RWC 2023: Ireland Bid falls short

Shortly before 11am GMT on October 31st, rumors started to circulate that South Africa were the recommended bid for the RWC 2023 tournament. The recommendation phase is seen by many as a decisive moment in this bid process and given that France and Ireland were not recommended, it looks a formality that the 2023 RWC will be staged in South Africa, a country with noted experience of hosting World Cup events in both rugby and soccer. Hawkeye Sidekick examines the findings and it makes for sobering findings for the Irish RWC 2023 stakeholders. Naive, unprepared come to mind.

Experience Key:

A key point which resonated throughout the report was experience of organizing and running tournaments of this magnitude. Six week tournament, the coordination of running games in several parts of a country at the same time; the coordination required from a security, logistics and infrastructural perspective were put under the microscope.

Given the only experience of hosting a Rugby World Cup event was only last summer and the fact that the event was only held in two cities (Dublin and Belfast), the bid score faltered on the experience point struggled.

It does raise a question on how a country like Ireland who wants to host a prestigious tournament can do so given this key criterion. Does a country like Ireland need to submit for test events such as U20’s / Women’s World Cups to show World Rugby their ambitions.

If today proved anything, countries like Ireland cannot expect to win RWC bids with no prior experience of hosting significant World Cup style tournaments. There needs to be mandatory criteria on this point. Ireland obviously were inexperienced, noble to bid for this event but were the bidding team wasting their time from day one?

Infrastructural Issues:

The significant flaw to the Ireland RWC 2023 bid. The report focused on existing infrastructure and the scores reflected this. Casement Park has being the elephant in the room on this bid; national media have veered away from the topic for fear of undermining the tournament bid chances. Little progress made on planning permission in recent months. The report even commenting that the planning permissions had not being finalized for the Belfast venue. It raised serious questions on one of the standout stadiums of the bid.

The inevitable shortcomings on a couple of GAA grounds selected for the bid were easy targets. Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Fitzgerald Stadium, Pearse Stadium upgrade work was highlighted. Lack of infrastructure cited and needs to be addressed bid or no bid. RWC 2023 bid focused on potential, existing shortcomings from an infrastructural could not be masked to a visiting party. Accommodation and transportation concerns surely were easy criticisms as well.

RWC 2023 – Vision: 

The RWC 2023 vision and subsequent legacy should have being criteria that the Ireland bidding team should have nailed but the feedback received was disappointing, struggled in the scoring stakes.

Cross border relationships (have we not already done this?) was prominently mentioned along with working with some fledgling affiliated rugby groups to promote the game worldwide. Nothing innovative.

France’s proposal had creativity and tangible returns. Create a link between the country and T2 nations, use France as a place for these nations to learn and improve, provide equipment post World Cup to these nations to improve facilities. Accessibility points  was excellent. Disability involvement in the sport.

Ireland’s vision was wordy; no concrete example of how this would work post-tournament particularly promoting the game from a global perspective. Vision sets the tone for the visiting committee and Ireland were always behind the eight ball thereafter.

Money, Money, Money:

Revenue stream projections were below both France and South Africa. Return on Investment is key and Ireland’s ideological bid based on a small country hosting the tournament (untried) was not financially attractive or viable to World Rugby in short.

South Africa’s track record to generate revenue in their previous tournament (1995) was a noteworthy tournament; the ability of a country to unite and the revenues generated during this event was a template for future tournaments.

The selection committee has gone for a nation who has the experience, security nous and facilities already in place to deliver a superb showcase for the sport.

Ireland and France to a certain extent cancelled each other in vision, security concerns and revenue questions. The late entrant to the bidding process came late and pipped both European with a well-planned and focused bid campaign.

Where now for IRFU / Ireland RWC 2023 Bid?

The Ireland RWC 2023 bid is dead despite the musings from the IRFU and the bid team today. 2023 RWC was ambitious given the lack of experience; lessons will need to be learned and infrastructural upgrades in place before another island of Ireland bid are considered again.

IRFU need to showcase World Rugby their ability to run an efficient tournament and the U20’s RWC would be a perfect opportunity to showcase the country with several venues across the country to demonstrate the traits required to run a smooth, efficient competition.

The Women’s RWC was a huge success but the venues were confined, crowd sizes were relatively small; time for the IRFU to look to host other significant World Rugby tournaments in the years to come.

Sevens tournament weekends may be another avenue to impress the powers that be. Every little helps and these tournaments would increase the profile of Ireland to World Rugby and beyond.

Where now for the other non-IRFU stakeholders?

GAA should look to reinvest in regional stadiums, upgrades required to get these venues to modern standards (i.e. internet infrastructure, capacity increases, accessibility) despite the failed RWC bid.

Relevant local councils and corporations need to review traffic control. How to reduce traffic backlogs around sporting stadia? Public transportation was well exposed; the Bus Eireann strike news in recent weeks hardly was good publicity for the bid.

Both the Republic and NI political systems challenge is to improve the infrastructure in every part of this great island. What would a visiting committee member think when having to travel to Killarney where broadband coverage varies depending on the side of the town you are in or going through rush hour traffic in any of city based venues?

Conclusion:

Tough facts outlined on the RWC 2023 Evaluation Report from an Ireland perspective. People of Ireland can call foul on the scoring but Ireland was not ready to host this prestigious event.

Imagine what the island of Ireland could look like in 2023? The Brexit implications could be in full effect. A hard border, customs logistical nightmare scenarios were surely a negative even though the united message from both sides of the border for the bid was emphatic.

The bid team have worked hard on this but the shortcomings were pretty clear today in the evaluation report. We can have no complaints. The failings of the 2017 RWC bid should be strengths for any subsequent future Ireland RWC bid. Time for all stakeholders to invest and improve.

The people of Ireland (both south and north) are waiting, put up or shut up on our ambitions to hold the RWC tournament. Ireland needs to be realistic; there will be no late reprieve. 2023 RWC bid dreams are over and it is time to reflect and improve.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 2 Reflections

A weekend where statements of intent were issued; a weekend where teams are now under pressure and a weekend where teams are looking at a bleak January provided a significant upturn in December fixtures scheduled. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Pool 1: La Rochelle and Wasps win big

A massive occasion in La Rochelle today. The first European Rugby Champions Cup home fixture for the Bay of Biscay outfit and unfortunately for Ulster Rugby, they were the first team to visit in this competition.

A promising opening half suggested Ulster Rugby were up for the task but the second half was a demolition derby by the hosts as they dismantled Ulster’s pack and then the explosive line speed and power exposing gaps out wide to score at will in the third quarter.

Ulster Rugby had no answers but to be fair, quite a few teams in this competition would have struggled given the physicality and speed of this French outfit. La Rochelle have made their intentions clear; they want to go deep in this competition with a brand of rugby which catch the eye for the neutral in December.

Wasps double header planned and one would hope that Wasps’ injury count will have reduced to allow them to compete with the power of La Rochelle. Wasps had a comfortable 41-10 win over a Harlequins side who struggled for tempo and and precision to unlock the hosts defense.

Quins controlled possession for long periods of the opening period but were trailing 21-3 due to some defensive lapses as well as a pack who struggled to defend the Wasps maul. It is hard to see Quins staving a claim to one of the eight quarter final spots but they could derail Ulster Rugby’s hopes if they win one of the December fixtures.

Wasps showed plenty of promise in today’s outing. Wade and Bassett were prominent in attacking threat and made Harlequins paid for sloppy attacking play; great intercept for Wade. All to play for in Pool 1 but La Rochelle look a class above so far in this pool. Ulster and Wasps under pressure for a solid December while Quins are out of it.

Pool 2: Saracens, ASM Clermont emerge from the pack

A decisive weekend in Pool 2. Saracens and ASM Clermont have pulled clear of Ospreys and Northampton Saints but their wins were far from resounding as expected. Kudos to Ospreys who produced a stirring effort to be within two points of Saracens last night; four try count as well to secure two points on the night. Five try haul as well for the hosts whose pack also asserted dominance with a penalty try. Excellent contest.

