Preview: Pro14, Round Nine
Games are taking place in Italy, Ireland, South Africa and Wales.
The race to reach the Pro14 Final in Dublin on May 26 is really starting to take shape – with Glasgow Warriors in control of Conference A, while defending champions Scarlets are just ahead of the chasing pack in Conference B.
Round Nine will see some new faces enter the Championship with Johann van Graan taking charge of his first game at Munster when they travel to Zebre, while Edinburgh's new signing Jaco van der Walt arrives just in time to join their touring party to his native South Africa.
Meanwhile, Leinster will hope that former Crusaders star James Lowe can make an instant impact after his recent arrival in Dublin.
What's at Stake
On Friday Ulster take on Benetton in Conference B where the province will face a tough proposition at Kingspan Stadium as the hosts aim to stay hot on the heels of Scarlets. The Italians are in contention for the Champions Cup Play-Off position with Edinburgh, who will begin their tour to South Africa in Bloemfontein when they take on the Cheetahs – also on Friday.
Friday's other game see Cardiff Blues entertain Connacht, who are separated by just one point in Conference A, while in Conference B, Leinster welcome Bernard Jackman's Dragons to the RDS. The 2014 champions are third in the table, seven points off leaders Scarlets, and victory in Dublin will be vital to stay in touch.
Like Edinburgh, Scarlets begin a two-game tour of South Africa this weekend with the Southern Kings first up. The Kings earned their first two Championship points of the season in their highly-entertaining fixture with Ulster in Round Eight where they came up just short in a 43-36 loss.
Glasgow Warriors will attempt to maintain their unbeaten start to the season when they travel to Ospreys on Sunday afternoon. It's a case of top versus bottom in Conference A and although both teams have supplied a number of players to the Scottish and Welsh national teams during this current Test window, each club has a tremendous reputation for producing world-class talent and this game at Liberty Stadium will showcase their pedigree in this department.
Pick of the Round Zebre v Munster
Three-time champions Munster face a potentially tricky trip to Zebre who have been showing signs of positive improvement this season. The Italian side feature consistently across the Opta Team Rankings released this week, sitting in the Top Five for Turnovers Won (52), Breaks (90), Offloads (103), Defenders Beaten (172) and Metres Gained (3,746).
For Munster, head coach Johann van Graan makes his first appearance in the coaches' box since taking over from Rassie Erasmus.
Munster are second in Conference A and if they are to keep in touch with Glasgow Warriors then they cannot afford to slip up in this game. Zebre have already beaten Ulster at the Stadio Lanfranchi this season but Munster travel having never lost to their Italian opponents, while their last Championship loss in Italy came back in 2013 to Benetton.
Top Performers – Round Eight
* Tackles made: 23 Lloyd Ashley / Olly Cracknell (both Ospreys)
* Carries: 18 Max Deegan (Leinster)
* Defenders beaten: 8 Charles Piutau (Ulster) / Nico Lee (Cheetahs) / Willis Halaholo (Cardiff Blues)
* Offloads: 4 Charles Piutau (Ulster) / Tom Farrell (Connacht)
* Breaks: 4 Andrew Trimble (Ulster) / Olly Robinson (Cardiff Blues)
* Metres made: 159 Niko Matawalu (Glasgow Warriors)
* Turnovers won: 3 Derrick Minnie (Zebre)
* line-out steals: 2 Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) / Scott Fardy (Leinster) / Damian Welch (Cardiff Blues)
We look at all the Round Nine matches!
Friday, November 24
CHEETAHS v EDINBURGH
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein – Kick-odd: 19.30; 17.30 GMT; 17.30 UK time)
Cheetahs have lost two of their last three Pro14 matches, at home to Glasgow Warriors and away in Connacht.
Cheetahs defeat to Warriors in round 6 of the Championship spoiled their 100% maximum point winning record in Bloemfontein this season.
Edinburgh have won their last five matches in all competitions since tripping up at Leinster in Round Five of the Pro14.
Edinburgh have won their last three away games, at London Irish and Krasny Yar in the European Challenge Cup, and at Treviso in the PRO14. They have not won four in a row on their travels in the same season since 2003/04.
The two sides have never met before, whilst this is Edinburgh's first fixture against a South African side in the PRO14.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Luther Obi, 13 William Small-Smith, 12 Nico Lee, 11 Makazola Mapimpi, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Junior Pokomela, 7 Rynier Bernardo, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten Van Jaarsveld (captain), 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Retshegofaditswe Nche, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Jasper Wiese, 20 Daniel Maartens, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Tertius Kruger, 23 Craig Barry.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 James Johnstone, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jason Tovey, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Luke Crosbie, 6 Lewis Carmichael, 5 Fraser McKenzie (captain), 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Murray McCallum, 2 Neil Cochrane, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Cameron Fenton, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 Kevin Bryce, 19 Callum Hunter-Hill, 20 Magnus Bradbury, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 Junior Rasolea.
Referee: Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Archie Sehlako, Jaco Kotze (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
ULSTER v BENETTON
(Kingspan Stadium, Belfast – Kick-off: 19.05; 19.05 GMT)
Ulster's last six matches in all competitions have been evenly split with three wins and three defeats.
