PREVIEW: Pro12, Round 17
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: It's all change at the top of the Pro12 Championship table after Round 16 with Leinster now in first place after Munster Rugby's surprise defeat at home to Scarlets at Thomond Park.
Ospreys are now in second place as the gap at the between the top four teams has shrunk to eight points as the race to reach the Pro12 Final on May 27 in Dublin intensifies.
With the final half dozen rounds approaching teams across the Pro12 are now sizing up their potential finishing positions where rewards such as home semifinals, Champions Cup berths and European play-off spots provide plenty of motivation.
Current champions Connacht entertain Zebre in Galway and with Pat Lam's men on a run of three wins from three, another victory would keep alive their outside chances of earning an automatic place in the Champions Cup.
Edinburgh will look to turn their form around when Ospreys visit the Scottish capital where they have left with just one win in their last nine visits.
Edinburgh will be desperate to deliver a home win for the black and red faithful at Myreside, but with Ospreys currently in possession of second place, there will be no let up from Steve Tandy's team.
In Belfast, Ulster host Benetton Treviso where they will look to set a record by securing a fourth bonus-point win in a row, meanwhile Newport-Gwent Dragons travel north to face Glasgow Warriors seeking a win in Scotstoun which they have not managed since 2013. Meanwhile, Munster will be out to recover lost ground when they visit Cardiff to take on the Blues. However, Danny Wilson's men have won their last two fixtures against the Irish province and will be keen to back-up last week's vital win against Edinburgh.
Leinster's RDS Arena home will play host to a pivotal fixture where Leo Cullen's men not only aim to cement their place at the top of the table, but they will look to extend their winning run at home to 22 games (excluding fixtures at Aviva Stadium).
Scarlets will be no easy opposition now that they have closed the gap on the leading teams after their win over Munster while the men from west Wales will also be buoyed by their recent run of form over Irish teams having won their last four games against the provinces.
Leinster's threat comes from their scoring power and after scoring eight tries against Dragons they are the Championship's leading scorers with 69 tries and 506 points scored. Both teams will hope to be bolstered by the return of personnel from the Irish and Welsh camps with the Six Nations on a break week and this is a result that have ramifications on the ambitions of both teams.
We take a look ahead to all the Round 17 action!
Friday, March 3:
Connacht v Zebre
(Sportsground - Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT; 18.35 CET)
Connacht have won their last three matches since their 10-19 reversal in Toulouse in Round Six of the European Champions Cup.
Connacht's only loss in their last nine matches at the Sportsground in all tournaments was to Munster in the Pro12 on December 31.
Zebre have not won since beating Edinburgh at Murrayfield in the Pro12 at the end of October.
The Italians' only previous victory over an Irish province was when they beat Ulster in Parma in September 2014.
The two sides have met on 14 previous occasions in all tournaments (not including the abandoned the Pro12 Round Three game), with Connacht winning them all.
The only Italian side to have beaten Connacht in Galway was Treviso in December 2011.
Connacht: 15 Danie Poolman, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Tom Farrell, 11 Stacey Ili, 10 Steve Crosbie, 9 John Cooney, 8 Eoghan Masterson, 7 Naulia Dawai, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 Andrew Browne, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 2 Tom McCartney (captain), 1 Ronan Loughney.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 John Muldoon, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Tiernan O'Halloran.
Zebre: 15 Dion Berryman, 14 Mattia Bellini, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Lloyd Greeff, 10 Serafin Bordoli, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Federico Ruzza, 7 Gideon Koegelenberg, 6 Matteo Cornelli, 5 Valerio Bernabò (captain), 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Bruno Postiglioni.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Bartholomeus Le Roux, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Matteo Archetti, 21 Carlo Engelbrecht, 22 Matteo Pratichetti, 23 Guillermo Roan.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Rhys Thomas (Wales), Ken Imbusch (Ireland)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
Edinburgh v Ospreys
(Myreside - Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Edinburgh have slipped to four straight defeats in the Pro12 since beating Zebre in Parma on New Year’s Eve.
Edinburgh's only victory in their last six encounters with Welsh regions was 20-9 over Scarlets at Murrayfield in Round Two of the Pro12.
Ospreys only defeat in their last fifteen first team encounters was 23-25 to Munster at Liberty Stadium in the Pro12 on February 18.
Ospreys most recent defeat on the road came on a trip to Munster in early November.
Ospreys have won their last two matches against Edinburgh but both fixtures were played at Liberty Stadium.
Edinburgh's only loss at home to Ospreys in their last nine matches was by a single point at Murrayfield in February 2012.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Damien Hoyland, 13 Glenn Bryce, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Rory Scholes, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Cornell Du Preez, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Ben Toolis, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Murray McCallum, 2 Neil Cochrane (captain), 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Derrick Appiah, 18 Kevin Bryce, 19 Anton Bresler, 20 Lewis Carmichael, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Junior Rasolea, 23 Michael Allen.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Keelan Giles, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Josh Mataves, 11 Dafydd Howells, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Tom Habberfield (captain), 8 James King, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Rory Thornton, 4 Tyler Ardron, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Gustafson, 17 Paul James, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Joe Bearman, 20 Dan Baker, 21 Brendon Leonard, 22 Jonathan Spratt, 23 Jay Baker.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Bob Nevins (Scotland)
TMO: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
Ulster v Treviso
(Kingspan Stadium - Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT; 19.35 CET)
Ulster have won their last three matches in the Pro12 with maximum points since going down to Scarlets in Llanelli in Round 13. They have never achieved four bonus point victories in a row in the Championship.
Ulster have lost just once at home in the Pro12 in the past twelve months: 14-15 to Munster in October.
Benetton Treviso have not won since beating Zebre on 23 December.
