Guinness Pro14: Round Sixteen (Saturday Fixtures)

Three home wins looks the solid bet

The Guinness Pro14 fixtures set for Saturday are interesting in terms of the playoff ramifications come the end of the season. The hosts of these fixtures look solid favorites but for Cardiff Blues in particular, it is a game where a win is paramount. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the form guide.

Benetton Rugby need to keep momentum going 

A defining round fifteen victory for Benetton Rugby in their victory over Scarlets at home. The result was impressive for a number of reasons. The ability of Benetton Rugby to get off the canvas multiple times to keep to the game plan was admirable; the ability of Ian McKinley to link attacking play was impressive and the ability of the pack to stave off Scarlets advances late incredible.

After such an euphoric victory last weekend, it will mean nothing if they cannot back up this performance and beat a Dragons side who are out of playoff contention with little to play for. This is a potential banana skin fixture for the progressive Italian club if they do not execute to the levels required.

The team selections have yet to be announced but suffice to say that Benetton Rugby will be missing a couple of marquee players from last weekend. Ian McKinley will miss out as he is on Italian national team duty on Sunday but the side has sufficient talent in the pack to set the platform to win this contest.

Dragons will be without the likes of Dee and Wainwright for this fixture. They showed good attacking play last weekend against Edinburgh but their defensive line speed and first time tackling were at times a shambles. Their last quarter display was poor and the failure of the side to produce a cohesive eighty minute performance this season is mystifying considering the experience of Hibbard and Henson in the ranks.

This is a fixture where Dragons’ pack could struggle as Benetton Rugby impressed in the set piece exchanges. Benetton Rugby are aware of the mission this weekend; a victory is paramount and if they can achieve a bonus point try then great but this is a fixture that could be a struggle for the Italians more than pundits would expect. Benetton to win but no bonus point as Dragons will look to hang on as much as they can in this contest.

Edinburgh Rugby building momentum 

This is probably the marquee Guinness Pro14 game on Saturday. Edinburgh Rugby showed the good and the bad in their bonus point try victory over Dragons. The good was undoubtedly their tries scored; some inventive running plays with Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe prominent. The bad was the defensive lapses particularly in the opening period, massive gaps that Dragons exploited to score tries.

Cardiff Blues come into this game desperately looking for a victory to keep in the Conference A playoff race. A home loss last time out against Glasgow Warriors; a mixed bag like their hosts last weekend with a poor opening period ultimately undoing all the good work of the Blues late. Their ball carrying and attacking threat is up there with the best in the league but their defensive side of play can be inconsistent and teams have exposed this in recent rounds.

The smart money would be on an Edinburgh Rugby win but if Cardiff Blues can compete and stay in touch until the third quarter, they have a serious chance of securing that coveted road trip win that could transform their Guinness Pro14 season. However, I have question marks on how they counteract the threats of Edinburgh Rugby out wide. Duhan van der Merwe is playing at a higher level to last season; looks the key man for Edinburgh Rugby to secure a win.

Ulster Rugby should have too much for Zebre Rugby

The Ulster Rugby Guinness Pro14 campaign has reached a pivotal point. After a morale boosting shutout win over Ospreys last weekend, it is now time to consolidate their playoff position in Conference B with Scarlets potentially facing a stiff challenge to the Toyota Cheetahs on Sunday.

Zebre Rugby arrive at Kingspan Stadium after a home loss to Leinster Rugby. The resiliency was to the fore as they battled gamely after going 0-21 down early to Leinster Rugby as they fought back to make it a 19-21 score at the break. Shrewd game management to take points instead of going for the line in the third quarter proved costly as Leinster Rugby regained composure to take the game away from the Italians.

This weekend will see both sides undermanned due to Guinness Six Nations commitments. Ulster Rugby for me look the solid bet to claim a bonus point try. O’Sullivan, Moore and Balacoune look the key players for Ulster Rugby provided that McPhilips / Burns can execute the attacking game plan to a high level.

Zebre Rugby will look to compete but in effect, they are out of playoff contention. It is a time to evaluate the squad depth for Michael Bradley and I think they will look to prove a point after a traumatic South African road trip recently. They do not want an embarrassing scoreline inflicted again. Ulster Rugby to win with a bonus point try though as squad depth issues on the Zebre Rugby will rear their head in the third quarter off the bench.

Guinness Six Nations Round Three Preview: Wales vs. England

All roads lead to Cardiff this weekend

After a week hiatus, the Guinness Six Nations tournaments roars back into action. Wales and England is the box office test match this weekend; shadow boxing aplenty in the lead up to this fixture so expect explosive opening exchanges. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Gatland places trust in Anscombe

The main talking point from the Welsh selection was who was named at fly-half. A straight shootout between the experience of Dan Biggar or the attacking flair Gareth Anscombe. Gatland has made his decision. The ten jersey goes to Anscombe and shows faith in the Cardiff Blues man to deliver in a hot test match environment.

This is a good decision from Gatland. It runs the rule over Anscombe in a test match fixture where he will be put under immense pressure in defensive, kicking and attacking game management. It will provide further evidence for the Welsh management can they depend on Anscombe to deliver in the RWC 2019 if Dan Biggar is unavailable due to injury. Anscombe is the insurance policy for Wales at ten if Biggar goes down with injury in Japan. Rhys Patchell may have things to say on that statement but for now, the Cardiff Blues player has the control of the ten jersey. He needs to deliver and make a positive impact to retain the jersey long term.

