Guinness Pro 14: Munster Rugby 24 – 34 Leinster Rugby

Leinster Rugby brimming with fledgling prospects came, saw and conquered Munster Rugby with an excellent display in a dramatic inter-provincial encounter at Thomond Park. This festive period fixture has being accused at times of not providing good entertainment due to the decision to rest first line players but today put that assertion firmly in its place.

All credit to Leinster Rugby who from the kick off signaled their intent. Dan Leavy who was immense throughout creating turn over ball from Wootton to provide Ross Byrne with the opportunity to slot over the first three points of the contest.

Munster Rugby were struggling to get into the game and the industrious visitors sensed their opportunity with more incisive line breaks and slick passing. The ball finally made its way to Ross Byrne who had the presence of mind to identify Leavy out wide with acres of space to execute an inch perfect kick to the back row to score the first try. 10-0, no more than the visitors deserved.

The home supporters tried to spark the home side into life and they responded. Good pack play from close range allowing Conor Murray sufficient time to touchdown. Keatley missed the tough conversion and it was 5-13. Munster up and running but not for long.

Leinster’s performance today was a serious statement of intent. This display spoke volumes of their squad depth and the players who were given their opportunities took it with both hands. Byrne again instrumental, given so much time and space to provide a superb kick in behind for Lowe who was destined to score only to be obstructed by Conway. Owens awarded the penalty try and ten minutes for the Munster back line player.

The crucial ten minute period with Conway in the bin only provided more opportunities for a now rampant Leinster Rugby to exploit. Yet more poor kicking from Munster resulting in a multiple man overlap down the line. Henshaw support of the ball carrier on point and the gap was out to twenty points. Munster defensively were hapless. 5-27. Byrne superb off the tee.

As the opening half wore on, the word accuracy continued to be a prevailing theme. Leinster’s defensive and attacking lines were effective and efficient, good line speed while Munster were at times ponderous with ball in hand. The kicking game was quite glaring. Ian Keatley’s kick out in the full just before the interval summed up Munster’s opening period. Nothing was going right for the hosts.

The second half started with Munster Rugby looking to build momentum and two quick tries duly arrived. Keatley and Conway scoring good efforts aided by several lung bursting forward pack phases of play. Keatley slotted the conversion for the Conway score and suddenly the scoreboard was down to a nine point game. 18-27. Game on.

The vital third quarter arrived with Munster Rugby on the up but the manner in which Leinster Rugby maintained their defensive shape was on point during this spell, absorbing phase after phase of Munster pressure. Leinster Rugby did take advantage of a couple of line out steals during this period which prompted Munster Rugby to call Niall Scannell into the action. Yet again accuracy issues for Munster.

Leinster Rugby to a man put their bodies on the line. James Lowe’s clash with Andrew Conway a perfect example. Both players went for a 50/50 ball. Lowe did not shirk from his defensive responsibility in an excellent outing which paled in contrast to Munster’s wide men who endured tough afternoons. Sweetnam never got a look in and Wootton’s kicking game was exposed more than once.

The game was in the melting pot until the try of the afternoon was scored by one of the hottest prospects in Irish rugby. Jordan Larmour did not put a foot wrong this afternoon and there appeared to be little danger when the full back received the ball but in a flash, the player had evaded a couple of Munster players and his searing pace was bearing down on the Munster try line with only Simon Zebo to beat.

Larmour touched down despite the best efforts of Zebo, a world class score oozing class and it raises the name of Larmour for a potential RBS 6N squad inclusion? This blog has rated the player highly in recent weeks and this performance will not have gone unnoticed by Ireland management. An incredible talent in the making.

The Larmour try signaled the end of the contest, a bonus point try for Leinster Rugby and left the Thomond Park faithful silenced. After a breathless twenty minutes where both sides exchanged excellent passages of play, Larmour’s brilliance was utterly fitting to seal the win for the visitors.

Munster Rugby did try to respond and secured their own bonus try point from Conway after good work from Zebo to bring a couple of Leinster players before passing but this was an emphatic display from Leinster Rugby, an emphatic statement of the squad depth and exposed Munster’s flat start and lack of creativity in the back line unit.

Leinster look ominously placed for honors at the end of the season. When you consider the number of first line players either rested or unavailable for selection today, it is a chastening loss for anyone connected with Munster Rugby.

The gap has increased between the two provinces, to say anything different is wide off the mark. Ross Byrne at ten was sublime, his place kicking was on point, accuracy personified. 5/5 for Byrne. A talent who is developing into a quality fly-half. Carbery will have his work cut out trying to dislodge Byrne from the ten jersey after performances like today.

The pack contest was superbly fought but the back row mobility of Leinster Rugby ruled the roost on key stages. Leavy, Conan and Murphy all took ownership and Leavy was a man possessed at times at the breakdown.

Munster Rugby will need to sit down and reflect on this performance. It was a bitterly disappointing opening half where nothing seem to go right. The line out was a mess and the maul was taken out of action as a result. Discipline also reared its head as Leinster Rugby took advantage of a couple of soft offside concessions from Munster Rugby to secure field position and points on the board.

The manner of the loss to this Leinster Rugby side on show is one which will not sit well with the senior players of the group but the skill set differential was huge today. Leinster Rugby looked like a side who prepared well last week, executed their game plan to a tee. Munster Rugby were sloppy on all facets and were made to pay.

Reality check and a first serious test for van Graan as head coach ahead of a key three fixture series against Connacht (H), Racing 92 (A) and Castres (H). Intriguing weeks to follow in Munster while Leinster Rugby can travel back home looking with renewed confidence and vigor for 2018!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 11 Preview

First off, I would like to wish everyone who has visited the blog a superb Christmas and prosperous 2018 full of joy, love and sporting success. As the calendar year concludes, the Guinness Pro 14 has provided a couple of local derby contests to whet the appetite this holiday season, a chance for sides to continue momentum from successful December European performances or to rebuild confidence after disappointing cameos. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Two teams in need of a big hug this Christmas period. The December European fixtures yielded precious little to cheer about for the Italian teams. Yes, Benetton Rugby did manage a losing bonus point on the road to the Scarlets with fourteen men but they were very much second class last weekend when Scarlets produced a far more cohesive performance to win and secure a much needed bonus point win.

Zebre Rugby after some encouraging moments in recent weeks were slammed by Gloucester Rugby. Last weekend was the season’s low point, shipping seventy plus points in the process.

It was tough viewing as Zebre Rugby were unable to contain the breakdown, quick ruck ball allowing Gloucester’s pacy back line to make line break after line break.

This weekend will focus minds for the Italian sides. With home advantage, Benetton Rugby should have the edge. It is imperative that the pack asserts early dominance and for the likes of Ian McKinley to provide the correct game management to continue pressure on Michael Bradley’s men.

Zebre Rugby’s aim this weekend is to be competitive and hope to be in with a chance of victory in the final quarter but the manner of the loss last weekend will do little to build confidence for this encounter. Benetton win.

The 1872 Cup is up for grabs as Scotland’s Pro 14 representative lock horns for this local derby encounter at Murrayfield. This is probably the game of the round, both teams fielding strong outfits and keen to impress national team management in attendance.

Edinburgh Rugby have being progressively on the upward curve, good South African leg of the Pro 14 competition coupled with emphatic wins over Krasny Yar home and away in Europe has set Richard Cockerill’s men in good stead for this encounter.

The team are hitting good form and with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne playing with confidence, this is going to be a tough ask for Glasgow Warriors to maintain their 100% record.

Glasgow Warriors have being sublime in Pro 14 but their European Cup form has being truly shocking. Lack of game management and discipline exposed by the likes of Leinster, Exeter and Montpelier in their pool.

European Rugby is over quite quickly with Dave Rennie’s charges looking to maintain their Pro 14 title push. The pack battle looks key here. Can Edinburgh create problems in the front five where Glasgow have struggled in European action?

This is delicately poised, edging for the home side as I believe Edinburgh can cause Glasgow sufficient problems in the pack to slow down ball. Dougie Fife and Duhan van der Merwe against Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones will be fascinating to watch. Superb match beckons.

The first of the Irish province derbies over the festive period takes place at the Sportsgrounds where Connacht will look to build momentum once more in Pro 14 action. European Challlenge Cup form has being on point with a superb win over Brive last weekend evidence that Kieran Keane’s men on their day can produce top class performances. This Connacht win was a performance full of creativity, work rate and high tempo throughout. Matt Healy was the standout with his four try haul.

Connacht face an Ulster side who had an excellent December European campaign. The side beat Harlequins, collected nine points and set themselves up for a critical January push to qualify for the ERC quarter finals. Ulster Rugby in the last two weeks have shown massive upside in cohesion and ability to create line breaks.

Cooney at scrum-half is in a rich vain of form, his points cameo fully merited and his sharp incisive line breaks off the fringes caused Quins no end of issues. His battle with Marmion will be a good indicator as to national team prospects for either this season.

Ian Henderson was monstrous in recent weeks, his work rate and leadership to the fore. This will be a compelling fixture. Ulster Rugby have enjoyed their trips down to Galway and I sense that this may continue as Connacht Rugby will look to spread the ball wide, potential inaccuracies may crept in allowing the likes of Piatau to pounce. Ulster Rugby for me to win this contest by a narrow margin.

Connacht to have any chance must disrupt and dominate in the front five but the team selection to me looks like this will not happen so nodding the cap to the visitors.

Welsh region bragging rights up for grabs as Dragons fresh from announcing the signings of Moriarty and Hibbert will look to end the calendar year with renewed confidence with a win over Cardiff Blues whose form in European Challenge Cup competition has being patchy to say the least.

December in Europe was a struggle for Cardiff Blues after setting good groundwork in November. The performances against Sale Sharks were hit and miss but a key victory was secured at home to keep them in front.

Key player for Cardiff Blues on Boxing Day will be Anscombe who has being in good form in recent weeks, his kicking off the tee providing Blues with points and providing key game management at times.

The breakdown contest will be fascinating. Navidi vs. Griffiths will be a superb personal duet, both players are standouts in the flanker positions. Griffiths ball carrying and work around the breakdown area versus Navidi’s ability to cut down ball carriers, effective breakdown with low body position as well as providing key support for ball carriers looks the standout duel here.

