Guinness Pro 12 Review

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Connacht blow their home field playoff chances

Connacht have flat out blown their chance of securing home field advantage in the Guinness Pro 12 playoffs. 22-21 reversal to Treviso is a terrible result considering the emphatic Munster victory only a couple of weeks ago. Several first team players were unavailable and unfortunately it showed in leadership when the men from the West went 14-0 up.

Playoff rugby is achieved but with a rampant and I mean rampant Glasgow Warriors coming to Galway in two weeks time, sense that Pat Lam’s will be travelling to either Scotstoun or RDS in the playoff semi-final. A sour taste to an otherwise terrific season. Glasgow Warriors love this time of year. 70 points racked up last night and with rugby pitches drying up by the day, they will relish the fast track conditions. They are the team to beat in the league now and one would not back against them retaining their crown.

Ulster comprehensively trounce rudderless Leinster

30-6 scoreline speaks volumes, one team needed to perform to consolidate their top four position, the other going through the motions knowing full well that a five point haul beckons against Treviso in two weeks time to secure a second place in the league. Ulster produced their best performance of the season; their defense and tackling tigerish and their back row wholly dominated the breakdown exchanges.

People point fingers at the dismal season of Munster but I think Leinster’s season has being in the same vain, the only difference is that their squad depth (numerous Ireland internationals) has come to the fore. Their ponderous one dimensional play today at Kingspan Stadium is a contrast to the free flowing rugby of Leinster when the likes of O’Driscoll was in their ranks. No imagination to unlock the Ulster defense. Sexton tried to launch attacks by engaging the Ulster defense but no support running put paid to that game plan.

Ulster were dominant in all facets of play. Pienaar again producing a man of the match performance full of creativity and composure when required. The South African international spotted a Leinster defensive gap and his kick behind forced Rob Kearney to shoulder charge the scrum-half. The punishment was served by George Clancy; yellow card for the Leinster full-back and then a penalty try which on another day would not be awarded (inconclusive whether Pienaar would have run the foot race to touch down).

Sexton responded for Leinster with two penalties in the opening period but there was a lack of spark from Leinster throughout. Nacewa was a busy man throughout; running back to clear ball when numerous ponderous Leinster attacks broke down and Ulster identifying space behind to launch long relieving kicks particularly in the second half to win the territorial battle.

Ulster made their dominance finally tell with two late tries and had an opportunity at the death when Rory Scholes blotched a 2-1 chance. Leinster were now in total disarray and one wonders how Leinster will react when they get to the playoffs.

A huge interpro fixture and Leinster again failed to reach the standards required; a trend which has continued since that shocking Wasps home loss. Munster for all their issues should have at least shared the spoils with Leinster several weeks ago. Leinster may be heading to the playoffs but their distinct lack of attacking prowess is now being seriously exposed. Leo Cullen could conceivably be in Anthony Foley’s position next season if changes are not made in the summer.

Ulster stride out to the playoffs in renewed mood; former players and pundits should stick the knife on Ulster more often as the reaction today was first class. Ulster coming into the form but can they sustain this level of performance for the rest of the season? Their squad is first rate, their management ticket is first rate. It is time for the Ulster boys to deliver silverware.

Intriguing regular season finale

If Newport can defeat Scarlets, it will be yet another twist to the top six race. Edinburgh’s task of overhauling Munster in two weeks time has being helped by the fact that the Blues lost to Ospreys today 40-27.

It means that the Blues are now out of the top six race. Ospreys have now emerged as a team who could get into the top six but for them to do so, they will need to beat Ulster at home (no easy task) and hope that Munster slip up against Scarlets at Thomond Park.

It is setup nicely for the battle for last European Cup spot in the league. Scarlets will be comfortable if they can win at Rodney Parade tonight but it is a local derby contest and anything is possible. Nerves will be frayed in Thomond Park in two weeks time otherwise.

The top of the league is not as dramatic but nonetheless compelling. Connacht entertain the rampant Glasgow Warriors at the Sportgrounds. Only a win will do for Pat Lam’s charges to secure a top two berth but this could be one game too far for a squad whose injury list is now becoming a clear negative.

The lack of leaders in the Connacht ranks in their loss to Treviso was decisive and the likes of Muldoon, Bealham are required to the first team fold. Glasgow will love the fast track conditions and their expansive offload game will catch the eye; expect them to win this contest and top the league. Leinster are thankful that Treviso are the visitors to RDS; five point haul looks easily attainable but massive questions of Leinster will remain and will be asked again in the playoffs.

The Guinness PRO 12 league has a love, hate relationship for me personally but the final set of fixtures will be interesting and compelling view for fans and neutrals alike. I think the following table standings will be the prediction come the end of the regular season.

  1. Glasgow
  2. Leinster
  3. Connacht
  4. Ulster
  5. Munster
  6. Scarlets

Random Sporting Thoughts

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NHL Final Preview

A game which could be a decisive indicator as to who from the chasing pack could realistically challenge in Kilkenny come championship time. I sense that both Clare and Waterford will go all out to win this final; a victory for Clare which would point massive improvements during the off-season both in playing and backroom staff while Waterford can provide more proof that the game plan implemented by the astute Derek McGrath is reaping its rewards.

The story of the NHL semi-finals was the performance of Clare who beat Kilkenny at their own style of play; imperious under the dropping ball, exposing gaps in the Kilkenny defense where Joey Holden and Eoin Murphy were tormented throughout by John Conlon and then Tony Kelly late on. Clare’s fitness, conditioning and speed to the second ball all caught the eye had the imprint of Paul Kinnerk.

How Limerick did not approach the Monaleen resident to take on a similar role with the county senior hurlers is beyond me? Kinnerk’s influence in this Clare side is evident; the preparation prior to the Kilkenny contest was methodical, all training drills executed with a precision and speed which subsequently was brought to the actual game contest. When you compare the half baked Limerick hurler preparations before the Waterford contest, it was a no brainier from the Limerick County Board not to approach Kinnerk last season to get into the fold.

The tactical battle which will ensue tomorrow will be intriguing. Waterford have being maligned for their defensive side of their play but they have added to their attacking side with the emergence of Bennett in the half-forward line to support the likes of Maurice Shanahan upfront. When you consider the return to the fold of long term injury absentee Padraic O’Mahoney, Waterford management have attacking options which will test any defensive rearguard.

Waterford’s performance against Limerick must be put into context. Limerick flat out collapsed in the second period; their short passing game and sweeper defensive system both breaking down in massive proportions. Waterford did not get out of second gear and they created at least seven goal scoring opportunities during the contest. Goals were a problem for Waterford last season, their goal glut against Limerick suggests that management are looking to remedy the issue. Goals will be required from Waterford tomorrow and further in the year if they have any ambitions to win Liam McCarthy.

