EPL Reflections

Six games down. Thirty-two games to go. Several subplots already at the start of the season and the ever evolving managerial merry go round has already started. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the good, the mediocre and the god damn awful teams so far.

Happy Days F.C.

Shout out to Huddersfield Town, Newcastle and Brighton & Hove Albion who have competed well in the first set of fixtures. Defensively solid so far but this will be tested severely this weekend with fixtures against the big guns. Huddersfield Town look to stop the Harry Kane show. Newcastle entertain Liverpool at the raucous St. James’ Park while Brighton & Hove Albion will hope that Arsenal suffer an UEFA Europa League at the Emirates. It will be interesting to see how from these teams takes the mantle as chief goalscorer. Goals have being a rare commodity for these sides; needs to improve and you suspect that these teams will be dragged into a relegation battle come December if this area of play does not improve. Good start but the real test starts now with squad depth tested due to injuries and suspensions now.

Shout out to Manchester City and Manchester United for their respective starts this season. City have played some superb football in recent weeks but we were saying the same this time last year as well. Questions still defensively for Guardiola but going forward, they have wrecked havoc with Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne, Sterling and Jesus catching the eye. A tough test awaits at the Bridge this weekend; a true acid test to see if City are the real deal this season or will their defensive issues of last season rear its head again. Manchester United are unrecognizable this season; goals are flying in and the signings of Lukaku and Matic (still baffled why Chelsea let him go) have propelled the side to new levels. Lukaku’s pace is a new dimension to United’s play and his goal rate against the mid-table and bottom league teams will mean that United are not far off the title. Lindelof has not set the world alight, patience required for the Swede as Bailly / Jones / Smalling are ahead of him in the pecking order. De Gea continues to perform at an incredibly high level and with the return of Zlatan come January, United fans will look with optimism for the league. A home fixture against a Crystal Palace side who will park the bus Roy Hodgson Fulham F.C. on the road style will test out the theory whether United can take care of these teams this season; something they failed to do last season. No genuine acid test for United and Jose Mourinho. Roll on October to see if United cut the mustard!

Chelsea have started to gain momentum in recent weeks. After a nightmare opening day loss to Burnley, Chelsea have gone back to basics, defensively solid and with Morata scoring at will along with the return of Hazard, the reigning champions will have a huge say on where the title resides next May. Conte may face squad depth issues particularly if Morata or Kante go down with any significant injury. The Costa episode is now consigned to the history books thankfully. Onwards and upward.

Tottenham. Wembley is their new home and there are still teething problems but their form on the road has being superb in recent weeks. Harry Kane cannot stop scoring. Ali and Eriksen are performing at a high level and Tottenham have looked reasonably solid defensively. A team which needs to produce a meaningful title tilt this season; last two season’s have being unconvincing at best. Tottenham when the pressure and title questions were applied had no answers. They need to answer the critics on this question this season. With Kane scoring at will, surely the Spanish juggernauts are having a look?

Watford under Silva have played some excellent football this season. Their speed and pace in attacking positions means that Troy Deeney must accept a place on the bench. Silva and Watford have recruited extremely well. Richarlison and Gray are excellent signings; offer genuine pace and threat in the penalty area. Watford will be hovering around the top ten this season. The only concern is at times defensively they can be opened up. City had a field day at Vicarage Road where the full back positions were given a torrid time. Thankfully, for the Hornets, they don’t play City every week!

Burnley have had a good start to the season. A memorable road trip win over Chelsea on the opening day has provided impetus for Sean Dyche’s side to sit comfortably in the league. Summer transfer policy has being smart; sold Andre Gray for a considerable return on investment and then used the money to bring in experienced Walters and the abrasive Chris Wood to support Sam Vokes in the goals department. Burnley will be defensively organized but they will be tested in the coming months with the injury lay-off to Tom Heaton who was excellent for the club last season. Pope and Lingaard will look to provide continuity but it is a big ask. Tarkowski has being a revelation this season to offset the loss of Michael Keane who was also sold for a tidy sum. Burnley provided that the Heaton injury does not impact the side massively defensively should be mid-table / lower mid-table this season. The goal threat looks good provided that Brady can provide the required quality on the set piece which will be their primary source for chances.

Mediocrity Central F.C.

Liverpool should be in the top four this season but their reluctance to change tact and address their defensive issues is bordering on the ridiculous. After a summer dominated by the Coutinho / Barcelona saga, the defensive woes have quickly taken over as the chief headline. The goalkeeping position was not addressed in the summer. Mignolet and Karius are excellent shot stoppers but fail to inspire confidence dealing with set pieces or command of their areas. The back four have being left exposed by a marauding midfield unit who are cavalier to their attacking play, leaving massive space for teams to counter on the break. Yes, there have being poor defensive moments from the center backs this season but no cover from midfield is a key confidence issue. Can or Henderson have to provide defensive leadership and support Matip / Lovren in defensive duties. Mane and Salah are superb threats out wide but question marks on Firminho as the genuine twenty goal a league striker remain; too inconsistent. Klopp is under pressure and it will be interesting to see how he and his backroom staff look to address the obvious flaws in their performance. A distinct lack of edge upfront converting chances and of course how to tighten up the team defensively. Coutinho’s work rate defensively is under the microscope as well.

Arsenal. 4-0 loss to Liverpool has seemed to spark a reaction from the players and manager as the results have improved since. A draw at the Bridge. The 2-0 win against WBA was noteworthy as they have now a striker in Lacazette who will score twenty goals in the league this season. An exciting player and a genuine goal poacher. The issues for Arsenal though is defensively. I am not convinced by their back three / four formation. Leicester City provided the warning shots on the opening day of the season. The heart of that defense lacks leadership and they are prone to be opened up too easily. WBA should have scored in the previous fixture only for Monreal to produce a heroic clearance off the line. Add the penalty incident and there is two clear goal chances. Better sides will punish Arsenal defensively. Sanchez situation is also an issue; the player wants out, expect City to look to sign the player in January. Arsenal will struggle for top four contention. Europa League commitments will not help either; player recovery and squad depth will be severely tested.

WBA. Tony Pulis will have the team safe as houses again this season but it should be more than that this season and potentially chasing a top six finish is the objective. The Arsenal game was a fixture which if the officiating was on point should have seen WBA win a penalty and potentially see Arsenal down a player. It failed to materialize and Arsenal went onto win 2-0. WBA will look to Rondon again for the goal threat required. Rodriguez has looked sharp as well this season and with improved service from the likes of Philips and McClean, WBA will be secure in the league for another season. Hovering on the good but they need to push on now.

The Shits F.C

Southampton are a club in a transitional phase. Pellegrino has arrived at the club and the initial results and performances have being underwhelming. Goal threat and support for the striker is a serious issues evident in their 1-0 loss to Manchester United. Long’s work rate and running down the channels could not be questioned but he struggled with a distinct lack of support. The second issue is the situation with Virgil van Djik. The Dutch center back wants away but Liverpool ducked away from the deal early in the summer and the player was left in limbo. Southampton need the player back in the first team squad, provide solidity at the back. A tough season beckons for Soton and one wonders if Pellegrino will be still in the post come January. The fans are not impressed.

Stoke City. 2-2 draw against Manchester United, take the complements like a fattened puppy near an open fire, all cosy and happy with life. Fast forward since then and the performances have being abject. Chelsea did not have to get out of second gear last weekend. Bristol City have already knocked them out of the League Cup. The squad depth looks questionable even with the likes of Jese in the books. Bojan, Walters, Whelan have all left the club and you wonder if there is an extensive injury list, how Stoke will cope? Stoke need to get their season back on track. They have flattered to deceive this season in the league apart from the Manchester United game. Time to get back to business.