Dragons this season are a work in progress. Flashes of good amid some heavy losses. Henson’s experience has being key to Bernard Jackman’s side and more will be expected from the former Welsh International in this fixture.

A tough fixture to call. Dragons home loss to Falcons last weekend was most disappointing, a poor opening period cost them the game amid a brave second half fightback. Blues may have just enough out wide to win this contest, expect Lane and James to have a key role in this fixture. Blues to win.

A sold out Thomond Park sees Leinster travel to Munster looking to complete the league double this season. This fixture particularly has being beset by accusations of second string selections from the visitors last season.

Leinster Rugby though have named a decent looking squad for this encounter. They are without a couple of key players. O’Brien, Sexton miss out due to injury and rejuvenated Cian Healy misses out due to suspension which provides a perfect opportunity for Lions player Jack McGrath to stake a claim for the starting prop jersey.

With the likes of Furlong on the bench, the second string comment is wide off the mark this season. Yes, Luke McGrath is missing too but Gibson Park is an able replacement. Leinster Rugby will look to produce a far better performance than the one which managed to beat Exeter Chiefs last weekend so Munster Rugby must be on their guard in this fixture.

Johann van Graan has named a strong Munster lineup. Conway and Earls return to the starting fold in the back line. Murray and Keatley continue their half-back partnership. Rhys Marshall returns to the hooker position. A key road win against Leicester Tigers last weekend sees Munster in a position to secure a last eight berth and the new head coach will look for his side to continue to their disciplined performance against Leinster Rugby.

The back row encounter looks interesting. Stander, O’Mahoney and O’Donnell (welcome boost) up against a mobile Leinster Rugby back row of Murphy, Leavy and Conan. If Leinster Rugby can get sufficient success in the breakdown, they have a serious chance of completing the league double.

However, I sense that Munster Rugby need this performance and win more. Nacewa’s exclusion along with Sexton will be telling in this encounter and I think home field advantage will be enough to secure a Munster Rugby win. Hoping it is an excellent game but this specific fixture at Thomond Park has failed to light the derby juices. A sold out Thomond Park but there is something a miss with this fixture compared to fixtures of the past. I hope I am proved wrong on this occasion.

The proverbial firecracker to complete this round of fixtures. A couple of weeks ago, if you had asked me to call a winner, no doubts, would have said Scarlets given the wretched run of form that Ospreys were on. However, fast forward to now and Ospreys have started to build momentum and performances. Their ten point haul against Northampton Saints is a key indicator that the Ospreys have turned a corner and have started to execute a far more direct, running style of play compared to the overly cautious kicking game in the early part of the season.

Ospreys looked superb in recent weeks. Dan Evans at full back oozed class coming into the line, several keynote line breaks and with Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb receiving quick ruck ball from the Ospreys pack, line breaks and tries came at regular intervals. A key January beckons for the Ospreys with a home visit from an under pressure Saracens team. This derby win would be massive to increase confidence ahead of this contest.

Scarlets themselves have had a successful December European campaign. Ten point haul over Benetton Rugby with last weekend’s road trip a very cohesive performance. The pack played with control and aggression when required. The pace out wide was explosive and the breakdown battle between Davies and Tipuric will be worth the gate admission fee alone.

Scarlets have a chance to complete the league double over their close rivals. Local bragging rights for the fans and this will be keenly contested. A hard fixture to call, there will be little in this encounter, slight edge perhaps to Scarlets given home field advantage but with Biggar and Webb in fine form, a visitor upset will not be a surprise. The tie of the round, cannot wait!

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 4 Reflections

Bless me father for I have not blogged on the European Rugby Challenge Cup, it has being two rounds since my last blog. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on this competition, checks the playoff picture and wonders if anyone wants to win the Pool 2.

As it stands.

After round four of the European Rugby Challenge Cup, here are the consolidated playoff standings with Edinburgh and Connacht Rugby leading the pack.

Pool 1: Newcastle Falcons win key road trip to Dragons

Falcons enter the New Year with renewed confidence in this competition. Dean Richards’ charges secured a narrow but key victory over Dragons at Rodney Parade.

25-27 scoreline says everything about the contest. Newcastle set the platform for this victory in an excellent opening period. Three tries scored in the first forty minutes where Radwan, Kibirige and Graham all went over.

The second half was a struggle as Dragons pack started to assert dominance. Henson again impressing with ball in hand and game management. Dragons will rue passing accuracy issues late on could have secured the victory.

Dragons are still in this competition but need to score heavy against Ensei and look for a result against Bordeaux to seriously have any ambitions of a last eight berth but it is going to be difficult as Bordeaux continued to build momentum with a hard earned bonus point win over Ensei-STM at home.

Several squad changes for Bordeaux and cohesion was an issue during second and third quarters but the bonus point was secured on sixty-three minute mark. Kudos to Joy Neville and officiating crew who let the game flow, key decisions were on point and further evidence that the Limerick referee is destined to climb further up the officiating ladder next year.

Pool 2: The Pool of Death

One look at the pool standings and you will see quite quickly that all four sides have taken points away from each other. The negative points difference for Blues, Lyon and Toulouse is unbelievable really. Cardiff Blues have endured a mixed December in this competition. They entered this stage of the competition in good form, a key road win over Toulouse but then were humbled by Sale Sharks away.

Blues steadied the ship with a hard earned 14-6 triumph at home. Anscombe key to the victory with an assured performance from the tee, adding to Morgan’s early second half try. Sale fought hard but line breaks were at a premium in trying, slippery conditions underfoot. The result leaves both sides still in contention for pool progression but they will need to improve their performance to overcome Lyon and Toulouse next month.

Lyon beat Toulouse at home 21-11 in a turgid affair, two tries scored during the eighty minutes from the hosts. Puricelli and Tuva scored opening half tries to suggest a bonus try win was on the cards but the second half was a dour affair, poor ball handling putting pay to a couple of promising attacking plays.

Toulouse struggled for parity for long periods. Neither side looked interested truth be told, just fulfill the fixture which is poor PR for this competition. A pool which needs to pick up in terms of intensity come January; who wants to advance to the last eight? You would wonder given the performances on show this past weekend.

Pool 3: Pau and Gloucester dominate

The two sides in this pool who have taken this competition seriously look destined to advance to the last eight of the competition. Pau and Gloucester look primed for a pool winner take all tussle in Kingsholm at the end of the pool stage. Pau continue their 100% start to this competition with a good 26-12 win over Agen.

Two tries in either half securing the bonus point as Agen never hit a telling shot in this contest. Pau securing the bonus point win with two tries late on from Dougall and Bouchet.

Gloucester had a very comfortable fixture scoring sixty-nine points against a hapless Zebre Rugby at Kingsholm. No need to go deep into this match report. Gloucester created line breaks at will and Zebre Rugby defensively were unable to cope with the pace on the wings.

Thorley had a massive performance for the home side, scoring four tries. The Pau fixture will be an excellent indicator on the European Challenge Cup credentials for Gloucester. Interesting end to the pool phase and a home quarter final berth is the prize up for grabs.

Pool 4: Edinburgh thrash Krasny Yar. Stade road win

Stade Francais kept their hopes of quarter final qualification alive with a hard earned 26-20 road trip win over London Irish. An excellent turnaround from the French side after their embarrassing opening round loss away to Krasny Yar.

A tale of two halves as Stade struggled for a platform early doors. London Irish were dominant in that opening half and scored two excellent tries in the second quarter to give the Aviva side a 12-5 lead.

Stade Francais regrouped in the second half with a much improved performance but London Irish were extremely plucky during this fixture and with Greg Tonks accurately off the tee, there was only a point in the difference heading into injury time.

A key try from Ensor on full time secured the win for Stade Francais and a much coveted bonus point win which could be massive in reaching the quarter final stage.

Edinburgh Rugby continued their impressive form with an expected easy win over Krasny Yar. 76-0 speaks volumes. Edinburgh top the playoff standings at this time and few would argue that the Scottish side will not be the top seeds heading into the quarter finals.

Richard Cockerill will hope that this form continues in Guinness Pro 14 action with a derby against Glasgow Warriors looming large on the horizon for Edinburgh.

Pool 5: Connacht seize control of the pool

Saturday afternoon. Galway was full of festive spirit as Connacht Rugby blitzed their French opposition in a rampant second half as Matt Healy impressed in a 55-10 result.

This was a promising, encouraging performance from the hosts who after an even matched opening half cut loose after the break exploiting Brive down the flanks.

Healy’s performance (four try haul), one of the tries was superb, sharp foot work on the touchline was the main story line.  With these two wins over Brive and Worcester Warriors road trip loss to Oyonnax, it opens up a sizeable gap for Kieran Keane’s men who should have a home quarter final berth locked up before the last set of fixtures.

This second half performance needs to be the blueprint for more consistent, fast tempo performances from the side heading into Guinness Pro 14 action starting with Ulster Rugby at home.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 4 Reflections

Round four of the European Rugby Champions Cup is in the books, a weekend which ended the European Cup ambitions of several sides, much needed momentum created by several others ahead of crunch January European fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action and looks at the current quarter final picture.

As it stands

After four exciting rounds of European Rugby Champions Cup, here are the consolidated overall standing heading into the January fixtures.

Pool 1: Wasps win to setup intriguing January fixture set

Wasps and Ulster wins in round four have opened this pool wide open. Ulster Rugby’s bonus point win over a weakened Harlequins side provided further evidence that Les Kiss’ charges are starting to produce more consistent, cohesive performances.

Several players stood for the Ulster men on Friday night. John Cooney deserved top billing; his two tries and precise kicking off the tee provided the platform which Ulster Rugby never relinquished in the second half.

Quins did provide some anxious moments for Ulster Rugby in the opening period with several notable line breaks but once Ian Henderson and pack knuckled down in the third quarter to setup the platform, this result was never in doubt.

Huge ball carrying performances from McCloskey particularly in the opening period and the mercurial talent that is Jacob Stockdale resulted in a over worked Quins tackle count which led to several Ulster line break tries late on.

