Guinness Pro 12: Munster 29 – 17 Leinster

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A sold out Thomond Park saw Munster secure a bonus point win against an under strength Leinster outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Introduction

Munster vs. Leinster. A local derby game to whet the appetite of supporters from both provinces was somewhat devalued by the decision of Leinster (more so IRFU) to enforce the player welfare protocol which saw the likes of O’Brien, Heaslip, Cronin, Toner, Ringrose rested for the encounter. A huge shame for those supporters who paid good money several weeks ago anticipating to see two full strength teams go at it hammer and thong. Munster had a full squad to chose from and the pundits and bookies point spread was indicative of pregame perceptions that the visitors would struggle.

Frenetic Opening Exchanges

Despite Leinster coming into this contest as underdogs, they started this local derby fixture in positive fashion. Leinster’s line speed in attacking and defensive duties caught the eye early doors as Munster at times struggled to cope as they struggled to establish quick go forward ball and also missed first time tackles which allowed Leinster early game line gains. It was this line speed which was to the fore when the visitors took a deserved lead on fifteen minutes; a well executed scrum saw the Leinster half-backs to combine brilliantly to allow Zane Kirchner who took a superb direct running line to go over for the try. The concession will be disappointing from a Munster perspective; defensive line speed was poor and an unfortunate slip from O’Mahoney allowed Kirchner the time and space to turn on the afterburners and score. Nacewa duly tacked on the extras and the try temporarily stunned the Thomond Park faithful into silence.

Superb Munster Response

The response from the hosts to the opening score concession was excellent. A well executed Munster lineout on the Leinster 22 rumbled into red zone territory. Several phases later and the ball made its way to Simon Zebo who somehow acrobatically got over despite the close attentions of Gibson-Park and Barry Daly. The try was superbly created; Zebo had no divine right to get the ball down for the try but it showed the player’s class and creativity in securing enough space to get over in the corner. The subsequent conversion from Tyler Bleyendaal was on point; an excellent kick from the sideline and the sides were level. The Munster opening try stirred the fans and despite Leinster retaking the lead from an Nacewa penalty (conceded after Jean Kleyn was penalized for a neck roll tackle), the momentum had shifted to the hosts.

Defining score

Munster had the momentum leading into the interval but credit Leinster’s defensive line was solid and at times, the hosts looked devoid of ideas despite the best efforts of Conor Murray whose quick distribution was to the fore and James Cronin who tried a between the legs pass. Twenty-one phases later and Leinster’s defensive back wilted with Bleyendaal spotting O’Mahoney in space on the sideline and the Limerick native crossed for a superb score. The lead-up to the try saw a potential flashpoint not picked up by match official Nigel Owens, a clear late hit off the ball on the impressive Darren Sweetnam from Zane Kirchner. Player welfare issue surfaced after the resumption when Sweetnam failed to reappear for the second half; it was a reckless tackle and one that should have being seen at least a yellow card. Bleyendaal again executing a superb conversion from the touchline and the hosts were 14-10 up at the interval.

Dominant Munster Third Quarter

The game was put to bed in the third quarter. Nigel Owens again to the fore; on another day Leinster hooker James Tracy may have won his side a penalty under his posts for a determined breakdown win but Munster got away with it and Murray’s kick to the corner where Tommy O’Donnell jumped superbly to retain the ball and cross over for the third try. Bleyendaal again slotting the conversion and suddenly Leinster were facing an uphill battle.

The Munster faithful could sense a bonus point try was not long in arriving and it duly arrived when the workhorse CJ Stander crashed over from short range. Munster’s pack led superbly by Jean Kleyn mauled imperiously to the Leinster line and Stander had the simplest of tasks to touchdown. Despite Bleyendaal’s missed conversion, 26-10 was a match winning moment in the contest.

Leinster resiliency

The one word that best described Leinster’s performance last night was resiliency. They refused to take a step backwards in defensive and attacking duties. The squad depth of the province is such that seven Ireland international fronted up in the pack and despite inexperience at the half-back positions, their back line boasted the likes of Nacewa and Kirchner. Eric Byrne at fly-half given time to develop will be a superb player; his game management in the opening period belied his professional career inexperience with probing kicks deep into Munster territory.

James Tracy at hooker has all the attributes to become a standout player for both province and national team; his energy and work  rate is infectious. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster despite disappointed with the result will point to several good performances from his inexperienced lineup which will be required during the 6N period of the Pro12 tournament when squads are tested to their limits.

Leinster edged the last quarter and were rewarded for their efforts with a try from Strauss who spotted a gap in the fringes to cross unopposed. An opportunistic try but one that exhibited Leinster’s patience in phase play and ball retention during the leadup to try.

Job Done Munster

Munster will not get carried away with this win over their arch provincial rivals. The manner in which the hosts scored their tries were very impressive and illustrated good game management decision making. Creativity was to the fore for the first and third try scored.

Conor Murray continues to impress at scrum-half; the Limerick native is playing some of his best rugby of his career. His distribution from the ruck is fast and on point; his box kicking has never being in question but he has added flair and creativity in identify opposition defensive gaps. His pass to Zebo against Leicester a couple of weeks ago, his superbly pinpoint kick to O’Donnell are new traits to emerge from the player who is leading the battle for the Lions number nine jersey.

