Connacht v Zebre
When: Tonight 8pm
Where can I watch? SkySports 2 (red button)
The story so far:
Connacht’s Heineken Cup adventure comes to an end tonight. At least until the next time an Irish province claims club rugby’s top prize.
Zebre, predictably, have remained pointless in their debut season. But just as Eric Elwood will view this as the ideal way to rack up their fourth win in the European Cup, the Italian side be desperate to break the seal.
Team news: Elwood has been able to recall experienced number 10 Dan Parks to help steer the young side to victory at the Sportsground.
The Aussie /Scot is one of three changes to the side outclassed by Harlequins. The rest of the back-line remains unchanged. Brett Wilkinson comes into the front row in place of the injured Denis Buckley and Mick Kearney will wear number six as both Eoin McKeon and George Naoupu have failed to recover from ankle and neck injuries respectively.
Connacht: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White (c); M Swift, M McCarthy; M Kearney, J O’Connor, A Browne.
Replacements: E Reynecke, JP Cooney, R Loughney, D Gannon, E Grace, P O’Donohoe, M Nikora, D Poolman.
Zebre: T Tebaldi; G Venditti, R Quartaroli, M Pratichetti, R Trevisan; D Halangahu, A Chillon; S Perugini, D Giazzon, L Redolfini; M van Vuuren, J Sole; E Caffini, M Bergamasco (c), F Ferrarini.
Replacements: C Festuccia, M Aguero, D Ryan, N Belardo, A Manici, L Martinelli, A Chiesa, S Pace.
Castres v Ulster
When: Saturday 1.35 pm
Where can I watch? SkySports 3
The story so far: Ulster can’t be moved from the top of Pool 1, but they need to win in France for the first time in 14 attempts to stand a chance of hosting a quarter final.
Going into the sixth round of games, Ulster are the fourth seed for the last eight. However, Saracens and Toulouse (or arguably Leicester) are hot on their heels. While Castres are out, they could move into second with a win. As they can’t drop lower than third, the appetite for a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup more than likely doesn’t exist.
Whatever 15 they put out they will want to put on a decent display at home, but sitting fourth in the Top 14, you sense their attention will be drawn to Thursday’s trip to Bayonne.
Team news: The hosts have made eight changes to the side who lost in Northampton last Friday. The back row has been lifted out completely, allowing Pedrie Wannenburg face his old club.
Pierre Bernard and Seremaia Bai are drafted in as fullback and centre, while last week’s fly-half Daniel Kirkpatrick drops out of the squad altogether allowing Remi Tales start at number 10. Castres will remain potent if given penalty opportunities as in-demand South African scrum-half Rory Kockott is retained.
Ulster coach Mark Ancombe has been forced into a number of changes due to the injuries suffered by Jared Payne, Nick Williams and Dan Tuohy last week.
Craig Gilroy will get a chance to show his ability to run from fullback, while pack injuries have prompted recalls for Roger Wilson and Neil McComb.
One notable unforced change is the inclusion of Paul Marshall at scrum-half, with Ruan Pienaar (a former Natal Sharks team-mate of Kockott) preferred to Paddy Jackson at number 10.
Castres Olympique: Pierre Bernard; Max Evans, Seremaia Bai, Remi Lamerat, Marcel Garvey; Remi Tales, Rory Kockott; Yannick Forestier, Marc Antoine Rallier, Anton Peikrishvili; Matthias Rolland (c), Christophe Samson; Mathieu Babillot, Piula Faasalele, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Brice Mach, Saimone Taumoeapeau, Mihaita Lazar, Joe Tekori, Thierry Lacrampe, Janie Bornman, Paul Bonnefond, Marc Andreu.
Ulster: Craig Gilroy; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Michael Allen; Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry (c), Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Iain Henderson, Mike McComish, Michael Heaney, Paddy Jackson, Chris Cochrane.
