Guinness Pro 12: Munster 7 – 24 Leinster

pro12_logo

The tenth round of games in this season’s Guinness Pro 12 competition and gaps and trends are starting to emerge among the competing teams. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the action and wonders if Munster will be even playing European Cup rugby next season.

A game which encapsulated Munster’s season in eighty minutes. A performance full of effort and endeavor was undermined consistently by poor handling, poor game management and the set piece where the Munster pack were blown away in all facets of play.

The 25,000 crowd at Thomond Park were just in their seats when Garry Ringrose announced himself to the game and setup the first try for the visitors. The invention, the pace, the awareness of Ringrose to pick out his supporting runner Nacewa. The run was sensational but exposed Munster’s inability to defend the outside channels throughout this contest.

Once Ringrose went outside Jack O’Donoghue, the warning signs were issued in the Thomond Park stands. Ringrose spotting Nacewa passed and the New Zealander was never going to miss the opportunity from eight meters. Munster hardly laid a hand on either Leinster player and so set the tone for the rest of the contest.

Leinster were seven points up and sensed Munster fragility and panic in the ranks. Munster duly conceding another soft penalty which Ian Madigan duly punished. The penalty kick success compounded further by an inexplicable penalty miss from Munster rookie Rory Scannell who shanked from fifteen meters straight in front of the posts  before the visitors went ten points up.

Leinster were aided by a strong breeze at their backs and controlled first half proceedings. However, Munster hanging into the contest more due to work rate and fight got a lifeline when Robin Copeland sneaked in from close range after repeated Munster’s attacks on the Leinster line just before the break. Copeland spotted the gap as Leinster looked for an obstruction call that was never going to happen. Scannell slotting the conversion to make it 10-7 at the break.

Munster now had the elements at their backs but the second half was a horror show and highlighted several issues in the team. Both back and forward units misfired horribly.

Leinster’s pack won the battle hands down, dominated the scrum and the breakdown at times was a no contest where Sean O’Brien (back from injury) reveled winning at least six turnovers. O’Brien was ably assisted by Dominic Ryan who had a monster game in terms of tackle count and ball carries. Heaslip was nullified to a certain extent by his opposite number CJ Stander who tried to win the game for Munster on his own. His ball carries, tackling was not enough as several Munster players around him shirked the work rate and responsibility particularly in the last quarter. The Munster pack struggled in line-out and scrum set piece and the once feared Munster pack is no longer a discernible force in European Rugby.

The pack struggles were compounded by a lethargic, disorganized half-back and back line performance. Bleyendaal at ten was provided with the opportunity to stake the claim on the jersey and it will be safe to assume that the New Zealander may have played his last game for the province. No game management, no leadership to those around him and forced the likes of Earls and Scannell to keep up the slack. Bleyendaal’s reluctance to kick the ball made Munster’s attack look predictably one dimensional.

The questions on why Scannell was asked to kick instead of the experienced New Zealander will rage on for days to come. Bleyendaal is a bust signing and the decision of Foley to gamble on Keatley / Bleyendaal has enormously backfired. You can see why Keatley’s form has dipped this season, no serious competition for the ten jersey and the problems here have spread to the rest of the back line.

The lack of trust in the Munster back line was clearly apparent last night. Saaili does not trust his colleagues around him, constantly looking to bust through gaps and not look to pass to a colleague in a better position, focusing on offloading risky passes to colleagues under pressure to get to the New Zealander. Perhaps, Sailli has a better skill set than his colleagues but the lack of trust and support running lines by the back line is damning at this time. Brian Walsh as the back line coach is under pressure to rectify the situation. Keith Earls looked dangerous with ball in hand and when he went off injured, Rory Scannell took up the mantle but you never got a sense that Munster could break a organized Leinster defense. Zebo struck a forlorn figure.

Leinster were solid throughout and absorbed with ease what Munster threw at them last night. Several Munster knockons and several turnover balls from the breakdown area told its own story and Leinster put the tie to bed with two tries. McGrath scoring from close range after Madigan spotted big space out wide for Nacewa to collect a cross-field kick. The game was over as a contest and the icing on the cake was right on full time whistle when Sailli decided to throw a stamp addressed envelope to Ambrosino only for Kirchener to intercept and run the length of the pitch to score under the sticks. Madigan converted and the final whistle blew. In truth, the majority of Thomond Park had hit the exit minutes before such is the reaction to the team at present.

Leinster revive their season and should be looking forward to a positive Pro 12 campaign. The emergence of Van den Flier and Ringrose are massive positives. This is in stark contrast to Munster who are headed in the opposite direction. Comprehensively exposed in game plan, team selection Munster are looking at the grim possibility of not being in European Cup next season. Sixth place in the table at present and with a daunting trip to Kingspan at the weekend, Munster could conceivably be in eighth spot come the end of the festive period.

Foley’s ambitions to extend his tenure are in tatters. Brian Walsh could be culled in the coaching department. The lack of a consistent reliable number ten is now coming home to roost. Munster are in dire straits and there are no quick fixes in sight. 25,000 crowds in Thomond Park could be a thing of the past and I suspect that several current Munster players in the ranks may be looking at their options to play in England or France such is the abyss in the camp. IRFU should be worried. Munster are sinking without trace.

EPL Review – December 26th

epl_logo

Death stares, discontent fan base, team performances lacking the desire, organization and attitude required have being the hallmarks of Manchester United’s festive period. The 2-0 loss to Stoke at the Britannia Stadium was incredibly kind to Louis Van Gaal’s charges who were on the back foot as soon as Memphis Depay errand header back to De Gea was pounced upon by Bojan. Arnautovic’s emphatic strike after twenty-six minutes was sensational but questions on the lack of pressure applied to the Austrian in the lead-up to the strike was shambolic.

Memphis Depay has had a torrid start to his Manchester United career; struggling to make an impact offensively (more to this than the player) but his lack of defensive nous tracking back and putting his body on the line at set piece has irked Manchester United supporters this season. The player needs to up his game, otherwise Depay will be dispatched out of the club as soon as he arrived.

Stoke were comfortable for long periods, played the better football and with Bojan and Xheridi revelling in the open space afforded by Manchester United midfield tormented their opponents. Arnautovic in truth should have had a hat-trick such where the chances created particularly in that opening period. United looked forlorn. The omission of Wayne Rooney clearly not having the effect required. Rooney on his introduction tried hard and his setup for Fellaini should have yielded a goal only for an excellent save from Jack Butland.

Stoke’s bench looked far superior than Manchester United’s and this is where Manchester United’s problems lie. The current squad is not a top eight club in the league. The manager is getting the flak but the squad has yet again failed to deliver for a second manager in succession. Too many players in United jerseys are making numerous unforced errors. Michael Carrick appears to be the only player at the club capable of passing a ball forward to a colleague. The rest of the team are in fear mode, looking to pass the buck and not take on any responsibility.

LVG may walk before the end of the year. Yes, he is culpable for some questionable buys during this tenure but the buck stops with the players on the pitch and apart from De Gea, Smalling, Martial and at times of Schweinsteiger and Rooney have shown precious little. The rot has well and truly set in. It is like the club before Alex Ferguson joined the football club, devoid of ambition, hunger and discipline. Big changes are required and the role of Ed Woodward again in terms of securing managerial targets is yet again under the microscope.

Stoke’s brand of football is a joy to watch. Mark Hughes is building a football club with shrewd player purchases mixed with experience of the likes of Whelan, Shawcross (immense leadership). Jack Butland’s progression in Stoke means that Asmir Begovic’s exit from the club has not being felt. Their pace upfront means that the club will be challenging for a top eight berth. Stoke wish they played the Manchester clubs every day of the week. They have dismantled City and United in recent weeks and look well primed for a serious crack at Liverpool in the League Cup semi-final on January 5th.

The other result of note was Southampton’s excellent demolition of Arsenal at St Mary’s. The post League Cup hangover was well and truly put to bed as Southampton’s work rate, physicality were too much for an Arsenal team who were outgunned in the middle of park. Wanyama produced a man of the match performance nullifying the threat of Ozil and Ramsey. The game will be remembered for the splendid opener. Martina’s strike is a contender for goal of the season, sweet strike from outside the box to comprehensively beat Petr Cech.