The work rate of the side was good for the second and third quarters of this contest, the spell where the hosts put this fixture to bed. Erasmus will potentially look at the slow start in the opening period; the management team will realize that such a lethargic start will not be good enough on the road to Galway, Paris or Scotstoun in the next couple of weeks.

The news of Jaco Taute extending his stay for an additional six months is superb news. The South African player has made such a positive impact to the club with his leadership, professionalism. Rory Scannell at twelve is a different player this season; much owes the impact of Taute who has allowed the Cork native to make line breaks and probing kicking behind opposition defensive space.

Francis Saili introduction to proceedings in the last quarter is more welcome news to Munster. The competition for places even for game day squad is intense; a good way to be leading into a crucial period of games in January. Munster travel to Galway on New Year’s Eve with a probably diminished squad to chose from but it will be an opportunity for players such as Marshall, Du Toit, O’Shea, O’Donoghue to stake their claim for more first team starts.

Five points clear at the top of the Pro12 league. It has being a great end to the year in the league for Munster. It is a great shame that the resurgence for team and fan base took place immediately after the tragic loss of Anthony Foley. Thomond Park sold out signs are back in vogue; the team is playing a brand of rugby which is incorporating Munster forward values yet adding offensive width as well with the likes of Sweetnam and O’Mahoney availing with several tries each scored so far this season. Exciting times ahead for the province but tougher challenges lie ahead.

 

 

Guinness Pro 12: Ulster 23 – 7 Connacht

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The Good Old Days

Once upon a time, there was a time in Irish rugby when the inter-provincial series was the be all and end all. The local rivalry, the local blagging rights, the banter at the matches with familiar faces from your arch rivals resonated.

In recent years, the IRFU player welfare program has diminished the value of the Irish inter-provincial series particularly around the festive period. The decision is conservative and sound but the fact supporters are paying good money over Christmas to watch games where one side is at full strength and one is not is massively disappointing. Leinster’s lineup against Munster on St.Stephen’s Day perfectly illustrating this situation.

Last night at a sold-out Kingspan, Ulster eased their way to victory and moved into the top four in the league against a Connacht side whose injury list looks more like a field report in a military battle. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the game which rather sums up Ulster’s season to date.

Team News

The hosts lineup were pretty much at full strength; back line was imposing with the likes of Marshall and McCloskey in the three quarters and with Ludik and Piatau on the wings. The half-back partnership was also formidable with Jackson and Pienaar called upon; the pack was abrasive with wily seasoned professionals in Wilson. Henry, Van der Merwe and Best included. Rodney Ah You got the nod at prop which saw him against his former Connacht colleagues.

It would have being interesting to see the scenes in Galway when the team bus arrived to take the team to Belfast; the injury list to be quite honest is horrific and was compounded with the news that talisman Bundee Aki will be out until February due to ankle surgery. The lack of options in the center positions was quite evident in Pat Lam having to putDan Poolman at twelve, a position which is not a position associated with the player.

The pack was even more stretched; prop issues meant that recently resigned Tom McCartney was covering those positions despite playing all his rugby with the province to date at hooker. The Connacht bench had the likes of Ultan Dillane but Pat Lam and management team realized getting on the team bus that the prospect of beating Ulster in Belfast for the first time in the professional era was as remote as looking for a calm day anywhere in Ireland yesterday.

Ulster held all the aces

No-one could fault Connacht’s application and work rate during this contest but the hosts held all the aces throughout. Connacht battled hard in the opening period playing against a strong breeze, territorial gains were hard to come by but Connacht were pressing hard and forcing Ulster to make unforced handling errors. Ulster’s half-backs asserted their influence midway through the half and suddenly gaps started to emerge in the Connacht fringe defense.

The first try of the contest was the move of the game from the hosts. It showcased Ulster’s quite evident skill set with ball in hand, a sweeping move from midfield led to several well executed passes. Piatau is a superb ball carrier and his game line yards forced Connacht to over commit one too many players at the ruck which allowed McCloskey the easiest of tasks to score from close range. Matt Healy was forlorn as he was faced with a 3 on 1 defensive scenario.

Paddy Jackson duly converted the conversion to add to his earlier penalty which came from persistent pack advances resulting in Connacht infringing (offside). Jackson on the night was on the money all game; made easier by the fact the Ulster pack were dominant which gave the ten the time and space to launch his three quarters. Jackson’s kicking from the tee has notably improved; improved technique and execution.

Pienaar at nine for his fifty-seven minute cameo gave an exhibition in scrum-half play, always sniping and looking for opportunities to create game line breaks either with quick passing from the ruck, strategic box kicking and making decoy runs. Marmion led a forlorn effort in contrast but with no viable first ball receivers at three quarters, Ulster were easily reading Connacht’s plays throughout.

The first half saw injuries twenty-two and twenty-three to the Connacht squad with Bealham adding more prop injury woe and Poolman was forced off midway through the half. The academy players will be called upon but the injury crisis looks like a massive negative heading into European Rugby action next month.

Pat Lam and management may potentially call the IRFU for a loan player particularly in the prop position in the weeks to come. The clash with Munster looks incredibly difficult for Connacht even though Munster will probably rest a couple of first team regulars for the fixture.

