Santa Cruz vs. Frampton did not disappoint

carl_frampton

Tough night for the Jackal but the future remains bright for the Belfast boxer

Las Vegas. The boxing mecca where boxers dream of headlining a world championship event. There was no disgrace in Carl Frampton losing his professional unbeaten record. He faced a boxer in Leo Santa Cruz who had gone on record to say that he would retire from the sport if he did not win the bout. Statement of intent.

Santa Cruz’s reach advantage was the key to this success, he used his key strength unlike in the opening bout where he was intent on boxing Frampton on the inside, a tactic given the Belfast’s native skill was doomed to failure.

Frampton look stunned early doors that Santa Cruz had the boxing skills to execute that game plan with his jab working a treat. Santa Cruz was a boxer on a mission for redemption and try as Frampton might in the later rounds, the Mexican punished Frampton defensive lapses late in the middle rounds to win a few rounds that on another day would have being scored even.

The respect between the two boxers was evident throughout the buildup and after the bout. A trilogy is very much on the cards but the idea that Belfast will be hosting it this summer is way off the mark and with other boxers looking for a title shot.

There is a Welsh boxer by the name of Lee Selby who is on the phone to Eddie Hearn as I type to get a bout with Santa Cruz. Selby’s hand speed and movement is sublime and I genuinely believe that Selby would have every chance of beating both boxers last night.

The farcical scenes on Friday when Selby’s opponent had to withdraw due to not being able to get a Nevada boxing license was something that I thought was behind boxing (but obviously not).

Christmas sacrificed, multiple training camps away from his family, Selby was left high and dry by the events of Friday afternoon. Selby deserves a shot with Santa Cruz (title shot) or Frampton next in a domestic bout, a big bout to whet the appetite of a boxer who has had to travel long distances to become a world champion in his own right.

Frampton’s classy post bout interview has won him even more admirers across the Atlantic. Carl Frampton and Shane McGuigan will sit down and look at where the bout went away. Frampton is a majestic boxer when opponents come forward but Frampton at times one dimensional when on the front foot as Santa Cruz picked off Frampton with some excellent jabs and combinations. Shane McGuigan instructions at times sounded like more of the same; no backup game plan to counteract the reach advantage that the Mexican was executing during the bout. A learning experience for everyone associated with the Frampton camp.

I do not think anyone would mind seeing another bout but it will be intriguing to see where the bout will be held. Frampton’s first experience boxing in Las Vegas can only help in the trilogy. It will be a US based bout, don’t see Santa Cruz coming to Belfast. If he does, I think my cap off to the man but money talks and HBO will be keen to hold this bout in Las Vegas yet again. The expected PPV sales alone mean that an European location is a non-starter. Two super fights this year already with the drawn DeGale / Jack bout and now Santa Cruz vs. Frampton along with the devastating KO produced by Mikey Garcia (a beast) as the new three weight world champion knocked out Dejan Zlaticanin.

I really wished that Floyd Mayweather would stop talking about a bout with Conor McGregor; the idea smells rotten and given the boxing craft of Mayweather, it would be an easy night for Mayweather and notch up fifty wins in the professional ranks. The sport of boxing does not need a charade event this year. There are plenty of super bouts scheduled this year (Joshua vs. Klitschko), no need for this bout to make a mockery of the sport but some people will probably respond on the Haye vs. Bellew bout in March (true point) but you know what I am getting at 🙂

Munster Announce Signings

munster_logo

It is a total Munster party love in at the moment. Munster topped their tricky European Champions Cup pool, second seeds in the quarter finals and a home tie against Toulouse, medical staff absolved of any negligence over Conor Murray’s HIA procedures during the trip to Scotstoun. On this high, the powers that be in the province have announced more good news in back of three key signings and a couple of contract extensions to front line players. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the news.

JJ returns home

This is the key addition for Munster next season. The return of JJ Hanrahan adds quality and competition to the ten berth and will push Tyler Bleyendaal on to higher performance levels. The fact that JJ has left Northampton Saints after only two seasons speaks volumes of a period where his potential at ten was unfulfilled instead plying this trade either at full back or at twelve, the very reason why the Kerry native left the province in the first place. Northampton right now are in a state of flux; head coach rumors circulating and with the likes of Tom Woods moving to Saracens next season indicates all is not well in the East Midlands club. This is a good move for Hanrahan, it is a move which will define his career and it will be an interesting off season to see how the ten battle unfolds already. Erasmus has a player with numerous positives; ability to game manage, astute tactical kicking. It is a win win for the fans who for the majority were sad to see the player go. Let us not forget the circumstances surrounding the departure with Anthony Foley making the call to appoint Ian Keatley as his first choice ten while Hanrahan was reduced as an utility back. Interesting times for the player next season. A fresh new start as it looks almost inevitable that Ian Keatley will depart for pastures new (probably France) in the off-season.

