Aston Villa – A great club on the slide

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Remi Garde has put every Aston Villa fan out of their misery by announcing that he has left the football with immediate effect.  Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the news and worries for the long term future of a great football club.

I have mixed feelings about writing this piece. Yours truly has gone to Villa Park on a number of occasions. The stadium is a superb soccer amphitheater, the fans vantage point is superb. Cracking atmosphere.  The pitch surface is always top notch, a favorite venue and the home fans when I visited were a joy to be around.

I must add that my visits to Villa Park were when Martin O’Neill was at the helm, the team were flirting with Champions League football utilizing the wing play of Ashley Young and James Milner while defensively solid with the likes of Richard Dunne and Shay Given in the ranks.

It is a far far cry from those heady days now. The Aston Villa club from top to the bottom is rotten to the core at this time. The departure of Remi Garde is a start; the French TV pundit was akin to Gary Neville attempting to ply his trade in a country where his football knowledge of the league was limited. A walking and talking disaster.

The news from early in the week was bizarre in the extreme. Garde was let down massively by the club board who after assuring the Frenchman that transfer funds would be made available in the January transfer window did not put one penny into their pocket to try and look interested in staving off relegation. Perhaps, the board realized that the managerial appointment was woefully mistimed, woefully ill-thought and terminally detrimental in the club’s tenure in the top flight. Garde showed plenty of dithering in walking now when he could have done so after the last transfer window and even after the 6-0 humiliation to Liverpool at home when the players flat out gave up.

Whether Tim Sherwood would have done any better is debatable but Sherwood was given precious little time to steady the club this season when given his marching orders. Sherwood came into the club last season when the team were struggling massively to score or keep clean sheets. Sherwood’s up and at them approach to the media endeared him to the fan base short term, results and performances had picked up but after their horror FA Cup final loss to Arsenal, it was downhill from there, a bit like Jack Grealish partying in a holiday resort in the off-season.

The club board have shown no interest in the plight of the club over the last couple of seasons. Their lack of investment in players over recent years has being inadequate to the extreme. The board have passed the buck in portraying to the fans that youth could fill the void left from players such as Young, Milner, Dunne and even Benteke this season when they decided to sign Gestede and Ayew as replacements who have not impressed, would struggle in the Championship truth be told and were never going to get the goals for the team.

The current playing squad must take a fair share of the blame. Every position at the club is woefully short. As Paul Merson said so passionately on Gillette Soccer Saturday immediately after Villa’s embarrassing 6-0 loss at home to Liverpool, what EPL club would buy any Aston Villa player?

This squad realistically right now would struggle to keep a mid-table position in the Championship. The lack of hunger and fight from perceived senior players in the squad has set the tone and the inexperienced squad members have being overwhelmed by the pressure which comes with life at the bottom of a league table. Two managers have come and gone with the same squad, the squad is clearly not good enough and whoever the new management is will have a poison chalice to even clear half the squad off the books.

Aston Villa’s relegation from the top flight will mean that West Bromwich Albion is the only certain Birmingham based team next season. It is a sad day for Birmingham and surrounding areas but the decline of Aston Villa and Birmingham (who are on the up) was caused by a lack of long term planning, questionable board decisions on management and player acquisitions.

Aston Villa will require a couple of seasons to recover from this relegation, the fact that they go down when the bumper TV rights deal comes in next season will hurt the bank balance no end. Villa and Randy Lerner need to part separate ways; the current owner has had a go at securing Champions League football with Martin O’Neill as manager but realizing that this could not be achieved has gradually tampered off investment to a level which has led to this relegation. Aston Villa will rise again but under what guise and how quickly is anyone’s guess. It is a club in leadership and potential financial crisis.

Guinness Pro 12: Munster 47 – 0 Zebre

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The scoreline speaks volumes. Munster enjoyed a record league winning margin against a beleaguered Zebre team whose performance mirrored that of their international team over recent weeks with a display devoid of organization or attacking intent throughout.

Let us be quite frank. Zebre were lucky that Munster only scored forty-seven points on the night such was the sheer dominance enjoyed by Anthony Foley’s charges throughout the eighty minutes. Munster played against an extremely strong wind in the opening forty minutes but you could not really tell that the visitors had the elements at their backs such was the backs to the wall defending required from minute one.

The major talking point for the hosts ahead of the fixture was the decision to start Johnny Holland at ten in place of Ian Keatley. The Cork Constitution player took his chance well helped by a dominant pack but his kicking was on point and he linked with his runner quite effectively. Whether Foley shows faith in the youngster in the cauldron of a blood and thunder derby against Leinster in Dublin next weekend is entirely different story.

Match official Dudley Philips was a busy man throughout the contest as Zebre were constantly pinged at the breakdown and with their scrum a clear second best, the IRFU referee had no option but to put Italian players into the bin as early as twenty-two minutes of lock Geldenhuys for deliberately trying to take down a Munster maul enroute to their first penalty try of the evening.

Zebre were still reeling from this sin bin when winger Toniolatti was also summoned to the sin bin for a careless boot. It looked a little harsh on replays and Munster players were not incensed enough to confront Philips on the incident. Zebre were down to thirteen players and the high tackle count was going to take its toll on the Italians later in the contest.

Munster will look at this contest with some level of satisfaction. They protected the ball well at times, the pack was cohesive where the scrum was truly dominant. The one trend of the contest in the first half was the lack of supporting runners for Munster players who broke the game line. This was evident in Keith Earls line break midway through the half, evaded several tackles and after a line break gain of twenty meters looked for passing options, there were none and Earls had to resort to a long speculative pass to O’Donnell which was not received. It summed Munster season to date perfectly, plenty of good setup work but no composure when required to put points on the board.

Munster continued to work the Zebre tackle count with one off line runners, pretty predictable one dimensional stuff but the Italians were offering nothing in terms of attacking intent. When they did get into Munster territory, Haimona decided to go for the posts and his shank was as brutal as the Italians performance on the night. Munster had already scored a second try before Haimona’s penalty miss. Ronan O’Mahoney scoring in the corner after a regulation training ground set move involving Scannell and Holland.

The lack of organization from Zebre at set-piece time bordered on the ridiculous. The Munster first try was a clear illustration of how the Italians were wholly incapable of deciding whether to compete or defend the Munster lineout which led to the penalty try. Munster were in cruise control and the second half was a procession with the strong Atlantic breeze behind the hosts.

The second half will be remembered for Simon Zebo landmark two tries which takes the Munster winger / full back ahead in the all time Munster trying scoring list. His tries were well worked and special kudos goes to promising back player Darren Sweetnam whose running lines setup the space for Zebo to touchdown.

