Preview: Pro14, Round Eight
IT’S DERBY TIME: After two more rounds of European action, the Pro14 returns this weekend with six derbies across four countries.
That includes a pair of top-of-the-table battles between Leinster and Ulster, on Friday, and then Connacht and Munster on Saturday.
As well as the Inter-Pros, there will be plenty riding on Benetton’s trip to Zebre, while Glasgow Warriors need to turn things around quickly in their 1872 Cup clash with Edinburgh. And in Wales on Saturday, the Scarlets and Dragons could treat us to yet another thriller, while Cardiff Blues will look to secure a rare win over the Ospreys in their derby encounter.
Leinster v Ulster
Friday in the Pro14 is all about Conference A where first plays second. Unbeaten Leinster, the defending champions and runaway leaders this time around, face potentially their sternest test yet against Dan McFarland’s Ulster. Ulster are impressing both at home and in Europe this season, and came within a whisker of beating Leo Cullen’s men at the Aviva back in April in the Champions Cup quarter-finals. But the bare facts are not encouraging for an upset, Leinster have not lost to Ulster or indeed any Irish province at the RDS since 2013. They have scored the most tries this season after seven rounds, conceded the fewest and come into the clash on an 11-match winning run. Last season this fixture at the RDS was entirely one-way traffic, Sean Cronin crossing for a first-half double as Leinster wrapped up a bonus point before the break and ended up 40-7 victors. Make no mistake, Ulster are up against it. But expect fireworks to fly as two in-form sides go head to head.
Zebre v Benetton
Benetton ended their wait for a win in Europe by beating Lyon last Saturday, and they will look to carry that form into their derby clash away to Zebre. Kieran Crowley’s men were pipped at the death by Cardiff Blues last time out in the Pro14, and time is running out to get into the Final Series shakeup. They face a Zebre team who were victorious away to the Dragons in their last domestic game, ending a 13-month wait for a victory in the competition. Against Benetton, however, Zebre’s recent record is not great, having lost seven of the last eight meetings. If Benetton rediscover the form they showed against Lyon, they might yet extend that record in Parma on Saturday.
Connacht v Munster
An Irish inter-pro with much more than just regional pride at stake – the winner of this clash could well be sitting atop Conference B come the end of the weekend. Just a point currently separates first-placed Munster from second-placed Connacht and in a conference where there are just four points between the top four, every game counts. The sides are coming off contrasting European results against English teams as Connacht kept their Champions Cup qualification hopes alive with a dramatic late win over Gloucester, while Munster suffered a narrow defeat at Saracens. Andy Friend’s outfit have lost just once in the last six rounds of Pro14 action – when Leinster visited the Sportsground in Round 6 – but that is their only home loss in any competition since January. However, Munster’s recent record against Connacht will give them cheer – having lost just one of the six fixtures.
Dragons v Scarlets
This is a Welsh derby that often delivers when it comes to tightly-fought drama. In recent years, we have seen Scarlets claim 31-27, 21-16 and 34-20 victories, while the last time these sides met, the Dragons took Judgement Day bragging rights with a 34-32 triumph. And while Dean Ryan’s men may have lost their last three Pro14 outings, they have nevertheless been defeated at Rodney Parade only once in their last four, while Scarlets have won just one match on the road in domestic action since October 2018. Sitting fourth in a tightly-packed Conference B – just four points off leaders Munster – Brad Mooar will be keen to keep up the chase as they search for a first win in Newport since December 2011.
Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh
Scotland’s two heavyweights come to blows for the 166th time at Scotstoun, with the sides having endured somewhat differing fortunes so far this season. The Warriors have lost their last two home games and will be desperate for a win to improve their disappointing fourth-place position in Conference A, where they already trail leaders Leinster by 18 points. A victory over Edinburgh won’t be straightforward however, with Richard Cockerill’s men lying just two points off top spot in Conference B and having not tasted defeat in their last six matches. Glasgow were 34-10 winners in the teams’ last encounter however, and having won 17, lost 16 and drawn one of all the previous 1872 Cup meetings, know there will be everything to play for this weekend.
Ospreys v Cardiff Blues
The Ospreys need to stop the rot. They have only won one game all season in both the league and Europe, and that came all the way back at the start of October against Benetton. Since then Mike Ruddock has come in to oversee things at the Liberty Stadium. But Ospreys can take heart from their recent record in Welsh derbies, they have won their last four in a row stretching back over a year. This weekend they face an in-form Cardiff Blues side that are chasing three wins on the spin in the Pro14. Owen Lane and Josh Adams both managed hat-tricks in Europe this past fortnight as well, so the Ospreys defence will need to be watertight to stop those two in-form Welsh internationals. But the Blues have not won at the Liberty Stadium since 2005 and indeed have only beaten the Ospreys once in the last decade with a 35-17 success at Judgement Day in April 2017.
We look at all the Round Eight action!