The goal should have stoked Arsenal into life but Southampton then grew into the contest. Shane Long’s tussle with Laurent Koscielny catching the eye as both players gave as good as it got. Long feeling his head after an elbow from the French defender but the Tipperary man had the last laugh with a brace after the break. Both goals clinically taken but the second goal lead-up was cheeky to the extreme (Long’s trip on Koscielny not picked up by the match officials). Fonte concluded the scoring from a corner which exposed Arsenal’s set piece marking which was loose during their MNF win over Manchester City.

Arsenal simply had no response to Southampton’s work rate and the hosts desire to support Mane and Long upfront. A win which will be tonic required for Southampton to climb up the table. Arsenal’s MNF win over City is a long in the past; the reality check was received and it will be interesting to see how Wenger reacts to the loss. Ramsey struck an anonymous figure throughout and Flamini struggled to contain the threat of Mane from deep positions. The EPL season takes another interesting twist.

Arsenal’s collapse at Southampton means that Manchester City recover the ground lost from their MNF loss to Arsenal. City’s 4-1 win over a Sunderland side who defensively were all at sea was as routine a win that the City fans will see at the Etihad all season. Bony should have had a hat-trick. De Bruyne revelled in the space afforded and struck his tenth goal of the league season. The Belgian has suddenly become one of the key players of the side, sharp and incisive with the ball and his goals are now a frequent feature on the back pages. Kompany’s injury recurrence is a massive concern for City. Will Pellegrini buy in January as an insurance cover for Kompany? With Aguero and Silva yet to gain full fitness, the league has being warned. City are in prime position to launch a title race push come the New Year. Sunderland look extremely vulnerable. They have capitulated in recent trips on the road. Their defensive record is the stuff of nightmares, their lack of pace and organization is shambolic at times. The lack of players tracking runs has being evident throughout. Big Sam has a job on his hands and I suspect that he will plunge into the transfer market to arrest the slide. Borini chipped in with his now customary consolation goal but Sunderland need more from their attacking players. A pivotal end of season awaits.

Tottenham continue to impress under the radar. Harry Kane helped himself to a brace as Tottenham eased their way past a Norwich City team who struggled for long periods. If it was not for Norwich keeper Declan Rudd, the three nil score would have being more. Dele Ali again had a man of the match performance. The midfield youngster is playing like an EPL veteran. Ali has it all; pace, power, ability to pass and eye for a goal. Kane’s upturn in form has a lot to do with the emergence of Dele Ali. Lloris in goal continues to catch the eye with a magnificent double save in the second half. Tottenham are now in the top four, a position which they duly deserve but can the North London club eye further up the table? A dark horse for the title race shakeup.

Villa secure a point at home to West Ham United but lose further ground on the likes of Swansea. Villa will rue the fact that they did not secure full points from this encounter. Their second half performance was full of work rate and desire but the distinct lack of quality in the final third was their undoing. It is amazing that Remi Garde is considering offloading Gabby Agbonlahor considering the lack of quality upfront yesterday. Villa must now seriously consider life in the Championship. Unless they buy several shrewd attacking and defensive options next month, they are destined for relegation. West Ham United cannot wait for January to arrive, the injury crisis has depleted the team and Bilic will look to bolster the ranks in the weeks to come. Aaron Cresswell is back to form, excellent performance yesterday.

Newcastle’s efforts were all undone with a late goal from Tom Cleverley. The Toon Army will wonder how they did not come out of the game with at least a share of the spoils. Mitrovic’s header midway through the second half was a pivotal moment, looked harder to miss. Ayoze was bright throughout and Newcastle showed everyone the improvement of recent weeks, work rate, pace on the flanks, creating chances. This was a lively encounter and Everton had their chances too. Lukaku again a constant threat and was unlucky just prior to the winning goal denied by a last ditch block. The goal was harsh on Newcastle. Cleverley’s looping header from an Elliott punched clearance from a corner saw no Newcastle outfield player react and get back on the line to clear the second ball. The lack of concentration proved fatal and with it the game.

Swansea receive a much needed victory over WBA. Ki’s first goal of the season could be the springboard required for the Swans to move up the table. Watford’s resurgence shows no sign of abating, thoroughly deserved their 2-2 draw against Chelsea who yet again showed vulnerabilities defensively. Diego Costa’s brace indicates that the Spanish International is coming back into form but old habits die hard and yet another booking means that Costa is out of Chelsea’s side for the trip to Old Trafford. Cesc Fabregas benched issued a big statement from Guus Hiddink; players who fail to perform will be dropped. Watford’s Ighalo scores yet again and is one of the signings of the season. Oscar’s penalty miss, video blooper reel. Hazard’s cameo suggests that the Belgian is back in top form.

Liverpool again lift it against a top four side and dispatch Leicester City by the solitary goal. Benteke’s goal with eighteen minutes left was full value for Liverpool’s dominance throughout. Leicester were dangerous on the counter attack but Liverpool were well aware of the threat posed by Leicester’s counter attack style. Klopp nullified Vardy and Mahrez to the extent that both marquee players were called ashore well before the final whistle. Leicester will look to bounce back against City but is the title tilt over before it starts? A pivotal couple of days awaits Claudio Rainieri’s men. Liverpool now need to perform at a consistent level, not far off top four and their end of season run indicates that they could come late with a title run. The league has being incredibly unpredictable but there are plenty of twists and turns yet to go.

English Premier League Mid-Year Review

epl_logo
It has being an extremely strange EPL season to date. The traditional powerhouses of the league have struggled for consistency and form resulting in a number of keynote managerial departures with the potential of at least one more scalp before the year is out. We are two games from the midpoint of the season and I think it is high time to give out a few grades out for the EPL class of 2015 / 2016.

Grade A — Star Pupil

Four teams come into this bracket starting with the current league leaders Leicester City. It has being a terrific run from Claudio Rainieri’s charges who continued their emphatic end of season form last term this season leading to several key victories. Their work rate and ability to counter attack with such pace and intent have left opponents at sixes and sevens. Mahrez and Vardy will take the bulk of the credit (quite right too) but I think huge praise has to go to other players in the team starting with Drinkwater who has being a revelation in the middle of the park. The former Manchester United player has really stood out this season, solid in defensive work but also his ability to pick the right pass has caught the eye. Wes Morgan had his issues adapting to the league last season but the former Nottingham Forest stopper has had a superb season to date, defensively imposing and has chipped in with several set piece goals. Kasper Schmeichel for me has being the leading EPL goalkeeper this season, his save percentage and dominance in his area, his marshalling of his defense have resulted in comparisons with his legendary father. Leicester’s work rate, running and ability to support each other means that they are now a title contender. They will hit a bump or two in the next couple of weeks but this group of players have grown rapidly and with a manager who is perfectly suited to a football club of this profile, things can only look upwards for the East Midlands club.

Watford are my second team who have exceeded expectations this season. Flores’ appointment at the start of the team was greeted with muted feedback but the Spanish supremo has overseen a Watford team who ooze pace, work rate defensively and the ability to score goals. Ighalo has being a revelation for the Hornets this season. His goals have increased confidence in the team but his partnership with club legend Troy Deeney has seen Watford look an attacking threat both home and away. Their demolition of Liverpool last weekend was a marquee event but in truth, this performance and result has being coming for weeks now. They were incredibly unlucky to lose to Manchester United at home a couple of weeks ago. The group learned from those failings to produce a performance against Liverpool who struggled to break down Watford defensively where Cathcart and Ake have being superb and could not deal with the understanding and pace of Ighalo and Deeney. Watford’s decision to invest heavily in the first team squad has being merited and Flores’ links with La Liga should mean that several more arrivals to the club next month which will increase competition and performance levels at the Herfordshire club. Watford should be the success story of the EPL this season only for Leicester. Flores’ services will be noted by several continental clubs.