CJ Stander and Conor Murray on the bench then came on to the utter disillusionment of Zebre to score a try each and when Zebre were forced to deliberately kill ball for a second penalty try, the white flag was waved well before then. Zebre had taken enough punches during the contest, a team battered and bruised, a team devoid of any confidence or organization, a team who cannot wait for the season to conclude.

Munster’s victory and five point haul was the requirements from the night. The score line will do the scoring difference no harm at all but Anthony Foley and coaching staff know that next weekend will be a formidable proposition and a win is also required against arch rival Leinster to realistically stake a claim for a top four playoff berth. Top four in the league standings heading into a pivotal fixture next weekend and puts pressure on Ulster as a direct result after their defeat to steadily improving Glasgow Warriors.

The other point from a Munster Rugby is the search for a Director of Rugby who Anthony Foley will report to. An important decision and the candidates are pretty scarce given the lack of investment resources at their disposal. The rumors of a certain Paul O’Connell for the role are not being squashed and one suspects that with JP McManus in tow, Paul O’Connell will be playing an important in Munster Rugby from next season.

 

RBS 6 Nations – Reflections

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The RBS 6 Nations tournament is a wrap for another year, a tournament which started quite slow and conservative in game plans concluded with some flashes of memorable rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tournament and identifies talking points ahead of the June internationals.

Dour game plans, minimal spectacle

Northern Hemisphere Rugby fans are an incredibly patient lot. The quality of fare on offer in the tournament early doors was pretty low on quality with dour ultra conservative game plans ruling the roost. England were the only team genuinely when presented space decided to play rugby. Wales and Ireland early doors were so ultra conservative and it was their downfall in key moments during the tournament. Wales’ approach to the England match flat out failed as England controlled possession and put points on the board as Wales continued to wait for their opponents to make mistakes and counter-attack. Wales’ last ten minutes at Twickenham when they threw caution to the wind showed what they are capable of as their squad possess the skills to execute a more expansive game plan. Ireland were also guilty of quite a limited game plan, dependency on Murray to box kick to gain territory was an early tournament hallmark. The Ireland game plan did evolve during the tournament but their inability to execute in the red zone was seen in full effect during the defeats to France and England. Apart from the talisman Sergio Parisse, Italy offered little in the tournament. Their rigid one dimensional game plan where the various half-back partnerships misfired and back line defensively inadequacies were exposed continually during the tournament made Italy unfortunately a laughing stock by the time they faced Wales last weekend. France are in rebuild mode, it will take time for Noves to implement the free flowing attacking game plan which the French rugby public demand. As you can see, plenty of issues surfaced in various team performances and the SH teams will not be too worried about the NH challenge leading into the June test matches. The lessons of the RWC for some teams continue not to be heeded but the hope is that with extended time with players during June’s internationals that the NH teams can improve and compete at a better level than shown last October.

Year of the newcomer

The only genuine positive from the tournament was the emergence of several players who were making their international cameos. England head coach Eddie Jones was not afraid to integrate youth into his setup and Maro Itoje was the standout player of the tournament. The Saracens player was outstanding when given his opportunity. His first half performance against Wales was sublime; his physical attributes are freakish, his pace and speed setup Watson’s opening try and he showed skills akin to a back row stealing superb breakdown ball. Itoje is the new breed of second row player, athletic yet losing nothing in aggression and physicality. Itoje is the future which England will build their future upon.

Ireland and Scotland can also look at the tournament with satisfaction that they identified new players who have an international future. Joe Schmidt was forced into looking for new talent given retirements and an extensive injury list. CJ Stander proved that his versatility and temperament to the international game is seamless; a powerful tournament where his ball carrying and work rate was a key attribute for Ireland throughout. Ultan Dillane’s introduction to the Ireland setup has grown from a training ground presence to now getting international game minutes. Dillane’s performance against England in the last twenty minutes was superb, stole lineout from an otherwise stellar England set-piece and his ability to break the game line and offload to colleagues stood out. Dillane’s emergence has suddenly seen Toner and Ryan pick up their performances in the tournament, competition for places breeds success.

Scotland had issues at three quarters early doors but they have identified a potential world class thirteen in Duncan Taylor. The conveyor belt of talent in Saracens is evident in Taylor’s cameo where his ability to attack the game line with speed and intelligence saw Scotland get over the line for merited victories against Italy and France. John Hardie at seven was also a success story. The player continues to grow in the position and his tackle count and breakdown speed were in full view for Vern Cotter.

Italy – What do we do?

While Italy were getting another thumping last weekend, Georgia were clinching another European Cup beating Romania in Tbilisi in-front of 52,000 fans. Given Georgia’s love of the sport and their domination in European second tier competition, surely they should be given the opportunity to compete at the top tier of European international rugby. The tournament at the moment is an extremely comfortable consortium where the bottom side face no ramification for performing so poorly. There needs to be a promotion / relegation playoff system in place to allow the likes of Georgia the opportunity to compete in the tournament. European Rugby needs the Georgia, Romania and Russia’s to emerge and make the sport great but the insular outlook from the tournament organizers is looking glaring with each passing season. Italy need to make wholesale changes to their structures. If Conor O’Shea takes the head coaching job, expect the changes required to take place and performances to improve where a focus on the professional club rugby scene is required. Treviso and Zebre have under-performed since their arrival into the Rabo / Guinness Pro 12 league and would it be feasible for both teams to merge and consolidate their resources to become a competitive side? The influx of foreign talent is not improving the club scene either. Interesting times and the points raised here will not go away.

Citing Commission (or not)

The fact that Joe Marler was not suspended for either his sledging comments directed to Samson Lee or foul play against Wales speaks volumes to the wholly inadequate citing process. The tournament is flat out inconsistent in dealing with foul play where Ireland’s Johnny Sexton took several shots off the ball. The match officiating certainly did not help on both incidents highlighted but the match citing commissioner appears unable to make the right calls due to apparent outside influences. If Joe Marler had committed those charges in the Premiership, he would be facing a hefty ban. The sledging comment particularly was very unsavory and the racist comment and lack of action does little for the image of the tournament. A system which is flat out not working needs to be reviewed and it is time for the IRB to implement consistent citing policy and punishment procedures across all tournaments.