ASM Clermont produced an efficient performance to beat Northampton Saints 24-7. Cassang’s try was superb; great aerial take and then evaded several tackles to run from distance. Dylan Hartley’s discipline issues surfaced with a yellow card on thirty minutes; was punished on the scoreboard with an ASM Clermont try just on half-time. Bonus point win and Clermont were able to keep Northampton Saints at distance in the second day despite a try from Christian Day who was the standout for the Saints.

The two heavyweights of the pool lock horns in rounds three and four. Saracens and ASM Clermont will learn plenty about their competition credentials with two bruising encounters expected. I sense two home wins right now and it is imperative then that either Ospreys or Northampton Saints make a clean sweep of their December fixtures to put pressure on. However, I think two homes games could the form book nod here as well. A decisive gap has opened from the top two; question is who wins the pool?

Pool 3: Leinster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs produce standout performances

Two road trip wins and the manner in which both Leinster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs won are standout round moments for me personally. Jamie Bhatti was at lengths to stress that a key season objective for Glasgow Warriors was not to be defeated at Scotstoun. Well, that goal was smashed in the second half as Leinster Rugby claimed a deserved bonus point win.

The opening period was where this contest was won. Leinster Rugby recovered from an early try concession to dominate the pack exchanges. Cian Healy was excellent and his try which showed soft hands in the Leinster pack broke Glasgow’s resistance. 10-17 lead playing against a strong wind was a statement and the second half with Sexton game managing superbly meant that Glasgow Warriors despite having good moments were not close enough to inflict any significant pressure to the visitors and Noel Reid’s sealed the win.

No loser point for Glasgow and things look bleak with a December fixture combo against Montpellier and Nadolo. However, what is Montpellier’s mindset now after their 24-27 reversal to Exeter Chiefs today? Nadolo inspired the hosts to a 17-10 lead but credit to the Exeter Chiefs, their pack was awesome today and Ian Whitten’s try was a momentum change with assured game management from Steenson. Montpellier had been beaten at home just four times in the history of the competition, and had won their last four home Champions Cup games. Armand had a superb afternoon; two tries and an all action performance.

Leinster are in pole position in the pool. Excellent ten point maul from a pool stacked with talent. Two fixtures against the Exeter Chiefs look like the top of the pool deciders. Montpellier and Glasgow Warriors will battle it out to see which of these sides will come into January with momentum. To be honest, both well off the playoff pace for now. Glasgow Warriors have being the letdown of the tournament, make no apology in saying that, the quality of squad assembled should be delivering better European results.

Pool 4: Leicester Tigers cakewalk; Munster win arm-wrestle

Two contrasting fixtures and highlights the disparity between the French team ambitions in this competition. Racing 92 had a go at Thomond Park. Castres frankly did not and awoke from their slumber just before the 55th minute when they had already conceded the bonus point. Leicester Tigers were the more organized, more hungrier and more determined side throughout. The hosts pack controlled exchanges and Castres were in retreat mode as soon as May went in for his customary try. Great season start for the former Gloucester player. Leicester Tigers could only beat what was in front of them, they did so ruthlessly but tougher challenges await. Castres, thank for coming!

Munster won the proverbial arm-wrestle in Thomond Park. Stormy conditions reduced the expansive style of play to zero. Munster somehow managed to pull a result out of the bag despite a malfunctioning line-out. Keatley’s game management and Murray’s try pivotal. Racing 92 still a key player in this pool. The pool is down to three teams with Castres clearly not interested with their road trip performance.

December fixtures will be crucial but will not decisive as Leicester and Munster will make up ground on Racing 92 who I sense will get ten points from Castres in the December schedule as the English / Irish battle will be split 1-1 (two home wins). Tournament organizers should be worried about Castres for the remainder of this pool campaign on the basis of this performance. Shambles.

Pool 5: Toulon survive, Bath win mud-wrestle

Scarlets are now in serious danger of missing out of playoff rugby. The reigning Pro 12 champions were exposed in the pack where Bath Rugby thoroughly deserved their five point win. Bath Rugby played the conditions better than their hosts but wanted to launch the ball out wide but the conditions were horrendous, ball retention an occupational hazard and it was a round where the Pro 14 leading lights (Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors) showed massive weakness in the pack, teams will try to exploit that going forward.

Bath can thank Priestland for the win; kicking was on point throughout. Six penalties. Bath Rugby got the job done and now look forward to squaring up to a Toulon Rugby who are showing flashes of brilliance and then flashes of appalling play. Benetton Rugby should have won yesterday but they panicked in the late exchanges to give Trinh Duc a penalty opportunity which he did not miss. T

Toulon’s three tries were well worked but defensively were all at sea in the opening period. Better teams will take Toulon to task and Bath Rugby could be that particularly at the Rec in December.

Scarlets realistically need ten points from their next two December fixtures against Benetton Rugby; not an easy task considering the Italian’s performances this season in Pro 14 and yesterday. Bath and Toulon to lock horns and who knows what other superstars will be in the Toulon squad books come December? Bath should be confident in competing against Toulon based on the pool performances so far.

European Rugby Champions Cup Round 2: Munster 14 – 7 Racing 92

Relief. Weather conditions made this fixture a lottery. John Ryan cameo key. A great win considering the malfunctioning lineout – Hawkeye Sidekick on October 21st at around 20:30pm GMT

Storm Brian made his presence felt in the surrounds of Limerick and Thomond Park this Saturday and the conditions he threw up setup a contest which was abrasive, hard hitting with no quarter given.

Munster Rugby are on the win column in Europe this season with an extremely hard fought victory over a Racing 92 pack who will review the video analysis and wonder how they did not come away from Limerick with a road win.

The pregame conditions were horrific; driving wind and rain coming in from the Clare Hills at various intervals. Both sides struggled to read the conditions even in warm-up expect for Ronan O’Gara who was gleefully collecting and driving kicks back at Dan Carter with renewed interest much to the delight of the Munster Rugby faithful.

The legend still has it and his actions on the pitch during warm-ups suggested a different team and mindset to the one which rolled over against the hosts at the start of the calendar year.

Poignant opening with the minute applause for Anthony Foley. Cue Donnacha Ryan and Ronan O’Gara to come out to the pitch with Racing 92 presentation and tribute to the Munster talisman. Emotional stuff.

The opening period was bereft of much in the way of genuine attacking play. Munster Rugby started the game with gusto but poor handling (inevitable due to the weather conditions) and abrasive Racing 92 defensive line thwarted any scoring threats. The scrum was a source of joy for Munster but the line-out was off from the first line-out.

Racing 92 were dominant in the sector putting Marshall under pressure to throw to the back of the line; an arduous task considering the wind and wet conditions. This was evident in a couple of line-out steals from the visitors in the first half as the hosts tried to build momentum; taking the option to go for the lineout instead of points.

The pattern of play for the middle section of the opening period was both sides doing well under aerial bombs, building phases but finding defensive weak points as easy as having some sunshine in Limerick on Saturday afternoon. Solid exit strategy. Several massive collisions in midfield as Rory Scannell and Anthony Tuitavake set the tone with enormous physicality.

Chris Farrell when involved carried excellent ball into contact, making hard earned game yards in the attempt that his side could create from quick ruck ball. However, the back row exchanges were 50/50. Both sides doing a good job of preventing quick ball throughout and a stalemate ensued for the remainder of the opening period.

Racing 92 and Dan Carter probing and with their front five’s confidence soaring with each passing minute, the hosts were now being forced into the tackle count. Scannell and Kilcoyne’s tackles crucial in the opening period to prevent Racing 92 from scoring the coveted opening try.

