Munster SHC Semi-Final Preview: Clare vs. Limerick

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Midwest rivals battle for Munster SHC final spot

June Bank Holiday weekend. A time to relax, time to travel to the seaside resorts and attempt to take in a sunny summer day (once in a blue moon). Clare and Limerick hurling fans will have to curtail those plans this weekend as local rivals clash in Semple Stadium, Thurles to decide who will be the first team to advance to the Munster SHC final. Hawkeye Sidekick attempts to throw away his Limerick loyalty to one side and preview the game (but it will be difficult). Deep breathe at the ready!

Clare in confident mood

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Tony Kelly – a pivotal figure

Changes aplenty in Clare Senior Hurling team circles this year. Davy Fitzgerald jumped before he was pushed and resigned from the managerial role despite winning the NHL crown last season (a bit of Louis van Gaal at United syndrome last season there).

Clare have decided to place faith in Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor as the joint management team. Their resume is impressive with three All Ireland U21 titles a standout.

The fact that the Clare management duo have worked with the majority of the squad before during this reign has meant an effective transition. The other development of note was the retention of Donal Og Cusack in the management backroom staff who was positively received by the hurling panel last season.

The NHL 1A campaign on reflection was a mixed bag for the Banner County. Two wins over Dublin at the end of the league campaign staved off relegation. A noteworthy goal salvo performance over a hapless Kilkenny was also a high point.

All wins were at the confines of Cusack Park, Ennis and the away form was extremely poor. An underwhelming performance against Cork was a low point where work rate and physicality was well off the level required.

There were losses against Tipperary and Waterford but these encounters were close affairs. Tipperary game was in the melting pot until the final quarter when a player dismissal proved decisive. The league performances by and large without the influential Tony Kelly who was on club duty.

Clare have being going well in challenge games in recent weeks. A much reported win against Galway in a challenge game a couple of weeks ago has boosted confidence in the county.

The question for Clare this season is what brand of hurling do they go with? The much maligned sweeper system was used by the previous regime with various success but when it came to championship, opposition exploited space out the field scoring long range points and also running with ball in hand to create openings evident in Galway’s championship triumph last year. Clare have excellent pacy forwards and fast ball is paramount for players such as Shanagher, Conlon to influence proceedings. Intriguing tactics questions for Clare to answer.

Tony Kelly still remains a pivotal figure. Mercurial is an overused word but the player’s ability to roam around, take ball from deep and make attacking opportunities happen is sublime. Limerick have a decision to make on Sunday; do they deploy a man marker or do they go zonal on a player who has the capability and skill set to win the game on his own. Limerick refused to deploy a man marking system last season in the qualifier loss to Clare with devastating effects as Kelly was a major factor in a Clare win. Attention to Kelly may mean more space for other Clare players in the forward line creating game winning contributions.

Clare defensively are an abrasive unit; physically imposing with the likes of Cleary and Dillon forming the centre back and full back slots. McInerney is a superb player with superb pace and game reading capability but not sure that corner back is his spot; he has being deployed as a sweeper at times but perhaps wing back is his favored position. Limerick will not get anything soft from this Clare defensive unit despite a huge loss in Conor Ryan who is sitting out this season.

Limerick consistency the key?

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Big onus on Shane Dowling to lead the Limerick forward line

This is a strange buildup for the Limerick hurlers. It is hard to gauge where this current panel are in terms of squad development and performance. The early week news that influential wing back Diarmuid Byrnes and midfielder William O’Donoghue were out of the Clare game was a hammer blow but news of the potential unavailability of vice-captain Gearoid Hegarty is an ominous sign. All negatives despite recent challenge games against Cork and Waterford which have gone well.

Limerick will be massive underdogs for Sunday. The NHL 1B campaign hardly set the world alight. The two key fixtures in the regular season saw defeats to the hands of Wexford and Galway. A win against Cork in Pairc Ui Rinn was unexpected in some quarters but the optimism was deflated quickly when Galway demolished a naive Limerick performance at the Gaelic Grounds in the NHL semi-final. The issue of performance consistency is an issue for this side; they have showed flashes of potential but apart from the Cork league victory, it has being in very short supply.

New manager John Kiely has stressed that this season is a work in progress; a panel in development mode. The backroom staff at Kiely’s disposal is superb. Paul Kinnerk’s work with Clare in recent years has being highlighted. Joe O’Connor comes on board as strength and conditioning coach. Jimmy Quilty comes with a good reputation. You would hope that management have left no stone unturned to seek the advantages required to get over the line this weekend.

Where are the strengths for Limerick? Byrnes is undoubtedly a massive loss. The Patrickswell player was a standout in a disappointing season last year but there is options for management. Gavin O’Mahoney potentially will come into the starting lineup and form a half-back line with Declan Hannan at half-back and Seamus Hickey on the other wing. An experienced half back line and hopefully game smarts to protect their inside full back line who were left exposed at times last season.

Richie English, Sean Finn and Richie McCarthy potentially will be the unit and they will be abrasive and tight marking. McCarthy at full back will be an interesting side note; pace issues were exposed last season so it will be interesting to see how the Blackrock has managed that side of his game this season. English has all the attributes to be a star player but needs to take on the leadership of the unit this year. Finn is an up and coming talent. You also have Knockaderry’s Tom Condon as backup as well to fill multiple roles within the side.

Limerick midfield options will be interesting. O’Donoghue is ruled out so it will leave the onus on the likes of Paul Browne, James Ryan, Darragh O’Donovan to provide the platform for the Shannonsiders. When you add the likes of Cian Lynch who will look to create space in this area to assert influence, Limerick have options to challenge and upset Clare in the midfield area. For Limerick to win on Sunday, work rate and tempo will have to be on point. It was not at the level required last season and this year’s performance has seen a mixed bag.

The issues personally are in the forward line units. Hegarty will be a central player for Limerick on puckout strategy; the primary ball winner. Who in the Limerick side is going to step up and win the second ball and provide a secondary ball winning source in the half-forward line on Sunday?

Hegarty is only 50/50 to make the fixture which means that James Ryan will probably need to take on the mantle. Puck out strategy and variation will be key from Nicky Quaid for Limerick to create opportunities to their inside full forward line who have serious threat.

Lynch will look to roam and create space between the half and full forward lines. Shane Dowling at full forward is an excellent full forward; his free taking is superb so it is up to his colleagues to work hard and look to test Clare defensively by varying their tactics. Movement in the forward line units; intelligence to make dummy runs will be key — something that Limerick were abject on last season. Can they make Clare sit up and force a rethink in their strategy?

Verdict:

For me, there are too many questions with Limerick. The comments from John Kiely this week is hardly inspiring confidence. There is more hope than expectation that the county will produce a performance. Limerick have undoubted talent in the squad but with the key injury to Diarmuid Byrnes, this could prove decisive.

Right now, there are too many ifs for Limerick this weekend to work out to warrant or predict a win. Clare look a more settled side but there does not look much different to the style of play this season from last year.

Two teams who have dodged the big guns and is a massive opportunity to get to a provincial final and minimum All Ireland Quarter Final appearance.

Clare get the nod by a couple of points (3 / 4 points) as Limerick’s inability to perform at a consistently high enough level during the seventy minutes will be exposed. Limerick to me are massive underdogs, but that is when this team is most dangerous. Roll on Sunday and hope Limerick prove me wrong!

Leinster SHC Quarter Final Reflections

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No upsets but plenty of talking points

The Leinster SHC semi-final pairings are now known. There were no upsets in the quarter finals albeit Westmeath went exceptionally close to beating Offaly. Galway and Wexford both dispatched Dublin and Laois with the minimum of fuss. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Galway cruise into semi-final

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Mission accomplished for Galway

This was a very dark day for Dublin hurling. For all the investment that has being put into Dublin underage hurling structures, they are as far away as ever from making the All Ireland breakthrough.

Ger Cunningham and management for one reason or another have had to make do without the services of several standout players in the county. The decision of Paul Schutte to join the Dublin football panel last week is showing that there are clear issues within the current setup. You only have to see Danny Sutcliffe plying his GAA in New York this year to see that.

Dublin did a Cork against Galway and it failed abysmally; named several championship debutantes in their starting lineup but where as the Cork rookies were on form against Tipperary playing with pace and power, the Dublin rookies were devoid of any confidence and were listless in defeat. Chastening experience for all concerned and will do little to create a winning culture within the panel.

Galway pulled away with ease after the resumption; the opening period was a labored performance and showed only flashes of brilliance to emulate a dull drab affair. Flynn’s opening goal was a smart finish, questions whether Joseph Cooney could have supplied the pass instead of taking a shot himself. The pass from Canning to Flynn which should have yielded a goal just before the interval was sheer class.

Michael O’Donoghue will be pleased to get out of this fixture with a solid outing under their belt. The injury to Paul Killeen was the only dampener as Galway’s forward line stepped up the tempo to put the fixture out of reach within eight minutes of the restart. Flynn, Whelan, Canning and the substitute Niall Burke showed well. Conor Cooney looked sharp taking a superbly well taken goal to close the tie out.

The midfield area is probably the area of contention for Galway. I am not convinced that this is the best position for Coen. The Loughrea man struggled to make an impact to proceedings. David Burke was typically all action; great running and distribution and chipped in with some lovely scores. Galway have options in midfield but whether Coen will match up when realistically Galway face Kilkenny is another story. Canning controlled and game managed as he wished.

Galway defensively were untroubled apart from a couple of O’Callaghan bursts which should have yielded more than Barry Kelly gave. McInerney was solid at half back and Daithi Burke was imperious at full back. Tuohy at corner back did his job but feel that he is better suited out the field. However, it is clear that O’Donoghue has assigned Tuohy with man marking the main threats of an inside full forward line this season.

