After their forays into Europe, this weekend sees the start of the festive derby fixtures for the Pro12 teams.
Ulster still lead the way with a perfect 10 out of 10 in this competition, a full nine points clear of their nearest rivals, Scarlets, and are one of three Irish Provinces currently in the play-off zone. They welcome Leinster to Ravenhill on Friday, a victory for the visitors would close the gap between themselves and the leaders to single figures, a loss could, put their own top four place into jeopardy.
The other all Irish fixture is on Saturday when fourth placed Munster travel to the Sportsground to play Connacht, who are looking for a clean sweep over the three other Irish Provinces in Galway this season.
Munster have been in the top five of the table all season, but any slip-up in Galway could let Glasgow Warriors or Ospreys take over their coveted play-off spot.
There is only one all Welsh derby before Christmas as the round 11 game between Newport Gwent Dragons and Ospreys has been held back until New Year’s Eve, so the focus on Friday will be in Cardiff where second placed Scarlets are the visitors at the Arms Park.
Scarlets need to be aware of the teams both above and below them in the table; whilst they will be anxious to close the gap on the leaders, they must be aware that any slip up could see them lose the home play-off berth they currently hold.
The remaining game on Friday is the first of the Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh Rugby double header. Honours were even in the first game last Christmas, with Warriors going on to take the second leg, and with the home team still very much in the running for a top four spot, there is guaranteed to be a capacity crowd at Scotstoun for this encounter.
The only remaining game before Christmas will be in Italy on Saturday, with the first ever local derby between Zebre and Benetton Treviso. The hosts are still looking for their inaugural win in the competition, but Treviso, who were minutes away from pulling off the shock of the last round of European games, will be a hard team to beat.
We look at all the Round 11 action!
Friday, December 21:
CARDIFF BLUES v SCARLETS
(Cardiff Arms Park – Kick-off: 19.05; 19.05 GMT)
Cardiff Blues have won just one of their last six matches in the Pro12: 14-7 at struggling Zebre on 25 November.
The Blues are the only side in the tournament who have tallied more league points on the road this season than they have accumulated at home!
Scarlets four game winning run in the Pro12 came to a halt last time out with their 12-19 defeat to table-topping Ulster at Parc y Scarlets.
The West Wales region are the second best away team in the tournament behind Ulster, and have lost just one of their last eleven fixtures against fellow Welsh regions.
Scarlets have won their last six encounters with the Blues in all competitions, whilst they have not visited the Arms Park since May 2008.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Jason Tovey, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Gavin Evans, 12 Dafydd Hewitt, 11 Harry Robinson, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Lewis Jones, 8 Andries Pretorius (captain), 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 James Down, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Marc Breeze, 1 Taufa’ao Filise.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Williams, 17 Sam Hobbs, 18 Benoit Bourrust, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 Alex Walker, 22 Ceri Sweeney, 23 Owen Williams.
Scarlets: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies (captain), 12 Scott Williams, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Aled Thomas, 9 Tavis Knoyle, 8 Kieran Murphy, 7 Aaron Shingler, 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Johan Snyman, 4 George Earle, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Emyr Phillips, 1 Phil John.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Johnathan Edwards, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Gareth Owen, 23 Gareth Maule.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant Referees: James Jones, Sean Brickell (both Wales)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
ULSTER v LEINSTER
(Ravenhill – Kick-off: 19.05; 19.05 GMT)
Ulster have made the best start to a Pro12 season since the tournament went “home and away” in 2003/04, whilst the only opposing team to triumph at Ravenhill in this competition since October 2011 were Leinster themselves in April.
Leinster have lost just one of their last five Pro12 encounters: 10-19 away at Ospreys on 4 November. The Leinstermen have lost just one of their last nine fixtures against fellow Irish provinces.
Ulster’s only win over Leinster in their last 18 clashes since 2004 was 16-14 at Ravenhill in the Pro12 on 24 October 2009. Saturday 22 December
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry (captain), 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Neil McComb, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Alan O’Connor, 20 Roger Wilson, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Paddy Wallace, 23 Adam D’Arcy.
Leinster: 15 Noel Reid, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Fergus McFadden, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Leo Cullen (captain), 3 Michael Bent, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Aaron Dundon, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Tom Denton, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Andrew Goodman, 23 Adam Byrne.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Peter Fitzgibbon, Olly Hodges (both IFRU)
TMO: Dermot Moloney (Ireland)
GLASGOW WARRIORS v EDINBURGH
(Scotstoun Stadium – Kick-off: 19.35; 19.35 GMT)
Glasgow Warriors have slipped to four straight defeats in all competitions but were so close to claiming a notable scalp with their visit to Top-14 powerhouse Castres on Sunday, only slipping to an 8-10 defeat inside the last ten minutes.