RBS 6 Nations – Tournament Team

15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

14. Anthony Watson (England)

13. Duncan Taylor (Scotland)

12. Owen Farrell (England)

11. George North (Wales)

10. George Ford (England)

9. Conor Murray (Ireland)

8. Billy Vunipola (England)

7. John Hardie (Scotland)

6. CJ Stander (Ireland)

5. George Kruis (England)

4. Maro Itoje (England)

3. Willem Nel (Scotland)

2. Dylan Hartley (England)

1. Jack McGrath (Ireland)

 

NHL Roundup Review

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A weekend where Clare grabbed the ticket to top tier hurling league action next season, a weekend where Cork plunged to new depths and a weekend where Kilkenny continue to march unceremoniously towards a National Hurling League title. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the action and is indifferent towards the current league structures.

TJ Ryan – Under Pressure?

Ridiculous statement to make this early in the season but after only five competitive league games, the Limerick hurling manager supremo is now under a little pressure to stem the tide. TJ Ryan will need to answer some probing questions from the Limerick hurling public after a four point reversal to near neighbors Clare at Cusack Park.

Make no mistake, Clare were far superior to Limerick in every facet of play and is a shuddering reality check for Limerick hurling after a fantastic All Ireland Senior Hurling Club triumph from Na Piarsaigh on St Patrick’s Day. The professional nature of the performance delivered by the Caherdavin club in Croke Park exposed the one dimensional tactical nous employed by Limerick during this winner take all contest.

Nothing has changed from Limerick in terms of tactical game management (blood and thunder) and Clare’s duo management of Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Og Cusack ruthlessly went to task on Limerick in the full back line playing direct ball into a dominant John Conlon who was rewarded with an early goal which set the tone for the rest of the contest.

Conlon’s goal was well taken considering the attention that he had from Limerick defenders (pulling and dragging) but how many yards did he go with running with the sliothar?

Fergal Horgan again in the spotlight early doors. No advantage and surely it was a Clare free for the fouling but to let Conlon foul the ball so glaringly will again the viewed as a decision that went against another Limerick hurling side during his match officiating (Hawkeye Limerick Minor debacle at Croke Park).

This should not be an excuse for the overall contest but it was a pivotal start to the contest. Limerick were now playing catch-up hurling and the team at times lacked the composure, leadership (on and off the pitch) to stem the home side dominance. Clare’s defensive structure held relatively intact with David McInerney flat out outstanding sweeping endless Limerick aimless ball to the full forward line in the second half.

The four point loss flattered Limerick as management looked to have no alternative game plan than launch long ball after long ball into the full forward line. No thoughts of running at the Clare defense to make the player advantage to score?

Clare were excellent in all facets of play and their conditioning was clearly superior to Limerick. Davy and Donal will be the first to realize that the Clare side will need to improve the performance considerably when they  face Tipperary in two weeks in the quarter-final of the league. They were comfortable throughout but never put the killer blow to end the game as a contest.

Limerick on this showing will struggle to compete with Dublin in the last eight. Their lack of physical dominance over Clare was surprising and the old gremlins in the forward line were exposed.

Barry Nash had an afternoon to forget; guilty of a couple missed opportunities then got his marching orders for a high challenge. It summed up Limerick’s day, nothing went to plan and management’s inability to change the course of the game was exposed. 1B Hurling next season will do nothing to develop this panel of players and raises question marks on TJ Ryan’s managerial long term ambitions with the county.

Cork Senior Hurling – Deep into the Abyss

Thurles and the sight of a Tipperary jersey should be plenty of motivation for a Cork hurler to perform but Cork yet again failed to deliver the work rate and intensity required to win the contest. Tipperary were in cruise control after a cagey opening ten minutes. John and Noel McGrath relishing the open space afforded by Cork’s back line to score points at will.

The revelation of this game was Ballina’s Michael Breen, a powerful performance which showed all the strengths of the player. Breen’s conditioning is sublime and his goal was reward for a lung bursting run from deep to dispatch the sliothar into the top corner of the net. His points were well taken and exposed Cork’s defensive structure which allowed the Ballina man time and space not being picked up. A player who has a bright future for his county and his midfield cameo should be sufficient to have Michael Ryan looking for a midfield partner come championship season.

Cork’s league run has being wretched. Apart from a rousing battling performance against Kilkenny last weekend, it was back to normal service today. The lack of physicality and work rate in 50/50 contests was frightening at times. The lack of work rate from players out the field was absent at times as Ronan Maher influence in ball distribution from the back grew with each passing minute. The lack of pressing from the midfield and forward line units is causing massive issues for an already overworked Cork back line.

Cork have several skilled players and in Lehane, Horgan and Harnedy have genuine leaders in the forward line but they need work horses along them to win the dirty ball. The lack of physique in some of the Cork forwards today in comparison with their Tipperary counterparts spoke volumes. Cork are in transition and unless they produce an unlikely win against Galway in two weeks time, a 1B campaign will beckon next season, not the quality of hurling required to compete at the top hurling table.

Tipperary stave off relegation and their league campaign has had highs and lows. Ronan Maher again showed well in the number six jersey. Breen’s performance has being already heralded and the likes of Niall O’Meara have taken on the mantle left by Lar Corbett’s departure. The lows are the inconsistent form of Padraic Maher. The Thurles Sarsfields player has had an indifferent start to the league and some of his ball distribution at times has being punished by opposition. Michael Ryan’s direct hurling style will be music to the ears of Seamus Callinan who will revel in early fast ball. Time will tell on Tipperary and how they fight their demons in closing out tight contests?

Galway and Deise share the spoils

Galway produced their best league performance but it still was not enough to secure a much needed league win. A late late long distance point from Waterford at the death gave both teams a share of the spoils in Dungarvan and it was another bitter moment for Galway who surrendered the lead with the last puck of the game.

The Tribesmen positives were numerous today. David Burke is a different player when switched to the midfield area, his switch out the field allowed Galway to attack Waterford defensively with the St Thomas’ club man continually making deep runs supporting his forward line. Niall Burke’s name on the score sheet was most welcome. The Oranmore Maree player has struggled for fitness in recent years and his well taken goal suggests more is to come from the player.

Joe Canning’s form in recent week has being nothing short of sensational. Canning at times controlled the game tempo with some lovely scores and distributed ball to his inside forward line with unerring precision. Canning is still the cog that makes Galway tick, his performances allow players around him to grow into matches. Galway face into a relegation final against Cork, a victory is required to stem the outside critics which are point fingers at the Galway players already for their league start.

Waterford after an excellent start are facing up to some issues in their play. Dublin bossed Waterford in terms of work rate and physicality and today Galway when they ran at Waterford defensively caused the hosts numerous problems. The precision of Galway passing exposed Waterford’s full back line and David Burke potentially should have scored a goal in the second half when presented with a clear chance.