Swansea City. Tammy Abraham is a striker who will be a work in progress. The key player for Paul Clements is Renato Sanchez but the Portuguese player has not set the EPL alight with his early performances. The brand of football is nice on the eye but there have being woeful defensive lapses this season already. The concession of the Watford game winner ample evidence; a terrible Swansea pass exposing the team defensively. Mawson looks like he has a mistake in him every game and surely Swansea will look to recruit defensively in the next window.  Swansea just about got away with it last season and staved off relegation but until Sanchez starts to fire, the trap door could be a reality this season. Cut out the stupid defensive mistakes and try to get Bony and Abraham chances to provide the goals to win games as defensively. They look well short currently. Clements could be on the tightrope in a couple of weeks.

Everton. Money bags in the summer but the squad have being slow to gel. Take the Rooney night out and it has being a miserable start to the season. Niasse saved Everton last weekend, a player which Koeman did not rate at the start of the season. The genuine striker goal threat is missing right now. The Lukaku effect is glaring. Rooney and Glyfi are going to have to produce the goods for Everton to propel them up the table. The Barkley saga when he comes back to full fitness will be intriguing as well. The only good news is that Coleman is back in training and Calvert-Lewin has shown good glimpses but is a work in progress. Cohesion is required and the Europa League demands will not help in this regard. Top ten position in the league considering the investment this summer is not what the owners envisaged.

Leicester City. The former league champions have hit the skids again. Shakespeare is a manager under pressure. The team have shown flashes of excellence but defensive lapses and lack of scoring threat in games have seen the team just off the relegation zone. Gray’s future plans has being a distraction. Mahrez’s future looks as uncertain as a shaky fence in hurricane season. Leicester City need results fast, whether Shakespeare gets the time to get those results is another story. In Vardy, Leicester City must trust for the goals. Must win game against Bournemouth at the weekend or Shakespeare will be written out of the EPL annals this season.

West Ham United have spent again with gusto in the summer but clearly no further along to propel themselves into the top ten of the league. Joe Hart has looked vulnerable as the team have struggled. Chicharito has being a shining light but Slaven Bilic is under the gun. A good run of results ended with a defeat to Tottenham, time to get on another run soon and with Swansea City visiting, hopes should be high. If a loss occurs though, then expect Bilic to be given his marching order during the international break. The squad under his management has being a mixed bag. Snodgrass transfer spoke volumes. How can you dispense with a player who you only signed at the start of the year? Fonte has arrived but minimal impact. Onus again on Noble, Cresswell, Reid to get the team going in the right direction.

AFC Bournemouth have had a tough start to the season. Arsenal and City in the first six games but three points was a disappointing haul considering other teams played. Everton last weekend was a game that got away in the final quarter. Defensively have looked weak this season. The lack of a clean sheet in the league speaks volumes. Midfield has lacked work rate, quality passing and tempo at times and Defoe has not received the service to score goals. Worrying times. Eddie Howe needs a result this weekend. Leicester City the visitors and one wonders what will happen if AFC Bournemouth lose again? Hope they can get out of the relegation mire but it is a tough ask given the start.

Crystal Palace have already disposed of their manager; their footballing vision and identify done in four league games. It is over to Roy Hodgson to rescue the side with a brand of football which involve defensive solidity and counter attack prowess considering the likes of Zaha, Puncheon and Benteke in the ranks. The squad contains Cabaye as well so there is genuine game winners in the pack. Goals are an issue for the club and some of the chances spurned have beggared belief. Defensively, Palace have being exposed in the central defensive positions. Dann and Delaney have being isolated at times and it is now time for Sakho to come in and produce heroics like last season. United this weekend, best of luck as well as the game against Chelsea. How morale will be then will be interesting. Palace’s board must take flak for this mess; transfer policy lacked cohesion and their inability to support De Boer in the transfer market spoke volumes. The nice passing football brand they required could never be achieved with the squad assembled. A sorry mess at the moment. Hodgson will do well to keep Palace up; confidence is fragile but he has a knack of getting teams to perform as his days with Fulham will testify.

David Wessels: Munster Savior?

Speculation and it can only be called speculation at this point with David Wessels strongly linked to the Munster Rugby head coaching role. With rumors in Australia that Super Rugby Pro 14 outfit Melbourne Rebels is very much interested in Wessels as well, is this a classic agent created media report to attract interest for his client or is it a done deal for Wessels to come to Munster replacing Rassie Erasmus. Hawkeye Sidekick has his say and wonders if this appointment is the right fit for the club at this time.

Wessels is an interesting candidate. If you were a recruiter, you would say that Wessels is a well rounded candidate with plenty of life experiences so far for such a relatively young age. He graduated with a Bachelor of Business Science and has also completed his Masters, in IT. Before embarking on a rugby coaching career,  Wessels was head of new media Touchline Media. He also helped launch the website, SARugby.com, now integrated into the Planet Rugby platform, a South African based rugby news site.

You are probably wondering on the coaching experience part of the resume. Wessels began his professional coaching career as a consultant for the Stormers in the 2008 season, a year later he took on the assistant coaching role at the University of Cape Town (Ikeys), winning the Varsity Cup and the Western Province League competition for the first time in 37 years. After eleven years in Cape Town he moved to the ACT Brumbies in 2012 as their Defense Consultant. Under his guidance, they went on to have the second best defensive record in Super Rugby. Western Force then hired Wessels as a defensive consultant for the Western Force, and later Senior Assistant Coach for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons. Wessels then took over as Interim Head Coach for the last three games of the Western Force’s 2016 season. No wins in those three cameos.

Munster Rugby and the IRFU have stressed this week the need for a seamless transition between Erasmus and the prospective new head coaching hire. Wessels is also being linked to the Melbourne Rebels and considering some Australian media reports this week, the Rebels still believe that they will get their man. Munster Rugby and IRFU need to close the deal now if they are convinced that Wessels is their guy.

If David Wessels does get the Munster Rugby head coaching job, it will be a managerial appointment pretty much into the unknown. There is a distinct lack of head coaching experience (just over a season); the South African has served his time in various defensive consultant / assistant coaching roles. It is a risk for Munster Rugby given this fact. The upside is that Wessels could conceivably join up with the team mid-season and work with the existing backroom staff to seamlessly get immersed in the culture and running of the club.

Erasmus is a superb organizer, knows how to implement club structures for long term success. Wessels on the other hand has not this experience from his resume accomplishments. This season has seen the Force finish seventh in the Australasian conference. Six wins out of fifteen league fixtures in a competition. The hope is that Wessels brings the good elements from his Stormers, Brumbies and Western Force tenures to elevate Munster’s performances to the next level which is required this season. Wessels will be learning on the job in effect; hopefully the side will win games early to allow the South African to settle into the post if accepted.

An intriguing head coaching link. Some could consider this appointment as a gamble but IRFU and Munster Rugby have apparently examined all options. Wessels if media reports are to be confirmed is their man. Intriguing times indeed. Munster Rugby fans are again into the unknown. Erasmus came into the head coaching job with little background but did a fine job. Wessels’ come into the equation with even less rugby management experience. One would hope that Munster Rugby and the IRFU have done the required research, otherwise this appointment could damage the province long term.

 

 

Guinness Pro 14: Conference B Reflections

In this article, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Conference B standings so far which has seen the usual suspects well positioned for the rest of the season and encouraging signs for Benetton Rugby in recent weeks.