A friend of mine who will remain nameless quipped that this could be a 0-0 stalemate before kickoff and with nearly three quarters of the contest, it looked to be on the cards as both sides were on top defensively and line breaks were non-existent but then came the pivotal moment of the contest.

Munster’s line speed for some of Racing 92’s kicks lacked genuine urgency but Conor Murray whose had a difficult afternoon with the conditions timed his block to perfection as Machenaud delayed for just a fraction long; the ball was blocked and now it was contest to win the ball three meters from the Racing 92 line.

Murray won the race and with a greasy ball claimed possession to go over the whitewash. Cue home fans celebration. The reaction of several Racing 92 players particularly in the pack was noteworthy; a shrug of the shoulders and a few barbed comments to the scrum-half to boot.

Ian Keatley who grew into this contest particularly in the second half hit a gorgeous conversion over and suddenly Munster Rugby were seven nil up. Racing 92 for their pack dominance were behind and needed to take more risks with ball in hand. Cue Munster to score the decisive second try five minutes.

Racing 92 pinged for offside and a solid line-out delivery setup field position. Excellent ball carrying from the likes of John Ryan and the ever willing Dave Kilcoyne built further on the move. The ball was then spread out and Rory Scannell’s decision making was on point, holding up the Racing 92 defensive line enough to distribute an excellent pass to Andrew Conway to cross in the corner.

Ian Keatley again stepped up for the conversion; a near impossible kick from the sideline. Keatley had missed a kick from straight in-front immediately after Murray’s opening salvo but the kicking off the tee was an occupational hazard and give him a pass on that effort. This conversion was superbly hit, used the win superbly to bring it in. 14-0 and it was a long road back for Racing 92.

Tommy O’Donnell in the third quarter was a pivotal figure; his work rate, tackle count and ball carrying on point. Munster’s pack to a man stood up admirably to the onslaught from the physically imposing French pack were Claasens was outstanding. Nakarawa was a constant threat but credit the hosts for their video analysis work, the Fijian did not effect the game with his offloading but did get on the score-sheet with a smart close range effort. The close range conversion was good and with five mins left, it was 14-7 game.

The closing moments of the Castres game saw Munster’s discipline desert them and one wondered in the Thomond Park wind and rain whether this would happen again. The video analysis of the last five minutes will be a mixed bag; a couple of needless penalties conceded given quality field position for Racing 92 to strike late. The final play of the game; a Racing 92 lineout ten meters out from the Munster posts was initially taken but the ball was spilled forward. Munster Rugby reclaimed possession and the ball was kicked dead. Game over.

The good points for Munster Rugby was that they won this contest despite experiencing massive issues in the lineout set-piece. This was a collective failure from the unit; poor throwing but some questionable pod formations which made Racing 92 easily read the hosts intentions. Better days for the unit in this regard. The scrum went well. Archer / Ryan and Kilcoyne set the tone early and never relinquished control yielding a number of penalties.

Ian Keatley’s game management in the second half was a critical factor in the outcome of the win. The half-back has his critics but on days like yesterday, he delivers. Assured kicking from hand and his conversion were superbly taken. A genuine battle for the ten jersey is now on and with JJ Hanrahan improving and destined to get game minutes in the coming weeks in the position, it is a nice complaint for Munster Rugby to have ahead of the key December fixtures.

The back line defensively held tight. All players were good in aerial kicks defensively and ball carries were on point. Zebo’s pass to Earls in the opening period was a superb highlight reel moment; unfortunately the pass did not stick but it showed that the full back was looking for ways to unlock a determined Racing 92 defensive line. Conway’s cameo was typically sharp, industrious and full of endeavor. Great try with great passing from Scannell whose kicking game in the opening period was crucial, some great clearances in that opening half to relieve Racing 92 pressure.

Racing 92’s physical pack will cause the other pool teams issues in the rounds to come. Munster had issues in the lineout but also in the maul where Racing 92 had joy at different stages. Munster’s pack to the man produced excellent tackle count statistics but the weather conditions really suited Racing 92’s big pack to run the ball up the jumper for sustained periods. Munster’s resiliency to make tackles, defensive support work was to the fore and their patience paid off with two tries to win the contest.

December will be a critical make or break period for both teams. I sense Racing 92 could get ten points from Castres in the December fixtures. Castres were a pale shadow of one’s self leaking 54 points to a rampant Leicester Tigers. Munster Rugby face Leicester Tigers; not much between these two outfits and conceivably a win a piece for both teams at home could be the bookies call. This is the pool of death. This is the pool where conceivably all three teams could flirt with quarter final places in the last pool of games. Intriguing stuff.

2018 GAA Senior Football Championship Draw: Reflections

Mayo fans have hardly gotten over the traumatic All Ireland Senior Football final loss to Dublin but tonight (October 19th, 2017) saw the draws for the 2018 GAA Championship draws (well football at least). Hawkeye Sidekick has submitted a thesis investigating how the Senior Hurling Championship will work, let us focus on the senior football provincial championships in this blog posting because to explain the SHC format would require too much space of this internet service provider.

Munster:

Let us get to the point. Preliminary games where the likelihood is that Clare and Tipperary will advance to meet perennial kingpin Kerry and a kingpin Cork who will look to restore pride next season. Tipperary out of the four perceived minnows in the province will fancy a cut off Cork given they ran the Rebels close last year. Stephen O’Brien’s return to the football fold is a welcome addition to Liam Kearns side. Cork will be warned; their performances last year were mediocre at best and only a spirited Mayo loss gave the Cork football supporter with anything realistically to shout about. Kerry will hope that Clare provide some level of opposition before a provincial final. I have my doubts that this will become reality; all aces stacked against Clare and with a trip to Killarney next year, doubt many will give the Banner County any hope of an upset. Kerry look the form team of the province again. Cork final showdown in the revamped Pairc Ui Chaoimh would be a superb occasion but Cork have to earn their right to the final and the Tipperary fixture looks close. No disrespect to Waterford or Limerick but NFL Division Four promotion is the objective this season; both well short in terms of squad depth.

Leinster:

Wicklow or Offaly senior football management will have to work overtime to convince some players to commit next season after this draw. The victor of this opening round tussle faces the arduous task of playing Dublin in the quarter final. Damage limitations already for either county. Meath are in the same side of the draw as Dublin and one would imagine the Royal County getting over the likes of Longford in a quarter final fixture. Kildare were probably the main beneficiary of this provincial draw, avoided Dublin and Meath. Kildare play either Louth or Carlow in a quarter-final tussle, a nice fixture to get the season up and running before facing potentially Westmeath / Wexford or Laois. Despite the musings afterwards, Dublin hold the aces in this province again. I cannot see any other county getting close to Jim Gavin’s men next year. Points spread bets could be the order of the day here.

Connacht:

Eanna Smith face was telling despite given due respect to either Leitrim or New York, Roscommon are nailed on for a provincial final appearance. The other side of the draw saw Mayo and Galway lock horns in a quarter final fixture. The loser faces the prospect of long and winding qualifier series and with the super eight’s immediately afterwards, All Ireland success would look remote. Sligo or London face the victor who will be battle hardened from the McHale Park local derby tussle. Mayo need to win this fixture and I think they will advance to the provincial final. Roscommon will be keen to retain their title; expect a close encounter and a lot will depend on Mayo’s mindset and whether they have the appetite to get off the canvas again and go for another Sam Maguire tilt. Slight edge to Mayo.

