Guinness Pro 14: Round 10 Preview

Round 10, the last round for Guinness Pro4 teams to gain confidence ahead of the December ERC fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action and conceivably we may have to wait until the final fixture to see any potential fireworks.

Edinburgh Rugby will look to get back to winning ways after they arrive to Port Elizabeth to face a winless Southern Kings outfit. The hosts though have threatened in recent league fixture of breaking their league duck.

The Ulster and Scarlets performances were encouraging, some excellent attacking play but as so often in this campaign, defensive lapses and indiscipline have proven costly.

Edinburgh were not disgraced in their loss to the Toyota Cheetahs at fortress Bloemfontein. Special note to Hidalgo-Clyne whose performance was superb, scored all his side’s points and is getting back to the form which saw the scrum-half in a Scottish jersey.

If Edinburgh can negotiate the opening quarter with minimum difficulty, expect Richard Cockerill’s charges to win with a bonus point to boot. The Scottish national team contingent will provide that extra quality to get over the line.

The wait for the Southern Kings to secure that maiden win looks likely to extend into the mid-December at least, will be interesting to see their performance tomorrow given recent cameos but Edinburgh Rugby’s organization and skill set should suffice.

This is a difficult fixture to call. I am expecting Bernard Jackman and his team to deliver a strong performance at Rodney Parade given their recent form and results against Munster and Leinster respectively.

Those heavy losses have fallen along familiar lines. Pack suffocated by their opposition, penalty count on the rise, field possession surrendered, points conceded at a rate of knots.

Dragons did show some glimpses of promise last weekend against Leinster. An early ten point start showed dynamic attacking with Henson providing much needed experience. However, a good opening quarter evaporated thereafter.

Ulster Rugby come into this game with plenty of question marks. An utterly unconvincing performance against a resolute Benetton Rugby (missing many first line players) last weekend has raised more questions on the style, consistency and management of the side.

Les Kiss has responded by bringing in a couple of promising academy players for this road trip fixture. Tommy Bowe is positioned in the three quarters. The pack welcomes van der Merwe in the front row, a welcome addition given the issues at scrum time.

This is a fixture which will heap pressure on either head coach. Jackman will argue that this is a transitional period but yet another trouncing to Irish provincial opposition will surely provide food for thought for anyone connected to the Welsh region.

Les Kiss has endured a difficult time at Ulster Rugby; the side has all the talent on paper to stake a serious aspirations in both domestic and ERC action but the performances on the park have being labored and lacking consistency. The Paddy Jackson / Stuart Holding situation certainly has not helped.

Tough fixture to call. If a dry track, then Ulster Rugby have the skill set to win this with a bit to spare. However, something is telling me that Dragons are due a good performance and in front of their home crowd, slight nod to the Gwent region.

I saw the Cardiff Blues game last weekend, probably the standout game of the round. Blues played a fast, uptempo game and with the emergence of Lane and James in the back line, decisive line breaks were created.

The weak points were indiscipline where Nick Williams was the prominent contentious figure. The pack struggled at scrum time at times and the manner in which Connacht’s pack were able to maul their way for tries in the second half spoke volumes.

Blues have an arduous trip in front of them this weekend, playing a Glasgow Warriors side who are the form team of Conference A. Their demolition of the Ospreys last weekend with their fringe squad continuing the dominance enjoyed since the start of the season.

If this game is played on a dry track, expect plenty of tries. Blues will look to go toe to toe with their hosts creating expansive line breaks but they are up against an incredibly efficient side whose clinical try scoring ability is unmatched in this conference.

Glasgow Warriors to extend their winning streak in the league to ten on the bounce this season. Their international players returning from duty will add more potency to an already well drilled squad. Glasgow with a bonus point. Cardiff Blues to contribute to a good contest, their road trip win to Toulouse gives hope but this is a step too far given last week’s cameo.

Saturday afternoon kicks off with the clash of Zebre Rugby and Connacht Rugby. This is a key fixture particularly for the visitors as defeat potentially could consign the Westerners to realistically not challenging for playoff positions.

Zebre Rugby were given ample opportunities to punish an undisciplined Munster Rugby last weekend. Two tries were scored in the opening period but the manner of the performance left plenty for improvement.

The pack were second best. Game management unraveled in the second half with Munster Rugby availing of a couple of 5 meter scrums. Players not in tune with their skill set, trying the outrageous moves behind their posts. They got away with plenty in the breakdown and another officiating crew could be busy pinging the Italian outfit.

Connacht Rugby fell just short last weekend. Their comeback in the second half was admirable but indiscipline and lapses at different stages of the contest proving pivotal. Griffin yellow card, line break created but lack of Blues support looked like scuppering the move before the deliberate knock-on.

The back play at times was superb and with the pack revitalized in the second half with a couple of maul tries scored by Delahunt, confidence should be high to secure a bonus point win. Zebre Rugby look ripe for the picking here and Connacht Rugby know only a bonus point win will put any pressure on their conference rivals.

Benetton Rugby are a side which impressed me last weekend. Their defensive organization on point in recent road trips continued at Kingspan Stadium and only for a late Ulster Rugby try would have secured a win.

With their Italian national side players back with the club, Leinster Rugby will have to be produce an efficient performance to secure a road trip victory.

Leinster Rugby scored fifty plus points against a Dragons side who were hapless at times but the first quarter will have being used to good effect in video analysis. The side were far too loose and Dragons took full advantage with a quick ten point lead.

The Leinster Rugby squad depth is superb and it will be interesting to see how Cullen and Lancaster play this fixture. Do they retain the players who have impressed last week or do they slot a couple of first choice players into the mix ahead of ERC action?

A fixture which will be a proper gauge of where Benetton Rugby are in their development, expect a strong performance but Leinster Rugby are playing some lovely rugby at present. Larmour for me has being a revelation in recent weeks. Leinster to win, perhaps with the bonus point late but the hosts will show good signs of progress in an entertaining encounter.

This is a fixture with banana skin written all over for Munster Rugby. An opening fixture for Johann van Graan to impress the locals against an opposition who are reeling from a horrendous home loss to Glasgow Warriors.

The Ospreys team selection will make interesting reading given that Wales will play South Africa this weekend. Fourth international game on the bounce and the Welsh regions will feel the strain with the other home nations able to call their full squads.

Ospreys with a side full of fringe, academy and subset of established stars have nothing to lose in truth. Sam Davies, Bradley Davies, Dan Evans are quality players and surely there has to be a reaction from the players at least after last weekend. The less said about last week the better, the second half display was abject, two intercept tries to rub salt into the wounds.

Munster Rugby enter this game with plenty of scope to improve. Yes, they beat Zebre Rugby. Yes, they did secure a bonus point but the manner of the performance was inconsistent at best. The discipline was abject at times with Copeland pinged for his party piece, deliberate kill the ball at the breakdown. Arnold’s sin bin a culmination of Munster indiscretions.

The key point for Munster Rugby management is the three quarter positions. Farrell is out until the New Year. Earls looks unlikely to feature as well. Who fills the thirteen position? Sam Arnold’s name could come into the mix. Intriguing subplot there and the ten jersey again up for grabs with Keatley looking for more game time. JJ was inconsistent last week, defensively needs to improve.

A fast track at Irish Independent Park. Munster Rugby need to produce a performance ahead of their Leicester Tigers ERC fixtures. Ospreys to provide a spirited performance. Munster Rugby to win performance and discipline issues could be far from perfect.

The tie of the round. Cheetahs at home; their fortress in Bloemfontein will be provided a stern test by the reigning league champions. However, with depleted squad depth due to the Welsh international, team selection will be interesting.

Cheetahs at home have shown excellent form, their second half performances in altitude has put every team apart from Glasgow Warriors to the sword. Their speed of movement, attacking lines and quick passing has being a joy to watch.

Scarlets struggled for periods against the Southern Kings, a narrow win but one which saw prominent roles for the likes of Beirne, Jones and they delivered with superb tries.

The news of Scott Williams’ departure is a blow to the club but the Scarlets have stayed classy and are looking to the future. The future of George North will come into the equation and what a signing if the players rejoins the club.

Given the squad options, edge this encounter to the Toyota Cheetahs but Scarlets and Cheetahs will produce a superb passing contest, tries galore, cannot wait.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 9 Reflections

After a three week hiatus, the Guinness Pro 14 league resumed with gusto. A weekend where the main protagonists sent clear statements of intent to mark the start of this phase of the league, the wannabes lost further ground in conference playoff battle while for the Ospreys, the season took another devastatingly morale sapping blow.