100% record for Ulster. Perfect start to the season and the side have shown massive potential in their expansive play in these early rounds. The appointment of Jono Gibbes to the backroom staff has had an impact; the pack are a more cohesive unit setting the platform for the half-backs and back line to create havoc for opposition. 140 points. 19 tries scored. Those two statistics speak volumes. Pienaar may have reluctantly left Belfast but Christian Leali’ifano has being on point early doors, given an early opportunity to impress due to Paddy Jackson’s on-going court case. A criticism leveled from this blog was the lack of consistency from the side last season considering the squad depth assembled. The lapses of concentration have being few and far between and the gritty win over the Scarlets in round three showed the potential in the ranks. Jean Deysel acquisition will be priceless for Ulster as the season progresses with the likes of Rory Best, Iain Henderson in international duty. Deysel is abrasive, human wrecking ball who can fulfill multiple back row and second row positions. The next couple of fixtures are key for the Kingspan Stadium outfit. The next four fixtures are Zebre Rugby (A), Connacht Rugby (H), Leinster Rugby (H) and Southern Kings (A); potentially three wins at least from this fixture listing and that would setup the Irish province with an immense platform to secure a top three playoff berth. Good times ahead for Ulster.

The reigning league champions have started this campaign in relatively confident mood. 19 tries and 146 points scored. The campaign started with emphatic victories over Southern Kings and Zebre Rugby but a 27-20 loss away to Ulster Rugby has focused minds. The contest was probably the best game so far in the tournament. The game ebbed and flowed. Leigh Halfpenny has seamlessly integrated into the side with minimum fuss; the departure of Liam Williams to Saracens offset by this sensational capture. No radical overhaul of the squad last season; continuity the key. James Davies started the season well until injury struck, will be interesting to see how the side copes without the talisman seven who was a key factor in Scarlets’ late surge to the league crown last season. His breakdown work was sublime and his support running for the ball carrier was exemplary. Scarlets next four fixtures are Connacht Rugby (H), Ospreys (A), Cardiff Blues (H) and Benetton Rugby (H). Intriguing local derby fixtures in the middle of this four game set as Ospreys and Cardiff Blues are in must win territory already. Expansive style of play will create bonus point try performances; the key will be consistency with Scarlets in the pack to create the platform. Solid team, expect Scarlets to be in the top two of the conference come the end of the regular season and will improve as the weather improves next March and April.

Leinster Rugby have started the season with confidence. If I wrote this blog this time last week, 100% record would have being duly noted. The 38-19 reversal to the Cheetahs last weekend is a timely reality check for the squad as Cheetahs picked their moments to unlock Leinster defensively in the high altitude of Bloemfontein. The squad depth that Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster is superb. Daly has being in superb form for Leinster; a hat-trick last weekend, a player of note for the upcoming season. When you consider that the majority of the Lions contingent have yet to feature so far, the side will continue to improve in cohesion, set piece and attacking play. The opening three fixtures highlighted Leinster’s attacking play with emphatic victories over Dragons and Southern Kings away from the RDS. Cardiff Blues provided resistance in round two but Leinster turned the screw in the final quarter to secure the BP win. Squad depth is no issue and the next four fixtures look likely to set the Leinster province up well for the rest of the season. Home games against an inconsistent Edinburgh Rugby and a Munster Rugby outfit who have not fared well in Dublin. The road trips see Leinster travel to conference rival Ulster Rugby and also a key contest away to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun, superb fixtures loom large. Top three is a certainty; intriguing three way fight between Ulster and Scarlets to secure top spot. Can Leinster’s second row provide the physicality and set piece execution required in the line-out come the business end of the season to elevate the team for honors? The second rows were exposed in the playoffs last season; acquisitions secured so it will be interesting to see how this unit fares.

New head coach Richard Cockerill has learned plenty about his charges in the past four fixtures. A promising start has evaporated in recent weeks with reversals to Benetton Rugby at home and an emphatic loss away to Scarlets. Performance consistency was highlighted in round three; a fixture which many felt was a home win all day long but Benetton Rugby were superior in all facets of play. Nine tries so far scored this season and the majority scored in the first two fixtures. The back line have struggled to receive quick ruck ball given the struggles of the pack. Edinburgh’s next four fixtures will make or break their league season; they face a daunting trip to the RDS to face a Leinster who will be keen to produce a good performance ahead of their local derby game against Munster the following week. Two Italian fixtures then beckon and Benetton (A) looks banana skin written all over it. The home fixture to the Ospreys could be a key result for either side. A defeat here and the gap to the top three could have opened up to such an extent that the top three could be out of sight. The usual squad leaders will need to come to the fore. Bradbury, Hidalgo-Clyne, Ford, Tovey, Toolis and Hardie will look to create the platform to win upcoming fixtures. Top three looks beyond them at this stage but Cockerill will look for his side to play with physicality and competitiveness. An interesting side to monitor as the season progresses.

Encouraging signs from Benetton Rugby in recent games. Round three and four wins over Edinburgh on the road and a fantastic victory over Ospreys at home bodes well for the side. The league needs Benetton Rugby to flourish and provide the Italian fans with something to shout about. The last two fixtures have seen solid defensive performances, minimal missed first time tackles which plighted their performance against Munster. The Ulster loss was a good performance and showed the signs seen in round three and four. Banks and McKinley have the kicking game to provide territorial platform supremacy. Sperandio has being sublime in recent weeks; great solo effort to setup Minto against Ospreys. The next four fixtures will be crucial indicators on whether the Italians upsurge in form will remain or is just a flash in the pan. Confidence may be high but Glasgow buoyed by their demolition of Munster Rugby will look to secure a bonus point try win. The middle fixtures in this four game stretch could be where further wins are possible. Southern Kings (H) and Edinburgh (H) are winnable fixtures and to conclude a tricky tie to Scarlets on the road. Two wins from these four fixtures would be considered progress. A season where the league organizers will look for Benetton Rugby to improve; Italian Rugby Union are looking to Benetton Rugby to provide professional club success with the decision to use Zebre Rugby as a developmental side. Top three is out of reach but the key theme is to produce consistent performances and secure wins at regular intervals where possible.

Bernard Jackman now knows the magnitude of the task that faces him at Rodney Parade. The re-branded Welsh region have enjoyed one win so far this season, a round three victory over Connacht Rugby where they dominated for long periods; the bonus point eluded them. The other three fixtures have being chastening experiences for a young squad. Leinster’s emphatic opening day victory exposed Dragons’ inexperience in key positions. The road trip to Edinburgh was a mixed bag; poor officiating did little for Dragons’ cause and were in it until the last quarter. Ulster’s expansive rugby play was too much for the Dragons last week. Tough start to the season for the Dragons with Ulster and Leinster early doors, the hope is that confidence and form can improve in the next four fixtures. Southern Kings arrive to Rodney Parade this week. Two Welsh derbies then beckon and conclude with a trip to Cork to face Munster Rugby. This weekend is a key fixture; they need to beat Southern Kings, otherwise confidence will dip. A season in transition for Jackman; key is for the young squad members to get game time and improve per each passing game. Jackman will also look for Gavin Henson to provide experience and leadership if the side are in position to close out games. Top three unlikely even at this early stage.

Massive disappointment to the league. Southern Kings’ squad look ill-equipped in the opening four fixtures of the league. They will try to execute a fast tempo game but the skill set does not seem to be at this level; unforced error count, set piece woes and defensive gaps have being hallmarks of the season so far. Not much to shout about. The home attendance for the Leinster game was embarrassing to the side, players, management and the league. Whipping boys. I do not see how this side can improve to the extent where they are in top three contention this season. Dragons fixture this weekend and perhaps the road trip to Benetton Rugby offer the side with an opportunity to get in the winners circle but a road trip to the Glasgow Warriors is a damage limitation exercise while the visit of Ulster Rugby who are playing with confidence is another daunting task. Let us hope that the South African powers that be strengthen this outfit for the league come the turn of 2018. The league needs Southern Kings to turn up; it is not happening at the moment.

Guinness Pro 14: Conference A Reflections

Four games into the Guinness Pro 14 and some interesting subplots have emerged in Conference A. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action so far and wonders if the South African and Italian challenge can continue to keep the neutral interested.

