While most of the attention up north should be on the internationals with this being weekend two of the 2013 RBS 6 Nations let us not forget that we also have round fourteen of the RaboDirect Pro12 competition to look forward to.
An exciting weekend of Pro12 action awaits us with a lot of teams still being able to make a charge at a top spot in the league.
Following Wales’ loss to Ireland in the first round of the Six Nations, three of their Regions have a chance to avenge the result when they take on Irish opposition as the PRO12 returns after a five week break.
All three games are on Friday night; at Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff Blues host Leinster, to the west Llanelli is the destination for Connacht, whilst the only Welsh team to travel are reigning champions Ospreys, who visit Ravenhill.
Cardiff Blues are looking to rebuild their fortress at the Arms Park and have won their last three games at the venue, but the visiting European champions, Leinster, will be tough opponents.
Scarlets sit just outside the Play-Off Zone, and any points they can take off their visitors Connacht, who do not have a very good record in Wales, will be welcomed.
Ulster took over the top of the table after round 5 and have remained there ever since. They have now pulled out an 11 point lead which could stand them in good stead during the international period.
The last game on Friday night is at Rodney Parade where Newport Gwent Dragons host Benetton Treviso. The Italian outfit have a good record against the Dragons, but the Newport Gwent team have picked up positive results in their most recent games outside this tournament.
The two Scottish teams both face away trips, Edinburgh Rugby to Munster on Saturday and Glasgow Warriors face Zebre in Italy on Sunday.
Victory over another Italian opponent, Benetton Treviso, in the last round lifted Warriors to second place in the table, the highest position they’ve held all season, whilst conversely Munster’s loss to Cardiff Blues saw them drop out of the Play-Off zone.
With just four points separating the second to sixth placed teams, the challenge for the Play-Off spots is really on.
Friday, 8 February
Ulster v Ospreys
(Ravenhill – 19.05; 19.05 GMT)
Ulster’s only defeat in the first 13 rounds of the RaboDirect PRO12 was 10-24 to Munster at Thomond Park on 29 December.
The Ulstermen’s only reversal at Ravenhill in the tournament since October 2011 was 8-16 to Leinster on 20 April 2012.
Ulster have won their last six encounters with Welsh regions, whilst the Ospreys were the most recent Welsh team to win at the famous old venue, doing so on 13 April 2010.
Ospreys have now gone four successive matches without a win in all competitions; however in the RaboDirect PRO12 the Welshmen have suffered just one reversal in their last ten encounters: 13-23 at Edinburgh on 23 November. Ospreys only away win since October was 14-3 over the Dragons on New Year’s Eve.
Ulster have already beaten Ospreys in Swansea in round two this year and are going for a first ever season’s double over the Welsh region.
Ulster: 15 Ricky Andrew, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Michael Allen, 10 Stuart Olding, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Robbie Diack, 7 Ali Birch, 6 Michael McComish, 5 Lewis Stevenson, 4 Johann Muller (captain), 3 Tom Court, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Ricky Lutton, 18 Andrew Warwick, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Neil McComb, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Darren Cave, 23 Chris Cochrane.
Ospreys: 15 Richard Fussell, 14 Tom Habberfield, 13 Tom Isaacs, 12 Jonathan Spratt, 11 Ben John, 10 Matthew Morgan, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i (captain), 8 Joe Bearman, 7 Sam Lewis, 6 Morgan Allen, 5 James King, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Cai Griffiths, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Ryan Bevington.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Dwyer, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Dmitri Arhip, 19 Alun Wyn Jones, 20 Lloyd Peers, 21 Arthur Ellis, 22 Ross Jones, 23 Jamie Murphy.
Referee: Marius Mitrea.
Assistant Referees: Paul Haycock, Nigel Correll.
TMO: Simon McDowell.
Newport Dragons v Benetton Treviso
(Rodney Parade – 19:30; 19.30 GMT)
Newport Gwent Dragons have won back to back first team games against Ospreys and London Welsh in the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
In the PRO12 Dragons’ solo victory in their last eight contests was 14-3 at home to Connacht in round nine.
The Welshmen have won three of their last four encounters with Italian opponents in all competitions.
Benetton Treviso have won three of their last five matches in all competitions, whilst their three game winning run in the PRO12 ended at Glasgow in round 13.
Treviso’s most recent win outside of Italy was on 5 October against Edinburgh at Murrayfield. The Italians have a won 4, lost 2 record against Welsh regions so far this season.
Benetton’s only loss in their last six matches with the Dragons was 33-10 at Rodney Parade in the PRO12 on 3 April 2011.
Newport Dragons: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Will Harries, 13 Pat Leach, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Tom Prydie, 10 Steffan Jones, 9 Jonathan Evans, 8 Ieuan Jones, 7 Nic Cudd, 6 Lewis Evans (captain), 5 Adam Jones, 4 Ian Nimmo, 3 Nathan Buck, 2 Hugh Gustafson, 1 Phil Price.
