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Preview: Ulster v Benetton Rugby

Luke Baker 23 Nov 2017

The Guinness PRO14 returns from a three-week break and two teams that suffered contrasting results last time out, Ulster and Benetton Rugby, clash at the Kingspan Stadium.

Ulster were involved in a thriller at the Isaac Wolfson Stadium before eventually prevailing 43-36 over Southern Kings, while Benetton battled hard against the reigning champion Scarlets before slipping to a 20-8 defeat at Parc y Scarlets.

With both teams looking to make waves in Conference B, this Friday-night contest takes on added importance.

What’s at stake? Ulster are six points adrift of top-of-the-table Scarlets in Conference B but chasing the Welsh outfit hard, while also trying to hold off third-placed Leinster.

Their fellow Irish province are just a point behind them, and making Kingspan Stadium a fortress is the minimum requirement for Les Kiss’ men in pursuit of play-off rugby.

For their part, Benetton have repeatedly impressed this term and are chasing a Champions Cup play-off spot after already racking up three wins to lie fifth.

The Ulstermen’s ten-game unbeaten run in Belfast was ended by Leinster in round 7 of the Guinness PRO14, so they would be well-served not to underestimate their Italian opponents.

Team news (Ulster): Paul Marshall could become just the fifth Ulster player to reach the 200-cap milestone, as he is named among the replacements for Friday’s clash.

Tight-head prop Ross Kane will make his first senior start of the season, while Kieran Treadwell, who featured in Ireland’s win over Fiji last week, returns to the second row alongside Alan O’Connor.

Academy products Aaron Hall and Nick Timoney are named at openside flanker and No.8 respectively, with the former making his senior debut.

Fellow academy forwards Matthew Dalton and Greg Jones are also set for their senior bow, along with South African prop Schalk van der Merwe – all three are named among the replacements.

Team news (Benetton): With a number of regular starters on international duty with Italy, the Benetton coaching staff worked with several permit players from Italian domestic teams during the week.

Among those selected for Friday’s clash are Fiamme Oro’s Giuseppe di Stefano, who starts at prop, and Luca Crosato of Amatori San Dona, who is among the replacements.

There will be several other notable replacements as Federico Ruzza was released by the Italian national team and a trio of players – flanker Marco Barbini, fly-half Marty Banks and centre Luca Morisi – return from their respective injuries.

Talking points: Christian Leali’ifano only has a few games remaining of his loan spell at Ulster before he returns to the Brumbies in the New Year.

The 30-year-old Australian centre has been a revelation in the Guinness PRO14 and he admits his impending departure is not something he’s looking forward to.

“It’s a difficult one,” said Leali’ifano. “I think for me, coming here initially it was just to do the five months and I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much.

“I didn’t know how things would pan out, and it was a bit of a gamble, so for the team to put so much faith in me to be able to put some games together is something I have really enjoyed.

“That’s made it tough to leave. Obviously there has been a little bit of talk but I think that for all parties involved the best thing is to see out the contract and just do what I can for the time being.”

Key Battle: Charles Piutau v Luca Sperandio

When Charles Piutau is on the pitch, you can’t help but watch him – so electric is the game-breaking full-back.

Perhaps the most exciting no.15 in Europe, there is an air of expectation that engulfs the Kingspan Stadium every time the New Zealander touches the ball and he invariably makes something happen – either with his outrageous footwork, his pace or his strength.

He has already assisted four tries in the Guinness PRO14 this season, as well as making at least 50 metres in each of his six league appearances.

But Piutau’s opposite number on Friday, Luca Sperandio, is no slouch either and has consistently impressed since bursting on to the scene last season.

The powerful 21-year-old, comfortable either on the wing or at full-back, is one of the brightest prospects in Italian rugby and made his Azzurri debut earlier this year.

While the tactical and positional side of his game is still a work in progress, Sperandio is a danger with ball in hand who undoubtedly has a nose for the try-line – although whether that will be enough to outshine Piutau remains to be seen.

Key Stat: Benetton have lost their last 11 encounters with Irish provinces since beating Connacht in Treviso in April 2016.

Did you know? Ulster’s only defeat to Benetton in 21 previous fixtures in all competitions was 12-23 in Belfast in October 2011. Ulster did lose 23-27 at Zebre in round 5 but have never lost successive matches to Italian opponents.

