PREVIEW: PRO12, ROUND EIGHT
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: After the success of the first ever 'Big Weekends' three teams are currently level on points at the top of the table in one of the most competitive Pro12 season in history.
Four-time title holders Leinster Rugby currently in first position by virtue of games won.
Alongside Leinster are Ospreys Rugby and Glasgow Warriors, who have both lifted the Pro12 trophy in the past four years. The battle to reach the Final in Aviva Stadium on May 27 doesn't end with the top three teams as Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby just three points behind while Scarlets and Cardiff Blues are within striking distance of the top four.
Munster Rugby return to Irish Independent Park in Cork where they will host Ospreys Rugby in a game that could see the winner reach the top of the Pro12 Championship table. History does not lend itself to predicting a winner of this fixture with Munster's last two home losses in the Championship coming in Cork to Cardiff Blues and Ospreys while the Welsh visitors have only won two of their last 12 games against Irish opposition.
Both teams possess burgeoning stars in Munster's Rory Scannell and Ospreys' Keelan Giles. Scannell has been ever present in the Munster midfield for the last 12 months and scored the winning drop-goal in the dying moments against Ulster last week while teenager Giles has continued his fast start to life in the Ospreys first-team with two tries against Dragons on Saturday. Giles also led the Opta stats in Round Seven for clean breaks and defenders beaten.
South African Rassie Erasmus was full of praise for Scannell’s match-winning drop-goal, which sealed an emotional 15-14 win over Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium last time out, insisting that desire to take risky chances would pay off in the big games.
The Men in Red moved fourth in the PRO12 with victory and are just three points off Friday’s opponents Ospreys, who are tied on 26 with leaders Leinster.
Though they are without the majority of their Irish international contingent, inspirational Peter O’Mahony is still available as he continues his injury comeback, and with the chance to go top if they beat Steve Tandy’s side, Erasmus is urging his side to take heart from their superb recent form.
"We will take a lot of belief out of that," Erasmus said.
"We have to look at the way we played and I think that is a nice thing for me, for Rory Scannell to go for that drop-goal, even if it was missed, it wasn’t as if we were sitting back and hoping for things to happen, we are trying to make stuff happen and that is exactly what we are hoping to do.
"Even if it had been a loss, I would have been fairly happy with the performance. I think our fitness really showed in the second half after a six-day turnaround from the Glasgow game which we are proud of.
"We cannot just, all of a sudden, forget Axel [Anthony Foley]. Him not being here is one thing, and we playing for him last week against Glasgow, but we decided the way we want to play is the way he tried to coach us. I think that showed again against Ulster.
"We want to continue that legacy Axel was trying to instil into the team. That is a nice part," he added.
Top Performers in Round Seven - Powered by Opta Statistics
Metres Gained: Rory Hughes (Glasgow Warriors) 166
Carries: Joe Bearman (Ospreys Rugby) 23
Clean Breaks: Keelan Giles (Ospreys Rugby) 4
Defenders Beaten: Keelan Giles (Ospreys Rugby) 7
Tackles Made: Sean Reidy (Ulster Rugby) 25
Offloads: Josh Matavesi 4
Turnovers won: Dan Leavy (Leinster Rugby) 4
Try Assists: Multiple Players 1
We look at all the Round Eight matches!!!
Friday, November 4
Newport-Gwent Dragons v Connacht Rugby
(Rodney Parade - Kick-off: 19.15; 21.15 GMT)
Dragons won their most recent fixture at Rodney Parade 37-16 over Brive in the European Challenge Cup but have not won successive matches at the venue since the New Year.
Connacht’s four-game winning run in all tournaments ended with their defeat at Leinster on Saturday.
The Pro12 champions have not been victorious away from home in the Championship since a trip to Edinburgh in early March.
Connacht have won their last seven encounters with Dragons since the Men from Gwent were victorious 14-3 at Rodney Parade in November 2012.