Replacements: 16 Sam Parry, 17 Owen Evans, 18 Nathan Williams, 19 Josh Tyler, 20 Jevon Groves, 21 Wayne Evans, 22 Ashley Smith, 23 Hallam Amos.
Benetton Treviso: 15 Brendan Williams, 14 Christian Loamanu, 13 Gideon La Grange, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Ludovico Nitoglia, 10 Alberto Di Bernardo, 9 Fabio Semenzato, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Valerio Bernabò, 6 Dean Budd, 5 Corniel Van Zyl (captain), 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Jacobus Roux, 2 Giovanni Maistri, 1 Ignacio Fernandez-Rouyet.
Replacements: 16 Franco Sbaraglini, 17 Matteo Muccignat, 18 Pedro Di Santo, 19 Enrico Ceccato, 20 Filippo Giusti, 21 Giulio Toniolatti, 22 James Ambrosini, 23 Andrea Pratichetti.
Referee: David Wilkinson.
Assistant Referees: Jon Mason, Neil Perkins
Scarlets v Connacht
(Parc y Scarlets – 19.30; 19.30 GMT)
Scarlets ended a five game losing run with their 40-19 victory over Leicester Tigers at Parc y Scarlets in the Anglo-Welsh Cup on Sunday.
Scarlets have a won 3, lost 2 record at home in the RaboDirect PRO12 this season.
Connacht have won two of their last three matches in all competitions, whilst the Irishmen have lost their last five away games since defeating Zebre 19-10 in Parma in the European Cup on 13 October. Connacht’s only win in their last 18 visits to Wales since 2008 was 27-19 against Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade on 30 March 2012.
Scarlets won 24-11 when the two sides met in round three of the RaboDirect PRO12, whilst Connacht’s most recent victory in Llanelli came at the old Stradey Park, 29-21, on 9 October 2004.
Scarlets: 15 Gareth Owen, 14 Andy Fenby, 13 Nick Reynolds, 12 Adam Warren, 11 Kristian Phillips, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Kieran Murphy, 7 Josh Turnbull, 6 Rob McCusker (captain), 5 Johan Synman, 4 George Earle, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Emyr Phillips, 1 Phil John.
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Shaun Hopkins, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Lewis Rawlins, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Aled Thomas, 23 Gareth Maule.
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Kyle Tonetti, 11 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 Johnny O’Connor, 6 Andrew Browne, 5 Mick Kearney, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Nathan White (captain), 2 Jason Harris-Wright, 1 Brett Wilkinson.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Rodney Ah You, 18 Ronan Loughney, 19 Willie Faloon, 20 John Muldoon, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Miah Nikora, 23 Gavin Duffy.
Referee: Matteo Liperini
Assistant Referees: James Jones, Alan Jenkins
Cardiff Blues v Leinster
(Cardiff Arms Park – 19.30 19.30 GMT)
Cardiff Blues Director of Rugby Phil Davies has called on his side to regain some pride when they take on Leinster in their PRO12 re-match on Friday night.
Earlier in the season the Welsh region went the RDS Arena and were put to sword by the Irish giants in a 59-22 victory.
Since then the Blues have struggled somewhat in the league, currently sitting seventh in the table while Leinster have pushed on into the top four and the play-off battle.
The Blues have however won their last two PRO12 contests while Leinster have won their last four in all competitions and have only lost one of their last 12 clashes with the Blues.
But with the Irish region coming to Wales on Friday shorn of a number of big name internationals Davies has called on his side to gain a measure of revenge.
“I have no doubt that we will be stronger going into the end of this season than we were last year. Next season we will be stronger again,” he said.
“Leinster are ahead of us in this process but we are heading in the right direction.
“For me, tomorrow’s game has a bit of pride attached to what we have to deliver. Over in Dublin it was not a good performance.
“The second half was creditable but the first half we got hammered. I didn’t enjoy that. I didn’t enjoy the game or what happened afterwards.
“We have to lay a strong marker down on Friday. We have to put in a massive performance against one of the top squads in Europe.
“It is a great challenge for the team. We want to try and win the game and the next few games so we can keep pushing towards the top four.”
Jason Tovey will be at full-back for the Blues on Friday as up and comer Rhys Patchell continues in the fly-half role, Dafydd Hewitt and Gavin Evans pairing up in the centres.
And in the forwards Rhys Williams, Sam Hobbs and Taufa’ao Filise make up the front row with the impressive Robin Copeland at No.8.
Leinster have been rocked by the news that fly-half Jonny Sexton is set to leave the region at the end of the season, having helped the team to three Heineken Cup titles.
Starting in his place this weekend will be Ian Madigan, the PRO12′s third top points scorer, who partners Isaac Boss in the half-backs.
But while Madigan has been in impressive form this season, kicking coach Richie Murphy insists the club will need to move to replace Sexton this summer.
“We definitely need to bring someone else in,” Murphy told the Irish Independent.
“It will come down to the situation of what’s available. The process is ongoing. I think the situation is that we have to see what’s out there and a decision has to be made on what way we have to go.
“And it’s not as easy as just saying ‘we’ll back Ian Madigan’. We will back Ian Madigan, he will play a lot of rugby, I think he’s played in 70 out of the last 71 games and that’s not going to change.”
