Ulster Rugby: Where now?

The mid-year review. Gulp. A period that personally fills me with dread, a time when the manager sits the protege down and talks all things job performance and the direction to be taken going forward. Unfortunately for Les Kiss, his employers felt that a change in direction was required and with that Les Kiss was clearing his desk as head coach of Ulster Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the news.

 

Why to axe Les Kiss now?

The Les Kiss tenure at Ulster Rugby has being a mixed bag truth be told. The word inconsistency comes to mind when you think about Ulster Rugby’s performances on the pitch in the last two years. A baffling observation considering the talent in the squad such as Best, Henderson, Piutau, Trimble.

One season of mediocrity and inconsistency can be excused due to a new head coach arriving to the club, putting his imprint and style on the side which obviously takes time for the players to implement. However, this has continued into this season. An encouraging Pro 14 start has evaporated with indifferent form observed in recent months.

The European Cup campaign is over too early again for the province and the performances in the last two rounds of the competition speaks volumes of the issues at play. A stirring performance against La Rochelle in round five setup a winner take all fixture against Wasps on the road but the side failed to perform in a flat performance. The Ulster pack who were so dominant against La Rochelle were pushed back at a rate of knots against Wasps.

Ulster Rugby fans have being increasingly frustrated by the style of play and performance levels particularly this season. Was their a fear from the top brass at Ulster Rugby that season ticket renewals were in decline? The powers that be at Kingspan Stadium felt that they needed to act and unfortunately, Les Kiss’ excellent coaching credentials were not enough to save his head coaching position.

When you add the fact that Jono Gibbes joined the backroom staff this season, personally felt that it was going to put pressure on Les Kiss indirectly given the credentials Gibbes has as a coach in the game. Gibbes no doubt was looking to make the jump to head coach and the decision to dispense with Kiss was offset by the fact that Ulster Rugby had already a standout candidate in their ranks.

Why did it all go wrong?

It is a difficult question to answer. The credentials of Les Kiss were impressive, his coaching resume including a superb Ireland Rugby period working alongside Joe Schmidt was praised by both media and players who worked under the Australian.

The appointment looked a shrewd move from Ulster Rugby, an excellent coach arriving at a club who needed impetus to get to the next level after a couple of Pro 12 and European Cup near misses. The move looked right on paper but for whatever reason, it has not worked.

Pienaar’s departure this season has being a blow despite the performances of John Cooney this season who has stepped up to the plate. Pienaar is a world class scrum half operator and his presence will always be missed in the training paddock or at game time.

The on-going judicial issues with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Holding have being a distraction at the club. To say it has not is quite frankly absurd. The trial has commenced in recent days and yet more media attention on the rugby club for the wrong reasons indirectly. The players absence off the pitch this season have being hugely felt particularly with Paddy Jackson at ten.

For such an exciting back field, Ulster Rugby have struggled for consistency in the pack. It is a strange statement considering the presence of the likes of Best, Henderson in the front five. However, the prop situation has being problematic with indifferent results at scrum time this season. The platform has not being effectively built particularly on the road; the side have suffered and losses have followed.

Marty Moore’s arrival from Wasps next season will be an interesting side note along with Jordi Murphy who will look to bolster a back row who have at times being dominated at the breakdown area (particularly on the road). Murphy’s leadership and experience will be invaluable to the likes of Timoney and Ross. Two astute signings on paper from Les Kiss but he will not be present to see the rewards of this acquisition.

Where now?

Gibbes fills the head coaching void and it will be interesting to see if the style of play changes fundamentally under his guidance. Gibbes’s coaching experience includes Leinster Rugby and ASM Clermont will look for the pack to improve their consistency in setting up the platform. The RBS 6N phase of the Pro 14 league will provide a good indicator of the style of play Gibbes will look to run.

All is not lost for Ulster Rugby this season. They are involved in the playoff mix currently in Conference B. Yes, results have waned in recent months but they are still in a playoff berth despite Edinburgh lurking with intent. The players need to front up now. Their head coach has lost his job and the focus will be on them now. For a quite a few players in the ranks, it is make or break time.

Ulster Rugby have reflected and made their decision to dispense with Les Kiss. Gibbes will be asked to improve the team’s fortunes but he will need to be absolutely ruthless in dispensing squad players who are not up to the mark. The academy players need to be given their chance to impress too; the talent is there but there needs to be a mentality change in the club to be resolute and driven to succeed.

Gibbes is an excellent replacement for Ulster Rugby but he cannot do this on his own. Everyone connected to the club needs to row in behind him and provide support. There may be some initial setbacks but Gibbes will be keen to impress; expect shrewd signings in the coming weeks and summer to address the weak points. Exciting times for Ulster Rugby!

NHL 1A / 1B: Round 1 Reflections

The Good


A seven point win over Waterford sees Davy Fitzgerald’s charges on top of the NHL 1A standings after the opening round. It continues the impressive preseason form of the Model County in the Walsh Cup. The fitness levels of Wexford were sublime yesterday and Waterford struggled to gain a foothold in the contest. In David Dunne, has Davy Fitzgerald found a forward who can take on the leadership mantle. His 2-2 cameo was eye catching, his movement and pace to the fore. Lee Chin’s scoring haul was also noteworthy. Eight points (six from frees) providing yet more positive signs of early season form. The team look destined to go deep into the league campaign, one to watch.

 

A superb win for Offaly in the opening round of the league at Croke Park where their skill set and work rate were too much for Dublin. An opening league win it is, but the confidence that this result will give to management and players of the Faithful County will be huge. A team who have being bereft of success in recent league campaigns, this win banishes relegation thoughts for the coming year but significantly gives evidence that the team are more than capable of competing and winning at this level. Limerick have being due warned in recent league meetings. Tullamore just got a more difficult this weekend. Kevin Martin had his team well prepared; fitness on point and the fast ball distribution and slick skill set exposed Dublin throughout. Currams, Egan, Kinsella, Dooley, Bergin all prominent. A result long overdue, interesting to see how the team kick on from year for the rest of the year.

 

A honorable mention to the Saffron men who with eight minutes to go were leading Galway by three points. A loss yes, but this performance was full of organization, work rate and endeavor. Many expected Antrim to run out of steam in the second half when faced with a one point deficit at the break, having to play against a stiff breeze. The team rallied, stuck early in the half for a goal and took an excellent last ten minutes from the Tribesmen to secure a victory. Antrim were competitive, another good result for the NHL 1B and hopefully this will be the springboard for further solid performances from the Ulster side. McManus, McCann, McKinley, Elliott were prominent in this performance.

 

The Notable

A solid effort from Clare to start this league campaign. Once they got into their stride in the second quarter, the Banner men never relinquished the lead. Tony Kelly showed his skill set with some lovely touches and scores. David Reidy’s performance yesterday could be an indicator of how Clare go this season. The player was assigned free taking responsibilities and he delivered. His goal at the end was well taken and sealed the victory and his cameo contributed massively to this victory. A key player for the county this year. Peter Duggan and Cathal Malone had excellent cameos too and need to deliver this level of performance again next weekend at Nowlan Park. The half-back line of Fitzgerald, McInerney and Morey could be a keeper come championship. Given Tipperary’s lack of preseason competition action, more to be gleamed from a tussle with Kilkenny next weekend.

 

A big result for Cork hurling as they opened their tenure in Pairc Ui Chaoimh with victory over arch rivals Kilkenny. Shane Kingston’s early goal was the ultimate difference maker. John Meyler bloodied several debutantes to the side and they delivered in a contest where the pace and speed was akin to championship. O’Flynn had a promising cameo. Harnedy was sharp throughout with three points to his name. The ever dangerous Lehane hit eleven points (nine from frees) during the seventy minutes. Collins in goal ably deputized for Anthony Nash. A solid performance and the manner in which Cork won this contest in the last ten minutes will give Meyler and team huge confidence. The consistency issue in NHL play remains to be answered but this is a good start.

 

The attendance at the Gaelic Grounds of over 1400 yesterday spoke volumes; the side have flattered to deceive in league play and with all due respect to Laois, it was not a game to stir the hurling masses to HQ. A routine ten point win was achieved with minimal fuss. Gearoid Hegarty’s goal creating the buffer in the opening period which Laois looked incapable of bridging. The standout from the game is the form of Aaron Gillane, an excellent display with eleven points to his name. His assist to Hegarty for the goal was duly noted. A player with massive upside. The Offaly fixture has being one which has caused the Shannonsiders plenty of issues in the past; given the Offaly win over Dublin at Croke Park, it will be an interesting and intriguing test to see how John Kiely’s charges are doing. The jury is out on the team and management.

