ERC Quarter Final Preview: Munster vs. Toulouse

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RBS 6 Nations is in the books. The clocks have gone forward one hour. We are at the end of March which means that the ERC quarter finals are fast looming on the horizon. Munster entertains Toulouse at a sold out Thomond Park next Saturday evening in a contest which will see two perennial European stalwarts go head to head for a place in the last four. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action in a fixture which will be intriguing to say the least for a number of reasons.

Half Back Battle:

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Murray 50/50 for Toulouse contest

This is the weekend where the head coaches will earn their money. Both sides on paper look evenly matched so it will be interesting to see what mismatches either side try to exploit on Saturday. With partly cloudy skies the forecast (at the time of publishing the blog), a lot is to going to depend on the half backs.

Bleyendaal has being a real find this season for Munster. The New Zealander has had his injury problems but has shown his true worth at ten this season. Bleyendaal loves to play on the front foot; looking to engage defenses when he can launch the likes of Zebo, Earls, Taute and Scannell. The question on Saturday is can Bleyendaal mix up his game enough to keep Toulouse off balance defensively? His kicking from hand will be key at various points.

The big question leading into this contest from a Munster perspective is the fitness of Conor Murray. The shoulder injury sustained on international duty has resulted in the scrum-half sitting out the last two games (England and Zebre). Murray needs to be completely ready to go to start this fixture.

Duncan Williams has shown to be an able deputy when he executes the basics well. It will be interesting to see if Murray takes part in full training early this week. Williams if called upon needs to keep the game plan simple; good exit strategy / accurate passing from the ruck, nothing fancy.

If Murray plays, it is a massive boost to the province. The Limerick native has had a superb season; his game has evolved with ball in hand. Opportunistic tries from close range matched with some sublime passes (Zebo try against Leicester in round three) to the fore. Defensively, there is no better nine to organize and tackle. Murray’s should concern hopefully has addressed itself in the most important game of Munster’s season.

Toulouse half-back partnership for Saturday remains to be seen. Doussain and McAllister rotated the ten position in their defeat to Bordeaux Begles last weekend. Bezy and Doussain (filled in late on) played the nine position.

Bezy in particular was prominent in the opening period. His sniping runs off the ruck created excellent game line yardage in the opening half; one of these runs setup good Toulouse position to allow Medard to score his try. Munster must be wary of the running threat of Bezy on Saturday.

Doussain was designated goal kicker against Bordeaux and hit 2 / 3 attempts. The uncertainty on the half-back partnership surely will do little for Toulouse’s continuity ahead of this fixture. Munster have the slight edge if Murray is fit, otherwise 50/50 in this unit.

Pack Battle:

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Can Stander provide the platform for Munster to prosper?

Toulouse’s game plan is pack orientated; create the platform for their half backs to launch an exciting back line. The Bordeaux Begles contest saw the good and the bad of the unit. They were physically imposing in the opening half; won the pack exchanges and on another day should have more than the eight points on the board. Tekori, Albacete, Gray, Maestri to the fore. The front row is experienced; Johnston continues to be his abrasive best in open and set piece. Ghiraldini is a solid hooker and Steenkamp is a scrummaging beast.

The physicality and bulk of the pack can work in two ways: going well, they are formidable but there have being issues finishing out matches. Connacht’s win against Toulouse was created by a willingness to move Toulouse’s pack around the pitch; exhaustion set in with penalties conceded at a rapid rate of knots by the French side. Bordeaux employed a similar tactic last weekend; they saw more possession in the second half and were far more incisive in their running lines.

Toulouse’s pack going backwards was repeatedly pinged for breakdown infringements which gave easy points to the hosts in the second half. The Bordeaux try is perhaps a side note for Saturday; a break straight through the ruck area allowed the hosts to setup a 2-1 on situation allowing Lesgourgues to cross over and secure the win. The try created due to a lapse in defensive concentration at the ruck area.

Munster’s pack has improved this season. The set piece has being solid. The scrum in particular has gone well in the key fixtures where Kilcoyne, Scannell and Ryan have stepped up to the plate.

The abrasive running lines of Kilcoyne in particular has provided excellent platform for Murray / Bleyendaal to launch attacks. The second row combinations this season have being on point. Ryan has led the team with his work rate and leadership. His performances against Leicester (at home) and Racing Metro (away) were standouts. Kleyn and Holland has provided stellar support in set piece and open play.

Provided the scrum goes well, Munster’s back row options look ominously good. Tommy O’Donnell provides pace and abrasiveness at the breakdown. The other two back row players do not need an introduction. Stander has excelled this season to new heights; his ball carrying exploits will cause Toulouse massive issues particularly at scrum time.

If Toulouse focus too much on the South African / Castletroy resident, Peter O’Mahoney then comes into the equation. His performance for Ireland against England was nothing short of sensational. His form is peaking at the right time of the season. O’Mahoney’s option at lineout time also poses problems to a Toulouse pack who possess numerous options including the ever young Albacete, Maestri (whose temperament will need to be kept in check) and Gray.

The focus in the pack battle will center on the match referee: JP Doyle. Munster has at times had an uneasy time with Doyle in charge particularly in the breakdown and scrum. The scrum in particular will be huge on Saturday as Doyle’s officiating of the set piece in the recent Italy vs. Wales RBS game suggests that the official once he has made his mind up on who is infringing remains steadfast to that view. Both sides will look to kill game at the breakdown; Toulouse’s penalty count last weekend surely will provide Doyle with food for thought ahead of this fixture.

Munster’s age profile in the pack is less than their visitors and that could be crucial in the last quarter to see this game through. It is going to be an incredible battle. The back row battle intrigues me. Tekori is massively underrated; supreme ball carrier and tackler. His performance is an indication of how Toulouse are faring. If curtailed, Munster will have an excellent advantage; otherwise Toulouse and their monstrous pack will look to push on.

Back Line:

The two side’s back line units are full of pace and vigor. Munster’s squad depth in the back line has increased substantially this season with the emergence of Darren Sweetnam and the excellent form of Ronan O’Mahoney and Andrew Conway. This increased competition has only benefited the side and has kept the likes of Earls and Zebo on their toes.

Sweetnam has had an excellent breakout season. He has all the traits to become a world class back; his aerial ability (emanating from his GAA background) has proved invaluable for the likes of Murray in his box kick execution. Sweetnam’s ability to win aerial ball and ability to identify space with ball in hand has being a valuable asset to the team as opposition have had to change their point of defense allowing the likes of Zebo and Earls to maraud in the open field.

The center partnership of Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell has being rock solid. Taute’s power and defensive nous has complemented and allowed Scannell to grow and develop in the twelve position. Scannell’s kicking game has proved invaluable to Bleyendaal making excellent gains with superb touch finders. The added kicking option has allowed Munster to keep opposition off balance defensively.