How do Clare break down the Waterford defensive wall will be intriguing? Their forward line relished the open space afforded by Kilkenny two weeks ago but the same amount of space will be non-existent against a Deise side who now pride themselves in not conceding goals. Tom Coughlin at full-back is solid but gets massive protection from the likes of De Burca and Noel Connors who is playing superb hurling this season. How Clare try to provide the quality ball inside to John Conlon in the full forward position will be one of the game’s main talking points?

This game is evenly poised. Both teams process serious fitness and conditioning and it will be the substitutes coming into the final quarter who will make the difference. Clare have the mercurial talent that is Tony Kelly to be unleashed. Waterford have Padraic O’Mahoney. It will be interesting to see how Waterford contend with the running power of Conor McGrath and Colm Galvin from deep. Kilkenny could not handle this threat so wondering if Waterford will be able to nullify the threat?

Given that Waterford had an easy victory over Limerick, shading the final to Clare who impressed massively against Kilkenny two weeks ago and that momentum will be hard to stop. The sideline battle with the arrival of Donal Og Cusack to the Clare ranks suggests that Clare will have the game plan and tactics to nullify the Deise threat. Expect a cagey affair but it will open up in the final quarter and Clare have the better forwards to score the points to win this contest. Clare by three points.

Arise Leicester City, EPL Champions

Sunday, May 1st could be a sobering experience for Manchester United at Old Trafford. An EPL title coronation potentially for Leicester City could be sealed with victory over an United side whose performances have being Jeckyll and Hyde to say the least. No Jamie Vardy, no problem for the Foxes who dispatched Swansea with minimum fuss last weekend. Their pace is breathtaking. Schlupp last week in for the suspended Vardy provided the speed and blistering pace to allow Ulloa to revel in the central striker position. United’s rearguard have struggled with pace all season and Leicester could run riot in their counter-attacking style.

The Leicester City story has being the standout story from this EPL season. They have availed of problems in the traditional top four teams and the inability of Tottenham to mount any sort of title challenge. Their wage bill compared to other more illustrious teams in the league speaks volumes but their work ethic, team work have come to the fore. They will provide inspiration for teams who doubted that they could compete in this league for top honors, expect more teams to challenge the top four hierarchy next season. A new era beckons in the league and Leicester City conceivably could be leading this charge.

Claudio Ranieri was deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea, incapable some said of winning the big title, think again. Old Trafford or back at the confines of King Power Stadium with see the redemption of the Italian to the footballing masses. I sense Leicester will get the point required to get over the line as Tottenham will not beat Chelsea on MNF. It is a fantastic story and one that Hollywood producers will be lining up to take the story to the big screen. Congratulations to all concerned. Kasabian will be delighted.

 

 

 

Guinness Pro 12: Munster 27 – 19 Edinburgh

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The battle for a spot in the league’s top six has being the standout story this season in the league. With a Munster team on the wane in recent weeks, it has allowed the likes of Edinburgh, Cardiff and even the Ospreys to harbor ambitions of securing European Cup rugby next season.

Last night in Cork saw a pivotal fixture in the recent history of Munster Rugby, Hawkeye Sidekick provides his verdict on the action in a week where the Munster Rugby PR machine have had a week to forget.

It has being a week which started in an unmediated media public relations disaster. The appointment announcement of Rasi Erasmus as the province’s head coach from July 1st was poorly coordinated and delivered to both the media masses and fan base alike.

Lingering questions on what Erasmus’ role will be coupled with the indecisive answers surrounding the futures of existing Munster backroom staff and current head coach Anthony Foley spoke of a lack of planning and foresight to resolve these questions before announcing the Erasmus appointment.

Garrett Fitzgerald and head honchos at the RFU branch should look themselves in the mirror for the bungling of this appointment. It does little to inspire confidence in the province and there is serious doubts that the serious radical overhaul required in all structures of the rugby province will be implemented.

The Erasmus media appointment showed little regard to the current backroom staff and management who were preparing the first team squad for a key crunch fixture against Edinburgh to remain in contention for a top six Pro 12 league spot and ultimately European Cup Rugby action next season.

Distractions aplenty for Foley and backroom staff having to fend media questions on their reaction to Erasmus which would have being better served talking about the squad and optimism in the camp ahead of the Edinbutgh fixture.

The decision to move this fixture to Musgrave Park (will not mention the corporate branding name) was a masterstroke. A sold out game for once and the local Cork public lifted the side with massive noise and support throughout.

The support inspired Munster to start this contest with a swagger and confidence seldom seen at the start of games this season. Scannell crossing over after only six minutes after several impressive game line breaks from Munster. The conversion was duly converted by the now established Johnny Holland and it should have led to a dominant Munster performance.

However, Munster ill-discipline surfaced in spades for the next fifteen minutes with Edinburgh hitting back with a quick ten point salvo. The visitors were awarded a routine penalty with hooker Scannell deliberately obstructing scrum-half Kennedy in an offside position, incredibly stupid penalty award and one that has not being remedied this season. Easy points for Edinburgh to gain a foothold in the contest and it set the platform for Edinburgh to score their try.

More indecisive Munster play led to this concession. Holland kicking the resultant restart out in the full. The subsequent scrum was well controlled by Edinburgh and after a couple of phrases, Tovey found the classic mismatch between Scannell and Archer to break the game line. Zebo at full back was isolated and could not adjust quick enough to prevent the score. From a position of ascendency, Munster were now back on their heels due to unforced errors. Their season and European Cup Rugby were vanishing by the minute.

However, the hosts were not to be denied this time and Munster responded with gusto creating a penalty opportunity after impressive pack play. Holland again unerring in his penalty kick to level the scores. Munster with confidence renewed then sprung for the try of the game.

There appeared little danger when Munster had the ball deep in their own territory but a quick pass from Holland to Conway led to the winger to evaded Edinburgh’s defense to break the game line. Conway’s awareness to options was evident with an astute kick ahead for supporting runner Zebo to pick up and stride for the try line. It was a superb try in a fixture shrouded with nerves and tension given the magnitude of the contest.

Edinburgh were now the team under the cosh and they conceded a third try just before the interval after Stander gained yards in the red zone to allow Conway to touch down in the corner. It was a spirited performance from Munster and while the conversion was missed by Holland, they were now in buoyant mood and the home support hoped that the team could see it out until the interval.

However, this has being a weak point in Munster’s play all season. The team’s sheer inability to keep composure and concentration after scoring has being to the fore. More indiscretions from Edinburgh phrase play led to Tovey to slot a penalty to keep the visitors in the contest.

The second half was in a nutshell full of nerves from the hosts. The importance of the fixture led to several Munster errors in open play, some of which giving Edinburgh more of a foothold in the contest. Hidalgo Clyne was now introduced and his game management and long range penalty area were putting Munster under the cosh. The score heading into the final quarter was 20-19 and Edinburgh looked like the team who were going to win the contest with some unexpected errors from Murray (unable to find touch from a Munster penalty) and Zebo (kicking out in the full when indecisive with ball received from Murray’s error).