League Table Standings:

Glasgow Warriors have sent a massive statement of intent to the rest of the conference early doors. Their emphatic bonus point demolition of Munster last weekend oozed confidence and the expansive style of play so early into the Dave Rennie era can only spell trouble for the rest of the league as the season progresses. This start has being achieved with the likes of Hogg, Gray and Wilson only came to the lineup in round four. Rennie has being quick to dampen the promising start, stating that he is expecting more improvement in accuracy. The New Zealander is spot on in this assessment as their performance against Cardiff Blues did throw up some set piece consistency issues. A team who will dismantle the majority of opposition who come to Scotstoun this season. Squad injuries and international breaks killed the side last season and November will be an acid test of the side but given how the team have coped without several marquee front line players, this is the form side of the conference so far. I would be shocked if Glasgow Warriors do not secure either of the first two places in the conference standings come the end of the regular season.

Difficult realistically to assess Munster at this point of the season. I thought the victories to Benetton Rugby and Cheetahs at home were too easy but these two sides have impressed in recent weeks. The Ospreys game was viewed as a tough road trip but then you see the Ospreys fall away again to the Benetton Rugby, one asks on the merits of this contest. The Glasgow game has provided management, players and fans with food for thought in the province. Second best in the contact area, defensive lapses out wide were ruthlessly exposed. Munster have shown potential in attacking play. Conway, Wootton, Farrell and Taute have provided moments of quality in the league so far. Bleyendaal’s kicking has being inconsistent and it provides hope for the likes of Keatley and Hanrahan to stake a claim for the jersey. The loss last weekend will focus minds, a reality check in the context of the season with tough fixtures ahead against Cardiff Blues (H) and a trip to Dublin to face Leinster. With the front line players near a return, Munster’s management will look for performance improvement in the weeks ahead. Second spot in the conference, a solid start but there is scope for improvement as last weekend showed. How Munster combats pacy, expansive minded teams is the key question this term? With Erasmus out the door at the end of the year, the rest of the coaching staff intact come January may need to provide their own take. Intriguing second half to the season potentially beckons.

The standout result along with Glasgow’s demolition of Munster last weekend was the superb victory for the Cheetahs against Leinster. 38-19 scoreline will provide impetus and momentum for the Bloemfontein outfit to excel in the league. Cheetahs start to the season was predictably a mixed bag; a tough road trip to start the tournament but the side have regrouped superbly in the last two weeks. They signaled their intent with a fifty plus scores put on Zebre Rugby and then they continued their good attacking form with an excellent attacking display over a Leinster Rugby side who came into the contest full of confidence. The altitude factor is a massive plus for the South Africans and Leinster Rugby struggled to cope with this element last weekend; the one week acclimatization period was insufficient for the team and the hosts took full advantage. Cheetahs picked their moments superbly. Ten points from the first four games is a good return and with squad members coming back from international break and Currie Cup duty, one suspects that this is the South African side who will compete most this season. Cheetahs will benefit from the RBS 6N tournament international window and do not be surprised if the Bloemfontein outfit secure a top two conference spot. Their expansive style of play at home has being to the fore in recent weeks. Venter is outstanding and Pro 14 fans are now seeing the talents of Small-Smith, Nche. Expect more excitement from this outfit as the season evolves.

A mixed bag from Connacht Rugby. The Pat Lam era has concluded and the Kieran Keane era has started with mixed results. A bonus point win over the Southern Kings is the only win so far this season. Connacht have shown work rate, tempo and expansive style at times but they have being left to rue late lapses at home particularly against Glasgow Warriors and last weekend Cardiff Blues conceding a Halaholo late try. Lapses in defensive line speed and organization have being punished in recent weeks. Dragons registered their win against the men from the West in round three. Connacht should improve as the season progresses but there are question marks on the ten jersey squad depth. Carty again looks the de-facto fly-half and what happens when Aki is injured for a significant period of time. Keane will look to draft SH players at the end of the year along with looking to other provinces for players who need game time. There has being several good additions to the squad, like the signing of Rory Scholes who can play multiple wing positions. Every much a transitional season for Connacht this year. Galway locals need to remain patient; key recruitment in the coming months to strengthen in the pack and half back areas. Intriguing squad decisions to be made.

Credit to Michael Bradley and Zebre Club Rugby. A shortened preseason due to the ongoing Italian RFU decisions on the team. Their win on the road to the Southern Kings last weekend was comprehensive and their performance against the Cheetahs must now be viewed more favorably given that they scored thirty-nine points during that contest. Canna looks a player of note for both club and national team. Bradley has rotated the squad in recent weeks, giving squad members their opportunity and they have responded. The upcoming fixtures against Ulster (H) and Edinburgh (A) will determine how competitive the Italians will be this season. I am hoping for the league’s sake that Zebre show well in these contests. We need the Italian teams to compete in the league this term. Bradley and management will look to identify further players in the coming months; a decent start but tougher tests lie ahead.

Ospreys with their squad roster should be better than what they have delivered in these opening four round of games. The last three fixtures are an accurate assessment of where the Welsh region are and to be frank, their attacking side of play has failed to fire with an over-emphasis in a kicking game which has not being accurate enough to put pressure on the opposition. Glasgow Warriors loss away was no disgrace given the manner in which the Scottish region has started the season. The Munster loss at home was one that the hosts failed to assert dominance after James Hook’s try. Ospreys’ back line looks explosive with the likes of Allen, Giles in the ranks but ball has being slow and as mentioned, a tendency to kick when trying to launch their three quarters has being common sense. The pressure on Steve Tandy intensifies if the twittter chat is anything to go by; the accusation that strong squad recruitment is being hindered by ineffective, poor management. Jones, Biggar, Webb will provide quality and impetus but the style of play needs to evolve with more emphasis on ball carrying and creating quick ruck ball for a talented back line to flourish. Ospreys will improve but they cannot fall any further behind the likes of Glasgow and Munster particularly when an international window looming large.

A season so far which has not reflected Cardiff Blues competitiveness so far in the competition. On another night, Cardiff Blues could have beaten Glasgow Warriors in round three. A point loss was tough to take considering the late penalty miss. The Welsh region competed well against Leinster for long periods but succumbed in the final quarter. Edinburgh Rugby loss in the opening game was disappointing but the team have improved since then. Their resiliency seen in their late win against Connacht Rugby in round four with a late try to win the fixture. It was a determined effort and they will not fear Munster Rugby in round five, a team which they have run close last season (won deservedly in Cork and lost narrowly at home). Sam Warburton’s absence is a blow but Navidi again has provided leadership. Cardiff Blues need to pick up wins and the next two fixtures (Munster (A) and Dragons (H) are pivotal to how competitive they are in the league. If Cardiff Blues can take points in both games, they will remain in the chasing pack. Otherwise, the side will languish and the league could be over before it starts.

Guinness Pro 14: Glasgow Warriors 37 – 10 Munster

Glasgow Warriors thrash Munster

Glasgow sent out a massive statement of intent to the rest of the Pro 14 league with an emphatic five try victory over a Munster side who struggled to cope with the speed and expansive play of their hosts. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Dave Rennie arrived to Glasgow in the off-season with a glowing reputation; a coach whose expansive style complemented the style implemented by his predecessor Gregor Townsend. If this is the performance levels with a depleted squad, the rest of the Pro 14 and ERC teams should be worried.

This was a performance full of invention and work rate. Glasgow won the contact area all night and Munster struggled to slow any ruck ball in the opening period. Sarto got the ball rolling with a superb opening try. Munster stretched to breaking point defensively as Glasgow stayed patient, throwing the ball around from side to side. Sarto evaded a poor Munster first tackle to score. Ominous signs for Munster as Finn Russell added the extras.

