PREVIEW: Pro14, Round 18
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: After some mouth-watering weekends of Six Nations, the Pro14 returns.
After Wales’ magnificent win over Ireland to seal the Grand Slam, the Irish contingent will be particularly keen to take out their frustrations this weekend. However, almost all of the men in red who were involved at the Principality Stadium on Saturday will be happy enough to play against their international teammates as two big derbies mean no Welsh player has to depart a nation in celebration this week.
In the Conference tables, Glasgow Warriors now hold a slight advantage over Munster in Conference A, while Leinster have cemented their home semifinal, Benetton lead the chasing pack in Conference B.
Pick of the Round – Cardiff Blues (A4) v Scarlets (B4)
The weekend kicks off on Friday with a tripleheader of action most noticeably involving Cardiff Blues (A4) hosting Scarlets (B4) at Arms Park in an all-Welsh cross-conference clash.
Scarlets are up 20-11 in previous meetings between these two fourth places sides and have also outscored the Blues in the Pro14 this year. Yet their most recent meeting, in the Christmas to New Year period certainly was Blue, Cardiff prevailing 34-5 at the Scarlets home ground. Both sides have won their most recent two matches whilst losing the preceding match heading into this one.
If Scarlets lose, their challenge for the third qualification spot in Conference B is effectively over, whilst the Blues can just about afford to lose as they’re currently level on points with third place Connacht-neither of who have a good chance of catching Munster in second.
What’s at stake?
Unbeaten in eight, Benetton (B2) travel to Galway’s Sportsground to face Connacht (A3) in a key battle across the conferences. The Treviso-based side have historically lost more than they have won (10-4) vs Connacht, but their dazzling recent form makes them arguably favourites for this one, despite it being played in the much chillier West of Ireland.
Connacht smashed the Ospreys last time out but were downed by Glasgow Warriors the match beforehand and have a lot of ground to make up on their South-West Ireland rivals Munster, 11 points clear in second.
Another Friday kick-off sees Edinburgh (B5) face Leinster (B1) at Murrayfield. Edinburgh are aiming to regain momentum in Conference B. Having won three on the trot over the Christmas and New Year period, the Warriors have won just one in four since, most recently losing to the up and coming, ever improving Benetton. Edinburgh have it all to play for against a Leinster side who triumphed 31-7 in their last meeting and have not yet lost in the new year.
Returning Grand Slam heroes battle it out at the Liberty Stadium in another Welsh derby in the shape of Ospreys (A5) v Dragons (B7). Dragons are playing for pride now whilst Ospreys need both Connacht and Cardiff Blues to falter to have a chance of joining Munster and Glasgow in the knockout stages. There was just a single point in 45 between the two sides at the Dragons’ home on New Year’s Eve’s Eve, many of South Wales’ rugby fans hope for an equally enthralling match-up this Saturday.
The Saturday tea time game sees Ulster (B3) take on the Southern Kings (B6) at Kingspan Stadium. The Kings have never beaten the Ulstermen in three previous meetings, the Irish side could do with this record continuing as they aim to catch Benetton in their close battle for the home quarterfinal spot in Conference B. Ulster have not lost in four whilst the Southern Kings have not won in four.
Glasgow Warriors (A1) play the Cheetahs (A6) at Scotstoun with Munster breathing down their neck three points behind in Conference A. The only side below Cheetahs in the table, Zebre, have exactly half their points tally at this stage. So, whilst little danger of being caught, a late run from the Bloemfontein side could take them above Ospreys to a more respectable fifth-placed finish come the end of the Championship season in the last weekend of April. Similar to Ulster’s record against the other South African side (the Kings), the Cheetahs have never beaten the Warriors in their three meetings, Glasgow prevailing 52-24 in the Southern Hemisphere last time they met.
Zebre (A7) travel to Thomond Park Munster (A2) hoping to end the longest one-sided head to head record in the Pro14. Munster lost a tight affair at the home of the Scarlets 6-10 last time out, but are still well set to challenge Glasgow right to the wire for Conference A top spot. Zebre are merely playing for pride having not won since beating Edinburgh 34-16 in October in one of just three victories all season for the Parma-based side.
