PREVIEW PRO14, ROUND 18
So many storylines have emerged during an historic season such as the Cheetahs' push for a Final Series place in their debut season, the return to form of Benetton Rugby as part of an Italian resurgence and Richard Cockerill's impact at Edinburgh.
In addition, former champions such as Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors, Leinster and Munster are all plotting their courses to the Pro14 Final at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on May 26.
What's at Stake
Connacht take on Edinburgh at the Sportsground where the visitors are looking to extend their winning run to six in a row. Connacht still have a chance of making the Champions Cup play-off while Edinburgh are aiming to make their first appearance in the Pro14 Final Series.
Dragons welcome Cheetahs to Rodney Parade and the South Africans are in need of adding to their recent win over Connacht in order to keep their Final Series challenge in good health. Dragons, however, will be are eager to rebound from their recent loss to the Southern Kings.
Glasgow Warriors face Zebre at Scotstoun having already secured their place in the Pro14 Final Series and now set their sights on locking down a home semifinal. Zebre, however, will have some Italian internationals returning and will hope to improve on their travelling record.
Saturday’s first game sees Southern Kings play Benetton in Port Elizabeth and Deon Davids' team will be buoyed by their first win over Dragons last time out. But Benetton need to keep the pressure on Ulster for the Champions Cup play-off and a win here would prove very valuable.
The Cardiff Blues are on a good run of form chasing the Cheetahs for a Pro14 Final Series place and need to keep up their winning run against Ulster at Cardiff Arms Park. Ulster need to recapture some momentum and this result could prove pivotal for both teams.
Ospreys have begun to find some life after a difficult start to the season and take on Conference B leaders Leinster at Liberty Stadium. The hosts still have the opportunity to chase down a Champions Cup play-off place but the Irish province have proven difficult to beat all season and this should prove no different.
Pick of the Round: Munster v Scarlets
On Saturday evening Munster and Scarlets meet in a replay of last season's Championship Final at Thomond Park with so much on the line. The defending champions, Scarlets, cannot afford to lose any ground on Leinster in Conference B and Munster will feel likewise in Conference A, knowing that the Cheetahs and the Cardiff Blues are in pursuit. Both teams have shown robust consistency in the Championship for the last 18 months and this promises to be an intriguing affair.
Top Performers – Round 17:
Most tackles: 23 Rynard Landman (Dragons)
Most Carries: 19 Clayton Blommetjies (Toyota Cheetahs)
Defenders Beaten: 6 Dougie Fife (Edinburgh Rugby)
Offloads: 5 Multiple players
Breaks: 3 Multiple players
Metres Made: 111 Anthonie Volmink (Southern Kings)
Turnovers Won: 4 Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets)
Lineouts Won: 6 Marco Barbini (Benetton Rugby)
We take a look at all the Round 15 action!
Friday, March 23:
CONNACHT V EDINBURGH
(Sportsground, Galway – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Connacht's only two victories in the last six rounds of the Pro14 were at home to Ospreys in Round 14 and away in Treviso in Round 16.
Connacht's 11-19 reversal to Zebre in their most recent home game ended a run of seven successive wins at the Sportsground. Edinburgh Rugby have won all five matches in the PRO14 they have played in 2018, their most recent defeat being at Glasgow on December 30.
The Scotsmen's only defeat to an Irish province this season was on their trip to Leinster in Round Five. Connacht have lost just one of their last seven fixtures with Edinburgh: 13-16 at Galway in January 2015
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Tom Farrell, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 Sean O'Brien, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 Gavin Thornbury, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Tom McCartney (captain), 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Denis Coulson, 18 Dominic Robertson McCoy, 19 James Cannon, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 James Mitchell, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Darragh Leader.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Nathan Fowles, 8 Bill Mata, 7 John Hardie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Grant Gilchrist (captain), 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Neil Cochrane, 1 Darryl Marfo.
Replacements: 16 Cameron Fenton, 17 Jordan Lay, 18 WP Nel, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Cornell du Preez, 21 Sean Kennedy, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Shane Kierans (Ireland)
TMO: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
DRAGONS v CHEETAHS
(Rodney Parade, Newport – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT; 21.35 SA Time)
Dragons have not won in the Pro14 since beating Southern Kings at Rodney Parade in Round Five, although they have drawn two games in that sequence.
