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Guinness Pro 14: January 1st Thoughts

The first day of 2018 and plenty of talking points from the New Years Day Irish provincial derbies with Connacht so close to ending their RDS hoodoo but having to come away with a loser point while Munster were their own worse enemy in a 24-17 reversal to an Ulster side who will also be first to admit that their performance in the opening period left plenty of scope for improvement.

Titanic finish at RDS

The twenty-eight phases of play from Connacht at the death demonstrated all you needed to know about this fixture. Connacht were desperate to come away from the RDS with a victory. It is now eleven games against Leinster with no win but no-one could fault the effort, application of the side today.

This was an entertaining, high quality contest throughout. Both sides not giving an inch in their defensive work. Max Deegan had a superb cameo again; his try and ultimately game winning breakdown steal at the death standout moments. His work rate around the fringes allowed Dan Leavy to continue his excellent form with another eye-catching performance, his breakdown at work at times sensational. Josh van der Flier was a tackling machine on the day.

Connacht contributed massively as well to this contest, inventive with ball in hand creating issues for the hosts. Matt Healy was prominent throughout and the pack led by Bealham, Dillane and Muldoon carried with direction and intent.

The win was so elusive for the Western province but they literally came up against a brick wall at the death, trying to move the focus of game from one side of the pitch to the other but no give from the hosts defensively who were well organized in this critical juncture of the contest.

Jack Carty could have dropped into the pocket and slotted the drop goal but the aim was clear from Connacht; they wanted to win this contest. They failed to achieve their objective but can come away from the contest with plenty of positives.

Solid team performance throughout. Back line invention and creativity. Back row competed with vigor throughout despite the contributions of Deegan and Leavy. They will be a dangerous proposition for an out of form Munster at the weekend.

Leinster can reflect on a good festive period. Two solid wins against Munster and now Connacht. Cronin with ball in hand was sublime at times and there were prominent cameos from Molony at lineout time. The hosts back line at times lacked cohesion but James Lowe again caught the eye with quality ball carrying, looking to offload throughout.

Ulster at RDS this weekend will refocus minds but Leinster are well set in this competition. Squad depth credentials are greatly enhanced and everyone in the Pro 14 now knows who Jordan Larmour is after Thomond Park. A superb local derby to kick off the Pro 14 action into 2018.

Ulster fight back to secure bonus point win over Munster

0-17. Half time and Ulster players were greeted with a chorus of boos from a section of the Kingspan Stadium home faithful. A half which exposed further proof of fragility in the pack with Munster’s pack controlling set piece exchanges resulting in two maul tries and a penalty try. The Munster front five set the tone in that opening period where Cronin, Scannell and Ryan were on point. Their set piece precision had Ulster in massive problems.

Ulster were staring down the barrel of a morale sapping loss to a Munster side minus several international players. Head coach under even more pressure than he should be. The response belied a squad which had lost faith in their management and head coach but were helped in massive part by misfiring Munster performance in the second forty. Discipline again an issue as Sam Arnold was shown a red to compound an earlier yellow card concession. Arnold’s hit was probably a red card but how many times have we seen such hits go unpunished like this season?

Irrespective of the sanction, Munster Rugby failed to game manage to the increasing fluid game time conditions thereafter. The half-back partnership of Williams and Hanrahan aided by a rampant pack played well in the opening period but when questions were asked in the second half, they were strangely absent.

Hanrahan in particular had a game to forget. His kicking off the tee unfortunately was not point, two missed conversion and a missed penalty which would have had Munster out of sight. He is not alone in this critique as Munster Rugby have struggled with kicking off the tee in recent games. Hanrahan is making van Graan’s life easy on the ten jersey battle at present; two way battle for the jersey between and Bleyendaal. The lack of composure from the ten tonight was a surprise and the missed kicks into touch are most unlike the player. Ulster loan deal speculation may have cooled after this cameo.

The general kicking game from Munster in the last two Pro 14 fixtures has lacked significant cohesion and execution. Opposition have created significant line breaks due to lack of organization in the run chase, inaccurate kicking (slicing off the boot). Ulster once given the player advantage demonstrated their ability with ball in hand and Munster Rugby had no answer to the speed and pace on the flanks. The half-backs and back line of Ulster took it upon themselves to win this contest and four unanswered tries was just reward for their second half efforts. Yes, pack issues to address but the spirit and resiliency is there for full view. Leinster at the RDS this weekend will be a good test ahead of crunch fixtures against Wasps and La Rochelle but at least the tempo, work rate of this second half will restore confidence.

For Munster Rugby, a key fixture against Western provincial rivals Connacht beckons. The lack of game management and skill set execution at times have being punished. Four losses to fellow Irish provinces will not sit easy with Munster Rugby management, playing staff or supporters. The pack provided leadership and a game winning position in the opening period but the team failed to close the game out. Kicking game, half back game management needs to improve. Coaching killer second half performance, unacceptable and Racing 92 will looking on with interest on whether Munster can restore confidence ahead of their crunch ERC fixture.

Johann van Graan and Munster management will need to turn things around quickly, the honeymoon period is over and it is up to management and most importantly the players to execute at a consistently high level. Indiscipline and lapses in concentration need to stop. This two game fixture will have provided Johann Van Graan with more information and insight than in the previous three games in charge. Defeats focus the mind and video analysis this week needs to nip the costly mistakes into the touch for good ahead of the trip of a dangerous Connacht side. Intriguing week beckons!