Mission accomplished for Galway and a fixture with Offaly.  For Dublin, a potentially short qualifier series beckons. The sight of Ryan O’Dwyer in midfield at the resumption of the second half said everything; no options to break the dominance of David Burke in the middle of the park. Crummey, O’Connell tried hard defensively but the issues were up the pitch. Rushe struck an isolated figure at half-back, was moved around constantly and could not impose his authority on the game thus creating massive space inside for Galway’s full forward line to exploit.

Puckout strategy for Dublin was route one throughout; no change from a dominant Galway half-back line. Cunningham and management tried to adopt a short passing game in the second half but that tactic only lasted a couple of minutes as Galway dispossessed their Dublin opponents with ease and closed out the contest with ease. Only for O’Callaghan inside, no genuine attacking threat. Dotsy arrived to the scene far too late.

On this performance, Dublin Senior Hurlers are plunging into the abyss. Cunningham could be the fall guy but who would potentially take over a camp which is quite clearly divided and with leaders such as O’Dwyer and Dotsy O’Callaghan nearing an end to their intercounty career, things look bleak for the nation’s capital. An early July elimination in the qualifiers looks likely which is disappointing for Leinster and hurling in general.

Wexford win but questions raised

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Wexford win and setup titanic Kilkenny tussle

A fourteen point victory for Wexford against a gallant Laois outfit but there were parts of this contest which will worry Davy Fitzgerald and management. Wexford made a slow start to proceedings and it was not until twenty minutes in when we started to see any concerted tempo and pattern to their play.

Once Wexford started to create opportunities for their inside full forward line, the result was never in doubt. Conor McDonald led from the full forward position, chipped in with several good scores from play and setup colleagues around him to establish the team a platform for victory. Kehoe’s opening goal was well worked and was a menace for an overworked Laois full back line throughout.

The issues for Wexford could manifest themselves glaringly in two weeks. Purcell and King from midfield exposed Wexford’s inability to track runners from deep and the pair scored several quality scores from play. Kilkenny will do damage in the midfield area. You can see the likes of Ryan, Buckley picking up good positions and scoring at will. Wexford have being duly warned.

Wexford defensively will need to tighten up. No disrespect to Laois but for Wexford to leak 1-17 is concerning. Laois found space in that opening period, something that Kilkenny will punish more readily in two weeks time. The shot selection from the hosts means that 1-17 conceivably could have being 1-23 come the full time whistle. It was a loose display from the back line for periods of this contest and Wexford do not have to be told that a repeat will be devastating for their Leinster hopes when a charged up Kilkenny come to town.

Jack Guiney’s cameo from off the bench was rewarded with an excellent goal. Guiney is going to have to play a pivotal role as impact sub in two weeks. For Wexford to realistically beat Kilkenny, goals will need to be scored at regular intervals. Guiney provides Wexford with an additional full forward threat and allows McDonald to roam around the park (like Canning) to influence proceedings.

Wexford were not unduly tested by Laois in that second half and ran out convincing winners despite the best efforts of the likes of Purcell and King who have come to the fore for O’Moore County. Stephen Maher as well tried hard but Wexford were too strong physically.

Laois have made progress this season but they saw the gap in class yesterday. Qualifier run is the objective but with the likes of Tipperary, Limerick / Clare, Waterford / Cork, Kilkenny / Wexford in the mix, that looks remote.

Davy Fitzgerald is in a perfect spot heading into a potentially superb semi-final tussle with Kilkenny. Home field advantage. The performance yesterday at times lacked spark and tempo in defensive and midfield work rate. I expect a much improved Wexford side in the semi-final. They have to, otherwise a drubbing will occur.

Hail Hail Shane Dooley

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Dooley came to Offaly’s rescue

The reaction of Offaly supporters in Mullingar at the final whistle of an exciting four point win over Westmeath spoke volumes; this was too close for comfort and only for Shane Dooley and some erratic Westmeath defending, Offaly would have lost this encounter.

This game saw two evenly matched sides go at it throughout. Westmeath had superb displays from Tommy Doyle at full back, aerial dominance and cleared an amount of ball throughout. The Greville brothers and Killian Doyle as well provided leadership and scores at various intervals.

The downfall for the hosts was lapses in concentration. Two poor goals were leaked during this contest and the Westmeath keeper will reflect on what might have being. Over zealous challenge in the opening period gave away a needless penalty dispatched superbly by Dooley and was caught rotten when Dooley flicked the ball off the keeper’s hurl in the second half when the game was in the melting pot.

Offaly won this game because of Shane Dooley. The Tullamore player took the fight to Westmeath throughout when others in his team started to wane. His work rate was on point, something that Offaly struggled out the field as Westmeath looked the better conditioned side throughout. Dooley’s heavy scoring meant that Offaly just about got away with this result.

On the basis of this performance, Offaly will be thumped by Galway. The work rate issue is a massive concern in the middle third and you can see Galway systematically breaking Offaly down with each passing minute of their upcoming semi-final fixture. Dooley will not be afforded some of the goalscoring opportunities afforded last weekend. Offaly win but it is only staving off execution for a couple of weeks. One step forward, potentially three steps back after this semi-final I fear.

Westmeath produced a stirring performance and but for naive defending would have come away with a superb victory. Michael Ryan and his charges have improved significantly after a slow start to the league and round robin championship stage. Tommy Doyle’s cameos should not be cast away come Awards time; what a talent and if he was playing for one of the bigger teams, he would be a shoe-in for an All Star.

Like Laois, a qualifier run looks remote given the teams that will be in the pot. The question of retaining players in the panel (lure of USA) may see several withdrawals but like Laois, this is something that realistically will happen with players conceding that their championship is up and time to go to USA to play / earn money for the summer.

Guinness Pro 12 Final: Scarlets 46 – 22 Munster

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Pro 12 Final Rout

The Scarlets rode into Dublin for a second consecutive weekend and smashed the hopes of another Irish province to ride off with a thoroughly deserved Guinness Pro 12 final win. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

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Why is James Davies not in the Welsh squad? 

Munster have no complaints on this result. Games are won in the early days of match week with video analysis and preparation paramount and the Welsh region identified the mismatches (that there was many) and executed with accuracy; something that Munster could not achieve in front of a predominant Munster crowd who started with great optimism descended into stunned silence and unfortunately saw quite a few fans walk for the exits well before Scarlets got their hands on the league trophy. Disappointing.

The Irish province started the contest with gusto; forward pack exchanges looked promising as Tyler Bleyendaal slotted over an early penalty. However, this was as good as it got for Munster as Scarlets started to impose their expansive running game and breakdown dominance culminating in the opening try.

Munster were extremely slow off the blocks in their semi-final win but the Ospreys failed to put points on the board. Scarlets identified Munster’s narrow defensive shape and exploited gaps out wide at will.

It was a stunning opening try. Patchell in the pocket producing a deft diagonal kick resulting in Liam Williams to easily outstrip Keith Earls for pace and the first try. The conversion was missed but the alarm bells were ringing for Munster.

Finals are decided by the team who are more precise and do not cough up ball in their own half. Munster were guilty on both charges. The three quarter channel was a constant thorn in Munster’s side all day and the decision of Francis Saili to chase out of the line had devastating effects; did nothing out of the line culminating in Stef Evans striding after impressive offloading by Jonathan Davies. It was a superb line break, a quick fire second try and Munster were collapsing at a rate of knots.

The third try was the end product of a shell-shocked Munster making several defensive misreads. Yes, Scarlets players were perhaps borderline infringing but Munster were buying the dummy runner at every turn. The ball went to Gareth Davies (50/50 forward pass) but the missed tackle from Munster before Davies went over summed everything up in the final; second best.

Tadhg Beirne had a sensational display. The former Leinster second row produced an all action display which must raise questions why Beirne is not even being considered for national selection. Beirne’s try was full of rigor and spoke volumes about the Scarlets performances; they were walking all over Munster as Beirne went through several abject tackles from close range to score.

All over before the interval and despite Bleyendaal’s late try before the break, the Aviva Stadium knew the writing was on the wall. 29-10. A performance full of expansive style and poise from the Welsh region. Munster were a well beaten unit.

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Final to forget for Erasmus; system breakdowns a plenty

Munster will be devastated on the performance produced. The side froze badly on the big stage again. The Aviva jinx continues (four losses in a row) and it was a mirror image of their heavy loss to Glasgow Warriors at this stage of the competition a couple of years ago. Defensively loose. Set piece and general skill set were well below par.

Munster leaders were struggling to gain parity, the breakdown area was a no contest as James Davies controlled but the kicking game of Munster was abject. Ponderous kicking, poor exit strategy giving Scarlets excellent ball to launch attacking threats from deep. Even the presence of Niebaner in the opening period (water boy duties) to try and calm the situation did not work. Munster players heads were gone. No composure, zero poise. Video analysis nightmares 101 this week to sign off on the season.

Neutrals would have liked to see Munster score again early in the second half but Scarlets responded emphatically with a well worked try once more, exposing massive defensive gaps in the three quarter channel. DTH strode for a try with several line runners around the Canadian. Munster defense would be kind.

Yes, Munster fought til the end with tries from Conway and an intercept try from Earls but Scarlets were scoring at will and finished the scoring with James Davies, a dominant player in the breakdown and open exchanges capitalizing on indecisive play from Keatley (drubber kick blocked) and outpacing Munster defensive attempts for the try. 46-22 score was an accurate reflection on the proceedings.

Scarlets continue the vain of Pro 12 Champions who have deployed an excellent brand of rugby; superb offloading, line running and uncompromising defensoe. Their victory in Thomond Park last March was the warning shot for the rest of the league; Scarlets never looked back after this display. Superb performances all over the park. The pack was efficient and compensated superbly without Owens and Ball. Lee, Evans and Beirne immaculate. The back row was supreme; exposing Munster’s back row pace issues and dominating the breakdown area. O’Donnell had not a prayer. Stander and O’Mahoney were nullified.