The Deise should have way too much for a misfiring Wexford outfit in two weeks time but the variety of play in attack has to improve to allow the team to get to the next level. Maurice Shanahan’s threat from open play was mixed today and the Lismore man will need to be more prominent for Waterford in the absence of Padraic O’Mahoney.

Hail Hail Kilkenny

Let us face facts. Kilkenny even at this early stage of the season look in formidable form. Their dismantling of Dublin today at Nowlan Park showed that the key personnel in the team are in fine form. Walter Walsh are dominant in all facets of play, scoring from all angles and his running power is devastating at present. The terrible duo of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan orchestrated all that was good in Kilkenny’s play and their scores were incredibly efficient.

Dublin’s short passing tactics played into Kilkenny’s hands as the hosts pressed high up the field and did not allow Dublin back line to have time on the ball to find a colleague. Dublin lost numerous ball in possession because of this game trend and Ger Cunningham and management may need to look at changing things by going more direct on occasion to allow Dotsy O’Callaghan and inside forwards more opportunities.

With Eoin Larkin due back to Kilkenny colors in the coming months, Kilkenny squad depth competition looks quite ominous for the chasing pack. Kelly and Maher have come into the panel and made telling contributions. Lester Ryan’s form continues to improve and his two point haul today will only add to the confidence of the Clara talisman.

NHL Structure Imperfections?

As mentioned, Dublin should have too much for Limerick and Kilkenny will look at the Offaly game as an opportunity to run the rule over a number of fringe players. There will be zero upsets in the last eight as Kilkenny, Waterford and Dublin will advance to the last four. The only possibility of an upset is Clare and Tipperary but it is a long shot.

The fact that there are only five league games for 1A and 1B. Intercounty management teams are left with little experimentation and the quality of hurling standard in the two divisions is quite stark. While Galway and Tipperary played an absolute classic in Salthill last weekend, Limerick were effectively doing training scoring drills against a poor Laois outfit.

Waterford’s 1B ascendency to NHL champions last year gave Croke Park the reason to retain the league structures but the chasm is widening among the top teams and the rest. Kilkenny, Waterford and Tipperary are genuine Liam McCarthy  contenders. Galway, Dublin and Clare are looking just outside this pack. The rest of the teams unfortunately are not realistically in the shakeup for the championship.

Change the structures and increase the number of teams to eight at least in both 1A and 1B, two teams relegated and two teams relegated from each division will not do any harm. The less said about the divisions below 1B the better and is probably best left for another day. Check out 3B this season, how anyone thinks that these teams are getting any improvement is beyond me?

RBS 6 Nations – Round 5 Review

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The 2016 RBS 6 Nations tournament draws to a conclusion. A day where the games improved in quality as the day wore on. England emerge from the tournament as Grand Slam champions. Wales dynamic expansive demolition of Italy raising questions on the style of play that the team will implement going forward. Ireland defeat Scotland in an exciting contest and France are left to reflect on a tournament which exposes massive issues in the manner that their domestic game is run.

England – Grand Slam Champions

England get the job done in Paris.Any team that puts thirty points on the French in their own back yard has to be praised. This performance was the best in the tournament, all units performed when it mattered most and the leadership shown by the team when Dylan Hartley was knocked out cold caught the eye. Ford at ten had an excellent cameo and his game management in the last quarter was decisive kicking deep behind the French rearguard when needed and launching his three quarter runners when gaps emerged. The contest was a terrific advert for the competition. France played some lovely rugby in that opening period, offloading at every given opportunity where the likes of Mermoz and Fickout relished the open space afforded. England’s response was emphatic. Their pack had the edge in terms of breakdown and overall physical conditioning. Vunipola, Haskell stood out for England with several important steals and ball carries. England have being the best team in the tournament. Yes, they are far from finished article but the decision of Eddie Jones to place faith in the likes of Hartley and Vunipola in the pack and the decision to move Farrell at twelve has being inspired. Farrell’s goal kicking last night was on point throughout and his tackle count typified England’s work rate throughout. A merited championship. England will only get better as Eddie Jones identifies more young talent to nurture into the national setup where Maro Itoje has announced himself to the world stage. The depth chart in several England positions looks extremely encouraging.

Wales – to be conservative or not?

This is the burning question that Welsh rugby public will ask in the aftermath of the nine try demolition of an Italian team who was akin to a journey boxer taking too many punches and not landing precious little. Wales’s expansive style of play was incredibly eye catching and one wonders with the talent behind the pack why Warren Gatland resorts to ultra conservative game plans which prey on opposition mistakes. Their performance against England for the first hour flat out failed and it was only when the Welsh players decided to open up and create space out wide that we saw the best from the team. George North was immense again yesterday, superbly dominant in the air and his ball carrying gave Italy nightmares throughout. Davies at thirteen is a joy to watch, very elusive for such as big man and his game time decision making to launch runners and straighten the line when need be is superb. Williams at full-back is an all action player, fully commited to the cause and his line speed when in the back line is excellent. Wales have an important decision to make in the coming months. Their skill set demands that they expand their style of play but will old habits die hard during the summer tour? Wales will rue the Ireland and England games. The England game exposed issues in the scrum and lineout. The breakdown yesterday was dominant but questions remain on how Warburton and Tipuric can potentially co-exist in the same side? A pivotal couple of months which could define Wales’ fortunes in the next RWC awaits.

Ireland and Scotland look ahead with optimism

Make no mistake, Ireland and Scotland produced some scintillating rugby at the Aviva Stadium. The Duncan Hogg solo try is a contender for try of the tournament. There appeared little danger when Conor Murray launched his box kick into Scotland territory but the Ireland cover chase was not in synch and did Hogg exploit it identifying Ross and Best in the line using his pace to evade the front row players to turn on the afterburners to score a solo try which Ireland failed to put a meaningful tackle. 10-9 Scotland after Ireland had thoroughly bossed the first quarter. Ireland’s back row had the edge all day and with Stander and Heaslip in excellent form with ball carries and tackle count, Scotland were getting pinged at a regular rate for not rolling away in the tackle at the breakdown. Barclay’s yellow card was a culmination of Scotland indiscretions and Ireland profited with twelve points in that ten minute spell just before the interval. The tries were well worked as the Ireland pack started to maul with some frequency forcing Scotland to commit players to the ruck area and allowing Ireland to profit out wide evident in Earls’ try where Seymour and Hogg got in a tangle dealing with a Sexton kick in behind. Stander and Toner must have watched NFL videos as both made running back dives for the line for their tries and Murray’s party piece of eyeing a gap from close range to score a try clinched victory. Scotland never gave up and Cotter must be proud of his charges for their efforts despite the six day turnaround which did have an effect. Scotland’s sluggish start to proceedings meant that they were forced to play catch-up rugby. They will look to those two yellow cards as absolute key; nineteen points conceded in those twenty minutes is the story of the game. The fiery nature of the contest was evident throughout and it added spice to an atmosphere which was surprisingly vociferous for a mid-table clash. Scotland have improved and go on again. Ireland will look at opportunities lost at the start of the tournament and questions abound on Joe Schmidt’s long term future? The officiating on show at the Aviva Stadium left a lot to be desired. Scotland will feel aggrieved that Ireland did not have another player in the bin when Trimble clearly body checked in the second half. Zebo at full-back continues to impress, loves the open space in the position and his energy and game line yard gains have being a massive plus for Joe Schmidt this season along with the emergence of Stander, van der Flier and Dillane to international rugby.