Friday, December 20
LEINSTER v ULSTER
(RDS Arena, Dublin – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Leinster have won their last thirteen first team matches since their defeat in last season’s European Champions Cup final.
The Leinstermen’s solitary defeat at the RDS Arena since April 2018 was to Glasgow Warriors in the Pro14 in April 2019.
Ulster’s only defeat in any competition since 5 October was 16-22 to Munster at Thomond Park in Round Six of the Pro14.
The Ulstermen have won just one of their last four away games in the Championship, 42-17 away to Southern Kings in Round Three.
Ulster won their most recent encounter with Leinster by a single point in Belfast in April but have not won successive matches against their great rivals since 2013.
Ulster’s only previous victory at the RDS Arena was 22-18 in March 2013.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Tommy O’Brien, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Cian Kelleher, 10 Harry Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Max Deegan, 7 Scott Penny, 6 Will Connors, 5 Josh Murphy, 4 Scott Fardy (captain), 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Peter Dooley.
Replacements: 16 Bryan Byrne, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Jack Aungier, 19 Oisín Dowling, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Ciarán Frawley, 23 Conor O’Brien.
Ulster: 15 Rob Lyttle, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Angus Curtis, 11 Angus Kernohan, 10 Bill Johnston, 9 David Shanahan, 8 Greg Jones, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Matthew Rea, 5 Alan O’Connor (captain), 4 David O’Connor, 3 Tom O’Toole, 2 Adam McBurney, 1 Andrew Warwick.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Jack Regan, 20 Azur Allison, 21 Jonny Stewart, 22 Stewart Moore, 23 Ethan McIlroy.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Frank Murphy, Kieran Barry (both Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Saturday, December 21
ZEBRE v BENETTON
(Stadio Lanfranchi, Parma – Kick-off: 16.00; 15.00 GMT)
Zebre’s 39-12 victory at Dragons in round 7 of the Pro14 ended a thirteen-month winless run in the Championship.
Zebre have not won successive matches in the Pro14 in the same season since 2017/18.
Benetton’s 25-22 home win over Lyon in the European Champions Cup last weekend ended a five-game losing streak.
Benetton have not won away from home in any competition since they last visited Parma to play Zebre in April.
Benetton’s only loss in their last eight meetings with Zebre was 17-22 at Stadio Monigo in April 2018.
Zebre: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Paula Balekana, 13 Giulio Bisegni (captain), 12 Tommaso Boni, 11 James Elliott, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Giovanni Licata, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 5 Ian Nagle, 4 Mick Kearney, 3 Giosuè Zilocchi, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Danilo Fischetti.
Replacements: 16 Marco Manfredi, 17 Andrea Lovotti, 18 Alexandru Tarus, 19 David Sisi, 20 Maxime Mbandà, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Michelangelo Biondelli, 23 Charlie Walker.
Benetton: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Ratuva Tavuyara, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage (captain), 8 Toa Halafihi, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Eli Snyman, 4 Niccolò Cannone, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Hame Faiva, 1 Federico Zani.
Replacements: 16 Engjel Makelara, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Cherif Traore, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Marco Lazzaroni, 21 Marco Barbini, 22 Tito Tebaldi, 23 Antonio Rizzi.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant referees: Andrea Piardi, Gianlucca Gnecchi (both Italy)
TMO: Stefano Penne (Italy)
CONNACHT v MUNSTER
(The Sportsground, Galway – Kick-off: 17.15; 17.15 GMT)
Connacht have lost just once in the last six rounds of Pro14: 11-42 to pace-setting Leinster in Galway in Round Six. This is Connacht’s only defeat at the Sportsground in any competition since January.
Munster have won just one of their last four matches in all tournaments: 10-3 at home to Saracens in Round Three of the European Champions Cup.
The Munstermen have lost just twice in the Pro14 so far this season, in round 3 at Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and in Round Seven at home to Edinburgh.
Munster have lost only one of their last six encounters with Connacht: 16-20 in Galway in October 2017.
Connacht have won three of their last five meetings with Munster at The Sportsground.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 John Porch, 13 Tom Daly, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Kyle Godwin, 10 Conor Fitzgerald, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 Paul Boyle, 6 Eoghan Masterson, 5 Quinn Roux (captain), 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Conor Kenny, 18 Dominic Robertson McCoy, 19 Joe Maksymiw, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 Stephen Kerins, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Stephen Fitzgerald.
Munster: 15 Shane Daly, 14 Calvin Nash, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Dan Goggin, 11 Liam Coombes, 10 JJ Hanrahan, 9 Craig Casey, 8 CJ Stander (captain), 7 Chris Cloete, 6 Gavin Coombes, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Kevin O’Byrne, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Diarmuid Barron, 17 Jeremy Loughman, 18 Keynan Knox, 19 Fineen Wycherley, 20 Jack O’Donoghue, 21 Neil Cronin, 22 Ben Healy, 23 Sammy Arnold.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher, Paul Haycock (both Ireland)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
DRAGONS v SCARLETS
(Rodney Parade, Newport – Kick-off: 17.15; 17.15 GMT)
Dragons have lost their last three Pro14 fixtures since their home win over Glasgow Warriors at the end of October.