Ulster:

This province struggled in All Ireland series games last season and next year will be a chance for certain counties to redeem themselves. It is a fascinating draw; still the most competitive provincial championship. Donegal face a huge tussle over a progressive Cavan outfit. Declan Bonner will need to blood new players to the side and a loss here will spell massive problems for Donegal harboring any ambitions of advancing to the Super Eight format. The two sides of the draw are well balanced. Tyrone vs. Monaghan will be a cracker and no quarter will be given in Omagh. Armagh will be wary of the threat posed by Fermanagh away and Kieran McGeeney’s side will be keen to avenge the loss to Tyrone if they meet in the last four. Monaghan can never be discounted; another NFL Division One season beckons and with Conor McManus, they have a player capable of winning any contest on his own. The other side of the draw is perhaps a chance for Derry or Down to stake a claim for an Ulster final particularly with Donegal in transition from a squad perspective. Cavan if they progress could be the dark horse on this side. Down will face Antrim in the quarter-final and should set themselves up to seriously have a go in the last four. If Derry can get their act together with their top players committing to the cause, then they are the side to watch. Intriguing championship. Tyrone have lost several warriors from their ranks. McMahon’s and Sean Cavanagh will not be in the dressing room to provide leadership / experience and skill. Wide open championship with several progressive sides in the mix to attempt to topple Tyrone.

 

 

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 2 Preview

As I write this blog, the perennial French road trip performance on European Rugby Challenge Cup is ensuing at a rate of knots. Gloucester have 54 points already on the board against hapless Agen; embarrassingly easy for the English side. Hoping that the other games this weekend are better in terms of competitiveness.

Top Fixtures

Toulouse vs. Cardiff Blues potentially has the look of a fixture which could produce some superb passages of play. Toulouse are looking to build this season. A draw against Sale Sharks away is proof if proof was needed that this French juggernaut has plenty to work on before challenging for domestic or European honors again. Cardiff Blues trounced Lyon who showed little regard to the competition with their squad selection. Pro 14 league is their priority. Cardiff Blues if they can remain in the game into the second half could cause the upset. Both sides will look to throw the ball around a bit and the breakdown battle will be fascinating. Toulouse edge it but it will be a tough encounter.

Connacht vs. Worcester Warriors at the Sportsgrounds on Saturday afternoon should be an interesting fixture. It will see Peter Stringer and Donnacha O’Callaghan return to the native sod and face the Irish province. Both teams had excellent wins over Oyonnax and Brive respectively. Connacht’s win in Geneva was probably a standout performance from the opening round. Warriors pack are young but inexperienced and this is where the Connacht front five have the advantage; fancy Kieran Keane’s men to win this encounter to assert dominance on the pool. Windy conditions expected in Galway so expansive play could be a stretch.

Krasny Yar vs. Edinburgh. A week ago, this fixture would have being an afterthought but the upset result in Krasny Yar means that this fixture is a top of the pool fixture. Edinburgh have being duly warned that this fixture has banana skin written all over it. Edinburgh’s home win over London Irish saw a gradual increase in confidence in attacking play, a bonus point try win which will have pleased Richard Cockerill. The distance to Russia is a factor but would expect Edinburgh to be more cohesive than Stade Francais were last week. Edinburgh get the nod here but it will be interesting to see how competitive Krasny Yar actually are. Was their win last weekend a flash in the pan?

Lyon vs. Sale Sharks should see Lyon naming a squad with several first team players who will add quality to the pack and back line. Sale Sharks draw against Toulouse shows that the side are a dangerous proposition for Lyon particularly if the French outfit decide to play an identical squad to last week. It all depends on the Lyon squad selection; their first team matchday squad should destroy Sale Sharks but given their attitude to the tournament last weekend, it will be a mixed squad selection. Expect a tight encounter and don’t rule out a road win here!

Bordeaux Begles vs. Newcastle Falcons is a fixture which on current team form should be a cracker. Dean Richards’ charges have being the surprise package of the Aviva Premiership. An abrasive pack and with Toby Flood controlling team affairs superbly from ten, it is a fixture which Newcastle should target the road trip. Yet again, remain unconvinced on Begles attitude to the competition. A facile win over Ensei-STM last weekend; squad selection this weekend will speak volumes. Hopefully they embrace the competition as this has the potential to the game of the round. Slight edge for Newcastle Falcons who look serious to compete in this tournament this season.

Stade Francais vs. London Irish. If not for a little bit of pride, Stade Francais must come and produce a performance for their supporters this weekend. Krasny Yar upset loss must rank as one of the lowest points of this illustrious club’s history, a result which may consign the fate of several fringe squad members. London Irish are struggling in the Aviva Premiership; outgunned on both sides of the ball. Stade Francais should be a team looking for retribution, expect a bonus point win and pride someway restored as several first team players will be recalled to save face!

Yawn fixtures

Brive vs. Oyonnax could be best described as a fixture where both sides have zero interest in the competition. Both sides’ attitude last weekend left plenty for tournament organizers to mull over; two French clubs who see domestic league survival as the be all / end all. This tournament does not even register in priorities, expect two second string sides with Brive slightly edging the fixture by virtue that they are at home and the home support will look for some degree of entertainment.

Ensei-STM vs. Dragons looks an arduous task for the Russians. Little progression from last season and a loss to an experimental Bordeaux Begles outfit spoke volumes. Dragons have to contend with the massive road trip like Edinburgh but Bernard Jackman’s charges showed good moments with a loser point against Newcastle Falcons on the road. Dragons will secure the bonus point try well before the interval; only weather conditions can prevent an absolute cricket score here. Another tournament organizer fixture mismatch.

Zebre vs. Pau is a fixture where Pau will look to build on the home win over Gloucester Rugby last week. Mannix and team selection will be interesting. Do they go with the mindset of Brive and Oyonnax and rest the majority of their first team squad? Zebre were exposed over a rampant Agen last weekend, not a good sign for Michael Bradley’s developmental squad. Pau may win, but this could be a snooze fest considering the squad selection of the French.

European Rugby Champions Cup – Round 2 Preview:

Round 2. The round which provides contrasting emotions. A round where the stronger teams will gain momentum and look with confidence to the December fixtures. A round where teams are in make or break territory knowing that December will define their European season. A round where several teams will be effectively knocked out of contention in the tournament prompting December team selections which will allow their opposition to eye bonus try point territory. Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints some key talking points ahead of this weekend.

Must Win Games

Two prominent Guinness Pro 14 teams are in must win territory this weekend. Scarlets entertain Bath Rugby tomorrow night. A game which the reigning Guinness Pro 12 champions have to win to realistically have any chance of quarter final progression. The Toulon game tempo was exhilarating and one wonders what the short turnaround (fixture played last Sunday) will effect the Welsh region. Scarlets showed massive upside after a very shaky opening against Toulon.

Scarlets of a couple of years ago would have rolled over but this squad with Pivac are a different animal. Scarlets showed their customary expansive style of play with excellent efforts from Halfpenny and McNicholls but can they improve their defensive line speed which was so static early doors in this encounter? Bath Rugby come into the fixture with a professional win over Benetton Rugby; no bonus point secured. This is such an intriguing fixture; both sides will look to go wide at the earliest opportunity but with inclement weather conditions called, this will be a night for the pack and with Louw banned, one would give the nod to the hosts to win a close encounter.

Glasgow Warriors have hit a pivotal point to their season and pinpointed their Achilles heel. It will be interesting to see how Dave Rennie and coaching staff remedy the front five issues seen in full effect against the Exeter Chiefs last weekend. The loss will have hurt massively; superb opening and two tries on the board but the pack were gradually put under the cosh and the second half was a demolition derby of their pack.

The scrum dominance of the Chiefs was incredible. Leinster Rugby will fancy their chances of turning Glasgow Warriors over in the set piece so it is up to the front three aided by their second row to compete and look to go at least 50/50 in the set piece to give the team some form of platform. The attacking intent is evident in the number of tries scored in the Guinness Pro 14 league this season but ERC Cup is a step above and Glasgow Warriors need to send out a statement to everyone that they are a true contender for European honors this season.

Leinster Rugby come into the game with minimum pressure with the hosts in must win territory. Leinster Rugby’s win against Montpellier was a hard earned win. Superb work rate defensively and clinical execution in the red zone. Glasgow Warriors need to provide early impetus to get their home crowd involved. If they can, then a result is possible but Leinster Rugby have several weapons in the pack and back line and the nod goes to Leinster Rugby particularly if Johnny Sexton returns to the first team fold. Glasgow Warriors at Saturday 3pm may face an insurmountable battle to get to the last eight. Expect fireworks!

