Preview: Pro14, Round Seven
BACK FROM EURO ACTION: Derby fixtures and intriguing battles in Italy are all on the cards for the Pro14 this weekend.
Once the final whistle is blown on Round 7 a third of the Championship season will be in the books and already Conference A leaders Glasgow Warriors are looking like the front-runners in the race to reach the Pro14 play-offs.
It's seriously tight in Conference B with just two points between top side Scarlets and the chasing duo of Ulster and Leinster.
After the announcement that a Play-Off game will take place between the two fourth-placed teams to earn the seventh place in the Champions Cup (South African teams are ineligible) there are a whole host of clubs who will be keen to keep in touch with the Conference leaders.
It's been an entertaining campaign so far and bonus points are up across the board with 40 scored after six rounds compared to 29 at this point last season. The average number of tries has risen to 5.5 per game ensuring that fans all across the Pro14 are getting plenty of entertainment.
What's at Stake?
Sell-out crowds are the theme at Scotstoun this season where Glasgow Warriors have filled their home ground for all of the Pro14 fixtures this season and they will hope to have a full house this Friday for the visit of the Southern Kings. The Kings have drafted in some new recruits in Mzamo Majola (prop) and Martin Du Toit (flyhalf) ahead of this game which will be their last in Europe until January.
Warriors have won six from six so far in the Pro14 and a good result here will put them in good stead to face Leinster in Round Eight.
In Wales, Ospreys and Dragons will meet in Liberty Stadium with both teams looking to turn performances into results and there are likely to be some keen contests between players looking to gain national selection for the November Tests. Across on the Atlantic coast, Connacht face Munster and they will be keen to recapture their menace of their 2015/16 season where they won the title.
The past four fixtures between the sides have been split evenly and this tribal encounter carries even more weight with both teams residing in Conference A.
On Saturday, Scarlets welcome Cardiff Blues to Llanelli and the defending champions appear a fierce proposition having lost just once in the last 13 Championship games. Blues will be on a high after their win over Toulouse in the Challenge Cup, but a win at Parc Y Scarlets would breathe new life into their Pro14 campaign.
Benetton go up against Edinburgh, who arrive having lost on two of their last three trips to Italy while their hosts won in Myreside when the teams met in Round 3. Benetton, who came close to beating Toulon in the Champions Cup last weekend, have won three out of four in the Pro14 and are level with Edinburgh in Conference B which makes this a vital fixture for both teams.
The other Italian game of the weekend sees Zebre face the Toyota Cheetahs in Parma and having served up a total of 93 points in their Round 3 fixture, expect plenty of fireworks in this return leg between the Conference A rivals.
Pick of the Round Ulster v Leinster
Split by just Points Difference in Conference B, these Irish rivals clash in a game that could prove pivotal in the hunt for a home knock-out berth. Each team has lost only once in the Pro14 this season and boast similar records in attack and defence. Ulster will thrive off a capacity crowd in Kingspan Stadium where they will be buoyed by the current sequence of results between the sides which has seen the hosts win each of the last eight games.
Opta Top Performers - Round Six
* Tackles made: 19 Tommy O'Donnell (Munster)
* Carries: 18 Jarrod Evans (Cardiff Blues)
* Defenders beaten: Six Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors)
* Offloads: Five Giovanni Licata (Zebre)
* Breaks: Four Tom James (Cardiff Blues)
* Metres made: 134 Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
* Turnovers won: Three Marco Fuser (Benetton)
* line-out steals: Two Quinn Roux (Connacht)
We look at all the Round Seven action!
Friday, October 27
CONNACHT v MUNSTER
(Sportsground, Galway - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Connacht have won both of their matches in the European Challenge Cup this season, but in the Pro14 their only victory was 32-10 at home to Southern Kings in Round Two.
Connacht have lost their last six encounters with their fellow Irish provinces since beating Ulster in Galway last October.
