Preview: Pro14, Round 11
DERBY DANCES: The Pro14 will make a big impact with a full slate of derby fixtures across Italy, Ireland, Scotland and
Wales - which will all play out to the backdrop of the Christmas season.
After taking on Europe for the past two weeks there will be no let-up in intensity as precious Championship points and local bragging rights are up for grabs.
After 18 players from the Championship won their first international caps in November, everyone who takes to the pitch will be eager to catch the eye of their national coaches as the Derbies come thick and fast across Christmas and New Year.
For their teams every match point is vital as clubs across the Championship keep their ambitions set on reaching the Pro14 Final in Dublin on May 26.
What's at Stake
The action kicks off in Treviso where Benetton take on Zebre in what should be one of the fiercest Italian Derbies in a long time. Both teams have shown great improvement this season claiming six wins and 31 points between them compared to last season's figure of two wins and 14 points after Round 10.
Benetton has shown renewed strength this season, but Zebre coach Michael Bradley has overseen the introduction of some exciting young Italian internationals which promises to add a cutting edge to this fixture.
Galway plays host to Connacht's clash with Ulster at the Sportsground with more than just pride on the line.
With the Cheetahs competing at the top of Conference A the South Africans' ineligibility for Europe means that Connacht are duelling with Cardiff Blues for that final automatic Champions Cup spot and they trail the Welsh region by one point. Ulster meanwhile needs to keep tabs on Scarlets and Leinster at the top of Conference B and will enter this game buoyed by their recent Champions Cup performances.
On Boxing Day, Dragons welcome Cardiff Blues to Rodney Parade where Bernard Jackman's team have produced their best performances this season. Cardiff Blues, however, need to keep clear of Connacht in terms of European qualification and with both teams keen to play fast rugby the improved conditions in Newport should set the scene for a cracking encounter.
Sitting second in their respective Conferences, Munster and Leinster meet in this St Stephen's Day duel knowing how crucial every point will be in as they aim to reel in pace-setters Glasgow and Scarlets. Munster have brought in extra seating to bring the capacity up to 26,267 for what is primed to be a sell-out occasion between Ireland's fiercest rivals.
With news of players swapping colours between these two neighbours from West Wales for next season Scarlets battle with Ospreys will have plenty of storylines to tuck into. Can Ospreys use their Champions Cup exploits to launch a resurgence in the Pro14 or will Scarlets' slick counter-attacking game prove too much for Steve Tandy's men? With some of the best Welsh international talent on show across both teams, this promises to provide plenty of festive fireworks.
Pick of the Round - Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors
In the Scottish capital, Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors mix it up in the first 1872 Cup game at Murrayfield with a terrific battle in store. The Warriors arrive looking to match Ulster's record of 11 straight wins to start a Championship season, but Edinburgh has begun to find their groove and physical edge under head coach Richard Cockerill which should bring about a contest full of flair and intensity.
Top Performers - Round 10
* Tackles made: 27 Ollie Griffiths (Dragons)
* Carries: 19 Tom Farrell (Connacht)
* Defenders beaten: 10 Tom Farrell (Connacht)
* Offloads: 5 Tom Farrell (Connacht)
* Breaks: 4 Craig Gilroy (Ulster) / Craig Barry (Cheetahs) / Dougie Fife (Edinburgh)
* Metres made: 170 Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh)
* Turnovers won: 3 Stephan Coetzee (Southern Kings)
* line-out steals: 2 Carl Wegner (Toyota Cheetahs)
We look at all the Round 11 action!
Saturday, December 23
BENETTON v ZEBRE
(Stadio Monigo, Treviso - Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 GMT)
Benetton has lost their last four Pro14 encounters since beating Southern Kings 31-3 in Treviso in October.
Benetton has lost their last four matches at Stadio Monigo in all competitions.
Zebre Rugby's 24-10 victory at home to Connacht in round 10 of the Pro14 ended a four-game losing run in the Championship.
Zebre's only away win this season was 43-17 against Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth in September.
Benetton won both encounters against Zebre in the 2016/17 campaign to reverse the trend of the previous season.
Zebre has made five previous trips to Stadio Monigo with their only victory at the stadium being 18-8 on 3 January 2016.
