PREVIEW: Pro14, Round 19
THE FINAL STRETCH: After a terrific round of European action that saw three Pro14 teams reach the Champions Cup semifinals, the focus returns to the Championship as 11 sides compete for Final Series and European Play-Off places.
Munster and Cardiff Blues travel to South Africa with so much still to be decided in Conference A and their fixtures with the Cheetahs will be crucial for all three sides. In Conference B, Edinburgh are looking to see off Ulster to earn their place in the Final Series and possibly leapfrog Scarlets in the process.
The final stretch of the season has never promised so much and all of these teams have their minds set on reaching the Pro14 Final at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on May 26.
What's at Stake
Ospreys go up against Connacht at Liberty Stadium where a win would give Ospreys a vital advantage in their battle with the Irish side to reach the Champions Cup play-off. Ospreys have a one-point lead over Connacht, but with a game in a hand a win here should prove pivotal to their Champions Cup hopes.
On Saturday Leinster face Zebre at the RDS Arena where a win will guarantee them a place in the Final Series and help in their bid to earn a home semifinal. The Italians come to Dublin searching for a fifth win of the season which would equal their best-ever return in the Championship.
There's a cracker in store in Bloemfontein with Cheetahs facing Cardiff Blues with just five points between them. A win would all but guarantee Cheetahs a place in the Final Series, but Danny Wilson's men are in terrific form and are liable to upset any team they face at the moment.
Fresh from their European heroics Scarlets need a win against Glasgow Warriors at Parc y Scarlets to keep the pressure on Leinster. This is a meeting between the 2015 and 2017 champions which could occur again in the Final Series as these two teams set their sights on lifting the trophy.
Benetton are just a point away from Ulster in the battle for the Champions Cup play-off place in Conference B and need a win here against Dragons. The game takes place in Treviso and a home victory would see Benetton equal their most-ever wins in a Championship season.
Southern Kings welcome Munster to the City of George where Outeniqua Park provides a stunning backdrop for the province's first visit to South Africa. Having beaten the Dragons and come close against Benetton, the Kings now face the ultimate test against one of European rugby's most storied outfits.
Pick of the Round: Edinburgh v Ulster
Edinburgh meet Ulster at Murrayfield where both teams' ambitions for this season and beyond are at stake. A win puts Edinburgh into the Pro14 Final Series for the first time and would show remarkable progress during Richard Cockerill's first year as head coach while adding to the feel-good factor in Scottish rugby.
Defeat for Ulster would ensure their only route into the next season’s Champions Cup can come via the play-off but with Benetton just a point behind them nothing can be assured.
Opta Top Performers – Round 18:
Most tackles: 20 Paul Schoeman (Cheetahs)/Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff Blues)
Most Carries: 19 Tom Farrell (Connacht)/Charles Piutau
Defenders Beaten: 8 Matthew Morgan (Cardiff Blues)/Jayden Hayward (Benetton)
Offloads: 6 Aaron Shingler (Scarlets)
Breaks: 4 Jayden Hayward (Benetton)
Metres made: 173 Clayton Blommetjies (Cheetahs)
Turnovers won: 3 Chris Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors)
Lineouts stolen: 2 Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors)
We take a look ahead to all the Round 19 matches!
Friday, April 6:
EDINBURGH v ULSTER
(Murrayfield, Edinburgh - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Edinburgh's only defeat in the last nine rounds of the Pro14 was 0-17 to Glasgow at Scotstoun on December 30. Edinburgh's only defeat to an Irish province this season was 13-21 to Leinster at the RDS Arena in Round Five. Ulster have slipped to three straight defeats in the Championship but have not lost four in a row in the Pro14 since 2011/12. The Ulstermen have not won away from home in any tournament since beating Harlequins at The Stoop in Round Three of the European Champions Cup. Ulster have won just once in their last six visits to Scotland: 22-17 at Glasgow in September 2016. The last six fixtures between the two teams have been evenly split with three wins apiece, whilst Ulster have not been victorious at Murrayfield since a 20-17 win in February 2015.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Bill Mata, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally (captain), 1 Jordan Lay.
Replacements: 16 Neil Cochrane, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 WP Nel, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Cornell du Preez, 21 Sean Kennedy, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 Chris Dean.