Glasgow romp to easy road win to Ospreys

What is going on at the Ospreys? Three weeks to regroup and start the campaign with renewed vigor but what was produced yesterday fell well short and heaps more pressure on management.

Looking at the Ospreys side, the side on duty should have competed better than a forty-one point drubbing. Seasoned performers in the likes of Evans, Dirksen, Hook, Beck, Hassler, James, Arhip, Davies featured but zero cohesion with confidence collapsing in the second half.

Trailing 6-14 at the break, the hosts capitulated on the resumption. George Horne was the star of the show for the Warriors who ran at will in the second half. Horne scored two well taken tries.

Cummings, Thomson, Sarto, Turner and Hasting all went over the white wash. Warriors were far too slick in their passing and movement. Ospreys were reduced to chasing shadows at times.

To add insult to injury, the last two tries came from intercepts. Ospreys have zero respite with a trip to Cork to face Munster Rugby where new head Johann van Graan will look to build momentum into ERC action. Ospreys are a proud club and expect a reaction this weekend. Munster will be well warned.

Glasgow Warriors will not have many easier road trips than this fixture. The squad depth was on point in this victory and with the likes of Cummings and Horne, the future is bright. The future is Warriors as they secured their ninth league win in a row.

Playoff bound come May and dare I say could be top seeds the way the season is panning out. Dave Rennie’s influence is complementing the game plan inherited from Gregor Townsend. Their running lines and quick up tempo game is a joy to watch.

Scarlets secure road win at Southern Kings

The lineup looked experimental in nature but credit to the Scarlets for this victory on the road to the Southern Kings who will feel yet another Pro 14 home fixture victory slipped from their grasp.

This game ebbed and flowed throughout. Exciting start to the contest with quality scores from Beirne and Makase. Offloading and vision the key traits for the tries respectively.

The emergence of Mike Philips was a key turning point for the Scarlets and fly half Jones secured the win ten minutes from time, excellent running line before converting.

Kings showed flashes of brilliance but again unforced error count increased in the second half, gave Scarlets field position and with the dry track surface, the reigning champions despite without many first team stars did enough to secure the road trip.

Leinster stroll to easy home win over hapless Dragons

It has being a humbling league fixture period for Dragons as the Welsh region were again trounced by Irish province opposition. Fifty-two points leaked speaks volumes.

It had started so well for the Dragons and a 10 point lead was established. Henson’s dropped goal and then an excellent Benjamin try converted by Henson, an upset perhaps?

Leinster Rugby were having none of it and the response was emphatic with the bonus point try secured on thirty-two minutes. Gibson Park led the fightback and with the pack in full flow, Nacewa strode over for the second try.

Key contributions followed from Murphy and Deegan. Dragons’ side were deflated and the second half was a stroll for the hosts. Further tries from Nacewa, the impressive Larmour and O’Loughlin completed the rout.

This was tough viewing for any rugby neutral, let alone Bernard Jackman and squad who looked light on a number of key pack and back line positions. Angus O’Brien looks a prospect but more defeats like this could be the order of the day for the Welsh region.

The announcement that Ross Moriarty is now a Dragons player is a step in the right direction but this is only one player, many more players are required. Jackman realizes the enormity of the task given these most recent fixture performances.

Munster discipline issues

Five points secured in Parma but disciplinary issues were the order of the day for the Irish province resulting in two sin bins in the opening period.

Offside and breakdown infringements (some harsh) were prominent game notes in the opening period as Zebre fought back to only trail the Irish province by three points at the break (14-17).

Credit Munster though, the tries when they arrived were well worked. Scannell, Hart, Wootton (2) and Nash tries were on point. Zebo’s creativity on the second Wootton try was different class.

Munster under van Graan formally from today will have learned plenty from the game. The breakdown area was chaos throughout as only one side was pinged in this facet of play. Ospreys fixture at home hopefully will provide a sterner test ahead of the Leicester ERC home / away fixtures.

Cardiff Blues beat Connacht in topsy turvy affair

Most exciting game of the weekend was in Cardiff. Six point win for the hosts but Connacht will feel that victory was very close. Both sides contributed massively to the contest.

Three tries for Cardiff Blues who had excellent performances from Olly Robinson and Owen Lane who looks potentially a talent to watch out for as the season progresses.

Nick Williams had a mixed bag (what’s new). Sublime ball carrying but then got involved in silly stuff; obstruction cost his side a try and then was sent to the bin in the closing stages to setup a frantic finish.

Connacht left Cardiff with two points. Four try haul as Shane Delahunt (2) crashed over from short range following good maul work from the pack. Adeolokun and Muldoon also crossed over with the winger looking extremely sharp in ball carrying and open play.

Discipline also reared its head for the visitors. Griffin adjudged to have deliberately knocked on when Cardiff Blues were on a promising line break. Enter Lane for an emphatic score during this period.

The quality of penalty kicking at the end was enough for Cardiff Blues; Anscombe was prominent in two key penalties in the final ten minutes. This in contrast to Connacht who missed a couple of conversions albeit tough angles. The hosts worked the scoreboard and got a much needed win in the league.

Connacht lose further ground to their Conference A rivals and Kieran Keane’s charges realize that any further significant slip ups could consign their league campaign to a swift conclusion come the New Year.

Cheetahs impress again at home

No disgrace from Edinburgh. Cheetahs at Bloemfontein is a fortress and the second half performance sent a clear message to conference rivals that the South African side will be key players in the playoff shakeup.

Edinburgh’s hard work in the opening quarter was undone by a quick ten minute blitz from the hosts who scored courtesy of Barry and Bernardo. The ability of the hosts to see field position and pick the right option was key in the first try.

A super drubber kick in behind the Edinburgh defense for Barry to score. Excellent offloading and expansive play from the hosts led to Bernardo’s try. Edinburgh to their credit did fight back with Hidalgo-Clyne scoring thirteen points but then came the final quarter.

The altitude factor was key. Edinburgh’s efforts to get back into the game were paying heavily now as the hosts regained the ascendancy. Further incisive passing and running lines allowing Pokomela, Mapimpi and Meyer to cross.

Cheetahs have being a joy to watch this season and their presence in the playoffs will be seen as a success for tournament organizers. With Munster Rugby scheduled to visit Bloemfontein, the battle for second place in Conference A will intensify.

For Edinburgh, it is a chance to regroup and look to reclaim the lost ground to the likes of Ulster, Leinster and Scarlets. This was a key lesson in game management and Cockerill’s men will be all the better for the experience.

Ulster avoid embarrassment

Credit Benetton Rugby as with a depleted squad depth, they were within three minutes of causing a massive upset at Kingspan Stadium. For Ulster, the get out of jail card was issued and one wonders where the side is going this season.

A fixture on paper which should have seen Ulster Rugby assert dominance to setup the platform for victory. The first half of this statement was achieved when Bowe crossed over on seventeen minutes but the lack of cohesion and precision was an issue.

This was an almighty struggle for Ulster and with Allan and Banks on form with the tee, the visitors gained in confidence with each passing minute evident in Barbieri crossing over after intercepting van der Merwe’s ponderous line pass. It captured Ulster’s night perfectly; ponderous, zero invention.

It was left to experienced players Leali’ifano and Trimble to rescue the tie at the death for the hosts. Superb finish from Trimble and Leali’ifano’s conversion was ice cold under pressure but the lack of consistency in the game plan and execution is leaving massive questions on Ulster management. Les Kiss looks vulnerable.

Guinness Pro 14: Zebre Rugby 19 – 36 Munster Rugby

The van Graan era has started (technically tomorrow) with a bonus point try victory over Michael Bradley’s Zebre Rugby in Parma this afternoon. A mixed bag from Munster and officials on duty. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

The Good

Bright start from Munster Rugby in the first quarter. The pack asserting early dominance. Rhys Marshall nearly scored after superbly intercepting a Zebre wayward attacking pass early doors. Cloete support running also impressive but the New Zealander had a foot in touch.

This ultimately setup the platform from which Munster scored their first try. Munster pack again putting pressure on Zebre on their own try line, the ball was distributed quickly out from JJ Hanrahan to Rory Scannell who with space to work with strode to the try line.