The Ulstermen's ten game unbeaten run in Belfast was ended by Leinster in Round Seven of the Pro14.
Ulster were defeated 23-27 at Zebre in Round Five but have never lost successive matches to Italian opponents.
Benetton have a won three lost three record in the last six rounds of the Pro14, whilst their only victory away from home this season came at Edinburgh in round 3.
The Italians have lost their last eleven encounters with Irish provinces since beating Connacht in Treviso in April 2016.
Ulster's only defeat to Benetton in twenty-one previous fixtures in all competitions was 12-23 in Belfast in October 2011.
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Peter Nelson, 9 John Cooney, 8 Nick Timoney, 7 Aaron Hall, 6 Clive Ross, 5 Alan O'Connor, 4 Kieran Treadwell, 3 Ross Kane, 2 John Andrew, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Andy Warwick, 19 Matthew Dalton, 20 Greg Jones, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Darren Cave, 23 Andrew Trimble.
Benetton: 15 Luca Sperandio, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Ignacio Brex, 12 Alberto Sgarbi (captain), 11 Andrea Bronzini, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Giorgio Bronzini, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Nasi Manu, 6 Whetu Douglas, 5 Irné Herbst, 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Giuseppe Di Stefano, 2 Tomas Baravalle, 1 Cherif Traore.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Alberto De Marchi, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Marco Barbini, 21 Luca Crosato, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Luca Morisi.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Leo Colgan, Shane Kierans (IRFU)
TMO: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU)
CARDIFF BLUES v CONNACHT
(Cardiff Arms Park – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Cardiff Blues' last four matches in the Pro14 have all been won by the home side on the day.
The Blues have won their last two games at Cardiff Arms Park in the Championship but have not won three in a row at the venue since April 2016.
The Welshmen have beaten an Irish province just once in their last ten such encounters, against today's opponents, Connacht, in Round Four this season.
Connacht have won their last four matches in all competitions since their 8-16 reversal at Ulster in round 6 of the Pro14.
The Irishmen have not won away from home in the Championship since a visit to Edinburgh in April.
Connacht have lost all three matches they have played against Welsh regions this season, whilst their only victory in Wales since February 2016 was when they visited Cardiff Arms Park in round 14 last season.
Blues beat Connacht 17-15 in Galway in September and have not achieved a season's double over them since 2013/14.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Owen Lane, 13 Garyn Smith, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Tom James, 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Olly Robinson, 6 Macauley Cook, 5 Damian Welch, 4 George Earle, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Matthew Rees (captain), 1 Corey Domachowski.
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Brad Thyer, 18 Anton Peikrishvili, 19 James Down, 20 Josh Turnbull, 21 Lewis Jones, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Harri Millard.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O'Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Tom Farrell, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 John Muldoon (captain), 7 Jake Heenan, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 James Cannon, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Conor Carey, 19 Gavin Thornbury, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 James Mitchell, 22 Steve Crosbie, 23 Pita Ahki.
Referee: Craig Evans (Wales)
Assistant referees: Simon Rees, Adam Jones (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
LEINSTER v DRAGONS
(RDS Arena, Dublin – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Leinster's five game winning run in all competitions ended when they were beaten in Glasgow in Round Eight of the Pro14.
The Leinstermen have not lost a regular season Championship home match since Dragons visited the RDS Arena in February 2015; their only defeats to a Welsh region anywhere since then were both to Scarlets in Llanelli in November 2016 and at the RDS Arena in last season's semi-final.
Dragons have lost their last three Pro14 fixtures since beating Southern Kings at Rodney Parade in Round Five.
Dragons have lost their last twenty-eight away games, an unwanted Championship record, since beating Treviso in March 2015.
Honours have been almost even in the last seven encounters between the two sides, with Leinster prevailing by four wins to three; however the Irishmen have won the last three in a row.
Leinster: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Rory O'Loughlin, 12 Noel Reid, 11 Isa Nacewa (captain), 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Max Deegan, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Josh Murphy, 5 Scott Fardy, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Ed Byrne.
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ian Nagle, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Cathal Marsh, 23 Conor O'Brien.
Dragons: 15 Angus O'Brien, 14 Jared Rosser, 13 Adam Warren, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Ashton Hewitt, 10 Gavin Henson, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 James Benjamin, 7 Ollie Griffiths (captain), 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Matthew Screech, 4 Joe Davies, 3 Lloyd Fairbrother, 2 Ellis Shipp, 1 Sam Hobbs.
Replacements: 16 Gerard Ellis, 17 Luke Garrett, 18 Brok Harris, 19 Rynard Landman, 20 Ben Roach, 21 Dan Babos, 22 Arwel Robson, 23 Connor Edwards.
Referee: Sam Grove-White (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Dunx McClement, Bob Nevins (Scotland)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
Sunday, November 26
OSPREYS v GLASGOW WARRIORS
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea – Kick-off: 13.00; 13.00 GMT)
Ospreys's only two victories in the Pro14 this season were both at home, to Zebre in round 1 and Dragons in Round Seven.