Like last weekend, Munster were asked to answer early game minute questions and they responded with a quick try of their own. Rory Scannell scoring his first try of the season; good finish powering over from the corner. The key point from Munster was the decision to put Scannell on penalty kicking duties. Bleyendaal has struggled in recent weeks but it was a surprise to see Scannell kicking from the tee. A regulation penalty miss from Scannell set the tone for the rest of the evening from a Munster perspective.

The hosts deservedly scored their second try of the night with a sweeping move which Jones went over; the move started eighty meters out and Munster’s video analysis should be scathing on the line speed and defensive decision making which unfolded for this try concession. Russell again took care of the extras and after a competitive opening thirty minutes, Glasgow were up by fifteen points. Munster needed to respond.

Glasgow Warriors started the second half as they started the first half and Grigg emerged with the ball for the third try straight after the resumption. Munster again lacking physicality in the contact area as easy yards were gained in the lead-up to the try. Munster’s video analysis sessions will be a horror show on Monday. Glasgow were wholly dominant and they started to pass the ball with sheer abandon. Cue Chris Farrell to intercept and score Munster’s try.

Credit to Munster and new signing Chris Farrell’s game reading was key in touching down early into the second half. The conversion was again missed and no significant pressure was applied by Munster thereafter as Glasgow were unerring in their execution of an expansive game plan. Munster were under the cosh, tackle count was getting high and line breaks would surely come for the hosts. Enough said. The avalanche started in earnest as soon as Billy Holland was sin binned.

Cummings’ try and the crucial bonus point was secured on sixty-three minutes. Munster defensive first tackles had left the arena as Sarto broke out of seven Munster wannabe tackles. Cummings was clinical and scored from close range. Munster were routed; memories of the Scarlets Pro 12 final streaming back. Munster were unable to compete with a team who were precise in their attacking lines; exposing Munster’s defensive cover from side to side with devastating results.

If the evening could not get any worse for Munster, substitute Fineen Wycherley was given his marching orders for a shoulder charge. Glasgow Warriors were already out of sight and were content consolidating the result than sticking the knife into Munster even further. It was a season defining performance from the Warriors; a sell out crowd, the ambition of the club this season was evident in this cameo, full of invention and with Finn Russell in superb form, the side are well primed to probably top the conference standings as well as have a good tilt at the European Rugby Cup. The result tonight achieved with a lengthy injury list with notable absentees such as Hogg, Russell on the treatment table. Ominous signs.

Munster will not panic over this result but it was a good reality check for the side. The Ospreys contest saw flashes of good play but the defensive line speed issues seen at the Liberty Stadium were even more exposed here. The young squad members got a lesson in playing top quality opposition; it was a struggle from start to finish. The discussion on kicking duties is now an intriguing subplot for Munster. Keatley and Hanrahan will definitely be eyeing up the ten spot. Bleyendaal to his credit has being excellent with ball in hand; his kicking performance has being inconsistent. The New Zealander will be the first to recognize this fact and is not a major issue.

Munster’s next two fixtures are intriguing. Cardiff Blues always run Munster close; last season saw Cardiff Blues deservedly win down in Irish Independent Park and Munster somehow managed to scramble a win in Wales. A team who ran Glasgow close last weekend; Munster will be on their guard for the forthcoming fixture. The loss at Glasgow will focus minds with the Leinster fixture looming large, a team who will look to expose Munster with an expansive game plan. Erasmus has work to do with the side before he leaves in December. Discipline and contact area will be key areas this week. Yes, senior players will now come back into the mix but Munster have being routed by a pacy, expansive tactically focused outfit again. Time to reflect and make the necessary adjustments.

In Memoriam: Jimmy Magee

jimmy_magee

RIP Jimmy Magee

Just an ordinary morning start today, listening to Today FM from the National Ploughing Championships. All very upbeat until Paul Collins suddenly came back on air to relay the sad news of the passing of Jimmy Magee.

A death which has saddened everyone here in Ireland from all walks of life. You did not have to love sport to not love Jimmy Magee; charismatic, genuine, jovial, communicator, sports broadcaster beyond reproach. Jimmy had it all.

My childhood memories were in the 80’s and Jimmy Magee was a prominent face on the television in my family homestead. His commentary of numerous Olympiad were instant standouts; describing great Irish sporting performances abroad.

John Treacy in Los Angeles was a particular standout; remember a sunny summer’s day in North Clare at my grandparents and news was filtering through of an impending Ireland medal at the Olympics. Quick, switch on the television and my grandparents and I sat captivated by the marathon event for the next two hours, assisted in no small measure by the commentary from Jimmy Magee.

I remember the Wanamaker Mile race commentaries when the likes of Eamon Coughlan, Frank O’Mara and Marcus O’Sullivan would produce superb performances in the acclaimed Madison Square Garden, New York. Stirring commentaries; captured the excitement of the event perfectly.

Katie Taylor in London 2012 when Jimmy expertly called the action in the boxing ring; providing knowledge and assurance in a language which was so eloquent but yet discernible to all viewers of the broadcast. I loved Jimmy’s style of commentary particularly when it came to boxing, a sport which requires so much knowledge and insight. Many commentators have tried and utterly failed at delivering a coherent boxing broadcast. Jimmy was the standard bearer from my perspective; his knowledge of athletes was second to none. He loved commentating on the Cuban boxers whose footwork, hand speed were sublime.

The boxing angle continued well into 2000’s when RTE took the step of broadcasting professional boxing bouts. Bernard Dunne’s world title victory against Cordoba was an astonishing fight in 2009; ebbed and flowed throughout but the commentary from Jimmy Magee captured the atmosphere and scene perfectly. Jimmy Magee was the blueprint, the template which all other Irish sport broadcasters and journalists were compared against.

Jimmy Magee entered the world of evening television with George Hamilton hosting Know Your Sport. The ‘Memory Man’ was in his element; posing questions on various specialized sporting areas. No sporting area was out of the bounds. The entertainment value was superb; sad to see the show end in 1998. A genuinely entertaining sports show in Ireland.

FIFA World Cup’s for me personally were forever associated with the commentary of Jimmy Magee. His first world cup commentary was in 1966 and continued until 2010. The commentary on Diego Maradona’s wonder goal against England in 1986 was as he said different class!

Ireland has lost a true sporting broadcasting great today. Ireland has lost a journalist of massive reputation and class. Ireland has lost a national treasure today. I have not even mentioned about his extensive publications and press columns. His articles were always incisive and would refresh the memory on a specific event gone by.  Gone but never forgotten. Jimmy Magee. RIP.

Guinness Pro 14: Ospreys 15 – 21 Munster

guinness_pro_14_logo

Munster win on the road

Munster remain unbeaten following a 21-15 win over Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium. A game plighted by the inclement weather but still plenty for both teams to mull over in the coming days in video analysis. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action wondering if there is a genuine battle for the Munster ten jersey.

munster_simon_zebo

Munster win in their first serious road test

This was Munster’s first serious Pro 14 fixture of the season. After an underwhelming one sided contests against Benetton and Cheetahs, Munster knew that this fixture would be a good gauge of where the squad was at, how the young players would react on the road and attempt to open daylight between themselves and Ospreys, a side who always are competitive against Munster and who will be a chief conference challenger this season.

Munster started the game with gusto. Kleyn continuing to be a wrecking ball in contact. His work rate and physicality creating some excellent platform for Munster forward colleagues to create further gain line breaks. An early penalty was scant reward for a promising opening period.

The hosts to their credit responded with aplomb; a superb try from James Hook who evaded several wannabe Munster defensive efforts to score. Munster will be disappointed with the try concession; line speed was slow and disorganized. Farrell making a hit on Davies created a wide opening in defense and someone of the caliber of James Hook was going to punish the lapse.

