Blues vs. Ulster @ Cardiff Arms Park
Friday 17th February, 19.05 (BBC NI)
Ulster go to Cardiff looking to continue their push for a play-off spot. Sitting 5th in the table, Ulster are just a point ahead of the Blues. The Welsh side do have a game in hand over Ulster, so a win for the Irish province becomes even more important. Brian McLaughlin welcomes back three Irish internationals this weekend, as Paddy Wallace, Chris Henry and Tom Court have all been released from the Irish camp for this fixture.
In total there are four personnel changes to the side that earned a bonus point win over the Dragons last time out. Wallace replaces Adam D’Arcy, Henry is in for Mike McComish, Court starts ahead of Callum Black and Nigel Brady is preferred to Andy Kyriacou at hooker. Johann Muller is sidelined with a calf injury, so Henry takes the captaincy. Elsewhere, Ian Whitten moves from the centre out to the wing, with Stefan Terblanche shifting to fullback.
Cardiff welcome back three international players of their own. Scrumhalf Lloyd Williams, centre Gavin Henson and prop Scott Andrews have all been released from Welsh duty. Dan Parks starts at outhalf following his international retirement. Recently announced Munster signing Casey Laulala is out with hamstring trouble. This is not the most formidable Blues team, and Ulster come into the fixture with confidence and momentum. They are the more settled side. Verdict: Ulster by 5-7 points.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Ben Blair, 14 Richard Mustoe, 13 Gavin Evans, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Xavier Rush, 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Michael Paterson, 5 Paul Tito (capt.), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Ryan Tyrell, 1 John Yapp.
Subs: 16 T Rhys Thomas, 17 Nathan Trevett, 18 Ryan Harford, 19 Maama Molitika, 20 Martyn Williams, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Ceri Sweeney, 23 Chris Czekaj.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Nevin Spence, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Ian Whitten, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Robbie Diack, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 Chris Henry (capt.), 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Nigel Brady, 1 Tom Court.
Subs: 16 Andi Kyriacou, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Tim Barker, 20 Mike McComish, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Simon Danielli, 23 Adam D’Arcy.
Referee: George Clancy
Leinster vs. Scarlets @ The RDS
Friday 17th February, 19.35 (TG4)
Joe Schmidt’s team includes four players who were involved in Ireland’s loss to Wales in the opening round of the Six Nations. Sean Cronin, Eoin Reddan, Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney all return to the Leinster starting fifteen. Jack McGrath gets his second start of the season at loosehead, while Rhys Ruddock comes in at No.8. In the backline, Eoin O’Malley joins McFadden in the centre.
Scarlets’ coach Nigel Davies also received the boost of returning international players. Veteran outhalf Stephen Jones and wing Liam Williams are joined in the backline by centre Scott Williams, who made a brief appearance against Scotland last weekend. Up front, prop Rhodri Jones has been released from the Welsh camp to start at loosehead. England international Ben Morgan will surely be sprung from the Scarlets’ bench at some stage.
Leinster come into this weekend 10 points clear of the 2nd-placed Ospreys. With the Welsh region at home to Aironi tonight, they will expect a bonus point win and hope to close that gap. However, Leinster are on an 11 game winning-streak and have named a strong side for this clash with the Scarlets. They should maintain their dominance of the PRO12 with another win. Verdict: Leinster bonus point win.
Leinster: 15 Isa Nacewa, 14 David Kearney, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Fergus McFadden, 11 Fionn Carr, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Rhys Ruddock, 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Kevin McLaughlin (capt.), 5 Devin Toner, 4 Damian Browne, 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Nathan White, 19 Leo Auva’a, 20 Dominic Ryan, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Noel Reid, 23 Brendan Macken.
Scarlets: 15 Dan Newton, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Gareth Maule (capt.), 12 Scott Williams, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Stephen Jones, 1 Rhodri Jones, 2 Emyr Phillips, 3 Deacon Manu, 4 Sione Timani, 5 Dominic Day, 6 Josh Turnbull, 7 Johnathan Edwards, 8 Kieran Murphy.
Subs: 16 Craig Hawkins, 17 Phil John, 18 Peter Edwards, 19 Damian Welch, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Liam Davies, 22 Adam Warren, 23 Viliame Iongi.
Referee: Nigel Owens
Treviso vs. Munster @ Stadio di Monigo
Saturday 18th February, 15.15 (RTE2)
Munster’s match with Aironi last weekend was called off due to the snowy conditions in Italy, but this one will be completely unaffected. Without a game, Munster dropped to 4th in the league. Still, they are only one point behind the Warriors in 3rd and have a game in hand. Munster will be hoping for a favour from Connacht in their clash with the Warriors. Tony McGahan will be eager to keep the pressure on the Ospreys, sitting in 2nd. A home semi-final in the play-offs is a realistic expectation for Munster.