Last season Osprey had a perfect played four won four record against Scottish opponents but this campaign has been a different story with two defeats, both on trips north of the border.
Glasgow Warriors have won all eight Pro14 matches this season (the last five with maximum points). Only Leinster in 2001/02 (10 wins) and Ulster in 2012/13 (11 wins) have had a better start to a new season.
The Warriors only defeat on their travels in any tournament this season came on a visit to English champions Exeter Chiefs in the European Champions Cup.
Glasgow beat Ospreys in round 2 of the PRO14 and have not achieved a season's double over them since 2013/14, which was also the last time that Warriors won at Liberty Stadium.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Joe Thomas, 12 Ashley Beck, 11 Jeff Hassler, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Tom Habberfield, 8 James King, 7 Guy Mercer, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Lloyd Ashley, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Paul James (captain).
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Rob McCusker, 20 Will Jones, 21 Reuben Morgan-Williams, 22 James Hook, 23 Dafydd Howells.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 George Horne, 8 Samuela Vunisa, 7 Matt Smith, 6 Callum Gibbins (captain), 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Kiran McDonald, 3 D’Arcy Rae, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Alex Allan.
Replacements: 16 George Turner, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Hamilton Burr, 20 Lewis Wynne, 21 Kaleem Barreto, 22 Brandon Thomson, 23 Lee Jones.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant referees: Gareth John, Elgan Williams (Wales)
SOUTHERN KINGS v SCARLETS
(Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth – Kick-off: 15.00; 13.00 GMT)
Southern Kings have lost all eight matches they have played in the Pro14, although they did pick up their first two league points in gaining a try and losing bonus in their defeat to Ulster at Wolfson Stadium in Round Eight.
Reigning champions, Scarlets, only defeat in the Pro14 since March was 20-27 away to Ulster on 15 September.
Scarlets top the Conference B pool table with seven wins out of eight so far this season.
The two sides have met once before, in the opening fixture of the 2017/18 campaign, with Scarlets running out 57-10 victors in
Southern Kings: 15 Yaw Penxe, 14 Michael Makase, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Martin du Toit/Jacques Nel, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Oliver Zono, 9 Rudi van Rooyen, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Martinus Burger, 6 Andisa Ntsila, 5 Bobby de Wee, 4 Stephan Greeff, 3 Rossouw de Klerk, 2 Stephan Coetzee, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Alandre van Rooyen, 17 Luvuyo Pupuma, 18 Pieter Scholtz, 19 Jurie van Vuuren, 20 Dries van Schalkwyk, 21 Godlen Masimla, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Harlon Klaasen.
Scarlets: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 Steff Hughes, 12 Paul Asquith, 11 Ioan Nicholas, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Jonathan Evans (captain), 8 Josh Macleod, 7 Will Boyde, 6 Tadhg Beirne, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Lewis Rawlins, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 Dylan Evans.
Replacements; 16 Taylor Davies, 17 Rhys Fawcett, 18 Simon Gardiner, 19 Tom Price, 20 Jack Condy, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Ioan Hughes, 23 Morgan Williams.
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Stephen Geldenhuys, Rodney Boneparte (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
ZEBRE v MUNSTER
(Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma – Kick-off: 14.30; 13.30 GMT)
Zebre's two victories in the Pro14 this season came in successive matches, at Southern Kings and at home to Ulster, in Rounds Four and Five.
Zebre have won their last two matches against Irish provinces, having also beaten Connacht in April – doubling their previous tally of successes against Irish opponents.
Johann van Graan takes over from fellow South African Rassie Erasmus as Munster head coach for his first game in charge.
Munster may have lost three of their eight games in the Pro14 this season but they are the Championship's top try scorers and have conceded the equal fewest number of tries.
The Munstermen's only victory away from home this season was at Ospreys in Round Three.
Munster have won all ten previous matches they have played against Zebre, whilst their most recent defeat in Italy came on a trip to Treviso in September 2013.
Zebre: 15 Ciaran Gaffney, 14 Pierre Bruno, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Faialaga Afamasaga, 11 Giovanni D’Onofrio, 10 Maicol Azzolini, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Derick Minnie, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Jacopo Sarto (captain), 5 Leonard Krumov, 4 James Tucker, 3 Eduardo Bello, 2 Luhandre Luus, 1 Cruze Ah-Nau.
Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Roberto Tenga, 19 Davide Fragnito, 20 Maxime Mbandà, 21 Riccardo Raffaele, 22 Matteo Pratichetti, 23 Valerio Bernabò.
Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Sam Arnold, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 JJ Hanrahan, 9 James Hart, 8 Robin Copeland, 7 Chris Cloete, 6 Jack O’Donoghue, 5 Billy Holland (captain), 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Liam O’Connor.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 Brian Scott, 18 Ciaran Parker, 19 Darren O’Shea, 20 Sean O’Connor, 21 Jack Stafford, 22 Bill Johnston, 23 Calvin Nash.
Referee: Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Keith Allen (Scotland), Vincenzo Scipani (Italy)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)