Benetton: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Ignacio Brex, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Whetu Douglas, 5 Dean Budd (captain), 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Tiziano Pasquali, 2 Tomas Baravalle, 1 Nicola Quaglio.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Cherif Traore, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Marco Barbini, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti.
Zebre: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Mattia Bellini, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Tommaso Castello (c), 11 Giulio Bisegni, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Renato Giammarioli, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Maxime Mbandà, 5 George Biagi, 4 David Sisi, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Roberto Tenga, 19 Jacopo Sarto, 20 Derick Minnie, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Serafin Bordoli, 23 Ciaran Gaffney.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant referees: Manuel Bottino, Andrea Piardi (Italy)
TMO: Alan Falzone (Italy)
EDINBURGH v GLASGOW WARRIORS
(Murrayfield, Edinburgh - 17.10; 17.10 GMT)
Edinburgh Rugby's solitary defeat in their last nine matches in all competitions was 13-33 to Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on 24 November.
Edinburgh's only home defeat since April was 17-20 to Benetton at Myreside in round 3 of the Pro14, whilst their last two victories at Murrayfield were both by big margins in the European Challenge Cup in December: 50-20 vs London Irish and 78-0 vs Krasny Yar.
Glasgow Warriors have won all ten matches they have played in the Pro14 this season, and another victory would tie Ulster's record for the best start to a campaign set in 2012/13.
Glasgow's most recent defeat in the Championship was to Edinburgh at Scotstoun in round 22 last season.
The two sides meet for the 160th time in the “1872 Cup” where the overall tally is 78 wins to Edinburgh, 59 to Glasgow and 22 games drawn.
Edinburgh has lost just one of their last five encounters with Warriors: 12-25 at Murrayfield on Boxing Day 2016.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 James Johnstone, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Cornell du Preez, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Viliame Mata, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally (captain), 1 Rory Sutherland.
Replacements: 16 Neil Cochrane, 17 Murray McCallum, 18 Matt Shields, 19 Fraser McKenzie, 20 Jamie Ritchie, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Chris Dean, 23 Darcy Graham.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Lee Jones, 10 Peter Horne, 9 Ali Price, 8 Samu Vunisa, 7 Matt Smith, 6 Robert Harley, 5 Jonny Gray (captain), 4 Scott Cummings, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Jamie Bhatti.
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Kiran McDonald, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Finn Russell, 23 Niko Matawalu.
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
TMO: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
CONNACHT v ULSTER
(Sportsground, Galway - Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Connacht has lost their last two Pro14 matches, both away from home, at Cardiff Blues and at Zebre, but gained maximum league points from their back-to-back European Challenge Cup encounters against Top-14 opponents Brive over the last two weekends.
Connacht has won their last four matches at the Sportsground in all tournaments since Cardiff Blues beat them there in the PRO14 on 23 September.
Ulster is unbeaten in their last five matches in all tournaments since their 10-25 reversal at home to Leinster in round 7 of the Pro14.
The Ulstermen have not been defeated away from home since their trip to La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup on 22 October.
Connacht has won just one of their last eleven meetings against Ulster: 30-25 in Galway on 7 October 2016.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeleokun, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Tom Farrell, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 John Muldoon (captain), 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Eoghan Masterson, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Shane Delahunt, 1 Denis Coulson.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Conor Carey, 19 James Cannon, 20 Naulia Dawai, 21 James Mitchell, 22 Eoin Griffin, 23 Darragh Leader.
Ulster: 15 Jacob Stockdale, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Darren Cave, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Peter Nelson, 9 John Cooney, 8 Nick Timoney, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Iain Henderson (captain), 5 Robbie Diack, 4 Matthew Dalton, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 John Andrew, 1 Andy Warwick.
Replacements: 16 Adam McBurney, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Matthew Rea, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Johnny McPhillips, 23 Rob Lyttle.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Joy Neville, Kieran Barry (Ireland)
TMO: Leo Colgan (Ireland)
Tuesday, December 26
DRAGONS v CARDIFF BLUES
(Rodney Parade, Newport - Kick-off: 14.00; 14.00 GMT)
Dragons are without a win in their last five Pro14 matches, but they did draw 32-all with Ulster at Rodney Parade in their most recent encounter.
Dragons narrow defeat at home to Newcastle Falcons in the European Challenge Cup last weekend was their first loss at Rodney Parade in any competition since Leinster beat them there on the opening weekend of the new season.