Scrum Half backups secured

With the departures of Cathal Sheridan (injury plagued) and Tomas O’Leary whose lack of game time prompted a loan move to Montpelier, it was essential that Munster identified sufficient backup options to Munster. The new recruit is James Hart, a potential shrewd signing from the province who is well regarded by management at Racing Metro 92. His brief cameo against Munster last weekend indicated a player who is quick to distribute from the ruck. With a good off-season, Hart will be a pivotal squad player who will challenge existing incumbent Duncan Williams for the backup scrum half spot. Williams is rewarded for a positive start to the season with a contract extension. Some may have their negative vibes on the player but Williams is well respected in the Munster dressing room and management team. Williams has played superbly in recent weeks particularly away to Glasgow two weeks ago. His assured box kicking and game management was to the fore. A potentially troublesome position resolved next season. Erasmus will have plenty of competition for places in the twenty-three man first team squad.

Chris Farrell

This is a signing which will prompt speculation on the futures of the likes of Saili and Taute. Chris Farrell has significant upside; aggressive ball carrier, physical and strong. His age profile means that he will come to Munster with his best days still left to come. Fans need to be patient on this signing so hopefully either Taute or Saili are also in the squad next season as both players have contributed massively on both sides of the ball in recent months. Farrell will need experience around him to nurture him into the defensive system of the province and also gain familiarity to the attacking plays. Either Taute or Saili would fit the mould perfectly or potentially Keith Earls as well. A signing which has a lot of upside given the age profile of the player. We await to see his impact.

Contract Renewals

Munster have tied down the futures of six Munster players whose age profile means that the province will enjoy the peaks of their playing careers. Bleyendaal at ten this season has being excellent; yes, they are questions from yours truly on his ability to vary up his game but his passing and ability to hit his targets has being on point. 2019 contract means that the player will be eligible for Ireland duty well before then. Is he a player in the plans of Joe Schmidt?

Dave Kilcoyne has signed on until June 2020. The abrasive prop whose ball carrying provides Munster with endless attacking opportunities has being a revelation this season. His set piece has improved this season and his error count has reduced compared to last season when he was exposed in set piece, offside and the occasion knock on. Kilcoyne’s suitors were many but the UL Bohs stalwart has made the right decision; a team which is on the up. Kilcoyne can bed down and hone his craft in familiar surroundings. Excellent contract extension.

The Scannell brothers have being standouts of the Munster revival. Rory Scannell at twelve has transitioned into a quality three quarter. His ability to spot space in behind opponents defenses with superb kicks has setup endless opportunities for Munster to launch attacks. Scannell’s defense this year has being sublime. Niebaner and Farrell have to be credited for this, his first time tackle success rate is on point. A player who will only improve in the coming years and his kicking makes him a good option at ten also.

Niall Scannell is the first choice hooker in the team even if Casey, Sharry were in the squad fit and healthy. His progression this season has summed up Munster’s rise; his error count has reduced and the Cork native has really improved all facets of his play. Lineout has being on point evident in his call-up to the Ireland squad for the upcoming RBS 6N. What I am loving about these signings is the age profile, all the guys are young and their potential has yet to be fully realized. Exciting times for the province. A key player for the team in the years to come.

Darren Sweetnam before his injury was excellent. Kirchner’s hit during St.Stephen’s Day was a sickener as the player was increasing in confidence in both sides of the ball. His GAA background proved a great asset for Murray in box kicking aerial duels but his ability to identify space in the open field was to the fore. Superb prospect and along with Ronan O’Mahoney is a player with massive potential to flourish in the years to come. A no brainer but a move which was needed to be tied down now. Exciting times indeed for Munster!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Irish Province Review

erc_logo

 

The pool stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup are done and dusted for another season. Munster and Leinster advance to the quarter finals as second and fourth seeds while Connacht and Ulster reflect on what might have being.

leinster_logo

24-24 draw in France would be considered quite a good result but when your opponents have rested several first team players for more pressing Pro 14 assignments, it is a missed opportunity from Leinster who were punished for a sloppy defensive performance which saw the province slip to fourth in the seedings.

The manner in which Castres scored their tries must be a worry to Cullen and Lancaster and even more so the fact that Johnny Sexton is struggling to get the required game minutes under his belt having to yet again retire early from proceedings after twenty minutes. It is a clear concern heading into the business end of the season.

Sexton will be required as a pivotal figure for the province against Wasps in the quarter finals. His game management and ability to launch his runners is second to none but his niggling injuries and concussions are mounting up. Wasps will look to target the position in April.

Leinster provided that they do not suffer significant injuries during the RBS 6N tournament will enter their quarter final match-up as favorites; their squad depth is the best in the country and on their day can destroy opposition in a matter of minutes with pace and power leading to swift tries.