Munster buoyed by a fervent home support then summoned the strength from somewhere to produce a decisive period of play in the last fifteen minutes; the pack’s maul was imperious throughout and it should have yielded a try when they advanced with the ball over forty meters. This set the platform for more Munster pressure in the final ten minutes. Stander quick to turn down three points and instead applying further pressure to Edinburgh’s try line from Sailli which yielded the fourth try with three minutes to go, a close range effort but such a significant score.

Holland’s conversion was also noteworthy as it opened up a eight point gap which Edinburgh had little time to respond. No points earned by Edinburgh who now must look for favors from the Scarlets and beat Cardiff Blues in two weeks time with a bonus point to move ahead of Munster who entertain a Scarlets side who have collapsed in recent weeks.

Munster showed guts and determination last night; the result was all that mattered and a repeat performance from players, management and supporters are required to get the team over the line and secure top flight European Cup Rugby next season. Weak points were exposed as well but the defiance of everyone associated with the province won the day.

It is a minimum requirement and qualification should not deflect from a season of more lows than highs. New coach, new era for Munster starting in July; a good end to a week which could be best described as chaotic.

Rassie Erasmus: Munster Rugby Savior

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Munster Rugby fans, meet South African Rassie Erasmus (Donnie Osmond lookalike) who is poised to become the new Munster Director / Head Coach next season tomorrow. The news which has slowly sipped out this afternoon will be an intriguing development in a defining week for Munster who need to beat a rejuvenated Edinburgh outfit in Cork to harbor any ambitions of playing top tier European Rugby next season.

What do we know about Rassie Erasmus?

The Eastern Cape native has represented South Africa thirty-six times in the flanker position including a captaincy stint in 1999. His post-playing career has seen several assignments including a managerial stint with Super Rugby franchise team Central Cheetahs in 2006 who were accepted into the tournament.

Erasmus quickly established coaching and organizational structures within the club in a short space of time and the club’s debut in the tournament was admirable; winning five games, losing eight games but earning seven bonus points in their thirteen games in the tourney. The record may look unremarkable but considering the club was net new, player depth charts non-existent and having to nurture young, untried native South African players, it was a good effort all round. This head coaching performance paved the way for a stint with Western Province.

South African Viewpoint of Rassie Erasmus

The South African Rugby Union’s (SARU) General Manager of High Performance arrived in April 2012, a position created after a root and branch review by SARU on all rugby affairs. Erasmus’s ability to evaluate structures in all facets of the country’s game.

SARU CEO – Jurie Roux

“Rassie is one of the most astute brains in world rugby – his appointment at SARU will ensure we have the best possible leadership at our national teams. He will work with all the national teams, but will be involved with the Springboks while they are in camp,” said SARU CEO Jurie Roux.

“Our aim is to always produce winning teams and Rassie’s main task will be to establish structures to do this. He will be tasked to create a blueprint for South African rugby that can be implemented from junior to senior level, for our mens’, women’s and sevens’ teams.”

“Rassie is one of the most astute brains in world rugby – his appointment at SARU will ensure we have the best possible leadership at our national teams. He will work with all the national teams, but will be involved with the Springboks while they are in camp,” said SARU CEO Jurie Roux.”

Former South African Head Coach – Heyneke Meyer

“Rassie’s inputs to the Springboks last year were lauded by everyone I spoke to and his coaching pedigree speaks for itself, considering the vast amount of success he’s had at the Cheetahs and Western Province,”

Why is Rassie Eramsus leaving SARU?

Rumors abound that Erasmus was quite unhappy at the political infighting between the union presidents, and the tug of war between SARU president Oregan Hoskins and CEO Jurie Roux. Erasmus clearly is a man who does not entertain meddling from outside parties particularly from  the business side. Munster have being warned.

What does Rassie Erasmus bring to the table?

The classic outsider angle. Munster are in need of a fresh face who has zero association or relations with any of the current team management and squad. There is a perception (correct or not) that there is a click mentality at play within the Munster organization.

Erasmus’ first job will be to assess the backroom staff currently at the club. Certain areas of performances have fallen well short of the standard required. The kicking and attacking play shown by the team this year has being ponderous and Erasmus will need to make tough decisions in potentially releasing players and coaching staff from their roles.

Erasmus must also assess all aspects of Munster Rugby operations and implement improvements. Peter Malone will potentially be a person of interest to Erasmus early doors to explain why the academy is not producing players to challenge for first team places when compared with Connacht, Ulster and Leinster?

Erasmus’ vast rugby contacts in SH Rugby will prove invaluable to identify players who can potentially solve team problems. The lack of prop, fly-half and three quarter depth chart options necessitates that the South African and Munster Rugby organization hit the ground running and secure key signings.

Expect the brand of rugby to be more abrasive upfront in order to setup a platform for the half-backs to launch their back line with more time and space. Erasmus is old school South African rugby; expansive rugby comes after the pack dominates their opponent.

Munster Rugby Angle?

The future of Anthony Foley looks vulnerable; the rumors are that Erasmus is both director and head coach of the club. Where does this leave Foley and backroom staff? Expect several casualties with Brian Walsh and Ian Costello likely to be transitioned to other roles within the club.

Munster Rugby by appointing Rassie Erasmus are stating that the current indigenous coaching ticket has failed to perform to the standards required. It is an admission that replacing Rob Penney may have being the wrong decision for the club long term.

The organization are frantically looking to stoke the province fan base with renewed optimism ahead of a crunch weekend fixture against Edinburgh. Low Thomond Park attendances this season has seen the chasm that has surfaced between the supporters and rugby club despite the best efforts of CJ Stander who embodies what a Munster player should be; work rate, bravery and leadership. Several other team members have not followed suit and the rot has set in.

 

 

 

 

NHL Roundup

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An interesting day at Thurles where Clare and Waterford will contest this year’s NHL finale. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action from the Tipperary venue.

Clare run Kilkenny off the park

Clare were full value for their 4-22 to 2-19 victory over Kilkenny. Their win was based on superior work rate, mesmerizing pace and movement which Kilkenny found at times too hard. The warm-up session from Clare prior to throw-in was full of desire, intensity and clinical execution of skills, this trend continued from the moment that Fergal Horgan threw the ball in.

Kilkenny struggled for parity throughout the contest with TJ Reid and Richie Hogan only scoring two points from play all game. The Cats primary aerial ball winner Walter Walsh was nullified by an excellent David Fitzgerald at wing back which allowed the roving Colm Galvin to collect possession consistently around the middle of the park to hit some glorious points.