Lethargic Ulster

Upon the restart, Connacht were forced on the backfoot having to defend their try line. The pressure inevitably tolled as back row Ross crashed over from close range; this should have being the cue for Ulster to secure a bonus point try performance but it never materialized.

Ulster were incredibly loose and lethargic on the Connacht restarts and their defensive line was easily breached immediately after the Ross try as Connacht half-backs Marmion and Carty linked up for the number ten to score a try for the visitors from quick ruck ball.

Ulster’s intensity and work rate died in the last quarter and try scoring chances were then at a premium. Piatau and McCloskey had nice line breaks but the final pass or decision making was not good and chances were spurned. It captured Ulster’s season this term; no full eighty minute performance, too many unforced errors and lapses in concentration to undo superb passages of play with ball in hand, a game where Ulster had their opponents on the rope but did not inflict the knockout punch.

Connacht Predicament

Connacht’s gallantly tackled and competed throughout but their squad selection options were no match for Ulster. A key eight day turnaround beckons now for Pat Lam and team, injured and bruised bodies will need to be replenished but the serious injury list is now a major setback for the side in Pro 12 and could ruin a superb European campaign.

IRFU need to step in and give Connacht assistance with key player loans to offset the massive injury list. This period will be critical to see how the IRFU view their provinces and allow fringe province players to move temporarily for game time minutes. Interesting few weeks beckon.

Sporting Review – The Bad

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Anthony Foley – RIP

Still shocked to write the above headline. A colossal player who lived and breathed Munster Rugby. The team have emerged from his death a more galvanized force but the fact that it took for the passing of the head coach is desperately sad. People may have had a pop at his management selections but no-one can deny his love for the province. Foley will be sadly missed.

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Pat Hickey

A miserable start to the Rio Olympics was bad enough with the failed drug test of disgraced Ireland boxer Michael Reilly but it was only compounded with the embarrassing ticket controversy surrounding Pat Hickey and Kevin Mallon. Kudos to the Brazilian authorities for swooping to make the arrests but it raised serious questions on how the Olympic Council of Ireland distributed their tickets. While Ireland Olympian athletes families and friends were struggling to buy tickets for various events, their tickets were being dispatched for inflated prices. It will be an interesting couple of months in terms of what happens now with both Mallon and Hickey back on native soil but it is up to the likes of Shane Ross and Patrick O’Donovan to stay on this fiasco and make the relevant decisions to remove people involved from their positions. Brazilian judicial process needs to take its course but for Ireland’s head Olympic supremo arrested in his bath gown in a different hotel room was the low point of the year for me personally. The man has zero credibility and it is time for him to go.

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Billy Walsh Fiasco

As Billy Walsh accepted his AIBA accolade last night, it would have being interesting to see the reaction of the likes of IABA and John Treacy. The departure of Walsh from the high performance boxing program was a devastating blow; one which was felt more in the lead  up to the Rio Olympics where the boxing team actions out of the ring were the main headline. Michael Reilly failed dope test was bad enough but then the revelations that the boxer was not with the rest of the squad leading up to the Olympics was a surprise. The fact that a couple of Irish boxers were caught placing bets on boxing bouts in the tournament only supported the view that the squad was in chaos. The lethargic performances from Joe Ward and Paddy Barnes again compounded the departure of Billy Walsh who guided USA to three Rio Olympic medals. Walsh is boxing coaching gold. Ireland boxing and sporting red tape proved fatal and USA’s gain is Ireland’s loss. A program which was the envy of many is one at ground zero. The back and forth in the media was pretty embarrassing and did little for the likes of John Treacy who is supposed to be an oversight figure in resolving disputes such as this.

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Gabay Report — What a pile of ****

The bizarre spin on this report was akin to a comedy production down in the local hall. “As a brand, the league delivers. It’s cool” — sorry to bear the bad news Mr. Gabay but the attendances at certain grounds was abysmal. While Dundalk, Cork, Shamrock Rovers grounds were well supported, the same could not be said for the likes of Ferrycarraig. The situation was worse in the First Division where famed clubs of past glories such was Waterford United, Athlone Town were on the brink of bankruptcy. A certain CEO of an airline described an organization as a “North Korean Rat Infested Union Shop”, the name term could be labelled at the powers running the national game in this country. God help us, when the likes of O’Shea, Walters, Hoolahan, Long retire from the national team; no viable youth prospects coming through the ranks. Everything is okay though according to the head office. What a waste of money issuing this report. The SSE League is in chaos. Limerick and Drogheda will be welcome additions but numerous clubs are dying on their feet. 5K donation from John Delaney will hardly dent the club debts of any club in the league. Dundalk and Cork excelled but the rest of the league floundered.

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Team Sky – Decongestant Anyone?

Bradley Wiggins reputation is blown to pieces; Lance Armstrong scandal awaits in the New Year. The levels in which Team Sky Director David Brailsford wanted to quell the story speaks volumes; pro cycling is as bad as ever when it comes to injecting substances into where the sun don’t shine. It is a year where Paul Kimmage excelled; exposing the truth. It is a year where David Walsh association with Team Sky during the Tour De France undermines his authority in writing on doping scandals. Sky Sports News credibility when covering Team Sky must be called into accounts; additional probing of GB Cycling team is also required with the likes of Shane Sutton hovering around even though ridiculed earlier in the year. 2017 will see pro cycling kicked again in the nether regions but it remains to be seen where the sport goes from here. New era? Chuckling on that comment often bandied by Team Sky and Brian Cookson.