French Team Road Trip Approach

Saturday sees Castres, Racing 92 and Toulon on their opening road trip of the ERC season. While Toulon should have enough to stave off a determined Benetton Rugby in Italy, question marks on the squad selection of Castres and Racing 92 for their games at Leicester Rugby and Munster Rugby will continue until official press releases. Castres have being notorious for giving the opening European Cup home game a rattle only to then name squads on the road with mostly fringe and academy players resulting in opposition bonus point wins.

Leicester Tigers will look to secure a bonus point try performance on Saturday; the omens look good for the hosts who showed good moments in their loss to Racing 92 last weekend. May on the wing continues to show good form with another try. Good expansive play setup the opening Hamilton try. The negative points were how Racing 92 got back into the contest; the team were unable to stem the offloading play of Nakarawa and three tries were conceded quickly in the opening period. Tigers did make adjustments to stem the tide but the damage was done and significantly their attacking threat was negated as well. Ford at ten needs to provide an efficient performance to launch a pacy back line against a Castres side who should have beat Munster Rugby last weekend.

Castres will look again to their pack to secure a solid platform, the back line showed moments but it was mostly due to Munster Rugby defensive lapses. Leicester Tigers for me hold all the aces here; a first team selection versus an opponent who will rotate their squad members who impressed last weekend. Tigers with a five point haul. Racing 92 on the other hand have unfinished business with Munster Rugby at Thomond Park. The side failed to deliver a significant blow against the Irish province last season in either pool phase fixture and when you consider the squad assembled, that is simply unacceptable. The Fiji second row will be an interesting side-note to the fixture but Racing 92 have other superb players who given their opportunity will punish Munster Rugby inaccuracy.

Will Dan Carter play? Nyanga. Rokocoko, Lambie and Machenaud are players who could turn this game with decisive game winning moments of brilliance. Munster Rugby have points to prove this weekend. The front row squad depth chart is weak. The mere fact that Dave Kilcoyne played the full eighty minutes spoke volumes. The second row options are thin off the ground too. Kleyn looks likely to miss out again so Billy Holland’s partner in the second row remains uncertain. Copeland has attempted to fill the void as well as debutante Mark Flanagan. Options are limited until Kleyn, O’Shea and Grobler come back into the squad.

There are question marks around the ten position. Bleyendaal looks unavailable so it is between Keatley and Hanrahan. Keatley probably will start but Hanrahan’s cameo in the second half could be absolutely pivotal in closing out the contest. The center partnership of Farrell and Scannell has not fired at all cylinders yet; this weekend would be a good time to start. Farrell needs to take up more ball into contact to vary his game; inclined to skip pass too often and was picked off by Castres last weekend. Zebo, Earls and Sweetnam will look for ball to work with but with inclement weather conditions, a game of the packs and there is a genuine concern with Munster’s pack. Heart ruling the head here, Munster to edge this encounter but the pack and the set piece cohesion is a concern particularly if Racing 92 field a strong side.

Give Me Wins

No disrespect to the Ospreys or Northampton Saints but this weekend spells serious danger. Ospreys travel to face a Saracens side who demolished Northampton Saints at Franklin Gardens. The dominance was emphatic on all facets of play; tries were created at ever increasing frequency. Farrell received time and space courtesy of the pack to unleash the likes of Barrett, Williams to hit the line with pace.

Ospreys continue to make progress and improvement but Saracens are playing at a different level of rugby that very few teams can live with. Saracens dare I say have evolved even further than last season. They have scored tries early doors this season where as in previous seasons, they would have worked the scoreboard with penalties. There is genuinely no weak link in this side. Ospreys have stars of their own with Jones, Tipuric, Webb and Biggar but the pack will eventually get worn down to breaking point. Saracens will win with a bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. Steve Tandy’s job becomes ever precarious.

Northampton Saints go from home humiliation to having to venture to Clermont Auvergne. Best of luck there. Saints were incredibly passive early doors and Saracens made them pay with 50+ score. Clermont ominously for the Saints will be unhappy with how they played for periods of the Ospreys win. Early tries set the platform to push on but they gave momentum and impetus back to the Ospreys, a better side would have punished this lapse. Clermont the nearly team of Europe will have too much for the Saints; fear another hammering for Northampton. Clermont with a five point haul.

Sunday’s Best

I am really looking forward to seeing La Rochelle play Ulster Rugby on Sunday afternoon. Ulster Rugby will look with confidence with the fixture; safely negotiated a tricky opening home fixture against Wasps last weekend. Wasps had nothing to lose. Massive injury problems, ask Ulster Rugby to set the tone and posed problems early doors. Ulster Rugby game management key and Jacob Stockdale emerged as a leading light; imposing performance and superb individual try to boot. The front row issues at scrum time were seen and La Rochelle will target the Ulster Rugby front five to build a platform in front of an excited home support.

Atonio, Forbes and Priso look a solid front three to achieve scrum dominance. Ryan Lamb was in superb form at ten and with Geoffrey Doumayro prominent in several eye-catching attacking plays last weekend, La Rochelle are well setup to win but I expect Ulster Rugby to provide stiff opposition. Ulster Rugby will need to be on point with defensive line speed, cannot allow La Rochelle’s big ball carriers get momentum. If they can do that, then they will be in contention but given this is the first ERC Cup home fixture, a massive occasion for La Rochelle, cannot look further than a win. Ulster Rugby will do well to get a loser bonus point.

Exeter Chiefs travel to Montpellier. A fixture where Montpellier will look to bounce back from a narrow loss to Leinster Rugby. The try machine Nadolo was pivotal in earning the loser bonus point and who knows if Wayne Barnes had officiated the Adam Byrne yellow card differently, the French outfit could have had a penalty try and 24-24 ball game. Exeter Chiefs had a great win against Glasgow Warriors but their opening twenty minutes was not good enough. The French side will look to exploit the Chiefs outside defense at every opportunity. Chiefs will need to be solid in defensive line speed and first up tackling, otherwise Nadolo will run riot. Montpellier to win with a bp point to boot.

Wasps and Harlequins finish off the round two fixtures. A game where Wasps need a nail on win here but with injured bodies everywhere, Quins will arrive to the Ricoh Arena in confident mood despite a home loss to La Rochelle. Quins attacking play at times is excellent but all too often this season, there have being serious defensive and forward pack lapses which have led to easy point concessions. Wasps will do well to win this contest; huge onus on Daly, Haskell and Wade to provide leadership. Inclement weather could wreck havoc for any expansive style of play; squad depth on the bench could be key and Quins have the fitter group so a road win is on the cards.

Denmark Team: Profile

Denmark await Republic of Ireland in the WC Playoffs

Lunchtime. Tension filled. The footballing gods have thrown up four intriguing playoff fixtures. The pick of the fixtures is Sweden and Italy, two sides who have perennially being in the World Cup, one of these proud nations will be watching from the outside this time around. Croatia on paper look to have too much against Greece and then you have realistically two 50/50 fixtures.

Northern Ireland will fancy their chances of progressing against a Swiss side who after winning their first nine games succumbed to Portugal away in the final game of the group. Republic of Ireland and Denmark will both fancy their chances against each other too. This blog will look at the Danish challenge and as you will see, there are several threats in the side.