A satisfying two weeks for Ulster Rugby; this is the blueprint for which the team need to produce week in, week out. An intriguing fixture set against Wasps and La Rochelle beckons.

Will eighteen points be enough to secure a quarter final berth? All to play for Ulster Rugby. Ian Henderson was an athletic freak on the night, the player continues to grow in stature and his work rate and leadership last weekend bodes well for the province and national team. The Lions tour has elevated the Ulster forward to new levels of performance.

If you read my blog last week, I had my doubts that Wasps would get anything at home to a marauding La Rochelle outfit at the Ricoh Arena. Dull, dreary wintry conditions meant that this was a pack battle and surprisingly the Wasps pack were decisive winners of the contest setting the platform for a well merited 21-3 triumph over the French outfit.

This was a performance which many teams will take note of. La Rochelle were quite frankly unable to establish any platform in the contest, stifled upfront and the Wasps back row did an excellent job of stopping quick ruck ball and controlling their possession as well. Eastmond on his introduction was sharp with ball in hand and with the speed merchant of Daly out wide, La Rochelle defensive were unable to stop the hosts.

Daly’s try was superbly worked with the pack forcing La Rochelle to defensively over commit to the fringes allowing space out wide, good offloading as well in the move in trying conditions.

Dai Young will feel that it is still there for his side. Quins are out of the competition so the final game of this pool could yield a five point return. The key fixture is their home clash with Ulster Rugby, a winner take all fixture you feel given that La Rochelle should pick themselves up and secure a bonus point over Quins. It is setup superbly in this pool, another reason to love this pool format.

Pool 2: Clermont win, Saracens on the rise, Ospreys win again

A fascinating round five of this pool beckons at the Liberty Stadium. Clermont should top the pool now given their narrow victory over a much improved Saracens yesterday. The line breaks and space afforded to Clermont on Monday night were nowhere to be seen in the return fixture and it was the boot of Morgan Parra which secured the 24-21 victory. Nine point haul for the French side is a good return though.

Saracens leave Clermont with a loser bonus point secured, pride restored but it is now crunch time for Mark McCall’s men as they now next face a rejuvenated Ospreys outfit who took Northampton Saints apart for a second consecutive weekend, securing the bonus point in the process in their 32-15 win.

A devastating burst midway through the third quarter secured the bonus point and took the game away from the Northampton Saints who were better than last weekend but game management at times opened the door which the hosts exploited.

Rhys Webb, Justin Tipuric were the standouts in this contest. Webb will be a huge loss for the Welsh region next season, his line breaks were to the fore. two smart tries on the day.

Tipuric was at his typical best this weekend, dominant in the breakdown exchanges, providing ball carrier support throughout which was rewarded with his try in the second half. A huge European Cup fixture set looms large for the club in the New Year.

Can Ospreys produce a cohesive display to upset Saracens? Plenty of observers will be watching and conceivably, it is knockout rugby from here on out for both Saracens and Ospreys to make the last eight of the competition. Another pool which will have plot twists before it is all said and done.

Pool 3: Leinster survive Chiefs test. Montpelier secured five point haul

Leinster used their get out of jail card at the Aviva Stadium against an unlucky Exeter Chiefs in round four. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be happy with the result but the performance and discipline was nowhere to the standard required.

On another day, Leinster Rugby could have being down to fourteen players permanently. Cian Healy can consider himself extremely lucky to only get a yellow card for his high tackle in the opening period.

Leinster Rugby were strangely slow off the blocks, ponderous with ball in hand (not helped by Sexton’s early departure) and Exeter Chiefs took full advantage with two well worked tries. Ross Byrne then came on was leveled soon after his introduction, surely tournament organizers have to review protocols as the player did not look right coming back onto the pitch.

Exeter Chiefs will have learned plenty from these two European Cup fixtures. They competed well but they will have learned that when on top, points need to be put on the board particularly when your opposition is down a man.

They controlled affairs for long periods in that opening period but their advantage at half-time was scant for the work rate and tempo produced. This quick tempo was never going to be maintained by the English side in the second half and credit to Leinster Rugby as they started to establish a much needed platform.

Isa Nacewa was absolutely heroic in that second half. His leadership, ability to get the game going forward with positive line breaks set the tone and others followed. Luke McGrath after a shaky start had an excellent second half and his excellent support running paid off as Dan Leavy offloaded (slightly forward) to the scrum half to score the decisive try of the contest.

The home crowd after booing the match officials at half-time were now jubilant and with Gary Ringrose more and more threatening in the final quarter, the margin of victory could have being more. A reality check of sorts for Leinster Rugby but given the circumstances, the spirit and resiliency of the side shone through.

Exeter Chiefs still have a major say in this pool. A road trip fixture to Glasgow Warriors is a must win before French outfit Montpelier come to Sandy Park. The Chiefs will pose serious issues for their remaining pool opponents and could derail the Montpelier challenge in the final pool fixture. Leinster Rugby should now secure a home quarter final berth. They will be confident of beating Glasgow Warriors at home and with a loser point potentially against Montpelier on the road enough to secure that much coveted home quarter final.

Nadolo was a monster (as predicted on this blog last week) in Montpelier’s bonus point win against a luckless Glasgow Warriors who contributed massively in a high scoring contest. The Fijian winger gain line stats were off the charts, scored an early try and when his side needed second half inspiration provided the platform to create the third try of his side when the game was in balance.

Montpelier will be first to admit that this was far from a vintage performance, poor exit strategy resulting in Glasgow’s opening try which saw the Scottish side secure a four try haul. The line breaks created by Glasgow Warriors in the three quarters will also be keenly observed by opposition in the pool. Montpelier in with a good shout but big improvement is required to advance to the last eight. The Exeter Chiefs game looks like a banana skin fixture on this form.

Pool 4: Munster Rugby kept their cool. Racing 92 secure bonus point win.

A weekend where the words ‘composure’ and ‘calm heads’ were key. Munster Rugby seized control of this pool with a mature, composed performance over a wild Leicester Tigers outfit at Welford Road. The hosts struggled to keep their emotions in check from the first whistle and the penalty count excessively high (11 vs. 2) in the first half, Raynal had no option but to issue a yellow card on Dan Cole just on half-time.

Munster had to endure a shaky first quarter but grew into the contest as the home side’s discipline evaporated in the foggy, wintry conditions allowing Ian Keatley to work the scoreboard. The Dan Cole yellow card was decisive as Munster Rugby scored their try in this period, excellent line break from the impressive Conor Murray and CJ Stander crashed over from close range.

A nine point lead was too much for Leicester Tigers and the cameos of Toomua and Tuilagi lacked the cohesion required. Munster Rugby defensive were on point and the breakdown was controlled by the Irish province in the last quarter. A decisive road victory and Johann van Graan’s charges will look with confidence to the January fixtures starting with a road trip to Racing 92 and a home game against Castres at fortress Thomond Park.

Racing 92 secured an expected five point haul over Castres but the red card for Imhoff could be a huge incident in the outcome of this pool. The head butt was stupid in the extreme but given the pack’s dominance on the day where Donnacha Ryan was excellent, Racing 92 were full value for their win. The pack in particular was on point, mauls were effectively and caused Castres massive headaches throughout.

The red card was the sour note for Racing 92 and Castres will look to focus on domestic action from here on out. Potential second string selections beckon for their remaining fixtures which is good news for Munster Rugby on the final game of the pool. The pool is now a two horse race with Munster Rugby in pole position to secure the pool.

Pool 5: Watson inspired Bath. Scarlets put pressure on.

Anthony Watson was in sensational form for Bath Rugby as they moved into top spot of the pool with a hard earned 26-21 win over Toulon at the Rec. Watson was a constant danger with ball in hand and his line speed at times was too much for Toulon to defend.

Bath Rugby took advantage of a superb start, going ten points up early doors but did have to withstand Toulon pressure in the second quarter. Cue Watson to settle home fans nerves, this is a defining result for Bath Rugby and sets up an exciting home fixture against Scarlets in January which is another winner take all pool fixture.

Toulon must reflect on this loss; defensively inconsistent, side lacked the cohesion when the game in the balance to secure the road trip win. They are still in a good position with a home trip to come over an already eliminated Benetton Rugby looking like a five point haul. The road trip to Scarlets could make or break their European season. Toulon need a home quarter final as their road performances this season have seen massive vulnerabilities.

Scarlets enter the January fixtures with renewed confidence as they secured their five point haul over Benetton Rugby in Italy. The performance was much more improved from a defensive perspective. Bonus point win secured thanks to trademark running lines from deep. Benetton Rugby struggled to create any tangible line breaks until the final exchanges, too little too late.

Scarlets have a huge final two fixtures. They are both must wins starting with Bath Rugby on the road. This pool is wide, wide open. It is very hard to predict who will top the pool and there is a big danger that the three teams in the mix could nick points from each other to only see one team progress. Exciting times come the New Year!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Leicester 16 – 25 Munster

I personally love rounds three and four of the European Rugby Champions Cup. The reverse set of fixtures allowing the vanquished in round three to regroup, analyze video and come up with a game plan to thwart their opposition in round four.

This was the task laid out for Leicester Tigers: address team discipline as well as improve their game management and overall game. HJowever for head coach Matt O’Connor and management, it was yet another disappointing big game day loss as Munster Rugby secured four invaluable points to seize control of the pool and exploit Leicester Tiger’s weak points from round three yet again.

It had started so well for Leicester Tigers. The team started on the front foot and had bundled Rory Scannell into touch immediately at kickoff. A superb kick from George Ford which was chased with interest by his back line unit. It was not long before Munster Rugby were facing their own posts as the pack was pinged at line-out. Ford kicked the penalty and the hosts were up early. Munster Rugby were struggling to get into the contest. Slow decision making allowing Leicester Tigers to create turnover ball and create promising field positions.

A quick response from Munster Rugby ensued. Keatley putting a superb kick into touch just five meters out from the Tigers try, setting up glorious field position. Kevin O’Byrne who had an outstanding ERC debut was accurate on the line-out and the pack advances forced the hosts to concede a penalty straight in front of posts which was slotted over by Ian Keatley. 3-3 and all to play for.