Dragons only defeat in their last four matches in all competitions at Rodney Parade was 12-39 to Zebre in Round Seven of the Pro14.
Scarlets two defeats in the first seven rounds of Pro14 were both on the road, to Edinburgh in Round Four and Ulster in Round Seven.’
Scarlets have been victorious only once away from home in Pro14 since October 2018: 25-21 at Glasgow in October 2019.
Scarlets have won only one of their last six fixtures against fellow Welsh regions: 22-13 at home to Dragons in Round 13 last season. ‘
Dragons beat Scarlets 34-32 in their most recent encounter, at Judgement Day in April, but have not won successive matches against the West Walians since 2008.
Scarlets have not won at Rodney Parade since 30 December 2011.
Dragons: 15 Will Talbot-Davies, 14 Owen Jenkins, 13 Adam Warren, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Ashton Hewitt, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Rhodri Williams (captain), 8 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Taine Basham, 6 Cory Hill, 5 Matthew Screech, 4 Joe Davies, 2 Leon Brown, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Brok Harris.
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Aaron Jarvis, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Brandon Nansen, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Jacob Botica, 23 Tyler Morgan.
Scarlets: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Steff Hughes, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Josh Macleod, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens (captain), 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Phil Price, 18 Javan Sebastian, 19 Tevita Ratuva, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Kieran Hardy, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Corey Baldwin.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Mike English, Gareth John (both Wales)
TMO: Ian Davies (Wales)
GLASGOW WARRIORS v EDINBURGH
(Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow – Kick-off: 17.45; 17.45 GMT)
This will be the 166th meeting for the ‘1872 Cup’ where holders Edinburgh have the edge by 82 wins to 61 with 22 games drawn.
Glasgow Warriors only defeat in the last three rounds of Pro14 was at home to table topping Leinster in Round Seven.
The Warriors have lost their last two home games at Scotstoun, to Leinster and La Rochelle, but have not lost three in succession at the venue since 2014.
Edinburgh are unbeaten in their last six first team matches since their 16-18 reversal in Treviso in Round Five of Pro14. Edinburgh’s only other defeat in the Championship this season was away at Leinster in Round Three.
Glasgow’s 34-10 victory at Scotstoun in April ended a three-game losing run to their fiercest rivals.
Edinburgh have made seven previous visits to Scotstoun, winning twice, in May 2017 and December 2018.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Kyle Steyn, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 George Horne, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Callum Gibbins (captain), 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Scott Cummings, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Aki Seiuli.
Replacements: 16 George Turner, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Adam Nicol, 19 Adam Ashe, 20 Tom Gordon, 21 Ali Price, 22 Nick Grigg, 23 Niko Matawalu.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Darcy Graham, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 George Taylor, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Pietro Ceccarelli, 2 Stuart McInally (captain), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Mike Willemse, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Jamie Ritchie, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 James Johnstone.
Referee: Ben Blain (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Sam Grove-White, Hollie Davidson (both Scotland)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
OSPREYS v CARDIFF BLUES
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Ospreys’s only victory in the Pro14 this season was 24-20 against Benetton at Liberty Stadium in Round Three.
Ospreys have won their last four matches against fellow Welsh regions since Dragons beat them by a single point at Rodney Parade twelve months ago.
Cardiff Blues have won their last two Pro14 fixtures, at home to Cheetahs and away at Benetton, to put a stop to a four-game losing run in the Championship. The Blues only other away victory in the Pro14 this season came in the opening round against Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
Ospreys only defeat to Cardiff Blues in their last seventeen meetings in the Championship since 2010 was 17-35 at Judgement Day in April 2017.
Cardiff Blues only previous victory at Liberty Stadium in the Championship came on their first ever visit almost exactly 14 years ago.
Ospreys: 15 Cai Evans, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Luke Morgan, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Olly Cracknell, 7 Justin Tipuric (captain), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Ma’afu Fia, 2 Scott Otten, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Dewi Lake, 17 Rhys Fawcett, 18 Simon Gardiner, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Morgan Morris, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Luke Price, 23 Kieran Williams.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Owen Lane, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Ben Thomas, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Josh Turnbull, 7 Will Boyde (captain), 6 Shane Lewis-Hughes, 5 James Ratti, 4 Filo Paulo, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Kirby Myhill, 1 Brad Thyer.
Replacements: 16 Liam Belcher, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Keiron Assiratti, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Olly Robinson, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Jason Tovey, 23 Hallam Amos.
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)
Assistant referees: Gareth Newman, Chris Morgan (both Wales)
TMO: Tim Hayes (Wales)