 

No Panic Yet

With no preseason competition fixtures under their belt, Tipperary management and team went into the unknown yesterday. A five point loss at first glance looks disappointing but given the lack of action for the side in preseason cup competitions, the side were competitive throughout. Jason Forde’s performance was noteworthy; his movement from play was good and was unerring in his free taking duties. The players got a solid seventy minutes under their belts but a league win will be the objective when Waterford call to Semple Stadium this weekend. Cathal Barrett’s return is a boost.

 

Given the injuries and players unavailable for selection, Kilkenny cannot be hitting the panic button just yet. It was a tit for tat contest against Cork. Richie Reid, Alan Murphy were prominent in their scoring return on the night. Walter Walsh was as physical and industrious as always. Cillian Buckley before his injury was providing leadership along with Padraic Walsh who was positioned at full back. His point was inspirational but is full back really the position for the Tullaroan clubman? I think not. Paul Murphy, Colin Fennelly will boost the squad when they return to the panel in the Spring. Richie Hogan as well will provide experience and leadership along with TJ Reid. It was a good opportunity to run the rule over the new prospects; they did not let themselves down, raw talent is there for Cody to nurture.

 

This time of year must fill Derek McGrath with dread. With a host of players injured or in Fitzgibbon Cup action, team selection was limited. The team got a solid seventy minutes under their belt against a Wexford outfit who are probably the standout team in the opening weeks of the hurling season. Once Fitzgibbon Cup action is concluded, Waterford will improve immeasurably and when you consider the involvement of Maurice Shanahan in AIB Club Championship, you start to realize that it is not all doom and gloom for the Waterford outfit.

 


Galway started the league campaign with a less than convincing win over a determined Antrim side. The Tribesmen potentially getting a first glimpse of how opposition will raise their game against the side this season as reigning All Ireland champions. The composure to stave off a shock result is the key point from this performance. There were mistakes but given the off season celebrations and team assembled, it was a good solid game under their belts. Concannon is a player to take note of; a key goal scored.

 

Time to panic


Some pundits are not overly concerned by this Dublin performance but if I was Pat Gilroy, I would be deeply worried. This was an opportunity for fringe players and prospects to take their chance and they failed to take the opportunity. It was an incredibly flat performance from Dublin. Once Offaly started to turn the screw, they meet virtually no resistance from the hosts. Gilroy will continue to persevere with the players from last night but deep down, he knows the Cuala contingent cannot come quick enough into the panel. Winters aside, the rest of the prospects were subdued. Worrying times for Dublin. They were exposed on a wide pitch. Promotion is a pipe dream.

 


A poor weekend for Laois. Their ten point loss to Limerick coupled with the excellent performances of Offaly and Antrim means that the O’Moore County are facing a relegation battle. Their forward line threat was stifled for long periods and their back line after a promising opening quarter then lost discipline and concede frees which were dispatched by Aaron Gillane. With a home fixture against a Galway side who will be keen to produce a better performance, ominous signs in full view.

European Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 48 – 3 Castres

Munster Rugby secured a home quarter final berth with a comprehensive six try demolition of Castres at rain drenched Thomond Park. A day which had started with torrential rain in the Midwest region resulted in this fixture being delayed by three hours. The East Terrace side of the pitch looking increasingly muddy as the grounds staff worked extremely hard to get rid of the surface water on the pitch.

The change in time was incredibly tough on both teams. Munster Rugby went back to their hotel to reset and then focus back on the contest at hand. Rumors starting to circulate in the nearby bars that the game may only be sixty minutes but credit to the grounds staff, the pitch surface was playable (only just) but the fixture was able to proceed.

Castres with the aid of a strong breeze at their backs sought to create an early platform. They peppered the Munster twenty-two in the opening exchanges but found the hosts defensive line and discipline were on point. The box kicks executed by Conor Murray were only going ten yards but it varied the game plan enough to allow the Munster Rugby pack set about creating their own platform.

Rory Kockott at scrum-half looked lively in the opening quarter and his fourteenth minute penalty gave the visitors a deserved early lead but that was as good as it got for Castres as Munster Rugby’s pack started to turn the screw in the set piece with the scrum a source of penalty opportunities. Keatley in eight minutes (18 and 26 minute) had erased the points deficit and given the lead to Munster Rugby.

The pack were impressive in their ball carries. Kilcoyne setting the tone early, tackle were emphatic and his ball carrying early doors got the crowd and the team on the front foot.

Kilcoyne unfortunately had to go off with an apparent ankle injury early doors, a blow for the player but gave an opportunity to James Cronin to impress and the Cork man took the opportunity with both hands.

Cronin was utterly destructive at scrum time and his opponent was in all sorts of trouble and the penalty count for Castres was increasing at a rate of knots. Ben Whitehouse was now losing patience with Castres and Combezou was given a yellow card on thirty-two minutes for repeated penalty concessions by the French side.

This was the opportunity for Munster Rugby to break the game wide open and with the next scrum, they scored their opening try. A solid scrum. Murray game managing with efficiency and the decision to spin the ball out wide stretched Castres to breaking point where Earls was on hand to execute to score. Keatley did hit a superb conversion from the sideline to make it 13-3.

The Earls try lifted the pressure from Munster Rugby who then started to unleash their three quarters at regular intervals thereafter. Farrell’s line break just before the interval on another day could have seen a try but over elaboration from Murray and Conway scuppered the chance.

The opportunity was a significant moment of the game. Castres morale was dented massively after an encouraging start. Patience was now the key for Munster Rugby to execute in the second period and so it proved.

The second half was a rout for Munster Rugby as Castres’ penalty count started to soar; offside, scrum infringements the order of the day. Rhys Marshall who was dynamic with ball in hand all day emerged from the Munster Rugby maul to score the side’s second try.

The chance created from line out ball seven meters out from Castres’ line. Keatley again with the conversion. 20-3. Game over. The only question now was when and not if Munster Rugby would get the bonus point.

Castres discipline was now embarrassing. Several penalty infringements at scrum time five meters out could have prompted an earlier yellow card and penalty try but such was the dominance of Munster Rugby’s front three including John Ryan that Kotze was given a sin bin cameo soon after. A penalty try followed. 27-3. One more try for a bonus point.

Mobile phones were then out to check other scores. Ulster were down and out. La Rochelle or Toulon at home. Munster Rugby made sure that it was a home quarter final against Toulon with a superb fourth try. Earls who looked so sharp throughout, spotting the line break and making a thirty meter gain. Zebo’s running line was sublime and he strode with purpose to the try line. Try. Cue the celebrations. Mission accomplished. Keatley again unerring in the conversion. 34-3.

With the bonus point in the bag, it was time to then give the bench a run out. Castres were now a well beaten outfit and the new comers to the park made immediate impacts. Wootton’s season continues to grow from strength to strength. His determination to continue to run with the ball at close quarters saw the Macclesfield’s native to score the fifth try. JJ Hanrahan now on for Keatley converted. 41-3.

Castres tried to muster up the effort and game plan to unlock Munster defensively but after several phases in the Munster Rugby twenty-two surrendered possession with the abrasive back row of O’Mahoney, Stander and Cleote controlling breakdown affairs. The ball was quickly down the other end of the pitch and cue the sixth try of the day.

Munster Rugby’s maul again to the fore as Castres pack were retreating at a rate of knots. Cronin emerged from the mass of bodies with the ball over the try line. JJ Hanrahan again converting. 100% kicking effort from Keatley and Hanrahan. 48-7. Whitehouse blew up for the final whistle. A day which could have irked the team did not and Munster Rugby’s management of the delay was admirable.

Castres were the ideal opposition to come to Thomond Park today. A team whose road trip issues in European Cup action are well documented. They tried hard but there was no conviction in their game throughout and they started to lose the collisions from the second quarter on. The scrum issues were obvious which then saw line out steals take place on their own ball. A miserable day for the French side. Domestic league is the priority now.

Munster Rugby move onto the quarter finals of this competition. The pool was incredibly competitive. Racing 92 and Munster Rugby qualify from the pool, two teams who will be battle hardened entering into the business end of the season. Munster Rugby’s next opposition is Toulon in the end of the March, another day to analyze this opposition. Today needs to salute the management, players and supporters of the club for an incredible day yet again, quarter final qualification and hopes increase of more success when this competition resumes at the end of March.

RBS 6 Nations: Ireland Squad Announcement

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has announced his initial Ireland RBS 6 Nations squad who will assemble and prepare for the opening fixture against France. Few surprises in squad selection truth be told with the inclusion of Jordan Larmour as well as recalls for the likes of Sean Cronin, Rory Scannell and Fergus McFadden for good measure. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the squad and half-back selections are interesting.