Arsenal have being the only traditional team who have turned up in any consistent fashion this season. Arsene Wenger has being ridiculed from pillar to post by many pundits for his lack of outfield investment before the start of this season but his decision to sign Petr Cech to me has being the masterstroke of the season. Arsenal’s acquistion has solidified a back four who were inconsistent at best last season. Koscielny is playing with a confidence and swagger not seen before. The emergence of Monreal and Bellerin at full back has added pace and solidity to the defensive flanks. Sanchez was a revelation at the start of the season and his injury could have being a fatal blow but enter stage left Mesmut Ozil who has mesmerized the league this season. Fifteen assists already with the record of twenty is one which will be easily broken. Ozil’s class was all over the MNF win over Manchester City, his first touch and ability to pick a pass was outstanding. Ozil and Sanchez’s form means that Arsenal are in prime position to win the league this season.

Crystal Palace’s best decision in the last decade was to appoint Alan Pardew as club manager. The Wimbledon native, a passionate Palace club man has galvanized all involved with the South East London club. The atmosphere at Selhurst Park is arguably the best in the league, an intense match day experience where Palace’s pace down the flanks (Bolasie, Zaha, Puncheon) is complemented with the game management of Cabaye who has being a standout midfield performer in the league this season. Palace have increased their defensive options and Dann, Delaney, Hangeland are pushing each other for first team spots. Speroni’s absence has being addressed well by both Hennessey and McCarthy, two keepers with massive potential. The departure of Glenn Murray was a blow and one hopes that Wickham can realize his potential at the football club. Palace are a top six contender given their threat away from Selhurst Park. Pardew’s managerial performance at the club speaks volumes. Newcastle’s loss is Palace’s gain.

Grade B — Good Performance

Several teams have emerged from this part of the season with enormous credit. Leading the queue is West Ham United whose form has faltered in recent weeks due to key injuries. January has come at the right time to replenish key absences. Payet and Reid have being key to the Hammers resurgence. Payet’s playmaker ability has caught the eye, instrumental in all that was good for the club early doors. Reid is a superb central defender. His pace and power complements James Tomkins perfectly. Adrian in goal has produced several key saves this term. Sakho upfront provided pace and threat for opposition defenses. Slaven Bilic has being shrewd in the transfer market and may need to dip into the market next month to increase competition defensively and attacking options to remain in contention for Europa League places.

After a slow start, Tottenham have come to the party in recent weeks. Apart from that unexpected loss at home to Newcastle, Pochettino’s side has shown observers with all the attributes required to take a claim for the top four. Kane has not had the dreaded second season syndrome, continuing to score and provide chances to colleagues. Ali has being the young player of the season so far. The former MK Dons players has oozed class throughout chipping with goals at regular intervals that England have called the player into the international fold. Eriksen and Lamela for me are keys to Tottenham’s future success; both players are incredibly gifted footballers who can create chances out of nothing. Their performances will be key like Lloris and Vertonghen defensively. Alderweireld acquisition has being a star turn but continued UEFA Europa League involvement late in the season could hinder top four league ambitions.

Manchester City conclude the list of teams in the good bracket. Yes, the form recently has being mixed but look at City’s early start to the year and one will understand the rationale. The repeated managerial reports have nothing to add the stability required at the football club. The squad on paper looks the best in the league. Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne have all shown quality early doors. Toure is warming to the season but their contributions are being undermined at present by a shaky back four who have being exposed in recent weeks without the services of Kompany. Otamendi and Mangala have struggled to contain opponents who have speed and physical presence leaving Joe Hart increasingly overworked in the goal. City will be a major player in the title run in but the issues exposed in recent weeks will be fatal if not remedied. Pellegrini’s uncertain future is also adding to the indifferent form. City talk about football project, but how can they acheive it if they decide to ditch their club manager after only three seasons.

Bournemouth’s recent run of results and footballing style has them edged into the Grade B group. Their memorable victories over Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks has shown resilience, determination and style of play which has caught the eye. Eddie Howe’s charges play the game in the right manner, on the deck and at times has cost them with several goals leaked. However, they have continued to play the right way and the players have adapted to the rigors of the EPL to produce this fine run of form. Glenn Murray will keep the South Coast side in the league but Eddie Howe needs reinforcements defensively and midfield to keep the tempo and competition in the squad. Nice story emerging here and one hopes Bournemouth are in the league next season. Eddie Howe, a manager on the up.

Grade C — Good but not good enough

Several teams fit into this category. Liverpool are flirting with the Grade B but have regressed in recent weeks. Klopp appointment is a big positive and his managerial style will only improve Liverpool long term. Klopp’s transfers will be scrutinized next month and particularly in the summer when several current players will be told that they are surplus to requirements. Liverpool’s lack of attacking width is an issue and has not allowed Benteke to make the necessary impact upfront. Liverpool’s demolition of Manchester City away last month showed what the side are capable of; incisive passing, tempo and movement. Milner acquisition has being a solid piece of business but Klopp needs to add to his squad to offset weak points defensively where the goalkeeping and central defensive options are limited.

Everton are a team who are flirting with the top six but their lack of consistency has them in this grade pool. Their defiance not to let John Stones leave for Stamford Bridge has being crucial with an impressive run in the League Cup. Lukaku has stole the show for Everton from an attacking perspective and with Barkley recapturing his form of his debut season, the blue side of Merseyside should look forward to a positive second half of the season. Martinez must review his goalkeeping cover to increase competition on Tim Howard who at times has being culpable for a couple of goals in recent weeks.

Southampton have faltered ever since their league cup drubbing at the hand of Liverpool. Their injury crisis has exposed depth chart issues defensively and in midfield. With Jay Rodriguez struggling for fitness, Pelle / Mane and Long have attempted to score the goals but it has being a struggle in recent weeks. Schneiderlein’s departure has being huge. Van Djik signing has being the highlight, pace and command of the position has caught the eye. Koeman needs money to add competition in striking and central midfield albeit Fraser Forster’s return in goal cannot come quick enough.

Stoke have shown flashes of brilliance this season against Chelsea, City have being undermined by several under-par performances at the Britannia. Mark Hughes’ side evolution from long ball merchants to passing is in progress and with the likes of Bojan, Walters, Arnautovic pose the attacking threat required. Fellay and Shaquiri acquisitions are excellent but the emergence of Jack Butland in goals has being key. Superb performances this season. If Stoke can improve their consistency in the second half of the season, the sky’s the limit. Shawcross continues to be the main talisman for Stoke defense.

Grade D — Inconsistency

Who has not being? Manchester United have being wholly inconsistent with recent weeks performances opening more questions on the perceived football philosophy being implemented by LVG. Zero pace, zero creativity, zero leadership on the park has led to a marked decline in fortunes. LVG may be the scapegoat but the current squad are hopelessly out of their depth. Martial, Smalling and De Gea aside, all other players have underperformed. 200+ million invested in the current squad looks like a costly mistake and with games against Stoke and Chelsea looming large, Ed Woodward will be under pressure to arrest the slide. Replacing the manager will only be one part of the solution. An effective transfer policy is also required and Woodward has failed to execute this policy, missing key acquisitions and putting Moyes and now LVG under immense pressure.

West Bromwich Albion, a club who with Tony Pulis at the helm will be in the top flight next season. The football style at times can be laborious but Pulis will get the coveted forty points. WBA’s endless saga with Berahino / Tottenham link continues to be an unwelcome distraction and needs to be resolved next month one way or the other. The acquisitions of Evans and Fletcher from Manchester United are shrewd purchases which provides experience to a squad who on their day can upset the odds. Their 2–1 win at home to Arsenal showed what this team is capable of, playing fast flowing football which had Arsenal’s back four in trouble for long periods. Pulis will look to remedy the indiscipline that has crept into the side. McClean needs to focus on his football and not get swayed into social media and media commentary. Rondon has massive potential and needs to hit goals early in 2016 to offset Pulis’ need to buy an experienced striker in January. The consistency of performance against teams around them is the key. Pulis, the shrewd operator will have the team perform and there is no fear that WBA are plunged into a relegation battle this season.