Group E – Summary:

Denmark will rue the early start to this World Cup campaign. Three points from the first three fixtures spelled trouble but the Danes regrouped superbly thanks in no small part to Christian Eriksen who was prominent in the scoring sheet on several occasions. An emphatic 4-1 win over Kazakhstan at home gave the side momentum and they remained unbeaten for the rest of the group. The standout performance was their 4-0 demolition of group winners Poland at Copenhagen; a game where the Danes played some sublime football with Eriksen pivotal in attacking play. The emergence of Thomas Delaney and Andreas Cornelius was seen in this encounter with good strikes. Poland simply had no answer to the invention and attacking threat of the hosts. This win was confirmed with an important road trip win over Montenegro by a solitary goal, that man Eriksen again with a quality strike but the hallmark of this fixture was the performance defensively. Montenegro never looked like scoring with Kasper Schmeichel and defense easily repelling the home threat. The final home game of the group was an interesting affair. Eriksen again to the fore and his second half strike looked like being the difference but Denmark could not add the second goal and ten man Romania snatched a late equalizer. A reality check for the Danes ahead of the playoffs; their clinical goal threat in previous rounds had deserted them in the final round and a repeat against the Republic of Ireland will spell elimination.

Key Players:

Denmark have such a strong central core. Starting with Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Denmark have a world class keeper in their ranks. His command of his area, shot stopping ability and his relationship with a back four led by Kjaer is rock solid. Republic of Ireland will not get easy chances against this outfit. The central midfield area centers around the mercurial talent of Christian Eriksen; his performances for club and country this year have being sublime. Creativity, inventive and capable of scoring from long range or from short range after slick passing. It will be interesting to see how Republic of Ireland’s management contain this threat. Who will be assigned man marking duties on the Tottenham player? Meyler is suspended. Whelan, Hourihane, McCarthy surely look the options with the likes of Hendricks and Arter asked to focus on the attacking side of play. The attacking threat for Denmark comes in several forms. Bendtner has returned to form with Rosenborg; prominent in the Champions League this season. Delaney from Werder Bremen has provided timely goals for the national side in this campaign; clever player who has explosive pace to get into positions. His hat-trick in this campaign so far is warning for the Republic of Ireland. Cornelius provides the physicality and power as well if Denmark need to go direct.

Denmark have shown both strengths and weak points. Montenegro were able to stifle Denmark at home for long periods and came away with a deserved away day triumph. Romania as well were well organized defensively and despite being reduced to ten players were able to probe sufficiently to create the equalizer. The Poland away loss was a mixed bag; Lewandowski was on fire on the day but Denmark gallantly fought back to get a result. Their team work and support of colleagues is quite similar to the Republic of Ireland in this regard. Eriksen is their ace in the pack but there are other threats for Martin O’Neill to contend with; solid defensively is the priority and hope to catch Denmark on a set-piece to setup the home second leg. Denmark like Republic of Ireland will have no fear of their opposition and away goals should come into the equation massively. The second leg away may play into Denmark’s hand as the Republic of Ireland will be forced to take the initiative; something that does not come easily for Martin O’Neill’s side. So much on the line. It will be an intriguing fixture for the neutral. I cannot call it. Roll on November!

 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 1 Review


The first round of pool games are now in the books. An intriguing weekend with familar front runners sending ominous statements of intent, newcomers looking to impress while others face make or break fixtures this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick mulls over the action.

Pool 1: Oh La La La Rochelle!

The story of this pool. The debutantes to this competition provided fans with familiar performance traits to beat Harlequins at the Stoop in an entertaining encounter. The hosts tried hard but La Rochelle dynamic ball carriers, running lines were exceptional at times and many sides would have struggled to come to the terms with their threat. Doumayrou (2), Priso and Forbes crossed for La Rochelle tries and aided by a solid display from Ryan Lamb secured the five points on offer. Quins could not try any harder but the lapses in concentration continued to be a killer for them. Collier, Marchant, Matthews scored well executed tries but defensively they were exposed. La Rochelle entertain Ulster Rugby next; top of the pool clash and one that could indicate who tops the pool come January. La Rochelle have provided flair, creativity and physicality in the opening round like they did in the Pro 14 last season. European Cup opponents are well warned. Ulster Rugby are in touch after a hard fought win over an injury depleted Wasps at Kingspan Stadium. A tricky encounter given the weather conditions but Ulster Rugby showed their skill and hunger with a decisive second half performance. Stockdale on the wing is an imposing player and it was a superb try to open up the contest. Wasps did expose Ulster front row issues in the scrum, more equipped side will make hay on this aspect of play. Wasps injury toll continues like Hurricane Ophelia. Gopperth was summoned from the sick bay to play ten and then twelve when injury struck the side again. Wasps and Quins are in must win territory this weekend, whoever loses is effectively out of the competition so high stakes at the Ricoh. Ulster Rugby travel to La Rochelle, a difficult fixture made harder by the performance of the French side last weekend and their first ERC Champions Cup fixture, it is a tall order. Ulster Rugby would gratefully grab a loser point right now.

Pool 2: Saracens march on ominously

The standout performance in this opening round was the emphatic 13-57 win of Saracens on the road at Franklin Gardens. This was an annihilation for Northampton Saints; the pack was destroyed in the maul, scrum, lineout and provided Farrell with the time and space to unleash the likes of Liam Williams at will. Saracens evolution to an efficient expansive running style was seen to full effect last weekend. The running lines of the ball carrier, the supporting lines from colleagues is a joy to see. Saracens pack were imperious as mentioned. Kruis controlled the lineout and exposed Saints in the process as Hartley struggled to hit second and third in the line. Eddie Jones surely must be worried on the form of his England captain. Jamie George is the form hooker for England this season. Saracens have a road trip to the Ospreys next and on the basis of their opening pool performance, another five points look a certainty. Ospreys continue to improve but again were on the wrong side of a result to Clermont who after opening half struggles regrouped and got a valuable road trip win. No Abendanon for Clermont but Steeding and Raka first half efforts were enough on the day. It was a ragged opening day performance from Clermont after an early brace of tries. They surrendered their dominance and allowed Ospreys back into the contest where Webb became a prominent figure scoring a try and controlling game management affairs. Clermont’s final quarter was a mixed bag. A couple of penalties to offset sloppy defensive work which led to two further Ospreys tries. Clermont on this form will struggle to compete with Saracens. Ospreys are looking at an early season exit from the ERC with the dominant Saracens next at the Allianz. The pressure on Steve Tandy intensifies.

Pool 3: Leinster beat Nadolo inspired Montpellier

Leinster’s 24-17 win was an excellent victory minus the services of O’Brien and Sexton. Ross Byrne stepped up producing a solid performance at ten. Carbery at full back responded to a shaky opening with a superb cameo thereafter scoring a superb try. Leinster defensive line speed at times was sublime but with Nadolo around, resistance is sometimes futile. Adam Byrne exposed on the outside on two occasions for tries, no shame in that as Nadolo is an awe inspiring physical specimen. Adam Byrne was the center of a key officiating moment during the contest; a deliberate knock-on and Wayne Barnes only issued a yellow card and not a penalty try to boot to level the scores. A key decision which could be pivotal come January. No consistency in players deliberately knocking on close to their line or when an opponent has a clear opportunity to score. Leinster Rugby got the rub of the green and got the win. Leinster travel to Glasgow Rugby who once again let themselves down in an European Cup tie. A promising opening period descended into anarchy as Exeter Chiefs pack and a misfiring Glasgow resulted in a clear victory at Sandy Park. Two early tries for Glasgow Warriors in the opening period and one would have felt that Dave Rennie’s side would unleash further woe on the hosts but Exeter Chiefs pack knuckled down and started to dominate. Glasgow Warriors front five simply did not have any answers. Exeter Chiefs led at the break 14-10 and then further increased their advantage without the services of Jack Nowell. Steenson was excellent at ten. Exeter travel to France and it will be a difficult assignment; loser bonus point is the aim and they will need to show resilency when Nadolo strikes, it is going to happen at some stage during the contest. Glasgow on the other hand have a must win with Leinster Rugby; it will be a fixture which challenges the hosts style of play. Do they strip back their expansive style and get back to a more fundamental performance driven display? Gray needs to step up and get his front five in the ascendancy. A loss here and ERC season is effectively over. High stakes game and Dave Rennie has decisions to make.