As I have said from the outset of this tournament, I have liked Wales to go extremely close to win this championship. The scheduling of games, their unbeaten form heading into the tournament, the emergence of young talent to challenge the existing marquee names has driven the side further on. Their performance against Italy may have been patchy at times but they provided the likes of Wainwright and Watkin with valuable test match minutes and they impressed.

The pack looks mobile and solid in the set piece. Ken Owens is a reliable line out thrower and with an array of line out options in Hill, Jones, Tipuric and potentially Navidi; they will look to execute well in this set piece early doors. The scrum is also solid and Tomas Francis role is key as he packs down against Ben Moon who is playing superbly this season. Francis needs to pose questions early for Moon and hope to sway the official crew to set the platform. No Mako Vunipola is a blow for England in this contest. An intriguing contest nonetheless.

The back row unit for Wales has mobility, breakdown and ball carrying nous aplenty. Navidi has been a standout for Wales in this tournament. His skill set is superb and his ability to create turnover ball will require England’s back row unit to pay particular attention to the Cardiff Blues player. Ross Moriarty has got the game time required in recent weeks to make an impact in this test match. Justin Tipuric is a world class back row operator and his all round game complements Navidi and Moriarty perfectly.

The back line from Wales is vastly experienced in the three quarters. Davies and Parkes forming a consistently high performing partnership. Davies’ game management at key times will be pivotal. The Welsh back three will be fully aware of what happened to Ireland’s back three in the opening round; they received an artillery aerial bombardment where England targeted Earls, Stockdale and Henshaw. Williams, Adams and North will need to be prepared for this defensive onslaught. Their attacking play has been excellent but the key this weekend is how good they are defensively.

Eddie Jones deflecting the pressure off his players 

You love him. You hate him. Eddie Jones if he was your national team coach, you would love. You would love him if you were a media rat packer or fan as his sound bites always deflect the pressure and criticism away from his players. Jones has placed the pressure this weekend firmly on Wales; he is contend with England’s progress in the tournament so far but you know that he is not really?

The England demolition of France in round two came at a cost. Mako Vunipola who impressed against Ireland and France cameo is unavailable for selection for the rest of the tournament. Ben Moon gets the nod to stake the claim for the prop jersey; it is a good depth chart evaluation for Eddie Jones and management with RWC 2019 fast approaching.

The pack looks formidable even without the services of Mako Vunipola. There are still question marks on the composure of Kyle Sinckler, he just cannot avoid getting involved in incidents that he has no business been involved in. Sinckler will cost his side dear soon, whether it is this weekend for an act of indiscipline remains to be seen but his temperament will be tested by the Welsh pack.

Quality half back pairing in Youngs and Farrell who has elevated his game to new levels for his country this season. His kicking game and attacking calls have been nothing short of sensational. The Tuilagi factor has helped Farrell no end; the Leicester Tigers center has reveled with fast ruck ball. Jonny May try scoring exploits to the fore but it will be interesting to see if Wales can defensively test the Leicester Tigers wing with deft kicking in behind the player. Jack Nowell at full back provides creativity and solidity under the high ball, further proof that Eddie Jones has lost confidence in Mike Brown.

Verdict:

It is the marquee NH rugby test match this weekend. Wales and England have had epic tussles in Cardiff in recent fixtures, this will be no different. The question is whether Wales can cope with the kicking game and pack physicality of the visitors? Can Gareth Anscombe deliver? England have impressed in this tournament but there is something about this Welsh side that impresses me this season. The balance of the side looks solid and if Anscombe and the back three can deliver an assured performance against an England side who will pepper all four players early doors, then no reason why Wales cannot win this. A very close fixture, slight edge for Wales given the attacking options on the bench late.

Guinness Six Nations Round 3 Preview: France vs. Scotland

Defining test match for France

After a week hiatus, the Guinness Six Nations tournaments roars back into action. A key test match for France in Paris against a Scottish side who despite injuries will look to secure a road trip in France for the first time since 1999. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Jacques Brunel and France need to deliver 

To say that this Guinness Six Nations tournament has been an unmitigated disaster for France would be the understatement of the year. Their Waterloo moment at Twickenham in round two has prompted Brunel to make more key personnel changes in hope than expectation.

Brunel has heaped faith on the Toulouse back line unit to come to his aid. Ramos comes into the full back slot to relieve Huget from the position. Fickou partners Bastareaud in the midfield, a better coaching decision from France. How France thought that Fickou was a world class wing is more evidence of the erratic team selection currently at play.

The half back combination is a Toulouse pairing. Dupont gets a deserved starting test match, the player has impressed for club this season but his ten partner is no other than Ntamack who has plied his trade at twelve this season for Toulouse. The player is more than capable but in the heat of a test match, this is another iffy selection from Brunel and management.

The pack looks robust, physical with the likes of Bamba, Poirot and Guirado in the front row. Lambey continues in the second row while there is a change in the back row where Lauret comes in for Camara. Picamoles and Iturria need to provide ball carrying dominance early.