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Media Rights

Newstalk losing their GAA media rights was bad enough but no strategic vision on promoting lower tier hurling competitions with televised coverage was damning. The fact that GAA officialdom have turned a blind eye to these competitions yet courting the likes of Sky Sports and Rte for televised coverage for the big games is shameful. There is distinctly no vision in the organization on how to improve the product on the pitch; black card controversy in football was evident throughout the season. The black card were issued early doors in the championship but when it came to the critical incidents of critical games, the black card interpretation was back in the media spotlight. Ditching the black card has being greeted with stubborn denial.

Demise of Cork GAA

Cork Hurling and Football Senior team performances were a low point of the season. The Cork hurlers staved off relegation miraculously against Galway but the championship performance was well short of the level required. Tipperary dispatched Cork with minimal ease and their elimination to Wexford exposed massive leadership, work rate and skill set issues in attacking and back line play. No long term fix. Cork footballers did not fare much better; relegation to the Division Two ranks and then a shock loss to Tipperary in the Munster SFC. A gallant defeat to Donegal could not paint a positive picture on the season. A season to forget for all involved with Cork GAA. Pairc Ui Chaoimh aside, improvement is required on the pitch in both codes. An interesting year beckons down Leeside.

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Dylan Hartley

The player had a relatively incident free year; captaining England to a full sweep of international fixture wins but then his bad boy image reared its head with a disgraceful sending off for Northampton Saints against Leinster. Six week ban after a cowardly no arms tackle on Sean O’Brien and the player again proved that he cannot be trusted to lead or execute a team’s game plan in any manner. Eddie Jones comments on December 21st was enough; his international career is hanging by a thread.

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Dublin Senior Hurling Team – Crisis

When your best player decides it is better to stay on the sidelines, it is time to talk. Danny Sutcliffe’s decision to not be considered for selection says plenty about the current morale in the Dublin hurling team. Cuala’s exploits in All Ireland club will inevitably lead to several county players unavailable; the squad looks stretched and relegation looks a possibility. Ger Cunningham’s tenure has being shrouded in disappointment; no progress being made and they are falling behind Kilkenny and Galway in the province. Disappointing for the game in general, need a competitive Dublin hurling team in the All Ireland Series but they are not at the level at this time. Davy Fitzgerald as manager would have being a viable option? Dublin board missed a trick there.

Sporting Year Review- The Good

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Connacht, Connacht, Connacht!

Connacht’s fantastic Guinness Pro 12 triumph which raised the league standard with their offloading, expansive style of play. The emergence of Dillane, Bealham, McGinty, Marmion, Healy, O’Halloran to name but a few as well as the leadership of Muldoon, Muldowney were to the fore. Their final performance against a strongly fancied Leinster team in Edinburgh was sublime. Four strong provinces of Ireland. The national side benefited as a result.

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Tipperary Senior Hurlers

Tipperary’s performance against Kilkenny in the All Ireland SHC final last September. Their ability to execute a game plan which exposed Kilkenny’s full back line and allowed the likes of Callanan, O’Dwyer and John McGrath to flourish in the full forward line was a managerial masterstroke. Apart from Clare in the NHL semi-final, Kilkenny took all comers but they had no answers off the bench to stem the flow of ball into the Tipperary full forward line. Kilkenny will be back next year but the rest of the chasing pack have renewed hope and confidence. An excellent hurling championship beckons.

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Austin Gleeson

The skill set of Austin Gleeson. The player is a freak of nature; has all the traits to become one of the hurling greats. Gleeson started in the half back line but the versatility of the youngster was evident in his performances in the half forward line towards the end of the season. Double award winning hurler of the year, Gleeson has the hurling world at his feet, will be interesting if the Deise county can get over the line and win Liam McCarthy next season.

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Waterford U21 Hurlers

Waterford U21 hurling team performances this season; one of the best teams in this age grade in the history of the competition. Their first touch, superb passing and goal scored were hallmarks of their season in this grade and they demolished Clare, Tipp, Antrim and Galway enroute to final glory. Shane Bennett was to the fore; a young man in the same career path ascent like Austin Gleeson. Massive underage potential in Waterford.

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Dublin Senior Football Team

The all conquering Dublin football team. Their skill and power was too much for everyone in the championship this season. Their demolition of Kerry in the NFL final was an indicator of what was to follow in Leinster. Jim Gavin negotiated the absence of defensive absentees with Cooper and Small slotting seamlessly into the back line. Diarmuid Connolly class was evident in the opposition fascination to nullify his influence but it allowed players like Dean Rock more time and space to score points. Mayo gave it as good a crack as anyone but Dublin’s overall squad depth came through. A memorable year for the Dublin and few will back against them retaining Sam Maguire next season.

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Mayo U21 Football Success – hope springs eternal?

Gaelic Football fans sometimes have short memories. Recast our minds back to Cusack Park, Ennis on April 30th and Mayo U21 footballers won a thrilling U21 football final over Cork. The emergence of Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor during this encounter should be signs of optimism for Mayo football fans despite the pot shots currently taking place by ex-manager, former players and current players of the senior panel.