Newport-Gwent Dragons: 15 Tom Prydie, 14 Pat Howard, 13 Sam Beard, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Ashton Hewitt, 10 Angus O’Brien, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Ed Jackson, 7 Ollie Griffiths, 6 Lewis Evans (captain), 5 Rynard Landman, 4 Nick Crosswell, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Thomas Rhys Thomas, 1 Phil Price
Replacements: 16 Rhys Buckley, 17 Sam Hobbs, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Matthew Screech, 20 Nic Cudd, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Geriant Rhys Jones, 23 Adam Warren
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Peter Robb, 11 Stacey Ili, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 John Muldoon (captain), 7 Jake Heenan, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 Andrew Browne, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Conor Carey, 2 Shane Delahunt, 1 JP Cooney
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Saba Meunargia, 18 Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 19 James Cannon, 20 James Connolly, 21 Conor McKeon, 22 Shane O’Leary, 23 Cian Kelleher
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Jason Bessant (Wales)
Munster Rugby v Ospreys Rugby
(Irish Independent Park - Kick-off: 19.35; 21.35 GMT)
The Munstermen have lost just twice at home since mid-January with both encounters being in Cork, to Ospreys and Cardiff Blues.
Ospreys have won their last four matches in all tournaments since their 7-9 reversal in Ulster in Round five of the Pro12.
The Welshmen have won just two of their last dozen encounters against Irish provinces since May 2015.
The last six meetings between the two sides have been evenly split with three wins apiece, whilst Ospreys have lost on just two of their last six visits to Munster.
Munster: 15 Andrew Conway, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Jaco Taute, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Ronan O'Mahony, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 Jack O'Donoghue, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony (captain), 5 Robin Copeland, 4 Darren O'Shea, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Brian Scott, 19 John Madigan, 20 Conor Oliver, 21 Abrie Griesel, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Alex Wootton
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Keelan Giles, 13 Ben John, 12 Ashley Beck, 11 Eli Walker, 10 Josh Matavesi, 9 Tom Habberfield (captain), 8 Joe Bearman, 7 Olly Cracknell, 6 Rob McCusker, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Lloyd Ashley, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Paul James
Replacements: 16 Hugh Gustafson, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Rhodri Jones, 20 Scott Otten, 21 Brendon Leonard, 22 Jonathan Spratt, 23 Dafydd Howells
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant referees: Matteo Liperini (Italy), Oisin Quinn (Ireland)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (Italy)
Edinburgh Rugby v Ulster Rugby
(Murrayfield - Kick-off: 19.35; 21.35 GMT)
Edinburgh's record in their last eight matches at Murrayfield in all tournaments is an even won four, lost four, whilst they have not beaten an Irish province anywhere since October 2015.
Ulster Rugby began their 2016/17 Pro12 campaign with victories in the first five rounds but have now tripped up to fellow Irish provinces Connacht and Munster in Rounds Six and Seven.
The Ulstermen have won three of their last four encounters with Scottish opponents.
Ulster have lost just one of their last six matches against Edinburgh 10-16 at Murrayfield in this equivalent fixture in Round four last season.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Damien Hoyland, 13 Chris Dean, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Tom Brown, 10 Jason Tovey, 9 Sean Kennedy, 8 Magnus Bradbury, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Viliame Mata, 5 Ben Toolis, 4 Fraser McKenzie, 3 Murray McCallum, 2 Neil Cochrane (captain), 1 Jack Cosgrove
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Kyle Whyte, 18 Felipe Arregui, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Cornell Du Preez, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Michael Allen
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Sam Windsor, 11 Rob Lyttle, 10 Brett Herron, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Sean Reidy, 7 Clive Ross, 6 Pete Browne, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiehan Herbst, 2 Rob Herring (captain), 1 Callum Black
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Andrew Warwick, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Conor Joyce, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Aaron Cairns, 23 Jacob Stockdale
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Dudley Phillips (Ireland), Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
Benetton Rugby Treviso v Cardiff Blues
(Stadio Monigo - Kick-off: 20.05; 21.05 GMT)
The Italians have won three of their last four home games against Welsh opponents in 2016.