Leicester Tigers though in this first quarter were still eager to impress and they produced their best moment of the contest after ten minutes. A routine straight from the training ground, a swift lineout and quick breakdown clear out work saw Ben Youngs deliver an excellent pass to Matt Tait who superbly evaded the press from Peter O’Mahoney to exploit his pace against Dave Kilcoyne. The swift tempo of the Tigers play was superb and the home crowd were up on their feet to applaud the excellently created score. Leicester Tigers management were delighted with the score.

The high work rate of the hosts though had a high level of risk associated as players were flirting on the offside line in those early exchanges.

The French officiating crew on duty today were put under the microscope by Matt O’Connor and Leicester Tigers management earlier in the week. Matt O’Connor went to task on the “cynical” aspects of Munster play the weekend before at the breakdown preventing early ball from being released to their back line.

Jerome Garces was left in no doubt of his performance last weekend at Thomond Park. Raynal was now under pressure to officiate the breakdown differently but like his fellow officiating colleague, he did not waver and started to ping Leicester Tigers for offside infringements at regular intervals which were not spotted in the previous fixture at Thomond Park. New disciplinary problems for Matt O’Connor to contend with.

Dan Cole was guilty of five indiscretions during that opening period and to be brutally honest, Munster Rugby would have had a case to discuss a yellow card with Raynal after Cole’s third infringement. The penalty count was spiraling out of control and with the Munster pack warming to the task, further penalty opportunities were afforded to Ian Keatley who was precise.

From a 10-3 deficit, Munster Rugby quickly were 10-12 up on their hosts and when Cole again infringed in an offside position just before the interval, Raynal’s patience had run out. Yellow card and Munster Rugby were playing with a player advantage for ten minutes.

Munster Rugby decided to take the subsequent penalty and advanced down the pitch, yet another infringement this time from Kitchener was blown. Conor Murray’s long distance penalty had the distance but was just wide but it signaled intent for Munster Rugby to attack Leicester Tigers upon the restart.

Murray was the prominent player in the Munster Rugby try. spotting massive space inside to create the gain line break. The Lions scrum half was stopped only two meters from the line and CJ Stander powered over. Raynal convinced that it was a try asked the TMO to provide any reason why he could not award the try. The TMO could not and a try was awarded. Keatley slotted the conversion and the lead was out to nine points immediately on the resumption. 10-19.

The confidence was starting to ooze from all Munster Rugby players. Wootton work rate and line breaks in the second half provided excellent cameos, the offload to Zebo superb. Arnold and Scannell were looking to take the game to their illustrious opposition unit of Toomua and Tuilagi. However, with slippery ball conditions, moves were breaking down and allowed Leicester Tigers unstructured play which May latched onto with a searing run in the third quarter. Cleote made massive yardage to get back and collect the loose ball from that May move but it was a warning for Munster Rugby to improve their game management.

To Leicester Tiger’s credit, they refused to wilt and had their own spell of pressure at the start of the third quarter. John Ryan guilty for deliberate kill the ball. Peter O’Mahoney’s protested on the yellow card. Munster Rugby were now forced to hunker down and defend. Ford hit two quick penalties either side of that yellow card to setup a dramatic finale but the game took another decisive twist.

The Munster back row of O’Mahoney, O’Donoghue (now on for Cleote) and Stander took over proceedings. O’Mahoney fresh from his contract extension was causing havoc in the Leicester Tigers lineout stealing a couple but also putting enough pressure that Tigers needed to hit the safe option and slowing ball to their dangerous back line.

O’Donoghue hit to force the turnover with five minutes to go was a momentum changer, the Tigers tackle count was taking its toll and the home pack were now force to concede possession. Stander was outstanding and his ball carrying during the Ryan sin bin relieved massive pressure for Munster Rugby. The back row domination of Munster Rugby was a huge factor in these nine points accrued in rounds three and four of this competition.

Murray and Keatley were clinical in their game management in the final quarter, ensured that play was played deep in Leicester Tigers territory and forced the hosts to take more risks with ball in hand which resulted in additional breakdown steals. Keatley was emphatic with his last two penalties. His final penalty was superbly hit, the player celebrating as soon as it left his boot. Keatley has really stepped up for the province this season, these performances against Leicester Tigers were on point and should provide the platform to continue to excel this season.

Leicester Tigers attempted to finish with a flourish but were met by yet more Munster defensive line resistance and slowing the ball to a crawl. The ball was then forced and more spilled ball signaled the end of the contest. Zero points from these two European games spells the end for the Leicester Tigers in this competition. Discipline was a massive issue in these last two weeks. Geordan Murphy lamented the officiating but two different officiating crews again ruled Leicester Tigers had questions to answer. The offside infringements were morale sapping after a great start. Time to look within rather than throwing press notes to the media on discipline issues. The decision to field both Toomua and Tuilagi smacked of last ditch desperation, their performances were decent but given their lengthy layoffs, they did not effect the direction of the game.

Munster Rugby seize control of the pool. A key nine points won in these recent weeks sees the Irish province move up to fifteen points. The side will be pleased with this result, the maturity of the playing staff to see out this contest after last season was noteworthy and sets the side up for an exciting January. A road trip to Racing 92 will be tricky but with a home game against a Castres side who have given up the European odyssey last night, a home quarter final is potentially in the offing. Johann van Graan’s honeymoon continues and next is the Leinster St.Stephen’s Day clash at Thomond Park. Onto the next challenge!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 4 Preview

The final round of European Rugby Champions Cup action this calendar year is upon us. A weekend where a couple of teams will be condemned to an early European exit while other teams will look to fight for another day. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Pool 1: Massive fixture for Ulster

With La Rochelle on the brink of a home quarter final berth, the attention in this pool is whether Ulster Rugby can summon back to back wins against Harlequins to setup an intriguing January attempt to secure their own passage to the last eight of the competition.

Last weekend was a key victory for Ulster Rugby. A road trip played under extremely inclement weather conditions, Ulster’s pack led superbly by Ian Henderson set the platform and with Cooney on point in penalty kicking duties in the second half, this win should provide a much needed confidence booster after a mixed set of results in recent weeks.

The key point for Ulster Rugby is consistency. Can they produce a cohesive, efficient performance for the second week in a row. They face a Harlequins who are now out of European reckoning. A side who have nothing to lose. A dangerous prospect and a side who will look to redeem themselves after a subdued performance last weekend.

John Kingston has rung several changes. Danny Care’s absence is massive and his game management and ability to create line breaks from unstructured game is a threat that Ulster will be grateful not to have to face. Furthermore, Visser and Brown are consigned to the bench. This is a game for Ulster Rugby to grab by the horns. BP win for Ulster.

La Rochelle have being the standout team of this pool. Their quick tempo, offloading rugby style has had many neutrals salivating at the mouth. They face a Wasps side who like Harlequins will look for redemption but if played on a fast track, this could be an arduous fixture for Dai Young’s men.

Wasps could not be faulted for their perseverance or fight but last weekend, they were simply outgunned by a La Rochelle whose meters gained of 682 was an incredible stat but reflected the purpose of the side to run from deep with the back row particularly effective in breakdown and offloading duties.

This fixture provided that conditions suit could see yet more tries. Wasps to be more competitive but La Rochelle have embraced this competition and expect another road win. Wasps team selection may suggest that Aviva Premiership is the priority; if this plays out, La Rochelle will have a home quarter final locked in by the end of the weekend. BP win La Rochelle.

Pool 2: ASM Clermont look to consolidate top spot

After an emphatic 14-48 road trip over reigning champions Saracens, ASM Clermont will look to build a decisive lead at the top of this pool over the same opponents this weekend. The Monday game was bizarre in the extreme with Saracens uncharacteristically off the pace defensively. Raka, Fofana, Toeava reveled in the open space and the results were for all to see.

Saracens have an incredible arduous task ahead of them this weekend. They realistically need to win this encounter but given key injuries in the squad and the way the side folded so quickly does little to suggest that a win is on the cards. A loser point is not good enough for the reigning champions to top the pool so the focus will be to look at maximizing points return in their last two pool fixtures.

ASM Clermont this time of year are a joy to watch in this competition. Their abrasive pack, coupled with a cohesive back line is a joy to watch but trophies are not handed out this time of year. ERC disappointments too many and they need to put a performance like they produced last Monday at the business end of the season. Clermont to win but no bonus point as Saracens will produce a better cohesive defensive display. Both should emerge from the pool.

The other pool fixtures sees Northampton Saints start life without Jim Mallinder. The Director of Rugby was given his marching orders after ten great years of service but results in the last two seasons have being disappointing. The final straw was the humbling loss to Ospreys who entered the game with minimal confidence given their wretched Guinness Pro 14 campaign to date.

Ospreys piled on the misery at Franklin Gardens where the back line unit played probably their best cameo of the year. Evans at full back was superb in entering the line. Hasler was also prominent as well. The pack was abrasive and setup quality ruck ball for the back line to explode. This performance has being well overdue and Northampton Saints had simply no answers despite scoring five tries in the contest.

Northampton Saints will look to this fixture as an opportunity to run the rule over certain fringe or academy talent. Their European odyssey is over so it is time for the interim management to give the squad maximum game time in this competition to stake a claim for squad places in domestic league where they have faltered massively. Ospreys to continue their good run, a bonus point win here to make Pool 2 somewhat interesting.

Pool 3: Leinster look to take control of the pool

Aviva Stadium on Saturday will see Leinster Rugby look to seize total control of this pool. Their performance at Sandy Park last weekend was impressive and on another day, the Irish province could have had more than the two tries scored. The first twenty minutes in particular caught the eye, pack dominant with some excellent back line moves.

Exeter Chiefs refused to back down during the contest but apart from Scott, there was little in the way of back line creativity. The pack had their moments before and after half-time but they lacked game management and finesse to unlock a resolute Leinster defensive line. Pack driving consistently for the line, only to be pinged at the breakdown for holding on.

This fixture potentially could see Leinster Rugby explode into life. Aviva Stadium is a fast track and well suit Leinster Rugby perfectly. If the hosts pack can assert dominance again, then no reason why a bonus point win cannot be secured before the final quarter. Exeter Chiefs will be game and determined but there was distinct difference in levels last weekend. The manner in which Leinster seized control of the game in the final quarter to score ten unanswered points was devastatingly good and expect more of the same this weekend.