The individuals are excellent but the team dynamic is entirely different question for me. Scotland will hope that this is the case and expose the frail confidence with the French camp. The exclusion of Lopez and Parra from the national team squad has wasted energy for Brunel and team when it should have been focused on the game plan this weekend.

Scotland will look to win in Paris for the first time since 1999. The task for Scotland is tough considering the injury list compounded by the withdrawal of Finn Russell at the start of the week. The perils of the player plying his trade in France came to haunt Scottish management as Russell suffered the head knock in their loss against Toulouse. A big blow considering that Stuart Hogg also misses out for Scotland; another creative force unavailable.

What to expect from Scotland? The pack need to provide a platform this weekend. It will be tough in the opening half considering the size and bulk that they will face in France but hopefully for Gregor Townsend’s side, the French pack will start to tire and could provide some try scoring opportunities. The key is to stay in the contest until half-time and then look to strike in the third quarter.

Peter Horne is entrusted to execute the Scottish game plan from the ten jersey. A talented player but at times can be a little predictable in his passing plays; interceptions are not far away. Horne’s kicking game has to be varied to keep France defensively off balance, otherwise Fickou and Huget will sense intercept opportunities.

The back line looks potentially exciting provided that they were given sufficient quick ruck ball. Kinghorn, Seymour and Maitland need to take the game to France with their ball carries. The pack is a mixed bag. Nel’s absence means less scrummaging presence which is a concern. Ireland enjoyed good periods of dominance in the set piece in round two and Scotland need to compete in the line out from minute one. They cannot be as passive as they were against Ireland.

Magnus Bradbury is a welcome addition for Scotland. The Edinburgh forward has just returned from injury; his abrasive ball carries will assist Scotland no end and should complement the breakdown nous of Ritchie and Strauss who will look to impose himself in the eight channel; looking for Ntamack at every opportunity.

Verdict:

This was a contest last weekend that I thought Scotland had a massive opportunity to win but the injury to Finn Russell has tipped the balance. I question how Peter Horne will control this test match sufficiently to see Scotland home here and coupled with Scottish pack vulnerability at the set piece, this looks to me like a France victory provided that they do not hit the self destruction button (questionable to say the least).

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 (Friday Night Fixtures)

Intriguing fixtures on tap

A weekend where the Guinness Six Nations resumes, there is the matter of round sixteen in the Guinness Pro14. The Friday night fixtures look very interesting with Glasgow Warriors entertaining Connacht Rugby, Leinster Rugby looking to inflict further road trip woe on the Isuzu Southern Kings and Ospreys effectively in a must win home game fixture over Munster Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Glasgow Warriors looking for improvement 

The victory last weekend against Cardiff Blues on the road was mission accomplished for Glasgow Warriors looking as a neutral; bonus point try win but there were massive defensive lapses during the contest which on another hand could have cost the Scottish side dear.

This time of the season sees Guinness Pro14 sides look deep into their squad depth no more so than Glasgow Warriors who have umpteen players away on international duty or injury so is there an opportunity for Connacht Rugby to perhaps create an upset on the road?

Connacht Rugby beat Toyota Cheetahs with a determined final quarter push last weekend. Jack Carty provided the leadership and game management to steer the side through a tricky third quarter spell where Connacht Rugby play was far too open against a team who revel in unstructured play.

The squad selections will be interesting. Connacht Rugby have a poor record at Scotstoun. The edge here goes to Glasgow Warriors but Connacht Rugby should be good enough to secure a loser bonus point at least. Glasgow Warriors for their defensive lapses last weekend were sensational with ball in hand particularly in that opening period and for that, they get my vote.

Leinster Rugby should have an easy night 

I am sorry if you are an Isuzu Southern Kings fan but this could be the low point of low points for the franchise in this tournament and could call into question their participation in this tournament going forward. Their performance (take out the opening quarter) was pretty poor and against a well drilled Leinster Rugby outfit, this looks like a horrendous task for the South Africans.

To make matters worse for the Isuzu Southern Kings, Leinster Rugby’s performance against Zebre Rugby may have yielded forty points scored but there were significant defensive meltdowns during the contest, a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

Leinster Rugby should provide a better cohesive defensive display this weekend in front of their home fans and with a vulnerable opposition whose defensive line disintegrated in the second half along with their discipline, this looks like a massacre. This looks like a cricket score.

Ospreys in must win territory 

It is fair to say that the start of 2019 has been a disappointment for Ospreys. A poor end to their European campaign as well as inconsistent results in the Guinness Pro14 mean that the Ospreys are backed into a corner; they need to respond and Munster Rugby coming to the Liberty Stadium, it is a perfect opportunity to right a few wrongs.

This fixture personally is one to whet the appetite always; no inch given when these two sides meet. The fixture earlier in the season was misleading to say the least; Ospreys’ decision to leave all their marquee players saw a facile home victory for Munster Rugby. This fixture sees key personnel missing from both sides but the fixture to me looks evenly poised.

Ospreys work rate was not in question last weekend but what was in their shutout loss to Ulster Rugby at home was their blunt attacking play. Gain line running lines were minimal, poor passing at vital phases did not help matters. The fact that the side did not even get a losing bonus point will have hurt this week in the lead up to this fixture. There has to be a reaction.