Dragons have won four games at Rodney Parade in other competitions since, over Scarlets in the AngloWelsh Cup and against Enisei, Bordeaux and Worcester in the European Challenge Cup. Cheetahs 26-25 victory over Connacht in Bloemfontein in Round 17 ended a three games losing run in the Championship.
Cheetahs have won only once outside South Africa in this campaign, by a single point against Zebre in Parma in Round Seven. This is the two sides first ever competitive meeting.
Dragons: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Ashton Hewitt, 13 Sam Beard, 12 Connor Edwards, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Arwel Robson, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Lewis Evans, 7 Aaron Wainwright, 6 Harrison Keddie, 5 Cory Hill (captain), 4 Joe Davies, 3 Lloyd Fairbrother, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Sam Hobbs.
Replacements: 16 Ellis Shipp, 17 Gerard Ellis, 18 Dan Suter, 19 Max Williams, 20 Taine Basham, 21 Dan Babos, 22 Adam Warren, 23 Jared Rosser.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Francois Venter (captain), 12 Niel Marais, 11 Sibhale Maxano, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Carl Wegner, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Zee Mkhabela, 22 Clinton Swart, 23 Adriaan Coertzen.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Ben Whitehouse, Mike English (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
GLASGOW WARRIORS v ZEBRE
(Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT; 20.35 Italy Time)
Glasgow Warriors 10-21 defeat at Munster in their most recent match was only their second reversal this season in the Pro14.
The Warriors only two defeats at Scotstoun this season were both in the European Champions Cup, against Leinster and Montpellier. The Scotsmen have won their last 25 encounters against Italian opponents since their loss to Benetton at Firhill in September 2011.
Zebre's only victory in the last six rounds of the Pro14 was 19-11 at Connacht in Round 15. Zebre are attempting to record successive away victories in the Championship.
Glasgow have won all eleven previous matches they have played against Zebre whilst the Italians only previous success in Scotland was a 19-14 win over Edinburgh at Murrayfield in October 2016.
Glasgow: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Lee Jones, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 DTH van der Merwe, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Matt Fagerson, 7 Callum Gibbins (captain), 6 Rob Harley, 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 George Turner, 1 Oliver Kebble.
Replacements: 16 Grant Stewart, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Kiran McDonald, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 George Horne, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Lelia Masaga.
Zebre: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Gabriele Di Giulio, 13 Serafin Bordoli, 12 Faialaga Afamasaga, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani (captain), 8 James Tucker, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Derick Minnie, 5 Leonard Krumov, 4 David Sisi, 3 Eduardo Bello, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Cruze Ah-Nau.
Replacements: 16 Thomas D'Apice, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Roberto Tenga, 19 Valerio Bernabò, 20 Jacopo Sarto, 21 Riccardo Raffaele, 22 Maicol Azzolini, 23 Rory Parata.
Referee: Craig Evans (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Ian Davies, Adam Jones (Wales)
Saturday, March 24:
CARDIFF BLUES v ULSTER
(Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff, Kickoff: 15.15; 15.15 GMT)
Cardiff Blues have won their last four Pro14 fixtures but have not won five in succession in the same season since the end of the 2009/10 campaign. The Blues only home defeat in the Championship since September was to Scarlets on New Year's Eve.
Ulster have won only twice in the Pro14 since November, both at home, to Munster on New Year's Day and Southern Kings in Round 14.
The Ulstermen have won just twice on the road in the Championship this season, at Benetton in September and at Southern Kings in early November. Ulster have lost only one of their last six encounters with the Blues: 13-23 at The Arms Park in February 2016.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Owen Lane, 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Ellis Jenkins, 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Seb Davies, 4 George Earle, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins (captain).
Replacements: 16 Kristian Dacey, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Ben Murphy, 20 Macauley Cook, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Steve Shingler, 23 Garyn Smith.
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny McPhillips, 9 John Cooney, 8 Nick Timoney, 7 Clive Ross, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Alan O'Connor (captain), 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Andrew Warwick.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Matthew Dalton, 20 Matthew Rea, 21 Dave Shanahan, 22 Peter Nelson, 23 Louis Ludik.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Sam Grove-White, Dunx McClement (Scotland)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
MUNSTER v SCARLETS
(Thomond Park, Limerick – Kick:off: 17.30; 17.30 GMT)
Munster's last eight matches in all competitions have all been won by the home side on the day whilst their only home defeat since February 2017 was to Leinster in the Pro14 on St Stephen's Day 2017.