Taute has being the standout transfer for Munster this term. The South African’s all action game has endeared himself to the Munster fan base and his solid defensive organization has improved those around him. When you consider that Francis Saili is on the bench, the squad bench at the three quarters is pretty on point. Saili’s impact off the bench with his ball carrying is a real asset; evident in his pivotal game winning try against the Warriors in the penultimate ERC pool round.

Toulouse’s back line experience is there for all to see. Medard, Huget, Fickou and Fritz flow off the tongue. These players ooze class and experience on how to win on the road, experience on what it takes to win at the business end of the season. Their ability to create scoring opportunities from anywhere is a warning shot for Munster; any loose kicks down the field will be punished. Medard is a gifted rugby player; elegant with ball in hand and able to turn a game in a matter of seconds. Fickou is the danger player of this Toulouse back line. Physicality but there is also searing pace with ball in hand evident in his try against Wales.

For Toulouse to prosper, Bezy and McAllister / Doussain will need to provide good fast early ball to their back line but recent performances have being disappointing; five losses in the last six games. The back line has suffered from lack of ball as the pack has struggled to gain parity in several games. Bordeaux Begles loss was a classic example; good moments but ultimately had to give second best to the hosts. The win to Lyon at home was emphatic; forty plus point score on the night and Munster has being warned that any defensive lapses will be gratefully taken by their visitors with the experience in the back line ranks.

Verdict:

The opening exchanges at set piece ultimately will form the story of this game. The scrum cannot be underestimated. Toulouse will look to target this early and plant the seeds of doubt into JP Doyle’s mind. Munster to a man need to stem the onslaught for the first quarter and build the platform thereafter.

Toulouse’s pack will be fierce but the key is tempo; move the pack around the park and defensive gaps will form. Munster with the passionate home support should get through based on their last quarter performance but Toulouse is due a big performance.

The ball carrying of Stander and O’Mahoney will be to the fore and defensive gaps will form in the Toulouse rearguard. The losses of recent weeks will serve as added motivation for Toulouse so Munster must be at their very best to advance to the semi-finals. Munster to win by seven points but it will be a tense, closely fought affair for at least sixty minutes of this contest.

RBS 6 Nations: Round 5 Reflections

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Eighteen win streak is snapped

Ireland deny England the Grand Slam

England’s dreams of securing the Triple Crown, Grand Slam and the tier one nation record for consecutive games won was well and truly smashed by Ireland in Dublin. This was a performance which Joe Schmidt will look at and reflect on what might have being. The lack of balance in the back row unit has being well documented on this blog but the late change in the starting lineup which brought Peter O’Mahoney in for the hamstrung Jamie Heaslip was a blessing in-disguise.

O’Mahoney had the proverbial blinder and provided Ireland management with ample proof that his exclusion from the starting fifteen before this fixture was a poor managerial call from Ireland management. O’Mahoney’s performance on Saturday showcased all his strengths; abrasive, physicality, intense work rate in the breakdown and loose and more importantly for Ireland and Rory Best a valuable reliable third line-out jumper for the side. His line-out steal at the end of this contest was a pivotal turning point just when England were starting to build momentum deep in Ireland territory. A magnificent performance and one which has propelled O’Mahoney as a late contender for a Lions tour party berth.

Where did it all go wrong for England? There are a combination of factors at play. The inclement weather conditions did make this test match a proverbial lottery; ball handling in the swirling wind caused havoc for both sides and England perhaps were overly aggressive in their play management early doors giving Ireland good field position.

The occasion also played a factor; there were nerves in the England side in that opening period. Ireland dominated possession and territory and really should have being more than seven points in front. George Ford had a mixed afternoon in open play; his kicks from open play are often predictable and even setup Ireland field possession kicking into touch on the full on a couple of occasions. The performance from the fly-half unsettled other players around him.

The England pack were outgunned by an Ireland pack who played with no pressure or abandonment. Donnacha Ryan managed the lineout sensibly in the inclement weather conditions. The addition of O’Mahoney was a key win in this set piece. The scrum was superbly contested; ebbed and flowed throughout. Furlong was sensational again and had Marler under pressure from the first exchanges. Henderson and Toner provided valuable cameos. Henderson’s work rate was infectious; his ball carrying to the fore. Toner provided much needed energy in the second half.

The Ireland back row rejig was more of an issue for England as the hosts back row produced a much more cohesive performance. Itoje’s influence was considerably reduced and his frustration showed; lucky not to be sanctioned for a late hit on Sexton in the opening period.

Hartley’s captaincy again is under the microscope; an under-performing England side looked to their captain to lead from the front but Hartley was below par. Jamie George’s inclusion could not come any sooner. Lions tour squad berth perhaps but it would be a fatal mistake for Warren Gatland to appoint the Northampton player as captain. When his side has struggled in this tournament, Hartley’s composure (interpret referee instructions against Italy in the opening half) and leadership has being lacking.

The most pleasing aspect for Ireland was the emergence of two potential incumbents to the scrum-half position. Marmion provided an excellent reminder to Ireland management of his worth with a composed, assured display. His box kicking was on point and his decision making behind the ruck was on point during his performance. Luke McGrath’s debut was sublime; his game management in the last ten minutes was on point. His kick into touch with three minutes left was as good as a score. Murray’s loss was offset by the cameos of these two players and hopefully Ireland management will give them more of an opportunity to impress during the November internationals.

Ireland win but the key result was the previous weekend; time to reflect and take stock of the issues which have emerged from this tournament. The continual development of Ringrose at thirteen will continue to reap rewards long term. Henshaw’s all action display is the baseline for future performances. Jared Payne at full-back added a new dimensional to Ireland behind the scrum and his defensive organization was a key plus. Earls, Conway and Zebo were dangerous with ball in hand. Earls was unlucky not to score a try at least in that opening period. His injury will be monitored by Munster closely.

England did win the championship; they have being the best team in the tournament but issues did emerge last Saturday. Eddie Jones will scrutinize the video footage but the team is in an upward curve but there has to be reduced dependency on Billy Vunipola to create attacking platforms. Vunipola was kept well under wraps by Ireland and England’s attack stalled as a result. Ireland’s aggressive fast defensive line also posed issues for England which could not solve. Andy Farrell defensively did a number on his former employers. Food for thought for England but it could be the reality check required to refocus minds for future assignments.

France win controversially

This is a fixture which will be discussed for many weeks to come. The head assessment to Antonio was extremely dubious at best but the inability of Wayne Barnes to stamp his authority on this contest was highlighted in the exchanges at the end of the contest. France were aggrieved that Wales being consistently penalized at scrum-time did not yield the penalty try at the death. Wales on the other hand were very displeased on certain aspects of play. George North’s biting allegation needs to be investigated and if there is a case to answer, then the book should be thrown at the France player who perpetuated the action.