Norwich’s win against Manchester United has being the highlight of the season. Alex Neil is a manager destined for bigger things. His nonsense approach (laid into players after 1–1 draw at home to Everton) spoke volumes and his charges produced in Old Trafford in the next game. Norwich are not scoring enough goals at present and need their defense to keep as many clean sheets as possible. If they continue in the same vein, unfortunately a relegation battle will ensue and pressure will be put on the likes of Hoolahan and Jerome to create and score chances. Neil will need to dip into the January market to address the scoring concerns and perhaps add another quality central midfielder / defender to increase competition.

Grade F — Failed to Perform

The rest of the league is guilty of this charge. Chelsea’s season is the stuff of nightmares. Manager exits stage left after a series of embarrassing internal club incidents which exposed the medical staff, players to ridicule. Hiddink will steady the ship but the likes of Hazard, Costa, Fabregas have flat out not performed this season. Pedro’s acquistion is akin to Di Maria for Manchester United last season — inconsequential. The player power issues seen in recent weeks will be quick to resolve. Drogba’s influence around the dressing room in a coaching capacity is resolved as soon as possible.

Swansea, a club in crisis. Huw Jenkins has wielded the axe on Gary Monk and with no outstanding candidate emerging, Alan Curtis will continue. Swansea’s early form was excellent but something has happened in the club since September. Players are not working hard enough, goals have dried up. Montero who lit up the league early doors is nowhere to be seen. Did the Nathan Dyer loan deal derail Swansea’s first team morale? Something is not adding up. Swansea have being a huge success story in the league but they look incredibly vulnerable now. The leadership of Williams is required now. Swansea survival depends on the managerial appointment and key acquisitions in January.

Sunderland, the perennial strugglers. Big Sam will have them out of relegation trouble but how come that this club is consistently languishing in the bottom of the league? Cultural shift required at the club and Big Sam will take no rubbish from the squad as he steers a path out of the bottom three. Defoe’s goal will be key but defensively look wholly exposed at times and is an area of January transfer improvement.

If Newcastle played to live television cameras every game, there would be no issue. Steve McClaren has had a tough start to life in Newcastle but the team appear to be turning the over. Rob Elliott in goals due to the season ending injury to Tim Krul has impressed which in turn has allowed the back four to improve. Newcastle need to continue the work rate of recent weeks to continue the revival. Wijnaldum has being the star performer for Steve McClaren.

Bye Bye Aston Villa. Remi Garde may not a hope with this squad. Garde is looking for at least ten wins in the remaining fixtures, cannot see them getting even half that such is the porous nature of the squad. The elements of relegation are in abundance: do not score goals and do not keep clean sheets. Time for Villa to reflect over Christmas, review the squad and take action to prepare for life in the Championship. The behavior of Jack Grealish during this time has to be called out, an unwelcome distraction for a football club who I have a lot of respect for. Great stadium, great fans who deserve so much better.

Munster Rugby: Boo Gate Scandal

cropped-test.jpg

I am a proud Munster Rugby supporter. I have made the pilgrimage to the amphitheater of Thomond Park since I was a young lad. I have supported Munster for at least twenty-five years, starting with trips to Tom Clifford Park to watch Young Munster in action. The atmosphere and banters at those legendary AIL games will live with me forever and set the backdrop to when Munster Rugby fans of all AIL and Junior clubs  would congregate at Thomond Park to support the team to victory, games where the team had no divine right of winning, games where the opposition froze such was the atmosphere generated in the stands and terraces and setup electric nights of success and celebration. The miracle games would be nothing without the supporters who turned up and fully backed the side when their backs were against the wall.

The alleged booing of Ian Keatley on December 12th was a sorry chapter but I think this incident was highlighting the lack of direction shown by Munster Rugby both on and off the pitch. The on the pitch performances have being poor as of late, back line play is non-existent and the once feared pack lacks the abrasiveness and physicality to control crunch fixtures. Munster Rugby can point to recent developments in the training facilities and Independent Park but the facts are that the product on the park has to be of a sufficient quality for supporters to have trust and confidence that the team is going in the right direction. The departures in the off-seasons of talisman such as O’Connell, O’Callaghan and even more damaging the exits of emerging talents such as Hanrahan and Butler saw a void in the squad which has not being rectified. This is where the frustration stems from and the fact that Ian Keatley has no serious competition at number ten means that standards have dropped, penalty kicks are being missed with worrying regularity. It is not Keatley’s fault. It is the fault of Munster for not providing the competition for the player to continue his player development and growth.

Munster Rugby talk about respect. They need to provide it to the fans as well in terms of how they intend to recruit playing staff for the upcoming season. I am writing off this season. Munster are on the verge of European Cup elimination. Their sights should be set on identifying targets for next season to rectify issues seen in the pack, out-half and three quarter positions. There is no sense at this time that Munster Rugby’s scouting networks are identifying home grown indigenous talent even at the junior and school levels when compared with the other provinces. The lack of combined school teams in counties such as Kerry, Clare and Waterford is damning to identify this talent early. Shrewd acquisitions are required and hopefully Munster are eyeing players like Ian Madigan, Sean Cronin to increase squad depth and first team competition.

The booing of Ian Keatley incidentally never started on December 12th. The rumblings of discontent on the JJ Hanrahan’s debacle last season manifested itself during the Osprey’s Pro 12 semi-final win. Certain Thomond Park sections vented their frustration that Hanrahan was not given his opportunity to shine as Keatley struggled for performance consistency throughout. Keatley was withdrawn from proceedings with ten minutes left of this contest and the jeers started, more for management than the actual player on the delayed reaction of this proposed switch.

I sense that the events leading up to the December 12th incident was more in this vain which is unfortunate but it raises questions on how supporters should conduct themselves during game day at Thomond Park. Should fans not express their reaction if the team are failing to fire? Should fans now accept mediocrity and error strewn displays? Ticket prices are high and fans expect a team performance full of endeavor, work rate and execution of the basic skills. The performance at Thomond Park on the night failed to reach those heights and so raises the question, what do fans do in this situation? Does a comment ‘come on, lift it’ now constitute a reason to be escorted from the stadium, negative comment in someone’s eyes which per Munster Rugby (RESPECT doctrine) needs to be reported to a steward. The Munster Rugby vs. Munster Fan relationship has taken a turn, the majority of fans will continue to support the team with pride but the statement could potentially deter some from going to the ground given the parameters now set by the organization for ejection from the game. Passionate fans are part and parcel of Munster’s fabric but sense this will be diluted after the events of December 12th.

Ian Keatley should not be the scapegoat for Munster’s failings, the responsibility should be carried by everyone associated with Munster (fans included). Increased talent in the squad is required pronto, the fans need to back the team in these tough times. Team management needs to learn from recent setbacks, identify players who can compete for starting first team places. The Munster Rugby head honchos need to be more open to the supporters in terms of their long term plans for the team both from playing and business perspective. If investment is required, what is being done to lure that investment in? All parties need to come together and form an united front. The Thomond Park fortress has taken a dent in image, time to move on for all concerned and move forward with shrewd mindset, passionate support and more effective game management from the head coach and backroom staff. Come on Munster!

European Champions Cup Reflections

erc_logo

The European Cup December home and away fixtures are in the books. Several teams are looking on with envy as their European campaign is done and dusted before the Christmas turkey is put in the oven. The plight is particularly stark for the Ireland provinces where Ulster are realistically the only team who had a chance (outside chance) of securing a best runner-up berth. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the weekend action.

Munster

The fourth round of European games, a round where teams cannot necessarily win the competition but a slip-up could prove fatal. It was the scenario that faced Munster heading into their clash with Leicester Tigers. Leicester, a city on the crest of a sporting euphoric wave with both the soccer team and rugby team excelling this season. The Leicester people love their sport and the parallels between Leicester and Limerick are so uncanny. Both cities rugby grounds are world famous with both supporter sets proud of their team (despite what Munster Rugby may say otherwise).