Forwards

Props

A strong forward squad has being selected for the start of the tournament. The front row looks quite potent in the prop positions with Furlong, Healy, McGrath, Kilcoyne, Porter, Ryan in the ranks. All players are playing well for their provinces. Furlong is certain to start but it remains to be seen how Schmidt viewed the suspension of Cian Healy against Exeter Chiefs. Healy was back to excellent form for Leinster Rugby and his disciplinary issue has opened the door to Jack McGrath who has produced standout performances as well. 50/50 call for the other prop position. The rest of the players realistically are looking at cameos off the bench provided no injuries surface before then. An area of weakness in the past for Ireland is now a key strength; the scrum set piece will be conceivably a primary platform for Ireland to attack from.

Hooker:

I am delighted to see Sean Cronin back in the international squad. The Limerick man has excelled for Leinster Rugby this season with several standout performances. His ball carrying ability was never an issue but a spat of injuries last season curtailed progress. However, the player has worked extremely hard to get back to form and this is reward for that.

Rob Herring from Ulster has being solid this season; very consistent performer in the set piece. However, Rory Best is the hooker for the start of the tournament, leading the side out in Paris. His form against La Rochelle last weekend was a timely reminder to everyone of his qualities. His ability to compete in the breakdown was to the core. The set piece was efficiently run. James Tracy potentially will feel a bit disappointed but with Cronin with Ireland, it is a chance to reestablish himself in the Leinster Rugby side and play quality minutes. Another player who has massive upside.

Second Row:

Five players selected for this unit. Henderson will start against France. His high tempo work rate and set piece execution to the fore. The Ulster second row has slowly picked up his form in recent weeks and his understanding with Best will be key to create a platform from the lineout. The partner for Henderson is a different story.

Ultan Dillane, James Ryan and Devin Toner all provide key strengths for first team inclusion. Toner’s experience, his line-out ability is superb, ball carrying has improved but question marks remain on his ability to compete in the breakdown. Dillane had a frustrating season last year, injuries and form issues did not help his cause but the Kerry man is playing well for Connacht Rugby this season. His ball carrying, speed and work rate to the fore. James Ryan is the dark horse for first team inclusion. The key point for Ryan is to establish himself as a consistent Leinster Rugby first team starter.

Ryan has all the traits to become a world class lock but it is too soon to throw him in against France on the road. With Tadhg Beirne returning back to Ireland next season, realistically it is an opportunity for the players selected to cement their squad places. Quinn Roux personally looks vulnerable and his disciplinary record in recent weeks does not bode well for the player long term with Schmidt. No complaints on the Beirne omission right now. Schmidt has laid out the policy for national team selection and Beirne does not fit the criteria right now while playing out of Ireland.

Back Row:

Immense competition for starting spots beckon in this division. The Leinster contingent have played superbly this season. Leavy and van der Flier have being immense in recent weeks with their Guinness Pro 14 performances. Jordi Murphy’s form is strong at this time and has softened the blow of Rhys Ruddock’s absence for club and country. Jack Conan comes into the squad as well, has shown well for club this season. The Munster contingent of O’Mahony, Stander provide leadership, work rate and breakdown know how. It is going to be fascinating to see who Schmidt goes with for the first game of the tournament. O’Brien’s absence is a blow but there is sufficient cover to offset the loss against France. No complaints on this unit and guys on the outside need to perform to higher levels to get into the national team shakeup.

Scrum-Half:

The key talking point was the omission of John Cooney from the squad. His form for Ulster Rugby this season has being a standout for the province in game management and kicking game.

Marmion gets the nod to impress again but the Connacht player needs to provide more decisive game management if given an opportunity to impress. His Autumn International against Fiji was a mixed bag and really has opened the door for other players to potentially come into the reckoning.

Hugely impressed by Luke McGrath this season; his maturity and game management has being excellent this season for Leinster Rugby and hopefully we will some good quality international test matches for the player in this tournament. Murray will start against France. His game is so good right now, form scrum-half for me in recent seasons.

Fly-Half:

Interesting squad selection as backup to Sexton who will start against France provided no injury concerns. Carbery is included even though injured since the Fijian international fixture.

Ian Keatley has being a shining light for Munster Rugby this season and gets the nod deservedly but you also have Rory Scannell here who can deputize at ten if need be.

Scannell played ten for Munster Rugby a couple of seasons ago; his kick game from twelve is a potent weapon for Munster Rugby. Given Carbery’s lack of game minutes in recent weeks, Keatley is the understudy to start off this tournament.

Carbery may be asked to go back and play games for the province during the RBS 6N tournament to establish form and sharpness. A player of massive upside and potential. A key squad player for the 2019 RWC.

Back Line:

Wingers:

No genuine complaints here on the back line selection. Zebo has made his decision to leave for France and with a World Cup looming, Schmidt needs continuity in the squad. The key inclusion is Jordan Larmour; the youngster is an exceptional talent and I think personally it would be wrong to throw in against France in Paris. The player has enormous attacking ability; his ability to create line breaks was seen against Munster and Ulster this season.

A key fixture beckons for Larmour this weekend in ERC action. A road trip to Montpellier and a chance to test his defensive qualities against the Goliath Nadolo on the wing. Sweetnam did as well as he could against the towering winger in international duty last year and Larmour’s defensive qualities need to be tested and this would be an excellent assessment on this facet of play.

An exceptional player already and one who will feature for the country before the end of the tournament. Sweetnam’s lack of game minutes for Munster Rugby and that Fijian performance defensively may be reasons for his omission; he will focus on returning to provincial action to reestablish his form.

Earls form has being outstanding; his cameo against Racing 92 sensational. McFadden has his critics but his upturn in form has seen the player back in the national setup, versatility also a plus for inclusion.

Conway like Earls is enjoying a superb season. His versatility a key reason for his inclusion, can fill wing and full back slots and expect game time for the player in this tournament.

Stockdale for me has being the find of the season for Ireland; his ability to create meters with ball in hand and his finishing qualities make him a standout wing option for this tournament. Stockdale and Earls potentially get the nod but there is stiff competition for places in the unit.

Centers:

Bundee Aki will start against France. His form in the Autumn International series was superb; his ball carrying and defensive work on point. The key question is who will partner the player for this tournament due to the absence of Gary Ringrose.

Henshaw has shown well for Leinster Rugby this season, his experience looks like a key reason for his inclusion to partner Aki. Chris Farrell’s development for the national team will be keenly noted; he has massive physicality, passing game and his line break speed is excellent.

Rory Scannell provides good cover at twelve and his kicking game as mentioned is a key asset for any side. It remains to be seen if Earls or McFadden will be considered for three quarters duty but their record is there for everyone to analyze.

Ringrose is a loss; his creativity and ball carrying are a perfect foil for Aki but they will have their chance in the Summer tour potentially if Ringrose does not make back in time for this tournament. McCloskey will be disappointed.

Full Back:

Such is the form of Leinster Rugby’s whizz kid Jordan Larmour at full back this season, Rob Kearney is under pressure to keep onto his full back starting jersey. Kearney has being in excellent form as well and is a great problem to have for club and country. I sense Kearney will get the nod at full back for the opening fixture but there could be opportunity for Larmour to potentially get game time later in the tourney (dare I say Italian match). Conway provides excellent cover in the position as well as Carbery. The position is stacked with quality. People will call out Zebo but in terms of the Schmidt game plan, these players are best equipped to execute the game plan to the letter of the law.

 

European Challenge Cup: Permutation Central

With the chaos and abacus crunching of the European Rugby Champions Cup, things are thankfully a little less complicated in the European Rugby Challenge Cup.

Six teams have already secured quarter final passage with two spots still up for grabs. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the final pool fixtures and looks to predict the quarter final pairings.

As we stand

With one round left in the pool phase, here is the consolidated standings (sorted per points tally) to highlight how tight it is currently in the race to secure a home quarter final fixture.

Final Pool Fixtures:

Ensei-STM (0) vs. (5) Newcastle Falcons: Dean Richards’ charges have already qualified as pool winners but will be keen to secure a home quarter final fixture at Kingston Park. I suspect Newcastle Falcons will have minimum issues dealing with the challenge of Ensei-STM and a five point haul is locked on here.

Dragons (4) vs. (1) Bordeaux: This is probably the key fixture of the round. If there is going to be drama, it may be at Rodney Parade. Dragons competed well for long periods last weekend against Bordeaux. With qualification out of their hands, Dragons can express themselves with little pressure on the result. Dangerous game for Bordeaux with added intrigue in what squad they will assemble for the fixture. Something tells me that Bernard Jackman’s charges will win this encounter narrowly. On seventeen points, Bordeaux look vulnerable.