Pool 4: Nakarawa offloading masterclass

The performance of round one was the display of Nakarawa. Racing 92’s win was inspired by the second row whose ball carrying and ability to offload at all times caused Leicester Tigers massively defensive headaches around the fringes. The three tries scored from the hosts came from this offloading display. Leicester Tigers did come away with a loser point and they exposed Racing 92 defensively in that opening period with some excellent running lines. Hamilton exposed non-existent Racing 92 fringe defense and May used his afterburners to cross over. Both sides tightened up after the break and it was a nip and tuck affair; both teams spurned golden opportunities. A vital win for Racing 92 ahead of a trip to Thomond Park next weekend. Many will look at the squad selection that Racing 92 will announce during the week, a mix of fringe players and Munster Rugby will take renewed confidence, something in short supply with the Irish province in recent weeks. A labored draw at Castres who were quite frankly robbed of a home win at the death (awful officiating). Murray had to take ten minutes for the team as the hosts pack controlled the close exchanges early doors; a drubber kick causing issues and Murray had to take out the Castres runner. The Castres opening try showed a lack of ambition and game smarts. Chris Farrell’s physicality and ball carrying should have seen the centre take up the ball but instead decided to hit a trademark skip pass out wide. Teams have copped onto the tactic and it was picked off. Credit to Munster, they fought back repeatedly with some excellent phases setting up Zebo for the opening try, the period of play which saw Castres reduced to fourteen players and the quick thinking of Murray to setup Kilcoyne to crash over. However, Castres love when the game is disorganized and loose. Their second try exposed Munster defensively out wide and they took advantage of some idiotic penalty concessions. Robin Copeland was the luckiest person on the pitch when he clearly gave away a penalty at the ruck. The officiating crew unbelievably gave a knock-on only and when you consider the Zebo knock-on in the second half not pinged, Munster got out of jail. An intriguing pool which will ebb and flow.

Pool 5: Toulon win but Scarlets show intent

21-20. A cliffhanger game at the death, a loss which will yield positives for Scarlets in terms of their fightback and ability to get into position to win the contest. Toulon win but question marks abound on discipline and game management decisions. They play at time such superb rugby and then minutes later reduced to a pub league side. Trinh-Duc’s late penalty rescued the result for the hosts. Bath beat Benetton Rugby but not the runaway score that many would have expected. Benetton Rugby were in the game until the final quarter and Toulon and Scarlets will know that they will to perform at a high level to secure a bonus point win over the Italians. Scarlets face Bath on Friday night, an intriguing game, both sides will be expansive. Scarlets in must win territory. Intriguing second round of fixtures await.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Castres 17 – 17 Munster Rugby

Two points shared by both sides after a frantic eighty minutes of action, a contest where both sides will rue missed opportunities and questionable officiating at the death which on another side could have handed the hosts with a penalty kick to win the contest. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the contest.

Castres take advantage of Munster inaccuracy early

In warm and sunny conditions, Munster Rugby started the contest on the front foot, building some good phases of play where David Kilcoyne was prominent but all the early groundwork was reduced to nothing when Chris Farrell decided to hit a colleague with a trademark skip pass. Credit to Ebersohn for reading the play no doubt seeing the video footage from last weekend and strode with the ball for a try under the posts. Terrible try concession from the visitors. Farrell should have taken the ball into contact but his style of play is now becoming predictable. time for the player to mix up his play for the betterment of the player and the team. The thirteen channel for Munster yielded little thereafter.

Munster Rugby were now on the back foot and the penalty count which was a key talking before this fixture was starting to rise. The Castres pack lifted by the intercept try starting to build a platform. The hosts were presented with a penalty opportunity but it was missed, it gave Munster the chance to regroup and with Simon Zebo in the ranks, the visitors got back into the contest with an excellent try, patience in phase play leading to Zebo seeing a small gap to crash over. Game on as Bleyendaal added the extras.

Now was the time for Munster Rugby to focus and put pressure on their hosts but Castres took full advantage of sloppy Munster defensive play to hit the front again. Castres back line love the unstructured play, playing off the cuff and the visitors were not switched onto the threat as Dumora went over. Ortega’s offload was sublime. 14-7 and Munster on the back foot.

The fighting spirit in this Munster Rugby side again came to the fore as the half ended. An excellent passage of play seeing Munster camped on the hosts line. Castres penalty count rising at an alarming rate so much so that Ebersohn was shown a yellow just before the interval. Munster Rugby took the penalty option and the arrears reduced to four at half-time, a kind scoreline for Munster considering that they were second rate for long periods.

Munster Rugby roar back into the contest

Castres set out their stall in the opening second half exchanges. Fourteen players. The pack were asked to drive up repeatedly, build the phases and kill the clock. It worked for around five minutes but when Munster Rugby did get their hands on the ball, line breaks were presenting themselves. Zebo went close. Debutante Mark Flanagan even closer, look destined to score but an inaccurate pass from Murray denied the score. However, the referee had given a penalty for Munster Rugby and a quick tap and go from Murray was finished well by Kilcoyne. Murray takes the plaudits, saw the hosts were not set defensively and who better to boar over the line then Kilcoyne who had a superb game. The conversion was superbly scored by Bleyendaal and suddenly, Munster were in front by three points. 14-17. Time to assert dominance.

As in the Leinster game, Munster’s restart after the Kilcoyne try was poor. Castres winning the restart battle and using their pack to create territorial platform. The Munster pack were now struggling to defend the hosts lineout. Ortega calling the lineout well and the abrasive front five were having success with the maul. Urdapilleta levelled the game with a regulation penalty as Munster were pinged for collapsing the maul.

Time for Munster Rugby to throw on fresh bodies and stem the flow and so followed a slew of changes. Ryan on for Archer. Marshall on for Scannell but no replacement for Kilcoyne? Flanagan was replaced by Copeland; mobility over physicality and a distinct lack of options in the second row at this time. O’Donnell made way for O’Donoghue and Sweetnam who had a quiet game was replaced by Conway.

Frantic last quarter yields no further scores

As the warm conditions took their toll on both sides, defensive line speed was starting to slow. Both sides had excellent opportunities to add to their points tally. Munster Rugby in particular unfortunate to not leak any further tries; the touchline came to the rescue of the visitors on two occasions in this period. David Smith was a serious threat out wide with ball in hand and caused Munster plenty of headaches during his cameo. Rory Scannell’s tackling and game management were excellent for Munster in this second half and with the ever alert Keith Earls intercepting Castres passing exchanges, Munster had a glorious opportunity to score thereafter but a combination of abrasive defense and static line running from Munster saw possession lost.

Castres on reflection will feel hard done by in the closing exchanges. Zebo looked to deliberately knock on in the final quarter but was missed by the officiating crew deep in Munster territory. The incident that will irk the locals further was the clear infringement from Robin Copeland at the death; coming in from the side. The officiating crew unbelievably gave a knock-on and scrum. Munster still had to survive a nervy final two minutes deep in their twenty-two. Castres pack tried to setup the drop-goal but the kick was indecisive at best, going wide and Earls touching down. Munster get out of jail. Plenty to work on.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Preview

The European Rugby Challenge Cup, a competition which has had a mixed response from teams in recent seasons putting out second and third string sides leading to one sided results. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on this season’s tournament.

Pool 1: Bordeaux, Dragons, Enisei-STM, Newcastle Falcons

Enisei-STM enter the competition hoping to continue their progress from last season. The Russians will look to home advantage as an opportunity to shock their pool opponents but it is a tall order given the quality in the other teams. No distinct form guide for Enisei-STM and one suspects that this side will be taking to school in their road trips.

Dragons. New brand. New identity. Renewed pride in the Gwent region. The season so far domestically has being a mixed bag but Bernard Jackman has being keen to point out that this is a work in progress and that the season will be used to evaluate a youthful squad and determine where reinforcements are required. Dragons have their work cut out given that they face Bordeaux Begles and Newcastle Falcons.