Credit where credit is due; Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Og Cusack got their game plan spot on. They resisted the temptation of pulling several forwards back defensively and instead mixed up their game plan with short passing and hitting route one delivery into John Conlon and Aaron Cunningham with purpose. The delivery was too much for Joey Holden and the Kilkenny full back line to contend with as Clare raised three green flags in the opening period; the first and third goals as a result of confusion between Murphy and Holden with Conlon causing havoc.

Kilkenny were being wholly exposed in the full back line and Cody was quick to whip off a clearly off the pace Jackie Tytell after only sixteen minutes and raises serious questions on whether the player will be feature in subsequent Kilkenny championship starting lineups. Brian Kennedy was introduced and although an improvement was also given the run around by a Clare forward line whose constant movement, immaculate first touch was creating player overlaps time and time again.

Clare’s fitness, conditioning were sublime. Paul Kinnerk’s return to the Clare setup was also all over this performance to complement the tactical game plan hatched by Fitzgerald and Cusack whose stock value continues to soar. It was a masterstroke from Clare to employ the services of a quite astute hurling man like Donal Og Cusack and it is reaping instant rewards.

The fact that Clare won this contest without Tony Kelly (sub), Conor Ryan and David McInerney (both injured) was all the more impressive. Kelly’s cameo was greeted with delirium in the Clare fans around me and when he scored off his first possession, the new Stand erupted. Kelly’s movement inside as full-forward continued to torment Kilkenny defensively even when John Conlon departed the fray.

Brian Cody and management will have precious little to be positive about after today. Their side was second best in all facets of play and with David Fitzgerald cancelling out the influence of Walter Walsh, Kilkenny struggled to win 50/50 ball. The team continued until the end and their score haul was admirable considering the situation that they were faced with. Big questions on the full-back line surfaced today. Three of the goals were caused by the full-back line unable to deal with route one ball forcing Eoin Murphy to launch himself at the ball which broke to Clare’s players to score easy goals.

Clare has massive performances throughout the side. Cian Dillon at full-back was prominent in clearing endless ball and launching several lung bursting runs to launch attacks. Conor Cleary, Colm Galvin, Aaron Cunningham also stood out but John Conlon and Darach Honan for me set the tone for the team with their work rate and threat throughout.

Conlon is having a stellar season at full-forward and he gave Holden the run around at times; his explosive pace with ball in hand was quite something. Honan’s work rate has being criticized in the past but not today as the Clonlara clubman rolled up his sleeves and won dirt ball for his side. His height also allowed Clare to win easy ball from their puckouts; Kelly’s distribution was on point throughout. A satisfying display from Clare who issued a serious statement of their aspirations this season.

Kilkenny receive their reality check and it will be interesting to see how Cody reacts to this reversal. The new players failed to impress today as Clare snuffed out each threat one by one. Eoin Larkin will be back in the panel in due course. Kilkenny will not panic but they need to address vulernabilities which surfaced during the game. Fitness will improve but the full back line exposures today will be a considerable worry. Fantastic game.

Waterford in cruise control

The curtain raiser in Thurles was a dour affair. Limerick never threatened the win here as their persistence to deploy a defensive short passing game back fired incredibly in the second half with numerous scores (1-6) conceded due to misplaced passes. The Shannonsiders were bereft of any ideas on how to breakdown the defensive Waterford structures (two men sweeping behind the half-back line).

Limerick may have led 0-13 to 0-11 at the interval but Waterford had shown on several occasions the ability to open gaps in the Limerick defensive rearguard. Gavin O’Mahoney was a busy man trying to contain with two against one scenarios at various stages even though Ronan Lynch was sweeping behind the Kilmallock clubman.

The first half was a very cagey affair; both sides played a short passing game to offset the number of players in defensive positions. The ploy was causing more harm than good for both sides during the opening period as several misplaced passes allowed their opponent to score either from play or from frees.

Limerick fans around me were very unhappy with the tactical game plan on display but it was potentially answered in the second half as the Limerick back line decided to haul long ball into their forward line who were flat out second best in the aerial battle. Gleeson, De Burca and Connors dominating at will. The forward line were incapable of winning their own ball and this lies the problem for Limerick as their forward line were closed out of the contest; the work rate without the ball at times was second best.

Limerick management also need to be called to account for several baffling decisions. Gearoid Hegarty endured a torrid afternoon; deployed at wing forward, the St.Patrick’s club man never got into the game and was reduced to chasing shadows for long periods. Hegarty is a wing back or midfield option. The forward line experiment failed. Declan Hannan personally was not match fit; struggled to get to the tempo of the game upon his introduction for Kevin Downes who was workmanlike and busy throughout.

Waterford will be reasonably pleased with this outing. All units played well and their dominance of Limerick in the first ten minutes of the second half won the contest. The back line were in complete control throughout; Coughlan and Gleeson were the defensively resolute in the central positions. De Burca was immaculate; his game reading and game time decision making were a joy to watch.

Jamie Barron in midfield was typically abrasive and got in massive work-rate throughout. The forward line was very prominent in the second half with several scores coming from poor Limerick defensive short pass mistakes. Patrick Curran, Shane Bennett to the fore with a total tally of 2-13. All replacements made an impact; a good day for Derek McGrath and management who had the luxury of leaving Maurice Shanahan on the bench throughout.

Limerick are a true enigma; their win against Dublin is undermined by this performance. Maybe TJ Ryan should have kept his thoughts to himself when launching choice words at some local Limerick scribes post-game in Parnell Park? Limerick have massive work to do to compete in this championship and their conditioning was second best today. Ronan Lynch in the sweeper role was good but the system broke down in the last quarter with two very soft goals conceded. Apart from Barry Nash, no genuine quality inside forward to win their own ball despite Morrissey’s three point haul in the first half.

An interesting NHL final beckons with Clare and Waterford due to clash in Thurles for a Munster SHC fixture on June 5th. Will both teams play in cagey? Will both teams play their cards close to their chest with a championship meeting only five weeks away after the final? Will both just go all out to win a national crown? Hoping for the latter but it could be a defensive orientated finale.

 

Guinness Pro 12: Connacht 35 – 14 Munster

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This result has massive repercussions for the landscape of Irish rugby. It is a result that embraces positive, expansive rugby. It is a result which cements Connacht’s place in the top four of the league this season. It is a result which exposes yet again a Munster squad and management who have failed to deliver in yet another key fixture this season. It is a result where heads should roll in the Munster organization.

Make no mistake, the sin bins were a massive factor in creating the platform for Connacht to first get back into the contest and then taking a stranglehold that they never relinquished after the first quarter of this contest when Munster looked in the mood to produce a performance with two well worked tries from the elusive Simon Zebo after great work from Jack O’Donoghue and a good finish from Munster hooker Mike Sharry.