It was a farcical end to a thrilling test match. Wales were superb in pulling themselves off the canvas after a horrible opening quarter. 10-0 down with a jubilant home crowd in tow, Wales could have let the heads drop but Rob Howley’s side steadied the ship superbly. The Wales pack fronted up with Jones, Tipuric, Warburton, Moriarty to the fore. The penalty battle was swinging towards Wales and Halfpenny was on point with his goal kicking. North and Williams provided good moments. North’s work rate was infectious during the contest; his breakdown in the first half was an inspirational point.

The closing exchanges will need to be reviewed by World Rugby. Several points were raised and Wayne Barnes is looking bereft of confidence at present. The lack of decision making at the breakdown is at odds with SH and other NH officiating crews. It created messy ruck ball for both sides and the game as a spectacle suffered. The more significant issue was with the Antonio substitution in injury time; went against the ethos of the game. Antonio looked good but was called ashore to allow a more efficient scrummager to come on. The bite incident allegation is unsavory but Barnes at this point had lost total control of the game. Controversial ending, left a bad taste in the mouth.

Scotland secure predictable BP win over hapless Italy

29-0. Italy’s saving grace was that the inclement weather conditions appeared in Murrayfield. Parisse again struck a forlorn figure at times; trying to break several tackles and win the contest on his own and not depend on his colleagues entrusted with penalty kicking duties which bordered on shambolic. Three missed penalties in the opening period with the first two efforts viably kick-able was a real kick to the teeth. For international test match standard, it was wholly unacceptable.

Scotland were professional. They defended when required with efficiency, stealing ball from the Italians when isolated in their twenty-two. Hogg at full back had an excellent game. His contribution for the second Scotland try was superb; great assist palming the ball back to his colleague. Hogg has being the standout fifteen in this tournament; his piercing runs from deep, ability to find space and get colleagues involved to the fore. The result was never in doubt.

Finn Russell bounced back from a wretched England performance. His opening try was well taken and his kicking was on point. Russell will need to impress with Glasgow Warriors in Europe to win a berth in the Lions tour. Vern Cotter leaves the side in good shape; most improved side in the competition. Continuity in team selection has helped, more clinical on both sides of the ball. England did inflict a serious hiding on Scotland but they were competitive all the other games with the wins against Ireland and Wales the standouts.

The profile of the squad is young so expect more improvement from this group. The Gray brothers, Strauss, Jones are key personnel going forward. The team now has viable leadership throughout the pitch and the new incumbent head coach will have plenty to work with next season. When you add that several Scottish players will get heading on the Lions, the quality and experience of the summer tour can only benefit the side.

For Italy, this was a terrible championship. A spirited opening forty minutes against Wales at home is the highlight. Otherwise, it is a championship which exposed the Azzuri in all facets of play. Lack of precision with ball in hand. Penalty guzzling in the set piece. An ineffective half-back partnership which has not created any go forward to a back line who continue to struggle for cohesion.

Parisse aside, there is a lack of star quality in this outfit. Italian underage development needs to unearth players or else it will be a case of fact finding in SH to identify players to fill the gaps (cynical but needs to happen). The fact that Georgia and RBS 6 Nations inclusion is enough; Italy need to improve pronto for the tournament to be taken as a viable competition. Conor O’Shea has inherited an absolute mess but if there is one man to turn a rugby program around, it is the Irish man, look at the job he produced at Harlequins.

 

 

RBS 6 Nations: Round Four Review

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England are RBS 6 Nations Champions

 

Imperious England blow Scotland away

After the lethargic performance against Italy in the previous round, England were going to respond with a far improved cohesive team performance and so it proved as they blew Scotland away with a display full of speed, creativity and pack power to win by forty points. Fraser Brown on another day could have seen red for a dangerous tackle on Eliot Daly but the yellow card issued gave England even more time and space in the three quarters to create havoc.

Joseph was a revelation in this fixture and has put his name firmly in the thoughts of Warren Gatland and Lions management. The pace and speed off the line was sublime and was not too much for a Scotland three quarters who were struggling to make the right defensive reads such was the line running options offered by the hosts. The England back three of Brown, Nowell and Watson were primed throughout and it did not help that Scotland were having to contend with injuries to the likes of Mark Bennett. The reshuffle in the back line was always going to create England line breaks and several tries were down to unfamiliarity in positions and communication breakdown.

England’s pack reveled as they dismantled Scotland’s front five with ease. The scrum was a no contest and England struck decisively in this set piece early doors. The line out was solid and Scotland floundered deep in their own territory evident in Finn Russell’s panicked game management in the opening period. His nervy passing out wide so close to his own line only emphasized the unease in the Scottish ranks. They had no response to England and as soon as they scored a couple of well worked tries, they were back under their own posts again as England with Joseph and Farrell orchestrating affairs scored tries with ease. Forty point beat down is unfortunately an accurate assessment of the game. England held on the aces.

The back line were sharp but the performance of Maro Itoje was world class. The Saracens player is an athletic freak; his speed, agility and work rate is sensational. His superb catch from a Scottish restart in the opening period exhibited all his attributes. To think that Billy Vunipola was called off the bench in the second half, the scoreline could have being more horrific.

England under Eddie Jones have improved; on the basis of this display, their level of game has improved. There is a question mark on consistency during this tournament but we will know more on England when they travel to Dublin to face Ireland to finish out this campaign. They are worthy winners. No significant weak link and England have juggled their squad in this tournament which will be useful to Jones in building more squad depth.

Scotland should bounce back against the hapless Italians. Three wins in this tournament would be an excellent return. They were taught a lesson yesterday by England who pinpointed a couple of areas which Scotland will need to improve upon. Their ability to try and hold out was not to be yesterday but it is a good learning curve for this group of players.

France beat Italy as expected

Can we be brutally frank. Watching Italy at the moment should come with a warning to television viewers to expect a train wreck. Sergio Parisse tried his hardest yesterday with an early try for the hosts but Italy lost the pack battle midway through the opening period and France without hitting the gears secured the bonus point with ease. It is always tough to see Parisse with this Italian team; he is the standout, his ball carries and work rate should be inspirational to his colleagues but unfortunately his colleagues are not at the level required.

The ten position is a serious weak point; no genuine reliable goal kicker in the ranks and yet again Italy left points behind in a prospectively promising opening quarter. McLean potentially should switch to ten as his contributions at three quarters have being mediocre at best. McLean is a good footballer which begs the question why he is not putting up his hand for goal kicking duties. It shows to me a distinct lack of leadership and accountability among some of the Italian playing staff.