Cardiff Blues began the Pro12 season with four straight victories but have now slipped to three successive defeats.
The Welshmen have lost only one of their last six away games in all tournaments 24-46 at Ospreys in Round Six of the Pro12.
The last four meetings between the two sides have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst Blues have not been victorious at Stadio Monigo since March 2012.
Benetton Rugby Treviso: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Michael Tagicakibau, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi (captain), 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Ian McKinley, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Marco Barbini, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Marco Lazzaroni, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Filippo Gerosa, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Nicola Quaglio.
Replacements: 16 Ornel Gega, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Cherif Traore, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Luke McLean
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Rhun Williams; 10 Steve Shingler, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Macauley Cook, 7 Ellis Jenkins, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 George Earle, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Matthew Rees (captian), 1 Rhys Gill,
Replacements: 16 Kris Dacey, 17 Brad Thyer, 18 Dillon, Lewis, 19 James Down, 20 Seb Davies, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Jarrod Evans, 23 Dan Fish
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant referees: Dewi Phillips (Wales), Andrea Piardi (Italy)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
Saturday, November 5
Zebre Rugby v Leinster Rugby
(Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi - Kick-off: 17.05; 18.05 GMT)
Zebre Rugby opened their winning account this season with a 19-14 success over Edinburgh at Murrayfield last Friday, but have not recorded successive victories in the Championship since beating Benetton Rugby Treviso home and away over Christmas and New Year last season.
Leinster’s only defeat in the first seven rounds of the Pro12 was a 25-33 at Glasgow on September 10.
The Leinstermen have lost just once to an Italian opponent in the history of the Pro12 13-29 in Treviso in their very first such fixture in September 2010.
Leinster have won all eight previous encounters with Zebre, seven with a try bonus point, whilst not allowing Zebre to record a single league point.
Zebre Rugby: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Matteo Pratichetti, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Charles Reed, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Maxime Mbanda, 5 George Biagi, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Tommaso D'Apice, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Carlo Festuccia, 17 Bruno Postiglioni, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Derick Minnie, 21 William Palazzani, 22 Carlo Engelbrecht, 23 Simone Toys
Leinster Rugby: 15 Isa Nacewa, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Tom Daly, 12 Noel Reid, 11 Barry Daly, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Dan Leavy, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Dominic Ryan, 23 Hugo Keenan
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 140th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees (WRU), Filippo Bertelli (FIR)
Scarlets v Glasgow Warriors
(Parc Y Scarlets - Kick-off: 19.35; 21.35 GMT)
Scarlets started off their Pro12 campaign with three straight defeats but have now tallied victories in the last four rounds to rise from 10th to 6th place in the table.
Scarlets have won their last three fixtures in all competitions at Parc y Scarlets but have not won four in a row at the venue since the start of last season.
Glasgow Warriors have won their last three matches in the Pro12 since their 17-22 home reversal to Ulster on September 23.
The Scotsmen’s solitary defeat on the road in the Championship this season came on a visit to Cardiff Blues in Round three.
The two sides met on four occasions last season in all tournaments with Scarlets only success being 16-10 at Scotstoun in the opening round of Pro12 play.
The Scotsmen have won on three of their last four visits to Llanelli.
Scarlets: 15 Aled Thomas, 14 DTH van der Merwe, 13 Steff Hughes, 12 Hadleigh Parkes (captain), 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Jonathan Evans, 8 John Barclay, 7 Will Boyde, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Tom Price, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 Wyn Jones
Replacements: 16 Emyr Phillips, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Peter Edwards, 19 Lewis Rawlins, 20 James Davies, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Gareth Owen
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 Lee Jones, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Rory Hughes, 10 Peter Horne, 9 Ali Price,8 Lewis Wynne, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Brian Alainu’uese, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Sila Puafisi, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Djustice Sears-Duru
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 D’arcy Rae, 19 Matt Fagerson, 20 Langilangi Haupeakui, 21 Grayson Hart, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Nick Grigg
Referee: Gary Conway (Ireland)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Neil Jones (Wales)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)