Lyon (4) vs. (1) Blues: A significant home win for Blues secured the quarter final progression but if they harbor any thoughts of a home quarter final, then a bonus point is required. The mindset of Lyon comes into the equation, suspect that they will look to bring in the first line players rested in their loss to Sharks which spells danger for the Blues. A loser point for Blues, fifth ranked in the quarter final and a road trip quarter final beckons.

Toulouse (1) vs. (5) Sharks: A disappointing campaign in Europe for Toulouse was completed last night when the Blues beat them in a close encounter. How the mighty have fallen? Sharks have a remote chance of quarter final progression and will make things interesting with a bonus point try victory. Toulouse looking at other priorities will field an experimental side.

Gloucester (4) vs. (0) Pau: The standout fixture of the round personally. The winner taking the coveted pool crown and a home quarter final berth. Pau have being impressive in the tournament but a trip to Kingsholm is going to test their credentials to the maximum. Gloucester Rugby are incredibly exciting with ball in hand and buoyed with a fervent home crowd should do enough to win the contest. Pau will be a dangerous road team in the quarters.

Zebre (4) vs. (0) Agen: Two teams will little to play for. By virtue of the fact that Zebre are at home, edge this fixture to Michael Bradley’s side. Agen will look to stave off relegation but if their European campaign is anything to go by, best of luck with that.

Stade Francais (5) vs. (2) Edinburgh Rugby: Both these sides produced a scintillating encounter at Murrayfield last Friday. 34-33 to Edinburgh speaks for itself. The return fixture still has plenty to play for particularly for Stade Francais who know that a potential five point maul here and results going their way will result in their progression to the last eight of the competition. Edinburgh will do enough to secure home field advantage for quarter final. Try fest again beckons.

Krasny Yar (0) vs. (5) London Irish: A cohesive second half performance from London Irish blew Krasny Yar away, fear the same outcome this weekend in Russia. This is a dead rubber fixture.

Connacht (5) vs. (0) Oyonnax: A draw against Worcester Warriors was a result of mixed emotions from a Connacht Rugby standpoint. A poor first half gave them a mountain to climb but they recovered well to take two points from the encounter. Oyonnax travel to Galway with little appetite for battle. BP try win secured by half-time here for the Irish province.

Brive (4) vs. (1) Warriors: A tough fixture to call. Brive are competitive at home but with little riding on this fixture, will they field an experimental side? Warriors look vulnerable here given their result in France to Oyonnax last month. If Stade make it through, it could be due to Warriors losing here. Brive home win.

Quarter Final Predictions:

  1. Newcastle Falcons
  2. Edinburgh Rugby
  3. Gloucester Rugby
  4. Connacht Rugby
  5. Cardiff Blues
  6. Pau
  7. Stade Francais
  8. Bordeaux
  • Newcastle Falcons vs. Bordeaux (Kingston Park)
  • Edinburgh Rugby vs. Stade Francais (Murrayfield — again)
  • Gloucester Rugby vs. Pau (Kingsholm — again)
  • Connacht Rugby vs. Blues (Sportsground)

European Rugby Champions Cup: Permutation Central

Round five is in the books. Time to get to work and look at some of the permutations which may arise next weekend. Deep breathe. Let’s get this abacus calculation exercise started.

Current Standings:

With one round of pool games remaining, Leinster Rugby are the only team who have qualified for the last eight of the competition.

Possible Permutations:

This is why European Rugby Champions Cup is so interesting to both supporters of clubs involved and rugby union neutrals. Fifteen clubs have still a mathematical chance of advancing to the quarter final stage heading into the final weekend particularly when four of the teams currently in the playoff spots will lock horns in the final round. Who are the dark horses to make the late push? Who are the teams who will suffer quarter final elimination anguish? Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the final weekend of pool fixtures.

Teams who should punch their quarter final ticket next weekend

Scarlets along with Leinster Rugby produced the standout performance of round five. Their expansive, offloading play was too much for a Bath Rugby who were blown away in the opening period. The Tadhg Beirne try is a try of the season contender. The variety in running lines, the speed of pass and line running was incredible for the try. Scarlets brushed off their injury issues to the likes of Halfpenny with an assured road trip performance. They were never threatened last Friday night and confidence should be extremely high ahead of their crunch home fixture against Toulon whose squad depth is immense but quite frankly no cohesive performances. Scarlets to produce another keynote performance provided dry conditions are in the forecast. They will win this fixture with a chance of a four try bonus point late on.

It has being a shaky period in the European Cup season for La Rochelle who were the standout team of Pool 1 early doors. The lack of inexperience and game management on the road has being exposed by Wasps and Ulster Rugby in the last two pool fixtures and now is a time for management and leaders to step up to the plate and deliver an effective performance to win against Harlequins. With a buoyant home crowd, expect La Rochelle to win this contest and a potential bonus try point to take the French side to twenty-one points which will be more than enough to secure a quarter final berth but could conceivably be a road trip fixture.


Munster Rugby’s loser bonus point to Racing 92 on the road means that the Irish province are still in control of their pool but not necessarily a home quarter final fixture. They will face a Castres side who are an enigma on the road. Their demolition of Leicester Tigers (shutout win) tonight will have being duly noted by Johann van Graan, management and playing staff. Munster Rugby if they can address discipline issues in addition to producing a cohesive attacking display should secure the BP try win required to lift the side to twenty-one points. When you consider that Castres may not show their full hand for this fixture, this is a game for Munster Rugby to plunder.

Ulster Rugby’s 20-13 win over La Rochelle showed the potential, the determination and performance that many in the game knew was in the Irish province. A game where Ulster Rugby had to absorb plenty of defensive duties in the first quarter, Les Kiss’ charges took their try scoring opportunities in the red zone superbly. With John Cooney in dominant form at scrum-half, confidence should be high ahead of their crunch fixture in the Ricoh Arena. Wasps squandered a huge lead to Quins, the shocking red card (deserved) to James Haskell wrestled the game out of Wasps control. The manner of the loss surely will be another boost for Ulster Rugby but Les Kiss’ charges have being guilty of putting back to back performances together. Pack platform paramount. Best and Henderson need to lead from the front to setup the platform. Tentatively think Ulster will get the win here. Twenty-one points min.

Huge opportunity for Racing 92 to advance to the quarter final of this competition. They face a beleaguered Leicester Tigers outfit who are in a miserable run of form. Their performance against Castres tonight was flat, subdued and lack any significant attacking intent. Leicester Tigers are a proud club but one has to ask what side Matt O’Connor will put out in a dead rubber fixture for the club? Racing 92 on the road have being wholly inconsistent this season but given the magnitude of the contest should see a good performance from the Parisian club. A bonus point win looks likely. Twenty points potentially and quarter final action in April.

 

Teams who look vulnerable


ASM Clermont are teetering on the brink in Europe and it is not even April yet. After a superb December when they accounted for Saracens and took nine points out of a possible ten against the reigning champions, the lack of form in domestic action has surfaced in the European Rugby Champions Cup this weekend. A second half collapse against the out of sort Northampton Saints on the road with no points to show for the fixture has the French side in a must win fixture over Ospreys. Ospreys pack performance particularly means that this is a contest which looks incredibly poised. Given their home record, ASM Clermont with a lot of hesitancy get the nod but it would be interesting to see if Ospreys could go out to an early lead in this fixture. Cue home crowd nerves, cue the team making mistakes. We have being here before! Vulnerabilities aplenty.

Toulon. A team who have assembled world class squads in recent seasons are in a crunch road trip fixture to secure quarter final qualification. The names in their current squad would suggest that the team is well equipped to succeed in this competition but the lack of consistency in performance in this tournament has being duly noted. Bath Rugby and Scarlets should on another day beaten Toulon on the road. Benetton Rugby nearly upset the odds to beat the juggernaut in Italy. Scarlets with a superb victory in round five will relish this winner take all fixture. Toulon’s best scenario here is to be within seven points of Scarlets. 19 points potentially and a road trip fixture; could be dangerous come April but right now look vulnerable.

 

The reigning champions are in bonus point win territory against Northampton Saints. A wretched December run caused by a huge first team injury list saw the side lose twice to ASM Clermont. A draw against Ospreys last night leaves the Aviva Premiership side in a precarious position. Thirteen points and need eighteen points and hope that teams above them right now choke badly to allow them to advance to the quarter finals. Billy Vunipola is a huge loss but they will have too much for the Northampton Saints. BP win will happen but will results elsewhere be as kind? Questionable.