Glasgow Warriors travel to Montpelier in the other pool fixture. A case of what might have being last weekend only for incredibly petulant off the ball behavior to derail a superb opening period cameo. 22-5 up when Turner had the red mist moment and the French side’s pack were not to be asked twice to establish the platform. Two sin bins for Warriors in that opening period opens issues on discipline for Dave Rennie to address.

The mindset of Glasgow Warriors will be interesting to see. They are out of the competition (pretty much) and their approach to the contest will be key, hope they bring their expansive game plan to the contest but with Guinness Pro 14 league ambitions shining bright, will management decide to rest first choice stars. Nadolo looks poised to have another keynote cameo and I think the hosts will win with a bonus point albeit hard fought til the end.

Pool 4: Backs to the wall for Leicester Tigers

An intriguing fixture at Welford Road for Leicester Tigers. A week where Matt O’Connor has not being shy about his thoughts on Munster’s game plan and physicality, Tigers are in must win territory. They were horrendously off the pace again in Thomond Park this year like last season. Munster were much more cohesive and their bonus point win was well merited.

This is a fixture where Munster Rugby will look to learn plenty on how far the side has matured. They were in a similar position last year, a shutout win against Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park then followed a quite flat, subdued performance ending up in a narrow loss. The last gasp kick that won the game for Leicester Tigers was not the issue, it was the performance levels which worried Munster management on that day.

Leicester Tigers’ pack will look to impose their will on this fixture and the Munster Rugby front five need to embrace the challenge, something that they struggled with in this fixture last year. The half-back tussle is fascinating. Youngs and Ford will look to unleash the likes of May in the back line but they will be the first to realize that their game plan has to vary considerably compared to last weekend. Ford’s restarts beggared belief, first four restarts hit Stander, enough said.

This is going to be an arm wrestle. Munster Rugby have a glorious opportunity to seize control of this pool but given the comments of the O’Connor, think perhaps discipline may become an issue again. A narrow win for the Tigers but Munster Rugby to leave with a loser bonus point. A win for Munster Rugby and the pool is in firm control, a superb fixture to look forward to.

The other pool fixture sees Racing 92 look to avenge a surprising loss to Castres last weekend. Team selection will be interesting. Castres have had a tendency to field second string squads for ERC road trips and I do not suspect this policy will change thus allowing Racing 92 to secure a bonus point win. The loss last week to Castres is damaging. A pool which could be evenly poised heading into the New Year.

Pool 5: Bath and Scarlets look to make lost ground

A massive fixture for Bath Rugby at the Recreational Ground. Given their late loss to Toulon, this is a massive opportunity for the West Country side to exact revenge and potentially top the pool heading into Christmas. Toulon showed the good, the bad and the very ugly (Ashton kick clanger) but credit where credit is due, they were patient at the end to create the game winning try.

Bath Rugby must face Toulon without the services of Toby Faletau who looks destined to be on the sidelines for the next couple of months. His impact last weekend was missed when withdrawn as his work rate, breakdown and ball carrying were on point. Loew and other players in the pack need to step up given this injury blow. Priestland at ten and Joseph at thirteen need to provide the game management and line break expertise to unlock a Toulon defense who were shaky in their opening road trip to Benetton Rugby.

Bath Rugby and fans will have earmarked this fixture since the start of the season. An incredible atmosphere should be generated in the Rec and I expect the home side to win this game in a tight encounter. Toulon to show all their brilliance and inconsistencies in this fixture again, a team who have undoubted star quality but the cohesion is a serious issue.

Scarlets need to produce a performance on the road at Benetton. The display last weekend at home had flashes of brilliance but then serious lapses in defensive and attacking play allowed the Italians a foothold in the game with fourteen players. Sloppy performance and Pivac surely read the riot act during video analysis at the start of this week.

Benetton Rugby are progressively improving. Their defensive structures were on point even down a player and they scored four excellent tries to keep themselves in the game. Their home performance needs more pack platform and the half-backs need to provide some variety in their kick game to unsettle and unbalance this Scarlets side. They cannot force the issue deep in their own half, otherwise with the breakdown threats of the visitors, points will be leaked.

I said at the start of this series of games that Scarlets needed ten points to seriously get back into pool contention. Given the enormity of the five points, Scarlets will produce an efficient performance to achieve this goal. The fixture against Bath at the Rec looks fascinating already; winner potentially advancing to the last eight of the competition.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 3 Reflections

The European Rugby Champions Cup Round Three is now in the books, a couple of standout results to digest in this blog posting. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Pool 1: La Rochelle have one foot in the quarters. Ulster impress.

The weekend where La Rochelle produced a sensational performance to beat Wasps to effectively have one firm foot into the quarter final phase. The style of play is so easy on the eye, the ability to attack from anywhere on the pitch is a joy to behold and Wasps at times were chasing shadows. The usual suspects came to the La Rochelle party again. The back row performance was on point for long periods with flanker Levani Botia crossing over twice. Botia is an immense ball carrier and offloading player. Winger Vincent Rattez also crossed over for a brace as La Rochelle continued to create line breaks.

Wasps’ cause was not helped by an early sin bin but the 30-12 half-time spoke volumes on their inability to stem the attacking threat of La Rochelle but also inaccuracies in their own play creating promising opportunities for La Rochelle who have being a superb advert for the competition.

Given the way they are playing, they are destined for a top four seed ranking and no-one will relish going to La Rochelle and a fervent home crowd. 49-29 was an excellent advert as well for the game. Credit to Wasps, they refused to give up and their four try haul was admirable given their defensive struggles. A reverse fixture next weekend should prove interesting to see how Wasps react to this defeat.

All credit to Ulster Rugby who got their competition back on track with a hard fought win on the road to Harlequins. This was a performance which to a man Ulster delivered. The pack much maligned in recent weeks produced their most cohesive performance to date and their opening quarter set the tone for the remainder of the contest. Stockdale continues to be a prominent player with ball in hand and his opening half try was excellently worked. Several superb offloads and quick hands from Ulster pack and back players resulting the in form Ireland international to touchdown.

Harlequins struggled for consistency throughout but they threatened to produce a fightback as prop Sinckler crashed over early in the second half. The fightback failed to materialize as the Ulster pack regrouped led magnificently by Ian Henderson. Penalty count was being won by the visitors and with Cooney in excellent kicking form, the result suddenly went away from Quins who are realistically looking at an early pool elimination but if they were to beat Ulster Rugby next Friday night, could signal the end of the Irish province chances of last eight progression. Intriguing stuff.

Pool 2: Snow puts pay to Saracens clash, Ospreys find form.

The inclement wintry conditions across Ireland and Great Britain put paid to one of the eye catching games of the weekend. Saracens vs. Clermont Auvergne postponed due to snow and probably a welcome relief for Mark McCall’s who will look to regroup and see if they can get a couple of more squad players fit for the trip to France next weekend. This left only Northampton Saints and Ospreys on tap and it was a most welcome win for Steve Tandy’s charges.

The eleven point win does not do justice of how dominant the Welsh region was in this contest. The pack set the platform and the half-back / back line took over in a devastating thirty-five minute spell either side of half time. Dan Evans at full back produced a sublime performance and crossed over twice as they did Jeff Hassler. Habberfield. Fonotia completed the rout.

With the locals restless, Saints responded with five tries in the second half but this was a significant loss for the club. Is the Jim Mallinder era about to come to an end given the torrid Aviva Premiership performances as of late and last season?

Lack of cohesion, hunger and game management were key traits but credit to the Ospreys who were bright with ball in hand and took advantage of several defensive lapses. A key result for the Ospreys, they need to build on this and look to continue this form into the Guinness Pro 14. Northampton Saints are in crisis, players and management will need to regroup and look to respond at the Liberty Stadium but looks remote given this performance.

Pool 3: Leinster produce professional road trip win. Glasgow exit.

Leinster Rugby were excellent in their 18-8 win on the road to the tough and durable Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. On another day, Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster’s men should have being 15-0 up after twenty-five minutes. Luke McGrath who impressed again at nine crossed over after excellent work from Sexton, officiating crew rules that Sexton’s had touched the sideline (minute if it happened). Devin Toner looked to have gone over but the line of questioning from Poite to TMO left the answer in limbo so five meter scrum.

Exeter Chiefs were hanging on by their fingertips and a yellow card was issued to Williams for persistent scrum infringements. Leinster Rugby composure today really was to the fore and Sexton crossed over out wide after some good work from the pack where Furlong, Healy, Toner, O’Brien and Conan were immense, Exeter Chiefs though refused to go away and they started the third quarter with gusto.

A superb try from the impressive Short leveling the scores at eight a piece but the composure and experience of Leinster Rugby kicked in thereafter. They absorbed their sin bin and then set out to respond after the hosts try. Excellent pack play and phases where Fardy was a beast throughout setting the platform for Conan to cross over to seal the deal. Leadership in huge abundance as Nacewa took over place kicking from Sexton to slot over a penalty and the conversion.

Four points for Leinster and significantly no points for Exeter Chiefs who worked hard, had their moments but pack advances were repelled by the immovable Leinster Rugby defense, some massive hits at the end of the opening half to deny Exeter Chiefs a try. A key moment of the contest. Leinster Rugby with home advantage will look to consolidate with another win over the Chiefs next weekend. A bonus point win would provide Leinster Rugby with a superb opportunity to stake a home quarter final berth.

The biggest disappointment of the competition have being Glasgow Warriors. Imperious in Guinness Pro 14 action, their lack of discipline and pack weaknesses were ruthlessly exposed on Friday night as Montpelier scored a 22-29 road trip win. It all looked so good for the Warriors early on with the home side creating several line breaks. Sarto was having a stellar evening, finishing off a sweeping move from deep. 22-5 should have being the premise to move on and secure the bonus try point but an off the ball incident from Turner proved fatal.

The French side started to impose their will in the pack exchanges and two tries quickly were conceded. The penalty try even more galling as Gray was sin binned. From a position of hopelessness, Montpelier were now in utter dominance. Glasgow Warriors tried to get back into the contest but the French side had built a sufficient buffer.

