Preview: Pro12, Round 12 - Part Two
At the half-way point of the regular season Ulster sit atop of the Pro12 table with a perfect won 11 out of 11 record.
At the half-way point of the regular season Ulster sit atop of the Pro12 table with a perfect won 11 out of 11 record.
The leaders face Munster in one of four games on Saturday, safe in the knowledge that regardless of other results, they will enter 2013 as table toppers.
There were two midweek matches - when Ospreys demolished Scarlets (32-3) and Cardiff Blues edged Newport Gwent Dragons (12-10).
The win by Ospreys in the Boxing Day showdown at the Liberty Stadium saw the defending Pro12 champions move back into play-off contention, despite failing to collect a bonus point against the 12-man Scarlets in the late stages of a game.
They will also have a game in hand after the completion of Saturday's fixtures, as Ospreys' Round 11 fixture against the Dragons has been held over until December 31st.
The Blues ended their run of losses and the victory boosted this season's campaign.
Two of the remaining games on Saturday will decide the 'top teams' in both Scotland and Italy - as the return legs of the double header between Benetton Treviso and Zebre, also Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors take place.
Warriors hold the upper hand in Scotland, as do Treviso in Italy, having already taken an away victory last week.
The final game of the round is at the RDS on Saturday, where Leinster will be anxious to maintain their unbeaten home record and improve their standing in the table at the expense of fellow Irish province Connacht.
Leinster captain Leo Cullen, who is line to make his 100th league appearance for his home province, believes that the squad are heading into an exciting but season-defining few weeks starting with the visit of Connacht on Saturday.
"From our perspective we have to try and build some momentum coming into a busy next few weeks which will go a long way to defining the rest of the season," Cullen said.
"We need some big results and we need to try and get some more rhythm to our play. Against Clermont in the Aviva, we gave away too many kickable penalties and [Morgan] Parra kicked seven out of 8 of them. Then against Ulster Paddy Jackson missed a few fairly kickable shots at goal, but Ruan Pienaar stepped up and kicked well.
"And this weekend Dan Parks will punish any penalties we give away because he has such a high kicking percentage and has proven himself time and again over the years. So we need to be more careful about giving quality sides easy opportunities to keep the scoreboard ticking over. These kinds of games are won and lost over the finest of margins.
"We learned a few harsh lessons over in the Sportsground last time out against Connacht. I acted as water-boy that day and it was tough watching from the sidelines. They brought greater physicality to the game and they dominated us in that regard in Galway. We can't allow them to have that kind of an upper hand again.
"So as 2012 draws to a close and we move into a new year, it's still all to play for. My first wish is that we get a few more points on the board. When we get a few more bodies on the deck that will boost competition for places because we've been disrupted through the first half of the season and we have lacked a bit of fluency thus far.
"Ulster are racing clear at the top of the table and they're going to be very hard to rein in, so we need to dig deep to get back into the top four. Then we travel to Edinburgh in the Pro12 before facing Scarlets at home in Europe and then travel to Exeter Chiefs where they have a great record at home.
"By the end of January we'll know our fate and we have a bit of ground to catch up on. And, for us, that process starts this weekend."
We look at the remainder the Round 12 action!
Saturday, December 29:
BENETTON TREVISO v ZEBRE
(Stadio Monigo - Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 GMT)
Benetton Treviso have won their last two Pro12 matches but have not won three in a row in the tournament since October 2011.
There was very little to choose in the first meeting between the two sides in Parma last Friday with Treviso grabbing the only try in the 43rd minute.
Zebre tallied a fourth losing bonus point of the campaign during the 3-10 defeat.
Benetton Treviso: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Ludovico Nitoglia, 13 Christian Loamanu, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Edoardo Gori, 10 Kristopher Burton, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Paul Derbyshire, 5 Valerio Bernabò, 4 Francesco Minto, 3 Jacobus Roux, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (captain), 1 Matteo Muccignat.
Replacements: 16 Enrico Ceccato, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Corniel van Zyl, 20 Dean Budd, 21 Simone Favaro, 22 Fabio Semenzato, 23 Alberto Di Bernardo.
Zebre: 15 Paolo Buso, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Sinoti Sinoti, 12 Gonzalo Garcia (captain), 11 Leonardo Sartom, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Alberto Chillon, 8 Andries van Schalkwyk, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Nicola Cattina, 5 Michael van Vuuren, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Luca Redolfini, 2 Davide Giazzon, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Salvatore Perugini, 18 David Ryan, 19 Emiliano Caffini, 20 Filippo Cristiano, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Alberto Benettin, 23 David Odiete.
Referee: Matteo Liperini (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Alan Falzone, Andrea Spadoni (both Italy)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (Italy)
EDINBURGH v GLASGOW WARRIORS
(Murrayfield - Kick-off: 16.05; 16.05 GMT)
Edinburgh have lost their last three matches in all competitions, and have won just once at Murrayfield since September: 23-13 over Ospreys in the Pro12 on 23 November.
Glasgow Warriors have the upper hand in the 1872 Cup double-header having won 23-14 at Scotstoun on Friday.
That victory took the Warriors back into the play-off zone, whilst Warriors have also won three of their last four away games in the tournament.
Edinburgh's only win in their last eight encounters with Glasgow was 28-17 at Murrayfield on 2 January 2011.
Edinburgh: 15 Greig Tonks, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Matt Scott, 12 James King, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain), 8 Netani Talei, 7 Roddy Grant, 6 David Denton, 5 Sean Cox, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Andy Titterrell, 1 Allan Jacobsen.