The contest in Welford Road yesterday afternoon capped Munster’s season superbly. Player work rate and endeavor could not be faulted but basic skill sets were yet again lacking in the scoring red zone both from the boot and ball in hand. How many times do Munster have to make the same mistakes week in week out for the coaching staff particularly Brian Walsh and Ian Costello to rectify.

Pat Lam mentioned before Connacht’s now infamous victory against Munster at Thomond Park four weeks ago that the contest would be decided on the training pitch. Lam’s astute assessment is where Munster are being exposed at present. The training regime is not focusing on the basic fundamentals on the training ground, again yesterday exposed fundamental issues in ball retention and ability to identify offload and passing opportunities. The lack of a consistent goal kicker is seriously denting any confidence that the team is trying to generate. Munster’s lack of support running is now an embarrassment and made Leicester’s defensive duties routine albeit if Francis Sailli’s try opportunity went over early in the second try, could the direction of the game have shifted?.

Leicester again exposed Keatley’s lack of open play game management to release his three quarters, profited from the out-halves’ inconsistent performance with the boot to clinically execute in red zone (two try opportunities, two tries) was the key difference. Ian Keatley has taken plenty of flak last week but there is a gaping leadership issue in the team post Paul O’Connell. Peter O’Mahoney’s absence is even more devastating for the team as his influence both in training and game day would be invaluable. Murray, Earls and Zebo should be driving this team forward along with CJ Stander but their cameos in recent weeks have being mediocre at best. Stander tried to win the contest on his own but it was such a forlorn battle to witness. The sooner O’Mahoney and O’Donnell return to first team action the better as several Munster players were again exposed at this level of competition. Munster Rugby’s statement of respect is a two way street, their ability to turn a blind eye to the playing side of the organization is coming home to roost. Keatley’s performances this season is the end product of a lack of serious competition in the out-half position.

The backroom coaching setup needs to be shaken up. Jerry Flannery aside, the other coaches need immediate assistance. The rigid back line performances exposes this point as it is getting more and more magnified by each passing week. One dimensional, little in supporting runners and game moves are telegraphed throughout. The only saving grace for Munster is that 6N fixtures loom large on the horizon and will reduce playing pools considerably and hence easier matches to win but it is only a short term solution. Two key pivotal fixtures against Leinster and Ulster will determine where Munster are come the New Year. I fear Munster could be involved in a battle to even stay in the premier European Cup competition such is the lack of quality shown across all facets of play by the team in recent weeks. Munster are mathematically still in the European Cup but such is the squad’s ability to execute away from Thomond Park means that they will be eliminated in early January. Foley must regroup and shake things up again to stake a claim for the head coaching role more than the eighteen months he has now.

Leinster

It has being a humbling seven days for Leinster Rugby. The European aristocrats of only four seasons ago are now in the chasing pack and now becoming detached from the top table much like Munster and Toulouse. Leinster’s loss to Toulon at the Aviva Stadium showed the good, the bad and the ugly. The good, the first forty minutes. The bad, the lack of breakdown dominance throughout so much so that Jamie Heaslip was hauled off. The ugly, the pack’s sheer inability to defend Toulon’s maul which threatened scores at very given opportunity.

Matt O’Connor was vilified for Leinster’s woes last season, the team have further recessed under Leo Cullen’s watch. The RWC was a factor but over the last four weeks, Leinster have lacked the physical dominance and set piece execution to deserve victory in Europe this season. The form of Sexton is of particular concern, his confidence with ball in hand is a worry ahead of the 6N. Sexton is a pale shadow of the player who wore the Leinster jersey two seasons ago. The lack of pack aggression in set piece and ball carrying has resulted in ineffective clear out and slow ball for the half-backs to unleash on paper a talented back line.

Cullen must now try the fringe players in the last two fixtures to run the rule over their long term future at the club. Cullen must be ruthless in weeding out the weak points of the squad and building competition for first team places. Leinster’s group are nightmarish but the lack of performance at times during this European campaign cannot be understated. Ian Madigan and Sean Cronin must wonder what they have to do to secure a first team starting berth. Leo Cullen like Anthony Foley in Munster is under pressure.

Ulster

The only province who is staking a serious claim for the European Champions Cup last eight. Ulster’s performance against Toulouse in the last ten days will be pivotal in their passage to the quarter final stage. Their defensive shape was outstanding at the Ernest Wallon and when presented with try scoring opportunities struck with clinical ease. Pienaar is the fulcrum of the side, his game management, eye for a break and ability to unleash his three quarters (something that Munster should take note of) has caught the eye. His unerring kicking provides Paddy Jackson with the platform to orchestrate.

Stuart McCloskey personally has being the stand out for Ulster this season. The three quarter is physically imposing, breaks tackles, make yard game line yards and his ability to offload to colleagues when tackled have caught the eye. McCloskey is a cert to start for Ireland in the 6N. Henshaw and McCloskey at three quarters is an exciting combination and when you add Luke Marshall’s form in recent weeks, things are looking very rosy for the side.

Les Kiss will be delighted with the side’s progress after a shaky start to this competition. Ulster are without several marquee players at present and when fit and available for selection, the side will be a dark horse in the tournament. Oyonaxx who are effectively out of this tournament should see further success for Ulster. Ten points from those two games would see Ulster advance to the last eight. Ulster are leading the way for Ireland this year and one hopes that they will advance deep into the competition.

The Rest

This season’s competition has seen the decline of several once powerhouse teams. Munster, Toulouse, Leinster are on the scrap heap. The competition is effectively looking like an Saxon / Franco mix with the potential hopefully of Glasgow and Ulster to join the party. Glasgow’s nine point haul from Llanelli means that they are well in the race for last eight progression. Their case was even further enhanced when Northampton and Racing Metro drew 9-9 at Franklin Gardens. Glasgow need to be in the last eight of the competition for their own team and club development. They have shown viewers of the Pro 12 that they are worthy champions so the next step is European progression. It would be another nice tonic for Scottish rugby as well.

The standout performances were Clermont and Saracens. Clermont’s attacking threat against a gallant yet naive Exeter showed a different side of their play. Strettle on the wing has to be included for England’s 6N campaign, scintillating pace and his running lines are superb. Saracens this season are primed for European glory, they have all the ingredients required to win the big prize. Their pack is imposing, defensively superb but this season’s ability to score tries from all facets of play is the missing link.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Wasps whose away trip demolition of Bath at the Rec issues a serious statement of intent that Wasps are back in English Rugby. Daly at centre is a super player and with searing pace out wide, Wasps will be a tough team for anyone who they met in the last eight. Toulon though are still the team to catch. They played in fits and starts against a revved up Leinster, absorbed the hosts punches and inflicted fatal wounds with two maul tries. Toulon’s back line is misfiring at present but will improve ominously as the season progress. Toulon’s pack is strong and with Paul O’Connell primed for an April start date, few will pick anyone other than Toulon to retain their crown.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Toulon 24 – 9 Leinster

erc_logo

A trip to Toulon, the aristocrats of European Rugby and a side smarting from a surprisingly comprehensive defeat to Wasps in the previous round was not what Leinster required. Hawkeye Sidekicks watched the contest and ponders if it was an opportunity lost for Leinster on a day when indiscipline and lack of game management cost them dear.

Leo Cullen thrust into the Leinster head coaching role sooner than expected will review this part of the European campaign with great regret. The squad at his disposal was more than capable of accounting for Wasps and Bath in the first two group phrase outings. However, an underwhelming home loss to Wasps set the tone for this tournament for Leinster and today’s reversal had traits of the issues which surfaced in the first two opening games of this pool.

It had started so well for Leinster at an overcast Toulon. A dominant first nine minutes in the opening period yielded two Sexton penalties and Toulon were struggling to get a foothold in the game. Leinster’s scrum was solid and the pack was abrasive in those early exchanges. This early confidence was perhaps to their downfall as the Leinster pack decided to contest a Toulon lineout deep in their own territory. The decision resulted in the Toulon pack mauling unceremoniously to the try line as Steffon Armitage emerged with the ball. It was as devastating a response as Leinster could have envisaged and it set the tone for the rest of the game.

