PRO14 quarter-final previews: Munster vs Benetton; Ulster vs Connacht
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 03/05/19 4:58pm
This Saturday sees the Guinness PRO14 quarter-finals take place, as Munster host Italians Benetton at Thomond Park and Ulster welcome Irish rivals Connacht to the Kingspan.
With Glasgow Warriors and defending champions Leinster having topped Conferences A and B respectively, they have already secured home semi-final berths, to be played at Scotstoun and the RDS the weekend of May 18/19.
Who will travel to face them will be decided this weekend on the road to the final at Celtic Park on May 25...
Munster vs Benetton (Saturday, 3pm)
The first quarter-final to take place this weekend sees Munster - second-placed finishers in Conference A - entertain Conference B third-placed finishers Benetton.
Johann van Graan's side will still be hurting from their Champions Cup semi-final loss to Saracens a fortnight ago as they set about attempting to lift their first silverware since 2011.
Benetton have enjoyed a marvellous campaign, and have done so well domestically that they have booked a qualification place for next season's Champions Cup ahead of the likes of Edinburgh and Scarlets.
The Italians have won 11 games in the PRO14 this season, while they have drawn on their last two visits to Ireland: a 27-27 draw with Leinster in April and 17-17 draw at Ulster in January.
They have also only lost one of their last six PRO14 fixtures on the road - a run which saw them clinch that crucial third spot in Conference B.
Munster's home form has been outstanding this season, however, with the province having won all 13 games staged in Limerick or Cork in 2018/19. Indeed, 47 out of a possible 50 points in the PRO14 were collected, with seven bonus-point wins earned from 10 home victories.
One has to look back to December 2017 for the last time Munster lost a home game. Can Benetton force what would be a huge shock and set up an away semi-final against Leinster?
The home side welcome back Conor Murray, Rory Scannell and Keith Earls for Saturday's clash but are still without Joey Carbery, while Benetton have made four changes as Ratuva Tavuyara, Marco Zanon, Dewaldt Duvenage and Marco Lazzaroni come in.
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Conor Murray; 1 Dave Kilcoyne, 2 Niall Scannell, 3 Stephen Archer, 4 Jean Kleyn, 5 Tadhg Beirne, 6 Peter O'Mahony (c), 7 Chris Cloete, 8 CJ Stander.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O'Byrne, 17 Jeremy Loughman, 18 John Ryan, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Dan Goggin.
Benetton Rugby: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Ratuva Tavuyara, 13 Marco Zanon, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Tommaso Allan (c), 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Toa Halafihi, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Marco Lazzaroni, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Nicola Quaglio
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Derrick Appiah, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Irne Herbst, 20 Dean Budd, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Antonio Rizzi, 23 Alberto Sgarbi.
Ulster vs Connacht (Saturday, 5.35pm)
The second quarter-final on Saturday sees an all-Irish affair as Connacht make the trip up to Belfast to face Ulster.
Back in October, Connacht travelled to the Kingspan and recorded a first victory in Ulster for 58 years - winning 22-15, while they also beat Ulster in Galway in December. The 2016 champions will face an altogether different Ulster this weekend though.
Resurgent in the second half of the season (they have lost just once in the PRO14 since early January), Ulster went from looking like they might miss out on a play-off place to sealing a home quarter, while they also put in a sensational European Cup quarter-final performance against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium - a game the squad know they really ought to have won.
The winner from this one will face a trip to play Glasgow in Scotland at the semi-final stage, with the Warriors sure to be fired up at the prospect of contesting a PRO14 final in their own city.
Ulster stalwarts Rory Best and Darren Cave (who have played a combined total of 446 games for Ulster) will be playing their final home games for their local province in Saturday's clash.
While for Connacht, Jack Carty, Tom Farrell, Matt Healy, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan and Colby Fainga'a are all brought into Andy Friend's XV.
Ulster: 15 Michael Lowry, 14 Robert Baloucoune, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Robert Lyttle, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 1 Eric O'Sullivan, 2 Rory Best, 3 Ross Kane, 4 Iain Henderson, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 6 Nick Timoney, 7 Jordi Murphy, 8 Marcell Coetzee
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Tom O'Toole, 19 Alan O'Connor, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Darren Cave, 23 Angus Kernohan
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O'Halloran, 14 Stephen Fitzgerald, 13 Tom Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 1 Denis Buckley, 2 Dave Heffernan, 3 Finlay Bealham, 4 Ultan Dillane, 5 Gavin Thornbury, 6 Eoin McKeon, 7 Colby Fainga'a, 8 Jarrad Butler (c).
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Conor Carey, 19 Eoghan Masterson, 20 Paul Boyle, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Tom Daly, 23 Darragh Leader.