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny McPhillips, 9 John Cooney, 8 Jean Deysel, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Matthew Rea, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Matthew Dalton, 3 Tom O'Toole, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Andy Warwick.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Tommy O'Hagan, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Alan O'Connor, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Angus Curtis, 23 Tommy Bowe.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Davies (Wales), David Sutherland (Scotland)
TMO: Sean Brickell (Wales)
OSPREYS v CONNACHT
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Ospreys have won their last three encounters in the Pro14 – their best run for over 12 months. The Welshmen have won their last four matches at Liberty Stadium in the Championship since Glasgow beat them there in Round Nine. Connacht have won just twice in the last seven rounds of the Pro14: at home to Ospreys on February 9 and in Treviso two weeks later (Connacht's only away win in the Championship this season). Connacht have won three of their last five matches against Ospreys but the only time they have ever won at Liberty Stadium was 21-16 in October 2015.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Jeff Hassler, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ashley Beck, 11 Hanno Dirksen, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Tom Habberfield, 8 James King, 7 Sam Cross, 6 Guy Mercer, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Scott Otten, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Ifan Phillips, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Morgan Morris, 21 Matthew Aubrey, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Owen Watkin.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Peter Robb, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 Jarrad Butler (captain), 6 Sean O’Brien, 5 James Cannon, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Conor Carey, 2 Shane Delahunt, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 19 Gavin Thornbury, 20 John Muldoon, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Darragh Leader.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Andrea Piardi (Italy), Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Saturday, April 7:
LEINSTER v ZEBRE
(RDS Arena, Dublin - Kick-off: 14.00; 15.00 Italy time; 13.00 GMT)
Leinster's record in the last five rounds of the Pro14 is won two, drawn one, lost two. The Leinstermen have won all twelve home games they have played in all tournaments this season, whilst their only home defeat since December 2015 was to Scarlets in last season’s Pro14 semifinal. Leinster's solitary Championship defeat against an Italian side was in their first such meeting in Treviso in September 2010. Zebre have won just one of their last seven Pro14 encounters: 19-11 in Connacht in Round 15 – their only away win at an Irish province. Leinster have won all ten previous matches they have played against Zebre outscoring their opponents by 51 tries to eight.
Leinster: 15 Barry Daly, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Rory O’Loughlin, 12 Conor O’Brien, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Max Deegan, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Josh Murphy, 5 Mick Kearney, 4 Devin Toner (captain), 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 James Tracy, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Bryan Byrne, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Vakh Abdaladze, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Peadar Timmins, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Ciarán Frawley, 23 Gavin Mullin.
Zebre: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Gabriele Di Giulio, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Faialaga Afamasaga, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 David Sisi, 7 Jacopo Sarto, 6 Valerio Bernabò, 5 George Biagi (captain), 4 Leonard Krumov, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Roberto Tenga, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Cruze Ah-Nau, 19 Eduardo Bello, 20 Luhandre Luus, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Serafin Bordoli, 23 Giovanbattista Venditti.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant referees: Dan Jones (Wales), Simon Rees (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
CHEETAHS v CARDIFF BLUES
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 UK & Ireland time; 13.00 GMT)
Cheetahs have won their last two Pro14 matches, at home to Connacht and away at Dragons. Cheetahs only defeat in Bloemfontein this campaign was 26-29 to Glasgow on October 6. Cardiff Blues have won their last five Pro14 matches but have not won six in a row in the Championship since 2010. The Blues have won three times on the road in the Championship this season, at Connacht in Round Four, at Dragons in Round 11 and at Zebre in Round 16. Cardiff Blues beat the Cheetahs 25-20 at the Arms Park in Round 14, the regions only previous fixture with a South African side in the Pro14.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Francois Venter (captain), 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Sibhale Maxane, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Erich de Jager, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Rynier Bernardo, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Mthokozisi Mkhabela, 22 Fred Zeilinga, 23 Adriaan Coertzen.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Garyn Smith, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Owen Lane, 10 Gareth Anscombe (captain), 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Olly Robinson, 6 Macauley Cook, 5 Damian Welch, 4 Seb Davies, 3 Anton Peikrishvili, 2 Kirby Myhill, 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Ethan Lewis, 17 Brad Thyer, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Josh Turnbull, 20 Ellis Jenkins, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Steven Shingler, 23 Rey Lee-Lo.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher (Ireland), Ben Crouse (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
SCARLETS v GLASGOW WARRIORS
(Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli - Kick-off: 16.15; 15.15 GMT)
Scarlets only victory in their last five Pro14 matches was 34-10 at home to Ulster in Round 16. The Welshmen are unbeaten in their last 19 Championship matches at Parc y Scarlets since Munster beat them there in the opening round last season – although they did draw 10-all there with Leinster in their most recent game at the venue. Glasgow Warriors have lost just one of their last six Guinness Pro14 fixtures: 10-21 to Munster in Cork in Round 16. The Scotsmen's only away win in any competitions since November was 40-20 at Zebre in Round 13 of the Pro14. The Warriors are unbeaten in their last six matches against Welsh provinces. Scarlets have won their last two matches against Glasgow but have only once before achieved three in a row against the Scotsmen, between 2010 and 2012.