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Leicester City – underdog come good.

EPL Champions. 2016 is Leicester City. A triumph which mirrored that of Connacht in the Pro 12 league. Leicester were given little chance even in January to be in the title shakeup but with a resolute defense led by Schmeichel, Morgan, Huth, Simpson, Fuchs; a hard working midfield with Kante and Drinkwater to the fore setting the platform for the likes of Mahrez and Vardy to score the goals to propel the Foxes to the league title. It was a victory for the underdog in a league where money wins over shrewd transfers signings typically. Leicester’s triumph will live long in the memory as a a story like this will not happen again for years to come.

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Annalise Murphy

The definition of determination and resiliency. The Dublin native was a forlorn figure four years ago in Weymouth having missed out on a medal. Fourth place is a horrible position for any athlete to occupy in an Olympics; some athletes would have being finished after such a heartbreaking final day performance but Murphy regrouped and worked hard to secure her thoroughly deserved Olympic medal. Her diligence in researching the Rio course was paramount and her superb performances on the water were to the fore. An incredible role model for Ireland.

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O’Donovan Brothers – Lifted a nation

The opening week of the Rio Olympics was filled with negative stories associated with Ireland. Shameful ticket distribution controversy, underpar Ireland boxing team performances which raised questions on preparation and failed drug testing results plighted the Ireland camp but then arrived the Skib’s finest rowing brothers to lift the mood of the nation. Their interviews with Joe Stack were sublime; they pulled like dogs to secure the silver medal and Paul went onto to further European rowing triumph in Rotterdam. Their fun loving style was legendary; their performances on the water were emphatic. Like Annalise Murphy, incredible role models to the country and rescued our Olympic reputation in Rio.

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Paralympics Ireland – take a bow

An incredible medal haul from Paralympic Ireland. Massive respect to the Paralympic movement for taking a zero drug tolerance stance to Russia; someone the IOC failed miserably to take. Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop continued their success but other Irish athlete parties came to promince. Eoghan Clifford, Katie-George Dunlevy / Eve McCrystal. The future is bright with sixteen year old  Noelle Lenihan who swam to a bronze medal. Inspiring two weeks of action and the team did the country proud.

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Ireland Horse Racing Success

In flat and national hunt, Ireland success was frequent. Willie Mullins, Aidan O’Brien, Gordon Elliott, Mouse Morris, Dermot Weld all won notable races in this calendar year. O’Brien’s procession in the Arc was the highlight from my perspective; hard enough to get one horse to place in such a prestigious event but to train a 1,2,3 in the French golden ribbon was superb. Shocking that Rte failed to acknowledge a sporting arena which has yielded so much success year in, year out and raises credibility issues on the Sports Year Awards ceremony.

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Carl Frampton – Two Weight World Champion

Best Irish boxer of his generation. Frampton had a superb 2016. He beat Scott Quigg in Manchester and then went onto beat Leo Santa Cruz in one of the fights of the year at Madison Square Garden. The tale of the tape is clear. In 2016, Frampton unified the Super Bantamweight Championsip and then went onto win the WBA Super Featherweight champion but obviously not good enough to get into the BBC Sports Personality of the Year list. His rematch to Leo Santa Cruz in Las Vegas promises to be as explosive as their first encounter. 2017 potentially could eclipse 2016 for the Belfast native.

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Conor McGregor

The most recognizable athlete in MMA, Conor McGregor had a superb 2016. Despite losing to Nate Diaz earlier in the year, McGregor dusted himself down and won the rematch. His victory over Alvarez at the back end of the year resulted in McGregor being a two weight world champion simultaneously for the first time in the sport. His promotional skills, his athleticism and striking ability has resulted in massive PPV numbers. Dana White will need to thread carefully with his most marketable product; signs of friction are there. It will be an interesting year for the Crumlin native. His Rte Sport award was just reward for a stellar year.

European Rugby Champions Cup – Irish Perspective

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The last European Cup round games have concluded for this calendar year. It was a weekend where Munster’s unbeaten streak was dramatically halted at Welford Road, even more dramatic was Connacht’s late try and conversion to push the Westerners into the quarter final positions, Leinster brushing aside an embarrassing Northampton Saints outfit at the Aviva Stadium while Ulster were blown away by a dominant Clermont side. Hawkeye Sidekick assigns grades for each province in the competition so far.

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Leinster – Grade A

This has being an excellent salvo in the competition. Montpellier’s loss to Castres today has created a five point gap at the top of the pool. Leinster are in pole position to secure a home quarter final after two emphatic bonus point try wins over a hapless Northampton Saints outfit who let us be frank brought the competition into disrepute last night with a shambolic team lineup whose defensive display was at best hapless. Leinster have Montpellier’s South African contingent arriving to Dublin in the New Year but quite frankly, qualification will be secured before then. Leinster are playing with purpose this season. The pack has improved with the form of Tadhg Furlong, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath setting up a solid foundation at the set piece and with ball in hand. Furlong’s form has being the standout; the Wexford native is unstoppable with ball in hand from close range. Great news for the national team. The only issue that Leinster will have to contend with is the lack of options at ten. With Carbery out for eight weeks, Sexton’s return to be determined, it is being left to Eric Byrne to steer the side. Byrne was excellent yesterday albeit with a maurauding pack in front of him. Tougher tests will lie in wait but the lack of experience in such a pivotal position in the coming weeks could potentially bite the side at the end of the pool but with sixteen points already in the bag, Leinster will have time to regroup and have the likes of Sexton and Carbery back for the quarter final. Isa Nacewa’s performances have being nothing short of sublime; leadership and experience in spades and Adam Byrne has flourished in the first team ranks. Cullen and Lancaster coaching setup has produced the required results.