The half-back partnership of Davies and Patchell has grown in recent months. Their game management and exit strategy was on point and they were identifying the right mismatches throughout. The Scarlets back line had the proverbial field day; an imploding Munster defense and breakdown in communication was creating endless scoring opportunities which were clinically taken. All the back line, take a bow. A superb masterclass in identifying space and execution. Worthy champions. Well done Scarlets!

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Munster need to bottle up this moment for next season

Munster have learned the hard way that there is still plenty of work required to scale to the summit. Saracens (defensive nous) and now Scarlets (attacking precision) have exposed limited game plans and the lack of defensive shape and communication was most unexpected yesterday.

Was Rory Scannell fit? He looked to be limping early doors and was not sharp in defensive work. Saili with his colleague struggling was trying to force defensive turnovers but it only caused more problems for Munster.

As mentioned earlier, Ospreys failed to punish Munster on the scoreboard last weekend particularly in that opening half. Scarlets, a team full of confidence and gusto did. A summer of reflection for Munster management; a season of progress but weak points and composure at the business end of the season was ruthlessly exposed by better opposition. A draining season for Munster perhaps caught up with some players but it looked like the final occasion overtook a couple of players on show. Disappointing finish but the better side prevailed. Well done Scarlets! Roll on 2017-18 Pro 12 season.

Leinster SHC Quarter Final: Preview

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Leinster SHC roars into action

After the conclusion of the Leinster SHC Qualifiers where Laois and Westmeath advanced, the scene is now set for the quarter final stage. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action and does not see much hope for the underdogs this weekend.

 

Galway set to put down early championship marker

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David Burke will play a pivotal role for Galway

Tullamore and yet another road trip for the Galway hurlers and supporters to enjoy. A fixture against Dublin beckons and hurling followers will be interested to see can Galway produce an emphatic performance to back up their superb NHL win over Tipperary last month.

This is a fixture if Galway are not careful could be a banana skin. Dublin’s NHL season was mostly one to forget; a road trip win to Cork was probably the high point but unfortunately a youthful Dublin side were exposed in Croke Park against the likes of Tipperary and Waterford.

Dublin have plenty to find for this weekend. The absence of key players who have decided to either stay away from the panel or join the juggernaut which is the Dublin football team. Schutte, Sutcliffe, Con O’Callaghan are massive losses to any panel.

Dublin will not be found wanting for either work rate or enthusiasm. The problem is going to be in terms of game smarts and ability to make the right decision in championship pressure. There are going to be several debutantes making their championship bow. As Cork proved last weekend, rookie players can revel with the surroundings but there is also the downside where they could collapse under the pressure.

Ger Cunningham will look to the experienced players to provide the leadership and set the tone early in the contest in the hope that the new players to championship duty settle and follow suit. Goalkeeping position is an interesting one. Dooley or Maguire are the realistic options. Maguire’s experience or Dooley’s ability to distribute and shot stopping ability? Dooley should be the starter but who knows what Ger Cunningham and selectors decide.

The back line could be a potential weak point if Galway start to run riot in the midfield area so the performance of Liam Rushe to read play is going to be crucial. Rushe is a superb player but he failed to hit the heights last season. A quality half-back, he will need to be dominant in the air to reduce the workload on his full back line. Chris Crummey has become a really important player for Dublin and Ger Cunningham. A player who is strong in the air, physically strong and has the ability to take a score from distant. If Crummey and Rushe can perform well, then Dublin have a chance.

Darragh O’Connell will be asked to keep the midfield ticking over but it is going to be extremely difficult considering the opposition he will be faced with. The forward line onus will fall to the experienced Dotsy O’Callaghan, Ryan O’Dwyer and Eamonn Dillon to carry the majority of the scoring threat. No pressure then?

Galway hold all the aces in this fixture right down the middle of the pitch. Callanan is a quality distributor from puck outs, superb shot stopper and his organizational and communication skills to his back line is most underrated. The full back line historically has being an area where teams playing Galway have targeted but Dublin will find that they will get nothing soft from an imposing unit led by Daithi Burke who has reached another level in performance this season from full back. Mannion and Coen provide man marking options for O’Donoghue and Dublin inside forward line will do well to score heavy against this line.

The half-back line is strong and imposing. McInerney at six has found his spot, aerially dominant and game managed superbly against Tipperary in that emphatic NHL victory. Tuohy is an underrated player, all the attribute and skill sets. The midfield area is where Galway could have a decisive advantage. David Burke can game manage, falling deep and distribute excellent ball to his forward line. Burke can also score points from play either from deep or making runs from deep. How do Dublin contend with this threat?

Joe Canning has started the year in ominous form. His NHL final performance was on point and his distribution to his inside full forward line with balls into space was a joy to watch. Canning’s scoring exploits are stating the obvious. Dublin again have an issue to combat this threat? If they double mark Canning, space opens up for other Galway players including Flynn, Whelan, Mannion inside who can score heavy as Tipperary and Limerick have found to their cost in the league.

Ger Cunningham has issues trying to contend with this forward line unit if Galway hit form on Sunday. I do not see how Dublin can outscore Galway and I cannot see how Dublin counteract the threat from the Galway forward line units. After a competitive opening period, Galway to pull away for an eight point win and create an early marker for the championship.

Wexford set to come of the traps hard

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Davy Fitzgerald will be in the stands

Wexford enter this fixture with the hurling world looking for indications of whether this side is a potential dark horse for the Leinster Championship. A road trip to Portlaoise is an early test for Davy Fitzgerald’s charges and with a home team with nothing to lose, it could be an interesting opening period of play.

The Model County have had a superb league campaign. Apart from the Tipperary NHL semi-final loss, Davy Fitzgerald meltdown; Wexford beat all before them starting with their two NHL 1B rivals: Galway and Limerick. Laois competed well in their defeat against Wexford in the league but this is championship.

Wexford have a wealth of talent realistically to give this provincial championship a serious rattle. Liam Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon are superb defenders and lead by example. O’Connor and Nolan will provide midfield stability. The forward line is spearheaded by Lee Chin and Conor McDonald, two players who on form can win games on their own.

Chin’s aerial ability will be a clear advantage to Wexford on Sunday and if Chin has a good afternoon, his forward line colleagues will reap the benefits. McDonald can create goal chances from nothing and when you add the threat of Morris and Guiney, then Laois defensively are going to be up against it.

I was at Austin Stack Park when Laois got past a gallant but outgunned Kerry side two weeks ago. Laois have a superb management in place with Eamonn Kelly, Ollie Moran and Oisin McConville in the ranks. The O’Moore County went through the qualifiers unbeaten but defensively at times suffered lapses and so it proved against Kerry where Shane Nolan hit a quick brace of goals for Kerry just before half time to give the Kingdom a chance of victory.

Laois to their credit regrouped in the second half with King, Purcell to the fore. However, defensive frailties were also seen in NHL 1B action against the likes of Limerick and Galway where the full back line was opened up at will. Cahir Healy would be a huge loss for Laois if not fit on Sunday.  I think given this core defensive issue, Laois will struggle to gain parity and Wexford could potentially be out of sight after twenty minutes. I hope I am proved wrong but all the aces are with Davy Fitzgerald’s charges who will be cheered on by a large Wexford following. Wexford by ten points.

 

Offaly should edge past Westmeath

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In Dooley, Offaly trust

If you have read my blogs on Offaly hurling, you know that I think Offaly have not hit rock bottom yet but I do not think it will be this weekend. Westmeath advanced to this fixture with a last game victory over Meath. It was a spirited performance from Michael Ryan’s charge who played for forty minutes with fourteen men. The Greville brothers will look to lead by example in defense and attack as they did against Meath. Killian Doyle chipped in with several key scores from play, will need to produce this again for Westmeath to have any chance of an upset.

Offaly are a mystery at present. Kevin Ryan has bemoaned squad commitment early in the season. Shane Dooley is the talisman for Offaly; his scoring threat is undoubted and his free taking should keep the scoreboard ticking over. Joe Bergin and Sean Ryan are excellent hurlers but squad depth issues are obvious given the NHL 1B performances where a last day win against Kerry (which was a struggle) staved off relegation.

Westmeath can potentially disrupt Offaly in the work rate department. Offaly have struggled to impose their will on teams due to this and Westmeath will not be far off Offaly which will be a source of concern for Kevin Ryan. Offaly’s NHL loss to Tipperary is the last competitive action seen and on the day they were annihilated with Tipperary scoring at will. Westmeath are not Tipperary and Offaly should just about advance but will be a lamb to the slaughter when it comes to the semi-final. Offaly by a narrow four point win.

Guinness Pro 12 Final: Preview

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Guiness Pro 12 Final

After a weekend of exciting action, we now know the Guinness Pro 12 final pairing. Leinster are eliminated by what a particular Irish pundit described as the ‘West Ham of Rugby’ and Munster after a slow first half took control of their tie to the Ospreys at Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the final.

Munster enter the final in confident mood

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Erasmus one game ahead from Pro 12 success

23-3 win over Ospreys is a victory which Munster management team will privately be happy that the side showed cohesion when required in the second half to close out a contest which saw the Welsh side control the opening quarter exchanges. It is food for thought for Munster management and players that their opening quarter tempo and display needs to be more precise and effective than what was produced last weekend.

Credit the Ospreys for making life incredibly difficult for Munster in that opening half. The breakdown was an area where Munster initially failed to assert any presence. Ball was untidy for Murray to work with. For all of Ospreys positive introduction, Dan Biggar’s early penalty was only the reward and when Zebo finished off a sweeping Munster move for the first try of the contest, the work rate and heads started to wane with the visitors.

