Benetton Rugby and Ulster are set to do battle at the Stadio Monigo in Treviso, as they both look to leap up the Conference B standings in the Guinness PRO14.
Both teams go into the match searching for a pick-up in form. Ulster have only two wins in their last five matches, while Benetton have just one over the same stretch of fixtures.
Leinster swept Benetton aside easily as they won 31-3 last week, with the Italians losing their first home league fixture this season.
Ulster are looking for a second away victory of the season with their only previous win away from the Kingspan Stadium so far this season coming against the Isuzu Southern Kings.
What’s at stake?
A play-off spot in Conference B could come down to these two teams. While Leinster look well-placed in first in the conference, it remains very tight behind them in the battle for Finals Series places.
Ulster and Benetton both narrowly missed out last year so will be looking to make up for it this season with Ulster currently third and Benetton fifth, five points behind them.
Benetton will be hoping to get their first win against Ulster since the competition format was changed. Last year’s two games were tightly-contested Ulster came out on top in both, 21-14 in Italy and 23-22 at home.
Team news (Benetton):
Full-back Jayden Hayward starts alongside Ratuva Tavuyara and Tommaso Benvenuti, who are on the wings.
Ignacio Brex and Alberto Sgarbi are in the centres with Dewaldt Duvenage at scrum-half and Tommaso Allan at fly-half.
Derrick Appiah and Hame Faiva keep their places in the front row with Simone Ferrari replacing Marco Riccioni at tighthead following the loss against Leinster.
The locks will be Irné Herbst and Alessandro Zanni, while coach Kieran Crowley’s starting XV is completed by captain Dean Budd, Michele Lamaro and Marco Barbini in the back row.
Team news (Ulster):
Ulster youngster James Hume, who came through the club’s academy, will make his first senior start at centre. He has already made cameos against Munster and Connacht earlier this term.
Hume will replace Will Addison, who could feature off the bench for Ireland against Italy in Chicago this weekend.
Robert Baloucoune, another academy graduate, will start on the wing after impressing on debut as Ulster won 36-18 against the Dragons in Ireland.
Stuart McCloskey has been released from Ireland duty and will partner Hume in the centre, while Billy Burns has recovered from injury to start at fly-half.
Another player stood down from the Ireland squad was hooker Rob Herring, who comes in to start in the front row alongside Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore.
Captain Alan O’Connor partners Kieran Treadwell in the second row while Marcell Coetzee, Sean Reidy and Nick Timoney form the back row.
Ulster back-rower Sean Reidy is looking for his side to move up the table. He said: “If we can get a win this week that’ll take us onto 25 or 26 points, and that’ll be instrumental come the end of the season.
“You’ve got to take whatever you can get, especially at this time of the year, and we’ve got to keep grinding away and keep trying to put in the best performances we can.”
Key battle: Alessandro Zanni v Alan O’Connor
Ulster skipper Alan O’Connor will battle with Alessandro Zanni in the second row. O’Connor, 26, has been a near ever-present for side so far this term but he will face off against an an experienced competitor in Zanni. The Italian, 34, has 106 international caps with his most recent appearance against Japan this summer.
Key stat: Both sides have a negative points difference despite Ulster (-22) sitting third in the Conference B and Benetton Rugby (-26) in fifth.
Did you know? Benetton have won only once against Ulster in 16 attempts, with their single victory coming in 2011 when they won 23-12 in Belfast. The two sides also played out a 29-29 draw at the Kingspan Stadium in 2013.
Benetton Rugby: Jayden Hayward, Ratuva Tavuyara, Ignacio Brex, Alberto Sgarbi, Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Allan, Dewaldt Duvenage, Derrick Appiah, Hame Faiva, Simone Ferrari, Irne Herbst, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd (c), Michele Lamaro, Marco Barbini
Replacements: Tomas Baravalle, Alberto de Marchi, Marco Riccioni, Niccolò Cannone, Giovanni Pettinelli, Edoardo Gori, Antonio Rizzi, Angelo Esposito.
Ulster: Peter Nelson, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Henry Speight, Billy Burns, David Shanahan, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor (c), Kieran Treadwell, Marcell Coetzee, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney
Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Clive Ross, Greg Jones, Jonny Stewart, Johnny McPhillips, Angus Kernohan
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU) Assistant Referees: Ben Blain (SRU), Andrea Spadoni (FIR)
Citing Commissioner: Maurizio Vancini (FIR)
TMO: Stefano Penné (FIR)
A sensational Ulster turnaround secured Dan McFarland’s men an important 15-10 victory over Benetton to prevent the Italians from earning only their second ever victory over the Irish province.
In a classic game of two halves, Benetton looked insatiable before the break when Hame Faiva scored, before Ulster showed their dominance to claim a fifth win of the Guinness PRO14 season.
Sean Reidy scored Ulster’s opening try immediately after half-time, before Rob Herring settled the tie as the home side clinched a losing bonus point.
Both teams came into the match needing a win to spark an upturn in form with Ulster only winning two of their last five matches, while Benetton had claimed just one victory themselves over the same stretch of fixtures.
But it was the home side that claimed the early advantage when Benetton had too much power in the rolling maul and Faiva had the presence and power to burst over the line inside three minutes. Tomasso Allan kicked the extras.
Experienced Italian head Alessandro Zanni proved a constant nuisance and Kieran Crowley’s side continued to attack at a high tempo by moving the ball quickly through the midfield.
Benetton dominated the majority of possession as Ulster found themselves penned in their own half, but they continued to be let off by the Treviso side’s unforced errors when push came to shove.
Billy Burns reduced the deficit against the run of play, but it was Benetton that almost doubled their lead when Tommaso Benvenuti edged his way over the whitewash.
However, youngster Hume, on his first Ulster start, was able to prevent the Italian from dotting down to keep the score 7-3 at half-time.
The tackle proved pivotal and Ulster profited almost immediately after the restart when Reidy found a gap in the Benetton line to score and take a slim 8-7 lead.
Ulster looked reinvigorated and Stuart McCloskey thought he had extended his side’s advantage, but he was adjudged to have lost control of the ball as he drove over the try line.
Michele Lamaro was sent to the sidelines for ten minutes for collapsing the scrum and the decision paid dividends for Ulster as Herring capitalised from the set-piece to turn the game on its head. Burns kicked for two.
Allen handed Benetton a way back into the game with a penalty 17 minutes from time, but it wasn’t enough as Ulster held on for victory.