Benetton v Connacht, Stadio Monigo, Treviso, Saturday, 5.15pm Irish time – Live on Eir Sport 1, Premier Sports 1
Against all expectations when starting out, this is the key game of the weekend. Unbeaten Benetton can move within one more win away to the Ospreys a fortnight hence to secure a place in the ‘North v South’ final on June 19th on their home ground.
Connacht, meanwhile, can do themselves a favour especially, as well as the chasing peleton, with a victory on Saturday evening, but are in must-win territory, witness Andy Friend’s selection.
Bundee Aki returns following a four-match ban for his red card against England which effectively amounted to nine weeks, as do captain Jarrad Butler, Paul Boyle, Peter Sullivan, Finlay Bealham and Denis Buckley, who will become just the third Connacht player to reach 200 appearances for the province.
The 21-year-old pair of lock Niall Murray and blindside flanker Cian Prendergast, who looks a serious prospect, are retained. The net effect is a strong-looking bench.
The format of this competition suits these two sides, especially a Benetton team not diluted by Test windows. In his final campaign before taking over as Azzurri head coach, Kieran Cowley has maintained a settled side and again makes just once change by rotating Marco Riccioni and Filippo Alongi at tighthead prop.
They have been ambitious, skilful and clinical in recording home wins over Glasgow and Zebre either side of Toa Halafihi’s late match-winning try away to Zebre. Benetton had an attacking bonus point by the hour against Glasgow and by the 45th minute a fortnight ago before conceding late tries in both games.
Against Zebre, their first two tries came from inside halfway off opposition kicks, the first featuring some sumptuous offloading, added another off their lineout maul and again used the full width of the pitch to score their fourth.
Paolo Garbisi is on top of his game and his six kicks from six two weeks ago were all straight down the middle, even from the left touchline.
Connacht may have won the last seven meetings between the teams but they’ve always been tight affairs here, witness Aki’s match-winning try off a lineout maul in overtime in February.
In what could be a high-scoring affair, if Benetton have a quick start they will be even harder to crack.
BENETTON: Jayden Hayward; Edoardo Padovani, Ignacio Brex, Marco Zanon, Monty Ioane; Paolo Garbisi, Dewaldt Duvenage (capt); Thomas Gallo, Corniel Els, Marco Riccioni; Niccolò Cannone, Federico Ruzza; Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro, Toa Halafihi.
Replacements: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Ivan Nemer, Filippo Alongi, Irné Herbst, Manuel Zuliani, Marco Barbini, Callum Braley, Ratuva Tavuyara.
CONNACHT: John Porch; Peter Sullivan, Bundee Aki, Tom Daly, Alex Wootton; Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Niall Murray, Ultan Dillane; Cian Prendergast, Jarrad Butler (capt), Paul Boyle.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Paddy McAllister, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Oisín Dowling, Abraham Papali'i, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, Sammy Arnold.
Referee: Ginaluca Gnecchi (FIR).
Forecast: Connacht to win.