Munster’s scrum was solid. Kilcoyne was a man possessed on the night. Ball carrying was abrasive as always and his scrummaging set a solid platform to launch home attacks and put Ospreys under increasing pressure. The line-out was decent. Ryan and Holland in open play were hungry for ball carries and making tackles without the ball. The back row after a slow start asserted dominance against an extremely talented Welsh back row division containing Tipuric.

Earls was the standout back for me during this contest. His cameo was full of invention and always probing Ospreys defensively, asking question of their defense. Saili’s selection was on point and the New Zealander produced a typical abrasive performance. His offload in the lead-up to the Zebo try was super. His defensive work which at times has being little off was excellent. Scannell at twelve was quietly effective at the twelve channel. His kicking is such an asset to this side. Conway and Zebo were excellent with ball in hand. Zebo’s supporting running and ability to evade first time tackles must have sent a clear message to the Lions management of his skill-set.

With the likes of James Cronin likely to fully train with the squad this week, no new injury concerns for Rassie Erasmus and management to contend with. The manner of the performance this weekend provides management ammunition to challenge the team to improve. Murray’s cameo spoke volumes; the late scratch of Rhys Webb was massive for the Ospreys. Murray controlled the nine exchanges and his kick game was so missed against Saracens. Mission accomplished but the Irish province have being warned about the live threat from Scarlets.

Scarlets highly impressive in Leinster win

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James Davies – a pivotal figure in this final

Leinster were a well beaten side with ten minutes to go. At times in the second half, you had to remind yourself that Leinster had a player advantage for the entire half but only for a close range Jack Conan try (after a Scarlets lineout overthrow five meters from their own line) was the only time that Scarlets were in any serious defensive distress.

This was as impressive a performance seen all season. Scarlets executed brilliantly on both facets of play. They identified Adam Byrne as a potential avenue of opportunity and so it proved with an opening try which sucked Byrne in to make a defensive misread allowing Barclay the space and time to wait for the advancing Evans to cross. The second and third tries exposed Leinster’s inside defense with Shingler and Davies at nine taking advantage. Whether Munster would be as charitable in the second try is questionable.

The back row performance of Shingler. Davies and Barclay was immense. They set the tone and create havoc in breakdown and open play. Scarlets will look to repeat the trick against Munster; put pressure on Bleyendaal in open play with the onrushing Shingler and Davies. Barclay’s experience to slow down opposition complementing Davies’ ability to create turnovers will pose issues for Munster.

Leinster who are usually so efficient in their turnover count leaked twenty-nine turnovers during the course of their semi-final loss. Many of these turnovers coming from the pressure created by Scarlets. Munster will need to be on point in this facet of play to have any chance of victory.

The attacking side of play was superb from the Scarlets. Their back line options are immense. Williams and Davies were excellent last weekend. Williams is such a perfect foil for Jonathan Davies; his work rate is supreme and his ability to make the hard yards sets the platform for Jonathan Davies to game manage. His skill set is impeccable. His ability to quickly read a situation and make the right decision was seen last weekend.

Stef Evans was having a man of the match performance until his red card, hope that he features for the final. Liam Williams leadership was to the fore when taking on the kicking responsibility to secure the win; his ability with ball in hand is known. Johnny McNicholl at full back was on point coming into the line and was defensive sound in the second half.

The defensive performance of the Scarlets last weekend in the second half was noteworthy. Evans’ red card could have spelled the end of the Scarlets but the side’s resolve to overcome adversity and to support each other defensively was a joy to watch. Their decision making at the breakdown on when to compete was superb. Testament to Pivac and management coaching that the side were so disciplined during this half winning it 6-5 in the process.

The front five’s performance also caught the eye. The scrum was solid with Lee and Evans providing a secure platform. The line-out was on point with Tadhg Beirne outstanding in the set piece and open exchanges. Leinster’s decision to drop Devin Toner from proceedings came back to bite in this facet of play. When you consider that Ken Owens and Jake Ball were unavailable for selection, kudos must go to the front five on duty. They provided their half-backs with quality ball and will be a test for Munster.

Verdict

This is such a compelling finale to the Guinness Pro 12. The romantics will probably point to a Munster victory; a tribute to Axel Foley, a tribute for the fortitude and commitment shown by the province this season since his departure. For Scarlets, it will be an incredible victory; silverware secured and a perfect send off for Saracens bound Liam Williams.

Munster will look to write the wrongs of recent trips to the Aviva Stadium this season. A resounding thumping at the hands of Leinster and a loss to Saracens which exposed limitations in game plan and execution. Are there mental scars from these losses? Can Scarlets take advantage of this and impose their will on proceedings early?

If Munster are to win this contest, the pack will need to assert dominance. The set piece will be an area where Munster will probably target. The scrum looks 50/50 but the line-out options at Munster’s disposal means that Scarlets will be put under incredibly pressure. Holland, Ryan, O’Mahoney and Stander can provide options. O’Mahoney will look to disrupt throughout and the line-out is an area where he excels. Beirne and Ball (if fit) will need to be on point with their calls. Will Owens be fit? For Scarlets to win, he needs to be available.

Murray at nine against Davies is an intriguing contest. Both players possess key traits. Excellent kicking game, ability to snip from the fringes of the ruck. Bleyendaal and Patchell will also be interesting. Who gets more space to assert their influence on the game?

For Scarlets to win this contest, the breakdown area conceivably is the platform for victory. Munster ball carrying options are endless from the back row but it will be interesting to see how they counteract Davies whose omission from the Welsh Summer squad is baffling. O’Donnell conceivably will be asked to nullify this threat but Davies’ talent at creating turnovers will mean an area where the Scarlets can benefit and launch an expansive back line.

An open, loose game favors Scarlets more than Munster. Munster to win will need to pick their moments to open the game up, otherwise the likes of Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies will revel in the surroundings. McNicholl from full back will also pose an issue for Munster. His elusive running when hitting the line was seen to full effect at Thomond Park earlier in the season.

This is a 50/50 contest. Munster may have the majority of support in the Aviva Stadium but this can also play out as a disadvantage. If Scarlets can establish a foothold in the game, it will be interesting to see how the atmosphere in the stadium changes from enthusiasm to silence if this scenario plays out.

This is too close to call. A lot will depend on whether Ball or Owens feature. Both are incredible leaders in the pack. If either do not feature, Munster may have the edge in the front five battle. Beirne was immense in the Leinster win but could be up against it with Ryan and Holland in opposition.

How much did last weekend’s win against Leinster take out of Scarlets? Forty-five minutes playing with fourteen men. The final quarter of this final could prove crucial. I sense Munster may be the fresher team. Slight edge to Munster but Scarlets are a serious live threat here and the West Ham of Rugby (grossly unfair tag to the Scarlets) could easily take the Pro 12 crown. Roll on the weekend to find out the victor!

 

Munster SHC Quarter Final Reflections

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Incredible opening provincial clash

Twenty-four hours and the dust is starting to settle on an epic opening Munster SHC encounter between reigning All Ireland Champions Tipperary and underdogs Cork. 56 scores in total tells it own story as both sides abandoned (for the most part) the much despised sweeper system to serve up an open, exhilarating contest. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action and sees issues not only in the Tipperary defensive for Michael Ryan to contend with.

Cork freshness key

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Kingston and management selections justified

When Cork management announced the team to face Tipperary last week, a couple of personnel changes made hurling fans sit up and take note. The decision to go with youth, the decision to go with players in form, the decision to drop established players was a high risk strategy. On another day, it could have had backfired disastrously but for Kingston and management, it worked like a charm as the team produced a performance which was not expected from some quarters.

Why should we have being so surprised? Cork had accounted for Tipperary in the NHL 1A last month, a result which was at the time put down to Cork wanting it more to stave off the relegation threat. The NHL fixture was in many respects identical to the manner in which the championship fixture was played in that Cork imposed a fast tempo from the first whistle, excellent puckout strategy from Nash to the likes of Luke Meade and Conor Lehane and the willingness of the Cork midfield to make searing runs from deep creating the overlap for a player in a better position to score in attack.

Cork Rookies deliver

The manner in which Cork’s midfield and half-forward line performed yesterday was a testament to their conditioning. They were on form from the first whistle and the pace / speed factor was a no contest. Several players caught the eye yesterday. Luke Meade and Shane Kingston were unerring in their championship debut cameos, providing pace and precision throughout. Lehane’s contribution from frees and open play caused Tipperary endless issues. Pa Horgan imposed his influence on proceedings with four neat points. Harnedy chipped in with a couple of key scores in both halfs and took the leadership mantle to run at the Tipperary back line along with the impressive Lehane.

The midfield and half-back line performances were immense. Cooper and Fitzgibbon in particular ran Brendan Maher out of the contest. Coleman, Joyce and Spillane dominated defensively but were also ably assisted by the likes of Cahalane who did not give Callanan any space throughout from full back.

This is the blueprint for future Cork performances. The consistency levels in performance will be interesting to note as the summer progresses particularly with Waterford looming large in two weeks. Cork cannot let this result get to their heads; the supporters reaction was unbridled joy but it was only the opening round of the provincial championship. A loss to Waterford and a tough qualifier route would then beckon. Cork need to push on now and ensure that this performance was not a flash in the pan.

Puckout Strategy

This was the most obvious failing from Tipperary on the day. As Anthony Nash was consistently identifying players in space and varying his delivery, Tipperary were simply bereft of ideas on the puckouts. Darren Gleeson option was to launch deep at very opportunity. With a half-forward line minus the services of Bonnar Maher, the Cork half-back line reveled in the predictable delivery either winning ball clean or the second ball where Cooper and Fitzgibbon collected and consistently ran with the ball from deep.