Leinster were now struggling to win clean ball at the breakdown as Gorgodze and Armitage were providing a lesson in abrasive competitive work around the fringes. Van den Flier learned more today than he will ever learn in the Guinness Pro 12 this season, to be exposed in that environment will only help this emerging talent and the youngster could not be faulted given the circumstances. If that was not enough, Duane Vermuelen came to the party with several typically hard running lines which tested Leinster’s half-back tackling. Toulon’s embarrassing options were making an impact on the game if not on the scoreboard.

Perhaps, this is why Cian Healy decided to take the law into his own hands when he dumped Toulon hooker Girado in the ruck midway through the first half. Nigel Owens paused and gave the yellow card, indiscipline which Leinster could really ill afford but the Irish province survived the player absence with determined defense and some poor handling from Toulon in advanced positions. Toulon’s scrum was getting its act together but the lineout was a source of woe particularly in that opening forty minutes as Toner and McCarthy started to pinch home lineout ball.

The half-time interval was 10-9 to Toulon. Leinster went into the dressing room knowing that they had battled bravely to contend Toulon’s power house brand of rugby. Leo Cullen and management also hoped that their star out-half Sexton could improve from open play which lacked authority. His kicking from hand was inconsistent, his passing to launch his back line was missing intended targets. Perhaps, the early hit from Nonu was effecting the mercurial play maker?

However, the second half upturn required from Sexton never materialized as Toulon made the necessary adjustments to stifle Sexton even more with Bastareaud and Nonu now pressurizing Sexton’s attempts to kick deep into touch. The indiscipline stakes were not much better as Devin Toner then was forced to spend ten minutes immediately after the restart. Two experienced Ireland internationals receiving yellow cards is not what Leinster management required and the game was now ebbing away.

Toulon scrum-half Escande continued to be accurate from his penalty attempts as Leinster continued to leak penalties deep in their own territory. This was the tone for the majority of the game as to be honest, Leinster can have little complaints on the penalty count which was predominantly offside which showed Leinster’s eagerness to close space for Toulon to work with. Armitage concluded the scoring as Leinster minus third sin bin recipient Tom Denton crashed over after another emphatic maul.

Leinster could not be faulted for effort. All the players in blue ran themselves into the ground with Rhys Ruddock putting in a colossal effort in tackle count and ball carrying. The problems unfortunately were at ten where Sexton was tormented by Toulon throughout. The game management was not sharp enough as several kicks went out dead. Sexton’s body language spoke of a player bereft of how to shake the errors from his play. The Leinster back line were starved of quality possession to test Toulon’s defense but in fairness when you are trying to beat players such as Bastareaud, Nonu, Mitchell, Habana and Armitage enough said.

What does Leo Cullen do next weekend? The tournament is over, several marquee players are not performing to the levels required. Sexton and Heaslip were anonymous throughout. Jordi Murphy and Tadhg Furlong deemed good enough for Joe Schmidt are not regularly starting with their provinces, something is a miss. Toulon were poor by their own standards, poor handling, the set piece from the pack had issues throughout. I suspect that those issues will be rectified which would hint that Leo Cullen may have to think very carefully about putting fringe players to face this monster at the Aviva.

Munster and Leinster showed today how far down the pecking order both sides are from the top table of European Rugby. A sign of things to come. Madigan’s minor role today proves that the player needs to head to pastures new even though Sexton is playing far from his best. IRFU need to reflect and take the corrective action required; get the professional players playing week in week out and results will start to improve for both country and provinces. In Ulster and Connacht, we now trust for European glory.

European Champions Cup: Munster 19 – 31 Leicester

erc_logo

“Errors, mistakes are the necessary steps in the learning process; once they have served their purpose, they should be forgotten. If we consistently dwell upon the errors, then the error or failure becomes the goal.”

The words of the legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi sound apt for the start of my blog piece this morning. Errors and mistakes are part of every day life, it is how one learns from these tribulations that defines the character of one inside. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the game footage and the video analysis session on Monday will not be a happy place for anyone associated with Munster.

Mid-December, a time when workers are out on Christmas parties, a festive season feel descends over Limerick and it means that Munster are in the back to back European Cup action. This time against old foes Leicester Tigers. The team that burst the unbeaten European Cup home dominance, the team with Neil Back in its ranks to scoop that ball back from that fateful scrum in the Millenium Stadium on European final day in 2002. There should have being no motivation speeches required for current Munster management and players to get up for this fixture.

After an even first quarter to this contest, Leicester pounced for two tries before half-time. Munster errors pivotal in the lead-up to both tries. Leicester’s pack were immense throughout, their lineout was far superior to their hosts all night and after a clinical lineout call forced Munster’s pack to concede numerous yards from the resultant maul, Leicester then launched their back line and Goneva danced his way to the line although Ian Keatley’s role defensively will be highlighted by management and fans alike. Munster after a promising start were now rocked on their heels and the inexperience in the line-out was exposed when Mike Fitzgerald crashed over after an errand throw from Scannell. The lineout failed to fire at the level expected to win a tie of this magnitude and it is a responsibility that Ryan and Chisholm must also shoulder in video analysis.

Munster could have surrendered with a whimper so credit for the fightback in that second half. Cronin’s try immediately after the restart raising hopes of yet another memorable comeback to make 18-11. An Ian Keatley penalty which led to a yellow card for Ayerza further enforced those beliefs but cue more Munster lack of quality and focus which has plighted the season so far. Copeland was a key performer for Munster with ball in hand all night but his defensive work for Leicester’s third try was horrendous. It is what you get with Copeland, dynamic ball carrier who at times can lapse defensively and so it proved tonight. The score was more galling consider that the Tigers were down to fourteen players, a score which was the defining score of the game. Yes, Sherry got over for a second Munster try on sixty-six minutes but Munster’s were never realistically in a position to deliver a blow to shake Leicester to their core. Two late Leicester penalties gave the scoreline the gloss that Munster will argue did not deserve but it inflicted yet another blow for Munster post O’Connell era.

Munster could not be faulted for effort but the squad quality is at a low ebb, injuries or not. The pack was bullied throughout and the breakdown area which was wholly exposed against Newport Gwent Dragons was further put into the microscope as McCaffrey enjoyed an excellent night for Leicester. Sherry will be summoned to shore up the lineout which misfired tonight, lineout calls were easily read by a rampant Leicester lineout unit who smelled blood early doors. CJ Stander and Robin Copeland provided the lung bursting ball carrying runs but several Munster players were guilty of not supporting the ball carrier, back line and pack alike and it cost Munster vital go forward ball and points on the score.

The game unfortunately was decided by the half-backs. As Conor Murray and Tomas O’Leary tried to nullify the threat of Ben Youngs whose form for club has being on point since the Rugby World Cup, Ian Keatley floundered in the pressure exerted by his opposite Williams who showed Welsh head coach Warren Gatland all the skills required to earn a 6N recall.

Williams’ game management, defensive work and penalty kicking were far superior to Keatley whose confidence has hit the abyss. Axel Foley’s decision to back Keatley over JJ Hanrahan (incidentally got his own dose of reality at Racing Metro) looks ill judged. Keatley’s form since the Ospreys playoff win last season has deteriorated to such a level that IRFU will demand Ian Madigan to exchange RDS for Thomond Park next season. Keatley still has a future in Munster but either at twelve or full-back. Bleyendaal has being a disaster and the desired out-half competition has flat out not happened. Standards have dropped in a pivotal position and Munster’s results recently have brought the out-half debate back into the spotlight. Injuries have played a part but there is nothing in that Munster back line to scare any team in Europe. The feared trip to Thomond Park is now no longer as daunting a prospect for an opponent, barren times loom large and one would fear for Munster at Welford Road next weekend.

Ineffective game management, indecisive support line running has being epidemic in Munster’s play this season. Management cannot legislate for the mistakes tonight but they are accountable for the recruitment and tactical game plan. Munster’s identity is muddled currently, no vision from the Munster hierarchy on where the club should be going both from a financial and playing perspective. Outside assistance is required both on and off the park. The lack of outside investment into the club speaks volumes, the Munster brand is not marketable currently.