Scarlets only victory in the last four rounds of the Pro14 was 34-10 at home to Ulster on February 24. Scarlets have not won away from home in the Championship since a trip to Cardiff Blues on New Year's Eve. The two sides have not met since last season's Pro12 Final in Dublin, with Scarlets taking the spoils on that occasion 46-22.
Scarlets won on their most recent visit to Thomond Park in February 2017, something they had not done at the venue since September 2003.
Munster: 15 JJ Hanrahan, 14 Calvin Nash, 13 Sammy Arnold, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 James Hart, 8 Robin Copeland, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Jack O’Donoghue, 5 Billy Holland (captain), 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 John Ryan, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 James Cronin, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Gerbrandt Grobler, 20 Dave O’Callaghan, 21 Jack Stafford, 22 Stephen Fitzgerald, 23 Dan Goggin.
Scarlets: 15 Tom Williams, 14 Tom Varndell, 13 Scott Williams (captain), 12 Paul Asquith, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Will Boyde, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 Dylan Evans.
Replacements: 16 Emyr Phillips, 17 Phil Price, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Lewis Rawlins, 20 Josh Macleod, 21 Jonathan Evans, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Steff Hughes.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Andrea Piardi, Manuel Bottino (Italy)
TMO: Matteo Liperini (Italy)
OSPREYS v LEINSTER
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea – Kick:off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Ospreys have lost just one of their last five Pro14 fixtures: 15-26 away at Connacht in Round 14. The Welshmen have not lost at Liberty Stadium in the Championship since Glasgow Warriors were the visitors on 26 November.
Leinster's solitary defeat in any competition since early November was 24-29 against Edinburgh at Myreside on February 9. The Leinstermen are unbeaten on their last four visits to Wales when they lost 39-28 at Parc y Scarlets in November 2016.
Leinster's only defeat in their last eleven encounters with Ospreys in all tournaments was 19-25 at Liberty Stadium in the Pro14 in April 2014.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Jeff Hassler, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ashley Beck, 11 Hanno Dirksen, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Tom Habberfield, 8 Sam Cross, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Scott Otten, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Ifan Phillips, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Rob McCusker, 21 Matthew Aubrey, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Owen Watkin.
Leinster: 15 Joey Carbery, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Rory O’Loughlin, 12 Noel Reid, 11 Barry Daly, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Luke McGrath (captain), 8 Jack Conan, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Josh Murphy, 5 Scott Fardy, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Ian Nagle, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Dave Kearney, 23 Adam Byrne.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace, Frank Murphy (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
SOUTHERN KINGS v BENETTON
(Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth, Kickoff: 15.00; 13.00 GMT; 13.00 UK & Ireland time)
Southern Kings obtained their first victory of the Pro14 season in Round 17 with their 45-13 eclipsing of the Dragons in Port Elizabeth.
The Kings two previous matches against Italian opponents have both ended in heavy defeats: 17-43 to Zebre in Port Elizabeth and 3-31 in Treviso. Benetton's five game-winning run in the Pro14 has now been surpassed with a pair of defeats, at home to Connacht and away in Cardiff.
The Italians have won both their previous matches they have played against South African opponents, but this is their first visit to the Republic. The two sides have met just once before with Benetton winning 31-3 in Treviso in October.
Southern Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Michael Makase, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Luzuko Vulindlu, 11 Alshaun Bock, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Godlen Masimla, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Tienie Burger, 6 Andisa Ntsila, 5 Bobby de Wee, 4 Stephan Greeff, 3 Pieter Scholtz, 2 Stephan Coetzee, 1 Schalk Ferreira (captain).
Replacements: 16 Tango Balekile, 17 Johan Smith, 18 Luvuyo Pupuma, 19 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 20 Lusanda Badiyana, 21 Rowan Gouws, 22 Martin du Toit, 23 Jacques Nel.
Benetton: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luca Sperandio, 13 Tommaso Iannone, 12 Alberto Sgarbi (captain), 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Marco Barbini, 5 Irné Herbst, 4 Federico Ruzza, 3 Matteo Zanusso, 2 Tomas Baravalle, 1 Federico Zani.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Marco Lazzaroni, 20 Nasi Manu, 21 Ignacio Brex, 22 Michael Tagicakibau, 23 Andrea Bronzini.
Referee: Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Cwengile Jadezweni, Rodney Boneparte (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)