How did Connacht win this contest? They showed resilience in spades in that first quarter. Shane O’Leary start was not inspiring and on another day could have coughed up a try to Conor Murray when his kick was blocked. The near miss awoke the Connacht pack who slowly gained parity in exchanges and when serial sin bin offender James Cronin was sent to the sin bin for repeated indiscretions at scrum-time (last indiscretion was dubious), the hosts increased the tempo and pressure and Munster’s pack folded with the incessant pressure exerted with the concession of the penalty try and Billy Holland killing ball on Munster’s line with a try imminent.

The story of the game for me was the performance of Adeolokun, a winger who only a couple of seasons ago was plying his rugby trade in the lower tiers of AIL Rugby. His two tries demonstrated his ability to identify space and his pace with ball in hand is immense. It was a performance befitting a provincial derby from a player who Munster may be potentially thought was perhaps an area of interest during the contest. The opposite was the case.

The second story of the game was the immense ball running display of a certain Pacific Islander called Aki. Bundee Aki was a revelation in defensive work but his ability to carve out massive game line gains was too much for a Munster three quarters stretched to exhaustion. The statistics speak for themselves; twenty carries for 130+ meters was defining in its composition and spoke volumes on the lack of creativity from Munster’s three quarters.

The only positive for Munster on a disappointing night is that in recent weeks they have unearthed a potential solid fly-half operator in Johnny Holland. The Cork Constitution player had another good cameo despite his colleagues around him struggling for parity throughout. Holland’s conversions were expertly taken and in the tough surrounds of the Sportsground was admirable to say the least. His chief player in competition for the ten jersey would have struggled to put the ball anywhere the post. Holland has the ten jersey and it is up to Munster management to nurture the talent now long term.

Pat Lam’s influence in this Connacht setup is intoxicating inspiring. His fearless attitude to challenge both his management and playing staff throughout the season has being immense. I have met Pat Lam a number of times around Galway and the guy lives and breathes the sport; his passion for the province is immense and this season is just reward for persisting with an expansive rugby style which was ridiculed by many pundits last season when results were going south.

It is a testament to Lam and management that their player policy both from a first team and academy which is the lifeblood of any professional rugby club is reaping rewards. You only have to look at the players wearing green last night to illustrate the point. Munster born Ultan Dillane produced a stirring performance in the second row; immense  work rate and lineout performance. Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham have being revelations this season; their enthusiasm for work in the trenches is inspiring. The fact that Rodney Ah You has not being mentioned sums it up.

Shane O’Leary to his credit recovered from a shaky start and from the moment that James Cronin was sent to the sin bin, the fly-half executed the basics which Connacht demanded well. He was ably assisted by his back row who were superb throughout. Muldoon led the unit with the passion, determination and stealth of a player who should be knocking yet again for a national team recall.

The abundance of Connacht academy on show with confidence and unerring game management accuracy was in pale contrast to Munster whose rookies were let down by a number of seasoned professionals in the ranks. The Munster academy is flat out not delivering the talent required at the club and questions need to be asked on recruitment come the off-season. Intelligent scouting and networking of underage talent across all grades is required but Munster are not identifying talent. Ultan Dillane is a prime example; there are stories why Dillane was overlooked but it is damning that a player of massive potential from Kerry was overlooked by the province.

Poor old Ian Keatley must hope that the season could end tomorrow. His cameos now off the bench are now the stuff of nightmares. His passing and game management speaks of a player bereft of confidence and his colleagues know it too delaying runs deliberately to allow Keatley to hit the easy option. Keatley and Zebo’s late error cameos summed it up perfectly. I do not blame the player; Keatley is a twelve or fifteen. His days at ten are numbered but Munster fans would be foolish to heap excessive blame on a player who has being let down by management.

Connacht’s team work versus Munster’s individual nous was a striking aspect to the league encounters this season. Connacht have an identity; game plan and they stick to the formula. The same cannot be said for Munster unfortunately. Are the men in red a team who are based on a pack performance or a team who are looking to implement an expansive style of play in the backs? It is hard to understand and points to a management team who are unclear on the strengths of their side. The players on the pitch do not execute at the standard required; their indiscipline at times is bordering on contempt.

The last point must go to the Sportsgrounds. The fans were electric and the last ten minutes of this contest remained me of when Munster were in their pomp at Thomond Park; boisterous crowd cheering and supporting every Connacht tackle and line break. Munster were now the team on the receiving end of a stirring rugby display both on and off the pitch.

The unity between Connacht players and fans was there for all to see. The same cannot be said for Munster at this time and the distinct dropping off of game attendances in Thomond Park speaks volumes. An once domineering giant (Munster) has being slayed. There is a new force in  Ireland Rugby; that force is Connacht Rugby. Kudos to all concerned.

Munster hierarchy are now in a bind and Anthony Foley’s future as head honcho again should be called into question. The team is going backwards and a crunch game against a dangerous Edinburgh next in Cork looks genuinely beyond them on the basis of the last two provincial performances.

Ensei in November looks the destination for Munster. Damning indictment of the organization and if the board continue to put their heads in the sand; European Challenge Cup will be the fill for the next couple of years.

No disrespect to Anthony Foley but it is time to go; get an outsider head coach to rid the deadwood in the squad and backroom staff and there is plenty. Munster are seriously ill and there are no quick fixes; root and branch review of how the organization organizes its affairs will only suffice now. Munster are the worse rugby province in Ireland and by a considerable distance. No score in the second half when a breeze at their backs. Time for change is now.

Guinness Pro 12 Preview: Connacht vs. Munster

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Pivotal Irish Derby beckons

This Irish provincial derby always has a bite to it and no it was not because of the typically abrasive weather which greets Munster when they arrive to Lough Atalia for this fixture. The tables have turned this season and Munster are the team who are desperately looking for a much needed victory to keep alive their long shot top four place aspirations but more significantly to keep them in the top six spots of the league and top tier European Cup action next season.

A fixture free week for Munster with no European Cup action so one should expect that the squad available for selection should be refreshed and ready to go to battle. Anthony Foley will look to his international players for the leadership and tactical nous to switch this derby in their favor so expect a virtually identical team which lined out in the Aviva Stadium which lost narrowly to a let us be honest misfiring Leinster outfit.

Munster’s pack will be asked to create the necessary platform to allow fly-half Johnny Holland to launch his runners and provide assurance with kicking from hand. Munster will need to start the game with authority and Holland must lead the team with confidence from ten, a position which has being wholly inconsistent this season for the province.

The back row options for Munster are strong but would expect O’Donnell, Stander and O’Callaghan to again get the nod for this contest. There is enough pace and physicality in this back row to compete effectively against a Connacht team where O’Brien and Muldoon continue to step up their work rate and dominance at breakdown. This battle looks an intriguing contest and one which will have a massive influence on the game’s outcome.