Exeter Chiefs v Leinster
When: Saturday 6pm
Where can I watch? SkySports 3
The story so far: The Chiefs provided the warning sign for Leinster back in early October. Their debut in the European Cup very nearly delivered a massive shock on the road against the three-time champions.
Since then, Joe Schmidt’s side have beaten Llanelli Scarlets twice, bookending the defeats to Clermont Auvergne. Now, Leinster are in a hole. They need to run up a score against the Premiership side and then hope Munster can’t match them at Thomond Park on Sunday.
In five games, Exeter have been hammered twice (by Clermont), won twice and went within a stray 45-metre penalty of a draw at the RDS. They’re ability to disrupt the breakdown pattern cannot be underestimated – no side with a Bruff Hayes ever should.
The return of several superstars will help Leinster’s quest, but the Chiefs are a team who pride themselves on their performances at Sandy Park. Head coach Rob Baxter has made three changes to the side which lost in France, two of them enforced.
Former Ulster back Ian Whitten comes onto the wing and Sireli Naqelevuki to the centre in place of the injured Phil Dollman and Gonzalo Camacho. Former Wallaby lock Dean Mumm comes into the pack in place of James Hanks.
Exeter Chiefs: Luke Arscott; Ian Whitten, Sireli Naqelevuki, Jason Shoemark, Matt Jess; Gareth Steenson, Kevin Barrett; Ben Moon, Neil Clark, Hoani Tui; Tom Hayes (c), Dean Mumm; Tom Johnson, James Scaysbrook, Richard Baxter.
Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Carl Rimmer, Craig Mitchell, James Hanks, Ben White, Will Chudley, Ignacio Mieres, Nic Sestaret.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross; Leo Cullen (c), Devin Toner; Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Heinke van der Merwe, Michael Bent, Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.
Munster v Racing Metro
When: Sunday 12.45pm
Where can I watch? SkySports 2 (red button)
The story so far: Munster’s season may just have turned out a shade or two brighter had they closed the deal in the reverse fixture in Paris. Instead, they lost their foot-hold in the game and with it control of the group.
They shared the points over two games with Saracens and made hard work of taking nine points off Edinburgh. Still, if the Scots can pull off an almighty shock at Vicarage Road then Munster could still finish top of Pool 1.
Much like Castres, Racing’s interest will not lie with finishing strong in the hope of taking on the Amlin. Currently ten points adrift of the Top 14 play-off spots the Paris club will be more interested in taking full points from next Friday’s visit to Bordeaux.
Ronan O’Gara’s suspension means Ian Keatley will pull the strings with Munster seeking to make a statement by taking up a spot in the last eight.
Keatley’s promotion means JJ Hanrahan could make an appearance off the bench. So too will Casey Laulala with James Downey and Keith Earls again the preferred partnership in midfield.
Racing have made the full baker’s dozen of changes. Only winger Sireli Bobo and flanker Antoine Battut will feature from the home defeat to Saracens. Olly Barkley returns to fly-half in place of Juan Martin Hernandez who will not even travel to Limerick.
Julien Brugnaut and Benjamin Sa will make the front row competitive, but the back-line is short of star quality and could be in for a long day if Keatley can keep the hosts on a high tempo.
Munster: Felix Jones; Doug Howlett (c), Keith Earls, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, BJ Botha; Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Wian du Preez, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Paddy Butler, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Casey Laulala.
Racing Metro: Gaetan Germain; Julien Jane, Guillaume Bousses, Alexandre Dumoulin, Sireli Bobo; Olly Barkley, Mathieu Belie: Julien Brugnaut, Benjamin Noirot, Benjamin Sa; Karim Ghezal, Fabrice Metz; Antoine Battut, Bernard le Roux, Jacques Cronje.
Replacements: Thomas Bianchin, Andrea Lo Cicero, Juan Pablo Orlandi, Jose Qovu Nailiko, Benjamin Fall, Santiago Dellape, Sebasten Descons, Masi Matadigo.