Scarlets: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Ioan Nicholas, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens (captain), 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Lewis Rawlins, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Steff Hughes.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 DTH van der Merwe, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Ryan Wilson (captain), 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 George Turner, 1 Jamie Bhatti.
Replacements: 16 Grant Stewart, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Scott Cummings, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Lelia Masaga.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Gywn Morris (Wales)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
BENETTON v DRAGONS
(Stadio Monigo, Treviso - Kick-off: 18.00; 17.00 UK & Ireland time; 16.00 GMT)
Benetton have lost just twice in the last eight rounds of the Pro14, at home to Connacht in Round 16 and away in Cardiff in Round 17. The most recent Welsh region to have won in Treviso in the Pro14 was Cardiff Blues in November 2016. Dragons have slipped to four straight defeats in the Pro14 since their 15-all draw at home to Glasgow on February 9, whilst they have not won in the Championship since beating Southern Kings at Rodney Parade in Round Five. Dragons have won only once on the road in any competition since April 2016, against Enisei in Moscow in October. The Italians have lost only once to the Dragons in their last four meetings: 8-26 at Rodney Parade in January 2017. Dragons only victory in seven previous visits to Treviso in the Pro14 was 32-17 in March 2015.
Benetton: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luca Sperandio, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi (captain), 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Marco Barbini, 5 Marco Lazzaroni, 4 Federico Ruzza, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Tomas Baravalle, 1 Federico Zani.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Alessandro Zanni, 20 Sebastian Negri, 21 Nasi Manu, 22 Tommaso Iannone, 23 Marty Banks.
Dragons: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Ashton Hewitt, 13 Sam Beard, 12 Connor Edwards, 11 Jared Rosser, 10 Arwel Robson, 9 Owain Leonard, 8 Lewis Evans, 7 Aaron Wainwright, 6 Harrison Keddie, 5 Rynard Landman, 4 Cory Hill (captain), 3 Lloyd Fairbrother, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Gerard Ellis.
Replacements: 16 Liam Belcher, 17 Luke Garrett, 18 Dan Suter, 19 Joe Davies, 20 Taine Basham, 21 Charlie Davies, 22 Adam Warren, 23 Rio Dyer.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Joy Neville (Ireland), Robert O'Sullivan (Ireland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
SOUTHERN KINGS v MUNSTER
(Outeniqua Park, George - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 UK & Ireland time; 17.35 GMT)
Outeniqua Park becomes the 43rd different venue to host a Championship encounter. Southern Kings only victory so far in their inaugural Pro14 campaign came in Round 17 at home to Dragons, in Round 18 they lost by a single point to Treviso at the same venue. Kings have lost all five previous matches they have played against Irish provinces with their only two league points in those games coming in the same match versus Ulster in November. Munster have lost their last four away games in all competitions since beating Leicester 25-16 at Welford Road in Round Four of the European Champions Cup. Munster's only previous encounter with a South African side in the PRO14 was when they beat Cheetahs 51-18 at Thomond Park on September 9.
Southern Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Michael Makase, 13 Jacques Nel, 12 Berton Klaasen, 11 Yaw Penxe, 10 Martin Du Toit, 9 Godlen Masimla, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Martinus Burger, 6 Andisa Ntsila, 5 Bobby De Wee, 4 Stephan Greeff, 3 Pieter Scholtz, 2 Stephan Coetzee, 1 Schalk Ferreira (captain).
Replacements: 16 Alandre Van Rooyen, 17Justin Forwood, 18 Luvuyo Pupuma, 19 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 20 Lusanda Badiyana, 21 Rudi Van Rooyen, 22 Ntabeni Dukisa, 23 Luzuko Vulindlu.
Munster: 15 JJ Hanrahan, 14 Calvin Nash, 13 Dan Goggin, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 James Hart, 8 Christiaan Stander (captain), 7 Conor Oliver, 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 5 Gerbrandt Grobler, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 James Cronin.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Brian Scott, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Jack O’Donoghue, 21 Jack Stafford, 22 Stephen Fitzgerald, 23 Robin Copeland.
Referee: Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Quinton Immelman (South Africa), Ruhan Meiring (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)