Munster are unbeaten after the first two rounds of European Champions Cup play however in the Pro14 they have lost two of their last three encounters.
The Munstermen's most recent away victory in any tournament was 21-16 at Ospreys on 16 September.
Munster's only previous fixture with an Irish province this season was a 17-23 reversal to Leinster at Aviva Stadium in Round Six.
Munster achieved the season's double over Connacht last year reversing the trend of the 2015/16 campaign - the last six meetings between the two provinces have been evenly split with three wins apiece.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Darragh Leader, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Tom Farrell, 11 Cian Kelleher, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 John Muldoon (captain), 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 James Cannon, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Denis Coulson, 18 Conor Carey, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Niyi Adeolokun.
Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Mark Flanagan, 3 John Ryan, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 Liam O’Connor, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Sean McCarthy, 20 Jack O’Donoghue, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Darren Sweetnam.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson, Frank Murphy (both Ireland)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
GLASGOW WARRIORS v SOUTHERN KINGS
(Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow - Kick-off: 19.35; 20.35 SA time; 18.35 GMT)
Glasgow Warriors have dropped only two possible league points in the Pro14 this season, failing to secure a try bonus point on their trips to Connacht in Round One and Cardiff in Round Three.
The Scotsmen's only defeat in their last seven Pro14 encounters at Scotstoun was 18-29 to Edinburgh in Round 22 last season.
Southern Kings are still winless after six rounds of the Pro14 with their most recent victory being by a single point against Cheetahs at Port Elizabeth in Super in July.
The two sides have not met before but Warriors did beat the other South African team, Cheetahs, 29-26 in Bloemfontein in Round Six.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Lee Jones, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Niko Matawalu, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 George Horne, 8 Matt Fagerson, 7 Matt Smith, 6 Robert Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Scott Cummings, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Alex Allan.
Replacements: 16 George Turner, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Adam Nicol, 19 Greg Peterson, 20 Lewis Wynne, 21 Ruaridh Jackson, 22 Stafford McDowall, 23 Lelia Masaga.
Southern Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Luzuko Vulindlu, 11 Alshaun Bock, 10 Martin Du Toit, 9 Rudi van Rooyen, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Jurie van Vuuren, 6 Andisa Ntsila, 5 Bobby de Wee, 4 Stephan Greeff, 3 Rossouw De Klerk, 2 Michael Willemse (captain), 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Tango Balekile, 17 Mzamo Majola, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 20 Khaya Majola, 21 Rowan Gouws, 22 Oliver Zono, 23 Jacques Nel.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Lloyd Linton, Sam Grove-White (both Scotland)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
OSPREYS v DRAGONS
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Ospreys's only victory in their last ten matches in all tournaments was 22-13 at home to Zebre in Round One of the Pro14, although they did push European champions, Saracens, mighty close on their own ground last weekend.
Ospreys have lost their last three encounters with fellow Welsh Regions since they beat Dragons in Newport on New Year's Day.
Dragons beat Enisei in Moscow in the European Challenge Cup last weekend, their first win on the road since they beat Gloucester in the quarter-final of the same competition in April 2016.
Dragons two victories in the Pro14 this season have both been at home, over Connacht and Southern Kings, whilst they have not been victorious away from home in the Championship since a trip to Treviso in March 2015.
Dragons have beaten a fellow Welsh region in the Championship only once since December 2013: 23-17 at Cardiff Blues on Boxing Day 2014.
Ospreys most recent defeat to Dragons in Pro14 was by a single point at Rodney Parade in January 2012 whilst Dragons only victory at Liberty Stadium was 21-16 in October 2010.
Ospreys: 15 Sam Davies, 14 Keelan Giles, 13 Ashley Beck, 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Dan Evans, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Tom Habberfield, 8 James King, 7 Sam Cross, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Rob McCusker, 21 Brendon Leonard, 22 James Hook, 23 Cory Allen.