A reality check for Leinster with this draw; Ringrose’s defensive education continues and the fact that Devin Toner is struggling for a cohesive second row partner who can perform at the level required is also glaring. There are clear negatives but given the squad, the experience of winning the competition multiple times, Leinster will identify and address some of the concerns outlined. A monster quarter final beckons but one that if Leinster execute to their potential should win but there are concerns at this time.

munster_logo

Munster advance to the quarter final as second seeds. A fixture with Toulouse beckons in Thomond Park early April. The province’s rise has being the standout story of the season; the team could hit rock bottom after the tragic passing of Anthony Foley but the team has being galvanized and the performances produced since October have being at a level not seen in recent years.

Munster topped a tricky pool on paper. Glasgow Warriors also join Munster from the pool in the last eight of the competition. Racing Metro 92 look the team to beat on paper but indifferent early season form put paid to their chances. The less said about Leicester Tigers the better. This is a club in crisis on and off the pitch. Aaron Mauger will soon follow Richard Cockerill out of the club given the humiliating loss at home to Glasgow last night.

Munster’s defensive structures have stood out. Four tries in six European fixtures is excellent. Their line speed and first time tackling has being on point. Munster’s pack have improved this season; their work rate and set piece delivery has vastly improved and the maul is again a weapon that opponents are finding hard to stop.

There are potential issues in the side. The over reliance on Conor Murray at scrum-half is notable. If anything happens to the Patrickswell native, Munster will be in a bind. Bleyendaal has provided accuracy at fly-half but the New Zealander will be asked to provide key game management moments in April. Rory Scannell has provided the outlet for kicking the ball in behind. Bleyendaal needs to provide this angle to his game as well.

The front row has being on point with their scrum and lineout duties but there will be a step up in class in the quarter-final. Toulouse’s beefy pack will look to create the platform with their scrum and if Munster do advance from this fixture, Saracens front five will be a tough stern test as well.

This has being an excellent season for Munster; the team are playing for the jersey with renewed vigor but with improved precision on both sides of the ball. The fan base has recognized the fact and this looks like a potential new era of Munster competitiveness.

connacht_logo

Opportunity lost. Toulouse for all their physicality in the pack were like a boxer on the ropes in the last quarter. Toulouse were exhausted and Connacht were beginning to make line breaks but it required cool heads and smart game management to strike the decisive blow. Unfortunately, neither facet was executed as Connacht squandered decent field position on a couple of occasions and let slip a quarter final berth.

Road trips require the visiting team to be solid in the opening quarter in an attempt to quieten the home crowd but the tentative nature of Connacht’s play in this phase of the match ultimately proved their undoing. The tries leaked against shambolic Zebre last weekend were soft and it was not remedied during this contest. Potential blocking for one of the Toulouse tries but Connacht’s defensive line speed and structure were exposed. Matt Healy had to make the tackle on Bonneval. Tekori’s was untouched for this score.

Connacht will learn plenty from this European adventure; when on top, smart game management is required to put points on the board. Why Jack Carty felt the need to throw an ambitious pass to Matt Healy in the closing quarter when building phases would suffice was a prime example. The lineout loss on the Toulouse 22 with ten minutes to go was also a key turning point; Connacht left Toulouse off the hook.

Pat Lam leaves for Bristol at the end of the season. Where Connacht go from here depends on the new head coach hire. Given their league position in the Pro 12, it is highly unlikely that Connacht will be back in this competition next season.

It is a shame that the team did not advance; it was their best opportunity to get to the last eight of the competition with the likes of Zebre in their group. Toulouse are a team on the wane and their conditioning is a major issue heading into the quarter finals particularly in their pack. Wasps were the standout team in this pool. Definitely an opportunity lost for the province to enhance the brand of Connacht Rugby to rugby fans around the globe.

ulster_rugby_logo

Where do you start with Ulster? This has being nothing short than an abysmal European Cup campaign. Two wins in the pool is simply not good enough for a province whose squad is clearly better than this statistic. The back line is loaded with talent. Jackson and Pienaar in the half-back position and with the likes of Henry, Henderson, Best and Van Der Merwe in the pack.

What has gone wrong? The four point loss to Bordeaux-Begles on Saturday summed up their season perfectly. Lapses have being the hallmark of Ulster’s season. The first Bordeaux Begles try was indicative of this. Reidy’s inability to control the ball at the base of the scrum was poor and then Shanahan’s inability to deal with the situation was more down to inexperience than ability. A try which would make a head coach and management team go potty.

The good parts of Ulster’s were encapsulated in their tries scored yesterday; quick clearout of rucks, quick distribution and hands to players in space. These are the hallmarks of Ulster’s style of play. However, immediately after the first try scored, there was a clear breakdown in communication on the restart. The ball bouncing and possession lost to their opponent. Les Kiss’ patience on these mistakes must be wearing thin.

The key issue from a player personnel perspective for Ulster is their of prop coverage. The scrum was destroyed at times against Bordeaux. McCall is a major loss but the reserves have not performed to the levels required. Ah You has being a bust signing. I have mentioned it in numerous blogs in recent weeks. It is killing Ulster in terms of setting a platform in which to launch their exciting Ulster back line.