The management staff can conjure so much like not committing players in the ruck but that is only masking serious issues in the breakdown area. The defensive out wide is a source of easy game line yards for any opposition. France profited on this in various stages as well as running through rucks and finding massive gaps in the Italian defense. Fickou at centre was sublime; the Toulouse player is peaking at the right time. His opening try oozed class, looked effortless but his speed and movement were to the fore.

France at set piece by and large controlled affairs. Yes, Italy did score three tries during the contest but a distinct lack of concentration was evident as France immediately gained big territorial gains to launch attacks deep into the Azzuri twenty-two. Another brutal beat down for Italy.

Italy are a massive long term project. O’Shea and management are under no illusions of the severity of the task and so it begins the search to blood new players and look at SH options who could potentially help the side (cynical approach) but that is what is required at this point.

Georgia on my mind..

Georgia debate continues to rage on. How a country who can get 55,000 fans to watch their national team in a second tier rugby test match cannot get into the RBS 6 Nations is a disgrace. World Rugby needs to act immediately. Georgia need to be provided with the opportunity to play at the top level. Three international (only Samoa) last year is unacceptable. Time to act.

Wales win highlights several Ireland issues

Wales 22-9 Ireland Match Report here

The more I think about this game, I think the more that this game should be the reality check for everyone associated with Ireland Rugby. Wales were the better side on the night and deservedly won the contest. Three tries to nil closes the book on that argument as Ireland were incredibly one dimensional with their attacking lines.

The aerial box kicks, the use of Henshaw as the battering ram, zero line runner support all in full view. This has being the hallmarks of this Ireland campaign and seems to happen more when the team are under increased pressure to win a contest by the media, pundits and fans alike. Look at those characteristics and look at some of the recent disappointing performances and results in the last two seasons. Argentina RWC Quarter Final. England and France away last season. Scotland away in the opening period. Ireland become easy to read and opponents do not have to do much work in defensive reads during contests. New Zealand in Chicago, the team played with abandonment. The pressure was somewhat off and the team delivered with an exhilarating display; creatively on show, solid game management decisions executed. Just a thought but one that has being a theme of this Ireland side in recent years.

The game plan has served Ireland well but it needs to be refined. Our back line running plays involve crash ball; get to ground in contact and go again. I feel sorry for Henshaw at twelve; he is a superb footballer but given his role in the side, he is under utilized. Earls and Zebo genuinely were the only players who looked dangerous with ball in hand; their games are based on instinct something that this side at times is devoid of. Drilled to the minute detail, no flexibility to adapt when required.

The Ireland pack was a big disappointment. Toner had an off day. The lineout misfired horribly. Toner was exposed in clear-out and his ball carries lacked any platform for Ireland to launch attacks. No genuine third option in the line until O’Mahoney was introduced. The back row with all their ball carrying prowess lacked balance; Tipuric had the proverbial field day in the breakdown where the subsequent rucks were not officiated (much to the annoyance of Ireland). The half-back dependency issue reared its head on Friday night.

Murray is the single point of failure when it comes to the scrum half role. Murray’s player welfare has to be called out; shoulder injury apparent and Ireland management continued to have the Munster player out on the pitch potentially inflicting further damage to the player. Erasmus back in Munster must have being dismayed. Kieran Marmion was undermined on Friday night by Ireland management; cannot do the player any good in terms of confidence. The same could be said for John Ryan and Niall Scannell who were unused during the test match. Furlong was ferocious for the entire contest but should have being replaced in the third quarter. Best was having an indifferent evening; lineout was poor but his work rate yet again could not be faulted. Scannell surely should have come on to freshen up options in the pack battle. Why have these players on the bench if you are not going to play them? Twenty-three man game and the lack of management confidence in the squad was shocking from the outside. Bowe’s cameo as well will do little to arrest the comments on this squad selection.

The decision to replace Stander was also a baffling decision. The game line yard statistics do not lie. Stander’s numbers were impressive and were ahead of SOB and Heaslip. O’Brien in particular struggled to make an impact. When it came to the big decision in the back row, Schmidt went with what he knows best; the Leinster option. Schmidt surely now has to be scrutinized more by the Dublin media after this cameo. There has being an acceptance that team selections are on point but after last weekend, questions do need to be asked. Interesting pregame notes surely from the Ireland camp this week; otherwise the Irish Rugby media need to have a look at themselves.

 

 

RBS 6 Nations: Wales 22 – 9 Ireland

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The wounded animal fought back last night

Ireland’s long shot chances of winning the RBS 6 Nations Championship are over after a 22-9 reversal to a Welsh who used the two weeks since the Scotland loss as motivation a plenty from the critics and supporters to produce their most effective display of the tournament. For Ireland, it was a case of several issues emerging early doors and limitations in squad depth ruthlessly exposed. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Friday night lights at the Principality Stadium. The decision to close the roof could was an unanimous decision from both sides which on another day could have generated column inches. There is something extra special in the Principality Stadium when the roof is shut, the atmosphere intensifies, humidity increases, the relentless noise in the stadium is something to behold and it is credit to both sides that this happened. It contributed massively to a physically uncompromising test match.

After stirring renditions of both national anthems, reality bite massively in the stunning tribute for Elli Norkett who tragically died in a road accident a couple of weeks ago. The piano music, the montage projected in the ground was stunning. More important things in life; we should live to enjoy games of this stature. A lady gone too soon. Rip.

Ireland actually started this contest with massive intent. Sean O’Brien signalling intent early with a crunching tackle. Biggar had a mixed start to the contest, trying to launch Jones and Davies down the channels but Ireland were reading these passing moves well intercepting at least two of these attempted passes. The Ireland objective was to take the crowd out of the equation and it worked in the first quarter with Stander and Zebo making good game line yards.

Stander had an impressive opening half. His ball carries were so effective that Wales were committing two or three players to the player when he had ball in hand. Stander’s superb line break (one of very few from Ireland on the night) should have reaped rewards. Stander spotted a gap outside Scott Williams and backed himself. The disappointing aspect to this line break was the lack of Ireland supporting runners for Stander. It was a solo effort, reinforcements were too slow to support; opportunity lost.

The move broke down but Ireland made the call to go for the line subsequently. Five meters out. Ireland lineout, surely Rory Best would hit Toner or Ryan to secure quality ball against a well drilled Wales unit led by the mercurial Alun Wyn Jones. The decision to go to the back of the lineout was baffling, even more so when Stander was in competition against Alun Wyn Jones. This was a complete mismatch in lineout ability. Wales stole the lineout, a recurring theme throughout the contest and a key Ireland try opportunity spurned.