The Warriors have won three of their last four Pro12 contests at Scotstoun.
Edinburgh Rugby have won their last two Pro12 fixtures against Ospreys and Connacht but have not won three in succession in the tournament since October 2010. Edinburgh’s only away win since September was 24-23 in Galway on 1 December.
Glasgow currently hold the 1872 trophy having gained a win and a draw from last season’s festive fixtures with Edinburgh.
Glasgow: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Peter Horne, 11 DTH van der Merwe, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Niko Matawalu, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Tim Swinson, 4 Al Kellock (captain), 3 Moray Low, 2 Pat Macarthur, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 German Araoz, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 James Eddie, 21 Henry Prygos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Stuart Hogg.
Edinburgh: 15 Greig Tonks, 14 Lee Jones, 13 James King, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Stuart McInally, 7 Roddy Grant, 6 David Denton, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Allan Jacobsen.
Replacements: 16 Andy Titterrell, 17 John Yapp, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Sean Cox, 20 Netani Talei, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Ben Atiga, 23 Dougie Fife.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
Assistant Referees: Andrew McMenemy, Bob Nevins (both SRU)
TMO: Jim Yuille (SRU)
Saturday, December 22:
ZEBRE v BENETTON TREVISO
(Stadio XXV Aprile – Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 GMT)
Zebre are still seeking a maiden victory in any competition, and have gained just four bonus points so far in the Pro12.
Benetton Treviso came within three minutes of gaining a notable victory over Leicester Tigers in the European Cup at Stadio Monigo on Saturday, eventually losing out by the closest of margins, 13-14. Treviso’s only win on the road this season was 27-22 at Edinburgh in round six.
This is a first ever meeting between the two teams.
Zebre: 15 Sinoti Sinoti, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Matteo Pratichetti, 12 Paolo Buso, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Andries van Schalkwyk, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Nicola Cattina (captain), 5 Josh Sole, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Carlo Fazzari, 2 Carlo Festuccia, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Luca Redolfini, 19 Michael van Vuuren, 20 Filippo Ferrarini, 21 Alberto Chillon, 22 Samuele Pace, 23 Ruggero Trevisan.
Benetton Treviso: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Ludovico Nitoglia, 13 Christian Loamanu, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Tommaso Iannone, 10 Alberto Di Bernardo, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Dean Budd, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Simone Favaro, 5 Corniel Van Zyl, 4 Francesco Minto, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Luca Redolfini, 19 Michael van Vuren, 20 Filippo Ferrarini, 21 Alberto Chillon, 22 Samuele Pace, 23 Ruggero Trevisan.
Referee: Laurent Cardona ( France, 2nd competition game)
Assistant Referees: Giuseppe Vivarini, Stefano Roscini (both FIR)
TMO: Mauro Dordolo (FIR)
CONNACHT v MUNSTER
(Sportsground – Kick-off: 17.15; 17.15 GMT)
Connacht have won just one of their last five Pro12 matches: 18-3 at home to Benetton Treviso on 3 November.
Connacht have won two of their last three encounters with fellow Irish provinces, and are going for a clean sweep of victories against the three other provinces in Galway this season.
Munster have won three of their last four Pro12 games, whilst the Munstermen’s solitary away victory since the opening weekend was 24-18 at Cardiff Blues on 2 November. Munster have won just one of their last four games against fellow Irish provinces in the Pro12.
Connacht’s only win over Munster since 1986 was 12-6 at the Sportsground on 28 December 2008.
Connacht: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Tiernan O’Halloran, 13 Danie Poolman, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 Johnny O’Connor, 6 Andrew Browne, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 George Naoupu, 3 Nathan White (captain), 2 Jason Harris-Wright, 1 Brett Wilkinson.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Ronan Loughney, 19 Michael Swift, 20 Eoghan Grace, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Eoin Griffin.
Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Luke O’Dea, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Peter Stringer, 8 James Coughlan (captain), 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Paddy Butler, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Mike Sherry, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Sean Henry, 17 Wian du Preez, 18 BJ Botha, 19 Dave Foley, 20 Sean Dougall, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Danny Barnes.
Referee: Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Simon McDowell (both Ireland)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)