Where do Ulster go from here? With the imminent departures of Van Der Merwe and the mercurial Pienaar, it looks to me that next season is a rebuild year for the province. Two key leaders are departing for pastures new, one for a new challenge and the other reluctantly leaving even though he wants to stay in Belfast. The Pienaar situation is ridiculous.

The lack of scrum-half coverage was highlighted by the fact that John Cooney will be heading to the province next season. It is a blow for Shanahan next season; a young player with undoubted ability but will not get sufficient game time with Cooney and Marshall vying for the starting number nine jersey.

The defensive side of the ball is at times glaring; lapses are down to structural and organizational issues. Coaching ticket will need to be reviewed at the end of the season as the issues which have plighted Ulster this season have not improved this season. Their defensive performance in recent weekends has not being good enough.

Les Kiss as head coach should be safe but the coaching staff underneath him needs a revamp; perhaps Andy Farrell is required on the defensive side to remedy the line speed and communication issues which have existed in recent games. This is a team which has massive potential but if the province do not rectify these issues, the rest of the Pro 12 season will be a damp squib similar to Munster last season. Must do better!

 

 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Munster 22 – 10 Racing Metro 92

erc_logo

Munster advanced to the last eight of the European Rugby Champions Cup as second seeds with a hard earned 22-10 win over a gutsy and determined Racing Metro 92 at a sold out Thomond Park.

The predictions of some pundits that Racing Metro 92 would roll over and ship a heavy defeat were well off the mark after seeing the warm up performed by the French visitors which was high in intensity and physicality.

Racing Metro 92 were the dominant team for the opening quarter, their front five taking the game to their hosts causing disruption at the set piece and winning penalties at the breakdown. Munster were forced to defend deep in their own territory and to their credit, the defensive line speed and first time tackles were on point resulting in no points being conceded albeit Machenaud had a penalty which fell just short of the posts.

Munster took this penalty miss as the opportunity to create a platform in the contest gaining parity in the territorial stakes with improved lineout execution allowing the team to advance deep into Racing Metro’s half but credit to the visitors as they put their bodies on the line to thwart several Munster try scoring opportunities.

This was a brutally physical opening period. Both sides did not shirk their duties in defense and it was going to take something special to score the opening try. After Conor Murray thought that he scored a try just after the half hour, it was up to the mercurial Simon Zebo to score; identifying the smallest defense gap to squeeze over for the opening try. Bleyendaal duly added the extras and a sense of relief descended among the Munster fans.

Racing Metro were however not deterred and after another trip into Munster territory won a penalty which Machenaud converted. A significant score considering that the French side were down to fourteen players after the sin bin of Dambielle for deliberate kill the ball in a ruck with a Munster try almost a certainty. The game was in the melting pot and there was a distinct tense feel around the ground.

CJ Stander’s contribution in this opening period cannot be underestimated; his performance was sublime with numerous game line gain carries. His line break of thirty meters in the opening period only to be checked five meters from the Racing Metro line showed the tenacity, power of the player. His tackle count and breakdown led by example in a period which saw Munster plighted by several unforced errors and game management decisions which went wrong.

The second half was always going to be a far open affair given the tackle count of both sides in that punishing opening period. Munster started on the front foot and Ronan O’Mahoney was unlucky not to score a try in the opening moments of the half but the pressure exerted by the hosts yielded an additional penalty as Racing Metro were pinged for offside.

O’Mahoney was not to be outdone and he scored a deserved try with a smart close range finish. Munster awareness of space out wide to the fore as the ball went through several hands before ending up with Limerick winger who did not make any mistake. Bleyendaal struck a superb conversion and suddenly the scoreline was 17-3.

Racing Metro were now on the ropes but given their approach to the contest struck back with a try of their own just on the hour mark. Munster will be disappointed with some missed first time tackles but Racing Metro created space and overlap to allow Chavancy to score. There were possible arguments for a double movement but given the speed of the play, the officiating crew gave the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side. Machenaud hit the extras and suddenly, the mood got tense again.

This fixture was a test of Munster’s mental strength. Three European fixtures in three weeks, three bruising encounters were always going to the test squad physically but also mentally as fatigue naturally would kick in during the second half of this contest. It required cool heads from the half backs and astute game management from the leaders of the team to secure victory.

The defining score emphasized all these qualities as Ian Keatley superbly supported Andrew Conway whose offload was sublime to score the third Munster try. Even though, the conversion attempt went wide, a buffer was again created. Racing Metro were now getting tired and with issues in the prop positions, the rest of the game was played around midfield with little attacking moves created by both sides. In fact, both sides were guilty of wayward ball handling at times during the closing stages.

With Saracens beating Toulon 10-3, Munster knew that the mission of securing the second seed in the quarter final was secured with their twelve point victory over Racing Metro 92 who provided a stern test to their hosts something Leicester Tigers cannot say after their humiliation at the hands of the Glasgow Warriors. A tough, hard fought pool contest.

