Preview: Pro12, Round 13
The last round of Pro12 matches before the start of the Six Nations opens on Friday at Rodney Parade, where second placed Ospreys will be looking to consolidate their play-off place with a victory over Newport Gwent Dragons.
The Ospreys, however, have won once only at the venue since the Welsh regions were formed in 2003.
Also on Friday, Edinburgh welcome Ulster to Murrayfield, a ground where the hosts are building a good home record; Ulster on the other hand are finding it difficult to gather points on the road this season.
The remaining fixtures all take place on Saturday, starting with Aironi's game against Connacht in Viadana. If the Italian outfit are to improve on last season's final standing, a repeat of their previous victory in this fixture could see them move off the bottom of the table, other results permitting.
There are two games in Wales on Saturday, Cardiff Blues hosting table-topping Leinster whilst Glasgow Warriors visit Scarlets. Warriors, along with Munster, were the only two teams who changed places in the table after the last round, the Glasgow outfit's victory over Edinburgh lifting them above the Munstermen in the play-off zone.
Fifth-placed Cardiff Blues still have a game in hand over their nearest rivals, but any slip up to the leaders could see the gap between themselves and the play-off zone widen, something Blues will hope to avoid going into the break.
Finally Munster, looking to bounce back from defeat in Ulster, welcome Benetton Treviso to Thomond Park. The Italian side may have won three of their last four matches away from home, but face formidable opposition both on and off the pitch in Limerick.
We look at all the Round 13 action:
Friday, January 6
Edinburgh v Ulster
(Murrayfield - 19.30)
Edinburgh have won just one of their last four games in the Pro12: 50-10 at home to Aironi on 2 December. Edinburgh's only defeat at Murrayfield in their last seven encounters in all competitions was 28-36 to table-topping Leinster on October 28.
Ulster have lost only one of their last five matches in all competitions: 13-42 at Leinster on 26 December. The Ulstermen's solitary away win since September was 46-20 over Aironi in Monza in the Heineken Cup on December 17.
Edinburgh's solo victory in their last four encounters with Ulster came in their last meeting, on 22 October 2010 at Murrayfield.
Edinburgh: 15 Chris Paterson, 14 Tom Brown, 13 Nick De Luca, 12 James King, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Phil Godman, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain) 8 Netani Talei, 7 Roddy Grant, 6 Stuart McInally, 5 Esteban Lozada, 4 Sean Cox, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Allan Jacobsen.
Replacements: 16 Alun Walker, 17 Kyle Traynor, 18 Jack Gilding, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Alan MacDonald, 21 Chris Leck, 22 Matt Scott, 23 Jim Thompson.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (captain), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Andi Kyriacou, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Willie Faloon, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Paddy Wallace, 23 Adam D'Arcy.
Referee: George Clancy
Assistant referees: Rob Dickson, Archie McInally (both Scotland)
Newport Gwent Dragons v Ospreys
(Rodney Parade - 19.05)
Newport Gwent Dragons have slipped to four straight defeats in all competitions and are without a win in their last six matches. The Dragons most recent success in the Pro12 came at home to Ulster on September 30. The Men from Gwent have lost all three fixtures against fellow Welsh Regions this season.
Ospreys' three game losing run came to a halt at home to Cardiff Blues on New Year's Day. Ospreys only away win in their last six trips was 17-6 against Connacht in Galway in the Pro12 on 26 November. The Swansea based outfit have not beaten a Welsh rival on their own soil since they visited Scarlets on October 2, 2010.
Ospreys solo win in their last four encounters with Dragons was 42-10 at Liberty Stadium on May 7, 2010, whilst Ospreys have won just once at Rodney Parade in nine visits since the region was formed: 27-13 on May 8, 2007.
Newport Gwent Dragons: 15 Martyn Thomas, 14 Will Harries, 13 Aled Brew, 12 Ashley Smith, 11 Tonderai Chavhanga, 10 Jason Tovey, 9 Wayne Evans, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Lewis Evans, 6 Danny Lydiate (captain), 5 Rob Sidoli, 4 Adam Jones, 3 Nathan Buck, 2 Lloyd Burns, 1 Nathan Williams.
Replacements: 16 Steve Jones, 17 Phil Price, 18 Dan Way, 19 Jevon Groves, 20 Darren Waters, 21 Joe Bedford, 22 Lewis Robling, 23 Matthew Jones.
Ospreys: 15 Barry Davies, 14 Eli Walker, 13 Tom Isaacs, 12 Ashley Beck, 11 Hanno Dirksen, 10 Matthew Morgan, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Joe Bearman, 7 Justin Tipuric (captain), 6 Tom Smith, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Ryan Jones, 3 Aaron Jarvis, 2 Huw Bennett, 1 Duncan Jones.
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Paul James, 18 Adam Jones, 19 Jonathan Thomas, 20 George Stowers, 21 Kahn Fotuali'i, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Tommy Bowe.
Referee: James Jones (Wales)
Assistant referees: Gwyn Morris, Wayne Davies (both Wales)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
Saturday, January 7
Aironi v Connacht
(Stadio Zaffanella - 16.35)
Aironi beat Italian adversaries Benetton Treviso 27-13 on December 23 last time out at Stadio Zaffanella and are attempting to win back to back home games for the first time.
Aironi's only previous success against an Irish side came in this equivalent fixture in Viadana last season.
