournaments since tripping up to Leinster at the RDS Arena on January 5. The Ulstermen have lost their last three away games in Pro14 since beating Benetton in Treviso in Round Eight. Ulster have lost just one of their last eight fixtures against Welsh Regions in all competitions. Ulster’s only loss in their last six encounters with Ospreys was 10-24 at Liberty Stadium in April 2017. Ulster have visited Bridgend just once before, beating Celtic Warriors there 28-0 in March 2004.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Cory Allen, 12 Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, 11 Luke Morgan, 10 Sam Davies (captain), 9 Tom Habberfield, 8 James King, 7 Sam Cross, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Lloyd Ashley, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Jordan Lay.
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten, 17 Rowan Jenkins, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Will Griffiths, 20 Rob McCusker, 21 Matthew Aubrey, 22 Luke Price, 23 Keelan Giles.
Ulster: 15 Peter Nelson, 14 Angus Kernohan, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Louis Ludik, 10 Michael Lowry, 9 John Cooney, 8 Nick Timoney, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Clive Ross, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Alan O’Connor (captain), 3 Marty Moore, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Eric O’Sullivan.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Andy Warwick, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Dave Shanahan, 22 James Hume, 23 Rob Lyttle.
Referee: Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Dan Jones (Wales), Ben Breakspear (Wales)
TMO: Tim Hayes (Wales)
Saturday, February 16:
ZEBRE v LEINSTER
(Stadio Zaffanella, Viadana – Kick-off: 15.30; 14.30 UK & Ireland time; 14.30 GMT)
Zebre take their first home game away from Parma to Viadana at the Stadio Zaffanella having hosted its most recent Pro14 fixture in May 2012 when Aironi lost to Ospreys there. Zebre have not won since beating Enisei home and away in the European Challenge Cup in December, whilst their most recent victory in the Pro14 was at home to Edinburgh at the end of October. Leinster’s only defeat in any competition since October was 17-26 to Munster in Limerick on December 29. Leinster have lost only once to an Italian side since September 2010: 15-17 at home to Benetton last April. The two sides have met on eleven previous occasions with Leinster winning them all. Leinster have played twice before in Viadana, beating Aironi there 20-8 in April 2011 and 22-6 in March 2012.
Zebre: 15 Francois Brummer, 14 Gabriele Di Giulio, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Tommaso Boni, 11 James Elliott, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Joshua Renton, 8 Giovanni Licata, 7 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 6 Maxime Mbandà, 5 George Biagi (captain), 4 Samuele Ortis, 3 Giosué Zilocchi, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Daniele Rimpelli.
Replacements: 16 Luhandre Luus, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Apisai Tauyavuca, 20 James Brown, 21 Riccardo Raffaele, 22 Paula Balekana, 23 Nicolas De Battista.
Leinster: 15 Dave Kearney, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Rory O’Loughlin, 12 Conor O’Brien, 11 Barry Daly, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Max Deegan, 6 Josh Murphy, 5 Scott Fardy, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 James Tracy, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Bryan Byrne, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Jack Dunne, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Noel Reid, 23 Jimmy O’Brien.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant referees: Marius Mitrea (Italy), Jason Morris (Wales)
TMO: Stefano Pennè (Italy)
CONNACHT v CHEETAHS
(The Sportsground, Galway – 17.30; 17.30 GMT; 19.30 SA time)
Connacht’s only win in the last four rounds of the Pro14 was 21-12 at home to Ulster on December 28. Connacht have lost just once at The Sportsground in any competition since September: 24-31 to Munster in Round 13 of the Pro14. Cheetahs have won their last two away games, at Zebre and at Southern Kings, but have not won three in succession on their travels since March 2013 when they were playing in Super Rugby. Cheetahs are without a win in their last five matches against Irish provinces, since beating Connacht in Bloemfontein in March 2018. The South Africans record on visits to Ireland in Pro14 is played four lost four.