CJ Stander may have won the man of the match award again but Andrew Conway in recent weeks has really stepped up to the mark. His pace and ability to win the aerial battle has being evident. His contribution to the Keatley try was sensational and Conway’s versatility to play multiple back positions is a key bonus for Munster.

Munster’s renaissance continues. An exciting April beckons and a home tie against Toulouse. With RBS 6N tournament looming large, Erasmus and management will hope for no injuries to the Munster contingent playing in the coming weeks. The week off this week will be most welcome. It has being a bruising three weeks for the team but one that they have passed with flying colors. Superb performances in a tricky group and one that will set the team well for upcoming challenges into the Spring in this competition. Roll on April already!

 

 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Irish Province Review

erc_logo

Leinster turn on the afterburners to destroy Montpelier

Make no mistake about this, Leinster were well on top before Francois Steyn decided to do his Triple H WWE close line on Sexton in the opening period. The red card was well merited; dangerous and reckless. Steyn eyeballed the referee with his action to see if he could get away with it and find a way for his side to establish a platform in the contest. The referee did not shirk his responsibility (unlike other officials this weekend) and the result was nailed on from there on out. It was great to see Jack Conan in such impressive form; it has being a tough second year in the first team but the back rower was superb on the night, scoring three tries and his general all round play was on point. The other aspect of the performance which must have pleased Cullen and Lancaster was how the young players in the team stepped up to the plate. Byrne on the wing is an exciting prospect; his try scoring ratio is highly impressive. Tracy continues to improve with each outing; his lineout throwing was on point with Toner dominant but his all round ball carries and defensive work was what really caught the eye. A player who could feature for Ireland in the RBS 6 Nations and with Sean Cronin out of action for ten weeks, his international senior cap debut could be sooner rather than later. Ringrose and Henshaw is such an exciting three quarter combination as well. Both players oozed class when the French side tired in the second half. Ringrose’s ability to create line breaks from marginal defensive line lapses is sublime. Nacewa is providing the leadership and experience for the back line to flourish. Leinster fans are in for an exciting end of season; this team will take serious beating from any of the other seven teams left in the competition.

Connacht demolish shambolic Zebre

The scoreline is irrelevant. This for me is a defining moment for the ERC and how they tackle the issue of Italian teams in the tournament. Amid the fanfare of the ERC draws in late summer, whenever the Italian representative is selected, the other three teams in the pool privately have already marked down ten points in the pool before a ball is kicked. People will say what about the other one sided results in the tournament this season but consistently in this competition, the Italian side(s) have struggled to reach the performance level required. Zebre may have led 14-7 at one point in this contest but their limitations were wholly exposed by Connacht in Galway. The lack of defensive cover on the wings, the lack of discipline with a couple of sin bins, the general lack of structure on both sides of the ball, the despondent nature of some of the Zebre players during the contest. It was not a good image for the tournament. They may have scored three tries but this was yet another shambles of a performance from the Italians. ERC organizers need to sit down and look to how they can improve the Italians in this tournament. Italian RFU will be adamant that a representative is still in the competition but at what cost to the integrity of the tournament? Treviso have struggled in the Challenge Cup this season. Their Pro 12 league record is just ahead of Zebre (not saying much). It is worrying times for Conor O’Shea and the national team. Lack of talent, lack of structure and player pool resources. Connacht could have done with a sterner test. Toulouse away is a formidable venue and the manner the tries were conceded will be most worrying for Pat Lam and management. The ten tries scored were training ground stuff but the front five needs to lead by example next weekend. How fit are the pack leaders leading into the contest? The Connacht fans were superb on the day, presume a large contingent will be in attendance in Toulouse to hopefully witness history.

Munster strike late to beat Glasgow

I have already added my two cents on this match. The HIA protocols will come into the spotlight after Conor Murray coming back on the pitch after looking worse for wear. Glasgow focused more on their opponent than themselves. They looked to disrupt their opponent than create themselves. They used brawn over brain. Their low tackles on Conor Murray’s standing foot when kicking was extremely dangerous. The officiating has being lauded by Sky Sports but the referee bottled the big decisions. Hogg’s head shot on Andrew Conway could have being a major talking point for Munster if the result had gone the other way. Hogg was nowhere getting a tackle on Conway, flaying arm to the head, how was it not red? Munster to their credit exposed the fourteen Glasgow with a superb try. The maul, the passes out wide, the awarness of space and player movement and the execution of Saili was sublime. Glasgow will rue this loss; their typical brand of open offloading rugby was non-existent, they went to a game plan which is alien to their team. The drop goal botch summed the game up for the host; game management was not there. Glasgow could still get a quarter final berth but given the loss to Munster, they will need to regroup quickly to beat a wounded Leicester Tigers who will be keen to exit the tournament with a win. Munster secure a quarter final but home field advantage is the key. Racing Metro selection aside, Munster should have the momentum and motivation to secure the win and potentially five points.

Where now Ulster?