Munster Rugby are currently top of Conference A. Their form is solid. You could not read much into their display last weekend as they made the necessary adjustments at the break to smash the contest wide open in a 43-0 win over a hapless Isuzu Southern Kings.

For me, there is still cohesion issues in attack for the Irish province. Lack of composure in the red zone at times was seen last weekend early and if Ospreys can apply defensive line speed pressure on Munster Rugby, it will be interesting to see if Munster Rugby have an alternative backup plan to counteract this.

50/50 fixture beckons here and is the closest one to call on the fixtures scheduled for Friday evening. Ospreys effectively are in must win home game territory in this round. A loss here and it will be a devastating blow for the side’s ability to secure a top three berth. I sense Ospreys with the frustration of last week fresh in their heads will win this encounter. Munster Rugby should secure a loser bonus point.

Pre-Ireland Rugby Team Selection Notes

Time to experiment or go with tried and trusted?

On the eve of Ireland Rugby team selection for the Italian fixture, it will be interesting to see what Joe Schmidt and management decide in terms of providing continuity while attempting to run the rule over certain players in specific positions. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to preempt (if you can Joe Schmidt) the team selection.

Full Back:

Rob Kearney yet again showed his worth for Ireland with an assured full back performance against Scotland. The key question now is whether Joe Schmidt decides to retain Kearney in the position or does he look to either (a) retry the Robbie Henshaw full back experiment or (b) look to the likes of Jordan Larmour or Andrew Conway to show their worth. I suspect that Henshaw may get further game time at fifteen; it is realistically the fixture to give the Leinster Rugby player another opportunity in the position without having adverse impact.

Back Three Makeup:

If the decision is to go with Robbie Henshaw, then Schmidt will immediately look to retain Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls on the wings for continuity. It would be perceived a risk by management to change all back three positions given the potential for cohesion issues on both sides of the ball. The hope is that Larmour or Conway secure valuable game time in this test match; suspect that one of the players will get that game time and it will be probably Jordan Larmour.

Center Partnership:

Bundee Aki should see more game time action at twelve. The question mark is whether Chris Farrell is fully fit to take his place at thirteen. Farrell has had issues with his leg / knee in recent weeks but given the team bulletin today, it looks like Chris Farrell will fill the thirteen channel. Abrasive ball carrying the order of the day.

Half Back Partnership:

Joey Carbery is primed for the ten jersey to build on his performance last time out against Scotland. After a nervy opening cameo, Carbery produced a strong second half performance which saw the pivotal gain line break for Earls to score the game winning try. Carbery needs game time ahead of RWC 2019 and will get it during this test match.

The scrum half option debate is interesting but I suspect that Conor Murray will start the contest to provide experience and leadership. There have been differing viewpoints on Murray in this tournament; think he is the victim of his own brilliance and world class high standards. There have been kicking inaccuracies but his overall play has been on point for me.

The hope is that John Cooney will get more than the customary three minute cameo at the death to provide further game tape for Joe Schmidt and management to evaluate the Ulster Rugby player.

Front Row:

The unit went well in Murrayfield with the scrum particularly impressive. The Italian scrum looks vulnerable and it could be a cast of switching up front row personnel for this test match. Dave Kilcoyne and Sean Cronin for me should get the nod. Kilcoyne’s all round play has elevated to new levels this season while Sean Cronin has become a try scoring machine for Leinster Rugby. Tadhg Furlong should potentially start to provide some consistency in the front row. John Ryan’s impressive form should see additional game time this weekend.

Second Row:

James Ryan will start this test match. The Leinster Rugby lock has been a standout again during this campaign. The intriguing team selection is who partners Ryan. I think Quinn Roux has to be given more time considering his performance against Scotland in round two. With Tadhg Beirne just back in training after his knee injury, Iain Henderson is available if there are issues in the set piece.

Back Row:

I think it is fair to say that there will be minimum changes to this unit given their performance last time out. O’Mahony potentially may be the player to be rested for this fixture with the likes of Jordi Murphy desperately looking for game time. Jack Conan and Sean O’Brien will surely get the nod for this game and considering the absence of Sergio Parisse in the Italian back row, the Ireland back row unit will be keen to assert their dominance early and set the breakdown platform.

Potential Starting Lineup:

15. Robbie Henshaw

14. Keith Earls

13. Chris Farrell

12. Bundee Aki

11. Jacob Stockdale

10. Joey Carbery

9. Conor Murray

8. Jack Conan

7. Sean O’Brien

6. Jordi Murphy

5. James Ryan

4. Quinn Roux

3. Tadhg Furlong

2. Sean Cronin

1.Dave Kilcoyne

Italy Rugby National Team: Project In Progress

Italian side has improved but still big vulnerabilities

The Italian Rugby project continues to progress with minimal results for the national team but scrap away the senior team results and you will see improvements in the U20 side (beat Scotland a couple of weeks ago) as well as Benetton Rugby who are in the thick of Conference B playoff mix. Hawkeye Sidekick profiles the Italian challenge and what to expect from Conor O’Shea’s team against Ireland next weekend.

