Aironi vs. Ulster @ Stadio Luigi Zaffanella
Saturday 17th December, 13.30 (Sky Sports 1, red button)
Ulster secured five points against Aironi last weekend as they ran in five tries in a 31-10 win. Brian McLaughlin and his side know that they will need to do the same in Italy if they are to fulfill their ambitions of progressing from the pool stage. Clermont travel to Leicester on Saturday in the other fixture from Pool 6. Leicester need to win that one if they want to stay in contention, and whichever way that result goes, Ulster will still be in a strong position to get out of the group, particularly if they secure a bonus point win in Italy.
But McLaughlin will have ensured his players’ focus is on the Aironi tie first and foremost. The Ulster team sees just one change. Tom Court comes back in after Paddy McAllister was given a chance to start last weekend. Nevin Spence has recovered from the rib injury sustained last Friday night in the win over Aironi and keeps his place in the centre alongside Darren Cave. Ruan Pienaar resumes his comeback from injury at scrumhalf.
Aironi have made several changes after their disappointing performance last weekend. Andrea Masi is back in the centre for the Italians and his experience will be a big boost. Ruggero Trevisan comes in at fullback while Giovanbattista Venditti takes the place of Italian international Matteo Pratichetti on the wing.. At flyhalf, Tito Tebaldi is replaced by Luciano Orquera, who was involved in the World Cup with Italy. Up front, the only change is an enforced one. Last weekend’s captain Carlo Del Fava is out but is replaced by another Italian international, Quintin Geldenhuys. Marco Bortolami takes over the captaincy.
This is an Aironi side who have lost 3 from 3 in the Heineken Cup as well as 9 from 10 in the PRO12 this season. Clearly, Ulster are not getting ahead of themselves in targeting the bonus point. Aironi have nothing but pride to play for, although that can be a massive motivation for Italian teams. Leicester failed to secure a bonus point on their trip to Italy in the first round of pool fixtures as they won 28-12. Ulster cannot afford to make the same mistake and the likes of Stephen Ferris and Rory Best will ensure they take the five points.
AIRONI: 15 Ruggero Trevisan, 14 Sinoti Sinoti, 13 Andrea Masi, 12 Gabriel Pizarro, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Josh Sole, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Nicola Cattina; 5 Marco Bortolami (capt.), 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Romano, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Subs: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Fabio Staibano, 19 George Biagi, 20 Filippo Ferrarini, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Naas Olivier, 23 Roberto Quartaroli.
ULSTER: 15 Adam D’Arcy; 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Nevin Spence, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar; 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt.), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Tim Barker, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Stefan Terblanche.
Gloucester vs. Connacht @ Kingsholm
Saturday 17th December, 15.40 (Sky Sports 1)
Connacht narrowly lost 14-10 to Gloucester in the first part of this double-header last Saturday in the Sportsground to record their 9th defeat in a row. It was certainly a missed opportunity to end their losing streak. Failure to win at Kingsholm would consign Eric Elwood’s team to further misery. In a letter to Connacht fans this week, hooker Ethienne Reynecke has admitted that he and his teammates are feeling the pressure of this streak, but are determined to turn things around.
Elwood has made 2 changes to the starting fifteen which lost last weekend. Eoin Griffin and Johnny O’Connor both return form injury to give Connacht a well-needed boost. Kyle Tonetti drops to the bench to accommodate Griffin’s return. Ray Ofisa is out with a knee injury so O’Connor comes in at openside. George Naoupu and David Gannon swap positions this week. On the bench, Dylan Rogers replaces Denis Buckley.
Gloucester coach Bryan Redpath has made five changes to his team. There are two new props in the shape of Dan Murphy and Rupert Harden. There’s also a fresh halfback pairing. Tim Taylor replaces Freddie Burns at outhalf while Nick Runciman is chosen ahead of Rory Lawson at scrumhalf. Mike Tindall has recovered from a groin injury and takes his place alongside Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu in a physical-looking midfield.
If Connacht are to turn things around, they simply have to cut out some of the unforced errors they are making. Added composure in threatening attacking positions would go a long way to ensuring a victory in Gloucester. The set-piece will have to be tightened up too. Connacht lost 2 of their 6 scrums and 3 of their 9 lineouts last time out, and these percentages have to be improved upon. Apart from one heavy defeat at the hands of Toulouse, they have not been losing by big margins. Even slight improvements in a some of these areas mean Connacht will start to come out on rights side of these narrow winning margins. Hopefully, it will happen on Saturday at Kingsholm.
GLOUCESTER: 15 Olly Morgan, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, 11 James Simpson-Daniel, 10 Tim Taylor, 9 Nick Runciman, 1 Dan Murphy, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Rupert Harden, 4 Peter Buxton, 5 Jim Hamilton, 6 Brett Deacon, 7 Andy Hazell, 8 Luke Narraway (capt.). Subs: 16 Matias Cortese, 17 Nick Wood, 18 Shaun Knight, 19 Will James, 20 Akapusi Qera, 21 Rory Lawson, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Jonny May.
CONNACHT: 15 Gavin Duffy, 14 Mark McCrea, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Frank Murphy,1 Brett Wilkinson, 2 Ethienne Reynecke, 3 Ronan Loughney, 4 George Naoupu, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 Dave Gannon, 7 Jonny O’Connor, 8 John Muldoon.
Subs: 16 Adrian Flavin, 17 Dylan Rogers, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Kyle Tonetti.