The away defeat to Exeter captured the season to a tee for Ulster. Early promise descended to mediocrity and lethargic defensive lapses. Exeter at Sandy Park are a formidable opponent but Ulster were their own worse enemy; missed first time tackle count was too high and the lack of support from colleagues when they happened led to serious game line yards. There is massive talent in this Ulster group but there is something seriously a miss with the province. Les Kiss as head coach must carry some responsibility but his coaching staff as well must accept blame; game plans look indecisive. The dependence on Pienaar was obvious yesterday with his absence, zero creativity behind the scrum which resulted in Jackson being the single point of failure. The pack were mauled to submission. Exeter Chiefs at scrum time were dominant, the lack of prop options for Ulster is a serious weak point, giving up penalties and territory. An area which is being exposed by every opponent this season. Ulster are potentially in a Munster head space from last season; early exit from Europe, underwhelming Pro 12 form. Time will tell what Ulster do but it has to improve; the resources are in place but whether the current management ticket is the answer remains skeptical. I would expect some coaching staff changes before the end of the season.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Glasgow vs. Munster Reflections

erc_logo

As brutal and physical an encounter seen this season, Munster absorbed all that Glasgow could throw and won this match with a superb try from Francis Sailli. There was still time for Glasgow to squander a clear dropped goal attempt when Finn Russell decided to attack the Munster defensive line rather than take the responsibility of kicking a drop goal which would have won the contest. The subsequent line move broke down with a forward pass and Munster held onto win (14-12) and secure top spot in the pool.

A win against Racing Metro at a sold out Thomond Park next weekend will secure the province home field advantage in the last eight of this tournament. When you think about it, it is a superb achievement for the team and management after the trauma of losing head coach Anthony Foley in October and how the team fared last season in this competition where they were second best particularly away from home.

The following piece I wrote in the Munster Rugby Supporters Facebook Group late last night on my assessment of the game. Hope you enjoy it. In the coming days, will write more on some of the core themes from this piece (team mindset, concussion protocols, lack of officiating high tackle directive) but wanted to share my thoughts on this contest.

glasgow_thoughts_20170115

ERC: Racing Metro 7 – 32 Munster

erc_logo

A day which will live long in the memory, a day where old school rugby traditional values stood out to the fore before, during and after this rearranged fixture. A day where Racing Metro 92 club class and generosity shone through  to Munster fans and team. A day where Munster’s pack went back to the values of their fallen head coach and smashed their way to a bonus try point win.

The weather in Paris was somber; freezing fog and icy conditions greeted both sides. This was not a day for flamboyant offloading in the tackle. This was a day where old school basics needed to be executed, a day where pack dominance would set the foundations for victory.

Racing Metro’s preparations for this contest were less than ideal. The never ending saga with their South African fly-half Goosen has dominated news in Parisian rugby circles. Goosen’s performances last season for Racing Metro were sublime and played in no small part their successful season winning the domestic league and coming so close to winning the European Rugby Champions Cup. A player who clearly wants out of his contract with the club, a club who in their rights expect their employee to fulfil his duties. When the legal system gets involved, it does not look good from the outside with regards to Racing Metro 92.

Their team selection on paper looked decent. An exciting back line with the likes of Imhoff and Martin aided by the New Zealand pair of Laulala and Rokocoko for dynamism in ball carrying. The front five looked compact with the likes of Van der Merwe in their ranks. The subs bench boasted the mercurial Dan Carter in their ranks. A competitive yet not outstanding team on paper but whether the team had their minds on the job given the Goosen legal problems remained to be seen.

Rassie Erasmus used the week leading to the game to quell emotions and talk up their opposition in an attempt to focus minds of players and fans alike. The Munster management’s decision to rest most first line players for the trip to Galway was a sensible move.

Erasmus had a virtually fully fit squad to chose from apart from the flu stricken Kleyn and Du Toit. The only eyebrow raising decision was the absence of Ian Keatley from the twenty-three man squad. Given the performances of recent weeks, few could argue with Erasmus and management for the call and the bench had options to make an impression with Keith Earls ready to take his chance.

Munster started this contest in emphatic fashion putting their hosts under pressure from the off. The work rate around the fringes, first time tackles and defensive line speed were all on point and Racing Metro were struggling to cope. Munster on another day could have had two tries on the score within that first ten minutes but only for last ditch defending prevented try concessions.

Stander and Murray were picking holes from the ruck and Munster ball carriers were making good yards past the game line. It was only a matter of time when the hosts tackle count were catch up with them and the first quarter really set the foundation for this emphatic victory.

Racing Metro were probably happy to only be three points down after twenty minutes but that all changed in the blink of an eye when Munster scored their first try. The pack to the fore as they moved Racing Metro from side to side, more patience shown to identify the defensive line weakness. Zebo spotted space and wiggled his way over. 8-0 quickly turned to 11-0 soon after as Munster’s pack continued to make good progress deep into Racing territory. The hosts out of sheer exhaustion were now giving penalties away for offside and were being punished by Bleyendaal.