Italy and France – Reflection Time

Both sides will leave the tournament with numerous questions to ask. Italy were walloped and humiliated in Cardiff. Their lack of fight during the contest will surely spell the end of Brunel’s tenure as national team head coach. The head coach is not the only area that needs addressing; a faltering professional club scene where Treviso and Zebre continue to prop up the Guinness Pro 12 table is damning and this lack of club form is directly linked to the success of the national team who have shown at times fight in the front eight but precious little in attacking and defensive play out wide. There is no quick fix to this problem and Italy’s participation in this tournament is now a burning issue.

France’s tournament performance has being the good (flashes), the bad (plenty) and the ugly (plenty). Guy Noves’ team have shown fight and spirit but the lack of quality cohesive play in this tournament points more to the domestic professional club scene where foreign players are now pivotal for club success. The arrival of the likes of Dan Carter, Quade Cooper does little to nurture homegrown talent who are then forced to ply their trade into the second club tier championship. The lack of conditioning from the French pack after a hour was alarming, no lessons learned post RWC. The back line on paper looks world class but the lack of half-back game management and tactical nous has made their attacking intent extremely one dimensional. Both Continental European teams have issues which will take more than one season to remedy. Professional club structure changes are required but whether the powers that be have the appetite for change is another story. Interesting plot lines await in France where the club owner millionaires will dismiss French RFU association mandates and bring additional foreign talent to supplement their already bludgeoning squads.

RBS 6 Nations – What we learned

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England crowned RBS 6 Nations Champions (with a week to spare)

A first championship in six years, a championship win won with a week to spare, a championship where England showed enough variety in their play to get over the line. Their 25-21 victory over a Welsh team who were a massive disappointment for well over a  hour of this contest was built on a dominant pack where world rugby saw the emergence of a special second row called Maro Itoje. Itoje’s first half display was nothing short of sensational where he was prominent in tackle count, line breaks (setup Watson try), stole Welsh line-out ball along with George Kruis at will and also won key breakdown tussles where his breakdown steal right at the end of the first half was akin to a back-row player.

England are a work in progress. Eddie Jones would be the first person to tell you that and he credited the players for this championship win but there are glimpses of Jones’ game plan in operation. His decision to move Farrell at twelve has allowed George Ford his opportunity to control at fly-half. Youngs and Care bring variety to the game plan which has being exploited by England in the second half of games. Youngs regimental approach compared to Care’s quick of pass from ruck is a nice contrast for Ford and Farrell to unleash their back line colleagues where Watson and Nowell again yesterday provided width, pace and work rate. Mike Brown was excellent again yesterday making line breaks and providing confidence with some emphatic aerial bomb catches.

England have won the championship because they have executed better than any other team in this tournament. The final product is some long way off but rest assured that with Eddie Jones at the helm and with a focus on introducing talent such as Itoje into the setup, exciting times beckon for the England team and supporters. Paris next weekend to clinch a Grand Slam and after France’s performance at Murrayfield, who would doubt Eddie Jones and team achieving this accolade next weekend.

Wales Conservative Approach Exposed

Wales will rue on a wretched first hour of this contest. Whereas England were looking to make things happen, Wales were hoping for England mistakes to benefit and score from but it never materialized as a dominant England pack controlled proceedings and half-backs controlled the game with confidence. Wales could not predict the impact that Maro Itoje would make on the contest but his emergence in that opening period laid the foundations for the outcome of this result. Itoje’s athletism was at times too much for a Wales pack who struggled in every facet of play. The scrum was destroyed so much so that Samson Lee was given the sledging treatment by Joe Marler. The lineout misfired badly as Baldwin was exposed by a dominant Kruis and Itoje partnership. The breakdown area which favored Wales pre-kickoff swung to England’s favor as Itoje speed and breakdown skills provided the required support for the England back row to assert influence. It was only when Wales were provided with the player advantage that they gained any parity to proceedings. 25-21 scoreline looks close but it was one way traffic for huge portions of this contest. Gatland will realize this fact perfectly clear. Webb at scrum-half and Tipuric in the back row provided impetus but it was too little too late, too much to do in such little time in those last ten minutes. Wales will trounce Italy next weekend but Wales need to reflect on whether their current game plan which contains and is conservative in nature needs to be refined to become more expansive to allow the likes of Davies and North the chance to receive ball more frequently. North was a forlorn figure for the vast majority of this contest. Davies only prospered when England went down to fourteen players. Wales have the skills to execute a more expansive game plan but coaching win at all costs mindset is stifling their ability and team development. Interesting couple of months await.

Scotland victory (at last) against France

After several near calls against Le Bleu, Scotland finally got over the line to beat France at Murrayfield. 29-18 scoreline was wholly merited, a performance built on work rate where the pack admirably nullified a physically superior France front five. Nel at prop had a superb game and his scrum performance laid the foundation for Scotland territorial advantage. Vern Cotter’s team has being reinvigorated, the confidence which flowed in the latter stages of the RWC is now coming to the fore. It is based on a back row which has being superb in the last two games. Hardie has being a revelation in this tournament; hard working, massive tackle count and capable of killing and stealing breakdown ball. Strauss’ ball carrying is well known in the Guinness PRO 12 but his work rate to the cause cannot be understated and then you have one of the key team selections which has swung the balance in favor of the Tartan Army. John Barclay at seven is a player who if you play with, you must enjoy and if you are playing against with sheer dread.