Newcastle Falcons have really impressed this season in the Aviva Premiership. Dean Richards has assembled a squad whose physicality in the pack has set the platform for Toby Flood to unleash a potent back line. Falcons loss to Exeter Chiefs last weekend showed the good and bad of the side; their invention in open play was excellent but they were exposed in the set piece exchange, giving away penalty and territory with devastating consequences. A side who will fancy their chances of progression.

Bordeaux Begles are the form side of the pool but as you will gauge as you read this article, the attitude of the French sides to this competition in recent years has being underwhelming. Will Bordeaux embrace the competition and field strong sides? If they do, then the squad is stacked with talent. The enigma of squad selection opens the door for Newcastle Falcons truth be told. Even with their third team, Begles should have too much for Enisei. After that, it is anyone’s guess.

Verdict: 

If Bordeaux Begles embrace the competition, they top the pool without question, Otherwise, Falcons come into the equation as pool winners. I suspect that both sides will advance to the last eight of the competition despite Dragons trying to upset the form guide. Enisei-STM will be the cannon fodder of the pool and expect the try scored count in this pool to be ridiculously high.

Pool B: Cardiff Blues, Lyon, Sale Sharks, Toulouse

An excellent, competitive pool. Toulouse will use the tournament to rebuild after a traumatic season last year domestically. Europe was a little better but were ultimately humbled by Munster in the last eight of the competition exposing conditioning issues in the pack allied with weak outside defense. Toulouse are a side who will take this competition seriously; their European record is beyond reproach and with a quality pool, management will look to remain focus with a mix of experience and youth.

Cardiff Blues have endured a miserable season on and off the pitch. The lack of financial backing leading to van der Merwe being dealt away from the club before he played a fixture with the side during the summer spoke volumes. The form on the pitch has being disappointing but a couple of bright spots in the one point loss to Warriors at home and a comeback win against Dragons were performances full of endeavor and spark. Tom James continues to excel out wide. Josh Navidi continues to be a leader in the pack whilst Sam Warburton recuperates from injury. A pool which Cardiff Blues will relish; expect them to be competitive at home and in the shakeup come the later rounds but the distinct lack of squad depth is an question mark for the side. Wait and see approach.

Lyon are the standout side of this pool but question marks remain on where this competition falls in their priority list. The squad is stacked with the likes of Michalak, Wulf, Fourie, Armitage. If they decide to take this competition seriously, then they qualify as pool winners no question but if they decide to blood academy and fringe players, then they will be out before December. A road trip to Cardiff Blues to start will answer plenty of questions on their motives in this competition.

Sale Sharks have endured a mixed set of results domestically. Steve Diamond can call upon the quality of Josh Strauss, Faf de Klerk and Josh Charnley (rugby league convert). The local indigenous talent in the squad is a work in progress and the pack potentially may be exposed on set piece to prevent a serious play for qualification. Pool opponents will not relish a fixture to Sale but the squad depth of Toulouse and Lyon would suggest that the Aviva Premiership side are up against it.

Verdict:

A pool which will be worth watching particularly the fixtures between Lyon and Toulouse. They are the top sides of the pool and expect them to advance to the last eight of the competition despite good efforts from Cardiff Blues and Sale Sharks. It all depends on squad selection from the French sides. If they commit to the competition, then it is an open / shut case.

Pool 3: Agen, Gloucester, Pau, Zebre Rugby

An interesting pool but one that Gloucester Rugby should be confident of progression. The West Country outfit have loved this competition in recent seasons. This competition should provide welcome relief from domestic action where it has being a struggle. A badly needed win against Saints last time out was required to stave off immediate relegation concerns. The squad has raw potential, should advance to the knockout rounds but the squad depth will then be tested.

Zebre Rugby have being a positive story for the Guinness Pro 14 season. They were expected to struggle massively this season due to their late preseason, squad personnel (developmental) but their results have being decent. The home win against Ulster Rugby two weeks ago was a highlight. Michael Bradley will realize that the squad depth is an issue but will look to see how his charges compete against the likes of Gloucester Rugby in this competiton. Expect the Italians to upset one of the French teams at home but ultimately the road form will be their undoing.

Agen and Pau are teams which could have little interest in the competition. Hard to argue a case for either side to progress. Pau out of the two might have more appetite given the squad profile with a couple of ex-Munster players in the squad to reignite European Cup passion but these sides have shown in the past that this competition is well down the priority list. Pro 14 survival is paramount. Expect a couple of wins from both at home but their squads away from home will leave the tournament organizers with headaches.

Verdict: 

Gloucester Rugby to advance. Zebre to upset the odds with a couple of wins. The French sides will fulfill the fixtures. One coming out of this pool.

Pool 4: Edinburgh, Krasny Yar, London Irish, Stade Francais

The second high quality pool of the tournament. Krasny Yar are going to be given a torrid time in European action, little is known about this outfit but suffice to say that the other sides in the pool will target ten points from their two games against the Russians. Whipping boys.

The other three teams have historically taken the competition seriously and expect several superb fixtures this season. Edinburgh Rugby under RIchard Cockerill will look to build momentum into the Pro 14 campaign, look for his side to create and score tries, a facet of play which has being inconsistent domestically. Hidalgo-Clyne, Tovey are quality half-back operators and expect the side to build the sufficient platform to put points on the board.

London Irish are back in the Aviva Premiership but with it, they have being exposed in back and pack play this season. An opening day win against Harlequins was the highlight but there have being drubbings in recent weeks. Leicester Tigers used their dominant pack to secure a bonus point try win. London Irish will look to compete well at home but given their position in the league, it might be a case of blooding fringe players if results go against them in the earlier fixtures. Squad depth concerns?

Stade Francais. If certain owners had their way, Stade Francais and Racing 92 would have merged into a juggernaut Parisian club. Thankfully, that has not happened and Stade Francais will look to an extended European Challenge Cup run. Stade Francais have embraced the competition and this season should be no different even though their league position is disappointing right now. Squad is talented and should be the form team of the pool provided that there is no strategy change to ditch the competition.

Verdict: 

It looks like a shootout between Stade Francais and Edinburgh Rugby. London Irish squad depth is a concern and with a debut Aviva Premiership season, is it as much a priority as it once was? Krasny Yar, thanks for coming. Top two will secure quarter final spots.

Pool 5: Brive, Connacht, Oyonnax, Worcester Warriors

Oyonnax’s decision to move their Connacht fixture to Geneva speaks volumes; boost crowd attendance for a fixture which they have little interest in. Brive could be potentially painted in the same statement given their squad selections away from home in this competition in recent years. Both teams will compete at home but away from their familiar surroundings could be another story.  This pool to me looks like a straight fight between Connacht and Worcester Warriors.

Connacht have a new head coach but the fall off of last season has continued. Lapses in concentration on restarts have killed the Westerners in recent weeks much to Kieran Keane’s frustration. Muldoon’s withdrawal against Ulster Rugby last weekend is a blow and one wonders how much the talisman will be out for. There is genuine attacking edge to this side; expansive in nature with Aki a dominant force at twelve. The issue is consistency and is something that will be built in the coming months. Bonus point wins at home are paramount for pool qualification.

Worcester Warriors are struggling for form and consistency this season domestically. Their work rate is high but their squad depth quality has being exposed in set piece and general open play. Opposition have worn the side down and created tries in the last quarter despite the experience of Stringer, O’Callaghan. League survival is the aim; this competition could potentially build confidence to compete better domestically.

Verdict:

The French sides commitment to the tournament will be exposed in their squad selection on road trips, vulnerable and will leak bonus point try points for sure. Connacht and Worcester Warriors must address consistency issues, slight edge to Connacht given their squad depth is slightly better. A race between the two teams to secure that final qualification berth given the expected points tally in other pools.