Cue the moment of the game and it was fitting that Munster’s current number eight was pivotal to the score. CJ Stander has being a revelation for the province since Axel Foley gave him his chance two seasons ago. Stander was pivotal in Munster’s second try, first blocking an attempt clearance from Racing Metro and then received the ball and spotted a gap in the hosts defensive line to stride over from thirty meters.

It was superbly taken, appreciation of space was paramount but the support from the likes of Taute, O’Mahoney (Ronan and Peter) was evident too. The celebration of Peter O’Mahoney spoke volumes; Munster were in control and the bonus try point was on. Bleyendaal superbly hit the extras and suddenly from being a modest 3-0 up after the first quarter, Munster were now 18-0 after thirty-five minutes.

The hosts were rattled; no cohesion in the half-backs with a front five consistently going backwards. Murray sensing unease in the home ranks produced a deft kick in behind exposing Rokocoko defensively which allowed Andrew Conway to collect the ball and over for the third try. Bleyendaal again slotted the conversion and it was game over. 25-0 and the elusive fourth try was looming large in the horizon.

No doubt Ronan O’Gara had some harsh words to say to his charges at the interval. For O’Gara, it was a bitter sweet day. His current employer were getting smacked in the face at home by Munster and there was no reaction from his side in the opening period. The hosts tried to rouse themselves in the first ten minutes of the second half, winning the restart and advancing deep into Munster territory but when in the red zone, the hosts were again outgunned physically. The Munster pack were in no mood to let Racing back into this contest; the emphatic scrum on forty-nine minutes and the incredible work rate of the imperious Donnacha Ryan in the maul where he single handed won Munster a scrum summed up the day.

Munster in seasons past would have lulled into a false sense of security but this season’s team has shown in recent weeks that they are ruthless when opportunities arise. The fourth try duly arrived and it was again the pack who laid the foundation. Numerous lineouts deep in Racing territory did not yield a score but more mauling from the Munster pack broke the hosts resistance and Niall Scannell who had a super game at hooker crashed over. Fourth try on the board. Mission accomplished. Cue Munster management to throw the bench on and minimize injuries for the trip to Glasgow.

The rest of the contest lacked cohesion; both teams were guilty of poor ball handling. At least Racing Metro did score a try; a messy score from a Munster perspective. Murray and Zebo failing to deal with a kick in behind. The try was welcome as Andrew Conway would have surely received a yellow card for holding back a clearly frustrated Imhoff in the leadup to the try. This was the end of the scoring and the rest of the game was unremarkable with eyes focused on more arduous tasks.

Munster to a man delivered. The motivation, hunger and intensity were on point. The pack deserve massive credit, laid the foundations early and never stepped off the gas. Stander may have received the man of the match award but Donnacha Ryan for sheer work rate, intensity was my pick. He was ably assisted by Billy Holland. The front row controlled the set piece and in the second half dominated the scrum. The back row were abrasive and mobile to offset the threat of the likes of Masoe. Yes, there were a couple of breakdown errors but it was an excellent performance. The half-backs provided control, game management with the back line playing percentage rugby in tricky conditions. Rory Scannell’s boot to find touch is becoming a real asset. Conway was rewarded for an industrious performance with a deserved try. Ronan O’Mahoney was solid in all facets of play. Zebo was typical Zebo, makes things look ridiculously easy.

Racing Metro 92 will lick their wounds; their pack was beaten all ends up. A trip to Thomond Park in two weeks time is not what they want to see but I expect a more abrasive performance from the French in the return fixture; a couple of forwards are playing for their futures after yesterday. O’Gara will want a response as well and Munster management are only too aware with a titanic struggle with Glasgow away next week that squad freshness may be an issue leading to the home game finale.

Munster are in pole position to secure the pool top spot but as Rassie Erasmus has mentioned, there is a lot of rugby still to be played in the next two weeks. Munster have shown encouraging signs in recent weeks; form continuation is key but this win has to rank up there as one of the most emphatic French road wins for Munster.

Guinness Pro 12: December 31st Thoughts

pro12_logo

Munster find a way to win the West Coast derby

It was far from pretty where the scrum was smashed at various junctures but Munster’s experimental side came out on top in a windswept Sportsground. Munster started this contest in positive fashion when the conditions allowed them to run the ball in hand. Their first passage of play led to the opening penalty and illustrated Goggins’ undoubted talent at three quarters. The movement and passing was swift from Munster and the hosts were scrambling so much so that O’Halloran had to kill the ball on the wrong side of the ruck. Given the early proceedings, the full back was lucky not to get a yellow but a repeat performance in Toulouse will certainly result in one.

Keatley at ten showed his experience of playing at the Lough Atalia venue with a composed outing; his penalty kicking was on point and provided game management to his pack when required. The new squad additions all raised their hand with commendable performances. The scrum was the one facet of play which really was exposed. Bealham, McCartney and Buckley went to task on the Munster scrum early doors and on another day, Munster could have had a player sin binned from their front row. It was extremely kind officiating to say the least which did not result in this happening.