Leinster vs. Bath @ Aviva Stadium
Saturday 17th December, 18.00 (Sky Sports 1)
Leinster came away from the Rec with a crucial away win last weekend. They sit top of Pool 3, and a win at the Aviva would bring them a step closer to a home quarter-final. Leinster will be keen to make up for what they felt was an incomplete performance on their part last time out. Try-scoring chances weren’t finished off in the 18-13 win, and they will surely be more clinical on Saturday evening.
Joe Schmidt has once again changed his starting fifteen, a luxury he is allowed due to the strength of his squad. Eoin O’Malley comes back into the centre, where he partners Fergus McFadden. That means Gordon D’Arcy has to be content with a place on the bench. Eoin Reddan is in at scrumhalf in place of Isaac Boss. In the pack, Devin Toner comes into the second-row with Damien Browne dropping out of the squad. Shane Jennings gets the nod over Kevin McLaughlin in the back-row. Once again, Cian Healy is confined to the bench where he is joined by Rhys Ruddock and Ian Madigan.
The only change in the Bath team sees Sam Vesty coming in for the injured Dan Hipkiss. That means last weekend’s try-scorer Matt Banahan moves into the centre and Nick Abendanon onto the wing. Vesty lines out at fullback. It will be no surprise to see Bath look to Banahan to make the hard yards in midfield. It will be a big challenge to O’Malley who lines up opposite the massive England international, but he is well up to the task. All Blacks World Cup saviour Stephen Donald is at outhalf for Bath.
Leinster have sold over 45,000 tickets for this clash and it should be yet another enthralling Heineken Cup tie. Leinster should be buoyed by their win last weekend, and by the fact that they did cut Bath open at times. It’s just a case of finishing those chances. If Leinster do that then they should win this comfortably. If it’s still close with 2o minutes to go, Schmidt has a strong bench with which to change the game. Leinster to win.
LEINSTER: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Isa Nacewa, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Fergus McFadden, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 1 Heinke van der Merwe, 2 Richardt Strauss, 3 Mike Ross, 4 Leo Cullen (capt.), 5 Devin Toner, 6 Sean O’Brien, 7 Shane Jennings, 8 Jamie Heaslip.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Nathan White, 19 Kevin McLaughlin, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Gordon D’Arcy.
BATH: 15 Sam Vesty, 14 Jack Cuthbert, 13 Matt Banahan, 12 Olly Barkley, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Michael Claassens, 1 David Flatman, 2 Chris Biller, 3 David Wilson, 4 Dave Attwood, 5 Ryan Caldwell, 6 Francois Louw (capt.), 7 Guy Mercer, 8 Simon Taylor.
Subs: 16 Ross Batty, 17 Nathan Catt, 18 Anthony Perenise, 19 Will Spencer, 20 Andy Beattie, 21 Chris Cook, 22 Tom Heathcote, 23 Ben Williams.
Munster vs. Scarlets @ Thomond Park
Sunday 18th December, 12.45 (Sky Sports 2)
Munster secured a vital 17-14 win last weekend in Wales and now look to complete the double over the Scarlets. That win last weekend showed Munster’s experience as well as the progression their pack has made this season. With BJ Botha’s signing, Munster have made their scrum a strength this season. While Munster may not be sparkling in winning, they have a 100% record from their first 3 matches in Pool 1, with two of those wins away from home.
Tony McGahan has been forced into at least one of the changes to the Munster team. Peter O’Mahony picked up a jaw injury against the Scarlets on Saturday, so Denis Leamy gets the start that his form off the bench in recent times probably deserves. Elsewhere, Donncha O’Callaghan will be relieved to finally start in the second-row. Donnacha Ryan drops to the bench. The most welcome change is the return of Keith Earls. Earls comes in at 13 in place of Will Chambers, who drops out of the match-day squad. Stephen Archer and Tommy O’Donnell are included on the bench.
While Earls is back for Munster, the Scarlets are still without their young star George North. Stephen Jones comes in at outhalf, meaning Rhys Priestland moves to fullback. Prop Iestyn Thomas is ill so he is replaced by Gareth Davies. Lou Reed comes into the second-row in place of Sione Timani. Last weekend’s try-scorer Aaron Shingler is out with a toe injury, so Johnathan Edwards comes into the back-row
Tony McGahan will have ensured Munster do not fall foul of complacency after winning in Wales last week. The Scarlets really have nothing to lose in Limerick and that makes them very dangerous. They will realise that they left a lot of opportunities behind them last weekend and will be highly motivated to get revenge. They are fighting to get back into contention in a group that is far from decided. However, in front of their own fans, the experience of the likes of O’Connell and O’Gara should once again see Munster home.
SCARLETS: 15 Rhys Priestland, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jon Davies, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 1 Rhodri Jones, 2 Matthew Rees (capt.), 3 Rhys Thomas, 4 Lou Reed, 5 Damian Welch, 6 Rob McCusker, 7 Johnathan Edwards, 8 Ben Morgan. Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Phil John, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Kieran Murphy, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Gareth Maule, 23 Viliame Iongi.
MUNSTER: 15 D Hurley, 14 J Murphy, 13 K Earls, 12 L Mafi, 11 S Zebo, 10 R O’Gara, 9 C Murray, 1 W du Preez, 2 D Varley, 3 BJ Botha, 4 D O’Callaghan, 5 P O’Connell (capt.), 6 D Leamy, 7 N Ronan, 8 J Coughlan. Subs: 16 D Fogarty, 17 M Horan, 18 S Archer, 19 D Ryan, 20 T O’Donnell, 21 T O’Leary, 22 I Keatley, 23 D Barnes.
Photos courtesy: Eoin Gardiner, Shane Horan, M+MD, Chris Jobling.