Connacht: 15 Darragh Leader, 14 Cian Kelleher, 13 Tom Farrell, 12 Tom Daly, 11 Stephen Fitzgerald, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 Jarrad Butler (captain), 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 James Cannon, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan 17 Peter McCabe 18 Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 19 Cillian Gallagher, 20 Paul Boyle, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Conor Fitzgerald, 23 Kyle Godwin.
Cheetahs: 15 Louis Fouche, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Dries Swanepoel, 12 Nico Lee, 11 Rabz Maxwane, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Shaun Venter (captain), 8 Gerhard Olivier, 7 Junior Pokomela, 6 Abongile Nonkontwana, 5 JP du Preez, 4 Jasper Wiese, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Marnus van der Merwe, 1 Charles Marais
Replacements: 16 Reinach Venter, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Luan de Bruin, 19 Sintu Manjezi, 20 Walt Steenkamp, 21 Henco Venter, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Rudy Paige.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Johnny Lacey (Ireland), Mike English (Wales)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
BENETTON v SCARLETS
(Stadio Monigo, Treviso – Kick-off: 18.15; 17.15 UK & Ireland time; 17.15 GMT)
Benetton are unbeaten in their last five Pro14 matches since losing to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in November. The Italians have lost just twice at home in the Championship this season, to Irish provinces Leinster and Ulster in Round Seven and Eight. Scarlets only win in their last five Pro14 matches was 22-13 at home to Dragons on January 5. Scarlets have won only once away from home in any competition this season, 41-34 over the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth in Round Seven. Benetton’s only victory over Scarlets since 2013 was 22-12 at Stadio Monigo in this equivelar fixture in Round 14 last season.
Scarlets: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 Ioan Nicholas, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Paul Asquith, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Kieran Hardy, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Dan Davis, 6 Josh Macleod (captain), 5 Tom Price, 4 Josh Helps, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Marc Jones, 1 Phil Price.
Replacements: 16 Dafydd Hughes, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Simon Gardiner, 19 Lewis Rawlins, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Jon Evans, 22 Rhys Patchell, 23 Steff Hughes.
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Gianluca Gnecchi (Italy), Mark Patton (Ireland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
CARDIFF BLUES v GLASGOW WARRIORS
(Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff – 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Cardiff Blues have lost just once in the last four rounds of the Pro14: 11-20 to Ospreys at Liberty Stadium on January 5. Blues only defeat at the Arms Park in the Championship this season came on the opening weekend at the end of August by a single point to champions Leinster. Glasgow Warriors 9-3 victory at home to Ospreys in round 14 ended a three-game losing run in the Pro14. Warriors have lost their last three away games in all tournaments since their 42-22 victory in Lyon in Round Three of the European Champions Cup. The Scotsmen have won all seven games played against Welsh regions in all competitions this season. Glasgow have lost only one of their last fifteen fixtures against Cardiff Blues in Pro14: 19-23 at the Arms Park in September 2016, whilst The Blues only previous victory at Scotstoun was 9-7 in the European Champions Cup in December 2013.
Cardiff: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Owen Lane, 13 Harri Millard, 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Aled Summerhill, 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Olly Robinson, 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Rory Thornton, 4 Seb Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Kristian Dacey (captain), 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Liam Belcher, 17 Rhys Carré, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Shane Lewis-Hughes, 21 Dane Blacker, 22 Dan Fish, 23 Garyn Smith.
Glasgow: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Kyle Steyn, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Stafford McDowall, 11 Rory Hughes, 10 Pete Horne, 9 Ali Price, 8 Adam Ashe, 7 Thomas Gordon, 6 Rob Harley (captain), 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 George Turner, 1 Alex Allan.
Replacements: 16 Kevin Bryce, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Kiran McDonald, 20 Tevita Tamielau, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Robbie Nairn.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse, Jonny Erskine (Ireland)
TMO: Leo Colgan (Ireland)
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