Barclay’s ability to compete in the breakdown and provide a nuisance factor slowing ball and around ruck time has being something sorely lacking in Scotland play. It has allowed Scotland time to regroup defensively. Barclay also provides a good ball carrying option for Laidlaw at nine to clear their lines. Scotland’s three quarter has found a talent in Taylor. The Saracens player has grown in this tournament and his expertly taken try in the opening period emphasized the confidence which the player is bringing to the team. Taylor’s emergence has allowed Duncan Hogg to receive more space from opposition and he is relishing the freedom, another barnstorming performance from the Glasgow Warrior. Visser’s try was superb, the flick from Hogg was exemplary. What a difference a year makes? Would you even consider Scotland doing something like this last year in the RBS 6 Nations. What a difference a little bit of confidence and belief will do for a team. Scotland have two wins in the championship and are a live opponent for Ireland next weekend at the Aviva Stadium which looks quite an attractive fixture. The tournament needed Scotland to become competitive and this year’s showing bodes well for Vern Cotter’s long term.

France – The Enigma

While Scotland bask in a first triumph over France in ten years, France will reflect on a game which started well but descended into anarchy and confusion as their game plan unravelled against an opponent who grew into the contest. Guy Noves’ project is at an early stage and the tries scored showed the potential flair in the side, slick offloading and player ability to identify space to score. Fickou, Mermoz revelled in the opening quarter but then went quiet as France’s pack were moved around the pitch and tired rapidly conceding penalties to Scotland in the middle quarters. The scrum was under pressure throughout surprisingly and leaked penalties to their hosts who gained a foothold that they never let go. The lack of homegrown talent in the Pro 14 is coming home to roost; the players on show are lacking game time and this is effecting their skill set and general game management. Laidlaw controlled the game from start to finish and unless Pro 14 provide more opportunity to their homegrown talent to play in the top flight, this trend will continue. Scotland saw out the game with ease and the fact that they were able to win back at the death spoke volumes on how ponderous France became in the closing exchanges. England arrive to Paris next weekend and unless France play an abandonment which has not being seen in this tournament to date, it looks like a England win by at least ten points. Trinh Duc at fly-half showed flashes but they were merely flashes, the ten jersey debate will divide debate in French bistros this week in the leadup to this contest.

Ireland win exposes Italian weaknesses brutally

Ireland comprehensive victory over Italy to start off this round of the tournament exposed more questions in the competitiveness of Italy than it did about the performance of Ireland. Yes, Ireland’s all round performance at times was excellent but Italy’s defensive organization and overall inferior work rate around the fringes were major talking points. CJ Stander’s cameo for the second and his debut try immediately after emphasized the point perfectly, three Italian players putting in half-hearted attempts to stop the Munster player. Parisse’s post-game interview pulled no punches; second best and he was not happy. Italy are going backwards, no identity to their play and the fact that their back line is devoid of attacking threat and also vulnerable in defensive situations does not bode well for a trip to Cardiff next weekend. The half-back experiment imploded within the first quarter and Murray / Sexton had an armchair ride throughout.

The fact that Ireland management could take off Sexton after forty-nine minutes spoke volumes. Zebo revelled in the open space afforded by Italy and his off-load to Payne for the fourth try was worth the game admission fee. Ireland realize that Scotland will be a tough tough test next weekend but at least confidence is somewhat restored ahead of this fixture. Question marks over the prop replacement options continue for Ireland but that is for another day as all the fringe players got valuable game time.

What now for Italy? Professional club scene spiraling to mediocrity is now replicating itself into international scene. The tournament organizer need to consider introducing the idea of promotion / relegation from the RBS 6 Nations. The sense of demotion from the top tier would focus minds for the current teams and would allow the likes of Georgia and Romania the opportunity to win a place in the tournament. It is worth a go as Italy need a kick in the right direction to get back on an upward curve. Parisse aside, the team is going nowhere. Time to act now.

RBS 6 Nations: Ireland 58 – 15 Italy

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The scoreline speaks volumes. Ireland’s ultra conservative team selection will be seen as justified following this easy victory against an Italian side whose were flat out second best for the entire contest.

Ireland’s first win in the RBS 6 Nations campaign was built on a solid pack performance which allowed the half-back pairing of Murray and Sexton the time and space to launch their inside runners initially to keep the Italians honest defensively before launching the outside backs when the Italian tackle count was high.

The start of the contest saw Italy start on the front foot, asserting early dominance and territorial advantage. However, their ball retention in the red zone was lacking and when Ireland won back the ball and cleared their lines, the result was never in doubt.

Ireland have being much maligned for their lack of creative expansive rugby style so far in the championship but the team made a conscious decision to attack Italy in every part of the pitch. Murray’s speed of pass from the ruck was on point and allowed Sexton to probe the Italian defense with passes to colleague making late running lines.

The use of drubber kick into space was the platform for the first Ireland try. Sarto panicked dealing with the ball in behind palming the ball into space with Odiete not on the same wavelength.

Payne’s anticipation saw the Ulster player latch onto the ball and after a ten meter gain saw the ball eventually end up with Trimble going over in the corner. An early try on the score for the hosts and you could sense the Italians were dropping heads immediately after the concession. Sexton missed the conversion but today was not a day when the fly-half was required for his kicking off the tee.

Italy struggled as a pack unit. Their line-out as predicted in this blog this week struggled with the absence of Ghiraldini as hooker. Toner and Ryan in the pack were enjoying their afternoon stealing Italian set piece sometimes at will. Italy’s problems were further compounded by the fact that they were losing the breakdown battle as Ireland’s back row were flat out dominant in all facets of play.

The emergence of Leinster youngster van der Flier has being a big positive for Ireland and Joe Schmidt this season. His all action style, tackle count, work rate and ability to slow opponent ball were in full view today. The player has a bright future in the national and provincial jersey after this cameo and was unlucky not to receive the man of the match accolade.

With Italy’s tackle count flirting around the eighty mark on thirty minutes, it was inevitable that Ireland would score additional tries before the interval and so it proved. The marauding CJ Stander with ball in hand setting up Jack McGrath to drive ball over close range. Stander’s involvement in the second try was noteworthy, it took three Italian pack players to take the Munster player down and the space created by the drive resulted in McGrath having an easy task to cross over.

Padovani did put Italy on the scoreboard with an easy penalty on twenty-three minutes after a period of pressure in the Ireland half but normal service was resumed soon after as Sexton picked himself up from a Parisse late hit to slot between the posts to make it 15-3. The rest of the half was sheer dominance from the hosts.