Cardiff Blues: 15 Jason Tovey, 14 Owen Williams, 13 Gavin Evans (captain), 12 Dafydd Hewitt, 11 Harry Robinson, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Lewis Jones, 8 Robin Copeland, 7 Rory Watts-Jones, 6 Michael Paterson, 5 James Down, 4 Macauley Cook, 3 Taufa’ao Filise, 2 Rhys Williams, 1 Sam Hobbs.
Replacements: 16 Marc Breeze, 17 Nathan Trevett, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Luke Hamilton, 20 Josh Navidi, 21 Alex Walker, 22 Ceri Sweeney, 23 Richard Smith.
Leinster: 15 Dave Kearney, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 Andrew Goodman, 11 Darren Hudson, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Dominic Ryan, 5 Tom Denton, 4 Leo Cullen (captain), 3 Michael Bent, 2 Aaron Dundon, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Thomas Sexton, 17 Heinke Van Der Merwe, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Ben Marshall, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 John Cooney, 22 Noel Reid, 23 Fionn Carr.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon
Assistant Referees: Sean Brickell, Martyn Lewis
Saturday, 9 February
Munster v Edinburgh
(Musgrave Park – 19.45 19.45 GMT)
Munster have won four of their last five games in all competitions, but their home record varies wildly with the venue: winning their last nine fixtures at Thomond Park but losing their last two at Musgrave Park.
The Munstermen have won their last six encounters against Scottish opponents.
Edinburgh Rugby have slipped to seven straight defeats in all competitions since beating Connacht 24-23 at the Sportsground in round ten of the RaboDirect PRO12, this victory representing Edinburgh’s only one over an Irish province in their last 14 such encounters.
Munster have already beaten Edinburgh three times in all competitions this season. The Scotsmen have not triumphed on Munster soil since October 2006 in Limerick, whilst they have not won in Cork since April 2004.
Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Ivan Dineen, 12 JJ Hanrahan, 11 Danny Barnes, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 James Coughlan (capt), 7 Sean Dougall, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Ian Nagle, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16 Mike Sherry, 17 Wian du Preez, 18 J Ryan, 19 Dave Foley, 20 Tommy O’Donnell, 21 Paddy Butler, C Sheridan, Scott Deasy.
Edinbrugh: 15 Greig Tonks, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Ben Cairns, 12 Ben Atiga, 11 Tom Brown, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Richie Rees, 8 Netani Talei, 7 Stuart McInally, 6 Sean Cox (captain), 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Perry Parker, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Andy Titterrell, 1 John Yapp.
Replacements: 16 Steven Lawrie, 17 Allan Jacobsen, 18 Alex Allan, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Chris Leck, 22 Gregor Hunter, 23 Lee Jones.
Referee: Ian Davies
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher, John Carvill
TMO: Seamus Flannery
Sunday, 10 February
Zebre v Glasgow
(Stadio XXV Aprile – 15.05 14.05 GMT)
Zebre gained a first ever European Cup point last time out in losing 20-25 to Connacht in Galway.
The new franchise have just six league points in the RaboDirect PRO12 this season – five losing bonus points and one try bonus gained against table topping Ulster in Parma in the rearranged round four match.
Glasgow Warriors have won their last three PRO12 fixtures and have been victorious in their last half a dozen games against Italian opponents since losing 13-15 to Treviso at Firhill on 23 September 2011.
The Warriors’ only reversal in Italy since 1998 remains the 16-19 defeat in Treviso on 16 April 2011.
Glasgow won the round five encounter with Zebre, 22-19, at Scotstoun.
Zebre: 15 Tito Tebaldi, 14 Andrea Bacchetti, 13 Roberto Quartaroli, 12 Matteo Pratichetti, 11 Alessandro Castagnoli, 10 Daniel Halangahu, 9 Alberto Chillon, 8 Dries van Schalkwyk, 7 Mauro Bergamasco (captain), 6 Filippo Cristiano, 5 Josh Sole, 4 Michael van Vuren, 3 David Ryan, 2 Andrea Manici, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Carlo Festuccia, 17 Salvatore Perugini, 18 Luca Redolfini, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Emiliano Caffini, 21 Filippo Ferrarini, 22 Alberto Chiesa, 23 Alberto Benettin.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 Rory Lamont, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Graeme Morrison, 11 Byron McGuigan, 10 Scott Wight, 9 Niko Matawalu, 8 Ryan Wilson (captain), 7 John Barclay, 6 Josh Strauss, 5 Tim Swinson, 4 Tom Ryder, 3 Jon Welsh, 2 Gerwyn Price, 1 Gordon Reid.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Ed Kalman, 18 Ofa Fainga’anuku, 19 Nick Campbell, 20 James Eddie, 21 Sean Kennedy, 22 Finn Russell, 23 Fraser Thomson.
Referee: Andrew McMenemy
Assistant Referees: Matteo Liperini, Stefano Marrama
TMO: Mauro Dordolo
Table after Thirteen Rounds