Munster’s priority is to finish in the top six of the Pro 12. With the current squad, this will be a struggle. Axel Foley’s tenure with the team also looks a struggle, has tried his hardness but with a backroom staff with precious little experience in coaching at this level has exposed Foley to the point where a new face from the outside is required. Munster need to look to the outside, give the candidate at least five years to develop the scouting and playing staff to once more compete. The player acquistion has to be shrewd but is achievable. The local scouting network has to be enhanced and depth charts of all players in schools and junior leagues established. I question if Munster are scouting in all facets of the game in this province. A bad night for Munster but it has being coming. The sixteenth man will rise to the challenge but whether Fitzgerald (CEO) and cohorts will is another story entirely.

European Champions Cup: Ulster 38 – 0 Toulouse

erc_logo

In a previous blog posting before the tournament kicked off, Hawkeye Sidekick put his reputation on the line by predicting Ulster as the only Irish provincial side to emerge from the pool phrases. After a humbling reversal in their first European fixture at home to Saracens three weeks ago, Ulster had to deliver tonight and by god did they do so and more? Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the action from Kingspan Stadium and identifies a player which Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt needs to add to the starting lineup for the RBS 6 Nations campaign.

Complete Performance?

The first fifty-three minutes of this contest must go down as the most impressive display delivered by an Ulster team in many a year. All facets of play were on point throughout. The pack who had being heavily criticized for their performance in that Saracens loss came to the party tonight. Solid scrum and lineout set the platform for Ruan Pienaar to set the tempo of the contest.

Toulouse actually started the game with intent and yielded an early penalty opportunity which was spurned by Toby Flood who had a torrid time in all facets of play and was a source of quick game line gains for the hosts throughout. The Ulster back row were abrasive, consistently in the faces of Toulouse players and never let the likes of Luke McAllister to settle into this key contest. It was within this backdrop that Ulster flourished on the scoreboard.

Ulster Dominance

After an even first twenty minutes, Ulster exploded into life. Toulouse minus the services of Louis Picamoles (arm injury) were starting to concede penalties which allowed Ulster to kick for the corner. The subsequent lineout was emphatically executed and allowed the pack to gain yards in the maul which led to the impressive Diack to setup Williams for the first score. Jackson had then slotted home a penalty to make it 10-0 and then came the pivotal moment of the game. Andrew Trimble had an excellent outing, constantly looking for ball throughout and his devastating line break from Pienaar skip pass just before half-time was sensationally scored. 17-0 to Ulster with Toulouse players trudging off at the interval knowing that the result and the European Cup campaign was pretty much over.

Second Half Supremacy

Ulster continued to pepper Toulouse’s line in the early second half exchanges. Gilroy was denied a certain try from a last ditch tackle from Vincent Clerc but the stay of execution was short lived for the French side as Luke Marshall scored under the posts with the move of the game. The several phrases that led up to the try was impressive enough with Stuart McCloskey (man mountain) looking for Toby Flood with ball in hand to make excellent game line yardage. The audacious kick from Pienaar to Marshall whose running line cut through Toulouse’s cover was a season show reel highlight.

The bonus point was now in sight and it duly was delivered when McCloskey scored after an impressive run. It was a night where Ulster delivered in spades. Herbst’s confidence was soaring, imposing in the scrum and now was taking on Finou on the outside with ball in hand. It was that sort of night for Ulster, everything worked perfectly. Ulster concluded the scoring with ten minutes left when Chris Henry went over after the pack mauled Toulouse’s pack to submission. Mission accomplished. Toulouse held scoreless for the first time in an European Cup fixture.

All about the boy McCloskey

I have being a huge supporter of Stuart McCloskey. My blogs before the Rugby World Cup implored Joe Schmidt to run the rule over the player. McCloskey’s performance tonight was nothing short of sensational. His partnership with Luke Marshall caught the eye, running lines, passing was on point all night. McCloskey’s physicality and hard running lines created endless problems for Toulouse tonight. Toby Flood was pinpointed by McCloskey with ball in hand and the end result was devastating. His try showed all the traits that Joe Schmidt looks for in a player, good running lines, pace and power all seen in all its glory. McCloskey has to be included for the Ireland 6N squad. I will even go as far as to say that he should play in the three quarters for Ireland during the tournament. Can Robbie Henshaw switch to thirteen as McCloskey’s raw potential has to be unleashed during the 6N tournament at twelve?

Toulouse – Empire Crumbling

Ulster were superb tonight but this performance shows how in decline Toulouse are. Toulouse maybe flying high in domestic action but the real acid test is in Europe and quite frankly Toulouse failed to deliver tonight. A Toulouse side not to register a score in an European contest will be greeted with the derision in South West France. Toulouse’s squad looks well short and the lack of leadership on the pitch when Louis Picamoles departed the pitch was damning. Toby Flood and Luke McAllister are exceptional football players but are constantly targeted by opposition in defensive duties. The front five was destroyed tonight and the lack of discipline throughout was horrendous. Yes, Nick Williams did get a yellow card for a WWE ruck clearout but Toulouse’s sin bins were the end result of the high penalty count. Wayne Barnes had no option but to unleash those cards. Toulouse are at best a top six French side.

The days of Guy Noves’ managerial success is long gone. It is sad to see one of the power houses of European Rugby struggle so badly tonight. Ulster no doubt will expect a backlash but whether Toulouse will risk front line players when effectively out of the competiton could potentially see Ulster securing a vital road win. Ulster are back in the European Cup. This performance tonight is the baseline where the team needs to produce week in week out. Ulster’s squad is talent laden, now it is the job of Les Kiss and management to nurture this talent to produce consistent high level performances. Well done Ulster, a morale boosting victory for Irish rugby. Over to you Munster and Leinster as Connacht continue to impress in the European Challenge Cup with a fantastic 25-10 over Newcastle.

 

 

EPL Review

epl_logo

The EPL season continues to enthrall with several shock results. Stoke City kicked off the weekend with an emphatic victory over a Manchester City side who were shambolic from start to finish. Vincent Kompany is the pivotal defensive lynchpin of Manuel Pellegrini’s side; when he is out of the starting lineup, the back four is at sixes and sevens. Arnautovic could not believe how much room and space he was afforded by City and his brace should have easily being three or four. Manchester City should be walking away with this league title; they have on paper the best squad, when they are in the mood, they will hit five or six past an opponent. However, there are questions on consistency but also leadership in the ranks. The players on duty for Manchester City at the Britannia Stadium were quite frankly missing in action and one wonders if Pellegrini will be still at the helm at the Etihad. Stoke will be chasing European football on the back of this performance. Mark Hughes has taken the side inherited from Tony Pulis and added genuine flair and talent in the final third which will pose problems for any team playing Stoke for the rest of the season. Bojan, Arnautovic, Xheridi are all players whose skill and pace complements the defensive values of the side. Shawcross continues to marshal his back four with authority and with Jack Butland growing in confidence and stature with each game, Stoke are a good bet to secure European football next season. A sweet, sweet victory for Sparky Hughes after being unceremoniously dumped by Manchester City.

All that talk of Liverpool as genuine title contenders can be put aside for another couple of weeks. This result is what Klopp needs to rectify at the football club; consistency of performance is the core issue. After that emphatic 6-1 win over Southampton in midweek, Liverpool struggled today at Newcastle who were dogged throughout and when presented with some much needed good fortune clinched victory with Wijnaldum’s clever flick deep into injury time. Benteke’s role was limited albeit should have put Liverpool one nil up with a close range miss in the opening half. Coutinho’s absence looked glaring today. Firminho was a different player to the one that excelled against Manchester City. Coutinho’s link up play was badly missed. Liverpool certainly not out of the title race but Klopp and Liverpool fans have received a reality check today. The lack of performance consistency which plighted Brendon Rodger’s tenure as manager is being seen under Klopp. Interesting times to see how Klopp addresses the issues seen today. Newcastle win but will they work as hard as this for the rest of the season? I have my doubts.