Munster top of the league and their game winning try rubbed salt into the Connacht wounds with a close range maul effort; something that the hosts failed to do when the ties were level at 6-6. Fine margins and Munster were more clinical when presented with their try chance. A tough fixture out of the way for Rassie Erasmus; great return of nine points in the last two games particularly because the side assembled which came to Galway was quite experimental in nature. Tommy O’Donnell injury aside, job done and move onto an emotional preparation for the trip to Racing Metro.

Connacht team selections backfire

When news filtered through that John Muldoon was summoned for action after passing a late fitness test, I thought it was a joke. Muldoon had not trained since the Ulster loss before Christmas but Pat Lam and management team felt compelled to throw their talisman into a fierce local derby match with crucial European Cup fixtures looming large.

Muldoon’s cameo was as good as it could be; abrasive in tackling and ball carrying but you sense how much damage this will do the player and team this month. With Dillane out for an extended period, surely conservationism should have being the call on Muldoon. What is the ambition at Connacht this season?

I am not totally sure after this team selection. The province are in prime position to advance to the last eight of the ERC but the list of injuries is lengthy and the fact that they would risk another talisman in a fixture which was already diluted given both sides’ squad does little in confidence for the team.

Connacht threw the kitchen sink at Munster whose side was experimental but their lack of precision and game management was exposed. Carty at ten needs serious competition; his penalty kicking is inconsistent at best. The fact that Connacht went for it at 6-6 was part bravery but also part because of Carty’s low successful penalty kicking record.

The Bosch injury is massive at fly-half for the province and with McGinty gone to Sale, the ten spot is exposed in terms of squad depth. Connacht will be hoping that the lengthy injury list subsides but when you take chances of clearly unfit players on game day like Muldoon, what more do you expect? Trust your academy, Pat!

Leinster bounce back

With a completely different first fifteen at Cullen / Lancaster’s disposal, Leinster comfortably cruised to victory over Ulster at the RDS. It was a facile victory; the hosts pack were superior throughout. Toner massive at set-piece. Cronin with ball in hand was sublime and it opened massive gaps in Ulster’s defense. Leinster’s game plan was akin to Clermont, smash Ulster up the middle with their pack knowing that gaps out wide would appear.

It was a lethargic start from Ulster; pack again exposed with Rodney Ah You struggling in open and set piece. The back row tried to gain breakdown parity but Leinster were truly dominant. Heaslip was typically workmanlike, tackle count and ball carries high. Ringrose and Nacewa were provided ample ball to impress from Eric Byrne and it was good to see Adam Byrne get more game time; athletic and pace to burn, a shrewd squad selection from Leinster management this season.

Leinster again showed that they are the best equipped squad to seriously challenge for European Cup honors. Their pack to a man has no weak points. Abrasive front row in McGrath, Cronin, Furlong and with the likes of Tracy / Strauss, Healy waiting for their chance, it is some selection. Toner is the pivotal figure in the front five. His lineout ability is sublime but his work rate in the close exchanges has stood out this season. The back row is stacked with internationals.

An exciting back line featuring Henshaw, Ringrose but it is Nacewa who is providing the leadership for this unit; composed and quality goal kicker in the absence of Sexton which is the only issue for Leinster leading into an exciting European Cup pool phase. Home quarter final surely will be secured before the end of the month.

Exciting times in the RDS. Lancaster’s defensive and line speed coaching to the fore this season and with ball handling in attacking positions improving, Leinster are a dark horse for European Cup honors.

Ulster – Opportunity Lost? Enigma

I am not sure if Paddy Jackson would have being able to stem the tide in the RDS given how bad the front five were beaten up in the trenches. It must be frustrating for Kiss and management on where the problem is with Ulster. The province have undoubted talent, excellent squad depth but the side has failed to catch fire for a full eighty minutes this season.

A poor start again. Yes, there was a rousing of sorts in the third quarter but the damage had being well and truly done as Leinster were already twenty points plus up on the board. Pienaar is a massive loss for the province next season; tragic that the player cannot extend his tenure with Ulster. Ireland Rugby needs players of this caliber to bring on the indigenous youth coming through. The fact that Taute has being renewed with Munster will only increase the frustration levels at Kingspan.

There is no quick fix for Ulster; front five in particular the prop positions need to be reviewed. Ah You is a bust signing, minimal scrum impact and his ball carrying has being non-existent in recent outings. Opposition are picking holes in the propping areas currently and Ulster need to be shrewd in this department in the off-season; penalty guzzler and no platform can be created for Pienaar / Jackson to unleash a superb back line feature McCloskey, Marshall, Bowe, Payne, Piatau. If Kiss does not get this right soon, Ulster could have a Munster season of last year; out of everything, unexcited fan base at games and the performances on the game day will suffer.