PREVIEW: Pro12, Round 16
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: After Round 15 produced plenty of drama and entertainment with 39 tries scored, the action in the Pro12 continues this weekend with games taking place across all four participating countries.
Only seven rounds remain before the semifinals in May and this weekend will provide the main challengers the opportunity to stay on track for the Pro12 Final on May 27 in Dublin.
Friday kicks off with a critical away trip for Scarlets who visit Munster at Thomond Park. The province have cemented their place at the top of the Championship table after their last-gasp victory over Ospreys Rugby in Round 15 and are unbeaten at Thomond Park in the Pro12 this season.
Scarlets lie in fourth place, 10 points shy of Munster, and will need a win in order to ward off the growing threat from a resurgent Ulster.
Second-place Leinster travel to Rodney Parade to take on Newport-Gwent Dragons where the hosts will offer up stiff opposition based on their strong second-half showing against Connacht in Round 15. In the last four games between these teams the home side has finished with victory, but Dragons will need to shut down a Leinster team who have scored the most tries in the Pro12.
On Sunday, Ulster and Connacht travel to Italy to take on Zebre and Benetton Rugby Treviso, respectively. Ulster will be incentivised by their ambitions to mount a late surge and finish in the top four while Connacht know that a win in Treviso keeps them in contention to qualify for the Champions Cup or secure a play-off berth.
Swansea's Liberty Stadium will be the focus of attention for the second weekend in a row as the four-time champions take on the title winners from 2015 – Glasgow Warriors.
Gregor Townsend's team have lost their last two games in the Championship, but boast a record of five wins from their last eight trips to Wales and they are in real need of a win against Ospreys to stay in the hunt for a top-four finish.
However, Ospreys' defeat to Munster last weekend was only their first at Liberty Stadium in the Pro12 and the European Challenge Cup this season.
We take a look at all the Round 16 action!
Friday, February 24:
Edinburgh v Cardiff Blues
(Myreside - Kick-off: 19.05; 19.05 GMT)
Edinburgh have slipped to three straight defeats in the Pro12, whilst their only victory in the last seven rounds was against Zebre in Parma on New Year's Eve.
Edinburgh's overall record at Myreside in the Pro12 is won two, lost three, with their most recent victory at the venue being against Ospreys two years ago.
Cardiff Blues ended a three game losing run in the ProO12 with their 57-20 victory over Benetton Treviso on Saturday.
The Blues two most recent away victories in the Championship have both been on trips to Italy this season.
Cardiff Blues have lost just one of their last eight fixtures with Edinburgh: 13-28 at Murrayfield in November 2014. The Blues have never played at Myreside before.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Damien Hoyland, 13 Glenn Bryce, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Rory Scholes, 10 Jason Tovey, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Cornell Du Preez, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Ben Toolis, 4 Fraser McKenzie, 3 Murray McCallum, 2 Neil Cochrane (captain), 1 Jack Cosgrove.
Replacements: 16 George Turner, 17 Derrick Appiah, 18 Kevin Bryce, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Lewis Carmichael, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Junior Rasolea, 23 Michael Allen.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Willis Halaholo, 12 Steve Shingler, 11 Tom James, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Josh Sion Bennett, 6 Macauley Cook, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 George Earle, 3 Anton Peikrishvili, 2 Kristian Dacey, 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Corey Domachowski, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 James Down, 20 Kirby Myhill, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Garyn Smith, 23 Aled Summerhill.
Referee: David Wilkinson (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Mark Patton (Scotland), Cammy Rudkin (Scotland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
Munster v Scarlets
(Thomond Park - Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Munster have won their last eight matches in all competitions whilst in the Pro12 they have lost just once since Round Two: at Leinster in October.
Scarlets have been defeated only once in the Pro12 since mid-September: 9-19 to Ospreys at Liberty Stadium on December 27.
The Welsh Region have won away from home against an Irish province just once since November 2013, and that by a single point at Ulster a year ago.
Munster's only defeat in their last five encounters with Scarlets was 22-25 in Llanelli in Round Five last year, whilst the Scarlets only previous victory at Thomond Park since they became a region was in September 2003.
Munster: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Dan Goggin, 11 Ronan O'Mahony, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal (captain), 9 Duncan Williams, 8 Conor Oliver, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Dave O'Callaghan, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Dave Foley, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O'Byrne, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Brian Scott, 19 Darren O'Shea, 20 Fineen Wycherley, 21 Abrie Griesel, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Andrew Conway.
Scarlets: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 DTH van der Merwe, 13 Steff Hughes, 12 Hadleigh Parkes (captain), 11 Tom Williams, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Jonathan Evans, 8 Will Boyde, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Tom Price, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Dafydd Hughes, 17 Luke Garrett, 18 Nicky Thomas, 19 Rynier Bernardo, 20 Morgan Allen, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Aled Thomas, 23 Ioan Nicholas.
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)
Assistant Referees: (Wales), Jonny Erskine (Ireland)
TMO: Charles Samson (Scotland)
Newport Gwent Dragons v Leinster
(Rodney Parade - Kick-off: 19.30; 19.30 GMT)
Newport Gwent Dragons have won just once in the last six rounds of the Pro12: 26-8 at home to Benetton Treviso on January 6.
Dragons only defeat at Rodney Parade in the Pro12 since September came when Ospreys were the visitors on January 1.
Leinster are the top try scoring team in the Pro12 with 61 and have lost just once in any competition since November: 17-29 at Munster in the Pro12 on December 26.
The Leinstermen have won on three of their last five visits to Wales.
The last four meetings between the two teams have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst the Leinstermen are going for a first season's double over Dragons since 2013/14.