Bournemouth are a joy to watch. Eddie Howe plays the game the right way and his side yesterday deserved this win at Stamford Bridge. Bournemouth were guilty of two glaring first half misses. Yes, they were lucky not to concede a penalty in the second half but Chelsea yet again showed a lack of creativity to breakdown a resolute Cherries defense. Francis was immense. Fabregas is having a nightmare of a season, not influential in any recent games and he is picked off in his passing. Costa situation looks like another Harchester United episode in the making. Headbanger central at Stamford Bridge if Chelsea do not progress in UEFA Champions League this week. Bournemouth’s win could be a defining one come the end of the season. Their work ethic is beyond reproach and they are in the mix to stave off relegation. Howe has January to add quality to the squad due to several cruciate knee injury casualties. Glenn Murray is the man to save Bournemouth.

With Bournemouth winning and gaining confidence, Swansea are heading in the opposite direction. What has happened at the Liberty Stadium since September? The 2-1 win over Manchester United has then led to several poor results leaving Gary Monk increasingly beleaguered. Leicester’s pace put Swansea to the sword yesterday with Mahrez scoring a hat-trick. Jamie Vardy’s scoring run comes to an end but his work rate and threat allowed Mahrez to pounce yesterday as Williams focused his attentions on Vardy. Leicester continue to play with pace and attacking flair that a Manchester United fan would crave for right now. Raineri has built on the solid foundations left by Nigel Pearson. Drinkwater in the middle of park has being a revelation. Schmeichel in goals. Morgan at the back. All Leicester players buy into the work and team ethos. Leicester hopefully to stay around in this title race for several months to come. Gary Monk is a condemned man, expect a change (director / first team head coach) in days. Harsh for Monk who lives and breathes Swansea Football Club but there needs to be a new voice in the management setup. Huw Jenkins loyalty will be tested. Does he panic and sack Monk or does he bring an experienced football man into help Monk in the short-term?

West Ham United should have won yesterday. De Gea was superb in that first half as Manchester United conservative, risk free attacking football continues to frustrate. The boredom level at Old Trafford is at historically highs. Defensive clean sheet aside, precious little to joy about. 24 efforts on goal and only one shot on target, enough said. West Ham United with Payet would have easily beat Manchester United on the basis of that performance. Wayne Rooney cannot be blamed for this team cameo? January signings do not look like solving the philosophical differences seen between LVG, Giggs and the United supporters for that matter. Wolfsburg borefest beckons but United actually could win that contest given their defensive counter attack style. Mata needs to play at ten.

Tottenham and WBA share the spoils. Quality goal from McClean who then produced the X-Rated tackle of the year without getting sent off. James McClean, the enigma continues to grow. Villa draw at Southampton, good recent record at St Mary’s. Southampton were flat for long periods but did salvage a point. No Richards, No Clark but Villa defensively with Lescott organizing well means that Remi Garde needs to build his defense around the England International. Jack Grealish spends another weekend doing Christmas shopping around the Bull Market. What a waste? Grealish destined to play Championship football in January such is his unsettling behavior in Heath Moor currently.

MNF  will not be the same without Gary Neville. Jamie Carragher, no pressure tomorrow night. Everton vs. Palace has the potential to be an excellent contest.

Guinness Pro 12: Newport Gwent Dragons 22-6 Munster

pro12_logo

“His (Dan Mooney) big thing was bitterness and pride. Be proud of where you come from, but have a bit of a dog in you, a chip on your shoulder.”

These words are taken from Anthony Foley’s autobiography in 2008, words which summed up the attitude of Munster after a loss regardless of whether the province was playing in amateur or professional ranks. Foley, Clohessy, Galwey, O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy, ROG would take a loss with Munster and use to it motivate to deliver a victory the following weekend. Munster smarting from a historic Connacht victory at Thomond Park came into this contest looking for a reaction. Hawkeye Sidekick did not see it.

Opportunity Knocks

Rodney Parade, a close knit ground where the home supporters are passionate and put both opposition and match officials under pressure. An atmosphere which will test even the most seasoned professional rugby player. Anthony Foley conscious of pivotal European Cup fixtures against Leicester Tigers in the next two weeks saw this fixture as an opportunity to introduce fringe squad players to the front line. Ten changes from the side who were defeated by Connacht. A big opportunity for the likes of Johnston, Scannell’s, Copeland to issue the ultimatum to Munster management to become more pivotal figures in the first team but the opportunity was wastefully spurned.

Newport Cruise

Newport thoroughly deserved this much needed victory. The Dragons have shown huge potential in the majority of their Pro 12 games this season but their inability to put scores on the board when dominating territory and game management issues at critical moments have led to several narrow losses. European Challenge Cup form has being a positive and the Dragons will be in the shakeup for honors in this competition come April. Their side lineup today was a nice mix of youth and experience. Young back line players such as Hewitt, Warren and Hughes were complemented with the massive experience and stature of Faletau and Landman. From the first whistle today, Newport showed the greater endeavor and work rate in all facets of play. The 6-6 scoreline at the interval was kind for Munster as they were constantly on the back foot. Yes, Zebo and Amorosino had try chances spurned but Newport’s superior work at the breakdown was turning the tide for the hosts. The lack of Munster pressure on out-half Jones was allowing Newport to control the territorial battle. Rory Scannell was probably the only positive for Munster in that first half, slotting two penalties presented and his kicking to touch was mostly on point.

Second Half Munster Capitulation

All level at the interval and one would have expected Munster management to lay into their charges during half-time. Munster’s slow line speed defensively and lethargic running lines well behind the game line was making Newport Gwent Dragons afternoon an easy one. Chisholm tried to rally the troops with his work rate and tackle count on the restart but with the back row routed in the breakdown exchanges, Newport started to win penalties deep into Munster territory.

Newport out-half Jones added to the hosts total with a penalty and drop goal to open up a six point difference in the third quarter to force Munster to come out and throw the ball around to conjure a try. The end result was a horror show; phrases of play destroyed by poor ball handling and protection. Denis Hurley will not want to review the game tape in that second half coughing ball over in quick succession with ten minutes left. Newport witnessing a Munster team imploding with each passing minute steadied themselves to kill off the contest at the death. The imposing Landman who evaded several would be Munster missed tackles to crash over in the corner. The home faithful rejoiced. The Dragons players started to celebrate, a win which will increase confidence for the rest of the season, a prized scalp in the bag. Munster players could not wait for the final whistle to blow.

Munster Horror Show

If Anthony Foley hoped that several of his fringe players would keep him up at night thinking about team selection ahead of the Leicester Tigers contest next Saturday, it was the exact opposite. The Munster team next weekend will be around familiar lines such was the low performance levels witnessed in the players wearing red. Munster’s indiscipline throughout was disgraceful, the breakdown area was a major pain point. Players not rolling away, not releasing in the tackle were picked up by the match official.

Tyler Bleyendaal’s cameo at out-half means that Keatley is assured of his starting berth. The Kiwi’s injury record with the province means that game time is a serious issue for the player and his ring rust due to a quad strain was evident today. His penalty kick miss was poor and while he tried to launch Munster attacks, his colleagues offered little in the way of attacking the game line with many shirking responsibility.

Robin Copeland, the player has undoubted ability but his work rate at times in the trenches is sometimes questionable. A dynamic ball carrier but his back row options today were not at the level required today. Buckley is not at this level and was put to the sword today.

European Rugby – Thomond Park (16th Man)

Thomond Park next weekend could be a pivotal event. The 16th man may not be able to rescue this current squad from an unmerciful hiding from Leicester Tigers. Munster management are struggling to come up with answers to several issues in game management both attacking and defense. The breakdown is an area where Munster need to excel at but both Connacht and Newport have won this facet of play in recent weeks. Anthony Foley under pressure. Munster under pressure. Will there be a reaction next weekend? A province holds its breathe but the warning signs seen in performance in recent seasons and weeks could now prove fatal. Prove me wrong Axel. Prove me wrong Munster.