Opta Top Performers – Round 17:
Most tackles: 31 Rhys Lawrence (Dragons)
Most carries: 21 Arno Botha (Munster)
Defenders Beaten: 8 Dave Kearney (Leinster)
Offloads: 3 Marco Barbini (Benetton)
Clean Breaks: 4 John Cooney (Ulster)
Metres made: 138 Dave Kearney (Leinster)
Turnovers Won: 3 multiple players
Lineout Steals: 2 Dries van Schalkwyk (Kings)
Opta Top Performers – Overall:
Most tackles: 225 Olly Cracknell (Ospreys)
Most Carries: 221 Bill Mata (Edinburgh)
Defenders beaten: 61 Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh)
Offloads: 26 Tom Farrell (Connacht)
Clean breaks: 28 Sibhale Maxwane (Cheetahs)
Metres made: 996 Malcolm Jaer (Cheetahs)
Turnovers won: 23 Olly Robinson (Cardiff Blues)
Lineout Steals: 7 Junior Pokomela (Cheetahs)
We take a closer look at all the Round 18 action:
Friday, March 22:
CARDIFF BLUES v SCARLETS
(Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Cardiff Blues only defeat in their last five first-team games was 34-38 to Glasgow Warriors at The Arms Park in Round 15 of the Pro14. Blues have lost just twice at Cardiff Arms Park in the Championship this season, by a single point to Leinster in Round One and to Glasgow in Round 15. Scarlets have won their last two Pro14 matches, both at home, to Cheetahs and Munster. Scarlets only away victory this season in any tournament was 41-34 over the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth in October. Scarlets recent record since 2016 against fellow Welsh regions in the Pro14 is won eleven, lost two. Blues ended Scarlets 26 match unbeaten run at Parc y Scarlets in the Championship with their 34-5 victory in Round 12 and are aiming to achieve a season’s double over the west Walians for the first time since 2015/16.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Owen Lane, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Aled Summerhill, 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Tomas Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Olly Robinson, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Rory Thornton, 4 Josh Turnbull, 3 Dimitri Arhip, 2 Kristian Dacey (captain), 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Ethan Lewis, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Seb Davies, 20 Shane Lewis-Hughes, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Harri Millard, 23 Matthew Morgan.
Scarlets: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia (captain), 12 Paul Asquith, 11 Ioan Nicholas, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Kieran Hardy, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 James Davies, 6 Josh Macleod, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Lewis Rawlins, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Marc Jones, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Josh Helps, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Steff Evans.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Frank Murphy (Ireland), Sean Gallagher (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
CONNACHT v BENETTON
(The Sportsground, Galway – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT; 20.35 Italy time)
Connacht’s last four matches in the Pro14 have all been won by the home side on the day whilst Connacht’s only defeat at The Sportsground in any competition since September was 24-31 to Munster on January 5. Benetton are unbeaten in Pro14 since their defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in Round Nine. The Italians have won only once against an Irish opponent since April 2016: 17-15 against Leinster at the RDS Arena in Round 20 last year. Connacht have lost only one of their last eight encounters with Benetton and that was by a single point in Treviso almost three years ago. Benetton’s only previous victory in Galway was 15-13 in December 2011.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Darragh Leader, 13 Tom Farrell, 12 Peter Robb, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Kyle Godwin, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 Jarrad Butler (captain), 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 James Cannon, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Shane Delahunt, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Conor Carey, 19 Gavin Thornbury, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Stephen Fitzgerald.
Benetton: 15 Luca Sperandio, 14 Ratuva Tavuyara, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi (captain), 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Ian McKinley (c), 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Toa Halafihi, 7 Giovanni Pettinelli, 6 Marco Lazzaroni, 5 Alessandro Zanni, 4 Irné Herbst, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Hame Faiva, 1 Nicola Quaglio.