 

Dark Horses:

Ospreys will be given little chance of winning to ASM Clermont next weekend. A perfect setup for the Welsh region who have picked up form in recent weeks. The pack performance last night against the Saracens impressed me no end; abrasive in contact, breakdown was superbly contested. Biggar and Webb were excellent in game management. The same attributes are required next weekend. Outside chance of progression but given ASM Clermont and their arresting form, Ospreys could be the team to profit and secure a top eight berth.

 

Bath Rugby are still in this competition despite the reversal to Scarlets in round five. Thirteen points going into the final round of the pool. A road trip to Benetton Rugby who have little to play for. This looks like a five point return for the West County side. Eighteen points on Saturday on the board will put pressure on others around them. There will be upsets next weekend and Bath Rugby might be the team to benefit.

 

The manner of the demolition of Montpellier yesterday in the second half was outstanding. The pack was outstanding and they repeatedly had their French opposition in trouble on their own try line. Exeter Chiefs travel to Glasgow Warriors who have little interest in the competition. Their performance against Leinster Rugby today lacked the performance levels required. Dave Rennie may decide to rest up additional first team members and with the Exeter Chiefs in excellent form, a five point haul is not out of the question. Another dark horse to consider.

 

Predictions:

  • Leinster Rugby — loser point in Montpellier
  • ASM Clermont — narrow win over Ospreys. No BP win.
  • Scarlets — win against Toulon. No BP win.
  • Ulster Rugby — win against Wasps on the road.
  • Munster Rugby — bonus point win against Castres not enough for a home quarter final.
  • La Rochelle — bonus point win against Quins
  • Racing 92 — bonus point win against Leicester Tigers on the road
  • Toulon — get in by the skin of their teeth, loser point against Scarlets.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Racing 92 34 – 30 Munster Rugby

Munster Rugby still have control of Pool 4 and their destiny after securing a gutsy losing bonus point against Racing 92 at the lush surroundings of the U Arena. A truly stunning amphitheater.

A half of two halves

The first European Cup contest to be played at the immaculate surroundings failed to disappoint as the home side got stuck into their visitors from the first whistle and it was no surprise that Racing 92 were celebrating their first try of the contest after only two minutes.

It was a nightmare start for Munster Rugby; pinged immediately by match official Matthew Carley, the hosts were given excellent field position to attack and after several pack phases, Nyanga crashed over despite the best efforts of Rhys Marshall on the try line.

Machenaud was unerring on the conversion. The home crowd were buoyant and Munster Rugby were the team under the spotlight of the referee. The breakdown was an area where Carley was consistent on throughout in the opening period; any players off their feet or not coming into the breakdown straight were pinged at regular intervals.

More Munster Rugby breakdown woe allowed Machenaud to extend the lead to ten points with a confidently slotted penalty from distance.

Munster Rugby needed a response and credit to the visitors who stunned the hosts and their supporters with a sweeping move to get back into the contest resulting in Jean Kleyn stretching to touchdown. The conversion was duly added by Keatley. 10-7. Game on.

The Kleyn try on twenty minutes was a dividing line in this opening period. The hosts so dominant in the first quarter were now forced to defend and with Munster’s half backs probing for line breaks, Munster were starting at last to create the platform.

With it, Racing 92 were now the team under Carley’s officiating. Two penalties were presented for Munster Rugby; tough opportunities which were missed from Keatley and Murray with a long range effort. Munster were the team in the ascendancy in this second quarter of the contest.

Those penalties coupled with a missed try scoring opportunity during this period were key moments for Munster Rugby upon reflection of this contest. The try scoring opportunity was excellently worked; incisive line break from deep not finished off with the try line at their mercy. Racing 92 received their wake up.

10-7 just before the interval. Carley pinging Munster Rugby for another penalty; eight pens in total in the half but the comment made by Munster Rugby Captain Peter O’Mahoney clearly irked the match official as he penalized the Irish province a further ten meters. From an area of little concern, a penalty kick for Machenaud was presented and duly converted. 13-7 at the break. A ball break passage of play for Munster Rugby.

Second Half Twists and Turns

It was imperative for Munster Rugby to keep solid in the opening exchanges of the second half but the hosts started far the better with Donnacha Ryan and Leone Nakarawa becoming prominent in proceedings. Racing 92’s pack taking charge, hitting multiple phases and sucking in Munster Rugby defenders. The ball coming out to Marc Andreu who acrobatically got over despite the close attention of  several Munster Rugby players. 18-7. Advantage Racing.

Munster Rugby were now being asked serious questions of their hunger and fight and yet again, the side delivered with a swift response. Keith Earls who was a constant menace for Racing 92 with ball in hand identifying a mismatch in midfield to create the line break and his pace was enough to cross over for an excellent try. Keatley slotted over the conversion. A superb score from Earls and the Irish province were back in contention. 18-14. Racing 92 suddenly getting nervous.

The home supporters who were in full voice after Andreu’s efforts were now back in their seats and Munster Rugby yet again exposed Racing 92 defense to hit the front. Keatley with ball in hand was superb today, quick ruck ball giving the half-back opportunity to launch his three quarters. This time, Farrell was the recipient of a well timed pass from the ten who produced a lovely running line to crash over. 18-21. Munster in front but plenty of twists and turns to come.

Munster Rugby now had to game manage and keep their focus but they failed to keep the lead for any length at all as another penalty was presented to Racing 92 deep in Munster territory to leave the sides equal at 21. Keatley responded with his own penalty. This fixture was ebbing and flowing at a rate of knots.

In a fixture of fine margins, it was going to take something exceptional to decide the encounter. Racing 92’s pack must take the plaudits for their third try.

Directly coming from video analysis, identifying how Munster’s pack defend the lineout. Szarzewski executing a short lineout call and suddenly creating a 2-1 overlaps for the experienced hooker to score. A superb try. The hours spent on the training ground to execute such a scenario rewarded. A hammer blow for Munster Rugby.

Munster Rugby refused to die though and after Conor Murray had missed a very long range penalty, his composure to slot over another penalty from midfield to make it 30-31 was sensational. Time for Munster now to shut up shop but again restart woes surfaced. Murray adjudged to have illegally entered the ruck. Machenaud slotted his kick over. Racing 92 back in front by the bare minimum.

An intriguing proposition for both teams as they both went for it at the death. Munster Rugby looking to attack from their own line out in midfield but Racing 92 defensively were strong and a knock on from Farrell signaled the end of the Munster Rugby challenge.

Racing 92 took this cue to then attack their opponents, advancing to within five meters of the Munster try line. Desperation stakes for Munster and yet another penalty conceded. Racing 92 refusing to create the BP try scoring opportunity.  Machenaud as he had done all game slotted over and the game was out to a four point game. 34-30.

JJ Hanrahan came on for Ian Keatley but there was insufficient time to change the outcome. Racing 92 were able to close out the game and Matthew Carley blew the final whistle.

Reflections

A sensational dramatic contest. Racing 92 win but significantly Munster Rugby left the U Arena with a precious loser bonus point. Given Racing 92 were only five meters away from the Munster Rugby try line at the end, a two point swing in the pool could have happened. For Munster, take the point and regroup. Discipline and restarts are key video analysis points this week. Carley would have being in his rights to issue a yellow in the opening period given the rapid rise in penalties.

Racing 92 will be happy with this result. They fronted up superbly and with Donnacha Ryan a thorn in Munster’s side throughout, a platform was created at various periods. The task for both teams is simple next weekend. Take care of business. Win their games and hope that they can secure a bonus point in the process.

Castres demolition of Leicester Tigers this evening (shutout win) will give Munster Rugby plenty of food for thought but question marks on the Castres squad assembled for Thomond Park fixture will be asked this week.

Castres have traditionally not called up their entire first team squad on the road this season in Europe. If this happens, then Munster Rugby should be confident of winning the pool fixture finale and securing a quarter final berth. A home quarter final is totally up in the air now.

Racing 92 are at Munster Rugby’s heels now in Pool 4 after this win. Their play today was excellent. Their pack fronted up and with Machenaud deadly accurate on kicking duties, they will be in confident mood of beating a Leicester Tigers on the road who look extremely vulnerable right now. An exciting weekend finale beckons on January 21st.  A superb advert for the competition. These two teams conceivably could be in the last eight come the end of next weekend!

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 5 Preview

The penultimate round of the European Rugby Challenge Cup pool stage will provide a better picture of who will be quarter final bound in April. A round which is critical for several teams to make a push for qualification. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Pool 1: Falcons primed for home quarter-final berth

Newcastle Falcons play host to Ensei-STM this weekend at Kingston Park knowing that a bonus point win will pretty much guarantee home field advantage in the quarter finals.