Tipperary’s puckout strategy lacked any invention or creativity to change the course of this contest. No variation and not once did a half-back line player look for a quick puckout in order to bypass a dominant Cork half-back line unit. Cork effectively snuffed out the space and in the second half starting to drift players back on the Tipperary puckout to offset the threat of O’Dwyer who was the only player for the Tipp half forward line who looked to make an impact. Breen from midfield scoring six points from play caught the eye. Either side of those players, all other Tipperary players struggled for performance on the day.

McCormick may have scored three points but aerially was routed throughout. Curran at half-forward lacked physicality and aggressiveness to effectively compete with the likes of Coleman and Ellis. Gleeson cannot take all the blame but the puckout strategy / player movement into space from both sides was a pivotal fact from which the result was created.

Lethargic or Burned Out Tipperary?

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Michael Ryan has a job on his hands to regroup his squad

A team does not become a bad one overnight. Prior to the NHL final against Galway, this Tipperary side looked to have all the attributes to seriously retain this championship. It is still early in the season and Tipperary should restore confidence in the qualifiers come July but the fixture schedule from both a county (club) / intercounty perspective has caught up with several players.

The third level players on duty for Tipperary lacked spark yesterday apart from Michael Breen. Ronan Maher looked incredibly sluggish yesterday. Cork were pacy but Maher has being able to contend with this type of threat before? Are his exertions with Mary Immaculate earlier in the year, several club league and championship games with Thurles Sarsfields and the fixture list in March / April for the county taking a toll? The same could be levelled at the likes of John McGrath. He scored 1-1 but was off the pitch of the game for long periods.

The lack of work rate and tempo will have most disheartened Michael Ryan yesterday in the forward line. Tipperary last season were tigerish in open play with or without the ball. This season, that hunger and tempo has being missing particularly in the last two games. The work rate and tempo without the ball starts in the forward line and to be honest, Tipperary’s half-forward and full-forward lines lacked the work rate required. Cork defensively were not troubled as they passed their way out of defense repeatedly with no significant pressure applied by their hosts. No wonder the Tipperary back line were struggling with the ball coming in?

The half forward line was a mess from start to finish. Bonnar Maher’s loss was devastating; he sets the tone and work rate levels. His ability to provide for others was also missed albeit O’Dwyer tried to play that role particularly in the opening period. Noel McGrath scored three points but was absent for long periods.

Apart from the splendid John McGrath goal, there was a distinct lack of cohesion to Tipperary’s attacking moves for the majority of this contest. 1-26 would not suggest that but the majority of the scores came from individual brilliance more so than players selflessly running off the ball to create space for others. Tipperary will point to the goal chances spurned, fair point but it was indicative of the performance in recent weeks that they failed to convert; not precise enough. The team look burned out currently; devoid of creativity as a result. Time to reflect and come back strong in July.

Tipperary Defensive Woes

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Tough afternoon for Brendan Maher

The loss yesterday highlighted a lack of depth in the defensive positions. Injuries to the likes of Michael Cahill, Donagh Maher resulted in fringe players getting game time. John O’Keefe had a torrid afternoon, not helped by the performance of his colleagues up the field. Horgan, Harnedy were dominant throughout inside.

The injury to Barrett in the final quarter was the final nail in the coffin. Barrett was holding the line at the seams but when he went off injured, James Barry felt that he needed to try to win the first ball. No confidence in his colleagues was apparent and it manifested itself in the Cahalane goal to seal the Cork victory. Barry is usually an excellent game reader but his decision to go for a ball even though O’Keefe was contesting it was very unusual. The ball slipped through the cover and the net rippled soon after. It is an area where Tipperary corner back options need to be identified quickly.

The half-back line as well had torrid afternoons. Ronan Maher was sluggish throughout and the amount of ball coming into the Cork full forward line at times was the ability of Cork to move the Thurles Sarsfields man around the pitch. Padraic Maher attempted to stem the flow but again was exposed on several occasions due to Cork half-forward line movement and communication defensive breakdowns. John Kennedy was average at best; was constantly on the back foot throughout and struggling to cope with the Cork speed and pace on show.

Michael Ryan will react to this loss; expect panel additions in the coming weeks particularly defensively as he looks for players with genuine form to come in and fill the breach.

Superb Munster Championship Opener

A great advertisement for the Munster SHC. 2-27 to 1-26 is a magnificent scoreline. The powers that be should leave well alone; retain the Munster SHC and play it out in May and early June along with Leinster SHC. The entertainment value yesterday was sensational.

Mind you, other fixtures may not be as pleasant on the eye with the likes of Clare and Waterford deploying sweeper systems probably this season again. It has opened up the Munster SHC for sure.

There are four teams who have now a realistic shot of winning the crown. Limerick come into the equation due to their challenge displays against Cork in recent weeks. The form line of Cork must bode well for John Kiely’s charges. Clare are looking good as well with competitive challenge games over Galway in recent weeks. Waterford should come into the championship all guns blazing.

For Cork to win this championship, it will be an immense feat. Three potential arduous fixtures to win the crown and potentially could take plenty out of them as the All Ireland Series commences later in the summer. Tipperary’s elimination from the championship could be a blessing for the Premier County (flashes of 2010), recharge the batteries and slowly restore confidence in the camp ahead of a potential All Ireland Quarter Final fixture.

 

 

Guinness Pro 12 Playoff: Leinster 15 – 27 Scarlets

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Playoff away jinx was smashed in the RDS

The sight of Leinster Rugby fans streaming out of the RDS with ten minutes remaining said it all; the home team were a well beaten outfit against a Scarlets side who showed different facets with a superb road trip performance.

Leinster entered this fixture having to a make a late change in their starting squad. Sean O’Brien’s injury hit season continues as he was forced to pull out with a tight calf. The Lions tour management will be keen to test O’Brien early next week to ascertain the extent of the injury.

The team selection from Leinster personally raised alarm bells. The absence of Devin Toner in the second row meant that Twigg and Molony were entrusted to call the lineout set piece. Scarlets must have perked up no end by that decision, a set piece that Leinster have struggled with in recent weeks.

Scarlets as mentioned on my blog preview earlier this week stated that they were a seriously live threat. Irish pundits had disregarded the threat posed by the Welsh region and the opening half performance oozed class in all facets of play.

Leinster enjoyed dominance in the early exchanges but they were met by excellent defensive line speed from Scarlets. Shingler and Davies were to the fore with their breakdown work but more significantly put massive pressure on Sexton whenever the fly half had ball in hand.

Sexton could not rest as Scarlets line speed did not abate during the opening period. His distribution and influence were minimal and his kicking from hand was average. If Owen Farrell was worrying about the Lions ten jersey, he can rest easy as the jersey is now a lock for the England / Saracens star. Sexton’s form was inconsistent at best and his frustration was evident in that he got involved in several flashpoints, something you seldom see. Sexton was rattled and his team mates were not far behind them given the start made by Scarlets.

Scarlets soaked up the pressure and were forcing Leinster into several unforced turnovers. The early exchanges saw the withdrawal of Jack McGrath with a shoulder injury and the Welsh side came to the fore as the half progressed.

Adam Byrne has had a superb debut season for Leinster but the wing’s defensive misread caused the man overlap for the opening try. Barclay’s patient waiting for Evans on his shoulder was superb. Steff Evans pace was too much and he crossed with gusto.

Leinster were asked for a response and they produced an excellent try scored by Ringrose. Henshaw’s line break forced Scarlets to commit too many players to the breakdown area and the subsequent phase of play resulted Jack Conan offloading to Ringrose who made no mistake like Nacewa in the added extras. 10-7 Leinster and some would have expected Leinster to drive on.

However, it never happened. Leinster’s fringe defense was hit and miss all njght and another breakdown defensively in the home defense resulted in Shingler receiving the ball ten meters from the line with Gibson Park for company who was on for the unlucky Luke McGrath forced off due to a head injury.

The attempt from Gibson Park to stop Shingler was quite frankly embarrassing. A meek hand on Shingler who swatted him away with contempt and strode unopposed to score Scarlets’ second try. This try will haunt Gibson-Park for quite a while. Patchell added the conversion and Scarlets were back in front 14-12.

Leinster were now rattled and it was no surprise that Scarlets went over for another try soon after with more incisive passing, probing for defensive gaps and Davies’ line running and support was to the fore collecting the ball and going over for the try.  The hosts defensive line speed and structure were all over the place. 21-12 and Leinster needed something to get them back into the contest.

Cue the key talking point of the game. Steff Evans was having a man of the match display; his speed and attacking threat to the fore. His defensive duties were on point until he tackled Gary Ringrose by the legs but as Ringrose spiralled to the ground, Evans did not support the player on the way down; the replays saw Ringrose in a vertical position. Red card but the contribution of Samson Lee in the play was not looked at. Leinster had a lifeline in the tie.

Scarlets showed their expansive side of the game in the opening period but the second half showed how improved they are defensively. The defensive organization, the decision making to compete in the breakdown vs. defend the fringes and the team work to support colleagues was to the fore. Leinster struggled to establish a foothold in the early second half exchanges. Gibson-Park showed the panic in the ranks by kicking out in the full early doors when patience and building the phases was the right call.

Leinster manage,ment will be more disappointed that no-one on the pitch took over the leadership mantle. The usual suspects were strangely quiet for Leinster and the decision to omit Toner was seriously backfiring as once Leinster player Tadhg Beirne had a superb performance in the second row. work rate and lineout throw steals in an all action display.  The line-out options for Leinster were extremely one dimensional; first option with little prospect of hitting deep in the line.

Jack Conan was probably the player of the game for Leinster. His work rate and effort were rewarded with a try which looked to be a pivotal score midway through the second half. Scarlets were their own worse enemy in the leadup for the score. A sloppy kick from McNicholl and then a Scarlets lineout over throw five meters out from their own line resulted in Leinster gaining possession deep which Conan score. Nacewa unbelievably missed the conversion and it was a decisive miss. 15-19 to Scarlets. The Welsh region had to respond.