Sam Davies slotted over the conversion and Munster were asked their first key question of the season. Could they regroup and put Ospreys under pressure? Munster’s pack took the onus and the powerful lineout / maul setup Kleyn to crash over. Bleyendaal recovered from a shaky start (1/3) to slot over the conversion. Game on.

Munster continued to ask questions of the Ospreys whose kicking game was aimless at times. Munster’s second try was superbly executed. Conway with a superb aerial win. Farrell with the pace to create the line break; the impressive Sean O’Connor whose support and running had Munster right on the try line. The incisive pass from Taute realizing space out wide to Sweetnam to score in the corner.

Bleyendaal missed the conversion and significantly mother nature decided to unload with torrential rain for the rest of the contest. 15-7. It was now a contest where the kick game and pack exchanges would be absolute key. Ospreys and Munster exchanged penalties early in the second half and Munster management decided to call ashore the front row unit with mixed results.

Credit to the Ospreys front row; they were inconsistent in the first half but responded to the challenge in the third quarter forcing two more penalties which the impressive Sam Davies from the tee converted. Munster from a position of strength were now looking for composure and game management and Bleyendaal responded after a shaky third quarter to provide territorial gains in the wet, inclement conditions.

Munster’s pack then were summoned to make incursions deep into the Ospreys territory. Several phases of play thwarted by excellent Ospreys defense. A stalemate looked likely but then Munster won a penalty straight in front of the posts which was converted and gave room to breathe in the last five minutes.

Given the conditions, ball handling was an occupational hazard. Both sides tried to pass the ball with pace but the weather conditions saw many unforced errors as defenses were on top. The kicking game was a sort of concern for both sides. Ospreys back line contained the likes of Hook, Allen, Giles, Evans but the ball distribution at times was lacking from the half backs.

A key moment of the game in the third quarter saw Sam Davies with a key decision to make. Thirty meters out from Munster’s line, Davies had options outside but chose to kick a diagonal to the corner which was taken with ease by Munster. Ospreys line breaks were at a premium and the line break from Giles at the death was a probably keynote moment in the second half. The exciting winger was bundled into touch and the game was over.

Ospreys will look to their Lions contingent to provide leadership and increased quality in all facets of play but the game plan was limited against Munster; expected Ospreys to unleash Allen and Hook throughout but Allen was a peripheral figure which was strange, a player of great potential. Biggar was introduced late in the day but it was not long enough to turn the game to the hosts favor. Ospreys if they can improve their attacking lines will be a threat in the league. A disappointing two week period but the Welsh region will bounce back, still a key player in the conference A standings.

Munster will be happy to be tested seriously by the Ospreys. The game was hindered by the inclement weather conditions but the team passed their road trip test with an workmanlike performance. The kicking game at times was a mixed bag; penalty misses were unexpected and surely gives Keatley and Hanrahan hope that the ten jersey is very much alive. The kicking game from hand was inconsistent; a couple of balls going dead allowing Ospreys good field position which the hosts failed to capitalize upon.

The pack was good throughout. The scrum had their moments in both periods. The breakdown work was decent throughout and Justin Tipuric although prominent did not have a game winning performance. Credit in this respect goes to the mobile back row on duty. O’Connor, O’Donoghue and O’Donnell provided work rate and clear out. The back line were starved at times of quality possession but Chris Farrell’s cameo will have Munster fans excited.

The ex-Grenoble player cameo for the second Munster try, his work rate and tackle count showed all his key attributes. The three quarter position suddenly has depth and it will be intriguing to see who Erasmus and management plumb for in the ERC fixtures next month. Rory Scannell’s kick game at twelve adds a new dimension to Munster. Taute is abrasive and a line breaker. Earls and Goggins when fit comes into the equation.

Munster’s first serious contest this season. An early road trip win to complement the form of late last season. A trip to Glasgow Warriors will be another excellent early season test; do not be fooled by the Warriors narrow win over the Blues; the Scottish team will be riled up to face Munster and the Irish province should expect plenty next Friday. A solid start to the campaign for Munster; good start and gives the interim management in the New Year time to settle with early season wins in the bank.

 

All Ireland Football Final Reflections

gaa_logo

Three in a row Dublin

The final whistle spoke volumes. Dublin players and management rejoicing on the hallowed turf as Mayo players slumped to the ground in sheer disappointment. Lee Keegan was distraught; Mayo threw everything and still for the second year in a row came up short in the championship minutes in the final quarter. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

dublin_jim_gavin

Dublin squad depth key

This was a final yet again where Dublin had to stay patient and persevere in the midst of a Mayo onslaught. Con O’Callaghan gave Dublin a dream start; exposing fragile Mayo full back line play to create the space to slot past David Clarke. Mayo were looking down the barrel but the team from the West refused to panic and hit the next four points.

Dublin had issues in the middle third in the opening period. Parsons, O’Shea’s and McLaughlin were all prominent and distributing fast into Andy Moran who scored a quick three point salvo. Furthermore, Jason Doherty got in on the act with a quick brace of points. Mayo could do no wrong midway through the opening period. Dublin’s full forward line were being starved of possession.

Mayo were two points clear just before the interval. Dublin got a vital lifeline when McQuillan adjudged an infringement which Dean Rock slotted over. It was a 50/50 call. Mayo fans were incensed. Dublin left the field a point down and probably fortunate to be only down by the solitary point. Mayo had left everything on the field in that opening half, the pace and tempo surely could not continue.

Dublin started the second half in ominous fashion, several middle third possession wins setting up two quick scores to go in the lead. Mayo were ponderous with ball distribution, slow buildup play and the quick distribution to Moran was cut out. Mayo needed a shot in the arm and Jason Doherty had a glorious goal opportunity; well saved by Cluxton. Mayo did score a point from a free ensuing this play but it was a key moment. Mannion immediately had Dublin up the other end of the pitch and forced a superb save from Clarke. A point was scored in the resultant play; another key turning point.

However, in the cold light of day; the sequence of events which led to the red cards are the decisive talking points. John Small in another era would have being applauded for the shoulder on Colm Boyle but on a yellow, the player was gone but the actions of Mayo player Donal Vaughan defied logic; ran twenty yards to get involved, shunted Small to the ground; third man in; striking action — red and to compound matters, a scoring opportunity for Mayo was negated. Incredibly reckless action from Vaughan and one that will haunt him and the team for some time to come.

Dublin got out of jail with this sequence of events but they were powerless when Moran and Keegan combined for the Westport clubman to dispatch to the net. The goal was superbly worked; Keegan’s run from deep leaving Kilkenny in his wake. Moran with composure to hold the ball and then pass to Keegan; the strike was sublime. Game on. Mayo were leading with fifteen minutes left; time for cool heads. Nope.

Mayo were defensively naive in the final quarter. Dublin were able to pinpoint long range passes into the full forward line; no decision from the line to deploy sweepers to cleanup. The decision of Cillian O’Connor to withdraw to the defense caused more problems for Mayo; no genuine outlet when Moran went off. Dublin’s forward line were really fancying the task; Mayo were going man to man. All Ireland’s are lost with such naivety.

Dublin to their credit and their squad depth came to the fore. McMenamin and Connolly were excellent in their second half cameos. Both scored inspirational points and Connolly won the vital free which setup Dean Rock for the game winner. Scully unlucky to not start was superb along with Cormac Costello who was the hero last year. Bernard Brogan selfless running off the ball caused Mayo defensive headaches. Dublin’s squad mantra was to the core. Mayo’s lack of squad depth was exposed in the final quarter.

Boyle and Moran had little more to give but the replacements lacked poise and composure in vital stages. Loftus coughing up ball in a good scoring position for Mayo. Full forward threat was finished as soon as Moran was subbed as O’Connor was playing in the middle third. Coen was decent but the other subs did not make an impact. O’Connor’s free miss into injury time; both Loftus and Drake not sensing the possibility of a rebound were static. Dublin cleared their lines and took full advantage.

