Race hots up for celtic glory
May 5, 2011
Dai Young's Blues need a win against the Scarlets to guarantee their place in the post-season © Getty Images
The race for the Magners League play-offs is set to reach a dramatic conclusion on Friday night with the final round of the regular season.
Leaders Munster and Leinster are already assured of their places in the semi-finals - with the Munstermen assured of a home tie - but the other two spots are up for grabs ahead of an enthralling set of fixtures.
Four of the six matches still have a bearing on the play-offs riding with possibly the match of the round taking place in Llanelli where Scarlets take on Cardiff Blues, with both teams still in with a chance of making the top four. A win is vital for the Blues whose progression into the semi-finals now depends on this result having failed to gain a single point from their game in hand against Newport Gwent Dragons last Friday - but they have not won away from home on Welsh soil so far this season.
Reigning champions Ospreys' hopes of making the play-offs rest in the hands of others, all they can do is play for maximum points in their game against Aironi in Italy and wait for confirmation of the results from other games. If Leinster want to host a second successive home semi-final, they need a victory in their game against Glasgow Warriors.
Third-placed Ulster know a victory at the Dragons will see them secure their place in the top four. However, a Dragons victory could, depending on results elsewhere, see the Irish Province drop out of the play-off zone altogether.
Scarlets v Blues
Blues coach Dai Young has rung the changes for their showdown with the Scarlets with Tom James, Leigh Halfpenny and Richard Mustoe all out. Jamie Roberts moves to the wing with Dafydd Hewitt starting at centre. In the forwards Sam Warburton moves to blindside with Martyn Williams starting at No.7. Michael Paterson moves to the second row in place of the injured Bradley Davies while Sam Hobbs starts in the front row in place of the injured John Yapp.
Wales fly-half Stephen Jones takes the helm again for the Scarlets with Morgan Stoddart at fullback and George North and Scotland international Sean Lamont on the wings. Regan King, in what will be his last home appearance for the region ahead of a move to Clermont Auvergne, will partner Scott Williams in the centre with Tavis Knoyle starting at scrum-half.
Dragons v Ulster
Following his sterling performance against the Blues last weekend, Dragons and Cross Keys fly-half Steffan has been given the nod at fullback for their clash with Ulster. In a largely unchanged side, Pat Leach replaces centre Ashley Smith who is to be rested and Dan Way comes in for Ben Castle. Props Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick return for Ulster and will pack down alongside skipper Rory Best in the front row. Willie Faloon suffered a shoulder injury in training and is unavailable for selection so Robbie Diack is promoted from the bench to play No.8. As a result, Pedrie Wannenburg moves to blindside flanker and Chris Henry switches to the openside flank.
Aironi v Ospreys
Mike Phillips has been axed from the Ospreys squad for the must-win clash with Aironi with his exit from the region expected at the end of the season. Rhys Webb once again starts in the No.9 shirt, with youngster Tom Isaacs taking a place on the bench. Elsewhere, Jerry Collins will also be missing due to a one-match suspension after receiving three yellow cards during this season.
Leinster v Glasgow
Jamie Heaslip leads a Leinster side which shows several changes from the side who defeated Toulouse last weekend. Heaslip links up in the back-row with Dominic Ryan and Shane Jennings, with Kevin McLaughlin switching to second row alongside Devin Toner. Jack McGrath packs down in the front row alongside Richardt Strauss and Stan Wright while Gordon D'Arcy lines up alongside Eoin O'Malley at centre. Fergus McFadden, meanwhile, is set to bring up his half century of caps in Leinster colours. Cian Healy is one of four international forwards on the bench alongside Nathan Hines, Mike Ross and Rhys Ruddock.
Rising star Mark Bennett has been named as one of five personnel changes from the Glasgow team that played the Scarlets at Firhill a fortnight ago. Also among the changes is fly-half Duncan Weir who comes in for Ruaridh Jackson. The 18-year-old Bennett slots in at outside centre and Peter Murchie will move to fullback as a result where he takes over from Bernardo Stortoni who drops out of the match-day squad altogether. On the right wing, Stortoni's Argentine compatriot Federico Aramburu is given the nod ahead of Hefin O'Hare who also drops out of the travelling party. In the forward pack, Moray Low is the only front-row survivor as Ryan Grant is re-installed ahead of Kevin Tkachuk and Fergus Thomson is preferred to Dougie Hall.
Munster v Connacht
Tomas O'Leary returns to the Munster side for the first time since the game against London Irish in January, for their clash with Connacht at Thomond Park while Alan Quinlan is also included in the starting XV. O'Leary will partner Ronan O'Gara who is just one of four players retained in the starting Xv from last weekend, the others being fullback Felix Jones, wing Doug Howlett and Denis Leamy who this time around starts at No.8. Danny Barnes will partner Johne Murphy in the centre while Simon Zebo takes over from Keith Earls on the wing.
Brian Tuohy returns to the right wing for Connacht while Eoin Griffin switches from the No.14 shirt to outside centre where he will partner Miah Nikora. Andrew Browne comes in at blindside at the expense of Mike McCarthy who switches to lock.
Treviso v Edinburgh
There are three changes to the Edinburgh starting line-up including the return of James King at inside centre having recovered from a shoulder injury with Nick De Luca moving out one to occupy the No.13 berth. Mike Blair injured an ankle in training this week, and so Greig Laidlaw moves to scrum-half with David Blair coming in at stand-off. In the boiler house, meanwhile, Esteban Lozada is suspended after receiving his third yellow card, and so Steven Turnbull is selected to pack down beside Scott MacLeod.
Treviso welcome Luke McLean back at fullback, together with wingers Michele Sepe and Tommaso Benvenuti. Gonzalo Garcia and Alberto Sgarbi are playing in the centre spot, while fly-half Willem De Waal is partnering with scrum-half Tobias Botes. In the front row, Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet is playing loose-head and Lorenzo Cittadini is playing tight-head prop.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jim Mallinder and Justin Burnell were sat on the same top table, but in different circumstances. Tom Hamilton reports on the Aviva Premiership season launch
Tom Hamilton reports back from the launch of the Guinness PRO12 where there is a renewed sense of optimism with all of the off-field changes to the league
So much for the great Australian revival, writes Greg Growden. It now has the potential of going off the rails after the capitulation at Eden Park
The latest Week in Pictures takes in photographs from the Rugby Championship, the Top 14 and the southern hemisphere domestic scene