Benetton play host to the Scarlets on Saturday in a game which could be decisive in the battle for Guinness PRO14 Finals Series places.
At the Stadio Monigo (kick-off 6.15pm), the Italian side will look to consolidate their position in Conference B against the 2016-17 champions.
What’s at stake?
This could prove to be one of the most important games in the entire Guinness PRO14 regular season as Benetton, second in Conference B, host Scarlets who are fourth. Just two points separate the sides two thirds of the way through the season.
With Edinburgh and Ulster also right in the hunt behind runaway leaders Leinster, it looks like four teams bidding for two places.
Team news (Benetton)
Benetton are without a number of their Italian internationals but can still call on a number of players released by Conor O’Shea. Ian McKinley will captain the side from fly-half, while Federico Ruzza starts in the second row, having impressed off the bench for the Azzurri.
In Ratuva Tavuyara and Monty Ioane, Kieran Crowley can also call on two of the most dangerous wide threats in the competition.
Team news (Scarlets)
Josh Macleod will captain the Scarlets, who have Rhys Patchell and Steff Evans back from international duty, with the latter starting on the wing. Kieran Hardy and Dan Jones form the half-back pairing, while Johnny McNicholl starts at full-back, with Leigh Halfpenny not quite ready in the end to feature.
Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac: “They’re an improved side. Last year, in the same window, they beat us at their place.
“They’ve got a side now that, with a added few players, is adding a bit of spark, a couple of good wingers on the outside giving them a bit of power out there.
“Also, pace; their fitness levels have improved. They’re playing a lot more rugby, using the ball a lot more and with that, they’re going to pose a big threat!”
Monty Ioane v Steff Evans
They won’t be up against one another but the two left-wingers are going to be crucial to their sides’ hopes in Treviso. Ioane has established himself as one of the most dangerous wide threats in the entire competition.
He goes up against Evans, whose quick feet have been a big part of the Scarlets’ success over the last two seasons.
Key fact: The Scarlets have won just once on the road so far this season, away to the Isuzu Southern Kings back in October.
Did you know? Benetton’s win over the Scarlets last February was their only win over the Welsh side since 2013.
Benetton Rugby: Luca Sperandio; Ratuva Tavuyara, Tommaso Iannone, Marco Zanon, Monty Ioane; Ian McKinley (c), Dewaldt Duvenage; Nicola Quaglio, Tomas Baravalle, Marco Riccioni; Irné Herbst, Federico Ruzza; Marco Lazzaroni, Giovanni Pettinelli, Toa Halafihi
Replacements: Engjel Makelara, Derrick Appiah, Tiziano Pasquali, Marco Fuser, Robert Barbieri, Alberto Sgarbi, Edoardo Gori, Antonio Rizzi
Scarlets: Johnny McNicholl, Ioan Nicholas, Kieron Fonotia, Paul Asquith, Steff Evans, Dan Jones, Kieran Hardy; Phil Price, Marc Jones, Werner Kruger, Josh Helps, Tom Price, Josh Macleod (c), Dan Davis, Uzair Cassiem
Replacements: Dafydd Hughes, Dylan Evans, Simon Gardiner, Lewis Rawlins, Will Boyde, Jon Evans, Rhys Patchell, Steff Hughes
TV: At Stadio Monigo, Treviso, 6.15pm. Live on DAZN, S4C, Premier Sports 1, eir Sport 2
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)
AR1: Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR) AR2: Mark Patton (IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
Benetton reasserted their Guinness PRO14 Final Series credentials with a hard-fought 25-19 victory against Scarlets as they stole a march on their Conference B rivals.
The visitors led the way on three occasions in Italy thanks to tries from Kieran Hardy and a Johnny McNicholl brace, but they were unable to hold on as Benetton held their nerve.
Tries from Toa Halafihi, Luca Sperandio and Federico Ruzza, plus ten points from the boot of Ian McKinley, proved enough to hand Benetton a vital victory.
Scarlets, who had Marc Jones in the sin bin for the final ten minutes, remain in fifth place in Conference B after the defeat as Benetton move level with Edinburgh in second.
Wayne Pivac’s men took the lead inside 20 minutes with a trademark move from a lineout in their own 22, with Dan Jones racing through an outside gap from second-receiver.
He found Ioan Nicholas outside him, who stepped back in and found Hardy to score, with Jones adding the extras to put the visitors 7-0 ahead at the Stadio Monigo.
Benetton responded on the half-hour through Halafihi, who burrowed over the line after initially coming up short following a powerful scrum, with McKinley converting.
The hosts were not level for long, though, as Scarlets restored their lead on the brink of half-time when Steff Evans found a gap in the defence and offloaded to McNicholl for the score.
With Scarlets 12-7 ahead, Benetton looked to come out the blocks quickly after the restart – and they did just that as Ratuva Tavuyara’s lovely run set up Sperandio for the try.
McKinley was unable to convert, but he put Benetton ahead for the first time on 51 minutes with a penalty, before Scarlets hit back with their third try moment later.
The visitors went wide from their own 22 as Kieron Fonotia kept the Benetton defence guessing, before finding McNicholl who was able to stroll over for his second of the game.
Dewaldt Duvenage then came agonisingly close to scoring for Benetton after a clever kick and chase, only to see his try ruled out by the TMO after he failed to control the ball.
It was quickly forgotten though when Benetton finally grabbed their third try through Ruzza, who caught a cross-kick after McKinley was fouled to cross the whitewash.
McKinley extended the hosts’ lead with a simple penalty with less than ten minutes on the clock after Jones was sent to the bin for a high tackle and Benetton held on for a memorable win.