The visitors continued to play the rugby and Hart was the next Munster try scorer, more cohesive pack play resulting in Hart getting in from close range. After the ninth minute penalty from JJ Hanrahan, a seventeen point lead was the minimum that Munster Rugby deserved for an excellent opening.

The Bad

However, Munster Rugby discipline became more and more an issue in the second quarter. Several infringements called by the match official in addition to Munster straying offside more than once, patience was wearing thin. Copeland infringement at the breakdown in front of the Munster posts was the cue to hit for the yellow card.

Bisegni took advantage of the player advantage, evading the best efforts of JJ Hanrahan to score the first try of the afternoon for the hosts. Munster again pinged for an infringement and Sam Arnold was issued another yellow card; cue more host pressure, cue another try as Sarto crossed over.

From a position of comfort, Munster Rugby let down by their discipline were now down to thirteen players and only leading by three points. 14-17. Zebre bounced off the pitch with optimism.

Munster Regroup

The second half started with a renewed Munster focus; discipline on point until the two players were back on the pitch. Zebre Rugby were now starting to make poor game decisions deep in their own half and this setup the platform for Munster Rugby to score a quick brace of tries.

Wootton showed his pace and try scoring ability with this quick brace; first try setup by the pack which saw the hosts defensively narrow. It allowed time and space for Wootton to exploit and cross over in the corner.

The Macclesfield native then took a superb line pass from Simon Zebo to evade Zebre’s defense to secure the bonus point. The pass from Zebo sensational.

Old Habits die hard

With the bonus point secured, Munster Rugby tried to continue to work the scoreboard but a combination of poor attacking execution and inconsistent officiating saw the visitors in an ever increasing frustrated mindset.

The officiating on show today was a mixed bag; Munster Rugby were the team pinged consistently at the breakdown, it looked at times that Munster Rugby could not compete for breakdown ball. Zebre Rugby under pressure at scrum time, infringements aplenty but no yellow card in sight.

Game assessors need to be clear with match officials. Consistent decision making is required. Despite the Munster Rugby win, the team will be disappointed with the penalty count given dominance on set piece throughout.

The attacking play of Munster Rugby was ponderous at times. Hart had a good outing on his debut, kick game was on point most of the time but there were a couple of delay passes which did little for the ball receiver. Obstruction call in the second half highlighted this facet of play.

After surrendering good field position, Munster Rugby were again guilty of infringing at the breakdown. A concerted period of pressure saw a lovely diagonal kick to the corner where Venditti crossed over. The conversion was missed and the ten point gap remained.

Strong Munster Finish

The final five minutes were played in Zebre’s half. An obstruction on an aerial kick giving Munster Rugby prime platform to attack. The pack again exposing Zebre’s front five, another penalty conceded, still no yellow card but Munster Rugby kept their composure to build the phases. The ball finally made its way out to Calvin Nash who crashed over from close range. Conversion good. 19-36. Mission accomplished.

Discipline

Three week hiatus did have an impact. The side were cohesive at the start of the contest but lack of game time in recent weeks was a factor, offside calls were poor concessions from Munster.

The breakdown officiating left plenty to the imagination but Munster Rugby will look to see how they can improve this facet of play. Cloete had a prominent game in the open exchanges; energy and solid tackler. A shrewd signing from Rassie before his departure.

JJ Hanrahan had a good game with ball in hand but his kicking off the tee was at times mixed. With the battle for the ten jersey set to intensify, it will be interesting to see how the Kerry native fits into the new head coach’s plans?

Five points secured but plenty to improve upon. Fitness reports on Simon Zebo this week will be keenly watched; the full back had a stellar outing with ball in hand. His pass for Wootton’s second try was sensational. Munster will undoubtedly miss his flair next season when he departs for France.

Autumn International Series: November 25th Reflections

The final Autumn International series fixture for the majority of teams. Wales and South Africa conclude the series with a fixture at the Principality Stadium next weekend but trends have emerged after this weekend’s results and performances. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Hail Hail Scotland!

The standout performance of the weekend. The rout of Australia particularly in the second half sent a massive statement of intent and backed up the performance that Gregor Townsend’s charges produced against New Zealand in the previous game.

To score fifty-three points against a Michael Cheika coached team is a massive accomplishment. The expansive style of play, the tempo and the support running options for the ball carrier were immense throughout.

Kepu’s red card was a key moment in the game but Australia can have little complaint on the sanction. Out of control, off feet and impact to the head is a red card sanction. Disappointing for Australia given that they had scored two quick tries to get back into the contest before the red card.

Scotland did not have to be asked twice to take full advantage of the numerical advantage. If you have read my blog, a general talking point on Scotland has being the issues in the front five; prone to be pushed around on set piece and maul but there has being none of that this series.

The likes of McNally, Fagerson, Bhatti have emerged and made the transition from promising Pro 14 club player to solid international test match performers seamlessly. The front five produced a superb performance; the sight of Scotland mauling thirty meters down the pitch setting up platform ball was sublime to watch.

Price and Russell at half-back are a standout world unit. Price has impressed me massively in this series. Tempo on point with quick ball from the ruck area and his ability to identify gaps in opposition defenses was seen to good effect with his key try just before the interval.

Russell with ball in hand is a player who poses massive questions to opposition defenses. His ability to create and launch attacks on the gain line is immense and Jones, Maitland and McGuigan yesterday reaped the benefit from a superbly managed display from the ten.

The second half performance was as complete a performance I have seen from a Scotland team in years. All units delivered; the back row unit were imperious in their work rate. Barclay, Watson and Wilson did untold damage in ball carrying as well as stifle Australian ball at breakdown.

A defining performance from Scotland, they continue their upward progression from last season. The RBS 6N tournament has a legit team who can challenge for championship honors along with the usual suspects. Murrayfield has become a fortress. Take a bow Scotland!

Wales huff and puff to little effect

An arduous task for Wales yesterday; there was optimism heading into the game but for me personally, it was more hope than expectation. It is tough enough facing New Zealand any time of the year but when you have to do so without the immense talents of Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, then the possibility of upsetting the odds is remote at best.

Take nothing away from the Welsh yesterday, the squad on show gave as good as they got for sixty plus minutes. New Zealand were forced to sit and defend deep in their own half for long periods but a lack of quality on the outside was exposed with the hosts attacking play. If Williams or Davies were on the park, surely Wales would have taken the lead given the possession and territorial gains in the first half.

New Zealand without the likes of Kieran Read still managed to score 33 points. Their ruthless efficiency with ball in hand when presented with space was sublime at times. Every New Zealand player is so comfortable with ball in hand, their composure to either present the ball at ruck time as well as looking for offloading options was seen to full effect.

Four tries scored during the eighty minutes. Naholo and Ioane with a brace of tries each, setup work from their colleagues on point and the players who came into the side for more established stars seamlessly fitted into the system. Wales condemned to their thirty straight loss to the All Blacks, it never looked like happening yesterday. Next weekend’s game against South Africa should accurately indicate where Gatland’s men are.

A special note for Josh Navidi. The Cardiff Blues player had a tremendous game yesterday; his mobility in breakdown and ball carrying duties was on point throughout. Navidi has had to bide his time for international game minutes but the player has being the standout performer for Wales in this series. A player which this blog has constantly highlighted, good to see the player get his opportunity.

Ireland win but food for thought

28-19. If you believed the D4 media print preview that Ireland had revenge (2015 RWC loss) on their mind, then I suppose it was mission accomplished. As Joe Schmidt correctly pointed out, the team needs to go forward and another win over a determined Argentina side will provide Ireland management with plenty to review and reflect upon.

The good news is that the new players in the squad stepped up to the plate yesterday. Jacob Stockdale continues to produce standout performances on the wing. Excellent performance, superb brace of tries and his work rate was to the fore. His man of the match accolade was truly merited.

The emergence of Aki and Farrell in midfield was a pleasing aspect to yesterday’s test match win. Aki was typically abrasive, super ball carries and high tackle count, good defensive structure throughout. Aki looks the incumbent twelve on the basis of this series. Farrell had a superb performance. Early ball carries set the tone and his quick hands to setup Stockdale’s opening try was superb.

Adam Byrne on his debut had a decent outing, unlucky not to score a try in the opening half after Murray’s diagonal kick to the corner. Byrne was solid on defensive duties and improved in the aerial battle as the game wore on. One for the future, a player for the future much like Darren Sweetnam. The talent is there, playing experience at provincial level and ERC will develop the player further.