Treviso's two most recent victories over an Irish province have both been against Connacht, in 2013 and 2016.
The two sides have met on 19 previous occasions in all tournaments with Ulster's only defeat being 12-23 in Belfast in the Pro12 in October 2011.
Ulster: 15 Craig Gilroy, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Peter Nelson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Roger Wilson, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Kieran Treadwell, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring (captain), 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Pete Browne, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Luke Marshall, 23 Jacob Stockdale.
Treviso: 15 Luca Sperandio, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Tommaso Iannone, 12 Michael Tagicakibau, 11 Andrea Buondonno, 10 Ian McKinley, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Francesco Minto, 6 Marco Lazzaroni, 5 Dean Budd (captain), 4 Teofilo Paulo, 3 Tiziano Pasquali, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Federico Zani.
Replacements: 16 Roberto Santamaria, 17 Romulo Acosta, 18 Matteo Zanusso, 19 Filippo Gerosa, 20 Guglielmo Zanini, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Alberto Sgarbi, 23 Andrea Pratichetti.
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees (Wales), Helen O’Reilly (Ireland)
TMO: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Saturday, March 4:
Cardiff Blues v Munster
(Cardiff Arms Park - 17.15; 17.15 GMT)
Cardiff Blues have won their last two matches in the Pro12, against Benetton Treviso and Edinburgh, but have not won three in a row since September.
The Blues have been victorious at home just twice since Round Three of the Pro12, against Newport Gwent Dragons in Round 11 and Treviso in Round 15.
Munster's nine game winning streak in the Pro12 ended at home to Scarlets on Friday.
The Munstermen have not lost away from home in the Championship since Leinster beat them at Aviva Stadium on October 8.
The Blues have won their last two fixtures against Munster and have only once before achieved a Pro12 season's double over the Irishmen – in 2007/08.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Aled Summerhill, 13 Willis Halaholo, 12 Steven Shingler, 11 Tom James, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Lloyd Williams (captain), 8 Nick Williams, 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Macauley Cook, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 George Earle, 3 Anton Peikrishvili, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Corey Domachowski.
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Marc Thomas, 18 Taufa’ao Filise, 19 James Down, 20 Sion Bennett, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Garyn Smith, 23 Rhun Williams.
Munster: 15 Andrew Conway, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Jaco Taute, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Ronan O’Mahony, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 Robin Copeland, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 5 Billy Holland (captain), 4 Darren O’Shea, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Brian Scott, 19 Fineen Wycherley, 20 Conor Oliver, 21 Abrie Griesel, 22 Dan Goggin, 23 Francis Saili.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Emmanuele Tomò, Jon Hardy
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)
Glasgow Warriors v Newport Gwent Dragons
(Scotstoun Stadium - 15.00; 15.00 GMT)
Glasgow Warriors have slipped to three straight defeats in the Pro12 since beating Cardiff Blues at Scotstoun on January 7.
The Warriors have played seven games against Welsh regions in the Pro12 this season and won just twice.
Newport Gwent Dragons' only victory in the last seven rounds of the Pro12 was when Treviso visited Rodney Parade on January 6.
Dragons have not won away from home in the Championship since a visit to Treviso in March 2015.
The Warriors have won their last five matches against the Dragons since the Welshmen's 24-23 success in
Newport in February 2014.
Dragons have not been victorious at Scotstoun since November 2013.
Glasgow: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 Lee Jones, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Nick Grigg, 11 Rory Hughes, 10 Peter Horne, 9 Henry Pyrgos (captain), 8 Richie Vernon, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Brian Alainu’uese, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 D’arcy Rae, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Alex Allan.
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Sila Pufasi, 19 Scott Cummings, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 Nemia Kenatale, 22 Brandon Thomson, 23 Ratu Tagive.
Dragons: 15 Tom Prydie, 14 Pat Howard, Adam Warren, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Sam Beard, 11 Adam Warren, 10 Angus O’Brien, 9 Sarel Pretorius; 8 Lewis Evans (captain) 7 Nic Cudd, 6 Ollie Griffiths, 5 Rynard Landman, 4 James Thomas, 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 Charlie Davies, 22 Dorian Jones, 23 Will Talbot-Davies.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Dunx McClement (Scotland)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
Leinster v Scarlets
(RDS Arena - Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Leinster's run of four successive maximum point victories in the Pro12 has taken them to the top of the table for the first time since November.
The Leinstermen have won their last 21 home games in the Pro12 since drawing 34-all with Glasgow Warriors at the RDS Arena on March 27, 2015, whilst their most recent home defeat in the Championship was to Newport Gwent Dragons at the RDS in February 2015.
Scarlets have won their last five Pro12 matches, whilst their only defeat in the last 13 rounds was 9-19 at Ospreys on December 27.
Scarlets have won their last four encounters with Irish provinces, their best such run for over a decade.
The last six encounters between the two sides have all gone in favour of the home team.
Scarlets only previous victory over Leinster in Dublin was 52-23 at the RDS Arena in October 2007.
Leinster: 15 Joey Carbery, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Zane Kirchner, 12 Noel Reid, 11 Fergus McFadden, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Richardt Strauss (captain), 1 Peter Dooley.
Replacements: 16 Bryan Byrne, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Mike McCarthy, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Tom Daly, 23 Barry Daly.
Scarlets: 15 Johnny Mcnicholl, 14 Tom Williams, 13 Steff Hughes, 12 Hadleigh Parkes (captain), 11 DTH van der Merwe, 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 Declan Smith, 22 Aled Thomas, 23 Ioan Nicholas.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Sean Brickell (Wales), Jonathan Peak (Ireland)
TMO: Tim Hayes (Wales)