Glasgow Warriors were punished for indiscipline and the scrum struggled. They are out of Europe before Christmas. Guinness Pro 14 is going well but Dave Rennie is now fully aware of the weak points which need to be addressed. Montpelier are back in the competition, a bonus point try win is the prerequisite next weekend. Otherwise, Leinster Rugby will be out of sight.

Pool 4: Munster dominance. Castres cause surprise.

Johann van Graan’s debut under the lights at Thomond Park could not have gone any better. A comprehensive 33-10 win over a Leicester Tigers who were a well beaten outfit. Munster Rugby set the tone and physicality early and never relinquished that position of strength throughout. Chris Cloete was sensational in the breakdown exchanges, his dynamic and explosive back row play causing several steals. He was ably assisted by O’Mahoney and Stander who ball carried and provided leadership throughout.

Four tries scored by Munster Rugby in this contest. Marshall crossing over in the first quarter as Leicester Tigers defensively lapsed. Zebo took advantage of a stellar kick behind to score. This was a sensational night for Ian Keatley. Two years ago, the fly-half was subjected to boos from a small section of Munster Rugby supporters against Leicester Tigers. The performance last night was on point throughout, took responsibility and launched Arnold at regular intervals.

Scannell at twelve work in tackle count, kick game was immense. Wootton was on point as was Conway but a nasty collision ended his night and Leicester’s full back who sustained a broken jaw. The physicality at time was brutal but Munster Rugby always seem to have the edge. Two further tries were scored after the interval. O’Mahoney scored after several patient phases and after Leicester Tigers scored their try, the hosts emphatically responded with their bonus point try from Cloete as the pack’s maul crashed over.

Munster Rugby will be under no illusions for next weekend’s reverse fixture. Leicester Tigers are fighting for their ERC season next Sunday and expect a backlash but with the assured performances of Murray and Keatley, Munster Rugby will view the fixture with a high level of confidence.

Johann Van Graan’s era has started well and the Bulls style of play was seen in glimpses, direct running style with quick ruck clear outs the order of the day. Stander at eight was immense.

A vital win but plenty of twists and turns to come from this pool as Castres upset Racing 92 with a home victory. I did not see all the game but the closing stages saw Castres finish the game strong with a ten point burst to win the contest. Racing 92 need to win with a bonus point try to get back into this pool again next weekend against their compatriots.

Pool 5: Toulon and Scarlets stumble in their wins

The Chris Ashton slice kick which gave Bath Rugby the lead has being well played in social media circles but Toulon need to regroup and decide on a specific game plan. They are caught in whether they are a pack orientated side or free flowing back line. The cohesion between both units at times was missing and it allowed Bath Rugby to get extremely close to causing a shock upset road win.

Bath Rugby were combative for long periods and Ashton’s gaffe gave the West Country side an opportunity to win heading into the third quarter. The hosts though to their credit stayed patient, went to pack game plan and the defensive gap was exploited with the late try scored by Belleau. Bath Rugby will feel confident of turning over Toulon this weekend. For Toulon, a wholly unconvincing performance, things need to get better.

Scarlets produced their bonus point try winning performance but given that they played against a fourteen man Benetton Rugby side and only won by five points raises questions. The attacking side of play was excellent at times and a couple of early tries looked to set the Welsh region well on their way to victory but concentration lapses allowed Benetton Rugby with try scoring opportunities who scored four tries themselves in this 33-28 loss.

Scarlets will look to build on this performance next weekend and another bonus try point win is required but food for thought in video analysis on Monday. Benetton Rugby continue to show their resiliency and determination to stay in games. This pool is wide open and it is anyone’s guess who will top the pool.

 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 3 Preview

After all the excitement of the Autumn International series in November, we are quickly back into European Cup mode with two critical fixtures looming large which will decide who qualifies for the quarter final phase of the competition. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action and expects some fireworks.

Pool 1: La Rochelle in control

A key series of fixtures in this pool. La Rochelle could conceivably have one foot in the quarter final if they beat Wasps with a bonus point performance. The debutantes have being outstanding in their first two European Rugby Champions Cup fixtures. Their speed and ability to create line breaks from anywhere on the park has being to the fore.

La Rochelle’s back row and three quarters have caught the eye in these opening rounds. Gourdon and Vito in the back row are excellent ball carriers with physicality to boot in defensive and breakdown duties. Sinzelle and Aguillon in the three quarters against Ulster Rugby were compact defensively but their pace and speed with ball in hand caused massive issues for the Irish province.

This is a daunting trip for Wasps. The injury list is easing but this a game where all players on duty need to be on it for the entire contest. La Rochelle with a fervent home crowd support will look to establish their dominance early and it is imperative that the likes of Launchbury, Haskell and Hughes do not allow this to happen.

Wade in the back line is always a threat but I do fear for Wasps in the pack exchanges. La Rochelle’s mobility and physicality in the pack could turn the screw after the restart. La Rochelle win here. If Wasps come away with a loser point, then it will be considered a good result.

Ulster Rugby travel to the Stoop to face a revitalized Harlequins side fresh from defeating London rivals Saracens in domestic action last weekend. The manner of the result (late Visser try) will surely provide timely momentum for John Kingston’s charges. One point in the pool so far but form has picked up since the start of this competition.

Danny Care has being outstanding in recent weeks, controlling games and his contribution last weekend was sublime setting up all three tries. Robshaw was also prominent last weekend with a tigerish display at the breakdown with several steals to boot. In the Stoop, the home support will look for the same again.

Les Kiss announced a couple of key pack signings in recent weeks next season. Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy will arrive to bolster a pack who has had their struggles this season. The pack performance last weekend at Rodney Parade will hardly inspire confidence of a much sought after road trip. The scrum was a shambles, line out had periodic issues.

The concentration lapses were exposed again last weekend immediately after superb passages of play to score some quality tries. The back line were dangerous with ball in hand but their hard work was undermined by terrible defensive lapses and restarts. This fixture will be decided on which side can be more consistent on the day, nod to Harlequins given their recent upturn in form.

Pool 2: Top two slug it out at the Allianz

The top billing game of the round surely is the visit of ASM Clermont to reigning champions Saracens who are suffering an injury crisis ahead of the game. Disappointing set of results recently with three defeats on the bounce in the Aviva Premiership but with the likes of Brit, Williams, Vunipola, Itoje out, the side have had to go deep into the squad for replacements.

ASM Clermont’s road trip woes continue this season domestically. Head coach leveling blame to players for lack of work rate and responsibility. The home form is as strong as it has ever being but surely this is a fixture where the French side will fancy their chances of winning given the injury list of their opponents.

Huge onus on the pack to setup the platform. Lee, Kayser, Van Der Merwe are key players in the pack, they need to provide front foot ball. The back line has lacked cohesion at times but with the talented Abendandon, Lamerat and Lopez, an intriguing fixture beckons. Slight edge to Saracens given their home record but ASM Clermont could nick this.

Northampton and Ospreys prop up the pool and realistically one of these sides need to take a clean sweep this month to put any pressure on the front two. Northampton Saints have being wholly inconsistent in recent weeks, sliding down the Aviva Premiership at a rate of knots and this break from domestic action will be gratefully received.

Saints will fancy their chances against an Ospreys side devoid of confidence and cohesion after another heavy loss to Munster Rugby on the road last weekend in Guinness Pro 14 action. The good news for Ospreys is the return of their Welsh international contingent and should improve the performance levels in the pack and half back positions particularly.

A key opening quarter beckons at Franklin Gardens. Ospreys will look to keep the game tight and settle into the contest while Northampton Saints will look to attack on the front foot.

Wood, Hartley, Lawes to provide the leadership and drive to secure the home win. If the Saints can produce an effective opening quarter, expect a bonus point win. Ospreys need to regroup fast and will look to their most recent European road trip to Saracens as solace but given the results since, the home side are favored.

Pool 3: Sandy Park fixture pivotal

A pivotal fixture in Exeter this weekend. Leinster Rugby travel to Exeter Chiefs in a top of the table clash, a road win here and surely Leinster Rugby will hit a decisive in the outcome of this pool but it is going to be incredibly tough given the form of the reigning Aviva Premiership champions.

The Exeter Chiefs have beaten Saracens on the road and destroyed Bath Rugby last weekend with a cohesive pack orientated performance. The back line also got on the act with some superb line breaks as well. A superb performance ahead of this fixture.

Leinster Rugby come into this fixture with good form as well. They have hammered the Dragons at home and then last weekend had to stay patient for a hour against Benetton Rugby before unleashing a couple of well worked tries to secure the bonus point.

James Lowe’s debut could not have gone any better and his all round performance may have secured his starting berth. An exciting player with ball in hand, interesting to see his defensive nous as the hosts will have their periods of pressure this weekend. The pack battle should be explosive, two well drilled sets and the scrum exchanges early will be pivotal.

This is a very tough fixture to call. Sandy Park will be hopping, great atmosphere assured and how Leinster Rugby quell the home support will go a long way to deciding this fixture.

Steenson at ten will play a major part of the Exeter Chiefs game plan, his kicking from hand will need to be on point and look to pin Leinster Rugby deep into their own territory early doors. Slight edge to Exeter Chiefs but Leinster Rugby are well capable of securing the win here provided that their pack is on point early doors.

Glasgow Warriors have taken the Guinness Pro 14 by storm. Ten wins from ten in the league, virtually secured a playoff berth already with their all conquering expansive style of play.

However, this expansive style of play has not being seen this season in ERC action. Glasgow have being second best against Exeter Chiefs and Leinster Rugby where the pack has being exposed at scrum time conceding penalties and territory in spades. Montpelier arrive to Scotstoun and one wonders about their appetite for battle this weekend given their two early losses in the pool already.

The home loss to Exeter Chiefs hurt massively in the last round but with the threat of Nadolo and Steyn out wide, you can never discount the French threat but I would not be surprised if Montpelier play fringe players in this fixture to freshen the side up ahead of the home fixture the following weekend. Glasgow Warriors to win with a bonus point here, no question.