The opening period was an impressive one for Ireland. The pack dominated the early exchanges. Emphatic scrum win at the start of the contest which setup the first score of the evening. Furlong, Best and Healy all had excellent games. Furlong and Healy in particular have elevated their games this season to new levels.

The second row partnership looked to work well. Henderson was his industrious best, excellent command in the lineout and his ball carries were efficient. James Ryan on debut did not put a step wrong for me personally. He is the future of the second row position along with Henderson. Confident on set piece and line out catches were sharp and provided Murray with quality line out ball to work with. A promising debut.

The back row was much improved from the debacle of last weekend. O’Mahoney, O’Brien and Stander nullifying the Argentina threat with good breakdown work. Stander’s try was just desserts for an industrious performance; never going to be stopped five meters out. All rosy in the garden one would think but there are areas of improvement.

Like last weekend, the tempo dropped in the second half and allowed Argentina to build momentum as a result. Argentina did improve their breakdown work after the break but Ireland did struggle to gain any parity in territory in the second half. 80% territory for Argentina in the second half (seventy minute statistic) spoke volumes; the last ten minutes improved but Ireland realize that they cannot afford to concede territorial advantage like this to other prolific sides.

Argentina scored some lovely tries in the second half, increased tempo and fast ruck ball allowing Sanchez to expose Ireland defensively with some deft drubber kicks. Tuclet, Leguizamon  and Moyano crossing down after the Argentinian pack started to gain a foothold in the pack exchanges.

Rob Kearney’s performance at full back was noteworthy; a stellar display from the Leinster player. His aerial ability is unquestioned and his line breaks provided Ireland with quality field position.

Ireland have had a good series of internationals; emerging talent have raised their hands for future selection, squad depth is improved but the ability to produce a consistent performance in the last two games is something that needs to be rectified by Joe Schmidt given the emergence of Scotland and Japan’s draw to France in Paris.

England show squad depth and potential to beat Samoa

Eddie Jones and England enter the RBS 6N tournament next year in buoyant form. Their 48-14 win over a gallant Samoa yesterday provided clues to the emerging players who could conceivably feature for the national team next year and beyond.

The second half performance again a key discussion point as England scored four late tries to break the resistance of Samoa who produced their typical hard running and tackle approach.

Mike Brown, Alex Lozowski who looks to have massive potential along with Charlie Ewels and Henry Slade all crossed over. Daly had a superb game, constant threat with ball in hand and his kicking game was on point throughout. Rokoduguni also crossed over.

Noteworthy series of games in which England passed with flying colors. The pack looks solidified with the emergence to form of Lawes and Launchbury to complement the talent of Itoje. The hooker position debate will continue to run and run but it is a nice problem for Jones to have.

Tougher assignments await next year and it will be interesting when New Zealand and England meet to verify RWC 2019 credentials. England are favorites for the RBS 6N next season without question and the emergence of several promising prospects from the Saxons bodes well for the future.

Italy struggles continue

Grim afternoon weather wise and for the locals in attendance, the performance of Italy matched the climatic conditions. South Africa eased to a 35-6 victory; were patient in the red zone and scored five tries in the process.

Francois Louw, Bongi Mbonambi and Francois Venter all scored tries in the first half, with Handre Pollard converting them all to establish a daunting 15-point lead at the break.

Steven Kitshoff pushed the visitors further clear following the restart, Pollard converting yet again, while Franco Mostert ended any Italian dreams of a late recovery by dotting down at the death.

Italy had promising moments; territorial prominent at times but lack of back line variety made them one dimensional. South Africa were able to defend at times with ease. McKinley had being a positive for Italy but still massive work required for Italy on both sides of the ball.

Autumn Rugby Internationals – November 18th (Ireland and Wales) Talking Points

Ireland prospects win against Fiji with a mixed performance

A weekend where both Ireland and Wales management teams ran the rule over prospective players against Fiji and Georgia respectively. The end result was victories but the performances of both lacked cohesion with certain players stepping up to the rigors of test match rugby while others need to hone in on weak points and come back again in time.

Ireland’s 23-20 win over a determined Fiji side was a good test match to evaluate the squad depth at Joe Schmidt’s disposal. Joey Carbery’s sixty-five minute cameo was full of invention and creativity with ball in hand, aerial kicks were on point. The penalty kicking is a work in progress but the potential is massive. Wrist injury aside, the player will come back better and stronger in the New Year.

Andrew Porter also was a player who impressed me on Saturday. The Ulster prop versatility key and was solid in the set piece. A player which you could conceivably feature for Schmidt going forward. Adapted well and his age profile means that a 2019 RWC squad appearance is on the cards.

For the success stories on Saturday, other Ireland players struggled. The back row unit was second best to Fiji in the breakdown contest; eleven turnovers in the opening period was unacceptable. Ball protection was non-existent and allowed Fiji to create the unstructured / offloading play which they crave.

The scrum-half backup to Conor Murray debate intensified on Saturday. Marmion played for seventy-seven minutes and it was a mixed bag from the Connacht player. Several missed tackles, a couple of nothing plays with ball in hand saw Fiji win possession due to lack of breakdown support. Aerial kicks were average.

Marmion looked like a player who knew he had to produce and the pressure to impress hindered the performance for me at the weekend. Luke McGrath’s introduction to proceedings brought efficient game management to close out the game. McGrath’s box kick was on point and his speed of pass in his opening salvo was also noteworthy.

Some may view my comments on Marmion as harsh due to the back row issues in the breakdown particularly in the first fifty minutes of this contest but some of the plays called were ambitious at best; no look passes inside, running into cover defense and exposed as a ball carrier will do little for Schmidt and management. McGrath is primed for international action now.

The three quarters was a mixed bag. McCloskey had a strong ball carrying performance; several noteworthy gain lines in the opening period. Farrell tried hard but found gain line meters more difficult given slow ball from the ruck area. McCloskey from the two will eye further game time but given Aki, Henshaw and Ringrose in the ranks, it is going to be difficult.

Darren Sweetnam learned more on his defensive skill set against Nadolo than he has since emerging with Munster last season. Super opening try to proceeding but was exposed by Nadolo at the end of the opening period with a missed tackle and failing to adequately cover back when Nadolo produced a sublime kick in behind.

Sweetnam is a player who will come on leaps and bounds from this outing. Lovely balanced player who game reads superbly; solid in the air and ball carrying duties. It was the perfect test match to fully look at his defensive credentials; had some hairy moments but who doesn’t when faced against the Nadolo machine who was different class on Saturday night. Pivotal squad player for RWC 2019.

Officiating at times left plenty for comment. Fiji guilty more than once for a high tackles not penalized. The tip tackle at the end was a horrendous decision, no consistency from the TMO who was indecisive at best. At least yellow and Fiji got away with one.

Wales survive the Georgia forward onslaught

Warren Gatland like Joe Schmidt fielded a side with plenty of rookies and prospective fringe squad talent on show. A promising opening period where Wales played some lovely phases of rugby descended into a trench warfare second half where Georgia asked serious questions of Wales defensively in the last quarter.

Only Welsh management and medical staff can properly comment on the fitness of their props at the death but the sight of two Welsh props ready to come on after the Thomas Francis’ sin bin looked out of sorts. The no contest scrum hindered Georgia more than the hosts.

Georgia provided ample evidence that they can compete at this level albeit every pack intensive with little creativity past the ten channel. The physicality of the Eastern Europeans in the set piece was to the fore and the scrum was a constant issue for Wales who also experienced lineout malfunctions during the contest.

Raynal unfortunately officiated the set piece inconsistently and there was a series of scrums straight in front of the Welsh posts (second half) which on another day could have prompted the award of a penalty try such was Francis’ penalty concessions before Georgia were pinged after a Welsh scrum surge (finally) to end the passage of play.

Priestland and Lydiate stood out in this performance. Their performances gave their inexperienced colleagues the support required on the day to get over the line and secure the win. Priestland’s kicking was on point throughout and his decision making to unleash his back line was seen to full effect in the opening period.

Dan Lydiate gave a display in the back row. The breakdown work was sharp but it was his work rate and tackle count which caught eye. 26 tackles made during the contest, immense statistics and his ability to slow down Georgian ball in the final quarter gave the hosts time to regroup defensively. A player who will look to re-establish a starting berth for next weekend against New Zealand.