Form Guide:

The form guide is pretty depressing from an Italian Rugby fan perspective. A pivotal win against Georgia in November which was required to quell the talks of the need to look at Italy and potentially losing their place in the tournament was accomplished with a good performance. Apart from this win, it has been loss after loss after loss. The Scottish RBS 6 Nations game last season potentially was a game where the Italians could have won but for the most part, they have been second best. With a RWC 2019 tournament looming large in the horizon, confidence from recent results is sparse to say the least.

Team Selection:

Conor O’Shea has been clear in his selection policy; the squad overall has a consistent look and feel to it with the head coach providing stability in the hope that his charges can start to deliver better performances. The player pool squad depth continues to evolve and it is hoped that a couple of the U20 players who have impressed in recent seasons can make the step up next season.

The team that will face Ireland will be along these lines:
Jayden Hayward; Edoardo Padovani, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Angelo Esposito; Tommaso Allan, Guglielmo Palazzani; Nicola Quaglio, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari; Dave Sisi, Dean Budd; Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn, Sergio Parisse.

What to watch out for?

Italy will try to bring the game to Ireland with Allan looking to hit the gain line and looking to unleash Campagnaro and Morisi, two excellent ball carriers given the time and space by defenses. This tactic has had mixed results in recent test matches so it will be up to the Italian pack to provide the try scoring platform for the side.

The second row partnership of Sisi and Budd looks to be a potential solid test match unit; management need to be patient with this pairing as both players bring a high level of energy and set piece nous to the side. The cohesion at times has been inconsistent but this will come in time.

The front row potentially could be in for an arduous task. The scrum exchanges so far have been a mixed bag; penalties in this area allowing Wales and Scotland in the opening round to launch attacking platform deep in Italy’s half. This is an area that Italy need to compete next weekend; otherwise they are going to be under their posts quite often.

The back row unit is abrasive and their ball carrying to the fore. Negri will look to disrupt at the breakdown to allow Steyn and Parisse the time to focus on their ball carrying and defensive duties around the fringes. Parisse is a talisman; his perseverance to line out for his country year in and year out is unparalleled. Steyn is an incredible physical player; his try against Wales was all raw power and the Ireland back row unit will be duly noted.

Weak Points:

Apart from the scrummaging issues, the ability of sides to create massive gain line breaks out wide continues to be an Achilles heel. If sides can recycle quickly, Italy defensively in the back three look incredibly vulnerable. The Josh Adams try in round two a perfect example; good quick ruck ball setting the platform where the Welsh back line carved out massive yards with ease.

The defensive line speed at times can be a bit static with little anticipation for kicks in behind. Watkin try in round two for Wales saw the Italy defensive organization not set properly. Fast defensive line speed with zero cover behind for the grubber kick. Easy score concession remains a scourge for the Italians.

Verdict:

This was always going to be a long term project for the Italian Rugby Federation. Conor O’Shea has delivered significant progress in his vision for the grassroots and underage structures. The senior side is not going to be an overnight success and I think for the most part, the Italian public realize this. With Benetton Rugby improving significantly this season in Pro14 action, this should be the springboard for national team success.

This RWC 2019 tournament could be a big reality check for the Italian national side if they cannot improve their defensive and disciplinary issues but Conor O’Shea (if he wants the job) should continue the work he has started here. Ireland should win next weekend. The question is whether Ireland are efficient in their attacking and recycling to expose the Italians. The answer is yes and it should be a big win for Joe Schmidt’s side.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 Review

Excitement in plentiful supply in this round

A weekend where the playoff picture became a little bit easier for some, a little bit complicated for others while for the likes of Zebre Rugby, Dragons and Isuzu Southern Kings, it is time to evaluate squad depth and make the necessary calls to improve their sides before the off season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Conference A: Top two continue to win

Munster continue to lead this conference after an emphatic 43-0 shut out win over an Isuzu Southern Kings who after a bright opening quarter lost composure, discipline and line speed. The hosts made the necessary adjustments at half-time to negate the Kings breakdown threat and the result thereafter was never in doubt. A road trip test to Ospreys next weekend will be a true indicator on whether the Irish province have the quality in squad depth to secure a top spot berth in this conference.

Glasgow Warriors had to withstand a late fightback from Cardiff Blues with a bonus point try win over a Cardiff Blues who were made pay for a slow opening half cameo which saw Glasgow Warriors score three tries. The attacking phase play was on point from Dave Rennie’s men but the management surely must be disappointed with how the game went so close late on; poor defensive line decisions. A key fixture against third placed Connacht Rugby awaits next weekend at home.

Twelve months ago, Connacht Rugby would have lost this encounter with the Toyota Cheetahs. They were asked the questions in the third quarter when Venter scored to put the South Africans ahead 15-17. It was a time for cool heads and composure from the team’s leaders and they delivered at the death. Jack Carty composure in full view in that final quarter; orchestrated the game plan superbly and provided shape to Connacht Rugby who were at times guilty of playing a little bit too open and unstructured; two facets of play that Toyota Cheetahs love to see. Ultan Dillane was immense with eighteen tackles, nine passes and four carries.

Ospreys lost further ground to their playoff rivals with a shutout loss to Ulster Rugby at home. It was a frustrating game for Ospreys whose work rate was high but lack of quality in the final pass was seen more than once. A key fixture against Munster Rugby next weekend is now a must win fixture for the Welsh region. Yet another loss could prove fatal in their hopes of securing a top three playoff berth come the end of the regular season.