Pool 4: Munster and Leicester showdown

Thomond Park on Saturday night will provide decisive clues on the direction of this pool. With Racing 92 potentially eyeing up a ten point haul against a Castres side who now quite frankly are going to fulfill fixtures here on out, either Munster or Leicester know that a win is a must this weekend.

Leicester Tigers will have revenge on their mind after last season’s’ visit to the Irish province. A blowout loss, no points scored which prompted further coaching changes mid-season. Matt O’Connor has come into the club again and steadied the ship with assertive pack play and the emergence of back line potential with new signing Jonny May in superb form.

I greatly admire the Leicester Tigers. Their style of play is very much akin to Munster Rugby. Their abrasive pack orientated style sets the platform. Tom and Ben Youngs provide leadership and with George Ford at ten continuing to develop into a world class ten, the side is coming to Thomond Park full of intent and looking to right the wrongs of last season.

Munster Rugby’s side will have an interesting look to it this weekend. The thirteen jersey will be duly noted given the list of injuries in the position. No Earls, Farrell to call upon so potentially Sam Arnold will make his European debut.

Zebo’s fitness is key for Munster; his flair and creativity to unlock defenses will be required. The pack will need to be on point as well with discipline the key mantra. The scrum has gone well in recent weeks and it needs to be again this weekend. The line out will need to be varied to allow Murray and Keatley to launch attacks and keep their opposition off balance.

An intriguing fixture, do not see any bonus point try performances here. A pack stalemate could ensue with a slight edge to Munster Rugby but Leicester Tigers will feel that a loser bonus point will be satisfactory with confidence high to win at Welford Road the following weekend. BT Sports, a game for the pack purists this. Thomond Park, love it. Roll on Saturday!

Pool 5: Scarlets to gain ground, Toulon to consolidate

Scarlets are playing catch-up in this pool and a home fixture against Benetton Rugby requires the minimum five points to put pressure on the top two teams in the pool. Benetton come into this contest on the back of a heavy loss to Leinster Rugby, a fixture where they were in touch for a hour until a sin bin opened the game up.

Scarlets will hope for good weather conditions to launch their expansive play but this will require patience to unlock a well organized Italian defensive outfit. A win to be secured and it could take until the final quarter for Scarlets to secure the fourth try of the contest. Scarlets win.

Toulon are an enigma this season, good talent at the club but there has being a lack of cohesion in the overall team dynamic. Bath Rugby have nothing to lose going to the Stade Mayol.

They stifled Scarlets in horrific weather condition to secure a pivotal road trip win in the last round. Bath Rugby will look to Charteris, Faletau to lead from the front and with an exciting back line containing Watson, Brew and Priestland from half-back, they are a threat.

Toulon if provided with a dry day could wreck havoc with the likes of Nonu and Basteraud to the fore. Toulon to win but there will be periods where cohesion is not quite there. A pool which could have to wait until January to determine who advances to the last eight.

Scarlets are not out of this pool and their trip to Bath Rugby looks like a playoff eliminator already!

EPL Review: Round 15 Reflections

United and City win to setup derby clash

Let us be quite frank. If Manchester United give Manchester City thirteen shots on target and seventy-five percent ball possession, the noisy neighbors will be well on their way to securing a decisive fatal blow in the league title race.

David De Gea was immense; his saves were world class and that double save was extraordinary. The goalkeeping exploits frustrated an Arsenal side who were yet again attractive on the eye but defensively exposed.

United’s counter attack like in midweek against Watford was on point. Martial and Pogba were excellent. Martial is on an excellent run of form, his touch for Lingard’s first goal was superb.

Lingard’s brace also continues a good run of form from the player. His second goal was reward for tracking into the Arsenal box as Pogba picked the midfielder with an excellent pass.

The Pogba red card had no arguments from this blog. Dangerous and his absence will be a loss for United but given his recent performances against City, it might not be as traumatic as anticipated.

Jose’s game plan will be fascinating for the derby contest. 4-5-1 or does he persist with the back three that has served the side well in recent weeks. Lukaku will have to forage at times on his own given City’s ability to control tempo and possession.

Manchester City left it late again against West Ham United but the winner was superbly created. The vision of De Bruyne to pick out David Silva was world class; the finish was incisive and the three points secured.

It was a baptism of fire for debutante Rice in the central defense but his pace and game reading was on point for long periods albeit he will have learned plenty from the Otamendi and Silva goals in terms of concentration and decision making.

West Ham United were a far better outfit at Eastlands than they were at Goodison Park. The side worked hard and could have nicked a draw if Sakho had not squandered a gilt-edged chance late on.

There are question marks defensively for City to rectify ahead of the derby. Their ability to defend corners exposed again with the Ogbonna header. However, the question is whether United get enough possession to expose this facet of play. Intriguing derby fixture beckons.

Relegation candidates come on down!

The quick succession of league fixtures in the past week has really exposed squad depth issues on a number of team. Huddersfield Town are now in a relegation battle and their home fixture against Brighton & Hove Albion this weekend is a perennial six pointer for both teams.

David Wagner has tried to rotate the squad over the last seven days. A grueling week with a home visit from Manchester City and road trips to Arsenal and Everton. The City performance aside, it has being pretty abject stuff. The squad depth has being exposed and January cannot come quick enough.

The lack of goals on the road is crippling Huddersfield at present and puts more pressure on their home games to win. A key month awaits but January will require shrewd signings to address clear striker issues and freshen up the central midfield area.

Brighton as well have to evaluate their squad depth as well. A mixed week for them with a narrow loss to Manchester United, a dour draw against derby rivals Crystal Palace and a comprehensive beat down to Liverpool (1-5). The lack of creativity and scoring prowess are the issues for Chris Hughton’s men. The fixture this weekend will be crucial in how these two sides are set for the busy festive period.

Palace slowly but surely are climbing out of trouble. A nil all road trip stalemate. A Roy Hodgson special when he was in charge at Fulham was on show last weekend at the Hawthorns and if they can get more from the likes of Zaha and Benteke, then it is mission possible for league safety. Defensive and midfield improvement still required but a clean sheet is much appreciated. Cabaye and Loftus Cheek in midfield will need to continue in an upward curve.

WBA under the stewardship of Alan Pardew should climb up the table in the next couple of weeks. Pardew is such a streaky manager, depending on the month can win or lose four on the bounce. Pardew was quick to proclaim to the WBA masses that he likes to play on the front foot but he is well aware that clean sheets and defensive solidity is the key aim. Rondon and Rodriguez need to step up to the scoring plate as well.

Swansea personally look doomed. Sanchez loan move has not worked out, the player taken out of the firing line. Paul Clements could be given his marching orders by the weekend. The club’s long term direction is uncertain. Do the club do the unthinkable and look to Tony Pulis? The side started well but quite honestly, the defensive work at the end of the opening half against Stoke City (who themselves are underwhelming at present) summed up their season. Weak and inept after such a great start. Bony and Abrahams goals are even more of a priority now. Uncertain times in South Wales and there looks like no quick fix this time.

Newcastle United have also endured a difficult week of fixtures. Two losses in between a road trip draw at the Hawthorns will do little to stem relegation concerns. Watford and Chelsea losses were no disgrace but defensively were exposed for pace with a couple of lapses defensively on the flanks. Dwight Gayle goals are encouraging but the side needs more potency in front of goal. Shelvey’s form has being patchy in recent weeks too. In Rafa, Newcastle trust. Chelsea were excellent and Hazard oozed class throughout in their 3-1 win at the Bridge.

South Coast Derby Stalemate

Bournemouth and Southampton had to settle for a share of the spoils. Both sides will be fine when it comes to the relegation battle. It was an enjoyable derby from the neutral; feisty challenges, contentious penalty calls not given and goals on target.

The home record of the Cherries is a concern but given the number of chances that Eddie Howe’s charges created yesterday, it is only a matter of time when they translate draws into wins. King prominent yesterday in attacking duties and with the likes of Defoe and Afobe in the ranks, pace upfront will pose opponents issues.

Southampton have started to play with more confidence. Virgil van Djik prominent in both facets of play. Charlie Austin’s form has caught the eye in recent weeks and his clinical finishing will be key for Southampton to consolidate in mid-table. Tadic showed promising moments yesterday as well. Forster in goals has steadied the ship after a shaky November. All points to a reasonable second half of the season for Southampton provided Virgil stays (big big if).

Puel’s Leicester beat Burnley

A new season and Leicester City’s decision to dispense with Craig Shakespeare has yielded short term gain but whether this translates to long term success is another story.

This was a key win for Leicester City over an in-form Burnley outfit. Gray’s early strike enough to secure three points. The recent run of form has seen Mahrez and Vardy in good form and it continued last weekend.

Defensively solid as well, work rate was on point. Leicester City on twenty points in the league, no fears of relegation as they look to push for a top eight spot.

Burnley were not disgraced in this loss. They had chances at the death to earn a draw but lack of quality in front of goal proved crucial. Brady’s injury will be closely monitored who has being in a good run of form. Top eight looks realistic.

Tottenham out of the title race

Watford and Tottenham’s entertaining draw means little for the league table and it probably eliminates Tottenham as a genuine title contender now.

Tottenham looked lethargic defensively and were lucky to not concede only one goal in this encounter as Watford’s attacking pace posed serious issues throughout as well as a good penalty shout.

What has happened at Tottenham? Wembley factor and the pitch is a key reason. I recall Sir Alex Ferguson mentioning the after effects of playing at Wembley and players not being right for a week or two after. Legs are weary at Tottenham at this time.

Watford continue to impress against the top teams in the league. Their speed and movement in midfield and attacking areas are superb. Richarlison is a shrewd piece of business. Gray and Deeney are coming back to form. Kapoue is such an undervalued midfielder in this league; distance traveled and pass completion are impressive. Hughes as well is a good midfield acquistion and Silva’s managerial stewardship has being on point.

 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 10 Reflections

The last weekend of league action before the decisive December ERC fixtures. A weekend which saw positive results for Zebre Rugby and Dragons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Glasgow Warriors win their tenth league win in a row

At first glance, many will assume that Cardiff Blues were under the cosh throughout and were given a hammering (40-16) but this was far from the comfortable league fixture for the Warriors.