Georgia will feel that this was an opportunity lost but the lack of expansive play needs to evolve for the side. The debate will be whether they should be allowed play in the RBS Championship? The brand of rugby is very abrasive but they would be well capable of competing in the tournament.

Wales focus turns to New Zealand and after Scotland’s display at Murrayfield and the increasing number of All Black injuries, there is hope given that the first team players were given last weekend off. Intriguing to see how Wales fare but last weekend was a struggle and the closing moments left questions to answer on sporting conduct.

Autumn Rugby Internationals: November 18th Preview

Mid-November internationals are upon us, a fascinating weekend of fixtures beckons with Australia heading to Twickenham to face England and South Africa looking for redemption with a victory against France in Paris. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

England wary of Australia threat

You would have thought that England had lost to Argentina last weekend given the media commentary of the 21-8 victory. The opening game in the Autumn International series was always going to be problematic in terms of cohesion and tempo, then you add the abrasive Argentinian challenge and the performance delivered was the end result.

Eddie Jones was left a frustrated head coach last weekend. He knows that the team can do better. The squad know that they can do better and no better focus than to face arch sporting rival Australia in a test match.

England will have noted the improved performance of the Australian front five last weekend. The maul worked particularly well in the victory over Wales and the back row led superbly by Pocock stifled quick Welsh ruck ball throughout. The Australian half-backs and back line were sharp throughout, no know more so than Beale who robbed Welsh possession half-way and ran unopposed for the pivotal second half try.

England recall Owen Farrell to the starting lineup but significantly leave Maro Itoje in reserve as Launchbury and Lawes are selected. George Kruis misses out on selection altogether. The pack battle looks fascinating particularly the back row where Australia will look to disrupt at the breakdown. A big ask for Underhill, Robshaw and Hughes to provide the platform and quick ruck to unleash their back line.

A fixture which will tight and uncompromising at times; expect some moments of gain line brilliance. This test match will be decided in the final quarter with the bench playing a huge impact. England hold the aces in this regards with the likes of George, Itoje, Rokoduguni and Care to come on to change tempo and direction. England to edge this encounter but it should be feisty.

Can Scotland defensively hold up to New Zealand?

The key question ahead of this Murrayfield test match is whether Scotland have improved enough defensively since last weekend to seriously threaten the All Blacks. Scotland with ball in hand were excellent against Samoa last weekend scoring several tries but their defensive display left plenty to be desired.

A comfortable victory was marred by several defensive lapses of concentration which were punished by Samoa. The fringe defensive setup was particularly a source of easy gain line yards for Samoa and setup a nervy final quarter.

New Zealand will run riot if Scotland dish up a similar defensive hapless display and to be fair to Scotland, the prospect of facing the All Blacks is enough focus to improve this side of the game. Scotland have potency out wide. Hogg, Seymour, Jones, Russell are well capable of creating issues for New Zealand.

The Scottish pack must start this contest with tempo and on the front foot. The front five need to provide a platform in the set piece. A big ask and the scrum could be potentially a negative as New Zealand will look to build pressure on Marfo and Fagerson.

The back row battle should be intense. Hardie is a big loss for Scotland and would have being required to negate the influence of Fifita and Cane in this area. Fifita has being in superb form this Autumn and I fear for Scotland with the player looking primed to have another stellar game.

New Zealand to win this contest by ten points or more. The ominous post-game comments of Kieran Reid last weekend was that the standards dropped in the second half in Paris. Focus no doubt on trying to produce a complete game performance for New Zealand and that spells problems for Scotland. The hosts will fight hard but defensive mauls, fringe defense and scrum are areas to exploit.

Ireland look to the fringe players against Fiji

Joe Schmidt has made thirteen changes to the side which comprehensively defeated South Africa last weekend. An opportunity to see several prospects against a Fiji side who will look to create an unstructured game in order to execute their renowned offloading play.

A big opportunity for the likes of Herring, Porter, Conan in the pack. Massive test match fixture for McCloskey particularly in the back line. He has being the forgotten man of the three quarters division. A player of immense skill and physicality, the player still has a future in the unit which is now looking stacked with quality given the emergence of Aki to complement the likes of Ringrose and Henshaw.

Fiji have yet to name their test side for this fixture but presumably the key players from last weekend will feature. Nakarawa in the second row is a sublime player; his offloading skill coupled with his pace and power are traits not typically seen in a player of this position.

This is a nice test match for Ireland. It is a fixture where the fringe players on show will need to show their game smarts in counteracting the Fiji expansive play and pick their moments to go wide. The pack will look to set a platform early and if the scrum goes well early doors, expect Ireland to win with something to spare.

Schmidt has the luxury of a quality bench to call upon if the side are struggling to contend the Fijian threat but I do not think it will come to that. Ireland by fifteen points at least. Fiji had some good moments against Italy but were exposed in the pack exchanges, their defensive shape was narrow at times, something that will not have being missed by Ireland management.

Gatland has Georgia on his mind

The Welsh pack selection has raised eyebrows. The front row of Nicky Smith, Kristian Dacey, Leon Brown though inexperienced have the potential to excel at this level but they will be facing an abrasive Georgia front row who are vastly experienced.

This is a fixture which Georgia will look at with confidence. Their pack is more experienced than the Welsh selection picked for the weekend. Georgia definitely will look to build a platform in this area so the set piece execution will be fascinating to watch.

Wales half-back and back line options look in prime position to create try scoring opportunities but it depends on how their pack fare. Priestland will have a point to prove at ten and with the likes of Scott and Liam Williams in the ranks, the try scoring threat is immense. Great to see Liam Williams in the full back slot, a position which he revels in.

This is the test match where a shock could happen. Raynal’s officiating of the set piece will provide the indication of how Georgia go. It has to be the pack which leads the side to victory; a close contest but suspect that Wales will do enough in the pack to secure the win. Georgia’s performance will add fuel to the fire for RBS 6N inclusion.

Italy and Argentina with points to prove

Italy’s win against Fiji was the first step in gaining confidence. The pack were to the fore in the victory and setup the platform to secure a much needed victory for the team. The kicking game at times was mixed; Hayward lucky not to concede a try in the opening period after a slack clearance from the boot. The back line is a work in progress and several try opportunities were spurned.

Argentina came away from Twickenham with plenty of positives. The margin of victory was a little harsh on the side. Tuclet’s yellow card was harsh in my eyes; player going for the aerial bomb. The pack performance was abrasive and Hernandez provided some nice touches.

Italy have plenty of scope to improve given their performance last weekend; it will be an abrasive game in the trenches and Argentina for me has the better pack. Argentina to edge this contest on the basis of their pack with Creevy a prominent figure. Italy’s wayward attacking play to be exposed as well.

France look to rub salt into South African wounds

Two head coaches who need a test match victory. Guy Noves blasted his side’s discipline and performance last weekend; a 18-38 loss to New Zealand saw several defensive misreads and disciplinary issues surfaced at regular intervals.

A rousing second half display but New Zealand’s intensity dropped only for it to be regained with the Naholo try at the death to give a twenty point victory. France showed flashes of offloading and run game which so many know the team are capable of but it is all down to consistency in the side.

South Africa have had a miserable week. Trounced by Ireland last weekend and then lost the RWC 2023 bid to their hosts this weekend. Coetzee is a man under massive stress and pressure. His side lacked leadership and cohesion last weekend.

Ireland were extremely comfortable last weekend for long periods. The front row struggled at set piece. The lineout dominance expected never materialized and the kick game from open play was exposed. Simple attacking moves were not executed with any fluency. A week to prepare and improve.

Two inconsistent sides enter this fixture. Slight edge to France on the basis of their second display against New Zealand. South Africa showed little in Dublin last weekend as an attacking outfit but given the issues on full view last weekend, hard to back them in this instance. Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Niebaner cannot come quick enough into the national side setup.

World Cup Playoff: Republic of Ireland 1 – 5 Denmark (Agg: 1-5)

Denmark advance to the Russia 2018 World Cup finals with a thoroughly deserved victory over a Republic of Ireland side who started with gusto but were reduced to chasing shadows thereafter. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Composure the key

Let us be frank about this. Republic of Ireland could not have started the game any better. An early goal scored by Shane Duffy after a Danish defensive slip had the home crowd in raptures after five minutes. Denmark were under the cosh, their character and more significantly composure were tested but the response was emphatic. Denmark continued to play their football, slick one touch passing finding gaps between midfield and defense. Randolph produced two world class saves in that opening twenty minutes to keep the Danish threat at bay but the warning signs were there for all to see and once the first goal was leaked, the spirit in the side was broken and the leadership was bereft in the camp evident in the back chat among Ireland players when passes went astray.