Zebre Rugby video analysis will be the good, the bad and the downright ugly. The good was how the side bounced back from a horror start conceding three tries to Leinster Rugby early to then respond with their own efforts. 19-21 at the break and Zebre Rugby will rue the fact that they refused points opportunities in the third quarter. Renton was superb for Zebre Rugby but a key knock on with ten minutes left saw the cue for the Leinster Rugby juggernaut to create sufficient momentum to close out the contest. Forty points conceded was harsh on Zebre Rugby given their efforts in the contest.

Conference B: Hail Hail Benetton Rugby!

Leinster Rugby are away and out the gap in terms of Conference B. They will be the top seeds in this conference come the playoffs. Yet another bonus point try win on the road. Yes, there were issues in defensive line speed and missed first time tackles but the squad will improve from the outing.

Edinburgh Rugby secured a bonus point try on Friday night against a Dragons side who showed some attacking promise only to be let down with poor defensive line speed and first time tackling. A good performance from the likes of Darcy Graham in the opening period setup this victory for the Scottish side and then Duhan van der Merwe made sure of the win with two tries in the final quarter. A win to create momentum ahead of their clash with Munster Rugby next month in European Cup action.

Benetton Rugby took a huge step in securing playoff rugby with a 25-19 win over a Scarlets side who showed the usual attacking flair but were put the sword by a high energy pack performance from the Italians. Ian McKinley continued his good form with a standout display at ten; his diagonal kick for the decisive game leading try in the second half a highlight moment. Scarlets showed massive upside with ball in hand.

Hardy, McNicholl (2) scoring from excellent line breaks but the Welsh region were made to pay for inaccuracies. The final phase indicative of the issues experienced by Scarlets; a line out misfire gave Benetton Rugby the opportunity to steal the ball and close the game out. Scarlets five points behind the playoff spots; not a time to panic but another couple of losses in the coming weeks could be fatal in their pursuit of playoff and Heineken Cup ambitions.

Ulster Rugby secured a vital win against the Ospreys. It was a dour affair but a decisive opening try from Stuart McCloskey paved the foundation for victory. Ospreys’ attacking threat was snuffed out by a disciplined Ulster Rugby defensive display and John Cooney made sure that Ospreys left the contest with nothing with a last minute penalty. A pivotal win for Ulster Rugby in the conference playoff race; keeps them in touch with Benetton and Edinburgh. A key series of league fixtures beckon now to launch the decisive playoff move.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Saturday Fixtures)

Road trip wins could be the order of the day

After Edinburgh Rugby, Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby secured victories last night, focus switches to fixtures on tap today with a couple of teams in must win territory to keep their playoff hopes alive. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Stong Leinster Rugby side face Zebre Rugby on road 

Such is the talent and squad depth currently at Leinster Rugby that the first fifteen on duty today looks incredibly strong and powerful. Andrew Porter gets game time in the front row ahead of a potential test match cameo against Italy.

This lineup is a testament on the magnificent work done at the Leinster Rugby academy, looking forward to seeing the cameos from Murphy, Doris and Deegan in the back row. Jack Dunne is primed for his Leinster Rugby debut off the bench, yet another exciting prospect.

Zebre Rugby are threading water until the end of the season. After an encouraging start to the season, injuries and squad depth weaknesses have taken their toll. Michael Bradley has done as good a job as anyone could given the circumstances.

This fixture looks absolutely daunting for Zebre Rugby as Italian international players Castello, Lovotti, Padovani, Palazzani and Sisi are away with their national team squad. When you add injuries to Bellini and Meyer, you see the task in front of the Italian side.

The only saving grace for Zebre Rugby is that this is the first in the next block of fixtures. Early cohesion issues should be seen and this should hopefully allow Zebre Rugby to get a foothold in the game. However, the strength of Leinster Rugby should be seen in the third quarter to secure a bonus point try win to widen the gap to the rest of the Conference B pack.

Connacht Rugby must be wary of Toyota Cheetahs threat 

This is an intriguing fixture. Connacht Rugby have earned plaudits aplenty after their encouraging start of the season under the management of Andy Friend but we are now at the business end of the season. It is time for the side to deliver accurate, solid game managed performances. It starts today.

Connacht Rugby play host to a Toyota Cheetahs side who have shown good form leading into this fixture with tries scored at regular intervals over Zebre Rugby and Isuzu Southern Kings (home and away). Cheetahs will look to play an unstructured game; look to attack from all angles. Connacht Rugby must pick their moments to go wide and when they do, they must be clinical in execution.

Connacht Rugby are boosted with the return of Irish international contingent Ultan Dillane, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell. Kieran Marmion makes a timely return to the side on the bench.

Marnus van der Merwe and Dries Swanepoel make their debut starts for the Cheetahs, Louis Fouche comes into the side at fullback. Ox Nche and Henco Venter return to the starting lineup as well. If the weather is decent, expect Toyota Cheetahs to deliver a performance with ball in hand.