Scarlets knew that they needed to gain territorial parity to get some much needed space to recuperate from a prolonged defensive stint. Cian Healy was pinged for bringing the scrum down and Liam Wiliams stood up to the pressure to dispatch the long range penalty over. 15-24 and Leinster were on the brink and leaders again were required. However, they failed to appear as Scarlets were keeping their defensive composure and another penalty award saw the opportunity clinically put away by Williams. Game over.

The Pro 12 away playoff jinx is now consigned to the history books. Scarlets were by far the superior side on the night. If Evans had not being sent off, one wonders what the scoreline and margin of victory could have being. Scarlets beat Leinster 6-5 in the second half, playing with fourteen men. Leinster can have no complaints; they were second best in the pack exchanges albeit Furlong tried to win the game on his own with his trademark physical line running. Beirne was the dominant figure in the set-piece and the fact that Twigg was withdrawn in the opening second half exchanges spoke volumes. The back row breakdown contest was a no contest. Davies, Shingler and Barclay dominated the breakdown area. Davies is such a talent; his mobility and ability to pinch opposition ball should warrant a Welsh call-up.

The half-back battle was won by Scarlets. Luke McGrath’s withdrawal was a decisive moment as Gibson-Park lack of confidence and poise in decision making make his colleagues nervous around him. Patchell varied the game well during his cameo and his kicking off the tee was on point. Davies at nine was snipping throughout; his line running and support to colleagues was excellent. Sexton endured a miserable evening; no opportunity to settle into the contest.

The back line units was again Scarlets. Defensively solid while Leinster tolled. Byrne on the wing learned more in this contest than he has all season. Scarlets clearly targeted the rookie and gain line breaks were established. Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams partnership is superb; Williams is so solid, he possess good pace and line break ability plus his defensive nous is key. Davies is an excellent footballer; his game management was to the fore in one game moment in the second half. Davies received a nothing ball and his decision was swift; drubber kick the ball into touch as nothing was on. It was this cool, collective decision making which set Scarlets out apart.

Scarlets have being the form side of this tournament this year. They will not fear whoever is coming from the other side of the draw. If it is Munster, the pressure will be on the Irish province. Ospreys — they have an edge given their recent win over their rivals. Scarlets will hope to overturn Evans ban to allow him to play in the showpiece event.

For Leinster, it has a devastating end to the season and plenty of soul searching among team management and squad during the summer. For all the talent in the squad, both the Clermont and Scarlets semi-final losses saw indifferent performances from the side. A lack of work rate in the opening periods of these games to establish a platform was pivotal. The lack of attacking precision was criticized by Leinster fans last season; a repeat could be leveled at the side after last night. Cullen as head coach will need to evolve; there was no plan B when Scarlets counter attacked the attacking threats of Sexton and Ringrose.

A note for the Leinster fans who decided to leave early last night. You support a team through thick and thin. It is pretty pathetic for supporters to turn their back on a side considering the game was still in the melting pot with ten minutes left. It happened with some so called Munster fans in the Aviva in April as well. Leinster players paraded around the RDS to near virtual empty stands; supporters need to show appreciation for the team’s efforts. Sad indictment. Leinster will be back but whether those fans will be is an entirely different story. Scarlets advance and they cannot wait for the final!

GAA: Munster SHC Preview

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Fireworks expected in this provincial championship

May 21st. Thurles. Field of Legends is the venue for the start of the Munster Senior Hurling Championship where reigning All Ireland SHC Champions Tipperary face up against old rival Cork. This is a provincial championship which should produce several key talking points and major clues on who will feature in the All Ireland Series at the end of the summer. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to analyze the championship and predict a winner.

 

Tipperary hold the aces but questions need to be answered?

Tipperary should enter into this part of the championship with confidence and swagger. They are the reigning All Ireland Champions. They possess several forwards who are capable of winning a game on their own. Serious squad depth so why the question marks?

Whether it was due to the exertions of the eventful and physical Wexford NHL semi-final or Galway performing at an extremely high level, Tipperary fell flat in the NHL final. Tipperary manager Michael Ryan was keen to stress his desire of winning this early season competition. The manner of the performance was worrying. The team collectively never got to the pitch of the game. Galway bullied the Tipperary forward line from the first throw in and with Canning and Burke providing excellent distribution inside, Tipperary were left exposed defensively and goals were promptly conceded. Perhaps it was the reality check required for the Premier County.

The news that Kieran Bergin has switched from the hurlers to the footballers is an indication that the Killenaule man was surplus to requirements. The training sessions have being on point in recent weeks and the return of Seamus Callanan is a massive boost. The Drom Inch club man is the perfect full forward target man; big, strong and with searing pace. His heavy scoring represents a massive problem for Cork this weekend. Does Cork focus their attentions on Callanan? If so, then John / Noel McGrath or Bubbles O’Dwyer will have serious displays given the space they will potentially get. It is a nightmare scenario for any manager who is trying to beat the Premier County.  Tipperary will reflect on the NHL final as a blessing as the season progresses. It will be a reminder that they need to produce the work rate, tempo and game management to win.

The back line is immense. Barrett, Barry and Donagh Maher (potentially) represent a strong full back line to protect Darren Gleeson in the goals whose distribution from the back has being unheralded. The half-back line of Kennedy, Padraic and Ronan Maher can dominate matches with long range scoring another trait for this line. The midfield partnership of Brendan Maher and Michael Breen should provide the work rate and possession to set the attacking platform. Breen was a standout last season; his running lines and ability to win 50/50 ball was to the fore. Brendan Maher will game manage in the pocket potentially acting as sweeper at times. The half-forward may need to do without Bonnar Maher so the onus will be on the likes of O’Meara and O’Brien to win their individual battles. O’Brien comes with a big reputation; his aerial prowess should provide the McGrath’s and O’Dwyer endless opportunities. It is a quality side.

Cork – Jekyll and Hyde

The big question this weekend is what Cork side will turn up. If it is the side which produced stirring NHL performances against Clare and Tipperary then we are in for a superb contest. If is the side that did not show up in losses to the likes of Dublin and Limerick, then Cork will be in for an extremely torrid afternoon.

NHL 1A survival was a realistic target for Cork this season after a forgettable NHL campaign last term. The fact that Cork won several league games and secured a quarter final berth was progress. The wins this season in the NHL showed when Cork applied themselves to the contest, they were a match for anyone. Their tempo was on point and good early ball into the full forward line yielded rewards.

Cork have several magnificent players. Nash in goal is an excellent shot stopper and distributor. His back line have impressed at times. Cahalane has grown into the full back position and Mark Ellis is an excellent game reader from half-back. The midfield tandem of Cooper / Kearney and McLoughlin are solid players who are well capable of providing scores from play. The forward line has several ace marksmen who if given time and space can win games on their own.

Pa Horgan for me is their focal point. The full forward’s performance is usually indicative of how Cork are faring. An involved Horgan in open play suggests that Cork are well into the contest. His free taking is always on point. If Horgan is quiet in open exchanges, then Cork are struggling.

May 21st will be an excellent test for Cork to just show how far along the progression chart they are in this long term project. The work rate point has being mentioned frequently in previous seasons; the league campaign saw differing levels of work rate and defensively at times were exposed.

Cork need to settle into this contest early, otherwise the expansive attacking Tipperary style could open up massive holes in the Cork back line. Does Mark Ellis keep his position at half-back or does he follow his marker who will rotate and move around to create space for the inside forward line / score points at will? This is the scenario facing Cork. I think this game has come too early for this panel and a good qualifier campaign is realistically the route to take and evaluate this side.

Waterford – Now or Never

There is massive pressure on this Waterford team this season. The promise of recent seasons under Derek McGrath has to produce Liam McCarthy this season. With the emergence of a superb U21 team last season, squad depth is probably at an all time high for the Deise. It is time to deliver.

Waterford’s league campaign was very hit and miss. A superb win away at Nowlan Park and Croke Park would have suggested that Waterford were going to top the league but their home form was an issue. Losses to Tipperary, Cork were low points but it was the reversal to Galway in the quarter final which may have prompted some debate, losing a big lead in the second half to Galway at Salthill.

Deise have several superb talents. The back line is led by Noel Connors, a superb corner back whose work rate and leadership is to the fore. Kevin Moran’s ability to game manage and take the initiative when required is an immense asset. His ability to fulfill multiple positions defensively, midfield and half forward line is testament to his ability to win aerial ball. Brick Walsh is an institution. His career stats and individual accolades speak for themselves. His durability to transition from half-back to centre half-forward has being a huge plus for a Waterford forward line unit whose pace and power is incredible.

Bennett and Curran are players who will have a major say in this championship. Devine as an impact sub at full forward can add something different to the party.  O’Mahony’s free taking will provide Waterford a reliable scoring source. However, the main man for this county is Austin Gleeson. The Young Hurler and Hurler of the Year is a mercurial talent; his ability to play anywhere and make an impact was to the fore last season.

Gleeson can provide the platform and leadership for Waterford to lift them to the next level this season but he needs to trust his colleagues more when with ball in hand. He was guilty at times last season for taking the spectacular long range score which would have being better served distributing to a colleague in space. Gleeson is an immense talent; no flaws in his play and his trademark runs from deep will provide the inspiration for fans and players alike.

Waterford are quietly preparing this season. The hype of last season in the epic league final is in the past and the Deise have being able to focus on their preparation with minimum of fuss. They will arrive to the provincial semi-final knowing that a big performance is required but this team needs to set the early marker. Time will tell.

Will a new look Clare Management make a difference?