The first quarter was controlled by Ireland but only Sexton’s penalty to show for their hard work. Wales had soaked up the pressure from the hosts and were ready to launch their back line with devastating effect. The first try of the contest was a superbly executed move. Owens line-out was on point, ball delivered to Webb with ultra efficiency. The line running of the midfield pair of Williams and Davies superb and caused Jackson to misread resulting in a superb line break. The ball was dispatched out wide, the pace of the move belied Wales’ apparent confidence issues in the back line as Halfpenny and North combined for North to use his physical strength to push aside the tackles of Earls and Zebo. The stadium roof lifted on that score. Wales were in the groove; a massively decisive score and exposed Ireland defensively as a whole team and not just Paddy Jackson.

Ireland won a fortunate penalty immediately after. Tipuric who was my man of the match, imperious work rate (18 tackles) and a constant threat at the breakdown was pinged unfairly. Jackson slotted the penalty over and Ireland were ahead 5-6 but the remainder of the half determined the result.

Ireland’s reliance on Conor Murray at nine has being well documented on this blog. The same issue is seen at provincial level. Murray is a standout performer, superb all round game but when the Patrickswell native clutched his arm after a ruck, the danger signs were there for Ireland management to make a switch on the player who was clearly not 100%. Murray’s arm was affecting all his facets of play; his passing from ruck was weak and loopy; he could not tackle and gave Wales a platform to attack where ever Murray was positioned.

Sexton was now off the pitch; a deliberate kill the ball close to Ireland’s line after yet another storming line break from Wales. Barnes was right on the ruck and a yellow card was duly deserved. Ireland management gambled on Murray, hoped he could go another ten minutes before Sexton come back to the field but it failed. Ireland were effectively down to thirteen players and the second half exchanges saw Wales’ second try.

The Welsh front pack who were dominant in the line out mauled close to the Ireland line and the ball was passed out wide to North who benefited from a lack of cover. Murray presence was null and void. Stander struggled to assist his Munster team mate and the score was leaked. Halfpenny slotted the conversion and suddenly Wales were in the ascendancy 15-6.

Ireland could not be faulted for effort last night; tackle count was high and try as they might, they faced a Welsh side who were defensively superb. Twenty-five phases and Wales never budged. Ireland’s passing movement were now lacking any bite or creativity. Isolated ball carriers. Front row players at first receiver was an ominous sign. The lack of supporting runners for ball carriers was distinctly lacking. Conservative game plan exposed even though Henshaw and Ringrose tried to create line breaks.

Wales know how to play Ireland defensively; first up tackles made, defensively at it all game and with sharp work on the breakdown. Barnes did not officiate the rucks which was music to the ears of the back row units. Wales were superb at the breakdown. Tipuric and Warburton were immense. Ireland’s lack of back row options at seven were relentlessly exposed. O’Brien was a distant second in the breakdown and his ball carries lacked any aggression as the player constantly looked to get to ground early doors. He was lucky to stay on the pitch.

Wales media and supporters called out their management for calling Ross Moriarty ashore against England. Ireland have their own discussion point with the decision to call ashore CJ Stander who was having a superb contest. His ball carrying threat was superior to O’Brien and Heaslip who struggled with ball carries (three knock ons). Both Leinster back rows were culpable for the second Welsh try. Sloppy pass exchange from the pair led to Wales kicking ball deep into Ireland territory and Murray (injury strickened) was forced out for a Wales lineout. O’Brien personally should have gone on sixty minutes; mystifying decision.

Ireland were looking to get back into the contest but discipline problems surfaced. Why Robbie Henshaw decided to join the Ireland ruck when it was moving towards the line only he will know? Henshaw was pinged for his entry to the ruck, looked marginal but it emphasized that Ireland had lost their composure even when executing set piece which Ireland pride themselves on. Frustrating penalty award and Wales knew it was their day.

Ireland in the final ten minutes were a deflated outfit, players were struggling to make themselves available for Marmion at nine who tried his best in the circumstances. His passing was on point but it became very predictable and one dimensional. The fact that he did not box kick once made Wales’ defensive reads pretty easy and allowed them to press Sexton more quickly. Sexton to his credit tried to conjure line breaks and territory with excellent aerial bombs which exposed North and Halfpenny with several spilled catches.

Wales finished the contest with momentum and scored their third try of the contest when Sexton’s drubber kick behind was blocked and Jamie Roberts was never going to be stopped from close range despite Ryan trying to assist his fly-half who was in the wars with several head knocks. 22-9 and the game was up. Wales even had an opportunity to score a bonus point at the end. It was an emphatic performance from Wales; the reaction of Edwards and Howley in the stands spoke volumes. There was immense pressure on this group of players and management. Wales delivered. Critics are quiet for another week.

Ireland can have no complaints on the result. Yet again, Ireland’s lack of expansive game plan was exposed. The ball carrier was an isolated figure; superb cameo efforts did not have the support from team colleagues to pass the ball to continue promising attacks. Henshaw is now a battering ram; no creativity or nous to unlock a resolute Welsh defense. Ringrose and Earls with ball in hand looked decent but it was the rarity rather than the norm. Kearney at full back was solid yet unspectacular with ball in hand. Zebo carried endless ball.

The scrum half position showed a distinct lack of confidence from Ireland management for Kieran Marmion who should have being on sooner. The lack of Ireland management confidence on the squad was woefully exposed. Schmidt had zero confidence in John Ryan and Niall Scannell. Both unused. The decision to haul Stander off instead of one of the ineffective Leinster back row players was damning. Tommy Bowe on the bench, short cameo and sorry sight to see the Monaghan man hauled off in double quick time.

The over reliance in Ireland’s half backs was exposed last night. It is down to Schmidt and Nucifora to improve the options in these positions. McGrath or Marmion at nine. James Hart coming to Munster next season will add plenty. Schmidt needs to identify a quality nine backup. His feelings on Marmion are clear. Given his tenure, Schmidt surely should have confidence in his twenty-three panel at his disposal. It was damning that he did not have this last night. Time to reflect for Ireland; change the game plan and identify more options throughout the squad is required. Hopefully, the media hordes question Schmidt on these points this week. The honeymoon is over finally.

RBS 6 Nations: Wales vs. Ireland Preview

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Friday Night Lights at the Principality Stadium

The only Friday night fixture of this year’s RBS 6 Nations takes place this week with Wales and Ireland renewing acquaintances at the Principality Stadium. The Friday night kickoff time will make it a superb atmosphere for both fans and players alike. Hawkeye Sidekick looks ahead to the fixture.

Wounded Wales ready to make a statement

Are Wales seriously that far off the pace? This season to date has seen Wales enjoy good periods of dominance but the key issue has being putting points on the board. The Italian fixture on another day could have seen Wales win by forty points. They were dominant in all facets of play and only last ditch tackling prevented them from securing the bonus point.