This is a 50/50 fixture, a fixture in the past that Connacht Rugby have expected to win but got turned over, thinking of the Zebre Rugby home game last season. Accuracy and game management are keywords for Connacht Rugby and I think they will just do enough. Anything less and Toyota Cheetahs and inflict a big playoff dent to Connacht Rugby’s ambitions.

Opportunity knocks for Benetton Rugby

Despite international duty call ups, this is the key Conference B fixture on tap this weekend. Benetton Rugby must prove to league observers that they are a genuine playoff threat and a home game against an inconsistent Scarlets side, there is an opportunity to deliver a marquee statement.

The team news for the Italians is mixed. A couple of Italian internationals unavailable but Benetton Rugby can call on the services of Ian McKinley and Federico Ruzza. Their back three threat is excellent with Ioane in the ranks.

Scarlets also welcome back Rhys Patchell and Steff Evans to the match day squad. Leigh Halfpenny continues to be a marquee absentee for club and country. Jones and Hardy form an exciting half back partnership.

For the league to improve and prosper, it needs a strong Italian club representation come the playoffs. Benetton Rugby for me need the victory more. This will be a tight encounter but expect a progressively improving Benetton Rugby to shade this. Scarlets are threading water until Pivac and Jones depart the club.

Crunch Conference A contest in Cardiff 

This is a fixture which could have massive implications for either Glasgow Warriors or Cardiff Blues. The hosts need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive while Glasgow Warriors need to win to keep tabs on Conference A kingpins Munster Rugby.

The team news for both sides see squad personnel changes aplenty. International duty deprives both sides of marquee first team starter. Cardiff Blues can call on the services of Turnbull, Evans and Davies while Glasgow Warriors do not have the same luxury.

Cardiff Blues have been inconsistent this season. When they are on, they are devastatingly good, quick ruck ball and attacking platform from the likes of Nick Williams and Rey Lee-Lo. When they are off, they are poor at best.

Glasgow Warriors have arrested the league slide somewhat but this is a tough road trip assignment. If they can negate the opening quarter, no reason why Dave Rennie’s charges cannot get a win out of this but the victory need is more for the hosts. Cardiff Blues loss and their playoff ambitions will be massively dented, must win territory required from here on out. Blues to win but Glasgow Warriors should earn a loser point at least.

Guinness Pro14: Munster 43 – 0 Isuzu Southern Kings

Munster Rugby secure bonus point try victory

Munster Rugby remain top of Conference A after an emphatic bonus point try victory over a Isuzu Southern Kings who after a strong opening quarter were exposed in set piece and discipline. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Wet conditions poses early issues 

The conditions at Irish Independent Park were challenging to say the least. The incessant blustery rainy conditions causing issues for both sides in the opening period. Munster Rugby had the elements at their backs in the first half but it was the Isuzu Southern Kings who started the better, ball carries on point and making good progress deep into Munster Rugby territory.

Munster Rugby though defensively were well organized and forced turnover ball at regular intervals which setup good territorial gains with the boot of Bleyendaal and Scannell. The opening try came on fourteen minutes, good phase play from Holland and Farrell setting the platform for Neil Cronin to crash over from close range.

Chris Farrell worryingly went down for medical treatment after the try and albeit the medics tried to strap up the thigh and knee areas, the decision was made to call the center ashore for an early bath. A big concern for province and national team ahead of some crucial games for both sides in the coming weeks. Johann van Graan stated that Farrell experienced pain to the inside of his knee; more to follow in the coming days.

Munster Rugby were struggling to quell the aggressive Kings defensive line speed and abrasive breakdown work in that opening period. Kings enjoying a couple of excellent moments dispossessing Munster players with the ball but the approach was borderline and after a number of infringements, Lerm was sin binned for a no arm tackle at the breakdown. It was a key call as Munster Rugby used the man advantage to build pressure and more points.

The breakdown work from the hosts improved in the closing stages of the half with Lerm in the bin and better recycling ball from the hosts saw Bleyendaal deliver a superb pass to Andrew Conway whose running line exposed the cover defense of the Kings. 12-0 at the break. Kings still in the contest but disciplinary issues were rearing their head with the visitors.

One way traffic in second half 

The second half should have seen the Isuzu Southern Kings look to create with the elements at their back but Munster Rugby tightened up their breakdown and attacking play in the third quarter and put this fixture to bed.

The third try arrived on fifty-nine minutes. Conway was the class act in the back line exchanges tonight and his deft chip in behind caused massive Kings’ defensive issues. Mathewson was taken out but Sweetnam was supporting to touchdown. It signaled the end of the contest.

The bonus point try was not long in coming as Kings’ defensive line speed started to wane at an alarming rate of knots. Mathewson with his speed of pass from the ruck allowing Bleyendaal the time and space to unleash his runners. Scannell at center produced a key gain line break with additional ball carries from the Munster Rugby pack to setup Billy Holland to score.

All goes a bit Pete Tong for the Kings 

With this score, the Kings discipline completely went out the window. Late hits and dangerous tackles the order of the day. The fifth try arriving on 67 minutes where more penalty concessions leading to the five meter scrum. Munster Rugby pack did the rest with the line out and maul.

The rest of the game was pretty exhibition stuff. Kings were restricted in their attacking play and they switched off in their defensive duties. Jean Kleyn scoring as Kings switched off at a line out. Rory Scannell completed the rout with a smart drive. 43-0.