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Connacht – Grade B+

This grade could have being easily a ‘C’ grade if the late try and conversion had not happened. An incredible ending to the contest last night at the Sportgrounds. Connacht took victory from the jaws of defeat. The penalty controversy is an officiating issue; Connacht played to the instruction of the match official in charge. Wasps ultimately will need to review how their defensive setup for the Connacht ruck could not prevent the decisive try. The Westerners ended a turbulent two week period with a win that has them joint top of their pool with thirteen points. A pivotal away game with Toulouse beckons and one that Connacht should enter with renewed confidence. The plus points are the strength in character of the side to get up and win a contest given the number of injuries in the squad. The back line injury list is horrific at present and it was good news that Matt Healy featured this weekend for the province. The leadership of John Muldoon has being sublime this season; he leads by example in defensive and ball carrying duties. Pat Lam’s departure news had an impact last week; uncharacteristic error strewn pack performance in Coventry was not present this weekend. The pack competed well in the set piece and it is a significant plus point going into the busy festive period. The one issue is the lack of fly-half options. Carty aside, limited options at Pat Lam’s disposal. O’Leary potentially with Bosch out for indefinitely. With a home game banker against Zebre at the end of the pool phrase, the province will finish at a minimum of eighteen points. A loser bonus point at Stade Wallon could be enough to secure quarter final playoff rugby come the Spring. It would be a superb achievement given the injury crisis and the news off the pitch in recent weeks. Connacht are in prime position to secure qualification; up to the staff and squad to deliver two quality performances in January to achieve this goal.

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Munster – Grade B

The recent upsurge in form and unbeaten streak was halted in Leicester with a late Owen Williams penalty. It continues a worrying trend of road losses for the province in Europe over the last three seasons. Take out the games against Sale and Treviso, Munster have succumbed on the road to the likes of Clermont, Saracens, Leicester, Stade Francais. All those reversals had Munster unforced errors all over the performance and it continued yesterday after a promising start. Tyler Bleyendaal at ten had a mixed afternoon with the boot and his persistence to stand well behind the game line was easily read by the Tigers, other teams will take note. The high penalty count yesterday was a surprise given recent weeks and is something that will need to be addressed. There are plenty of positives from the campaign so far; work rate and team work in defense and offense in abundance. Eleven points from three games is decent but with an arduous January with toad trips to Paris and Scotstoun, Munster’s fate will be determined from their performance away from Thomond Park. Encouraging signs from the province since the tragic death of Anthony Foley but yesterday’s cameo was too error strewn to win on the road. Lessons of the past were not heeded. Rassie Erasmus will have learned plenty from this reversal and the fact that Munster made crucial mistakes in game management at the death will not go unnoticed. Stander ball carry was isolated; the subsequent clear out was too late and players off their feet when a kick deep into Tigers territory would have sufficed. Certain Munster based journalists thought the pool was a formality after Glasgow failing to score the bp win over Racing last Friday night, think that assessment may have changed and the Warriors look in a strong position given Munster’s  current squad inability to win on the road in Europe.

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Ulster: Grade C-

Let us be frank. Ulster were never going to beat Clermont this weekend; a rampant home side were looking for instant redemption after their reversal at Kingspan Stadium last weekend where Pienaar, Jackson, Henderson and Piatau were sublime. Clermont’s running lines early doors will have future opponents taking note. Ulster’s start today was far too passive, their line speed was too cumbersome and Clermont identified mismatches in the first half. Credit Ulster for the three try salvo in the second half but the damage was done. There have being too many performances this season where Les Kiss’ charges have being punished for sloppy periods in play. The Bordeaux Begles game in the final quarter where the French side went over for a couple of tries was indicative of this. The home game against Exeter had periods of lethargic play from Ulster. For the talent at Kiss’ disposal, this season has being a massive disappointment. Pool qualification looks beyond them but it will be the loss to Begles away which will be the killer. It was great to see Tommy Bowe back in the Ulster lineup today; great try. Les Kiss as head coach? Two indifferent season campaigns to date would raise questions of his position given the investment and talent in the province. Must do better.

Walter Swinburn – RIP

Awful news on the sad passing of a true racing jockey great Walter Swinburn at the age of 55. Swinburn stylish riding style was to the fore and his performances on Shergar were sublime. The great horse racing observers will be far more eloquent than I but found this gem of a video earlier this evening. 1981 Epsom Derby with commentary from the great Peter O’Sullivan and featuring the mercurial Shergar and Walter Swinburn. RIP Walter. Thank you for the memories!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Munster 38 – 0 Leicester Tigers

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We got our arses smacked good and proper

Final whistle at Thomond Park and the post-game reaction from Leicester Tigers supremo Richard Cockerill was blunt and cue the quote to start off this piece. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects a day after an emphatic win for Munster.