Ulster: Charles Piutau; Tommy Bowe, Louis Ludik, Christian Leali’ifano, Craig Gilroy; Peter Nelson, John Cooney; Callum Black, John Andrew, Ross Kane; Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor; Clive Ross, Aaron Hall, Nick Timoney

Replacements: Rob Herring, Schalk van der Merwe, Andy Warwick, Matthew Dalton, Greg Jones, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble.

Benetton Rugby: Luca Sperandio; Tommaso Benvenuti, Ignacio Brex, Alberto Sgarbi, Andrea Bronzini; Tommaso Allan, Giorgio Bronzini; Cherif Traore, Tomas Baravalle, Giuseppe di Stefano; Alessandro Zanni, Irné Herbst; Whetu Douglas, Nasi Manu, Robert Barbieri

Replacements: Hame Faiva, Nicola Quaglio, Alberto De Marchi, Federico Ruzza, Marco Barbini, Luca Crosato, Marty Banks, Luca Morisi

Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU, 15th competition game) AR1: Leo Colgan (IRFU). AR2: Shane Kierans (IRFU) TMO: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU).
BBC2 NI: 
6.55pm 

Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie

Match Page 2017-18 - Lineups WP: 135

Match Page 2017-18 - Lineups WP: 135

Match Page 2017-18 - Match Data WP: 140

Match Page 2017-18 - Timeline WP:139

Trimble the hero as Ulster leave it late

Jack Miller 24 Nov 2017

Ulster’s most-capped player Andrew Trimble stole his side the narrowest of victories right at the death as the Irish province just edged out Benetton Rugby at Kingspan.

The Italians trailed 13-9 at the interval after Tommy Bowe’s first-half try but the boot of Tommaso Allan kept them in touch and they rallied in the second period.

Robert Barbieri looked to have won them the game as he intercepted Schalk van der Merwe to score but up popped that man Trimble to use all his experience and burst over the line with just two minutes remaining – and it was left to ice-cool skipper Christian Lealiifano to kick the winning conversion and make the scoreline 23-22.

Early pressure from the visitors converted into points as Ulster were penalised for offside and Allan made no mistake with a routine kick in front of the sticks.

The Italian fly-half then doubled the lead in the 11th minute, again from the tee, with Clive Ross guilty of not rolling away.

But it was Ulster who scored the first try of the game after their first real period of possession – John Andrew controlling the back of the maul and getting the ball outside to John Cooney, who found Bowe to go around the outside and score his 67th Guinness PRO14 try in the right corner.

Cooney then bisected the posts with conversion from out wide and another cracking shot from a long-range penalty two minutes later extended the lead to 10-6 – although he then missed his next kick after Ulster prop Callum Black got the better of Giuseppe Di Stefano in a scrum.

The hosts really were into their stride now and with Andrea Bronzini sin-binned for an off-the-ball tackle on Louis Ludik, Cooney swept over another three points.

Allan missed a 35th-minute penalty to bring the scores back within a point but he made up for that error with a brilliant kick ten minutes after the break after Andrew was penalised for a high tackle on Marco Barbini.

Scrum-half Paul Marshall came off the bench in the 52nd minute to make his 200th Ulster appearance but it remained all Benetton as the game approached the hour mark.

And they got the reward they deserved when Barbieri picked off a soft pass from replacement van der Merwe to go over in the left corner, Allan connecting with the conversion perfectly to take the score to 19-13.

Lealiifano pulled back three from the tee, with Alessandro Zanni guilty of not rolling away, but the visitors regrouped and Marty Banks responded when van der Merwe was penalised.

Five minutes remained as the Kingspan faithful started to roar and Ulster won a scrum penalty, which Lealiifano stuck into the corner.

And as Ulster kept the ball in hand, Trimble was there to collect Marshall’s popped pass and score the decisive try.

Lealiifano then proved ice runs through his veins as he nailed the kick in front of the posts to earn his side four points in the race to top Conference B in the Guinness PRO14.

Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie

Match Page 2017-18 - Summary WP:137

Match Page 2017-18 - Match Data WP: 140

Match Page 2017-18 - Timeline WP:139

Match Page 2017-18 - Lineups WP: 135

Match Page 2017-18 - Performance WP:138