The England game was one that got away from Wales. Leading deep into a terrific test match, Wales game management deserted them when they needed it the most. An errand kick downfield from Davies gave England the platform to attack. The finish from Daly was sublime; his pace scorched Cuthbert out wide and the game was lost.

The Murrayfield test match as Ireland found out was a difficult assignment for the Welsh. Wales in the opening period should have put more points on the board. Several chances were spurned and Scotland took full advantage with an excellent second half display where Hogg and Russell were to the fore with good attacking lines and game management. Opportunity lost has being the theme for Wales this season and it could be against Ireland where everything clicks with a complete performance.

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Warburton key to breakdown battle

The Welsh back row are going to have a massive say on the upcoming fixture with Ireland. The back row options are endless for Wales with the likes of Warburton, Tipuric, Moriarty, Faletau to chose from. The fact that Ireland will probably name O’Brien, Stander and Heaslip means that there will be no specialist seven for Ireland to compete in the breakdown. France exposed this area in Dublin and I would expect Wales to target this area as well; slowing down ball and pouncing when ball carriers leave themselves isolated.

The second row options are as good as anything in this tournament. Huge respect for Alun Wyn Jones as a player and leader. I cannot believe some people were questioning the guy after the Scotland loss. Jones is a natural leader; he has captained the Lions. His partnership with the abrasive Jake Ball is physically imposing. Jones defense against Scotland was superb; eleven tackles made, one missed tackle and one turnover won. The set piece has being solid so Ireland will have their work cut out to create a platform.

Wales half-back options have being on point. Webb and Biggar have formed a reliable and effective partnership. There has being comments specifically around their inability to launch an implosive back line but there were line breaks for Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies against Scotland. The three quarters has a nice balance to it. Davies is a superb player, has everything in the locker; physically imposing, great ball carrier and tackler with pace and passing ability to boot. Scott Williams is explosive with ball in hand, great game awareness, looking for the line break.

The wings speak for themselves. Liam Williams has being the standout back and player for Wales in this tournament (potential player of the tournament candidate). His tries in the tournament and ability to make game line yards with his stealth pace and movement has being a joy to watch at times. Aerially very strong and Saracens have signed a superb acquisition next season. George North, incredible talent and winger. He has being unlucky in this tournament; should have a couple of more tries to his name. His ball carrying has being on point.

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Leigh Halfpenny

Leigh Halfpenny at full back? Reliable as ever in all facets of play. His long range goal kicking is a real asset particularly for a closely fought fixture like Friday night will potentially be. Unless I am missing something, this is a formidable Wales team and will take a near on a perfect Ireland performance to get over the line.

Ireland’s steady progress

As Ronan O’Gara pointed out immediately after the France win, this fixture like Scotland is a banana skin for Ireland. Wales with two losses in the tournament are out of the championship running (realistically) and can play without excessive tournament pressure which could prompt the team to produce their best performance of this tournament. Ireland have made steady progress since their opening day loss to Scotland.

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Ireland line-out to be tested

What has worked for Ireland? The pack has being steady. The set piece has being solid if not spectacular. The scrum at times has worked well evident in the Italy and France tests but the line out options are a concern. Toner is the go to in the line out with Donnacha Ryan providing another reliable option. However, the third option is a concern. Peter O’Mahoney will probably start from off the bench and his prowess in the line-out is vastly understated. O’Mahoney is ultra reliable in this set piece area for both province and national team. Wales will look to compete and try to disrupt Ireland to the extent that the visitors will be forced to launch attacks from front of the line-out. Intriguing area beckons. Will Ireland eyeball Wales and throw to the back of the line-out given this scenario? It is perfectly setup.

The Ireland back row options have immense ball carrying ability but will it succeed against  the Wales back row who have in the past successfully negated this threat with early first time tackling and excellent breakdown work. Stander and Heaslip have being the models of consistency in their work rate and ball carrying. O’Brien at seven has had issues in the breakdown area but the Carlow native is improving with more game minutes on the pitch. I do not expect Joe Schmidt to change things for this test match so the breakdown area and taking care of the ball will be a constant strain for Ireland. The balance of the back row is a concern personally; no specialist seven like van Der Flier or O’Donnell in the ranks.

Ireland half-back options are standout performers. Murray has had an incredible season to date. The Munster scrum-half’s box kicks if accurate will provide Ireland with good territorial gains. His ability to identify gaps defensively from close range is another string to his bow this season. His speed of pass in rucks has increased and helped Sexton last time out with an assured performance.

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Sexton looking to repeat French performance

Sexton’s performance against France was nothing short of sensational. Given the lack of game minutes, Sexton was seamless in execution and game management. His drop goal in the second half in difficult conditions spoke volumes. Sexton if provided with quick ball can launch his back line but the question is whether Ireland can nullify the expected Welsh back row breakdown work is another thing entirely?

The Ireland back line have had their moments. The Scotland defeat saw some nice phases of attacking play which continued with the demolition of Italy. The France game was more an arm wrestle and back line action was limited. The three quarters of Ringrose and Henshaw will be pivotal for Ireland on Friday night. Henshaw is a superb footballer but has not had many line breaks in this tournament given that he has being first receiver from the half-backs primarily.

Ringrose has had the opportunity to create line breaks as a result; his deft turn of foot to the fore in recent test matches. His defensive work is a work in progress; a shaky Scotland performance defensively but the Leinster man has improved immeasurably in the assignments to Italy and France but given Wales’ three quarter and back line, this represents a serious test for the youngster.

The full back berth is potentially up for grabs. If Rob Kearney is not ready to go, Zebo presumably will slot into the position. Zebo reads the game extremely well, ability to make game line breaks from identifying mismatches is to the fore. Keith Earls has performed admirably in this campaign; solid performer and has scored a couple of tries to boot.

Verdict:

Two evenly matched sides on show this Friday evening. I have a feeling that this Welsh side are ready to produce a performance to silence the doubters. The back row battle and in particular the breakdown battle is a close call but goes to Wales, a lack of seven in the Ireland ranks may be exposed. If this plays out, Ireland will struggle to generate quick ruck ball against a Welsh side who pride themselves on their defensive structures. Ireland to win will need to dominate the scrum and line out. The scrum is a potential area for Ireland to make gains but Wales will equally target the line out particularly options other than Toner.

The fervent home support, Friday night lights effect will lift Wales to the extent that they will win the contest in a tight affair. Beware of the wounded animal and Wales are exactly that. Ireland and Wales have both lost to Scotland. Both sides in my eyes are very evenly matched. It is a toss-up but I think Wales hold the cards in terms of the breakdown area which will be the decisive area of play. Roll on Friday!