Mid-December. Sold Out Thomond Park. European Cup. For me, it is start of the festive period and the lure of the illustrious Leicester Tigers to Limerick was a huge draw. A traditional powerhouse, a club well respected by Munster came to the Munster venue looking to repeat their triumph against Munster last season.

Leicester Tigers were without Dan Coles and Ayerza in the front row, huge losses to the set piece and the bookies had Munster at minus eight to win this contest on the back of the news. The bookies are not rarely wrong and as the afternoon progressed, it became apparent that Munster were about to hand Leicester one of their most horrific losses in European Cup history.

The opening period performance of both sides were striking. Munster’s mobile front five were winning the fringe battles and Tigers were struggling to contain the ball carrying ability of Kilcoyne who was taking two to three Leicester Tigers to stop him. The visitors tackle count was soaring in the first quarter and with it came a loss of indiscipline. Poite quick to ping Leicester for ruck infringements and offside.

Cue Munster’s Tyler Bleyendaal to punish those penalties with emphatic fashion. A certain number eight looking down from above would have being pleased to see the scoreboard ticking over as the New Zealander was assured with his kicking off the tee and his kicks from hand was pinning Leicester deep in their own half, creating pressure on the lineout. 12-0 after thirty minutes was just rewards for the Munster dominance in the half.

While Munster’s number ten was having a superb outing, the same could not be said for his counterpart Freddie Burns who with a retreating pack was under immense pressure to clear his lines and when a penalty chance represented badly missed, long range yes but the execution was well off. Burns body language was not inspiring confidence around his colleagues.

Leicester probably would have being happy to come in at the break only twelve points down but Munster’s dominance was truly rewarded with the opening try just before the interval.

The try was created in the trenches; several lung bursting ball carries deep into Leicester territory by the pack. Murray though was sensational; spotted Zebo’s late run inside and his pass was stunning.

Leicester defensively were flat footed. Zebo was over and the game was as good as over. The fact that Ed Slater was off to the sin bin during this spell  will have pleased Erasmus and coaching staff. Munster killing opponents off when on the ropes.

Given the Leicester Tigers performance, Thomond Park expected a reaction from Leicester but the one way traffic in truth continued. The Munster pack again to the fore; their breakdown work was sublime and O’Mahoney, Stander and O’Donnell provided options in the lineout and ball carrying duties. Leicester coaching management on the sideline were ominously looking at the stands for answers but none were coming, the end result was inevitable.

Jaco Taute has being a superb loan signing for the province. The coaching staff often comment on the Stormers player ability to provide confidence and insight to younger squad members such as Arnold, Scannell but his performances on the pitch have being first rate. He leads by example; first time tackling, organizational skills defensively and his ability to pick mismatches in opposition defensive lines are his hallmarks.

If Taute leaves at the end of the year, it will be a bitter pill  for Munster to swallow. His second half tries were executed with power from close range as well as latching onto grubber kicks behind the Leicester defensive line. His hat-trick was thwarted with a penalty try. A sublime overall performance. A player who is loved by the locals; the Ric Flair Woo chants rang around the venue after each try. Powerhouse.

Every Munster player on duty put in another stellar shift; each player supporting his colleague in attacking and defensive duties. The breakdown work rate was at times breathtaking. O’Mahoney and Stander were irremovable forces at breakdown time, they flat out denied Leicester any quick ruck ball and stole ball in several occasions.

Murray at nine clearly won his battle with the talented Ben Youngs. Youngs floundered on slow ruck ball. Murray reveled in the space created by his dominant pack. His switch pass to Zebo for the first try killed the contest; brave pass to execute but Murray knew the rewards if it executed successfully. Lions scrum-half first choice after this cameo.

A special note for Munster winger Darren Sweetnam. Cork hurling is Munster’s gain.The player is having a stellar debut season with the province; his ability to read play and create game line yards with a quick turn and pace is sublime. Sweetnam’s offloading ability was to the fore. A supreme talent who will be an Ireland player soon.

Thirty-eight points without reply. Munster cannot have believed this scoreline at the start of the day but the relentless pressure squeezed the life out of Leicester in the opening period and the tries in the second half came from endless tackle count and Munster players prepared to make the hard yards to create openings.

Leicester are an extremely proud team. Munster will expect a backlash at Welford Road next weekend. The hosts will throw everything into this fixture; pride and jersey will be keywords ahead of this tussle. Munster will prepare knowing that the same work rate ethos and organization is required next week. A superb result but plenty still to do to secure ERC qualification to the quarter finals.

Richard Cockerill remarked that there was negativity around Munster last season and Leicester latched onto this. There was not a sniff of it yesterday; the Thomond Park faithful roared on their team. United team, united province, unified performance. Austin Healey’s reaction post-game spoke volumes; stunned would be an understatement. Roll on next weekend!

Pat Lam Departs

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Pat Lam is Bristol Rugby bound

Typical Monday morning here in the City of the Tribes; buoyant Connacht fans around the office after a resounding 47-8 demolition of Treviso at the weekend and looking forward to taking on Wasps in European Cup action next weekend. This all changed when Connacht Rugby issued a press release stating that head coach Pat Lam was leaving at the end of the season and assuming the Bristol Rugby head coaching position from the start of next season. Hawkeye Sidekick evaluates the news and wonders what the implications are for Connacht going forward.