Dragons have not beaten a fellow Welsh region in the PRO14 since they made the short trip to the Arms Park on Boxing Day 2014 and beat Cardiff Blues 23-17.
Cardiff Blues have lost their last four away games in all tournaments since they beat Toulouse 17-15 in the south of France in round 2 of the European Challenge Cup, whilst their only victory on the road this season in the Pro14 was by the same scoreline at Connacht in round 4.
The Blues have won their last five matches against the Dragons in all competitions since Dragons 25-21 win at Rodney Parade in the quarter-final of the European Challenge Cup in 2015.
Newport Gwent Dragons: 15 Hallam Amos, 14 Ashton Hewitt, 13 Adam Warren, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Pat Howard, 10 Gavin Henson, 9 Dan Babos, 8 James Sheekey, 7 James Benjamin, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Cory Hill (captain), 4 Joe Davies, 3 Lloyd Fairbrother, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Sam Hobbs.
Replacements: 16 Liam Belcher, 17 Thomas Davies, 18 Nicky Thomas, 19 Rynard Landman, 20 Ben Roach, 21 Sarel Pretorius, 22 Angus O’Brien, 23 Jared Rosser.
Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Owen Lane, 13 Garyn Smith, 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Aled Summerhill, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Olly Robinson, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Macauley Cook, 4 Seb Davies, 3 Anton Peikrishvili, 2 Matthew Rees (captain), 1 Brad Thyer.
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Keiron Assiratti, 19 Damian Welch, 20 Josh Turnbull, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Jarrod Evans, 23 Tom James.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Dan Jones, Adam Jones (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
MUNSTER v LEINSTER
(Thomond Park, Limerick - Kick-off: 15.15; 15.15 GMT)
Munster have won their last five matches in all competitions since Connacht beat them in Galway in round 7 of the Pro14.
The Munstermen have won their last twelve home games (at their two home venues) in all tournaments since Scarlets 30-21 win at Thomond Park in the PRO14 February.
Munster have lost both matches they have played against fellow Irish provinces this season.
Leinster's only defeat in their last ten matches in all competitions was 21-31 at Glasgow in round 8 of the Pro14.
The Leinstermen have lost only once to a fellow Irish province in the last twelve months: 13-17 against Ulster in Belfast in round 22 last season.
Munster's 29-17 victory at Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day last season is their only victory over Leinster since 26 December 2014.
The two rivals have played each other on 153 occasions since they first locked horns in 1876: the overall tally is now 94 wins to Leinster, 48 to Munster and 11 games drawn.
Munster: 15 Andrew Conway, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Sammy Arnold, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 James Cronin, 18 John Ryan, 19 Darren O’Shea, 20 Jack O’Donoghue, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Simon Zebo.
Leinster: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Barry Daly, 13 Rory O’Loughlin, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Jordi Murphy, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Michael Bent, 2 James Tracy, 1 Jack McGrath (captain).
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Cathal Marsh, 23 Noel Reid.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher, Stuart Gaffikin (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
SCARLETS v OSPREYS
(Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli - Kick-off: 17.35; 17.35 GMT)
Scarlets 21-28 defeat against Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in round 10 ended their six-game winning run in the Pro14 this season.
Scarlets have won their last fifteen matches at Parc y Scarlets in the PRO14 since Munster beat them there on the opening weekend of last season - only Cardiff Blues have a better home winning run by a Welsh region in the history of the Championship (seventeen wins 2006-2007).
Ospreys won both matches against Northampton with maximum points in the European Champions Cup but in the Pro14 their only victory since round 1 was 28-14 at home to Dragons on 27 October.
Ospreys have not won away from home in the Championship since a trip to Edinburgh in early March.
Scarlets have won their last two matches against Ospreys including one by the narrowest of margins at Liberty Stadium in round 6 this season.
Ospreys most recent victory at Parc y Scarlets was 27-26 on Boxing Day 2015.
Scarlets: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Ken Owens (captain), 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Simon Gardiner, 19 Steven Cummins, 20 Josh Macleod, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Rhys Patchell, 23 Paul Asquith.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Ben John, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Jeff Hassler, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Tom Habberfield, 8 Olly Cracknell, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten, 17 Paul James, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Rob McCusker, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Ashley Beck.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse, Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Tim Hayes (Wales)