Here is a quick preview of what’s to come on the opening weekend with some interesting fixtures taking place.
First up is the clash of the Cheetahs and last season’s runners-up the Glasgow Warriors. With a host of Glasgow players away on international duty this could be a chance for the South African side to get their competition off to the perfect start. However, Glasgow have recruited well over the last couple of months and some new faces will want to impress as they take to the field on Friday.
The only other game on Friday sees Ulster host the Ospreys as the Irish province will look to start their season well following a mixed season last time around. Meanwhile the Ospreys will want to improve on what was a poor season for them.
Saturday is filled with the remaining five games of the round as Munster open their campaign against the Dragons. Munster are without the likes of Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, among others, but will still be confident they can claim a win.
At the same time the Kings will play host to the Cardiff Blues, another team that failed to hit top form last season. The Kings have struggled badly in the past two seasons and will want to take advantage of a weakened Blues side in order to build points while the big name players away.
Later on Saturday the Scarlets will welcome Connacht in what is possibly the standout game of the round. Connacht will have to cope without stars Jack Carty and Bundee Aki but otherwise they have a strong team that could prove too much for the Scarlets.
Last season’s surprise package Benetton take on two-time reigning champions Leinster in Italy at 17 15. However, despite this looking like a great match-up due to last season, both teams are severely weakened as their key men are currently in Japan. Leinster have had a strong pre-season and will still have names such as Ross Byrne, James Lowe, Devin Toner and Scott Fardy available as they begin their hunt for three in a row.
Whatever happens, what is certain is that players have a chance to impress while the stars are away and expect the season to start off with a bang as teams look to kick-start their campaign in perfect fashion.
Check Out the Full List of Fixtures Below:
Cheetahs vs Glasgow Warriors
Ulster vs Ospreys 19:35
Munster vs Dragons 15:00
Kings vs Cardiff Blues 15:00
Scarlets vs Connacht 17:35
Benetton vs Leinster 17:35
Edinburgh vs Zebre 19:35
Ulster ring the changes for Munster
There are nine changes to the side that travelled to Leicester last Friday. In the back three, Jacob Stockdale and Ethan McIlroy are retained at full-back and left-wing respectively, with Rob Lyttle coming in to start on the right. Will Addison will make his first start this season at outside centre, partnering up with Stuart McCloskey. Michael Lowry and Alby Mathewson will form the starting half-back partnership.
It’s all-change in the front row, with Andrew Warwick and Tom O’Toole getting the nod at loosehead and tighthead prop, and John Andrew named at hooker. Last week’s second row pairing of Alan O’Connor and Iain Henderson has been retained, and Henderson will lead the side. In the back row, Marcus Rea is named to start at openside flanker with Jordi Murphy making the switch to blindside, and David McCann is selected at Number Eight.
Angus Curtis makes a long-awaited return to the Ulster match-day squad for the first time since he sustained a serious knee injury in December 2019, and is named among the replacements. He is joined by David Shanahan and James Hume in providing back line cover. Wallaby lock Sam Carter is also set for his return to action, and he joins Rob Herring, Callum Reid, Marty Moore and Nick Timoney as the forward options on the bench.
Ulster team to play Munster Rugby, Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup Round 2, Friday 7 May at Thomond Park (kick-off 8.15pm, live on Premier Sports):
(15-9) Jacob Stockdale, Rob Lyttle, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy, Michael Lowry, Alby Mathewson;
(1-8) Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Jordi Murphy, Marcus Rea, David McCann.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Reid, Marty Moore, Sam Carter, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Angus Curtis, James Hume.
Huge boost for Ulster as Henderson & Addison return
Iain Henderson makes his return to lead the side and will be partnered by Kieran Treadwell in the second row. Andrew Warwick comes in to start at loosehead prop, with Tom O’Toole at tighthead and Rob Herring selected to start at hooker. In the back row, Matty Rea comes in at blindside flanker, with Sean Reidy at openside, and Nick Timoney completing the pack at Number Eight.
Jacob Stockdale makes a positional switch to full-back, and will be joined by Ethan McIlroy and Robert Baloucoune in the back three. Stewart Moore will form the midfield partnership with James Hume, and John Cooney and Billy Burns are named as the starting half-backs.
Will Addison is set to make his return from a lengthy spell on the sidelines as he is named among the Ulster back line replacements alongside David Shanahan and Michael Lowry. John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Ross Kane, Alan O’Connor and Greg Jones are the forward options on the bench.
Ulster team to play Connacht Rugby, Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup Round 1, Friday 23 April at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 8.15pm, live on Premier Sports):
(15-9) Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy, Billy Burns, John Cooney;
(1-8) Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Matty Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Ross Kane, Alan O’Connor, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Michael Lowry, Will Addison.
Munster confirm Zebo signing
This co-funded contract will see Munster’s all-time record try-scorer return from Racing 92 and line out for his home club where he made 144 appearances and scored 60 tries between 2010 and 2018.
In his third season with the Top 14 side, the 31-year-old has played 55 times and scored 21 tries to date.
Head Coach Johann van Graan said, “The opportunity to bring Simon back to Munster came about in early April following a final review of our squad’s budgetary position for season-end and with assistance from the IRFU to support what we believe is a really good deal for Munster and Irish Rugby.
“Simon’s desire to return to Ireland and play with his home club is illustrated by his willingness to sign at a level below his market value elsewhere. This has made bringing the province’s all-time leading try-scorer back home, possible.”
Simon Zebo said, “I am thrilled and honoured to be coming back home to play for Munster. My family and I have been so lucky to have enjoyed three incredible years with Racing 92 in Paris and I cannot thank the team there enough, I really have made friends for life and take with me some brilliant memories.
“However, as everyone knows, Munster holds a very special place in my heart and I’ve always said that I wanted to play for them and potentially Ireland again, so when this opportunity arose the lure of being close to home, family and friends and Munster fans, it outweighed all other options. I cannot wait to get back to the HPC with the team and hopefully a packed Thomond Park.”