MARIETTE ADAMS looks ahead to the Pro14 semi-final qualifiers between the Cheetahs and Scarlets in Llanelli and Munster and Edinburgh in Limerick.
SCARLETS vs CHEETAHS (Saturday, 19:35)
The Cheetahs will have their work cut out for them against the defending champions in Llanelli.
The Scarlets have been one of the most improved European club teams in the past 18 months. They claimed a stunning upset of Munster in last season’s Pro12 final and recently reached their first Champions Cup semi-final in 11 years.
However, the Cheetahs will fancy their chances of pulling off an upset of their own in a knockout match. In the teams’ only previous encounter, earlier this season, the Free State side registered a 28-21 win in Bloemfontein.
The Cheetahs lead the Scarlets by way of points (607 to 526), tries scored (75 to 69) and running metres (8,842 to 7,917). But the Scarlets are the most disciplined team in the competition, having conceded just two cards, and the third-best defensive unit, behind Glasgow and Munster.
And therein lies the rub. The Scarlets, as they have proven so often this season, are equally comfortable employing defensive tactics when engaged in a tight and scrappy affair as they are when the game opens up.
The threat of Tadhg Beirne also looms large for the Cheetahs. The Irish blindside flank has been in superb touch since moving to the Scarlets after being discarded by Leinster. He has made 37 turnovers so far this season, 15 more than the next best, and the Cheetahs simply have to nullify his work at the breakdown to stand a chance of winning.
Scarlets-bound duo Clayton Blommetjies and Uzair Cassiem will line up against their future teammates, while the Cheetahs have also been boosted by the return of Johan Goosen at flyhalf after he played off the bench last week.
Former Bulls front rower Werner Kruger has been named on the Scarlets’ bench.
Scarlets – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay, 7 James Davies, 6 Tadhg Beirne, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Lewis Rawlins, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Aaron Shingler, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Jonathan Evans, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Steff Hughes.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Niel Marais, 11 Sibahle Maxwane, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Rynier Bernardo, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Zee Mkhabela, 22 Clinton Swart 23 Lloyd Greeff.
MUNSTER vs EDINBURGH (Saturday, 16:15)
This match could swing either way. While Munster will have a slight advantage by playing at home, these sides are evenly poised.
Having been in different conferences, they met just once this season, with Edinburgh edging Munster 12-6. Edinburgh have also chalked up two more wins and one fewer defeat than Johann van Graan’s men.
Munster, however, secured a home playoff by finishing second in Conference A, while Edinburgh ended third in the more competitive Conference B.
Munster will want to give their all-time leading try-scorer – and one of the province’s favourite sons – Simon Zebo a perfect send-off in what could potentially be his last outing at Thomond Park.
More importantly, a win for Munster will go a long way towards underlining Van Graan’s credentials as a coach. The former Springbok forwards coach has come under fire following Munster’s failure to reach the European Champions Cup final, with several critics – somewhat unfairly – questioning whether he has the ‘personality and aptitude’ to take the club forward.
Van Graan has named his best possible match-day 23, with Saffas CJ Stander and Jean Kleyn earning starts and Gerbrandt Grobler on the bench.
Meanwhile, star South African wing Duhan van der Merwe – who has beaten the most defenders in the competition (64) – and ex-Lions flyhalf Jaco van der Walt will start for Edinburgh, while their compatriots WP Nel, Allan Dell and Cornell du Preez are among the substitutes.
Munster – 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Sammy Arnold, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 JJ Hanrahan, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Jack O’Donoghue, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 James Cronin.
Subs: Mike Sherry, Dave Kilcoyne, Ciaran Parker, Gerbrandt Grobler, Robin Copeland, James Hart, Ian Keatley, Darren Sweetnam.
Edinburgh – 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Bill Mata, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally (c), 1 Jordan Lay
Subs: 16 Neil Cochrane, 17 Allan Dell, 18 WP Nel, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Cornell du Preez, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 James Johnstone.