The scrum-half battle will also be an interesting subplot. Kieran Marmion’s performance for Connacht this season have received plaudits from many rugby observers. He will face his toughest battle of the season with Munster’s Conor Murray in opposition. Murray’s skill set is vast; physicality around the fringes, box kicking supremo and also an ability to identify a try scoring opportunity. Marmion provides quick pass, snipping runs around the fringes and game manages his pack with authority. It is a classic Ireland national team trial game with no quarter given.

The back lines have the potential to be explosive. Connacht’s expansive rugby style this season has really highlighted the fluency of the Westerners back line where the likes of Matt Healy have come to the fore. Tiernan O’Halloran as well has had a splendid season at full-back and their ability to make the right decision with ball in hand has being superb. Healy in particular has caught the eye with his pace and try scoring exploits. There are questions with regards to his aerial defensive ability but the former Lansdowne player is lights out stunning with ball in hand.

Robbie Henshaw we have to remember is still a Connacht player and his potential dual with Francis Sailli in the three quarters should be intriguing. Henshaw ball carrying and offloading were seen by Munster in the reverse fixture when a stunning offload setup a memorable Connacht win down in Thomond Park. It was a piece of skill which the home supporters at the Limerick venue were appreciative of and put into focus how lethargic Munster’s back line efforts were on the night and season.

Keith Earls can create an opportunity out of nothing. His street smarts to identify defensive weakness has being a hallmark of the Limerick back player. Earls will look for Saiili to make explosive running lines to create the required space to exploit. When you add the likes of Simon Zebo coming into the line looking for defensive gaps which let us be fair has being evident in Connacht’s performances in recent weeks, Munster have to look at this game with some confidence that tries can be scored in Galway.

Connacht’s pack has being the most progressive in the league this season. The front five has really stepped up and no more is this unit perceived as a soft touch. The emergence of Bealham and Buckley provides youth, pace and work rate while the second row displays of Muldowney and Dillane have stood out in spades. Muldowney’s best season in a Connacht player and you totally forget that Rodney Ah You is still on the books!

Munster front five have had their issues this season. Chisholm’s season ending concussion issues has opened the door for Billy Holland and Donnacha Ryan to renew their second row partnership, one where the lineout by and large has being solid if not spectacularly good (lack of third lineout option at times exposed).

The Munster front row has bravely negated the loss of BJ Botha. Kilcoyne and Cronin provide work rate and ball carrying ability in the trenches. For Munster to win, the front five are going to have to put Connacht’s lineout under pressure. The scrum is 50/50 and it is really on the match officials interpretation to decide who will emerge on top.

Connacht in recent weeks have being penalized quite extensively in defending the maul with players deliberately in offside positions and looking to pull down the maul. It has proved quite costly in the narrow loss to Grenoble last weekend and was pinged at Kingspan. Can Munster’s front five be cohesive enough to expose this flaw? Another intriguing subplot.

The fly-half battle is a new one; Shane O’Leary vs. Johnny Holland, two players who were off the radar of respective fan bases several weeks ago are now slap bang in the spotlight due to injury crisis and distinct lack of fly-half options respectively. O’Leary has shouldered the responsibility that comes with playing ten with vigor; his passing range is impressive but tends not to kick from open play which could make Connacht slightly one dimensional.

Munster’s fly-half performances this season have being well below the mark and Holland has come into the side in a perfect scenario; he cannot do much worse than his predecessor whose confidence has flat out caved in. Holland looks to have the attributes required to make at this level; composure, solid game management and good kicking from hand and off the tee. The edge is with Holland but defensively looks vulnerable and Bundee and Henshaw will look to run down his channel from minute one.

This game is going to be won and lost ultimately in the coaching staff decision prior and during the contest. Does Munster persist with withdrawing Holland from the fold after a hour? Does Ian Keatley have the confidence to close out the contest if Munster are leading? Can Connacht sufficiently tackle their defensive breakdowns of recent weeks in a week? Can either side potentially make game line breaks down the ten channel? Pat Lam has had a stellar season; the same cannot be said for Anthony Foley and more questonable calls from the Munster Head Coach could prompt Munster supporters to ask for his head.

The end result is stark for Munster; loss and they will be playing European Challenge Cup next season with Edinburgh potentially availing of a slightly suspect Leinster second team tomorrow. The pressure will be cranked up on Munster come Saturday evening and one wonders if this group of players can handle that pressure? They have failed to deliver when it mattered most so far this season.

Connacht need the win for different reasons; consolidate their top two spot, a loss would mean that Glasgow could close further to them in second. The last game of the league season when Glasgow travel to Connacht looks like a straight shootout to decide who gets home field advantage in the semi-final playoff match?

I am going to slightly edge this fixture to Munster on the basis that their need is greater but this is going to be incredibly tough to win for the men in red. Munster need to produce their best performance of the season; otherwise incrimination will start in earnest down in Limerick and Cork and the reality of Thursday night games against Ensei could become a reality. What a potential fall from grace that would be?

European Rugby Reflections

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Expansive style or not that is the question? 

The final whistle sounds in Grenoble and the Connacht players reflect on what might have being. 33-32 speaks volumes in terms of the open nature of the contest but the defeat has raised questions on the Westerners ability to mix up their game enough to close out contests.

19-3 lead was just reward for an excellent Connacht first quarter showing. They hit the ground running with the back row winning the breakdown battle allowing Shane O’Leary the time and space to launch his runners. The pace out wide was too much at times for the hosts and with Matt Healy electrifying pace from full back, Connacht looked well in control.

It was a time in hindsight where Connacht need to take stock, play the percentage plays for the first ten minutes and frustrate their hosts to the extent where they could easily counter off Grenoble mistakes.

However, Connacht continued to adopt an expansive style which unfortunately exposed defensive holes and allowed Grenoble back into the contest with a try which will have being horrendous to review in the video analysis room. Missed tackles around the ruck area, the players know that they have to do better.

The rest of the game is irrelevant. It is a gut wrenching loss given the early advantage created but we are now at the business end of the season where defensive structures win playoff games. Connacht have the attacking traits but their defensively structures at times have allowed teams to get back into several recent games.

Pat Lam will continue to promote the open expansive style of play but Connacht need to look at the defensive side of their game as they will be punished in a potential playoff contest in the weeks to come. Street smarts are required from the Westerners in order to create memorable end of season memories.

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Is this the year? 

This is the year where Saracens will win the European Rugby Cup competition. They are the side you either admire or hate, they are like marmite. The sight of Chris Ashton show boating with his tries is enough to sway a lot of rugby followers away from the London club but the team are built on solid core values; hard work, determination and organization.

Saracens have learned from last season’s final loss to Toulon and added more expansive style of play when allows. Their points tally this season has caught the eye while remaining fiercely proud of their defensive system. The front five look incredibly strong and Itoje is now assuming full leadership responsibilities.