Ireland key players failed to deliver

James McClean aside, the key Ireland players were absent. Robbie Brady was devoid of creativity and passing threat throughout this playoff series. Jeff Hendrick was anonymous, the first time I saw the player was when the camera panned on him midway through the first half. Either of these players would have had no complaints if being hauled off at the break but the decision of Ireland management to haul off both central midfielders allowed Eriksen and Delaney the freedom of the park to express themselves in the second half. Meyler’s substitution was baffling. Your captain is required more than ever, lead by example but it looks like the captaincy was a token gesture to the player. McGeady’s cameo was predictably one dimensional, a jink and poor final ball. Wes Hoolahan was overrun in the midfield area and poor Shane Long when introduced could not buy a goal. Ireland needed everyone in full flow, top of their form. I don’t think any of the players on show tonight can say that and with the absences of Coleman and Walters, it was a step too far.

Eriksen the jewel in the crown

Denmark thoroughly deserved this victory. On reflection, they could have being two goals up going into this tie but somehow Ireland were still in contention. Eriksen tonight was a class apart, his movement, passing and his goals were emphatic. Ireland will have to ask on the organization and defensive setup but Ireland were opened up at will tonight in both halves. Delaney was prominent as well; provided good passing ability and his ability to support his back four linking up play was something that Ireland did not have. The Danish side were solid and with ever increasing space to roam in the second half, five goals scored was the least that they deserved. Eriksen was the class act in this tie. Denmark need to ensure that the player is in top form come the summer time but the road trip performances this year have being on point. Thoroughly deserve their place in the World Cup.

Where now Ireland?

A tricky review of this campaign lies ahead. Martin O’Neill struck a man in trouble after that Tony O’Donoghue interview but the side lacked cohesion, organization and passing ability at various points in the campaign this year. The pool of players is limited, the pool of players are predominantly playing in the Championship but it does not excuse the sloppy defensive and passing display in many of the qualifiers and playoff games this year.

Players who excel with their clubs in these traits were strangely second class in recent games. What is going on in the training ground when the squad assembles at FAI HQ? A limited game plan, a direct game plan with no midfield runners off the striker. This result hurts everyone associated with the side but realistically the squad depth at the disposal of Martin O’Neill was limited tonight. Coleman and Walters unquestionably would have added quality to the ranks but the middle of the park is lacking leadership and figures who will take the game by the scruff of the neck.

I hate to go back to Brady and Hendrick but these two players have being pale shadows of the players who featured so well in the European Championships. A reality check for all concerned and the supporters should realize and prepare themselves for a period of transition as a couple of stalwarts in the squad depart stage left. Whelan, Walters, Murphy, O’Shea look most likely to have played their last international games.

The lack of goal threat from attacking areas was a weak point in this campaign. Shane Long must discover his scoring touch fast, otherwise he might be forced to spend more time on the bench. Apart from James McClean and Shane Duffy from the back at set-pieces, where else was the threat posed from Ireland in this campaign? A tough assignment for O’Neill and Keane to unravel in the months ahead.

A nightmare evening for Republic of Ireland but one that has being coming, better to go out now than being totally humiliated in the summer heat of Russia next year. The question is whether the side will be in a position to get to a major tournament the next time around? After tonight, serious concerns are present. 1985 flashback, let us hope for another renaissance but where is the next generation of player to take this team on?

Squad Profile: Fiji

After the demolition of the South African challenge, Ireland reset focus to face Fiji at the now sold out Aviva Stadium this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick previews Ireland’s next opponents.

Recent Form

Fiji have played seven internationals this calendar year. The calendar year saw a 37-14 loss to Australia in Melbourne but the side then bounced back and beat both Scotland and Italy in tight encounters.

The Pacific Nations Cup took place in July and Fiji beat Samoa comprehensively before defeating Tonga 14-10. Italy exacted some revenge for that summer loss with a hard fought 19-10 win at Catania.

Decent form but the lack of international games for Fiji and for the rest of the Pacific Island nations are doing little for the development of these squads.

Key Players

Ireland have to be careful this weekend when to go expansive. Fiji love the open field, slick offloading in the tackle and quick ruck ball are paramount to their game plan. Leone Nakarawa ticks all these boxes and much more.

The Racing 92 second row is a sublime player. Physicality yet finesse. Set piece effiency with speed of thought and an offloading game which is a manual in how to play the game.

Akapusi Qera is a legend for the national side. The flanker has had a distinguished international and club career playing for the likes of Gloucester, Toulouse, Montpelier and now Agen. His physicality, tackle count and breakdown skills will look to win turnover ball for his side to unleash fast counter attacks.

Vereniki Goneva should see some game time this weekend and his threat out wide will need to be quelled by Ireland. His powerful initial burst of pace is hard to stop and his try count for club and country is excellent. Another distinguished player who has played with several English club teams with distinction.

What to expect from Fiji this weekend?

It all depends on the weather in Dublin this Saturday. Dry track conditions will mean that Fiji will be able to showcase their undoubted running and offload game to full effect.

The Italian game saw flashes of brilliance from Fiji with some potential decisive line breaks only to be quelled by poor ball handling or discipline.

Nakarawa’s try was superbly executed; all down to the mercurial second row whose running line from thirty meters proved too good for the Italian defense.

The Italians did provide evidence of areas to exploit in the pack exchanges; defensively the fringes were a source of easy gain line yards for Conor O’Shea’s side.

Furthermore, a better side would have punished Fiji in the red zone on several occasions. Several excellent scoring opportunities presented themselves for the Azzuri only for ponderous game management or lack of incisive running lines to kill any momentum.

Expect a Fiji side who will look to attack from deep; the kicking game from Ireland needs to be on point this weekend as failure to do so will allow Fiji’s primary ball carrier to gain excellent field position.

Fiji ultimately I suspect will be exposed on the set piece; question marks on the defensive setup for mauls. Their defensive shape was very tight against Italy and one would presume that Ireland would be better at expanding field position when required.

This is an international which will hopefully create plenty of try scoring opportunities. The chance to see the likes of Leone Nakarawa in the flesh, offloading with three Ireland players on his case will be a joy to watch. Roll on Saturday!

Autumn Internationals: Weekend Reflections

New Zealand opening period too much for France

The All Blacks will review the game tape of this 38-18 triumph over France at Stade De France with mixed emotions. A thoroughly professional opening period saw New Zealand effectively secure the match at half-time.

Dane Coles intelligent running line was too much for France defensively as the hooker scored the opening try after eight minutes. New Zealand’s tempo and breakdown clear-out was posing huge problems for the hosts.

France were unable to stem the incessant flow of New Zealand attacks and it was no surprise that the All Blacks extended the lead with Naholo having the easiest of tasks to touchdown. Barrett’s long raking pass exposing French cover out wide for the try.

Teddy Thomas was probably the standout for France on a disappointing night as he dived spectacularly over to score. Several quality offloads leading to the try.

However, normal service was resumed with a deft try from Ryan Crotty. Crotty is a superb player; game intelligent and performs the basics with ultra efficiency.

Kudos to Sonny Bill Williams for identifying space inside the French cover and the deft drubber kick. Crotty timed this run to perfection and the score snuffed out any chance that the hosts had of getting back into the contest.

As France struggles continued, New Zealand scored their fourth try of the evening. Excellent passing from the likes of McKenzie and Sam Cane’s support running was on point. Game over.

France’s discipline was exposed. Slimani’s yellow card was coming and it duly caused two All Black tries before the interval. Guy Noves expressed disappointment on his players performances but given the lack of training camps during the season, the performance in the opening period was hardly a surprise.

Credit France in the second half, they did try to lift the tempo but you could also argue that New Zealand took the foot off the gas knowing that the game was well in hand.

Sonny Bill Williams and video review of the penalty try concession would have being interesting today. Rugby League move to palm the ball out of the play but unfortunately for the player, we are playing rugby union and not league. Yellow card and then the penalty try were issued.

Teddy Thomas should have had a second try but his foot was in touch meters out while New Zealand were down to fourteen. France’s defensive shape again let them down in the final minutes as Naholo strode over after New Zealand spread the ball with speed in the closing moments.