Reflections 

The positives for Munster Rugby were the performance of the back three. Mike Haley at full back reveled with ball in hand from deep; made endless yards for the side and his cohesion with colleagues around him was much better. Andrew Conway’s ability to create and dominate in the air was to the fore. Darren Sweetnam was sharp in his defensive duties and provided an attacking outlet out wide. A good cameo for all three players.

The adjustments from Munster Rugby in the second half saw very eye catching. They negated the Kings’ threat in the breakdown, quickened ruck ball with the introduction of Mathewson. Cloete was industrious as well and got his trademark breakdown steal. Wycherley is such a prospect; thunderous display from the West Cork native. Botha’s work rate was infectious.

The set piece dominated Kings pack. The scrum was a destructive means of creating field position. John Ryan is scrummaging superbly well this year and his domination tonight should provide more food for thought for Joe Schmidt and the national team. The line out at times misfired (understandable given the weather conditions) but when required, the usual suspects delivered.

Kings continue to struggle on the road. Their back three have serious potential but they are let down massively by their discipline. The penalty count was off the charts tonight and setup easy attacking opportunities for Munster Rugby. The opening quarter was decent but it means nothing if the side cannot be consistent for the entire game. Kings need to step up in this tournament; their second half performance was rubbish and not one for the league organizers to watch. Kings need to increase their squad depth and talent, otherwise the Port Elizabeth side are wasting their time in this competition.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Friday Night Preview)

Guinness Pro14 – How I have missed you so?

After a couple of weeks to rest battered bodies, the Guinness Pro14 league resumes with some key fixtures which could go a long way in determining who makes the playoffs or not. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action on tap for Friday night.

Edinburgh Rugby hold all the aces against Dragons

Murrayfield. Fortress Edinburgh Rugby. This stage of the season is where Edinburgh Rugby need to create momentum ahead of their crunch European Cup quarter final against Munster Rugby on March 30th. If you wanted a fixture to set the springboard for resurgence, the Dragons as opposition would probably fit the bill.

Dragons come into this contest on the back of a narrow home loss to Munster Rugby. The weather conditions made the fixture into a non-spectacle and with a little more composure, Dragons could have and perhaps should have secured the win. The discipline issues which has been a sore point this season reared its head yet again during this loss.

Their team selection sees Jarryd Sage (centre) and James Benjamin (Eight) get first team call ups. Ollie Griffiths moves to the seven jersey to accommodate the arrival of Benjamin to the back row. Gavin Henson is named on the replacements as the Dragons must make do without six players who are away on international duty.

Edinburgh Rugby team news sees the timely return of Magnus Bradbury back from a four month injury spell on the sidelines. Richard Cockerill can also welcome back Scottish squad players Ben Toolis, Darcy Graham, Chris Dean and Luke Crosbie for this encounter. Try scoring machine Duhan van der Merwe also returns to the back three.

The odds are stacked for Dragons with a strong Edinburgh Rugby side named. Can the front five gain parity? I have seriously doubts and with Mata marauding with ball in hand setting up endless excellent attacking platform, it is not conceivable to think that Edinburgh Rugby could win this with a bonus point for good measure.

Munster Rugby face Southern Kings challenge 

A debut visit for the Isuzu Southern Kings to Munster Rugby and the surroundings of Irish Independent Park, Cork. A fixture if dry should produce some excellent try scoring opportunities.

The Munster Rugby team news sees a number of Irish international squad players rejoin for this fixture. Chris Farrell, Dave Kilcoyne, Billy Holland, Andrew Conway, John Ryan, Niall Scannell all get valuable game time tonight with Tyler Bleyendaal and Neil Cronin forming the half back pairing.

The Isuzu Southern Kings buoyed by their recent fixture home win to Edinburgh Rugby give a start to out-half Bader Pretorius while Berton Klaasen (centre) and loose-forward Stephan de Wit come into the starting lineup.

The Isuzu Southern Kings have had an indifferent fixture series with two losses to to the Toyota Cheetahs on the form guide prior to the Edinburgh Rugby win.

This is an interesting fixture. The hope is that the Isuzu Southern Kings will look to run the ball from all angles, pose questions of Munster Rugby defensively. The expectation is that Munster Rugby’s front five should be sufficiently cohesive to create try scoring opportunities. Munster Rugby to prey on the South Africans poor away form to win this fixture with a potential bonus point opportunity late on.

50/50 contest at Liberty Stadium 

This is the standout fixture of the round potentially. Both sides have slipped off the playoff race pace in recent rounds and a victory for either would be potentially huge in the context of the playoff picture come the end of the regular season.

Ospreys are impacted massively for this fixture as they are missing at least seven first team marquee players due to international duty. Jordan Lay, a recent acquisition comes into the front row.

Ulster Rugby are boosted by the return of Iain Henderson to the pack, good news for both province and Ireland ahead of the remaining Guinness Six Nation fixtures. Ireland squad players John Cooney and Jordi Murphy also feature to get valuable game time.

A massive fixture for both sides. Playoff momentum is the buzz keywords for the victor. A cagey contest beckons here, potential edge to Ulster Rugby given the players back into the starting lineup but it is a very close fixture to call.