A new era has arrived in Clare. Davy Fitzgerald was given the ultimatum and Moloney and O’Connor took the job. The significant development was the decision of Donal Og Cusack to remain with the county, a key move and providing stability with the newly installed management who have shown their credentials with U21 success.

What can we expect from Clare? Will the side change their style of play? Their short passing / sweeper system irked many in the game and they were exposed come the championship time last season (perhaps NHL exertions was a factor). Clare to be realistic All Ireland contenders need to change their game up, more quick ball into their forward line is a must.

Clare’s panel need to deliver this season. NHL season was underwhelming; a couple of key wins against Kilkenny and Dublin showed an exciting inside full forward line with Shanagher showing the promise from last season. There were some chastening losses as well most notably against Tipperary at Thurles where a competitive contest opened up in the last quarter with defensive issues surfacing.

Clare will look to several stars to at least advance to a provincial final. Tony Kelly is the main man for the Banner County; half-forward and midfield positioning results in the Ballyea clubman creating space to score at will. However, Kelly needs players to support him. Conlon, Shanagher inside should possess the physicality and pace to seriously threaten opposition full back lines.

The back line consists of several standout leaders. Cian Dillon has become a solid, no nonsense full back. David McInerney is a sublime hurler but question marks on where his best position is continues. Brendan Bugler and Conor Cleary provide half-back dominance.

A Munster final is the minimum requirement for a group who at times have failed to produce at the business end of the season. Clare if they can find form and tempo will be a team that no-one will want to face in the last eight of this competition.

Limerick Rebuild:

Limerick are a work in progress. A new manager, exciting backroom staff containing Paul Kinnerk and introduction of several underage prospects means that Limerick realistically could enter the championship with low expectations. The goal from my perspective is for the team to perform well and identify leaders in the side going forward.

John Kiely has being keen to stress that this is the start of the project. NHL 1B results indicated as much. Galway (2) and Wexford losses showed glimpses of potential but the consistency of performance was not sustained enough to get over the line. The victory away to Cork was a pleasant surprise but the semi-final mauling to Galway in April was a chastening experience and one that focused fans, management and players minds.

The Limerick side contains a mix of youth and experience. Kiely has being keen to introduce several U21 stars from the 2015 All Ireland side. Potential defensive leaders for the future are Diarmuid Byrnes and Richie English. Hannan, McCarthy and Hickey will provide experience to the youngsters who will protect Nicky Quaid in the goals, a solid goalkeeper but would like to see the player out the field.

The midfield area will be interesting. Several players come to the fold. Dempsey, Browne, Ryan, O’Donovan come to mind. The unit needs to provide work rate and tempo to provide quality ball to a Limerick forward line who possess a couple of game winners. Cian Lynch has superb hurling skills, great game reader but was snuffed out due to the sweeper system. He needs space and quick ball to make an impact.

Na Piarsaigh will provide the main threat in the forward line. Dowling, Casey and Lynch will provide the main scoring threat. Casey in corner forward could be a potential star for the side with his pace and scoring threat. Hayes at full forward could be also a player for the future and has shown well in preseason games. Hegarty at wing forward will be a primary ball winner target. There is a lot of potential in these players but it might take a year or two to bed in.

I am not quite sure where Limerick are. I am hoping as a Limerick man compete well in the championship; they are the clear underdog in this championship but if a couple of young players can shine, I will be quite happy. A qualifier campaign to the quarter final is the aim realistically. Anything else is a bonus.

Verdict: Waterford

  • Tipperary vs. Cork

Beware the wounded animal. Tipperary will throw down the early championship marker and with massive scoring threat, this is a game where Cork could potentially be on the receiving end. Tipperary by seven points after a competitive first quarter.

  • Limerick vs. Clare

This is a fixture that Clare have to win. The panel are under pressure to produce. Davy Fitzgerald was the fall guy last season even though helping them to win the NHL title. Clare’s key players need to step up to the plate and I think they will just have too much for a Limerick side whose consistency performance levels during contests will come back to haunt them.

  • Tipperary vs. Waterford

The marquee tie of this championship. Waterford come into the fixture probably as underdogs if Tipperary win convincingly in the opening round. Waterford will be lacking championship game time but I think this team will be keen to set the marker. I think this is the year where Waterford have to produce and this is the game that will set the tone for the rest of the season. Edging towards Waterford on this fixture. The hurt of last year’s’ provincial final will be a key motivator.

  • Waterford vs. Clare

Two well matched sides. The momentum of the Tipperary win could be decisive for the Deise to win this contest. Gleeson to the fore.

Pro 12: Munster vs. Ospreys Playoff Preview

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Rivalry and physicality to the fore

The second Guinness Pro 12 playoff will be in Thomond Park where Munster will look to provide further evidence of their progression with a final appearance at the Aviva Stadium. Standing in their way is the Ospreys, a team whose season has faltered but have a superb opportunity to correct the regular league reversals this season.

Can Munster learn from ERC semi-final loss failings?

I think this is the key point that Munster fans will look to this weekend. Munster have secured the top spot in the league with an emphatic win over Connacht in the final day of the regular season and Ulster beating Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium. A potential fixture against Scarlets predicted weeks ago is now the Ospreys and with no love lost between both sides, this will be a brutally physical encounter.

Whatever happens now this season, this is a year which will be remembered for profound loss with the untimely passing of Anthony Foley and the emergence from the grieve and loss to produce game winning performances since then. Foley shouldered most of the responsibility for the side’s decline last season; protecting young players in the squad from media criticism. You must remember where Munster were this time last season; incredibly fortunate to qualify for the ERC with some nervy end of season wins.

Munster management and squad have stepped up massively. The return of Peter O’Mahoney from injury was almost like a new signing. His leadership, work rate at the breakdown and causing havoc to opposition in set piece was to the fore. The front five has improved significantly this season. Ryan / Archer, Scannell / Marshall, Kilcoyne / Cronin have provided a steady set piece. The second row has excelled this season. Ryan and assured Holland have provided quality line out possession and assisted by the likes of O’Mahoney, Kleyn, O’Shea, Deysel at various points of the season. The back row options speak for themselves. Stander has had an epic season; multiple accolades for the Castleconnell resident and with the emergence of O’Donnell, O’Donoghue, Oliver with the experience of Deysel and O’Mahoney — the back row has possessed mobility but also physicality.

The half-back situation last season was a difficult one for Munster in particular the ten jersey. Keatley endured a season to forget, confidence sapping as no other viable options were available to rescue Keatley. Holland came and then unfortunately had to retire. The position lacked competition but thankfully Tyler Bleyendaal returned to the squad and has cemented his position at fly-half. The New Zealander has consistently mentioned his gratitude to Anthony Foley for persevering with him after an injury plagued start to his provincial careers. Some pundits and fans were questioning the need to keep him on the books but Foley stood firm and Bleyendaal has emerged with a strong season. His game management has improved as the season has progressed. His ability to launch line runners is his greatest strength.

It will be interesting to see if Rassie Erasmus starts Conor Murray at scrum-half. The player is superb but his shoulder injury sustained on international duty during the RBS 6 Nations tournament ruined his club campaign; his presence was missed against Saracens in the ERC semi-final but has made a cameo appearance against Connacht to try and prove his match fitness. This weekend will indicate how fit Murray is and Warren Gatland and Lions management will be very interested spectators.

The most significant loan signing this season for Munster was the arrival of unheralded South African Jaco Taute; a player with experience and cover for the injured Francis Saili. Taute has taken his opportunity superbly with several eye-catching performances. Taute is a Munster fans favorite and his loan extension was gratefully received. How Ulster fans would have reacted after that news considering Ruan Pienaars’ departure would be interesting? Taute has provided leadership, defensive structures and Scannell has grown into the twelve position as a result.

The wings have seen the emergence of several ex-Munster academy players this season. Alex Wooton, Ronan O’Mahony and Darren Sweetnam have stepped up to the mark. Sweetnam is a player of great potential; his all round game and skills were evident throughout his rookie season. His ability to create a try from nothing to the fore. O’Mahony (out of the fixture due to injury) led the side in tries. Wooton’s explosive pace has created numerous line breaks in recent games. Great talent to complement established players such as Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo. Ian Keatley has contributed and produced a good season with several keynote performances this season.

The team and fans are again a cohesive unit in unison; something you could not say last season. With far improved attendances at Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park, Munster gate revenues have increased. Game day atmosphere has stepped up in intensity. Debt remains an issue but this season has being a marked up improvement for the province.

Ospreys will look at the ERC semi-final loss to Saracens as a source of optimism. Munster failed to perform on the day. Their limited game plan was easily counteracted by a Saracens who exposed game management issues to put the tie out of sight ten minutes into the second half. Saracens absorbed Munster’s early punches and ran out convincing winners. Munster were reduced to one out ball carries, mediocre kicking game as a result of Saracens defensive line speed and breakdown work. The ability to control emotions was not evident in certain quarters; the game plan needs to be more varied particularly when facing excellent opposition like this weekend.

Ospreys will not fear Munster

Munster hold no fear for Ospreys. The regular season games were two completely different games. Munster were dominant in their home fixture but Ospreys will rue not putting Munster to the sword in the opening period of their home loss. Yes, Munster did win both fixtures but the last fixture showed Ospreys how to expose Munster.

Ospreys started the game with superb tempo and line speed. Their clear out work in the first quarter of this contest was excellent and Munster were pinned back. This physicality and dominance subsided as the half wore on and Munster were clinical in their possession keeping themselves in touch and stealing a victory.

Ospreys under Steve Tandy started the season with extreme promise and all was going well for the side until the ERC Challenge Cup quarter final to Stade Francais. The loss seem to deflate the squad and some performances were below par. The loss in Italy to Treviso was a low point but Ospreys did arrest the slide with a convincing win over Ulster until they faced Scarlets and were comprehensively beaten. Two weeks to reflect and review to produce a performance at Thomond Park.