Scotland next for New Zealand who if Kieran Reid’s comments are anything to go by could be in for an arduous afternoon next weekend. New Zealand looking to put in a more complete performance for a full eighty minutes. Yikes.

France look to lick their wounds; defensive misreads were the order of the day in the opening period. They did show flashes of potential with quick hands resulting several eye catching gain line passages of play but the basic fundamentals were at times lacking. Discipline in the opening period was non-existent. Noves has issues to address and fast.

Ireland take South Africa apart in Aviva stroll

38-3. The surprise scoreline of the weekend. Optimism from the national media after this Ireland win, we have being here before but it is now time that the national side produced this level of performance on a more consistent basis.

What worked for Ireland? Unadulterated work rate and endeavor throughout. Bundee Aki was prominent throughout, an excellent debut and his tackle on Oosthuizen set the tone.

South Africa were surprisingly going backwards at scrum time, really expected more of their front five given their most recent performance against New Zealand.

Henderson and Toner did a superb job of keeping their counterparts off balance throughout. The lineout which was a source of concern before this fixture went extremely well.

The half-back contest was emphatically won by Ireland. Murray and Sexton controlled exchanges throughout. Sexton’s game management particularly noteworthy. Good kicking game and his distribution was sharp and incisive, asking South Africa defensive questions at all times.

South Africa’s half-backs game plan lacked invention at times; passing game became predictable and Ireland’s defensive line speed were coping well with any attacking threats. More variation on the kick game would have assisted the side.

Stockdale had a colossal game on the wing. The Ulster wing was physically imposing, some superb hits and his try was excellent in execution. A player who is establishing a strong reputation; a regular in the national side beckons.

Conway had a solid outing in the back line as well. His ability to win aerial exchanges was to the fore and his opening try was opportunistic, that spark of creativity and game awareness required to unlock a game.

The most pleasing aspect from a Joe Schmidt management perspective was the impact of the subs bench. John Ryan continues to excel in the front row; his scrummaging creating a penalty immediately after his introduction.

Carbery and Sweetnam are such exciting talents; Carbery’s ability to fill multiple positions is a superb problem to have for national team management. His kick in behind which was collected by Sweetnam showed everyone his game management intelligence.

Sweetnam is a player whose potential is only starting to come to the surface; he makes things look so easy and always seems to have space to make gain line yards. His cameo is an indication of what is to come.

Ireland face Fiji this weekend with pep in the step; the squad may be somewhat different but Schmidt and management will demand a repeat of the key traits of this victory.

South Africa. Where now? Coetzee looks lost in the national coaching role. Erasmus and Niebaner cannot come into the system soon enough. So much was wrong in this performance, lethargic and worryingly the white flag was waved well before the final whistle.

Apart from a ten minute period in the third quarter where they attempted to take the game to Ireland, this was as flat a performance seen by a touring South African party in years. Two years out from the RWC. Is it time to hit the alarm bell?

Scotland beat Samoa in try fest

Defensive coaches will be having migraines when reviewing the game tape of this contest. Incisive attacking lines from both sides but the inside defensive and defending around the fringes was non-existent.

Scotland had excellent cameos from Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones and Alex Dunbar. Russell prominent in the opening try, good kick in behind the Samoa defensive line to setup the score.

The Scottish pack also had good moments. The attacking maul a source of two tries. A game in which Scotland should have strolled to victory in the final quarter was anything but as Samoa launched a gallant fightback.

How did they come back into the fixture? Opportunistic line breaks helped in no small measure to Scotland lapses in concentration. The fringes were a particular issue for Scotland defensively with several tries coming from this area.

When you add Williams’ effort when he strode unopposed from twenty meters, Gregor Townsend and management staff will look to remedy those glaring defensive gaffes in time for the visit of New Zealand.

It was a superb game for the neutral and Scotland are continuing to put ball through the hands under Townsend. Jones and Dunbar running lines were on point. Jones’ try was well taken as well as Dunbar.

Samoa’s team must be applauded for the fighting spirit. A turbulent week for the side given the financial off the field problems. The squad put their bodies on the line and one would have presumed that they would have rolled over after fifty-five minutes such was the ascendancy of Scotland but they played until the final play and the hosts nervy closed out the contest.

Excitement aplenty but both sides need to improve massively on defensive ahead for the rest of the November series. Scotland with a fixture with New Zealand this weekend will undoubtedly focus minds.

Stuttering England get past Argentina

Nathan Hughes’ first Test try and Semesa Rokoduguni’s second half score earned England a scrappy 21-8 win over Argentina at Twickenham.

Argentina, who have now lost 18 times in 23 Tests since reaching the 2015 World Cup semi-finals, scored a late try through Nicolas Sanchez.

England were slow off the blocks in this fixture and the yellow card to Argentina’s Tuculet for allegedly taking Mike Brown out in the air was a decisive moment.

Tuculet looked to be going for the ball but the way in which Mike Brown fell to the ground was not good on replays; match officials issued a yellow card. Can players compete in aerial exchanges anymore?

Hughes’ try was well worked and extended Argentina defensively on both sides of the pitch. Hughes’ ball carry was a bit suspect but his power was more than enough to propel the number eight over.

Rokoduguni’s try again came from fluid England play; a superb line break setting the platform. Quick hands had the Bath Rugby with the opportunity to cross over and he duly obliged.

Sanchez’s try for Argentina was of probing of the fringes and gaps started to open up with a couple of quick phase possession. Sanchez with a 2-1 overlap was never going to squander the chance.

This was the proverbial arm wrestle. Argentina’s pack was abrasive and solid which will be a warning for Ireland in a couple of weeks. England will improve on this showing; all about tempo and platform for them.

Farrell and Itoje will come back into the mix and should improve these facets of play but this game will not be remembered much only for the result.

Wales fall to Australia again

21-29 defeat but several positives from the game for Wales. Expansive game on show throughout, several sweeping moves from midfield which will have pleased management.

The pack though at times unfortunately were exposed at times. The opening try was an Australian front five maul effort from ten meters out which was not stopped.

Two other Australian tries conceded due to defensive misread and then Beale ripping the ball out of the Wales ball carrier to run unopposed.

Wales must continue to adopt an expansive style of play and need to keep faith with the likes of Evans, Shingler and Navidi who had several excellent moments in the contest.

The injury to Jonathan Davies is a worry for Wales but these fixtures are to assess squad depth and perhaps an opportunity for a player on the fringes to grab their opportunity.

Excellent contest. Australia showed encouraging signs from a front five perspective. The set piece was solid, maul on point and the back row were a nuisance from start to finish. Pocock was immense (yellow card aside).

Autumn Internationals: What to expect?

November. The end of season Southern Hemisphere tours are upon us and with 2019 Rugby World Cup looming on the horizons, these fixtures will be seen as an initial assessment on squad depth and where improvements are required. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on what we should expect in the coming weeks.

New Zealand keen to reestablish dominance on tour

A drawn series against the British & Irish Lions in July, a series where New Zealand will feel that they left behind. This tour will be a chance to showcase their talent and provide an ominous statement of intent against NH rivals. The fixture list is intriguing as the All Blacks lock horns against France twice in the space of three days. November 18th sees a trip to face Scotland with a final tour game against Wales on November 25th. What to expect from New Zealand? Squad rotation will be seen to full effect next week with the fixture in Lyon. New Zealand have abundance of talent in their ranks and the likes of Perenera, Laumape, Fifita will look to deliver and give Steve Hansen evidence to continue in the side. This is a tour where Sam Cane could be the standout back rower for the All Blacks; his ability to read breakdowns and win turnover ball will be huge in this set of fixtures. The Welsh clash for the breakdown battle will be worth the gate admission fee. You cannot see how New Zealand will be beaten in this tour. Barrett is playing sublime rugby this season both from hand and boot and with an exciting set of backs to be unleashed at any time, the tour opponents have being duly warned.

Australia looking for consistency

Victory over New Zealand last month was a much needed tonic for Michael Cheika’s side to gain confidence. Consistency issues against New Zealand have being duly punished in recent test match fixtures so it was imperative that the Wallabies competed against the All Blacks first and foremost. The win was bonus territory and Australia come into this tour on good confidence scoring sixty-three points against Japan. Defense is a work in progress as thirty points were leaked. Arguments on the merits of this point but the late try concessions will have disappointed Cheika. Australia’s tour will see fixtures against Wales (familiar foe), England and Scotland. The key performance point for Australia on this tour will be how the front five perform as an unit. Consistency issues this season and the scrum has gone backwards against all SH teams at different intervals. Australia are an exciting side to watch in full flow, their speed of pass and running lines are excellent. Kuridrani is a key player in all that Australia in early phases. His power and running style means gain line breaks. Speight is a player who if given ball will create issues for all the NH teams. If the pack can go well on this tour, 2019 RWC chances are elevated. A key tour for Cheika and team beckons.

