Edinburgh vs. Ulster @ Murrayfield
Friday 6th January, 19.30 (Not televised)
Ulster welcome back their Irish internationals for the trip to Murrayfield tonight. Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Tom Court all return to the starting 15. Stephen Terblanche moves to fullback to accommodate Trimble on the wing, meaning Adam D’Arcy drops to the bench. In the back-row, Willie Faloon is the one to miss out due to Ferris’ inclusion. Ferris is at blindside, so Chris Henry moves to the openside with Pedrie Wannenburg retained at No.8.
Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys continue as half-backs while Ian Whitten and Darren Cave start again in midfield. The team selection ensures a degree of continuity from the morale-raising 33-17 win over Munster last weekend. Prop John Afoa said this week that there’s a “real buzz” in this Ulster squad at the moment. Coach Brian McLaughlin will hope this atmosphere is extended with another win in Scotland tonight.
Coming into this match, Ulster sit 8th in the PRO12. Edinburgh are one place behind, trailing by 4 points. Last time out, the Scottish side lost 17-12 to Glasgow Warriors. Outhalf Phil Godman scored a last-gasp drop goal to secure a losing bonus point there. Edinburgh have won just once in their last four PRO12 matches, but have only lost once in seven at Murrayfield in all competitions. Ex-Connacht and Ireland A coach Michael Bradley is in charge at the club.
Bradley has rung the changes for this tie. Scotland legend Chris Paterson comes in at fullback while Nick de Luca starts at centre. Try machine Tim Visser is on the left wing, opposite 21-year-old Tom Brown. It’s a Scottish international half-back pairing of Godman and Greig Laidlaw. Up front, Fijian international Netani Talei starts at No.8 while Bradley has gone for an all-Scottish international front row in Geoff Cross, Ross Ford and Allan Jacobsen.
Ulster come into this match with more momentum and the huge boost that the likes of Ferris and Trimble bring but Edinburgh’s home form has been good. Both teams face must-win Heineken Cup clashes the weekend after this so it may come down to whichever side can keep their focus tonight. If Ulster are to make a bid for the playoff spots then this is the kind of game which they have to win.
Edinburgh: 15 Chris Paterson, 14 Tom Brown, 13 Nick De Luca, 12 James King, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Phil Godman, 9 Greig Laidlaw (capt.) 8 Netani Talei, 7 Roddy Grant, 6 Stuart McInally, 5 Esteban Lozada, 4 Sean Cox, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Allan Jacobsen. Subs: 16 Alun Walker, 17 Kyle Traynor, 18 Jack Gilding, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Alan MacDonald, 21 Chris Leck, 22 Matt Scott, 23 Jim Thompson.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Ian Whitten, 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 Andi Kyriacou, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Willie Faloon, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Paddy Wallace, 23 Adam D’Arcy.
Aironi vs. Connacht @ Stadio Zaffanella
Saturday 7th January, 15.35 (TG4)
This match looks to be Connacht’s best chance of ending their run of losses. Aironi are bottom of the table, having won only two of their games in the PRO12, as well as losing all four of their Heineken Cup matches. Connacht were cruelly dealt more injuries during last week’s narrow loss to Leinster. Eoin Griffin, Johnny O’Connor, Brian Tuohy and Ronan Loughney all picked up injuries in that inter-pro derby.
Eric Elwood is able to call on the the province’s most capped player in Michael Swift, who returns in the second-row. Dylan Rogers replaces Loughney in the front-row. In the back-line, Dave McSharry returns from injury to replace Griffin in the centre while Fetu’u Vainikolo comes in for Tuohy, who broke his leg last weekend. The fifth and final change sees Frank Murphy start at scrumhalf instead of Paul O’Donohoe.
Meanwhile, Aironi had a derby of their own last weekend. They lost 37-14 away to Treviso and have made three changes from that starting fifteen. Giulio Toniolatti comes in on the right wing, while Tyson Keats gets the nod at scrumhalf. Joshua Furno joins captain Marco Bortolami in the second-row. The Aironi bench has experience in abundance with the likes of Salvatore Perugini, Mauro Bergamasco and Quintin Geldenhuys to call on.
Connacht’s next two fixtures after this are against Toulouse and Harlequins in the Heineken Cup. That makes a win against Aironi all the more important. Those two HC fixtures will be huge asks so a win in Italy looks their only hope to lift some of the gloom. While Connacht have only scored one try more than Aironi in the PRO12 this season, the Italians have conceded 33 to Connacht’s 18. Hopefully Connacht can match their performance of last weekend. That would be enough to secure a precious win.
Aironi: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giulio Toniolatti, 13 Roberto Quartaroli, 12 Gabriel Pizarro, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Josh Sole, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Nicola Cattina, 5 Marco Bortolami (capt.), 4 Joshua Furno, 3 Fabio Staibano, 2 Roberto Santamaria, 1 Alberto De Marchi
Subs: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Salvatore Perugini, 18 Lorenzo Romano, 19 Quintin Geldenhuys, 20 Mauro Bergamasco, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Naas Olivier, 23 Alberto Benettin.
Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy, 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Kyle Tonetti, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Mattew Jarvis, 9 Frank Murphy, 8 George Naoupu, 7 John Muldoon, 6 Mick Kearney, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Dylan Rogers, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Brett Wilkinson
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Stewart Maguire, 19 Eoin McKeon, 20 Ray Ofisa, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Niall O’Connor, 23 Henry Fa’afili.
Cardiff Blues vs. Leinster @ Cardiff City Stadium
Saturday 7th January, 18.15 (TG4)
Joe Schmidt has named an all-Irish starting fifteen for Leinster’s clash with the Blues on Saturday evening. With the recent announcement of the IRFU’s plans to change the manner in which overseas players are contracted to the provinces, it’s a sign that Leinster will probably be the least affected. Blues coach Justin Burnell has also named a strong side for what should be a high-quality encounter.
For Leinster, fullback Rob Kearney is joined by brother Dave and 20-year-old Andrew Conway in a back-three brimming with pace. Fergus McFadden is selected at outside centre, where he’ll be hoping to impress Declan Kidney ahead of the Six Nations. Eoin Reddan is at scrumhalf ahead of Isaac Boss.
Up front, Sean Cronin comes in at hooker, with Mike Ross and Cian Healy either side of him. Devin Toner and Damian Browne make up the second-row. Kevin McLaughlin is named at blindside while Sean O’Brien is at 7. Jamie Heaslip captains the side from No.8.
Cardiff give Gavin Henson a start at fullback while Wales captain Sam Warburton leads the side at openside. Leinster will have to look to negate Warburton’s influence as much as possible. Elsewhere, the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Gethin Jenkins and Dan Parks add an international flavour to this tie.
Looking at the teams on paper, this is a mouth-watering clash. Cardiff sit 5th at the moment, just 3 points behind Munster and with a game in hand. They’ll be looking to catapult themselves into those play-off positions. Leinster are currently 6 points clear at the top of the table and will hope to maintain that breathing space. It should be a cracker.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Gavin Henson, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Xavier Rush, 7 Sam Warburton (capt.), 6 Maama Molitika, 5 Michael Paterson, 4 Macauley Cook, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Marc Breeze, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Rhys Williams, 17 John Yapp, 18 Sam Hobbs, 19 Matthew Screech, 20 Josh Navidi, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Ceri Sweeney, 23 Richard Mustoe.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Dave Kearney 13 Fergus McFadden, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Andrew Conway, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Damian Browne, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Aaron Dundon, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Leo Auva’a, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Isa Nacewa, 23 Fionn Carr.
Munster vs. Treviso @ Thomond Park
Saturday 7th January, 20.15 (RTE 2)
Munster are back to full-strength after a disappointing performance from a weakened team against Ulster last weekend. Only five of that team are retained as Munster look to get back on track. Ronan O’Gara is back in to steer the ship at outhalf, while Paul O’Connell returns to captain the side from the second-row. Peter O’Mahony has recovered from his jaw injury and comes in at blindside flanker.
Elsewhere, Keith Earls is back at outside centre, another player looking to impress Declan Kidney. The exciting Simon Zebo is back in on the left wing, meaning Johne Murphy moves over to the right. It’s a strong-looking Munster bench too, with Donncha O’Callaghan, Tomas O’Leary and Ian Keatley all waiting in the wings.
Treviso are only 5 points behind Munster in the league, so a win for them at Thomond would be huge. Coach Franco Smith has made only one change from the team that ran in four tries against Aironi last weekend. Manoa Vosawai replaces the injured Robert Barbieri at No.8. Treviso have been the most improved team in the PRO12 this season, so Munster will have to be wary of the threat they pose.
Still, with the strength of the team McGahan has gone for, Munster should be looking for a big win. As always, they will be made to work extremely hard by the Italians but this game may be an opportunity to secure a bonus-point win that would leave Munster in a much stronger position. The Blues, Scarlets, Treviso and even Ulster are all breathing down Munster’s neck, meaning a big win would be very welcome.
Munster : 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifemi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Niall Ronan, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell (capt.), 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Donncha O’Callaghan, 20 Tommy O’Donnell, 21 Tomas O’Leary, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Danny Barnes.
Treviso: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Ludovico Nitoglia, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Brendan Williams, 10 Kristopher Burton, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Manoa Vosawai, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Gonzalo Padrò, 5 Corniel Van Zyl, 4 Antonio Pavanello (capt.), 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Franco Sbaraglini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Subs: 16 Diego Vidal, 17 Matteo Muccignat, 18 Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet, 19 Valerio Bernabò, 20 Enrico Pavanello, 21 Simon Picone, 22 Edoardo Gori, 23 Alberto Di Bernardo.