McGahan has included returning Ireland squad members Ronan O’Gara, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony in his side for this tie with Treviso. The other big news is that Felix Jones is named in the match day squad for the first time this season. He’s joined there by Tommy O’Donnell, also just back from injury. Mick O’Driscoll captains the side from second-row while Ian Keatley’s ankle injury means he is ruled out.
Treviso have made wholesale changes to the side beaten by Leinster last weekend. Fabio Semenzato and Willem de Waal form a new half-back partnership, while Tommaso Iannone comes in on the wing. There’s a new second-row of Corniel Van Zyl and Antonio Pavanello, while Paul Derbyshire is chosen at blindside. Munster lost 19-8 here last year so will certainly not be complacent. Having not played in just under a month, expect some rustiness from Munster. Verdict: Munster win by 10 points.
Benetton Treviso: 15 Ludovico Nitoglia, 14 Tommaso Iannone, 13 Ezio Galon, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Brendan Williams, 10 Willem De Waal, 9 Fabio Semenzato, 8 Marco Filippucci, 7 Benjamin Vermaak, 6 Paul Derbyshire, 5 Corniel Van Zyl, 4 Antonio Pavanello (cap.), 3 Pedro Di Santo, 2 Franco Sbaraglini, 1 Matteo Muccignat.
Subs: 16 Enrico Ceccato, 17 Augusto Allori, 18 Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet, 19 Valerio Bernabò, 20 Gonzalo Padrò, 21 Gonzalo Garcia, 22 Edoardo Gori, 23 Alberto Di Bernardo.
Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Danny Barnes, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Tomas O’Leary, 1 Wian du Preez, 2 Damien Varley, 3 BJ Botha, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 5 Mick O’Driscoll (capt.), 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 7 Peter O’Mahony, 8 James Coughlan. Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Tommy O’Donnell, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 Scott Deasy, 23 Felix Jones.
Referee: Neil Hennessey
Connacht vs. Warriors @ The Sportsground
Saturday 18th February, 17.30 (TG4)
Connacht’s losing bonus point against the Blues last weekend lifted them to 10th in the table, just a single point ahead of 11th-placed Newport-Gwent Dragons. As mentioned above, the Warriors come into this game looking to consolidate 3rd position, as well as hoping to close the gap on the Ospreys. Eric Elwood’s side haven’t won in the PRO12 since the 23rd of September, but with confidence boosted by the recent win over Harlequins, Connacht believe they can beat a weakened Warriors side.
Elwood makes just two changes to the team from last weekend’s defeat. Ray Ofisa is out with a knee injury so Eoghan Grace comes in at openside. Since joining from Exeter last summer, Grace has had limited opportunities, missing plenty of the season through injury. He will be out to prove himself capable at this level. The other change sees Henry Fa’afili come into the centre in place of Dave McSharry, with Eoin Griffin back on the bench.
Glasgow haven’t won in Connacht since 2007. Looking to reverse that trend, coach Sean Lineen has made just one change to the team that beat the Scarlets 19-9 last weekend, Pat MacArthur replacing Dougie Hall at hooker. Duncan Weir is on the bench after being an unused substitute in Scotland’s loss to Wales last Sunday. Scotland international Graeme Morrison captains the side from midfield. Glasgow will consider this a good chance to shake off their Galway hoodoo, but similarly, Connacht will see it as another chance to pick off a team missing their international players. Verdict: Connacht by 1-3 points.
Connacht:15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Kyle Tonetti, 12 Henry Fa’afili, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Paul O’Donohoe, 8 George Naoupu, 7 Eoghan Grace, 6 John Muldoon, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Ronan Loughney, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Brett Wilkinson.
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Stewart Maguire, 19 Dave Gannon, 20 Mick Kearney, 21 Dave Moore, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Eoin Griffin.
Glasgow: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Troy Nathan, 12 Graeme Morrison (capt.), 11 David Lemi, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Tom Ryder, 4 Rob Verbakel, 3 Jon Welsh, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Ryan Grant.
Subs: 16 Finlay Gillies, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 George Hunter, 19 Nick Campbell, 20 Duncan Weir, 21 Alex Dunbar, 22 Colin Shaw, 23 Calum Forrester.
Referee: Peter Allan
Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Mauro Quercia, Ivan O’Riordan, Sum_of_Marc.