The third try was scored by CJ Stander, a fitting reward for a player who has transitioned into the international game seamlessly. Stander was never going to be stopped after Ireland decided to go for a line-out from an Italy indiscretion for not rolling away. Stander’s leg power was too much for the Italian ruck defense and the roar of the crowd spoke volumes of how the home faithful have taken to the South African.

Italy were now like a boxer who was taking too many punches and not throwing anything back. Ireland sensed that the game could be killed off and so it proved with a stunning fourth try just before the interval. A superb team score with the offload of Zebo on the sideline to Payne a standout play. Payne’s pass into space was also superbly executed and it opened up the field for McFadden to gallop into open space which resulted in Jamie Heaslip’s going in for the try.

Sexton missed the resultant conversion but the half-time score was an accurate indication of the game. Ireland in full control and Italy struggling to create any cohesion in play. The new debutantes at half-back were having a miserable afternoon as their pack were constantly on the back foot. Brunel’s team selection in these positions will no doubt be reviewed for next week’s daunting trip to Cardiff.

25-3 on the resumption of the second half and quite a few supporters were still enjoying their half-time refreshments when Jared Payne again showed great game reading to intercept an Italian pass deep in Azzuri territory to score under the posts. If anyone had any doubt of the outcome, it was firmly put to bed then.

Let us be honest, the rest of the game was played in a training session tempo. Ireland scored at will and Heaslip grabbed his second try of the game with more good work from the Ireland pack setting the platform. Sean Cronin winning his fifty cap for his country then got on the act with a try from close range. Cronin’s cameo was full of running during his appearance, the open game suited the player and his game line yard statistics today were exemplary.

Odiete and Sarto did cross for Italy in the last quarter but given the number of changes in the Ireland side, they were mere consolation scores. Ireland were not finished in the try scoring stakes and further tries from Madigan and McFadden nullified those Italian tries. Ireland were still on the front foot in the final phrase of play on the Italian try line but Italy did enough to stop the attack and so blew the final whistle.

Ireland will realize that this game will be forgotten about quickly. Yes, it was nice to see expansive side of the team come out in force with several eye catching tries but the opposition lacked the cohesion defensively or in attack to seriously challenge Ireland today. All Ireland players on duty played well.

Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner responded to the challenge of Ultan Dillane with an excellent partnership outing. Their lineout performance was excellent and their ability to disrupt Italy on their set piece early doors was a key momentum changer in the outcome of the contest.

Where do Italy go from here? They were comprehensively beaten in all facets of play. Parisse looked a forlorn figure in large periods of this contest as his colleagues struggled to get to the tempo and physicality of the game. Sarto’s role in the opening Ireland try summed up the team’s performance, poor decision making and no accountability to deal with the Ireland play.

Wales will beat this team by more than forty points next weekend. The half-back partnership were wholly exposed, their inexperience at international level was lapped up by Murray and Sexton who then launched their runners with relative ease. Italy are destined for the wooden spoon again and questions will be raised on how competitive the Azzuri are for this championship?

Italy provide great fanfare, great stadium in Rome but the product on the pitch is regressing at a rate which must be alarming to the organizers of this tournament. Do the tournament organizers need to introduce a promotion / relegation playoff for the wooden spoon winner against the winner of the second tier European tournament?

Georgia deserve a chance to play in this tournament and this format would provide them with this opportunity. Italy need to raise their performance, their professional club rugby scene is abject and while this continues, the national team will suffer. An arresting slide in performance and on the basis of this performance, it is a long road back for Italy. Georgia are waiting patiently for their opportunity. RBS 6 Nation organizers need to take action now.

RBS 6 Nations Preview: Ireland vs. Italy

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With both teams out of the championship equation, one would think that both teams would embrace the fixture by making fresh changes and seeing potential talent in a test match arena; well scratch that comment, Italy have embraced the nothing to lose attitude while Ireland management have flat out lost a massive opportunity to evaluate up and coming players.

Only Joe Schmidt and management can possibly explain their logic behind the decision to drop Stuart McCloskey from the match day squad. The powerful Ulster three quarter who impressed on his debut against Twickenham two weeks ago is now deemed surplus to requirements as provincial colleague Jared Payne comes into the three quarter division to partner Leinster bound Robbie Henshaw.

Payne and Henshaw as a three quarter partnership have being defensively solid but there has being precious little in attacking cohesion where McCloskey’s powerful direct running line did cause England problems and when you add the defensive issues experienced by the Italian three quarters, it was screaming for McCloskey and Henshaw to be the three quarter pairing this weekend.

Henshaw reveled in the thirteen jersey last time out, making several eye catching line breaks and should have had a try in the second half. His pace and attacking lines will be undermined in the twelve channel. It is just a bad call from Ireland management and I make no apology for it on this blog posting.

If you think that I am bashing Payne think again as the player should be given the fifteen jersey in the absence of Rob Kearney whose hamstring problems have surfaced yet again. Payne’s track record at full back with Ulster is excellent, his game reading and decision making when to hit the line with ball in hand are superb. Simon Zebo’s inclusion is a solid pick but it was an opportunity to evaluate what other options the side has at the position.

The ultra conservative team selection from Joe Schmidt has potentially provided optimism for the Italians ahead of this weekend. Italy must think that Ireland are running low on confidence such are the limited changes in the starting lineup.

Brunel has thrown caution to the wind and names a brand new half-back partnership. Padovani and Palazzani cannot do much worse than their predecessors whose game management and kicking game have being horrendous at times. The unknown is exciting and with fresh blood, existing Italian stalwarts like Parisse in the ranks may have an added pep in the step this weekend.

Italy do have injury issues with injured lock Josh Furno (back) and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini (shoulder) making way for George Biagi and Davide Giazzon. The lineout could be an area of promise for Ireland whose lineout has also misfired with the absence of O’Connell (retirement) and O’Mahoney (injury). Toner needs to step up this weekend with Ultan Dillane waiting in the wings.

Potential dry day and fast track at the Aviva Stadium will make the breakdown battle even more compelling. Parisse is a man mountain, an exceptional leader who leads from the front. The Stade Francais player will carry ball relentlessly but Ireland’s back row should be more than a match to stop the talisman and win the breakdown battle.

van der Flier’s encouraging debut against England if continued will see the Leinster youngster prominent in stealing Italian ball. When you add the ball carrying impact of Stander and Heaslip, Ireland look to have the edge albeit will be difficult for the first hour with the industrious Zanni in competition.

Ireland scrum has had a rough time in this championship so far. Officiating inconsistency in the first three fixtures were pointed out by Ireland management but surely Ireland’s front three will look forward to packing down against a relatively inexperienced Italian opponent. No Castrogiovanni or Ghiraldini to provide experience or nous and that could be vital in the outcome of this contest.