After a sensational 28-20 win over Exeter Chiefs last weekend, confidence will be high in Dean Richard’s camp and unfortunately I do not see Ensei-STM posing many problems for the Aviva Premiership outfit.

A bonus point try point will be secured well before the final whistle with the relentless offloading game of the Falcons proving too much at times for the Russian outfit.

The other fixture is in this pool sees the Dragons travel to Bordeaux-Begles. With both sides locked on eleven points, the objective is simple this weekend. Win to progress to the final pool game to determine their destiny.

It remains to be seen how serious Bordeaux-Begles will take this fixture. The word indifferent comes to mind given their performances back in December.

Dragons are facing an incredible injury crisis at present and given that their youthful squad were dismantled with ease by Scarlets last time out, it is hard to see how Bernard Jackman can lift his troops ahead of this crunch fixture. Home win.

Pool 2: Evenly poised

This destiny of this pool will be more clear come Sunday evening as the four teams in the pool still are well in the hunt to top the pool.

Cardiff Blues and Toulouse once upon a time was a marquee fixture in the Heineken Cup. How things have changed? Both sides are in transitional phase with the French giants in danger of missing out on a quarter final berth.

Blues had a terrific road trip victory over Toulouse earlier in this pool but the results and form since then have being a little inconsistent. This is a fixture where the Blues pack need to front up against a physically imposing Toulouse front five.

Toulouse’s approach to this fixture will be interesting. A team who have embraced European Cup competition historically. The Pro 14 league campaign has being mediocre to say the least; issues from last season where the pack have being overpowered in second halves of games still apparent.

This is an intriguing fixture for the neutral and one where home field advantage could prove crucial. Cardiff Blues mobility in the pack and breakdown skill set looks superior to Toulouse. Josh Navidi to be a prominent figure. Home win. Toulouse to crash out of Europe.

In the other pool fixture, Sale Sharks minus AJ McGinty face Lyon. Yet again, the approach of the French outfit will be interesting ahead of this game. I expect their squad will be mostly fringe players with some first team players who require further game time as they focus on Pro 14 title ambitions which has dipped in recent weeks.

The injury to McGinty is a bitter blow for Sale Sharks as the USA International has progressed well this season providing assured game management and kicking game but James O’Connor can transition into the position and expect fireworks if that happens.

Such an important game for Sale Sharks and expect the likes of de Klerk, McGuigan and Beaumont to lead from the front. Home win again as Lyon’s experimental squad selection will lack the cohesion to win the contest.

Pool 3: Pau and Gloucester to win

This is a two horse race to see who wins this pool. It will all come down to the final pool game at Kingsholm when Gloucester Rugby host Pau.

Both sides should have too much for their opponents this weekend. Gloucester Rugby will be keen to right the wrongs of last weekend and the careless manner of their defeat to Northampton Saints at the death.

A road trip to France is never easy but Agen have shown zero interest in this competition. Even with a first team selection, they are in serious danger of being thumped by a pacy Gloucester outfit. Bonus point road trip win for the Aviva Premiership side.

Pau entertain Michael Bradley’s Zebre Rugby who will look to compete for long periods of this fixture. Pau will know the strengths of Zebre given their road trip scare earlier to the same opposition in the pool phase last year.

Buoyed by recent domestic form upturn, Pau’s pack will build the necessary platform to secure a bonus point try win over the Italian outfit.

All roads lead to Gloucester Rugby on game day six. Both Pau and Gloucester will qualify but in which order remains a uncertain right now.

Pool 4: Edinburgh vs. Stade Francais is the standout

The Friday night lights clash of Edinburgh and Stade Francais looks the marquee fixture of this competition this weekend. Both sides will look to entertain with expansive running lines.

Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill have progressed well in recent months. The home win to Glasgow Warriors, doing so fourteen players for most of the contest was a huge morale booster.

The side has played some excellent rugby. The South African Guinness Pro 14 road trip saw the side played well against the Cheetahs and a bonus point try win over the Southern Kings highlighting the skill set of Hidalgo-Clyne.

The hope is that Stade Francais will field a strong outfit in this fixture. Murrayfield under the lights deserves two well matched sides going at it.

The French side have plenty of threats with the likes of Parisse, McLeod, Bosman in their ranks. Geraghty may get the nod at ten and the former London Irish fly-half has played well in this competition.

The proverbial cracker beckons, hard to call but Edinburgh’s hunger and appetite for this competition should just see them over the line but Stade Francais cannot be written off.

The other fixture is a dead rubber. London Irish who have disappointed this season on all fronts play Krasny Yar who may fancy an upset but I do not see that happening. London Irish’s pack to provide the platform for a morale boosting victory.

Pool 5: Connacht look to secure home quarter-final

Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest Aki, Dillane and Marmion last weekend was primarily because of this upcoming fixture away to Worcester Warriors. Put simply, Connacht Rugby victory guarantees potentially a top two quarter final seed and a home tie.

Worcester Warriors are seven points behind the Irish province but they know that victory here will reignite their European Challenge Cup ambitions.

A side stacked with talent and experience. O’Callaghan continues to provide leadership and work rate in the front five. Denton at eight is a superb ball carrier. Josh Adams has being a revelation on the wing; his try haul immense. Connacht beware!

Kieran Keane’s charges endured a miserable second half performance to lose 39-13 to Munster last time out. The performances in the other festive period Irish interpros were excellent so a repeat and the road trip win required is achievable.

A marquee fixture in this competition. Connacht Rugby to be realistically considered a top contender for this competition need to produce a performance and road trip win.

Yes, they will more than likely beat a much changed Brive side the following weekend but it is weekend’s like this that define teams and success. Slight edge for Connacht Rugby here in an entertaining contest, the front five battle will be interesting.

The other fixture here is a dead rubber. Oyonnax are destined for Pro 14 relegation and this competition has continued in the same abysmal fashion. Brive if interested in this fixture should win but this is a French fixture, anything will go, who cares? Both are out of this competition. Toss of a coin. Brive to win.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 5 Preview

It is the make or break round in the pool phase of the European Rugby Champions Cup for a host of teams. For others, the European odyssey is already up but they could play their part in upsetting the form guide and denying their opposition a playoff berth. Intriguing stuff. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Pool 1: Do or die for Ulster Rugby. Wasps have bonus point on their mind

Before the fourth round of pool games, La Rochelle were the standout team of this pool. Their direct running, uptempo, free flowing offloading game had their pool rivals in a tailspin until Wasps pack shut down the French side with a victory built from the pack which has opened the pool into a three horse race.

La Rochelle travel to Belfast to face an Ulster side who have endured contrasting fortunes in recent Guinness Pro 14 games. After a road trouncing away to Connacht Rugby before Christmas, it did not look good for Les Kiss’ charges as they trailed Munster Rugby 0-17 on New Years Day but a spirited fightback coupled with Munster Rugby discipline issues resulted in a bonus point win.

The victory should have boosted confidence and with the international contingent in place to play Leinster Rugby, what could possibly go wrong? Everything. Ulster Rugby were taken to the cleaners by a rampant Leinster Rugby. Larmour continuing to earn media plaudits with a brace while McFadden impressed with some eye-catching line breaks.

Ulster Rugby’s video analysis of the RDS massacre should be binned as it was a video nasty for all units. Line speed defensively was slow and the unforced error count with ball in hand gave Leinster Rugby easy field position to score. A must win game for Ulster Rugby, one would hope for a response from the Irish province but they are coming up against La Rochelle who have plenty of weapons in the arsenal.

La Rochelle’s pack will look to the Munster Rugby fixture for their primary objective; build set piece dominance which will yield scores. The Ulster pack have at times looked extremely vulnerable and the arrival of Marty Moore in the front row cannot come quick enough next season. The scrum has creaked and the line-out has being inconsistent at times. The Ulster pack need to front up this weekend.

However, Ulster Rugby also need to contend with the offloading play of La Rochelle from anywhere on the field. Any loose kicking will end in disaster and La Rochelle will relish the promised dry weather on tap for Belfast this weekend.

I feel for Les Kiss this season. A squad well capable of competing has being wholly inconsistent in game time execution and then you add the legal problems of Jackson and Olding, leadership has being exposed when the international contingent have not featured.

Hoping for an Ulster Rugby win (heart over head) but there is so much amiss at the club (playing / managerial side) that La Rochelle enter this contest as firm favorites. If the visitors can stifle Ulster Rugby early doors, a bonus point try win is not out of the question and could prompt talks of a reshuffle in the Ulster Rugby managerial ticket.