Replacements: 16 Tomas Baravalle, 17 Derrick Appiah, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Marco Barbini, 20 Robert Barbieri, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Antonio Rizzi, 23 Tommaso Iannone.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Sam Grove-White (Scotland), Graeme Ormiston (Scotland)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
EDINBURGH v LEINSTER
(Murrayfield, Edinburgh – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Edinburgh have won just one of their last four Pro14 fixtures: 34-17 at home to Dragons in Round 15. Edinburgh were defeated 17-19 by Cardiff Blues in their most recent home game but have not lost successive matches at Murrayfield in the Championship since 2015. The Scotsmen’s only victory in their last six matches against Irish provinces was 17-10 at home to Connacht in September. Leinster have suffered only two reversals in the Pro14 this season, both on the road, to Scarlets in Round Two and to Munster in Round 12. Leinster’s only Championship victory in Scotland since May 2015 came on their visit to Murrayfield in May 2016. Leinster have lost just one of their last six matches against Edinburgh: 24-29 at Myreside in February 2018.
Edinburgh: 15 Dougie Fife, 14 Darcy Graham, 13 James Johnstone, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Henry Pyrgos (captain), 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay, 5 Ben Toolis, 4 Fraser McKenzie, 3 WP Nel, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Cameron Fenton, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Callum Hunter-Hill, 20 Magnus Bradbury, 21 Charlie Shiel, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Chris Dean.
Leinster: 15 Ciarán Frawley, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Noel Reid, 12 Joe Tomane, 11 Barry Daly, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Max Deegan, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Rhys Ruddock (captain), 5 Mick Kearney, 4 Josh Murphy, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Ed Byrne.
Replacements: 16 Bryan Byrne, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Jack Dunne, 20 Oisín Dowling, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Jimmy O’Brien, 23 Conor O’Brien.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Davies (Wales), Rhys Jones (Wales)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Saturday, March 23:
OSPREYS v DRAGONS
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea – Kick-off: 15.00; 15.00 GMT)
Ospreys have slipped to six straight defeats in all tournaments since their 20-11 victory at home to Cardiff Blues in Round 13 of the Pro14. Ospreys lost to Munster 13-19 in their most recent Championship fixture at Liberty Stadium but have not lost successive matches at the venue in the tournament since October 2017, when Scarlets became the latest Welsh region to win at the venue. Dragons are still without a win in the Pro14 in 2019 with their most recent victory being by a single point over Ospreys at Rodney Parade on 30 December. Dragons have not won away from home in the Championship since a victory in Treviso in March 2015, whilst they have not beaten a fellow Welsh region on their own turf since a trip to the Arms Park at Christmas 2014. Dragons have already beaten Ospreys in Round 12 this season but have not achieved a season’s double over them since 2010/11, on the only previous occasion they were victorious at Liberty Stadium.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Cory Allen, 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Keelan Giles, 10 Luke Price, 9 Aled Davies, 8 James King, 7 Justin Tipuric (captain), 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten, 17 Jordan Lay, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Lloyd Ashley, 20 Sam Cross, 21 Matthew Aubrey, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Luke Morgan.
Dragons: 15 Jordan Williams, 14 Jared Rosser, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Jarryd Sage, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Jason Tovey, 9 Rhodri Williams, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Taine Basham, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Matthew Screech, 4 Max Williams, 3 Leon Brown, 2 Richard Hibbard (captain), 1 Brok Harris.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Lawrence, 17 Josh Reynolds, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Joe Davies, 20 Lennon Greggains, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Josh Lewis, 23 Adam Warren.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ian Davies (Wales), Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
ULSTER v SOUTHERN KINGS
(Kingspan Stadium, Belfast – Kick-off: 17.30; 17.30 GMT; 19.30 SA time)
Ulster are unbeaten in their last six first-team games since their reversal to Leinster at the RDS Arena in early January. The Ulstermen have lost just once at Kingspan Stadium in any tournament in the last thirteen months: 15-22 to Connacht in Round Six of the Pro14. Southern Kings have lost their last four matches since their 25-21 win at home to Edinburgh on 26 January. Kings are still without a win on the road since they joined the Guinness PRO14 at the start of last season. Ulster’s record against South African opponents in the Championship is won four, drawn one with three of those victories coming against the Kings.
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Rob Baloucoune, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Rob Lyttle, 10 Billy Burns, 9 Dave Shanahan, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Matty Rea, 5 Ian Nagle, 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 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Clive Ross, 21 John Cooney, 22 Michael Lowry, 23 Angus Kernohan.