Dragons: 15 Hallam Amos, 14 Ashton Hewitt, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Jared Rosser, 10 Gavin Henson, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Lewis Evans, 7 James Benjamin, 6 James Thomas, 5 Cory Hill (captain), 4 Joe Davies, 3 Leon Brown, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Brok Harris.
Replacements: 16 Gerard Ellis, 17 Thomas Davies, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Rynard Landman, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Charlie Davies, 22 Angus O’Brien, 23 Pat Howard.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales, 67th competition game)
Assistant referees: Adam Jones, Dewi Phillips (both Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
Saturday, October 28
BENETTON v EDINBURGH
(Stadio Monigo, Treviso - Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 UK time; 13.00 GMT)
Benetton came within a few seconds of beating French Top-14 powerhouse, Toulon, in the European Champions Cup at Stadio Monigo on Saturday, only succumbing to an 83rd minute penalty goal to lose by a single point.
Benetton's only defeat in the last four rounds of the Pro14 was 21-37 in Glasgow in Round Five.
Edinburgh have won their last three matches in all competitions but in the Pro14 have a won three lost three record so far this campaign.
The Scotsmen have lost on two of their last three visits to Italy.
Benetton have won their last two encounters with Edinburgh including a 20-17 victory at Myreside in Round Three.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Gwyn Morris (Wales), Claudio Blessano (Italy)
TMO: Sean Brickell (Wales)
ZEBRE v CHEETAHS
(Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma - Kick-off: 18.00; 18.00 SA time; 17.00 GMT)
Zebre's two victories in the Pro14 this season came on a trip to Southern Kings in Round Four and at home to Ulster in Round Five.
Zebre have won three of their last five Pro14 encounters at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
Cheetahs have a won three lost three record so far in their inaugural Pro14 campaign, but have lost both their away games, in Ireland to Ulster and Munster in Rounds One and Two.
Cheetahs won 54-39 when the two sides met in Bloemfontein in Round Three, their only previous encounter.
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)
Assistant referees: Andrea Piardi, Gianluca Gnecchi (both Italy)
TMO: Alan Falzone (Italy)
ULSTER v LEINSTER
(Kingspan Stadium, Belfast - Kick-off: 18.30; 17.30 GMT)
Ulster's only defeat in their last eight Pro14 matches was 23-27 to Zebre in Parma in Round Five.
The Ulstermen have not been defeated at Kingspan Stadium in the Championship since a 14-15 reversal to Munster exactly a year ago.
Leinster's only defeat in any competition this season was 19-38 to Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in Round Four of the Pro14.
The Leinstermen have beaten just two fellow Irish provinces in their own back yards since 2014: at Munster in December 2015 and at Connacht last April.
The last eight meetings between the two provinces have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst Leinster's most recent success in Belfast was 22-20 in May 2014.
Referee: Jon Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Craig Evans (Wales), Leo Colgan (Ireland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
SCARLETS v CARDIFF BLUES
(Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Scarlets only defeat in their last 13 Pro14 fixtures was 20-27 to Ulster in Belfast in Round Three.
Scarlets have won their last thirteen Championship matches at Parc y Scarlets since Munster beat them there on the opening weekend of last season, whilst the last Welsh region to lower Scarlets colours at the venue was Cardiff Blues in April 2016.
Cardiff Blues have won their last three matches in all competitions including back-to-back victories over Top-14 opponents in the European Challenge Cup, at home to Lyon and away in Toulouse.
The Blues have won only once away from home in the Pro14 this season: 17-15 over Connacht in Galway in Round Four.
Blues have won four of their last five encounters with fellow Welsh regions.
Scarlets achieved the season's double over Blues in 2016/17 for the first time since 2012/13.
Cardiff Blues only victory in their last eight visits to Parc y Scarlets in all tournaments was 28-22 in the Championship in April 2016.
Cardiff Blues: TBC
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rhys Thomas, Jon Hardy (both Wales)
TMO: Neil Hennessey (Wales)