South Africa keen to impress new coaching ticket

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Niebaner have departed Munster and will look with interest at the progression of this South African side. They commence the tour with a much anticipated tussle against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Recent form suggests South Africa are rebuilding nicely after a terrible shut-out loss to New Zealand this season. It was a pivotal fixture; the players have regrouped well and produce stirring performances thereafter running New Zealand to a close loss. Pride was restored in the jersey. This tour will be to identify key personnel to build the side around for the 2019 RWC. This is when South Africa typically start to show signs of promise and Ireland will be duly warned. Etzebeth and De Jager are a massive second row partnership, solid set piece execution. Jantjies at ten is developing into a world class ten. His ability to eye a pass is to the fore but his kicking game is a work in progress. Kriel provides energy and skill to the three quarters; excellent movement where gain line meters are gained. The Ireland test match will go some way to determine how South Africa approach the rest of the tour where they face France and Italy to conclude their tour. With changes to the management team, players will be keen to impress the newly joined Erasmus to the coaching ticket. Niebaner’s defensive skills will be an added boost to the Springboks; all starting to point to a revitalized South African outfit in 2018 and 2019.

Argentina looking to end season on a high note

A tough season for Argentina this season. They have competed for good stretches of test matches but have being let down by lapses in concentration and discipline have being exposed to the max. The most recent results against South Africa illustrated this point perfectly, several well worked tries scored but a red card to Lavanini (home game) opened the gates for South Africa to win with a bit to spare. Talented side with an abrasive front row who will test any side with their scrummaging ability. Creevy and Herrera are world class front row players and England have being duly warned on their prowess from last season’s encounter. Leguizamon is a superb eight, great skill set to the player and with Hernandez pulling the strings at ten, this side will not fear any opponent. England, Italy and Ireland are scheduled this month. The squad depth is a source of concern and it will be interesting to see if Argentina can reveal a couple of new players on tour to increase confidence and momentum ahead of RWC 2019. A disappointing international season but this November international series is an opportunity to end the season on a good note. Abrasive but well capable of exposing defensive weakness out wide, the Pumas deserve plenty of respect.

England look to continue improvement

Eddie Jones has being in bullish form ahead of the November internationals. His side went last season unbeaten until Ireland beat them at the Aviva Stadium in March and there was plenty of positives for Jones to reflect upon from last season. The pack were solid in set piece where Maro Itoje and George Kruis had excellent international seasons. Itoje’s work rate and pace for a forward is sublime and his versatility switching from back row to second row is such a valuable asset to England. Set piece was solid but questions remain on the hooker position. George vs. Hartley. Hartley getting the nod due in part to being captain but Jamie George has grown in stature last season and the British & Irish Lions tour has made him an even better player. Billy Vunipola’s injury will be an interesting subplot; a chance for Jones to run the rule over a couple of candidates. England’s attacking lines improved as the season progressed last year. Farrell and Youngs looking to hit back line players with pace hitting the line incredibly flat. The back line has being an interesting side-note to the international series. Yarde has being omitted. Solomona has had an opportunity to impress but it looks like May and Daly will be the key attacking threats for England. Test matches against Argentina (pack workout beckons), Australia and bankrupt Samoa will tell more about England but the key contest will be against New Zealand, all in good time.

Ireland move on without Zebo

Simon Zebo’s decision to move to France next season has seen the player omitted from the national team squad. Joe Schmidt quite clear on his intentions with Zebo, a player with creativity and flair from full back. Ireland will miss the player particularly in games where creativity is required to break up the field. Ireland’s squad selection apart from Zebo had few surprises. Sexton and Murray will be asked to control game management. Murray with his spiral kicks. Sexton looking to launch his back line at regular intervals. The front row looks excellent. Furlong is in incredible form currently and with Jack McGrath alongside, the scrum should go well. The question mark is the set piece; statistics for the Ireland hooker players are less than stellar and South Africa will look to expose this facet of play this weekend. The back row options are endless. It will be interesting to see how CJ Stander goes against his native homeland, excellent ball carrier and work ethos. This series of games will see hopefully who is best placed to fill the full back and ten positions. O’Halloran and Carbery will get game time at full back. Carbery potentially may get game time against Fiji at ten. Ireland’s weak point in recent RWC cycles has being their inability to find an adequate squad to fill multiple positions when injuries arise. Schmidt must take note of failures from the past. Argentina game will be abrasive; the pack exchanges will be interesting to observe.

Wales fresh faces looking to make impact

November has not being a good month for Wales in recent years; not many wins. Gatland has changed up the squad dropping the likes of Jamie Roberts, Sam Davies, Scott Williams and Luke Charteris from the squad. Excellent players but is this a sign that Gatland and management are switching their style of play. Australia do not seem to be buying it and are expecting physicality in ball carrying, abrasive breakdown contest. The squad dynamics though would suggest that if Wales can gain parity in the pack, a back line with the likes of Liam Willams, Steff Evans, Leigh Halfpenny must surely indicate fast ball out wide under the roof of the Principality Stadium. The back row has always being a strong area for Wales, hoping Josh Navidi gets game time as the Cardiff Blues player has being a consistent high performer in Pro 12 / 14 leagues this year. The front five will be an area where Australia and New Zealand will look to turn the screw at scrum-time. The front row looks vulnerable without the likes of Samson Lee in the ranks. Gatland looking to see new talent, will be intriguing if the players impress against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. Does Gatland bring back the players left out this time around?

Scotland look to continue upward progression

Scotland were the most progressive NH side last season. Under the management of Vern Cotter, the RBS 6N tournament went well. Despite the mauling against England, the side competed well and earned notable scalps against Ireland, Wales and Italy with an exciting brand of rugby. The back line play of Jones, Fife, Hogg and Seymour were to the fore and with solid game management from Russell and Laidlaw at half-back, the team played with an increased attacking threat. The pack were competitive. Gray’s leading from the front but there were issues defending opposition mauls and the scrum did struggle at times against England and France. New head coach Gregor Townsend will look to address these issues but also look to build on the expansive attacking style seen last season. His tenure for Glasgow Warriors means that the national side will look to execute an expansive style of play. The fixtures look tough with visits from New Zealand and Australia but confidence should be high before this with a visit from Samoa who are financially bankrupt and the appetite of the players on national duty may not be what it should be.

Italy need to build momentum

Conor O’Shea will look for Italy to follow the lead of Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby with more determined, competitive performances. There has being an upturn in performance with the two clubs this season and it is hoped that the national side will improve as a result. Plenty for O’Shea and management to work on. The pack is a work in progress, discipline and penalty count needs to be reduced and this is the key indicator to see where Italy are at after this month’s fixture list. Increased penalty count will lead to points conceded for Italy. The back line and half-backs need to be better; lack of threat out wide meant that opposition could stifle ball carrying from the pack creating turnover ball. November is a time where Italy need to show signs of improvement in all areas of the pitch. Let us not be started on the kicking off the tee; abysmal last year. Hopefully, there will be a positive run of performances from Italy but the fixture against Fiji will make or break this side. Fiji will fancy their chances. Italy need to send out a statement of intent. Argentina and South Africa are teams which Italy will look to compete well against but this weekend is their proverbial cup final to build confidence and momentum.

France: Club vs. Country

The fact that two fixtures against the All Blacks are within a three day period says a lot on French rugby, national vs. club is rearing its head. National team has suffered due to lack of training camps during the season when compared with other RBS 6N teams. Guy Noves is facing an uphill task; he has the players now but the game plan will be conservative. It has to be given the lack of training sessions that the squad has had. New Zealand (first test) will be interesting. Can the French pack be competitive for long enough to allow the back line enough ball to create try scoring opportunities? The second fixture against All Blacks in Lyon is a bit of a mystery. Is this a representational side or an actual test match? South African game will be a true indicator of where the team is at. France, mysterious as always. The clubs are patiently waiting for their assets back to resume league action next month. The disparity between national side vs. professional club is growing by the day. Sad development.