The PRO12 games run from Thursday through to Sunday this week. So here are some early (pre-team announcement) predictions for you to chew over.
Newport Gwent Dragons vs Connacht
Connacht have beaten the Dragons in their last three encounters so history favours the men from Galway. The Dragons however will have taken heart from their performances against league leaders Ulster last weekend, where they were the better side but were edged out 17-15, and the week before when they beat Leinster 23-13.
There is a definite feeling that the Dragons are playing better than they were earlier in the season. Connacht have yet to fall outside the top four and are unbeaten against the Dragons since 2012. With most of their top of the table competitors likely to win this weekend, Connacht will probably need to keep this run going to avoid slipping down to fifth.
It should be close, and one score will probably settle it. Connacht by 3.
Leinster vs Zebre
Despite missing players to the national team, Leinster are still a force to be reckoned with, particularly at the RDS Arena where they are unbeaten in the Pro12 for almost a year. With some promising youngsters such as Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid coming through, their back division still looks exciting and will trouble a Zebre defence which has struggled to cope away from home.
Leinster have won all six previous encounters, and have picked up a try bonus on five occasions. Their closest winning margin was 17 points! Zebre will be encouraged though by victories in their last two away games, against Treviso and Worcester Warriors in the European Challenge Cup.
Leinster have a deep enough squad to cope with their missing players, whereas Zebre simply don’t possess the same strength in depth. It therefore seems likely that the home side will run out comfortable winners. Leinster by 15.
Ulster vs Glasgow Warriors
Ulster sneaked into pole position with a narrow victory against the Dragons in a round 12 replay last Friday. They are one of the in-form teams and will feel it is a good time to play the defending champions. Glasgow are short on first choice players and form in the same measure. They have only one win in their last six matches, and their only away victory of the season came against Cardiff Blues in November. Time is slipping away for the Scots, and another defeat will make qualification unlikely.
The Kingspan is not the easiest place to visit when you’re not playing well and that’s the position the Warriors find themselves in. Team selection will have a big affect on the outcome of this game, but Ulster’s pack is expected to be strong, and if it is being marshalled by the world-class Ruan Piennar then it could be a tough night for the visitors. Ulster by 6.
Scarlets vs Edinburgh
Second-placed Scarlets welcome fifth-placed Edinburgh on Friday with just one loss in their last eight home games. Both sides will be missing a number of Six Nations players, but Edinburgh will probably feel this more as it impacts significantly on their forward line-up and in particular their scrum which is seen as their main attacking threat. The Scarlets route to victory would appear to be through ensuring at least parity up front, and then using their more attack-minded backline to trouble an Edinburgh defence which has uncharacteristically leaked a few tries recently.
Although Edinburgh won on their last visit here 26-15, Scarlets are a much improved side who are playing with confidence and enjoying their elevated position in the league. Scarlets by 5.
Benetton Treviso vs Cardiff Blues
It’s difficult to know where to start with Treviso each week, as there is a risk you start to sound like a broken record! But with no victories to date and a depleted squad due to international call ups, there appears to be little prospect of them winning this game. The Blues are enjoying a reasonable run which has seen them win their last four Pro12 games. As mentioned in Round 13, they have a great opportunity to continue this run over the next few weeks and to become genuine top four contenders.
Treviso’s Robert Barbieri has been added to Italy’s squad for their match against England, and clearly the Blues are also without some key individuals, but they still have some real quality in their team and should make amends for their defeat to Zebre in Italy earlier in the season. Cardiff Blues by 10.
Munster vs Ospreys
It is sixth versus seventh at Irish Independent Park in Cork. On paper this looks like a really close one, Munster have lost their last two home games at Thomond Park, but are unbeaten for three years in Cork, so it feels like home advantage does come in to play. Although the Ospreys are unbeaten away from home since November, like Glasgow, they have suffered this season as soon as key players have been called up for international duty. They will be hugely lifted though by the long awaited return of scrum-half Rhys Webb; it will be fascinating to see how he goes.
Munster’s forwards are likely to have an edge at the breakdown over their Welsh counterparts, and this will give them the platform they need to deliver what will be a narrow win. Munster by 4.
By Keith Mackenzie
Follow Keith on Twitter: @Keith_Mack7
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images