Mayo’s kick-out strategy was tested in the closing exchanges. Dublin pushed up on Clarke and Mayo blinked. Mayo’s middle third did not contest the last three Mayo long kickout’s from Clarke. They abandoned the initial jumper / second ball winning tactic that had served them so well. It gave Dublin a platform to win this game late and their brilliance was to the fore with the last five minutes; scored the free and then killed the game with passing game as Mayo were chasing shadows.

Dublin have won this championship with several new leaders emerging from the panel. McCarthy was superb all season. O’Callaghan and Mannion with their pace, speed and scoring ability. Scully’s pace and work rate to the fore. When you decide to put the likes of Brogan, McMenamin, Connolly, MacAuley on the bench, enough said. Dublin are here for many years to come and it will take an exceptional side to beat them in the championship.

Mayo. Where now? Serious soul searching again required by management and players. Self inflicted wounds again. Donal Vaughan will only know why he did what he did. Mayo’s shot selections in the opening period which were wides were crucial, thinking of chances spurned by Durcan, Keegan, O’Connor and Moran in the opening period. If two of those scores go over, half-time would have being different.

The Mayo squad depth was exposed in the final quarter. Dublin produced the big guns and Mayo management put on underage talent wholly unproven in this championship. It was decisive. Mayo need to cultivate the recent U21 All Ireland team and blood players into the starting lineup. It is the only way that they can do; increase squad panel strength. Mayo had several standouts. Higgins, Keegan, Parsons, Doherty were excellent. Andy Moran was heroic and was their star man. Hard to see how Mayo pick themselves from another devastating reversal.

 

All Ireland Senior Football Final Preview

gaa_logo

Dublin third in a row or Mayo’s elusive All Ireland win?

Third Sunday in September can only mean one thing. Sam Maguire is either staying in the nation’s capital or heading out West to Mayo for the first time since 1951. Hawkeye Sidekick evaluates both sides and wonders if Mayo can produce a performance to get over the line?

dublin_jim_gavin

Jim Gavin continues to excel

Dublin enter this All Ireland Football final as firm warm favorites based on their dominant performances in the championship this season so far. Carlow provided resistance in the opening Dublin championship appearance but the reigning All Ireland Champions went through the gears in the final quarter to run out comfortable winners. Westmeath were no match to Dublin in the Leinster semi-final; one sided contest but one that introduced the GAA world to the talents of Con O’Callaghan. The Cuala clubman has excelled in hurling with his club but decisively focused on football this season with devastating effects. His scores from play, his movement and ability to hit off either left or right have caused opponent back lines with massive headaches.

It has being a season where new Dublin leaders have emerged. Jim Gavin has provided Jon Small, Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion with key roles and they have flourished allowing Dublin management with the great luxury of leaving the caliber of Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan, Kevin McManamon, Michael Darragh McAuley in reserve. It is a scary prospect that if Dublin flounder this weekend, Jim Gavin can bring on this experience and winning mentality of these players to proceedings.

The Leinster SFC final against Kildare was reported as a game effort from the Lilywhites; obvious most of the rat pack forgot the first quarter when Kildare were blown away. They never hit a meaningful shot at Dublin throughout and only for a quick 1-1 at the finish, the scoreline would have being more accurate than the nine point margin at the final whistle.

Monaghan were meant to provide aggression, defensive nous and bite but none materialized as Dublin brushed past the challenge with contempt. 1-19 scored against a team who pride themselves on strong defense. Pundits thought Tyrone would cause the upset but it was as remote as Frank De Boer getting a fifth league game with Crystal Palace. Dublin’s pace, power and movement caused Tyrone massive problems and the star performers shone once more. O’Callaghan, Rock scored at regular intervals and Tyrone were routed in the middle third. 2-17 scored against a Tyrone side who looked impeccable in defensive work this season.

All lines are working in a cohesive fashion. The forward line are scoring on average 24.5 points this season in the championship. The back line are conceding a misery 12 points per game this season where Cian O’Sullivan has provided leadership and organization in the sweeper role. The midfield area has seen dominant performances from Fenton and McCarthy who have provided attacking support along with the McCaffrey from the wing back position. No genuine weaks and then you have the distribution of Stephen Cluxton, the template in which all intercounty goalkeepers must evaluate against. Do Mayo push up on the kick-out or surrender possession to Dublin deep in their half? Intriguing stuff.

mayo_aidan_o_shea

O’Shea performance key

Mayo have had an epic passage to the All Ireland Senior Football final. A regulation win against Sligo then resulted in a disappointing reversal to Galway in the Connacht SFC semi-final raising alarm bells in the county; the team were lackluster and not helped by the red card issued to Keith Higgins. Mayo had chances to not only get a replay from Salthill but also could have won only for questionable shot selection in the closing stages.

It was not to be and Mayo were again dealt the hand of going through the treacherous qualifier route. A banana skin was averted as Mayo overcame the challenge of Derry at home after extra time; a performance which was a mixed bag. Defensively at sea dealing with the long ball. Forward line failing to fire as a cohesive unit until extra time when Mayo’s conditioning and squad depth kicked onto secure victory.

A tricky trip to Cusack Park, Ennis then followed. Clare were seen as a team who would provide a stiff test and so it proved for forty-five minutes of the contest. Clare’s lack of scoring power to reward a dominant opening period was decisive as Mayo dusted themselves down at the break to go through the gears and beat the hosts by seven points. Cillian O’Connor was pivotal to the victory scoring 1-5.

Next round was a game against a Cork side pretty much written off by everyone. Mayo were dominant heading in the final quarter and management trying to save players hauled off the likes of Boyle. Moran. The move nearly backfired as Cork regained impetus and could have won the game in regular time. Mayo were again forced into a corner but their composure and resiliency were to the fore as the side won by the solitary point in the proverbial nail-biter. Question marks surfaced on Mayo management and their substitution policy, improved performances were now expected heading into the All Ireland Series.

Roscommon were next in the All Ireland Quarter Finals. Mayo underwhelmed in the opening exchanges as Roscommon had two goals on the board early doors. Mayo were again looking vulnerable but Lee Keegan (1-3) and Cillian O’Connor (0-3) rescued the result. Andy Moran work rate and scores (0-2) from play ensured a replay for Mayo who then made no mistake in the replay. Dominant middle third performance and the replay was over in the first quarter as Mayo struck goals at will. Superb running lines from deep causing Roscommon endless issues whose kick-out strategy was devastatingly exposed. 4-19 was a superb return for Mayo on the day and the likes of Jason Doherty, Tom Parsons and Kevin McLaughlin shone.

Kerry in the All Ireland Semi-Final, a much fancied Kingdom struggled to compete in the work rate and middle third departments over the two games. Aidan O’Shea was sacrificed in the full back role to contend with the threat of Kieran Donaghy, a player who has haunted Mayo in past seasons. O’Shea did as well as he could but his full back role robbed Mayo of their talisman in the middle third. Mayo again were left to rue defensive lapses to allow Kerry back into the opening contest and another replay loomed large on the horizon. Mayo were excellent and made no mistake dominating the middle third and striking goals early to keep Kerry at distance. The result was never in doubt as Kerry flagged under the pressure exerted by Mayo in the middle third; starving quick ball into the full forward line. It was a controlled performance. Andy Moran continued his superb performances with a cameo full of leadership and scoring threat.

The question though now for Mayo is attrition. Have Mayo enough in the tank to produce a performance to topple Dublin? Mayo’s tenth game in the championship, momentum has being built but at what cost. Mayo have to be on point from the first whistle; their resiliency has being truly tested but this is Dublin and their ability to kill off games is at a different level to anything that Mayo have faced this season. Work rate needs to be manic on Sunday, just wonder on the effects of the past games this season?