In the other fixture of this pool, Wasps realistically need to secure a bonus point try win to put pressure on La Rochelle and Ulster Rugby. Wasps have secured Dai Young’s services for an extended period but the performance against Saracens yesterday was disappointing. Saracens are coming back to their old self but Wasps failed to stifle in the pack to cause the upset, flat performance.

Quins enter this contest with little to play for. A squad who have massive upside with ball in hand but have being exposed by their line speed defensively. It will be interesting to see how Quins approach the next two European Cup fixtures.

Do they play a full hand this weekend or do they allow fringe squad players to increase their game minutes? I think the latter and if that is the case, expect Wasps to come away with a bonus point try win. The pool to still in the melting point come the final pool of games. Ulster Rugby hopefully will be there for a winner take all contest at Wasps but that is a big if. Prove me wrong Les Kiss and Ulster Rugby!

Pool 2: Liberty Stadium showdown. Clermont poised to secure QF spot.

The key fixture in this pool is the clash of Ospreys and Saracens. After their second round fixture, few would have expected this specific fixture to take top billing but so it has due in part Saracens injury list resulting in back to back losses to ASM Clermont and Ospreys securing ten points from the hapless Northampton Saints.

Ospreys warmed up for this fixture with a 28-27 victory over Cardiff Blues, a strange fixture as the Ospreys had the game well in hand going into the final quarter but a couple of tries for Cardiff Blues setup a nervy ending. The contest saw Webb and Biggar in sublime form. Webb at scrum-half was his industrious best, probing for line breaks and his quick ruck ball to BIggar had Blues defensively in trouble.

Saracens will be happy to see the back of December. January has started in ominous fashion for all their opposition. A road trip win to Leicester Tigers arrested the losing streak and they have not looked back since. Their demolition of Wasps on the road was season defining. The manner in which they physically imposed their will on Wasps was sensational.

The usual suspects are starting to come back to their first team. Billy Vunipola is a monster with ball in hand and sets a massive platform for the likes of Farrell to exploit. It will be interesting to see how Ospreys look to offset the influence of the number eight but the pack possesses other threats with George, Kruis looking back to the form of last season.

Ospreys need to stifle at the breakdown so the focus will be on Tipuric to control proceedings. It is an intriguing contest, plenty on the line. The vanquished are certain to be eliminated from European Cup action so nerves could play massively.

Ospreys’ form has improved in recent weeks but I fear for them against Saracens given yesterday’s performance and win. They will soak up the early promise of the Ospreys, keep the scoreboard ticking over and when Ospreys are forced to chase the game pounce for try scoring opportunities. Saracens to win but this will be a close encounter.

ASM Clermont. An enigma for me personally. It will be interesting how the side react from their 58-6 thumping to Racing 92 last night. Yes, ASM Clermont named quite a number of fringe players for the fixture but they were destroyed in all facets of play at the U Arena.

The good news for ASM Clermont is that they travel to Northampton Saints who assisted by sheer incompetency from Gloucester Rugby to close out a rugby game arrested the losing streak which cost Jim Mallinder his job last month.

Northampton Saints despite the victory last weekend are a club in crisis. The team lack confidence, leadership all over the park. Hartley is unconvincing at best right now and ASM Clermont should target the set piece where the scrum could be a key weapon.

Alan Gaffney has being brought into the Northampton Saints club to put structure and order in place but the season is finished, time for shrewd recruitment both on and off the pitch. The lack of energy in the side over the festive period beggared belief and ASM Clermont have little to worry about here. Bonus point try win on the cards. QF berth and home fixture secured with a game to go.

Pool 3: Leinster Rugby in control. Montpelier in must win territory

The key fixture in this pool is at Sandy Park. Exeter Chiefs have the potential to eliminate Montpelier with a win here. Their shock road trip in France will boost confidence in the Exeter Chiefs ranks who performed well against Leinster Rugby.

Montpelier Rugby need to produce a performance this weekend to show their intentions for the rest of the season. Their road trip win over Glasgow Warriors was a good starting point but it needs to continue here with another road trip win to give the French side an opportunity to secure a playoff berth.

Nadolo will be expected to pose the threat out wide and his presence and line breaks in recent weeks will mean that Exeter Chiefs will have to double / treble cover the Fijian, meaning more space for his inside colleagues potentially.

This is a fixture where Rob Baxter’s team selection will be key. There is an outside chance of securing a playoff berth and with a 28-20 reversal to the Newcastle Falcons fresh in the mind, perhaps the head coach will throw his first team out to right a few wrongs.

Too close to call. Exeter Chiefs have learned plenty in this European Cup campaign and I think they may hit the fatal blow in Montpelier’s European Cup aspirations this season. Exeter Chiefs to win by seven points thanks in no small part to their pack.

Glasgow Warriors are out of Europe. What a statement given their Guinness Pro 14 campaign to date. They travel to the RDS to face a Leinster Rugby side who will look to secure the home quarter final berth with a bonus point try win.

Both sides come into this contest with excellent Guinness Pro 14 outings under their belt. Glasgow beating Edinburgh and Zebre Rugby with ease, their expansive offloading play if given time and space will cause Leinster Rugby problems but here lies the problem. It is against Leinster Rugby.

Leinster Rugby are probably the form side of the competition this season. Their Guinness Pro 14 league campaign over the festive period oozed class and showcased their squad depth putting Munster Rugby to the sword with ease. Connacht Rugby did pose problems but still a W in the result column before they dismantled Ulster Rugby with the minimum of fuss.

Glasgow Warriors will look for an open contest but Leinster’s defensive line speed is excellent. The hosts pack will also look to assert platform dominance buoyed by their performance against the Warriors early in the competition. The Glasgow Warriors pack were second best, set piece was dismantled and Leinster Rugby secured the bonus point try win.

1pm Sunday kickoff at times can be labored affairs but the Leinster Rugby faithful will be up for this fixture from minute one. Glasgow Warriors will contribute massively to this contest but again team selection from the visitors will be interesting. Leinster Rugby bonus point try win for me here.

Pool 4: U Arena showdown. Castres look to extend Tigers misery

No guesses where the key fixture of this pool is. The U Arena looks an amazing venue to play rugby. The roof clad venue only adds to the atmosphere and there will be fireworks on Sunday afternoon even more so due to Racing 92’s 58-6 demolition of ASM Clermont last night.

The pace and speed of play from Racing 92 in this performance will have focused Munster Rugby minds last night. The breakdown area is one where Munster Rugby will need to stifle and slow down as ASM Clermont were blown away in this facet of play. Quick ruck ball and with Nakarawa relishing the dry track and weather conditions, it was one way traffic.

Teddy Thomas has emerged as a real back line leader for Racing 92 this season. His ball carrying in recent weeks has being on point and his try last night showed the physicality, footwork and composure of the player. A fixture which Munster Rugby will need to perform at a high level to get anything from the contest.

Munster Rugby have had a shaky number of weeks. The loss to Leinster Rugby on St.Stephen’s Day was a jolt to the system and the fringe side that took to the park against Ulster Rugby were unerring for the opening period only for indiscipline and an upsurge of Ulster Rugby back line form to loss. The Connacht Rugby win was welcome, but discipline was still an issue, plenty to work on this week.

Where can Munster Rugby hurt Racing 92? The pack set piece has being on point this season and it is imperative that the front five start well. The fast track conditions will take time to adjust but if the front five can provide a platform, this game is pretty much in the melting pot.

The breakdown point has being mentioned and then it is down to the half backs to provide leadership and game management when necessary. Murray and Keatley’s partnership continues to blossom. Keatley at ten has being the story of the Munster Rugby season, pivotal figure given the injury and form issues of his other colleagues vying for the ten jersey.

The three quarter line will look to vary the game plan. Chris Farrell looking to bring the game to Racing 92. Rory Scannell looking to vary the game plan with some deft kicks behind for the likes of Earls, Zebo and Conway to exploit.

Munster Rugby will be focused. Discipline will be on point. Racing 92 will need to produce a stellar performance to win this encounter, sense that this will be close and if Munster Rugby can come away with a loser point, then their destiny is in their own hands ahead of the Castres home game.

Racing 92 performance at the weekend has focused minds of everyone associated with Munster Rugby. It was as impressive a display seen all year but Munster Rugby love a challenge. Expect fireworks at the U Arena!

Leicester Tigers on the other hand cannot wait for this European Cup campaign to be over. A promising start to the pool has evaporated due to back to back Munster Rugby losses. Management calling foul of different officiating crews but this is one element of the issues facing the club. The pack has being overpowered in recent weeks by the likes of Saracens and Exeter Chiefs.

