Conor O’Shea will be watching on with interest this weekend as a host of Italy’s Guinness Six Nations stars go head-to-head in the Guinness PRO14 when Benetton Rugby take on Zebre.
The showdown at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi will be packed with international heavyweights on both sides as Benetton attempt to make history in Parma after an impressive season.
Kieran Crowley’s side, currently sitting third in Conference B, can become the first Italian team to reach the knockout stages of the Guinness PRO14 with a victory in the derby.
But while the hosts are bottom of Conference A with no chance of progressing to the Final Series, Zebre will be looking to spoil the party as they attempt to finish the season on a high.
BENETTON BIG GUNS
With a place in the Final Series on the line, Crowley has packed his side with Italian stars who played a significant role for their national side during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.
Jayden Hayward, who started all five of the Azzurri’s games during this year’s Championship, starts at full-back for the visitors, with fellow international Angelo Esposito on the left wing.
Another player ever-present for O’Shea’s side during the Championship was Luca Morisi, who starts in the centre alongside former Italian international Alberto Sgarbi.
Benetton are also able to call on Italy’s favoured half-back pairing from the 2019 Guinness Six Nations as Tito Tebaldi and Tommaso Allan start against Zebre.
Elsewhere, the front row is another area where Crowley is blessed with international class, with Nicola Quaglio and hooker Luca Bigi lining up alongside Marco Riccioni.
Federico Ruzza was a regular feature for O’Shea during the 2019 Championship and will pack down at lock while Italian flankers Abraham Steyn and Sebastian Negri will also start.
ZEBRE RING THE CHANGES
The hosts are also not short of international talent to call on, with Michael Bradley making eight changes to the Zebre side that was beaten by Scarlets last time out.
At full-back, Edoardo Padovani – who shifted to the wing for Italy during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations – will face off against his teammate and No.15 rival Hayward.
Mattia Bellini will join him in the back three, having last played in the Guinness Six Nations for Italy during the 2018 Championship, while Andrea Lovotti starts in the front row.
Guglielmo Palazzani is also available on the bench, with Joshua Renton starting at scrum-half alongside Maicol Azzolini, although Matteo Minozzi and David Sisi are both out injured.
And while Zebre have only won three games in the Guinness PRO14 this season, all of their victories have come in Parma – against the Isuzu Southern Kings, Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh.
Their record against Benetton leaves a lot to be desired, though, having won only one of their last seven encounters against their derby rivals – a 22-17 triumph at Stadio Monigo last season.
ON THE CUSP OF HISTORY
Benetton have enjoyed a breakthrough season in the Guinness PRO14 with ten wins from their 20 games so far, leaving them in third place in Conference B.
Despite being without a win in their last three Guinness PRO14 fixtures – since their home victory against Edinburgh – they remain in pole position to reach the Final Series.
Crowley’s men are a point ahead of Edinburgh in the table, with the Scottish outfit facing a tricky trip to Glasgow Warriors in their final game of the regular season.
As such, a bonus-point victory will guarantee Benetton an away quarter-final against the runner-up from Conference A, which will either be Glasgow Warriors or Munster.
Should they reach the knockout phase, they will be the first Italian team in Guinness PRO14 history to do so – only Zebre now stand in their way of creating history.