Cardiff Blues can take enormous positives from this fixture despite the final quarter cameo but it all hinged on the red card decision from Nigel Owens.

The Taufa’ao Filise’s red card incident has created plenty of debate on the social media. The fact that Owens did not think much of the incident when it happened in real-time gives some credence to say that the red was harsh.

However, player safety is paramount for rugby players on the pitch. Owens and officiating crew after viewing the footage then felt that Taufa’ao Filise had a case to answer with his tackle on George Turner.

The decision was red and the game was effectively ended as a contest. The red card is the key debating point here; another officiating crew would not have sanctioned the dismissal so consistency is required. Anything high or dangerous needs to be given red, pure and simple.

Cardiff Blues held their own until the final quarter when Glasgow Warriors started to assert pack dominance finally and swift ruck ball creating the width to score several excellently worked tries courtesy of Vunisa (67′), Sarto (76′),  and Matawalu (79′).

The true test is for the Warriors to produce this free flowing try scoring game plan to ERC competition format and with Montpellier in the next two weeks, it will be an intriguing test. Pro 14 playoff berth is pretty much secured after this win. Cardiff Blues will look to the European Challenge Cup with confidence despite this reversal; promising signs in terms of game plan and brand of rugby being played.

Les Kiss under pressure as Ulster misfire again

32-32 draw. Lealiifano last gasp try looked to have given Ulster Rugby another get out of jail win and break Dragons hearts in the process but the subsequent conversion went wide. A draw and probably a fair result.

This is a game which yet again puts pressure on Les Kiss and Ulster Rugby management. The front five again was a mixed bag. The scrum set piece was a disaster and the starting front row was hauled off pretty much immediately after the restart.

The line-out was decent and Ulster’s back line when given early ball to work with looked extremely dangerous. McCloskey, Bowe, Piatau all looking to create line breaks.

The issue was whenever Ulster Rugby strung an excellent passage of play, they lapsed almost immediately allowing their hosts to get back into the contest.

Dragons will take great heart from this encounter. The side to a man could have shirked the responsibility when Gilroy crossed for Ulster after nine minutes but with Gavin Henson increasingly becoming a factor with boot and game management in line breaks, the hosts were starting to gain in confidence.

Hewitt looked dangerous all game, a pacy winger and his brace of tries looked to give the hosts the gap required to close out the contest. Griffiths in the back row was having a heroic game, his tackle count and ball carrying were immense throughout. Potential new back row talent for the Welsh national side.

The last five minutes were chaotic. Dragons with Hewitt taking the lead but then the inexperience kicked in, a poor restart from the hosts giving Ulster good field position and after a couple of penalty concessions, Leililfano saw the gap to cross over at the death. The draw was a fair result.

Ulster Rugby have now a potent Harlequins to deal with in the next two weekends. The level and consistency of performance is not there from Ulster Rugby at present and you would fear for Ulster in the pack exchanges even with the likes of Rory Best and Ian Henderson in the ranks. The scrum is regressing at a rate of knots and the style of play is uncertain.

Zebre Rugby claim deserved win against toothless Connacht

Kudos to Michael Bradley and the Zebre Rugby team management. The game plan was on point and Connacht quite frankly ran out of ideas well before the final whistle in this encounter.

24-10 triumph for Zebre Rugby to consolidate their progressive run of form and supporting the credibility of their result against Ulster Rugby in round five and hard working performance against Munster Rugby in round nine.

For Connacht, it is getting to crisis management proportions. Two significant road losses and any thoughts of playoff rugby are probably put on the back burner this season.

This was an insipid performance from the Irish province. Line breaks were attempted but there was a distinct of cohesion, urgency and game management from the half backs on duty to unlock a hard working opponent.

Zebre Rugby engulfed the breakdown with bodies, some of it bordering on infringements. The tactic worked a treat as Connacht’s ball was slowed down to a crawl and with Crosbie shaky at best at ten, attacking moves were started well behind the game line. The lack of depth in the ten position was fully exposed.

Crosbie was not the only player to have a bad day at the office but his penalty kicking was pretty poor. Two good penalty opportunities squandered in the opening period and to be fair, Marmion was not assisting his besieged ten with no variety in play. No significant kick game and when he did have a line break, his offload was poor at the laces of his supporting runners.

Zebre Rugby were patient and line breaks appeared mostly due to their best player on the pitch Canna, Connacht’s defensive shape started to rock badly. The closing exchanges of the opening half should have earned a home try but a poor pass out wide gave Connacht time to regroup and hold the Italians up on the line.

Connacht’s invention was the hallmark of Pat Lam’s stewardship, quick ruck ball, players comfortable to take ball in hand and make the right decision. This group of players look far removed from the team of two seasons ago. Individual players going for line breaks, no supporting runners and breakdown support far too late to clear out rucks.

Kieran Keane has a massive job on his hands. The side looked dejected come the final whistle and the late try concessions with several poor missed tackles will have a furious video analysis inquest. European Challenge Cup comes at a good time for Connacht but the side have not kicked on since the Munster derby win. Disappointing.

Kudos to Michael Bradley and Zebre Rugby management this season. Given the circumstances at the start of the season, the season has progressed well. They have being increasingly competitive against the Irish provinces this season and the hope is that this upward curve will continue into next year. In Canna, they have a ten who is capable of changing games.

Munster gave van Graan a comfortable home debut win

36-10 says everything about this contest. Munster took advantage of an early Ospreys sin bin to score two tries which setup the platform for a bonus point win.

Ospreys again showed glimpses of promise but defensive lapses and unforced errors proved costly. Sam Davies kick into touch which went out in the full early doors was the prelude for what was to come.

Tougher tests ahead for Munster but this was a fixture to run the rule over Sam Arnold and the three quarter rose to the occasion with an excellent display, great line break in the lead-up. Cleote was superb again at seven.

Given the lack of options in the thirteen position for the visit of the Leicester Tigers, Arnold surely will given the thirteen jersey locked and one hopes from a Munster standpoint that the player again rises to the occasion.

Sweetnam was prominent throughout and his try was opportunistic in nature capitalizing on a loose ball. The pack were efficient as they took advantage of the absences in the Ospreys pack due to international commitments.

Ospreys have already started to plan for next season. Scott Williams and now Aled Davies will be in Ospreys jerseys next season, progressive moves. Davies’ switch from Scarlets will be observed closely and whether he can fill the boots of Toulon bound Rhys Webb.

Munster saw out the final quarter having to perform defensive duties. Ospreys to their credit continued to play until the final whistle and were rewarded with a late consolation try. The hosts will monitor the fitness of Simon Zebo during the week while Liam O’Connor is out for an extended period due to injury.

James Lowe announces himself to Leinster fans

Leinster Rugby recruitment should take a bow after seeing the cameo of New Zealander James Lowe in their bonus point victory at Benetton Rugby.

Lowe had a superb debut. His game management, vision, speed and physicality at times were too hot for the Italian side to handle. An interesting team selection poser beckons for Cullen and Lancaster next weekend as the player scored a brace of tries, looks to have fitted in seamlessly to the system already.

Leinster Rugby will be delighted with the result. Patience was the key and virtue in this encounter as Benetton Rugby resolutely tackled and kept their defensive shape for the opening hour.

However, with an ever increasing tackle count and a sin bin to boot, Benetton Rugby were simply to unable to sustain their defensive shape and Leinster Rugby were clinical in their execution.

Ringrose looked sharp throughout, lovely side step for his try. Lowe trusted his power and pace to easily evade the hosts defense out wide for his try. Excellent work from the Leinster pack before these tries.

Benetton Rugby have progressed well but Saturday’s result shows where they have to compete with the likes of Leinster Rugby. Half back consistency is key; solid game management and realizing when to launch back line plays at times were absent at times during this performance.

The back line creativity is also an issue, some interesting individual line breaks but little support for the ball carrier. The pack were industrious but the penalty count started to rise as the tackle count rose at the end of the first half. A work in progress.

Leinster Rugby now focus on the Exeter Chiefs in their home / away reverse fixture. A decisive set of fixtures for Leinster Rugby. Exeter Chiefs coming into the game on a good run of form with a road trip against Saracens and emphatic win over Bath Rugby. A potentially potent opponent, the pack will be well warned. Fireworks will be expected.

Hidalgo-Clyne inspires Edinburgh Rugby to victory

An emphatic victory for Edinburgh Rugby on the road in Port Elizabeth. They did not give the Southern Kings a chance to settle in this contest with the fixture pretty much in the books by the end of the first quarter.

As mentioned in my preview blog, Edinburgh Rugby needed to negotiate the early exchanges and they certainly did that and more as the pack dominated early doors. McKenzie, Mata and Gilchrist all scoring tries benefiting from Kings indiscipline within the first twenty minutes.

Sam Hidalgo-Clyne dominated the final exchanges, scoring a hat-trick of tries and converted all his tries to boot. Twenty-one points haul for the scrum half whose form on this road trip to South Africa has being nothing short of sensational.

A miserable evening for the Southern Kings. The statistics of the fixture make for horrendous reading. Only 144 meters gained and over 600 meters to their visitors. The side needs to reflect and come back stronger next year. This South African side is struggling all ends up.

Toyota Cheetahs keep in touch with a hard earned win over Scarlets

Bloemfontein is a Guinness Pro 14 fortress. The Toyota Cheetahs continue their sublime home form with a 28-21 win over a gallant Scarlets side.

This was an evenly matched contest through. The statistics showed every little in the contest and so it proved during actual game time.

The difference on the night was Craig Barry who scored two excellent efforts, speed of thought key to the scores along with sensational pace to evade the covering Scarlets just after the hour.

Scarlets responded well. Ioan Nicholas produced a stunning solo score of his own, the youngster showing a clean pair of heels to the Cheetahs back line before Jones added the extras to make it 23-18.

Barry was not to be denied and he crossed for his second try of the evening, all about the pack as they worked through the phases before Barry took control of the lose ball to score.

Scarlets pressed for another response but could only score a penalty to get a loser bonus point. Toyota Cheetahs are the real deal in South Africa and are a playoff contender.