It’s derby time! After two more rounds of European action, the Guinness PRO14 returns this weekend with six derbies across four countries. That includes a pair of top-of-the-table battles between Leinster and Ulster, on Friday night, and then Connacht and Munster on Saturday. As well as the Inter-Pros, there will be plenty riding on Benetton’s trip to Zebre, while Glasgow Warriors need to turn things around quickly in their 1872 Cup clash with Edinburgh. And in Wales on Saturday, the Scarlets and Dragons could treat us to yet another thriller, while Cardiff Blues will look to secure a rare win over the Ospreys in their derby encounter.
Friday – Leinster v Ulster
Friday night in the Guinness PRO14 is all about Conference A where first plays second. Unbeaten Leinster, the defending champions and runaway leaders this time around, face potentially their sternest test yet against Dan McFarland’s Ulster. Ulster are impressing both at home and in Europe this season, and came within a whisker of beating Leo Cullen’s men at the Aviva back in April in the Champions Cup quarter-finals. But the bare facts are not encouraging for an upset, Leinster have not lost to Ulster or indeed any Irish province at the RDS since 2013. They have scored the most tries this season after seven rounds, conceded the fewest and come into the clash on an 11-match winning run. Last season this fixture at the RDS was entirely one-way traffic, Sean Cronin crossing for a first-half double as Leinster wrapped up a bonus point before the break and ended up 40-7 victors. Make no mistake, Ulster are up against it. But expect fireworks to fly as two in-form sides go head to head.
Saturday – Zebre v Benetton
Benetton ended their wait for a win in Europe by beating Lyon last Saturday, and they will look to carry that form into their derby clash away to Zebre. Kieran Crowley’s men were pipped at the death by Cardiff Blues last time out in the Guinness PRO14, and time is running out to get into the Final Series shakeup. They face a Zebre team who were victorious away to the Dragons in their last domestic game, ending a 13-month wait for a victory in the competition. Against Benetton, however, Zebre’s recent record is not great, having lost seven of the last eight meetings. If Benetton rediscover the form they showed against Lyon, they might yet extend that record in Parma on Saturday.
Saturday – Connacht v Munster
An Irish inter-pro with much more than just regional pride at stake – the winner of this clash could well be sitting atop Conference B come the end of the weekend. Just a point currently separates first-placed Munster from second-placed Connacht and in a conference where there are just four points between the top four, every game counts. The sides are coming off contrasting European results against English teams as Connacht kept their Champions Cup qualification hopes alive with a dramatic late win over Gloucester, while Munster suffered a narrow defeat at Saracens. Andy Friend’s outfit have lost just once in the last six rounds of Guinness PRO14 action – when Leinster visited the Sportsground in Round 6 – but that is their only home loss in any competition since January. However, Munster’s recent record against Connacht will give them cheer – having lost just one of the six fixtures.
Saturday – Dragons v Scarlets
This is a Welsh derby that often delivers when it comes to tightly-fought drama. In recent years, we have seen Scarlets claim 31-27, 21-16 and 34-20 victories, while the last time these sides met, the Dragons took Judgement Day bragging rights with a 34-32 triumph. And while Dean Ryan’s men may have lost their last three Guinness PRO14 outings, they have nevertheless been defeated at Rodney Parade only once in their last four, while Scarlets have won just one match on the road in domestic action since October 2018. Sitting fourth in a tightly-packed Conference B – just four points off leaders Munster – Brad Mooar will be keen to keep up the chase as they search for a first win in Newport since December 2011.
Saturday - Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh
Scotland’s two heavyweights come to blows for the 166th time at Scotstoun, with the sides having endured somewhat differing fortunes so far this season. The Warriors have lost their last two home games and will be desperate for a win to improve their disappointing fourth-place position in Conference A, where they already trail leaders Leinster by 18 points. A victory over Edinburgh won’t be straightforward however, with Richard Cockerill’s men lying just two points off top spot in Conference B and having not tasted defeat in their last six matches. Glasgow were 34-10 winners in the teams’ last encounter however, and having won 17, lost 16 and drawn one of all the previous 1872 Cup meetings, know there will be everything to play for this weekend.
Saturday – Ospreys v Cardiff Blues
The Ospreys need to stop the rot. They have only won one game all season in both the league and Europe, and that came all the way back at the start of October against Benetton. Since then Mike Ruddock has come in to oversee things at the Liberty Stadium. But Ospreys can take heart from their recent record in Welsh derbies, they have won their last four in a row stretching back over a year. This weekend they face an in-form Cardiff Blues side that are chasing three wins on the spin in the Guinness PRO14. Owen Lane and Josh Adams both managed hat-tricks in Europe this past fortnight as well, so the Ospreys defence will need to be watertight to stop those two in-form Welsh internationals. But the Blues have not won at the Liberty Stadium since 2005 and indeed have only beaten the Ospreys once in the last decade with a 35-17 success at Judgement Day in April 2017.