Replacements: 16 Steven Lawrie, 17 Robin Hislop, 18 Lewis Niven, 19 Perry Parker, 20 Dimitri Basilaia, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Ben Atiga, 23 Sep Visser.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Peter Horne, 11 DTH van der Merwe, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Rob Harley, 6 Josh Strauss, 5 Al Kellock (Captain), 4 Tom Ryder, 3 Moray Low, 2 Dougie Hall, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 German Araoz, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 James Eddie, 21 Niko Matawalu, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Graeme Morrison.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Andy Macpherson, Adrian Graves (both Scotland)
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)
MUNSTER v ULSTER
(Thomond Park - Kick-off: 17.30; 17.30 GMT)
Munster's only defeat in their last five Pro12 fixtures was 6-13 to Scarlets at Musgrave Park on 25 November.
The Munstermen's solitary loss at Thomond Park in this tournament since October 2011 came at the hands of Leinster in March.
Ulster have now equalled Leinster's best ever start to a Pro12 season with eleven straight victories, and have won all eight away games they have played in all competitions this season.
The Ulstermen have won all three games against fellow Irish provinces this season, but so far all those encounters have been at Ravenhill.
The last four meetings between the two sides in the Pro12 have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst Ulster have not won at Thomond Park in the competition since 2009, although they did of course triumph there in last season's European Cup quarter-final.
Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Doug Howlett (captain), 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Paddy Butler, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Mike Sherry, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Dave O'Callaghan, 20 James Coughlan, 21 Peter Stringer, 22 Ronan O'Gara, 23 Felix Jones.
Ulster: 15 Adam D'Arcy, 14 Chris Cochrane, 13 Mike Allen, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Niall O'Connor, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Mike McComish, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Neil McComb, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Adam Macklin, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Ricky Lutton, 18 Tom Court, 19 Alan O'Connor, 20 Ali Birch, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Stuart Olding, 23 Ricky Andrew.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Sean Gallagher (both Ireland)
TMO: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
LEINSTER v CONNACHT
(RDS Dublin - Kick-off: 19.45; 19.45 GMT)
Leinster have now slipped to three straight defeats in all competitions, something that's not happened Since May 2010.
The Leinstermen are one of only two sides in the Pro12 with a 100 percent home winning record this season (the other being Ulster).
Connacht lost out narrowly (12-16) at home to Munster on Saturday, and have now won just one of their last six Pro12 games: 18-3 at home to Treviso on 3 November.
Connacht's only away win against a fellow Irish province in the history of this competition was way back on 13 September 2002: 26-23 against Leinster at Donnybrook.
Connacht have already beaten Leinster in the Pro12 this season (34-6 in Galway on 28 September), but have won just once in Dublin since 1985.
Leinster: 15 Andrew Conway, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 Andrew Goodman, 11 Fionn Carr, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Shane Jennings (captain), 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Ben Marshall, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Aaron Dundon, 1 Heinke van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Leo Cullen, 20 Dominic Ryan, 21 John Cooney, 22 Noel Reid, 23 Adam Byrne.
Connacht: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 Johnny O'Connor, 6 Andrew Browne, 5 George Naoupu, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Nathan White (captain), 2 Jason Harris-Wright, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Brett Wilkinson, 18 Ronan Loughney, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Eoghan Grace, 21 Paul O'Donohoe, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Tiernan O'Halloran.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, Mark Patton (both Ireland)
TMO: Jude Quinn (Ireland)
Monday, December 31:
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS v OSPREYS
(Rodney Parade - Kick-off: 16.15; 16.15 GMT)
Newport Gwent Dragons have won just one of their last six Pro12 contests: 14-3 at home to Connacht on 23 November.
The Dragons have won their last two matches at Rodney Parade in all competitions.
The Men from Gwent have been beaten on the last four occasions they have faced a fellow Welsh region Ospreys' only defeat in their last eight Pro12 encounters was 13-23 to Edinburgh at Murrayfield on 23 November.
Ospreys have not won away from home in any competition since a trip to Zebre in the Pro12 on 5 October.
Ospreys have won their last six fixtures with fellow Welsh regions in all competitions.
The last three clashes between the two sides in the Pro12 have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst the only occasion that Ospreys have ever been triumphant at Rodney Parade was with a 27-13 win on 8 May 2007.
Newport Gwent Dragon: 15 Hallam Amos, 14 Will Harries, 13 Pat Leach, 12 Andy Tuilagi, 11 Tom Prydie, 10 Lewis Robling, 9 Jonathan Evans, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Nic Cudd, 6 Lewis Evans (captain), 5 Rob Sidoli, 4 Andrew Coombs, 3 Dan Way, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Phil Price.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Gustafson, 17 Owen Evans, 18 Nathan Buck, 19 Adam Jones, 20 Tom Brown, 21 Wayne Evans, 22 Steffan Jones, 23 Jack Dixon.
Ospreys: 15 Richard Fussell, 14 Ross Jones, 13 Tom Isaacs, 12 Andrew Bishop, 11 Eli Walker, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i (captain), 8 Joe Bearman, 7 Sam Lewis, 6 Ryan Jones, 5 James King, 4 Lloyd Peers, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Ryan Bevington.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Cai Griffiths, 19 Jonathan Thomas, 20 Morgan Allen, 21 Rhys Webb/Tom Habberfield, 22 Matthew Morgan, 23 Ashley Beck.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Neil Hennessy, Rhys Thomas (both Wales)
TMO: Paul Adams (Wales)