Who wins Sam Maguire?

Familiarity breeds contempt. Mayo are well aware of the Dublin threats having faced them last season but there are new threats to consider. Can Mayo management spring new threats for Dublin management to consider during the final this weekend? O’Shea positioning aside, what else can they throw up which will cause Jim Gavin to take stock. I am struggling for answers to that question.

The squad depth in the final quarter looks heavily weighed in Dublin’s favor with Flynn, Brogan, Connolly in the ranks. Mayo potentially have Patrick Durcan in the ranks to make an impact. Coen and Loftus will need to bring ‘A’ game to the mix to make the required impact.

Dublin have shown their versatility in defeating opposition in different manners. Man to man or blanket defense, Dublin will make the necessary adjustments. Mayo to be fair have improved their kick game, distribution to the inside forward line but on Sunday they are faced with a total entirely different proposition.

Dublin will keep their defensive shape; sweepers in O’Sullivan and Cooper will look to repel Mayo’s attacking intentions early. Can Mayo’s running lines consistently create the chances to score goals at regular intervals? They need to score a couple of goals personally to win Sam Maguire. I have my doubts.

Dublin enter this final contest looking to write a few wrongs from last season’s final games. A sense that perhaps Dublin just about got over the line last year. A bit disingenuous to Mayo but Dublin will look to impose their will early on this final; a repeat of last year’s opening final performance will not be tolerated by Jim Gavin and management even though they had scored two goals in this time (albeit Mayo own goals). Dublin looking for three in a row are looking to put on a show and early middle third dominance may setup this cameo. If this happens, this contest could be over early.

Where do Mayo win this game? Until they get over the line, they will be asked the wrenching question whether they have the mental and physical fortitude to get over the line. A touch harsh, their resiliency is beyond reproach. Mayo need to involve Aidan O’Shea early; get their key player into the game, supplying incisive ball to the deep runs of Boyle and Keegan.

Mayo have to provide an intensity in work rate throughout; they will go for the full seventy minutes. The issue is defensively. The full back position sticks out like a sore thumb. The kick-out strategy is a concern, cannot see Dublin letting Clarke take quick short kick-outs like Kerry did. Clarke may have to go long and distribution has being critiqued last season by Mayo management. Dublin work rate in the tackle will be a considerable threat this weekend; quick turnover could spell trouble for Mayo.

Mayo’s half-forward line also needs to provide a scoring platform as well like they did against Kerry last time out. Diarmuid O’Connor needs to be a goal scoring threat; making selfless runs from deep to keep Dublin’s half back line on their toes. Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran and Jason Doherty need quick ball to assert influence inside. Kevin McLaughlin needs to be the player to win that dirty second ball. Mayo have excellent facets of play which Dublin will need to pay close attention to but also they have vulnerabilities which should be exposed early doors.

For Mayo to win this game, they have to be almost pitch perfect in back, midfield and forward lines while nullifying Dublin in the middle third for long periods. It is a tall order and one that I do not see happening on Sunday unfortunately; it would be a superb story if Mayo get over the line but Dublin look the more polished side on paper and the squad impact in the final quarter could break Mayo hearts again.

The officiating will play a factor; interesting to see how Joe McQuillan plays this contest. Does he let the game flow or does he go selective in officiating the tackle? Mayo’s work rate to win possession has being a hallmark this season; officiating has ruled that their tackling was on point. Interesting subplots.

Verdict: Dublin

Dublin to win based on an excellent opening quarter, expect a fast start from the reigning champions. Mayo to grow into the contest but a lack of goal threat in the final will be their undoing due to the well structured Dublin back line. Dublin by four / five points. Dublin’s forward line have the better long range shooters as well as the inside threat to seriously put a score on a Mayo back line who will be under pressure throughout. Dean Rock potentially could be key player in this regard with his free taking prowess and potential goal scoring threat despite the best efforts of Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor.

Guinness Pro 14: Munster 51 – 18 Cheetahs

guinness_pro_14_logo

One sided affair at Thomond Park

What to make of Munster after two rounds of the Guinness Pro 14? There is promise aplenty but the side have not being seriously tested by either Benetton Rugby or the Cheetahs as Munster stood out to a comfortable 51-18 victory over the South Africans. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

All about the boy Alex Wootton

The game will be remembered for the performance of Alex Wootton. The former Northampton Saints recruit has taken his opportunity superbly this season to lay down a berth in the first team squad. His four tries yesterday will have not done his cause any harm at all, clinical try scoring execution throughout and his overall game stood out. When you consider Scannell, Earls, Zebo, O’Mahoney are all yet to start for Munster yet this season, the back line depth looks decent. Dan Goggins will come back into the equation later in the year. Exciting times.

Game over at half-time

This game was pretty much over at half-time as Munster’s pack flexed their muscles at will to setup the platform to create endless attacking opportunities. The pack were instrumental in the opening try of the contest. The impressive Jack O’Donoghue providing composure to pass to the perfectly timed run of Tommy O’Donnell who was not going to be stopped from three meters out. It was the indication of further angst for the Cheetahs who were second best in contact, kick game albeit their passing game at times was easy on the eye.

Wootton was benefiting from excellent work inside where Farrell, Taute and Conway when hitting the line were creating space out wide. His second try of the afternoon emphasized this point. Great work from Keatley, Taute and Sweetnam to create the space out wide for Wootton who had plenty to do but his pace was enough to score. It was a superb score, created with excellent work at the breakdown, incisive passing.

Cheetahs

As expected, the South African teams have struggled for cohesion early doors in this tournament. I expect both the Cheetahs and Southern Kings to be different propositions in this tournament particularly at home as the season progresses. The Currie Cup competition is in progress; the South African internationals are away from the club.

The Cheetahs showed their passing game is going to be a massive weapon as the season progresses; their wonderful try after the interval evidence of this. Great hands and the finish from William Small-Smith was sublime. The kicking game needs to improve; backs need to adapt to NH kicking game, too many times Cheetah back field players were exposed by Munster kicks deep to the corners.

The Cheetahs and Southern Kings personally are good additions for the league; next weekend will be key in how the South African rugby public in Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth receive the league. This was a humbling experience for the Cheetahs but required to reset the team’s focus for the rest of the tournament. Tough road schedule start. Hope for better next weekend.

Munster Level?

Hard one to quantify right now. The ease at which Munster Rugby have beaten Benetton Rugby and The Cheetahs suggests that form is good within the camp; players like season are getting adequate game minutes. Liam O’Connor and Sean O’Connor again were impressive after good cameos last weekend. The prop forward looks an interesting prospect; his scrummaging was on point and had the Cheetahs in all sorts of trouble early doors; instrumental in the O’Donnell opening try.

It was a first chance for many to see Munster center Chris Farrell and the former Grenoble player did not disappoint with an excellent outing on his Thomond Park debut. Abrasive in ball carrying, tenacious in tackle and defensive play but the attribute to the fore was his ability to pick a line break and use his speed and pace to create. His try showed off these talents superbly, identified a gap in the Cheetahs defense inside and used his pace to run unopposed for a try. Farrell looks an astute piece of business from Munster; good age profile, all the attributes and the player who will continue to improve throughout his Munster tenure.

After seeing off their first two Guinness Pro 14 opponents with ease, it is fair to say that Munster should be evaluated more after the trip to the Ospreys next weekend. A fixture which is always hard fought and competitive, the hosts will be keen to get back on track after a 31-10 loss away to Glasgow Warriors this weekend. Looking forward to the contest as the first two games have being one way traffic fixtures. If Munster can defeat the Ospreys, then it will be a superb start to the season for Erasmus’ side.