NHL Review: Round 3 Reflections

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NHL 1A

Kilkenny register first league win

A first league win for Kilkenny at Nowlan Park this afternoon as a determine second half showing proved too much for Cork. After a tight opening period where Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy caught the eye with two long range frees and a couple of smart reflex saves, there was only a point between the sides 0-11 to 0-10 with the hosts marginally leading.

Cody sprang Colin Fennelly and Walter Walsh in the full forward line in an attempt to increase the goalscoring threat but it was a frustrating opening for both players as Cork deployed the sweeper system denying both marksmen the space to create goal chances.

The sweeper system deployed by Cork allowed Kilkenny to impose themselves defensively albeit Lehane and Murphy in the half forward line did pose problems when they ran at the Kilkenny defense.

The hosts increased the tempo and work rate in the second half and the midfield and half-back lines started to dominate. Within a matter of minutes, Kilkenny were seven points clear and the contest was as good as over. Colin Fennelly’s work rate out the field excellent and with Richie Hogan sitting in the pocket slotting over points, it was an easy second half for the hosts.

Cork on the other hand floundered in the second thirty-five minutes. There was a distinct lack of work rate in the Cork forward line units particularly without the ball as Kilkenny defenders were given far too much latitude to pick a pass to the likes of Buckley, Reid, Hogan and Martin who was prominent throughout.

The lack of leadership in the Cork forward line in the last quarter was exposed. Lehane scored 0-10 out of 0-15 points and when Cork players were presented with opportunities, their first thought was to look for a colleague rather than take on the responsibility and take a scoring opportunity. Several opportunities inside the Kilkenny full back line were not taken and there were a spate of three wides in quick succession midway through the second half where Cork midfielders and half-back players taking pot shots from long distance.

Apart from Lehane, who in the Cork forward line is a leader on the team? I am struggling to find the answer to that. Harnedy, Horgan, Farrell and Cadogan impact were minimal today and these are players who have plenty of experience to take up the leadership mantle.

Kilkenny’s performance was far improved from their Ennis outing where they clearly second best throughout. Richie Hogan’s post game comments linked back to the Clare reversal and the need to get back down to basics; win your individual battle. Kilkenny face Tipperary in Thurles in round four; a fixture which will provide further clues as to where Kilkenny are. There are still question marks on the full back line and the inability of the Kilkenny forward line units to score goals. All for another day. Cody will be happy to get off the mark; there was pressure on Kilkenny to win today and it was mission accomplished. Cork are staring a relegation battle in the face; the old failings of last season reared their head today and a response is required away to Waterford (no easy task).

Tipperary win despite opening period lapse

The Premier County registered their third win of the league campaign with a seven point victory over a Clare side who briefly threatened a win but where ultimately outdone by the performance of the Tipperary forward line. John McGrath was sublime throughout; full forward and gave Cian Dillion a torrid time. McGrath’s first touch at times was superb and his striking on either side today in difficult conditions was different class. Stephen O’Brien is making the impact that Tipperary manager Michael Ryan has demanded from the Ballina clubman this season. Physically imposing under the dropping ball, O’Brien scored several good scores from play and has being a real find for Tipperary this season. Management have selection dilemmas as the likes of Callanan and Bonnar Maher have not featured significantly in this season’s campaign.

Clare at one point in the first half looked like they would be overrun. Tipperary strode out to a quick five point lead in the opening exchanges but credit the Banner County for a resolute performance which turned the game around in that opening period. Podge Collins produced some lovely scores from play and Shanagher upfront was looking to create problems for the Tipperary full back line. Clare were dominant midway through the contest with the likes of Reidy and Fitzgerald to the fore. 0-11 to 0-9 points ahead was reward for an industrious opening Clare half but just on the struck of half-time, a poor free concession allowed Tipperary to reduce arrears to just the bare minimum and with the elements in their favor in the second half, the lead was never going to hold and so it proved.

Tipperary’s second half performance was built on a dominant half-back line. Ronan and Padraic Maher produced excellent performances and provided quality ball to their inside full forward line. O’Dwyer was now in the groove which opened further space for Noel and John McGrath to exploit. The strike rate of the Tipperary forward line in the second half was extremely impressive. Clare tried to stage a late fightback with points from Collins and Reidy but with Clare chasing the game, Tipperary’s inside full forward line were able to score the insurance points. Good quality contest given the difficult conditions.

Waterford beat a determined Dublin

Waterford registered their second league win of the campaign with a five point victory. Dublin will rue opening period dominance not fully converted as Waterford showed Ger Cunningham the clinical element that was missing with Stephen Bennett and Padraic O’Mahony to the fore. Bennett struck two goals, one in either half. His second goal was decisive for Waterford who had excellent performances from the likes of Gleeson, Moran and Fives.

Donal Burke has being a real find for Dublin this season, another good scoring haul yesterday (1-7) will provide Ger Cunningham with solace but his back line at times torn to shred at times. Conor Dooley at times looked isolated in the Dublin goal and probably prompted the player to come out of his goal for the second Bennett goal. Dublin without the Cuala contingent will need to knuckle down and try to get a result away to Clare. Failure to do so and a relegation playoff will beckon with Kilkenny scheduled for the final league fixture of the campaign.

Waterford can look forward to a good league campaign. Their performance was good and the way they comfortably dealt with the threat of the hosts when reduced to fourteen players was admirable. A fixture at home to Cork should seal a quarter final berth as Waterford’s key players are starting to click particularly in the forward line.

NHL 1B

Facile victories for Wexford and Galway

Facile victories in Wexford and Galway to the home sides will do little for either in the heat of championship battle. Wexford easily took apart Kerry at Innovate Park today, a game which saw Jack Guiney get game minutes. The usual suspects were to the fore. Kerry endured a torrid afternoon, the red card issued to Patrick Kelly certainly did not help and this was a massive learning curve for the Kingdom. Kerry will realize that the pivotal fixture against Offaly looms large, victory here and league status and playoff hurling is secured. Wexford can experiment with their squad in games against Laois and Offaly who should not really pose many problems for the Model County. The one sided nature of this game will do little for Davy Fitzgerald and management to learn more about the team.

Galway also had a similarly inevitable stroll around Salthill against a hapless Laois outfit. Conor Whelan was to the fore as Galway scored a massive 3-31 in victory. Few positives for Laois who face daunting fixtures against Limerick and Wexford to finish off their league campaign. Relegation playoff beckons. Galway like Limerick will look to experiment with their squad when they face Kerry before a trip to Limerick in the NHL 1B finale. NHL 1B is as dull as dishwasher this season. The inevitable nature of who will go up is painful to watch.

Limerick issues surface but a win is secured

Offaly will rue tonight for sometime to come. Limerick were there for the taking. Three goals scored against a very shaky Limerick full back line should have being the platform for victory and when you add the fact that John Fitzgibbon was sent off for the hosts, the Faithful County will need to reflect on what might have being.