What did go so horribly wrong for Ospreys? Discipline was a key issue during the game. Webb’s yellow card allowed Scarlets the platform to lead and once done produce a very expansive display exposing Ospreys on the fringes and defensive breakdowns resulting in try concessions.

Playoffs. It is a clean slate for the side and there should not be pressure for the Welsh region. Pundits will write off the Ospreys at their peril but there will be notes ahead of this fixture stating as much (certain Irish Indo journos). Will Alyn Wyn Jones feature during this contest? It is a massive boost for the side if he even featured on the bench. Leadership, work rate and line-out efficiency.

The Ospreys pack this season is young, energetic and extremely mobile. Baldwin, Ardron, Underhill and Baker have provided consistent performance along with the mercurial talent of Tipuric wrecking havoc at the breakdown.

Webb and Biggar at half-back will provide Ospreys with assured game management. Webb at nine is an exceptional talent. His ability to find space in the fringes to the fore. Biggar’s penalty kicking and ability to suck defenses out of position to launch the likes of Beck, Matavesi again eye catching. Sam Davies / Dan Evan provide kicking ability from deep but also excellent line break capability from full back where the elusive Giles has provided several keynote game changing moments on the wing.

If Ospreys can get a foothold in this contest, then they will feel that they have the sufficient quality out wide to threaten a Munster defense whose structures have vastly improved this term. The key decision is on Jones in the lock position. Bradley Davies and Scott Ardron are a good partnership but Jones is leader central. Interesting lineup beckons.

Verdict:

I think Ospreys have a serious chance to upset Munster this weekend. A team with nothing to lose, the pressure should be firmly on the hosts to produce a performance. There are fitness question marks over Munster’s first choice half-back partnership. Williams at scrum-half has provided solid support but Webb will fancy his chances to assert a game changing / match winning performance from nine. The battle in the pack is where Ospreys need to front up. If they can quell the hosts early salvos, Munster may become extremely one dimensional. The learnings of the ERC semi-final or not will then be answered in quick fashion. Ospreys were a disallowed injury time try away from beating Munster in the playoffs two seasons ago. Munster have being warned. Playoff rugby. Anything can happen. The Thomond Park venue will provide solace for Munster but it has to happen on the pitch. If Murray plays from the start, advantage Munster but if not then Ospreys have more than enough to secure the road trip. A game which will be brutal and physical; would not be surprised if a Lions bound player is struck down with a season-ending injury here. Tempo and platform will be key early doors.

 

Pro 12: Leinster vs. Scarlets Playoff Preview

 

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Playoff Rugby on May 19th / 20th

The Guinness Pro 12 regular season is in the books. For eight teams, it is time to shut it down for the off season and hit the beach. For Leinster and Scarlets, playoff rugby looms large in the horizon with a final at the Aviva Stadium the prize. This article previews the opening playoff fixture in the RDS.

Leinster wary of Scarlets challenge

The playoffs kick off with a potentially mouthwatering fixture between Leinster who for a last day loss to Ulster was top of the league for a large part of the season against a Scarlets team who have hit optimum form at the right time of the season.

Leinster have made RDS a fortress in the Pro 12 league. Their squad depth has absorbed the international fixtures throughout the season. The fact that they went through the RBS 6 Nations phase of the league unbeaten is a testament to a squad who are performing efficiently in defense and with ball in hand.

The arrival of Graham Henry during the off-season to advise Leo Cullen on all things coaching and management was a superb move but even more so was the decision to hire Stuart Lancaster to the coaching ticket. Lancaster hallmarks on Leinster this season were obvious; improved line speed both defensive and attacking lines were more precise. This relieved the pressure on Cullen in his second season as head coach.

Leinster have injury concerns over Cronin and Henshaw but would expect at least one of the players to line up for this fixture. Leinster do not have a weak point in their lineup; their front five is abrasive and the scrum set piece with McGrath and Furlong in superb form creating the platform to create scoring opportunities.

The second row has being an area where Leinster have switched and changed during various parts of the season. Toner is the first choice in this unit but his partner has being less than clear cut. Twigg will probably line up with the Irish international but Molony and Kearney have stepped in at times; the line out has being overall good but has had lapses most notably in the ERC semi-final where this set piece component was below the standard required.

The back row options for Leinster are endless. Heaslip, O’Brien, van der Flier, Conan, Ryan, Ruddock and Leavy all come into the mix for selection. The competition for even a matchday squad berth is incredible within this unit and must be difficult for management ahead of key fixtures to pick. Mobility will be key against Scarlets and the role of van der Flier in this fixture for Leinster cannot be underestimated.

James Davies has being sublime this season for the Scarlets again; his breakdown work has caught the eye and resulted in numerous turnovers for the Welsh region. Leinster need to nullify the threat of Davies, otherwise Scarlets will have an superb chance to secure a road trip win.

The half-back combination for Leinster are excellent. Luke McGrath has grown into the team and nine role this season; his game management and speed of distribution from the ruck has allowed Sexton / Byrne or Carbery the time to launch their runners. Sexton will look to set down a marker for the Lions management with a superb performance this weekend.

Sexton at ten has all the tools of the trade. His game management and ability to vary play leaves opposition off balance. It is imperative for Scarlets to slow down Leinster ball at ruck time and line speed on point defensively to force Sexton to rethink his game plan. A tall order but it is what is required.

The three quarter combination should be Henshaw and Ringrose; a massive tussle beckons against a Scarlets side containing Lions player Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams whose creativity, line breaking ability and offload play will take stopping. Ringrose at thirteen has evolved this season.

His attacking play was clear for rugby fans to see this season, his pace and ability to expose defensive mismatches has resulted in several tries. However, his defensive side has improved as the season has progressed. It will need to be on par with the opposition arriving to the RDS this weekend. Henshaw is a superb ball player, can provide the hard yards but also has a superb kicking game which at times has allowed Leinster to exert pressure on opposition. A superb match up beckons.

Isa Nacewa has being a standout leader for Leinster this season. He has mentored the likes of Adam Byrne, Eric Byrne during the season for the betterment of the side. Nacewa has chipped in with numerous key game contributions whether it was scoring tries, kicking penalties or denying opposition a certain try due to a superb last ditch tackle. Nacewa is an inspirational figure in the province, a potential head coach in the making. The team is stacked with leadership and quality but they face a Scarlets side who are eager to continue their impressive recent league form.

Scarlets mobility and offload game can cause Leinster problems

Leinster have being due warned on the threat posed by their visitors this weekend. A resounding win on the road to current league champions Connacht was extremely impressive but then how they took the Ospreys to task in their final league game of the season set a marker for the playoffs.

Scarlets may have started the season slowly but their end of the season has being like a steam train. This is a side whose ERC record was excellent beating Toulon at home and being denied a win by Saracens. When you add the emphatic demolition of Munster at Thomond Park, you are starting to see the momentum that has being built in recent months.

The Welsh region oozes class. Evans, Owens and Lee are established Welsh front row internationals. Owens has being sublime this season on set piece and has rightfully earned a Lions call. Owens for me is the first choice hooker on this tour. His captaincy and leadership this season has inspired those around him. The second row is all about Jake Ball; an extremely combative player whose reliable line-out option provides Scarlets with a good platform to launch their back line. Tadhg Beirne has provided additional support for Owens on the line-out. The back row is mobile and aggressive. We have already mentioned Davies tormenting opposition at the breakdown but he is ably assisted by the likes of Shingler and Boyde who are dynamic ball carriers and excellent work rate and tackle counts.

The half-back partnership is young and exciting. Patchell at ten has arrived from the Blues and has grown into the ten jersey. He will be put under pressure by Leinster this weekend. How does Patchell vary the game plan to keep Leinster the fast defensive line speed off balance? Davies at nine will snip throughout. His cameo against Ospreys last time out was evidence of this creating tries and his box kicking is on point.

The back line is where this side oozes class. The conditions this time of year are primed for Scarlets to let loose. The three quarter partnership will provide gain line breaks in abundance. Jonathan Davies at thirteen is a sublime footballer; his ability to read defensive setups and make the right decision is to the fore. Williams alongside will provide excellent defensive cover but can also spot a defensive gap. Henshaw and Ringrose will have their work cut out if Scarlets can get over the game line with quick ruck ball for Davies to distribute.

Liam Williams will leave Scarlets for Saracens at the end of this season but his mission is to win silverware for the Scarlets before making the move to London. His all round game and physicality are to the fore. His recent performances have exhibited these qualities. Leinster’s kicking game will need to be on point this weekend, otherwise Williams will run riot. He is ably assisted by full back McNicholl, a player under the radar personally until I saw him at Thomond Park at the start of the year. Superbly adept player when joining the line. Solid defensively. Evans as well on the other wing is a speed merchant and his try scoring prowess in recent rounds means a dangerous threat awaits Leinster.

Verdict

This is the standout Pro 12 playoff fixture this weekend. Scarlets come into this game with massive confidence and form. Their try scoring ability from all areas of the park represents a live opponent for Leinster this weekend. The key battles will be the front five which is 50/50 personally particularly if Cronin misses out. The other key battleground is the ten position. Patchell will need to have an excellent game for Scarlets to secure this road win. Leinster will throw different looks at the player and Patchell will need to keep it simple initially but then need to become more expansive as the game progresses to launch his impressive back line runners. Can Patchell provide the confidence and leadership for Scarlets? All should point to a Leinster victory considering their unerring home form this season but there is something about this Scarlets’ outfit which is making me think that a road trip win is not beyond the realms of possibility. If Scarlets can stand up to the Leinster set piece, they have a superb chance. Slight edge to Leinster but do not be surprised if Scarlets win this. I cannot wait for the fixture to arrive on Friday.