 

Why now?

The announcement has taken plenty of rugby observers by surprise in Ireland but it is this time of year when players and coaches often make their decisions on where they will be plying their trade next season such as James Hook’s announcement on his return to Ospreys from Gloucester last week.

The timing though on the eve of a pivotal four week window in the season where Connacht will face the likes of Wasps, Ulster and Munster is a bit odd. The team will be unsettled by the news; the twitter reaction from the likes of Bundee Aki who recently signed a contract to stay at the club primarily down to the assumption that Lam was staying put speaks volumes. Wasps’ away was difficult enough without having to get the squad in the right mindset in the coming days.

People will have their own theories on why Pat Lam has made the decision. The lure of Bristol Rugby, a rugby union hotbed in the England West Country is probably one with an excellent stadium in Ashton Gate and owners who are prepared to invest heavily into the squad. I think personally the infrastructure and additional revenue stream factors have lured Lam away from the Sportsgrounds.

Sportsgrounds: Upgrade Question

The long term vision of Connacht is essentially built on the premise that the Sportsgrounds or new stadium will be built. The 2023 Ireland RWC bid snub was a damaging blow for anyone connected with Connacht Rugby and huge questions on potential funding for Connacht infrastructural upgrades required to maintain the momentum of recent success for the club both on and off the pitch do now exist. Did Pat Lam feel that the Connacht long term vision was never going to be a reality given this development, without an upgraded stadium for the club to play their home games which would increase revenue streams?

Revenue Streams:

One look at the current Bristol Rugby first team squad and it is evident that the owners are ambitious in their objectives for the club. Welsh influence is predominant with the likes of Ian Evans and Gavin Henson nestled with Pacific Islanders and homegrown talent including ex-Leicester Tiger Jordan Crane. The squad is stacked with internationals. How this side has not managed to win a game all season in the Aviva Premiership is baffling?

There are pretty ambitious plans in progress at Bristol Rugby. A new state of the art 27,000 capacity stadium http://www.bristol-sport.co.uk/stadium/the-plan/ which should lure Bristol Rugby fans to watch their team play in idyllic surroundings. 13,351 people attended their last home game against the Leicester Tigers; the fan base is there and with an upturn in results, more fans will come through the turnstiles. The potential at the club is something anyone in Pat Lam’s current role would be attracted to.

The Aviva Premiership TV deal is quite frankly head and shoulders ahead of the Pro 12 contract; 152 million TV deal is massive and is comparable with with French Pro 14 with a massive revenue stream chasm now opened up with the Pro 12 left behind. The revenue streams are endless for clubs such as Bristol Rugby who are just in their first season in the league; yes their form has being miserable but if they retain their league status at the end of the season, Lam will have more revenue to spend on recruitment to key areas and rugby club structures. Dan Tuohy’s name is being linked with the club; front five is an area where Bristol Rugby needs to upgrade.

What will Pat Lam bring to Bristol Rugby?

Lam was to quick highlight the contribution of Eric Elwood in his statement this morning to the media hoards but the Samoan passion for the sport, his ability to manage his squad, instill belief to a squad was key traits during his tenure with Connacht. His decision to look and identify young talent continued the legacy of Elwood was evident in his decision to introduce several prospects to the first team fold. You only have to look at the composition of the back line and the age profile as evidence of this. Lam has revitalized players such as Muldoon, Healy with the deliberate decision to adopt an expansive open game, a brave move but ultimately distinguished Connacht from the Pro 12 pack last season.

I have met Pat Lam several times in Galway and the one thing you can say about the guy is that he is loyal evident in the Leighton Hodges saga where he publically defended his club after a controversial loss to the Cardiff Blues and receptive to the fan base evident in his Connacht appearances at fan question nights or just talking about the game with bystanders on street corners. His infectious love for the game can only rub off on a team like Bristol Rugby.

Where now Connacht?

Connacht fans, players and management have only praise for Pat Lam. He will be sorely missed by the province but it is time to reflect and make an astute decision on Lam’s successor. There will be plenty of candidates sending their resume to the club this week but Connacht Rugby need to identify the right man to lead the team to even higher standards. Continuity could be a distinct option; hire from within to remain the standards set and allow a transparent managerial change. Tim Allnutt could fit the bill perfectly; a candidate who understands the Connacht Rugby ethos and is aware of the long term vision of the club.

There will be other interested parties. IRFU may be keen to hire an Ireland candidate to the role. Bernard Jackman or Jeremy Davidson are names which will be mentioned given their successful time in French Rugby. Would the opportunity be of interest to someone like Ronan O’Gara? Andy Farrell’s name potentially could come into the reckoning also.

Connacht fans may be disappointed today but the future is still bright. With signings of Aki, Bealham and Dillane long term secured, Connacht have a youthful team whose niche of attacking rugby will only become stronger. The upcoming head coach position role appointment is critical to the success of the club long term; it is not a time for Connacht to wallow in this departure; it should be used to galvanize the province to achieve the long term vision of the club but it requires all parties (IRFU, Galway City Council, Club Board, Fans, Players) to work together to get the infrastructural upgrades required to propel Connacht to the next level. IRFU needs a strong Connacht now and the next couple of months will be viewed with interest around the country.