Connacht seem unable to break out of their losing streak which now stands at a dozen matches in all competitions since they beat Newport Gwent Dragons 17-13 at the Sportsground on September 23. Connacht's only away win in the Pro12 since September 2010 remains their 11-9 score at Treviso in round one this season.
Each side won its respective home encounter when the two teams met last season.
Aironi: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giulio Toniolatti, 13 Roberto Quartaroli, 12 Gabriel Pizarro, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Josh Sole, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Nicola Cattina, 5 Marco Bortolami (captain), 4 Joshua Furno, 3 Fabio Staibano, 2 Roberto Santamaria, 1 Alberto De Marchi.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Salvatore Perugini, 18 Lorenzo Romano, 19 Quintin Geldenhuys, 20 Mauro Bergamasco, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Naas Olivier, 23 Alberto Benettin. Coach: Rowland Phillips.
Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy (captain), 14 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 13 Kyle Tonetti, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O'Halloran, 10 Mattew Jarvis, 9 Frank Murphy, 8 George Naoupu, 7 John Muldoon, 6 Mick Kearney, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Dylan Rogers, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Brett Wilkinson.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Stewart Maguire, 19 Eoin McKeon, 20 Ray Ofisa, 21 Paul O'Donohoe, 22 Niall O'Connor, 23 Henry Fa'afili.
Referee: Andrew McMenemy, (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Alan Falzone, Stefano Roscini (both Italy)
TMO: Stefano Marrama (Italy)
Cardiff Blues v Leinster
(Cardiff City Stadium - 18.15)
Cardiff Blues' last seven matches have all been won by the home side on the day. The Blues have been victorious in their last four home games at the City Stadium, but strangely have won just one of their last four matches against the Irish provinces at the venue.
Leinster have won their last seven encounters in all competitions, since their 16-16 draw in Montpellier in the European Cup on November 12. The Leinstermen, who sit proudly atop the Pro12 table, have won their last nine games in the tournament.
The Blues' only win over Leinster in their last nine meetings since May 2007 was 11-3 in this equivalent fixture at the City Stadium last season.
Cardiff: 15 Gavin Henson, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Xavier Rush, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 Maama Molitika, 5 Michael Paterson, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Marc Breeze, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Williams, 17 John Yapp, 18 Sam Hobbs, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Josh Navidi, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Ceri Sweeney, 23 Richard Mustoe.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Dave Kearney 13 Fergus McFadden, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Andrew Conway, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip (captain), 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Damian Browne, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Aaron Dundon, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Leo Auva'a, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Isa Nacewa, 23 Fionn Carr.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant referees: Neil Hennessy, Phil Fear (both Wales)
TMO: Neil Ballard (Wales)
Scarlets v Glasgow Warriors
(Parc y Scarlets - 18.15)
Scarlets have recorded only one loss in their last seven Pro12 contests: 17-24 at Ulster on 2 December. The Welshmen's solitary home defeat this season in this tournament was 10-15 to Leinster on September 24. Scarlets have won their last five matches against Scottish opponents.
Glasgow Warriors climbed to third spot in the Pro12 log following their 17-12 defeat of local adversaries Edinburgh at Firhill on New Year's Day - their highest position in the table since round 18 in 2009/10. Incredibly the Warriors have drawn their last three away games in all competitions. Glasgow are unbeaten in their last four games against Welsh regions.
Scarlets did the double over Glasgow last season, whilst the Warriors have won in two of their three previous visits to Parc y Scarlets.
Scarlets: 15 Dan Newton, 14 George North, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Johnathan Edwards, 6 Rob McCusker, 5 Dominic Day, 4 Lou Reed, 3 Deacon Manu, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Iestyn Thomas.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Rhys Thomas, 19 Josh Turnbull, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Stephen Jones, 23 Viliame Iongi.
Glasgow: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Rob Dewey, 12 Graeme Morrison (captain), 11 David Lemi, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Tom Ryder, 4 Rob Verbakel, 3 Moray Low, 2 Fergus Thomson, 1 Jon Welsh.
Replacements: 16 Finlay Gillies, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Ed Kalman, 19 Calum Forrester, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Murray McConnell, 22 Alex Dunbar, 23 Scott Wight..
Referee: Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Sean Brickell, Colin Kirkhouse (Wales)
Munster v Benetton Treviso
(Thomond Park - 20.15)
Munster's 17-33 reversal in Ulster on December 30 ended a three game winning streak. The Munstermen have lost just once at home in the Pro12 since April 2010: 13-17 to Ospreys at Thomond Park on October 8, 2011.
Benetton Treviso have won two of their last three encounters in the Pro12, and have won three of their last four matches away from home in the tournament.
Munster suffered a first ever loss to an Italian side when they last met Treviso at Stadio Monigo in February.
Munster : 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Niall Ronan, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (captain), 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Tomas O'Leary, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Danny Barnes.
Treviso: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Ludovico Nitoglia, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Brendan Williams, 10 Kristopher Burton, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Manoa Vosawai, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Gonzalo Padrò, 5 Corniel Van Zyl, 4 Antonio Pavanello (captain), 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Franco Sbaraglini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Diego Vidal, 17 Matteo Muccignat, 18 Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet, 19 Valerio Bernabò, 20 Enrico Pavanello, 21 Simon Picone, 22 Edoardo Gori, 23 Alberto Di Bernardo.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Michael Black, Kevin Beggs (both Ireland)
TMO: Seamus Flannery (Ireland)