The beauty about Saracens now is that they can now take you on either expansively or deep in the trenches. Their kicking options off the tee are excellent with Farrell and Hodgson in the ranks too. They will feel confident of progressing against a Wasps side who recovered from moments of weakness to beat Exeter Chiefs. Wasps need to bring their top game in the pack but Saracens for me hold too many aces and should win by ten points.

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Dan Carter kicking surplus to requirements? 

Racing Metro just about got past the challenge of Toulon who had only themselves to blame with an ill-disciplined last ten minutes. Racing Metro looked to beat themselves off the park. Dan Carter’s kicking expertise was deemed surplus to requirements and Machenaud just about kicked the decisive match winning score.

Machenaud was a relieved man as prior to his final penalty, he had missed a regulation penalty. Toulon should have had a lifeline but their indiscipline at the breakdown was correctly pinged by Wayne Barnes.

Racing Metro have several key players in their lineup. Carter is a genius at fly-half but was moved to twelve for this encounter. Imhoff on the wing is so underrated, great try to kick off proceedings and Racing looks extremely dangerous with ball in hand.

The Racing pack has stepped up in recent weeks and Luke Charteris is the go to lineout option. There is no weak link in this outfit and it will take an excellent Leicester performance in the last four to upset this team. Chris Masoe at eight is the heartbeat of this side and the New Zealander leads by example.

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Leicester Tigers nous is key

This may be a bit harsh on Leicester but given the facile Stade Francais performance yet again at Welford Road last weekend, Leicester have plenty to prove against a star laden Racing Metro. Leicester are on a crest of a wave with the soccer club poised to win the EPL and the Rugby team are also making positive waves.

Leicester Tigers are a side who pride themselves on organization, defensive solidity and set piece. Their pack will look to build the platform for the likes of Goneva to exploit any spaces out wide. Their street smarts are unrivalled and if Racing Metro are not precise, Leicester will take full advantage.

The Tigers prey on opposition mistakes evident in their demolition of Munster at Thomond Park in the pool stages; they punished Munster mistakes from start to finish and never let Munster back into the contest. The questions will be asked of Leicester if they are trailing Racing Metro into the last quarter.

Does Leicester throw caution to the wind or do they sit tight and look for Racing Metro errors to get back into the contest? I am not sure that Leicester Tigers have the back line options to create massive issues for Racing Metro. Freddie Burns will need to have the game of his life for Leicester Tigers to win this contest.

It is a Saracens vs. Racing Metro final for me but do not write off Leicester Tigers in causing the semi-final upset. There may be no Ireland representation but the excitement of the semi-finals should not diminish.

NFL – One side story

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April 10th and the National Football League season has a final pairing to make the mouth water but their semi-final victories were extremely one way traffic as Kerry and Dublin easily took care of Roscommon and Donegal. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Kerry stroll past Roscommon

Make no mistake, the Kingdom flat out took the foot off the gas after forty minutes as the game was over as a contest. Three Kerry goals in the opening period were fatal hammer blows for a Roscommon team who unfortunately failed to perform at Croke Park. Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell will have probably learned more on this defeat than they did during the entire league campaign as their charges were overwhelmed by a Kerry team who pressed high up the pitch giving the Rossies no easy primary ball possession.

The lack of quality possession led to the likes of Senan Kilbride being starved of ball in the inside forward line, Kerry cruised to victory. The goals exposed Roscommon defensively; the lack of organization to track Kerry runners was evident in all three goals and the full back line were caught badly for the second goal. The difference in the two teams in terms of kick passing was poles apart.

As Kerry were able to find colleagues in space with unerring accuracy, Roscommon were unable to deliver ball (when won) with any quality. It is an area of play which Roscommon have to improve upon, the lack of quick quality ball to their potentially threatening inside forward line yesterday was most disappointing and made their play at times one dimensional as the kick pass option was well below the standards required.

Kerry will have learned precious little from the outing; all areas of the field were well on top throughout and at no point were the Kingdom put under any great pressure. The performance of Colm Cooper and Darran O’Sullivan caught the eye with well taken goals and the unsung hero of the team Donnacha Walsh continues to produce performances full of work rate, running line intelligence to create space. Kerry advance to the final and another match under the belt before the Munster SFC will be most welcome for Eamon Fitzmaurice’s charges.

Roscommon have had a good campaign but their limitations were brutally exposed yesterday. Several players were overawed by the occasion (not a bad thing) and Roscommon management will need to pick the players up and try to remedy the defensive and skill set problems seen during the first forty minutes in particular. A positive league campaign, experience of playing Croke Park is a plus and provided that the panel stick together and learn from yesterday should return to HQ for a last eight outing in August.

Dublin cruise past clueless Donegal

Rory Gallagher mentioned in post-match comments that Donegal had a week off prior to this ten point loss reversal to Dublin. It may explain some aspects of an under par performance but the general tactic nous on how to breakdown Dublin defensively was more to do with tactical issues than player conditioning.

Donegal were utterly clueless on how to create space inside for McFadden and McBrearty. Their inability to look up and pick players out was evident throughout, the inclination to turn their back to goal and pass a ball back to a colleague in a standing position was the theme of the day. Dublin handled the attacking threat with little fuss.

Michael Murphy struck a peripheral figure, playing out on in the middle of the park trying to get ball but his influence for the side is in the full forward line. It speaks more on Donegal’s lack of squad depth to allow the Glenswilly clubman to move inside and cause havoc in the full forward line.

Dublin settled this contest with an early second half score burst and when Bernard Brogan struck for the goal, it was effectively game over. The lack of Donegal cover to stop Brogan exposed basic man marking problems and organizational defensive structure breakdown. All areas of Donegal’s play were second best on the afternoon; the goal concession summed the performance perfectly.

While Roscommon have excuses for their lack of performance, this Donegal team are well down the road in team development. The lack of progress and starting lineup debutantes outfield means that Donegal are looking one dimensional for opponents. McBrearty upfront was a lone figure throughout and it owed much to lack of game plan. Is Gallagher the man to lead Donegal going forward?

Jim Gavin’s charges were comfortable throughout and their forward line was industrious throughout running selflessly off the ball to create space for others. Donegal were unable to cope with the movement of Dublin throughout and it resulted in several frees conceded which were slotted over by Dean Rock. Andrews inside was a joy to watch again, his running lines are superb.

Dublin may be without O’Carroll and McCafferey but their absence were not felt yesterday, perhaps the final may shed more answers on whether these defensive lynch-pins will be a major loss come the championship.

Given that both teams could play each other at the business end of the championship, I am expecting a surprisingly open affair with both management teams keen not to reveal tactical plans leading to plenty of scores. It could potentially be traditional football; man to man marking and it would be refreshing to see when you compare that with teams content to park the bus defensively and counter-attack from deep.