I applaud Italy’s open team selection but the pack looks weak with some key injury withdrawals. Ireland will win by ten points but the rumblings of discontent at the style of play will continue. Expect aerial dominance and maybe expansive rugby in the last ten minutes, other than that, this could be a patchy Ireland performance.

Rugby Week Review

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To ruck or not to ruck, that is the burning question after the last round of 6N fixtures. Mike Brown’s vigorous rucking of the ball and Conor Murray’s head has raised questions onto what constitutes a citing. The rucking action of Brown bordered on the reckless and the fact that contact was made to Murray’s head area would have surely indicated to both the match official and citing commissioner to take the case further. The decision then to only penalize England’s Danny Care for deliberate kill the ball for ten minutes bordered on the ridiculous. It appears that the match officials are not to protect player’s welfare in the ruck until a serious injury unfortunately emerges. A worrying development and one after the cheap shots inflicted to Johnny Sexton from the French signals another new low in international match referee officiating where all facets of breakdown, scrum need to be urgently reviewed. I will probe more into this point later in the week but enough to say that the scrum officiating is bordering on a flip of a coin with match officials wholly incapable of spotting indiscretions (not driving in straight, players deliberately losing their bind).

England and Wales are in a collision course for the championship after round three of the championship. Wales produced the performance of the tournament so far with a accomplished defensive display, quality breakdown work and of course the ability to score a try when presented by a French side who will rue several missed chances and rudderless half-back play of Plisson who gifted Wales’ try in the second half. Wales’ back row options are embarrassing plentiful. Lydiate works so well with Warburton, their understanding was evident throughout as Lydiate’s tackle count allowed Warburton to compete in breakdown with a confidence not seen yet during the tournament. Tipuric would walk into any other 6N team but the balance of the Welsh back row was key to this success. George North was outstanding again on the wing. Wales continue to grow as this tournament reaches its climax.

England’s performance against Ireland was built on a solid set-piece and ability to score when in range. Itoje and Kruis at lineout caused Rory Best endless problems trying to find his jumpers at vital times. Let their be no doubt, England are far from the finished article but Eddie Jones’ imprint is evident in small bursts. Their tries were very well constructed, forcing Ireland deep into a tackle count which had gone up to ninety before the interval. Ireland were unable to regroup and England were able to create the space required to cross over in that second period. This was a fiercely competitive test match but England had the edge in terms of execution and front five dominance. The England front five were excellent throughout and they have found a star in Itoje. The half-back options are numerous and liked the mix between Youngs and Care at nine. It allowed Ford the time in the second half to launch his runners with more frequency. England’s problem of not scoring when enjoying possession and territorial dominance is a work in progress but few can argue that England have not turned a corner with Eddie Jones at the helm whose abrasive nature with the media has deflected cleverly away from the players who are producing.

Ireland will look to the cameos of the debutantes as a source of inspiration. van der Flier had a positive debut under the pressure of a front five who were losing their battle. The Leinster youngster worked hard and competed in the breakdown. Stuart McCloskey during his debut showed flashes of the potential three quarter partnership with Robbie Henshaw, taking ball with physicality and defensively strong. However, it was the cameo of Ultan Dillane that caught the eye. His energy, work rate and ability to offload caught the eye. It may be early to call it but Ireland have a potential second row to nurture and flourish. It exposed the performance of Ryan and Toner in the second row and surely Schmidt has to provide Dillane with the opportunity to impress in the remaining games of the tournament.

Delighted for Scotland and Vern Cotter in their triumph against an Italy side whose effort was never in question  but lacked the attacking cohesion required to win the contest. Scotland showed nerves at various stages of this play, silly penalty concession was a hallmark but with Laidlaw and the Grays prominent, Scotland were able to put the game in the last quarter. Taylor at twelve is an inspired selection. Scotland’s confidence should soar after this triumph and they will look to add a further scalp before the end of the tournament. Italy are a wooden spoon winners. Parisse aside, there is precious little to talk about this Italian whose lack of threat in the back line and lack of game management at ten is making their game plan extremely one dimensional. Their forward intensive game plan can only go so far and this limitation has to be reviewed now for Italian and European rugby to make them a genuine competitive team.

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Connacht are the Leicester City of the Pro 12 this season. Their top of the table tenure continues with a thrilling road win against Edinburgh. Pat Lam’s side is a pleasure to watch and will only increase as the pitches dry as we arrive into Spring. Their expansive rugby style, their ability to offload with confidence is easy on the eye. Matt Healy has being the standout back player in the tournament this season and with the emergence of the likes of Dillane, the player pool looks strong and is a credit to Connacht’s academy and scouting structures. While Robbie Henshaw feels that he needs to head to Leinster to further his career, Pat Lam and his squad can now look forward to European Cup Rugby next season which will be another important step in the development of this squad. Connacht realistically need another two wins in their remaining fixtures to clinch a home field playoff semi-final and few will begrudge them this honor given their style and performances this season.

Leinster survived an Ospreys second half examination to win 19-16. Teo and Ringrose at three quarters causing Ospreys massive problems throughout with their ball carrying ability. Isa Nacewa continues to marvel at the full back position and his runs from deep setup Leinster consistently with promising attacking platforms. Leinster are in second place and look well placed to play a pivotal role in the destination of the tournament come May. Ospreys grinded out a second half performance which was typified by Dan Baker’s try who evaded Leinster defense but they needed a win yesterday and with games running out looks consigned to a top six battle, a frustrating season where their side has being decimated with international call-ups and injuries hindering team continuity. Ulster should have too much to not be in the top four, their squad depth should be sufficient to get them over the line. Out of the top four currently, Llanelli Scarlets could be the team most vulnerable. Their front five at times this season has struggled and this will be an area where teams will look exploit until the rest of the season.

Munster have picked up two wins against Treviso and Newport in the last seven days to move up to fifth in the standings. The bonus point victory last night in a 26-5 scoreline was gratefully received by the Munster faithful who turned up at Thomond Park. The four try was painstakingly slow in coming but Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne again caught the eye with an all action display rewarded with a try. Results are going to have to go in Munster’s favor but the need to beat an in-form Connacht and Leinster away looks daunting to say the least. Glasgow beat Cardiff 27-20 but how crucial could a lack of a four try bonus point be come the end of the season? It is going to be an interesting end to the Rabo Pro 12 season with no representation in the European Rugby Cup quarter-finals but before that is the small matter of the end of the RBS 6N tournament.