Southern Kings: 15 Ulrich Beyers, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Meli Rokoua, 12 Tertius Kruger, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Bader Pretorius, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Martinus Burger, 6 Henry Brown, 5 John-Charles Astle (captain), 4 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 3 De-Jay Terblanche, 2 Michael Willemse, 1 Alulutho Tshakweni.
Replacements: 16 Alandre Van Rooyen, 17 Schalk Ferreira, 18 Lupumlo Mguca, 19 Stephan Greeff, 20 Andisa Ntsila, 21 Rudi Van Rooyen, 22 Masixole Banda, 23 Harlon Klaasen.
Referee: Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Sam Grove-White (Scotland), Graeme Ormiston (Scotland)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
GLASGOW WARRIORS v CHEETAHS
(Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow – Kick-off: 19.45; 19.45 GMT; 21.45 GMT)
Glasgow Warriors have won their last four matches since their defeat in Treviso on January 5, their best run in the competition since December 2017. The Warriors solitary defeat at Scotstoun in the Pro14 this season was 8-16 to Edinburgh on December 29. Cheetahs last five matches have all been won by the home side on the day whilst their most recent away win was 24-17 at their closest rivals, Southern Kings, on January 18. The two sides have met on three previous occasions with Glasgow winning them all. The Warriors only previous loss to a South African opponent came in their most recent encounter, to Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth in September.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Niko Matawalu, 13 Kyle Steyn, 12 Stafford McDowall, 11 Rory Hughes, 10 Pete Horne, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Matt Fagerson, 7 Callum Gibbins (captain), 6 Rob Harley, 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Oli Kebble.
Replacements: 16 Grant Stewart, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Bruce Flockhart, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 Adam Hastings, 22 Paddy Kelly, 23 Robbie Nairn.
Cheetahs: 15 Malcolm Jaer, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12 Dries Swanepoel, 11 Rabz Maxwane, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Tian Meyer (captain), 8 Henco Venter, 7 Abongile Nonkontwana, 6 Daniel Maartens, 5 Walt Steenkamp, 4 Sintu Manjezi, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Marnus van der Merwe, 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Joseph Dweba, 17 Reinach Venter, 18 Luan de Bruin, 19 Justin Basson, 20 JP du Preez, 21 Gerhard Olivier, 22 Shaun Venter, 23 Louis Fouche.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Dunx McClement (Scotland)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
MUNSTER v ZEBRE
(Thomond Park, Limerick – Kick-off: 19.45; 19.45 GMT; 20.45 Italy time)
Munster’s seven-game winning run in all tournaments ended last time out at Scarlets. The Munstermen have not lost at home in any tournament since December 2017 when Leinster visited Thomond Park in the Pro14. Munster have won their last eighteen matches against Italian opponents in the Championship. Zebre’s only victory in the Pro14 since Round Three was 34-16 at home to Edinburgh at the end of October. Zebre have visited Irish provinces on 25 previous occasions in the Pro14 and won just once, at Connacht in February 2018. The two sides have met on thirteen previous occasions with Munster winning them all.
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Dan Goggin, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 JJ Hanrahan, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 CJ Stander (captain), 7 Chris Cloete, 6 Jack O’Donoghue, 5 Darren O’Shea 4 Fineen Wycherley, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Jeremy Loughman.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Liam O’Connor, 18 John Ryan, 19 Jean Kleyn, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 Tyler Bleyendaal, 23 Chris Farrell.
Zebre: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Gabriele Di Giulio, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Tommaso Boni, 11 James Elliott, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Renato Giammarioli. 7 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 6 Maxime Mbandà, 5 George Biagi (captain), 4 David Sisi, 3 Roberto Tenga, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Luhandre Luus, 17 Daniele Rimpelli, 18 Marco Ciccioli, 19 Leonard Krumov, 20 Apisai Tauyavuca, 21 Marcello Violi, 22 Francois Brummer, 23 Mattia Bellini.
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)
Assistant referee: Adam Jones (Wales), Mark Patton (Ireland)
TMO: Colin Stanley (Ireland)