Dragons: 15 Carl Meyer, 14 Adam Hughes, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Pat Howard, 10 Dorian Jones, 9 Tavis Knoyle, 8 Lewis Evans (captain), 7 Nic Cudd, 6 Ollie Griffiths, 5 Rynard Landman, 4 Nick Crosswell, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Sam Hobbs.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Buckley, 17 Thomas Davies, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Matthew Screech, 20 Harrison Keddie, 21 Sarel Pretorius, 22 Angus O’Brien, 23 Adam Warren.
Leinster: 15 Joey Carbery, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Zane Kirchner, 12 Noel Reid, 11 Fergus McFadden, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Peadar Timmins, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Peter Dooley.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Cathal Marsh, 23 Barry Daly.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Claudio Blessano (Italy), Craig Evans
TMO: Stefano Pennè (Italy)
Sunday, February 26:
Benetton Treviso v Connacht
(Stadio Monigo - Kick-off: 13.30; 12.30 GMT)
Benetton Treviso's most recent victory was 23-12 at home to Zebre on December 23. Their only other victory at Stadio Monigo in the Pro12 this season was against Newport Gwent Dragons in Round Four.
Connacht have won their last two Pro12 encounters but have not won three in a row in the regular season since March.
The Irishmen won their most recent away game in the Championship at Cardiff Blues in Round 14 – their first away win for 11 months.
Connacht have lost only one of their last six fixtures with Treviso: 21-22 at Stadio Monigo in Round 21 of the Pro12 last season.
Benetton Treviso: 15 Luca Sperandio, 14 Michael Tagicakibau, 13 Tommaso Iannone, 12 Alberto Sgarbi (captain), 11 Andrea Buondonno, 10 Ian McKinley, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Francesco Minto, 6 Marco Lazzaroni, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Teofilo Paulo, 3 Tiziano Pasquali, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Federico Zani
Replacements: 16 Roberto Santamaria, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Mark Irving, 19 Luca Nostran, 20 Filippo Ferrarini, 21 Enrico Francescato, 22 Andrea Pratichetti, 23 David Odiete
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Craig Ronaldson, 11 Danie Poolman, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 John Muldoon (captain), 7 Nepia Fox-Matamua, 6 Sean O’Brien, 5 James Cannon, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Shane Delahunt, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 JP Cooney, 18 John Andress, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Naulia Dawai, 21 John Cooney, 22 Tom Farrell, 23 Stacey Ili
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Davies (Wales), Guiseppe Vivarini (Italy)
Ospreys v Glasgow Warriors
(Liberty Stadium - Kick-off: 13.05; 13.05 GMT)
Ospreys 23-25 reversal to Munster at Liberty Stadium on Saturday was their first defeat in any tournament since November.
The Welshmen have not lost successive matches at the venue since October 2015.
Glasgow Warriors have slipped to successive defeats in the Pro12, at home to Scarlets and away at Ulster.
The Warriors have been victorious on five of their last eight visits to Wales in all competitions
Ospreys beat Glasgow 22-5 in Round Nine and have not achieved a Pro12 season's double over the Scotsmen since 2008/09.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Keelan Giles, 13 Ashley Beck, 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 Hanno Dirksen, 10 Luke Price, 9 Brendon Leonard (captain), 8 Dan Baker, 7 Olly Cracknell, 6 Tyler Ardron, 5 Rory Thornton 4 Lloyd Ashley, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Hugh Gustafson, 1 Paul James
Replacements: 16 Ifan Phillips, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 James King, 20 Sam Underhill, 21 Tom Habberfield, 22 Kieron Fonotia, 23 Dafydd Howells
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 Junior Bulumakau, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Peter Horne (captain), 11 Rory Hughes, 10 Brandon Thomson, 9 Grayson Hart, 8 Lewis Wynne, 7 Matt Smith, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Brian Alainu’uese, 3 Sila Puafisi, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Jamie Bhatti
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Alex Allan, 18 D’arcy Rae, 19 Tjiuee Uanivi, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 Nemia Kenatale, 22 Richie Vernon, 23 Ratu Tagive
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Stuart Gaffikin (Ireland), (Wales)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Zebre v Ulster
(Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi - Kick-off: 13.30; 13.30 GMT)
Zebre have not won since beating Edinburgh Rugby at Murrayfield in October, whilst their only home win in Parma since Christmas 2015 was over Newport Gwent Dragons in May.
Ulster have won their last two Pro12 fixtures, both at home to Scottish opponents, Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, whilst their only away victory since September came on a trip to Cardiff Blues in Round 10.
Zebre's only previous victory over the Ulstermen was 13-6 in Parma in September 2014 – the only occasion that Ulster have lost a game in Italy.
Zebre: 15 Dion Berryman, 14 Mattia Bellini, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Matteo Pratichetti, 11 Lloyd Greeff, 10 Serafin Bordoli, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Federico Ruzza, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Dennis Bergamin, 5 Valerio Bernabò (captain), 4 Gideon Koegelenberg, 3 Guillermo Roan, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Bruno Postiglioni
Replacements: 16 Sidney Tobias, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Bartholomeus Le Roux, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Davide Fragnito, 21 Carlo Engelbrecht, 22 Tommaso Castello, 23 Simone Balocchi
Ulster: 15 Jacob Stockdale, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Peter Nelson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Marcel Coetzee, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Clive Ross, 5 Alan O’Connor, 4 Robbie Diack, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Andrew Warwick
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Jared Payne, 23 David Busby
Referee: Sean Gallagher (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Eddie Hogan-O'Connell (Ireland)
TMO: Charles Samson (Scotland)