 

NHL Reflections

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Galway get sucker punched in relegation playoff final

The Tribesmen were made to pay for their inability to close out league games against Tipperary and Waterford to be condemned to the drop into 1B after a three point loss to a Cork team who revelled in the open space and game afforded to them by the hosts. Where Galway too confident before the game because the distinct lack of intensity throughout the contest spoke of a team who felt the opposition were well in hand.

Cork’s skill set has never being questioned and the wide open space that Galway afforded to the likes of Pa Horgan and Alan Harnedy was always going to come home to roost and their two late goals sent the hosts down to the second tier of the hurling league. It will be a shame to see the mercurial Joe Canning playing in 1B next season. The Portumna man yet again tried to win the contest on his own as others around him in the forward line went missing. His 0-12 point haul was not to be on the day as Galway’s forward line goal threat was snuffed out by a Cork defense who were rarely troubled in the full back line from open play.

Cork take their second chance with gusto and the Tipperary loss in the last league round was more to do with Kingston and management looking at the bigger picture. Cork will realize that this win does not mask an incredibly disappointing league season but this win can be used as a springboard to launch into the Munster SHC with confidence. Kingston has made some marquee player culls today as the likes of Shane O’Neill and Pa Cronin are deemed surplus to requirements for the rest of the season. When you add the likes of Stephen Moylan and Paudie O’Sullivan have also being released, the management are sending out a serious message to the rest of the panel that they are not afraid to make big calls and the rest of the squad need to produce the work rate, intensity and physicality required for the rest of the season.

Where now for Galway? The coupe on former Anthony Cunningham was deemed by the players as a step in the right direction. The results in the league and the relegation playoff final speak rather differently. The new Galway management are now under pressure and they need to shake things up in the squad, the same squad that failed to perform in the second half of last year’s All Ireland Hurling final. Michael O’Donoghue unfortunately is a player friendly manager and will the new manager have the gusto to wield the axe on certain players whose ringleader skills have being more in view than their actual hurling. Anyone in Galway who reads this blog will know who I am talking about and O’Donoghue needs to be decisive in sending out a message to the squad with some key squad omissions in the coming week.

The game also exposed Galway’s vulnerability in the full-back and goalkeeping departments. Skehill’s puckout strategy was abject as Cork’s half-back line dominated aerial exchanges, no variation in the puckout delivery was shocking. The full-back line was exposed in the closing stages and management need to take responsibility. No sweeper introduced when Canning had put Galway three points heading into the final quarter. The full back line were left far too open and with the likes of Horgan and Harnedy in attendance, goals were going to come and so they did.

Galway will see first hand the perils of 1B hurling; the bad habits of the division will be difficult to shake off. What do I mean by that? Switching off for ten / fifteen minutes during a match is the norm in this division, the  competitive  nature of the league contrary to the Croke Park authorities is inconsistent, you only have to look at Limerick’s campaign to see the level of competition observed. The Laois game was a poor advertisement for the NHL and did little to prepare Limerick for the crunch game against Clare two weeks ago. Galway are going nowhere fast and with the reliance of Joe Canning to the fore, the Westerners are going backwards, not the ringing endorsement in dismissing Cunningham who is looking quite rosy at this moment in time.

Limerick upset Dublin at Fortress Parnell (or is it?)

Fortress Parnell Park was smashed akin to a scene from the Game of Thrones as Limerick took Dublin’s scalp with a two point victory which was kind to the nation’s capital team. This was a game where Dublin’s squad depth was again wholly exposed. Ger Cunningham gave several fringe players an opportunity to impress but like in the Tipperary NHL loss in the opening round, his side were outgunned and outfought. Dublin’s championship side will be along familiar lines, no surprises with the team lineup and the likes of Dotsy, Treacy and Rushe wil be asked to carry the burden.

TJ Ryan mentioned post-game after the Clare loss that Limerick owed Dublin one and to be fair, the team got to the pitch of the game from the first whistle. The Na Piarsaigh contingent were a massive plus for the team as Ronan Lynch, Kevin Downes and Shane Dowling were to the fore and allowed the likes of Cian Lynch and Declan Hannan the space to express their influence on the game. An additional NHL game is most welcome for a Limerick side who need more gametime with the introduction of the Na Piarsaigh players. This was a good result but considering the Dublin team on show, the delight at the result must be tempered. The NHL semi-final will show Limerick management, players and fans how far they need to go to be a realistic Liam McCarthy contender.

Clare beat Tipperary (who are happy out of it)

Clare continued their resurgence under Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Og Cusack with a narrow one point win over a Tipperary side who were punished for missing several gilt edged opportunities. Clare’s league run was defined in their four point win against Limerick two weeks ago, a performance where Conlon was to the fore. The Clonlara clubman was prominent in the early exchanges, scoring an emphatic goal and winning several 50/50 possessions. The opening Clare goal probably saw the best hurling spell from the Banner with some excellent long range scores.

Tipperary to their credit got a foothold in the game with points from John McGrath and Seamus Callanan but the Premier County were routed in the half-forward aerial exchanges with Clare deploying sweepers to close the space on the likes of Noel McGrath. When the ball did get to the Tipperary full-forward line, they looked dangerous and Clare’s full back line were struggling, constantly pinged for fouls which Kirwan used the advantage rule. I fear for Clare’s full back line against a rampant Kilkenny full-forward line in the semi-final.

Clare on the basis of the seventy minutes just shaded the contest with a late goal sealing the win. Tipperary’s free taking was at times absymal and Callanan showed ring rust a plenty in the opening period. The game was patchy at stages but Tipperary yet again are on the wrong side of the result and another Kilkenny loss would have being disastrous so to be eliminated now may be a blessing to regroup and focus on the Munster SHC and a now dangerous fixture against Cork.

Kilkenny annihilate Offaly

6-20 speaks volumes. Offaly had little chance of beating Kilkenny in Tullamore so to have to travel to Fortress Nowlan Park was going to be a massacre. Both teams will have learned little from this contest. Offaly have improved slightly but their recent performances against Kerry and now Kilkenny suggests that an early championship exit looks on the cards. Kilkenny were rarely troubled and their inside full-forward line wrecked havoc throughout, a warning for Clare in the semi-final.

Waterford scrap home against Wexford

Wexford left this contest behind them. Waterford’s performances in recent league outings suggest that the team are on a grueling training sessions, the zip and speed of the Deise has being missing in recent weeks and Wexford were far the pacier, hungrier side. The last ten minutes spoke volumes of Wexford’s problems; inability to take chances when presented. Several opportunities came and went but the commitment and work application from the Model County could not be questioned. Liam Dunne’s team produced a performance and Dunne was happy enough to let rip on a couple of journos on supposed panel unrest. Wexford need to provide the same application in the championship to further answer the critics but the foundations are there for the county to prosper. McDonald at full-forward is their fulcrum and players need to realize this going forward. Waterford will be relieved to get through and a trip to Thurles in two weeks against Limerick will be an interesting fixture. Roll on Thurles!