The back line have shown potential but unforced defensive lapses have allowed opposition easy scores. George Ford and Ben Youngs have looked to stem the tide but there has being too many issues in the game plan to arrest the losing streak.

Castres at home are a different animal to the side who go on European Cup road trips. Given that they were hammered by the Tigers in round two of this pool, suspect that the French side will look to name a first team full of regulars to right a couple of wrongs.

With a vulnerable Leicester Tigers pack arriving, Castres should shade this encounter to extend the misery for Leicester Tigers who will look to more recruitment in the pack to increase competitiveness next season.

Pool 5: Recreational Ground winner take all. Toulon to take big step in playoff berth race.

Friday night should the potential game of the weekend. Bath and Scarlets look that loss will mean elimination from Europe this season. The pressure will be massive and it will be interesting to see the approach both sides take to the game.

Scarlets probably enter this contest with more pressure on their shoulders. Their loss to Bath Rugby in round two was a hammer blow and exposed issues in the pack. The expansive style of play was stifled by an efficient Bath Rugby back row who slowed down ball along with the nasty weather conditions. Scarlets were unable to get their expansive style of play going.

Yes, they have recovered well to secure ten points from Benetton Rugby but this is the real acid test. Is this Scarlets side capable of performing and securing a road trip victory? Can their front five build a platform in a hostile environment? Result over expansive play is required this weekend.

Bath Rugby enter this contest with a decent festive period under their belt. Their victory over Worcester Warriors showcased their undoubted pace and tempo in the back line while the pack were competent in setting up try scoring opportunities. Loew is such a key player on Friday night. If available, his breakdown work could be decisive.

The proverbial cliffhanger at the Recreational Ground. Bath Rugby to shade this contest with a composed, pack focused performance creating penalty scoring opportunities for Priestland to convert. Scarlets will have their moments but this is a fixture where it is all about the front five and the hosts edge it for me.

Benetton Rugby took the notable scalp of Toyota Cheetahs last weekend. A key morale booster ahead of a daunting trip to the South of France to face a Toulon side who are due to score heavy in this pool. I sense this could be the fixture.

Toulon got out of jail in Italy and will not make the same mistakes as before. The pack and back line cohesion issues is for another day but this looks like a bonus point try win for Toulon despite the best efforts of Benetton Rugby who will look to remain in contention until the final quarter but the three quarters look ominously placed. Nonu rampage. Toulon bonus point win to get them tantalizingly close to a quarter final berth.

Guinness Pro 14: Munster Rugby 39 – 13 Connacht Rugby

Munster Rugby restored much needed confidence ahead of their key European Rugby Champions Cup fixtures against Racing 92 and Castres with a bonus point win over a Connacht side who will rue the lack of points from an excellent opening period of dominance.

David Wilkinson and officiating crew have come under the spotlight in this contest by both sides. The initial opening period penalty count from Munster Rugby was excessively high as Wilkinson officiated several breakdown and offside infringements with alarming frequency from a Munster Rugby perspective. The breakdown battle never materialized, the pickiness of the officiating crew in this facet of play was a disappointing development for both sides.

Connacht Rugby without the likes of Buckley, Dillane, Marmion and Aki opened the scoring in the first minute of the contest. Jack Carty slotting home a penalty as Wilkinson had pinged Munster early doors. The visitors were taking the game to their hosts in the first quarter, inventive with ball in hand but were unable to make that decisive line break to create a try scoring opportunity.

Munster Rugby during this period were continuing to be on the wrong side of the officiating. Further penalties conceded in the breakdown zone.

Darren O’Shea had a monster game for Munster Rugby. The towering second row needed to produce a performance to show Johann van Graan and management his case for squad and first team inclusion next weekend in European Cup action. His running line for Conor Murray after Chris Farrell’s impressive line break was excellent and the powerful unit was never going to be stopped from five meters for the hosts first try.

From a position of vulnerability, Munster Rugby suddenly were 7-3 up. Connacht Rugby were now asked questions in the contest and they responded well with another penalty soon after. The breakdown again the guilty facet of play for the hosts. Farrell’s excellent tackle lost Connacht ten meters but then the thirteen was pinged for not disengaging from the tackle before entering the breakdown contest. Jack Carty duly converted the penalty to leave the minimum between the sides.

Munster Rugby though at this stage had now adapted to the officiating style of Wilkinson and it was now Connacht to feel the wrath of Wilkinson. John Muldoon adjudged to have infringed in the breakdown. 50/50 call for me, genuine contest and on another day, the player would have got the benefit of the doubt.

Before long, we will be outlawing the breakdown and the ability to steal ball in this facet of play. Rugby Union is not Rugby League but given the officiating last night, one would wonder if the breakdown is now destined for extinction.

The rejuvenated Ian Keatley slotted home the subsequent penalty and the hosts lead perhaps fortuitously 10-6 at the break. Connacht had long periods of dominance during the half but no points on the scoreboard with a stiff breeze behind them in the opening period was always going to be punished and so it proved.

Munster Rugby made the relevant adjustments at the break. Kudos to the coaching staff and players for working out a strategy to reduce the penalty count. They conceded only one more penalty in the entire second half. As CJ Stander stated post-game, if a side concedes more than ten penalties in a game, it makes life very difficult to win a contest regardless of the opposition.

Chris Farrell’s return from injury could not come at a more ideal time for Munster Rugby with the suspension of Sam Arnold. The three quarter options were becoming limited. Farrell’s ball carrying and defensive duties were on point and will be a huge asset for Munster Rugby in the European Cup games to come. Ian Keatley slotted home another penalty to make it 13-6 after Farrell won a breakdown battle (for once).

Munster Rugby with their gander up and Ian Keatley on excellent form then struck for the second try of the evening. A drubber kick from Keatley was not dealt with by Connacht Rugby. Conway got the faintest of touches to the ball to score ahead of O’Halloran. 20-6 Munster Rugby.

Cue the move of the game to kill off the contest. A solid scrum set piece, Sharp passing from Murray, Scannell, Conway to find Keith Earls in acres of space out wide to score the simplest of tries. It was inventive, it was sharp and Connacht Rugby defensively were now a tired unit. 25-6 Munster Rugby.

Local derbies against Munster and Connacht are always abrasive but sporting affairs. A key incident took place on sixty-one minutes which raises serious questions of the officiating crew and what constitutes a tip tackle.

Quinn Roux’s tackle of Keith Earls started on the ground but then Earls was lifted mid-tackle, went perpendicular and then Earls crashed to the ground without Roux protecting the player hitting the ground. A clear red card but Wilkinson and officiating crew thought otherwise. When you consider Keith Earls’ red card against Glasgow Warriors last season in ERC action, officiating consistency has to be raised.

The incident saw Roux given a yellow card. In fairness to Roux, he inquired on Earls leaving the pitch but the officiating decision at Thomond Park has opened a can of worms on tackles which are lifted and the protection of players hitting the ground by the opposition.

Wilkinson had an indifferent evening and the video analysis of this incident has to be a case study for Pro 14, ERC and World Rugby on what constitutes a red card in this instance. The inconsistencies of the decision making around this specific incident in various competition fixtures is getting worrying, time to act.

Munster Rugby finished their scoring with a quick brace of tries in the final quarter. Conor Murray benefiting from good pack advances close to the Connacht Rugby line to score from close range. The scrum half potency around the fringes seen to full effect and his game management was superb as always.

The visitors did conclude the try scoring with a sweeping move of their own just before the final whistle. Tom McCartney going over and after some excellent offloading and phase play. It was too little, too late but given the squad assembled, this result was hardly a surprise.

Connacht Rugby’s party line was that Dillane, Marmion and Aki were being saved game minutes; the focus on European Challenge Cup which is fair enough only that Connacht Rugby should secure a home quarter final this weekend when they thump a much changed Brive side in Galway next weekend. Go figure!

Munster Rugby steady the ship with a five try performance. The sluggish opening period and rapid penalty count will be a concern, further work required on the training paddock on those aspects of play. However, the emergence of O’Shea and Oliver back from injury were keynote performances.

Conor Oliver in particular was superb in his work rate, tackle count and his pace to support the ball carrier was excellent. Keatley continues to play at a high level and with indecisiveness at the backup position (Bleyendaal – injured, JJ – out of form, Johnston — rookie), the half-back must continue to deliver for the province.

Ian Keatley is my player of the season so far for the province. Yes, he has being that consistent and good, just ahead of Conway. Roll on Europe!