Credit to Limerick at the death, they hit the last six scores of the contest to dig themselves out of a hole. The defensive side of the team is in chaos; Kerry and now Offaly has exploited huge issues in the full back line. Is McCarthy realistically the full back for the championship?

The thoughts of Shanagher running at the Blackrock clubman scares me. Limerick’s backs have to tighten up. 3-15 is too high a score to concede, some of the Offaly scores lacked any pressure from Limerick and the three goal salvo (two goals in ninety seconds) really exposed lack of defensive nous.

The half-back line on paper looks genuinely exciting. Byrnes at half-back, Hannon at wing back (pace issues) and Hickey looks good but we will not know of the unit until potentially the Galway game and a QF fixture. The Limerick forward line is also a work in progress.

Without the likes of Barry Nash and no call-up in sight for in form Fitzgibbon Cup winner Aaron Gillane, Kiely and management are continuing to experiment with the full forward line setup. LaTouche Cosgrave tried hard but is corner forward his natural position? Lynch at full forward was adequate and Mulcahy sniped with a couple of trademark scores. No cohesion in this unit; movement at times off the ball was poor.

Limerick’s battling qualities came through in that last quarter, work rate increased and to be honest, this was the most pleasing aspect of the performance. There is a lot of work required to make Limerick a competitive outfit. The work rate and tempo without the ball is a key issue in all areas; hoping Kinnerk can improve this aspect of the side in the weeks to come. Clare look warm favorites at this stage to win the Munster SHC semi-final but I remain hopeful that Limerick can turn up and produce a performance when it matters in the summer (am I ignoring the facts or hoping for the best).

Guinness Pro 12: Cardiff Blues 13 – 23 Munster

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Munster were far more cohesive on the night but they eventually broke down a hard working Cardiff Blues to secure a win that keeps the province in touch with Ospreys and Leinster at the summit of the league. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

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Munster squad looking fatigued

It has being a grueling Guinness Pro 12 schedule for all teams during this RBS 6 Nations section of the competition, a period where squad’s are tested to their limits and depth issues are wholly exposed. Munster’s performances in recent weeks have lacked spark and cohesion with several crossing infringements penalized last night. The infringements mean one of two things: lack of communication in the ranks or players who are fatigued losing focus. The front five at times struggled. Kilcoyne and Marshall were their abrasive best with ball in hand but Stephen Archer really struggled on the night. The match officiating pinpointed Archer at scrum-time and when he did run with ball was easily dispossessed by the likes of Navidi who was one of Cardiff Blues best performers. The second row on duty had mixed evenings. Billy Holland was as reliable as ever; solid in the lineout and good in breakdown and open play. Darren O’Shea on the other hand had an evening to forget; minimal impact with ball carries and missed a couple of first time tackles. O’Shea will learn from this experience.

Stirring Cardiff Blues Performance

The manner on how Munster fought back from being 13-3 down has to be admired but it was a struggle for the province throughout. Cardiff Blues were well up for this contest. Nick Williams showing intent early doors with a excellent tackle on Rhys Marshall. William was typically tenacious and with the likes of Navidi producing good work in the breakdown area, the hosts will rue some gilt edged opportunities which they let slip particularly in the opening period. Duncan Williams’ last ditch tackling saving Munster on a couple of occasions. Tom James was a standout with his ball carrying in the opening period and his game line breaks which on another day could have produced more points for Cardiff Blues who to a man left everything out on the pitch. The intercept try was well taken; anticipation was on point as Scannell’s loopy pass was gratefully received by Summerhill who went over unopposed. The concession of ten points in the final ten minutes was incredibly harsh on the hosts who contributed to a good contest in difficult conditions.

Munster win despite Keatley injury

The result is all the more astonishing given the fact that Ian Keatley was forced to retire from the game in the opening period. With no backup fly-half cover, Munster management introduced Francis Saili and switched Andrew Conway to ten initially, a position that I have not seen the player occupy in his career. Scannell then took up the role in the second half with mixed results. An errand pass which led to the Cardiff Blues try but the Cork native produced when required with an excellent drop goal to give Munster the lead. It remains to be seen the extent of Keatley’s injury but any lengthy period on the sidelines will ask questions of Munster’s squad depth at the ten position. Intriguing couple of weeks beckon on the ten front.

Munster young bucks continue to impress

The young Munster charges again produced encouraging cameos. Sweetnam again provided further evidence of his potential international credentials with an accomplished performance in the air and his ability to make space and offload caught the eye. Conor Oliver is a player who has really emerged as a superb prospect. The back row player has shown versatility in recent weeks; playing at six and eight last week against the Scarlets. Oliver’s try at the death showed great awareness of Cardiff Blues defensive breakdown on the fringes to score from distance. The try encapsulated Munster’s best period of the game; O’Mahoney tackle leading to Cardiff Blues losing fifteen meters set the tone, Saili’s pressure forcing the turnover and with Cardiff Blues not setup defensively, the back row scored the try.

Taute, Saili and O’Callaghan stand up

Jaco Taute defensively stood out throughout yesterday. His tackle count, accuracy and organizational skills are assets to this side. Taute has being a standout to the province this season. Munster fans will be hoping that the South African extends his stay next season but that remains a big if. Dave O’Callaghan was also a front runner for Munster; carried endless ball and his work rate defensively stood out. Francis Saili also deserves a mention; have being a critic of the New Zealander this season as he sometimes exposes colleagues with rash game management decisions. Saili was on point upon his introduction; super try to get Munster back in the contest in the second half and his controlled defensive press on Cardiff Blues posed problems for the hosts particularly in the last quarter. It was controlled rather than the frenzied approach seen against Scarlets last weekend.

Cardiff Blues – Encouraging Signs

For Cardiff Blues, the hosts had excellent performances from Williams, Navidi and James. The team were beset with injuries and international call-ups. However, the team that was put out produced a stirring performance. I had read comments specifically around the Connacht home game loss but the lack of effort and intensity was not in view yesterday. Tackles were made and the set piece was solid throughout particularly the scrum time where Munster may have thought that they would have an edge. The line-out was again excellent (92% lineout success this season is the best in the league). Cardiff Blues had a good start to the season but squad depth appears problematic; they have beaten Munster away from home and yesterday’s performance confirms that the side have all the attributes to beat anyone in the league. Consistency of performance appears to be the core of the team’s struggles. The last eight minutes will be a big disappointment for the hosts; the drop goal from Munster to go 13-16 was a blow but Cardiff Blues unfortunately spilled ball deep in their own half immediately after the drop goal concession which setup the Oliver try. Given the intensity of this contest, both teams will be grateful of weekend off this week.