Unlucky for some, it is round thirteen in the Guinness Pro 14 league. With Glasgow Warriors pretty much out of sight in Conference A, Munster Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs will look to consolidate their playoff positions. In Conference B, Scarlets will look for a confidence boosting performance against Dragons ahead of crunch ERC games this month while Ulster Rugby travel to Leinster Rugby looking for a win to keep a progressively improving Edinburgh Rugby at bay. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
Southern Kings return to the Guinness Pro 14 tournament and a couple of key questions instantly crop up. Have the Southern Kings addressed the basic skill set issues which have beset their campaign so far? Have the Southern Kings looked to recruit players in recent weeks to improve the playing squad? Have the franchise looked to increase their fan base and attendance figures?
The South African side need to start competing and winning in quick time for this franchise to realistically have a future in this tournament. I fear that this team could be disbanded at the end of the season given the lack of competition success, paltry attendance numbers and potential decision of the South African RFU to discontinue financial backing of the Port Elizabeth outfit.
Edinburgh Rugby on the other hand come into the contest with good confidence. Yes, they lost to Glasgow Warriors at fortress Scotstoun but who has not in this league this season? Richard Cockerill’s side have shown massive upside in recent weeks and their epic fourteen man effort against the Warriors in Murrayfield was sensational.
The pack has improved with Gilchrist a key player. The emergence of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne at scrum-half again from open play and on the tee has allowed the back line to express themselves in open play. With an opponent who will be ring rusty, added to the raw and cold wintry conditions on offer, I would be very surprised if Edinburgh Rugby cannot regain league playoff momentum with a bonus point try win. Dougie Fife to have the proverbial field day here.
A key couple of weeks beckon for this Scarlets side starts with a local derby match-up against Bernard Jackman’s Dragons. The results over the festive period will provide confidence for the Scarlets but Wayne Pivac and management will be first to admit that they were far from their best against Cardiff Blues last time out.
A closely fought victory where heart and determination superseded flair and creativity. The opening half saw the reigning champions having to absorb numerous Cardiff Blues attacking threats to keep in the contest.
The second half was improved and the manner of the game winning try was the highlight of the contest. The heart and determination traits will be required in European Cup fixtures in the coming weeks but this fixture looks like an opportunity to boost attacking line confidence ahead of the crunch Bath Rugby contest at the Recreational Grounds.
I feel for Bernard Jackman this season given some of the fans feedback this season of the side. Dragons are a side which should be evaluated next season, this season was always a transitional year, looking to identify young players to be the figureheads of the club to supplement the signings of Ross Moriarty and Richard Hibbert next season.
With rumors of other experienced quality signings in the offing, Jackman surely should be given time to develop the existing group, dispense with the players who fail to make the grade and look to build the team with confidence next season. Some of the criticism of Jackman has being unfair.
In the context of this fixture, it is a difficult assignment. The squad depth is stretched and morale sapping losses to Blues and Ospreys over Christmas will do little for a potential upset. For Dragons to win this contest, their pack needs to assert dominance early and for Henson (if selected) to be on point in game management. It is a tall order and sense that Scarlets fluid, expansive style will result in a bonus point win.
An intriguing fixture beckons this weekend. Benetton Rugby have put the disappointment of their European Cup losses aside and won their local derby tussles against Zebre Rugby to restore some much needed confidence. Yes, the performances were far from perfect but at least the side were creating and executing try scoring opportunities.
They face a Toyota Cheetahs side who will be keen for a road trip to assert pressure on Munster Rugby in second place currently in Conference A. The Christmas period layoff may see some ring rust in the Cheetahs ranks but if weather conditions permit, the side should be able to execute their fast, offloading game which has put so many teams to the sword in Bloemfontein.
Looking forward to seeing Craig Barry on the wing, his pace seen to good effect in December with a number of tries. Cheetahs kicking game has being sublime at times, identification of space in behind defensive cover has being exploited with tries scored.
This could be a turgid affair for the South African side early doors but think there is sufficient quality in the ranks to secure the win, not sure if a bonus point is attainable. Benetton Rugby again will look to Banks, McKinley to control game management and hope that their pack can be a stifling effect at the breakdown to prevent Toyota Cheetahs quick ruck ball. A tall order indeed.
A fixture which both sides need a victory ahead of crunch European Cup action looming large on the horizon. Ospreys will be raging that they lost to the fourteen men of Scarlets at the death but redeemed themselves with a comfortable victory over Dragons last time out.
A performance this weekend is required from the Ospreys ahead of a key home European Cup fixture against Saracens. The back line cohesion has improved in recent weeks and the pack bolstered by the return of Wyn Jones and Tipuric have being on point.
Cardiff Blues have had a mixed December truth be told. European Challenge Cup performances lacked precision at times against Sale Sharks and the league form has being mixed with a good win over Dragons coupled by a loss to Scarlets, a game where attacking opportunities were squandered particularly in the opening period.
The back row battle in this fixture will be intriguing, interesting to see how Navidi influences the contest given the Ospreys back row options. A tough fixture to call, slight edge to Ospreys given home field advantage and hopefully is a momentum builder ahead of European Cup action. For Blues to win, the likes of Anscombe, Lane on the wing need to provide sufficient threat in the back line who have also key European Challenge Cup fixtures on tap.
Zebre Rugby at a low ebb confidence. No win in December and with two Christmas local derby losses, the thoughts of Glasgow Warriors coming to town hardly inspires confidence particularly when Glasgow Warriors are out of Europe and keen to produce another Guinness Pro 14 laden try fest.
This is a bonus point try win for Glasgow Warriors all ends up as Dave Rennie potentially ponders about resting key squad fixtures for the remaining European Cup fixtures. It is a fixture which could turn extremely ugly for Zebre Rugby if they fail to assert dominance in the pack.
The omens don’t look good. A Gloucester Rugby hammering beckons unfortunately after a promising start to the season. Squad depth, injuries are taking their toll. Michael Bradley will look beyond this game to regroup the team.
This is the standout fixture of the round. Leinster Rugby have had a superb festive period. Their performance at Thomond Park with a side including so many prospects caught the eye and identified a potential world star in Jordan Larmour.
The Connacht Rugby home win at the RDS on New Years Day was a scrappy performance. The visitors were on point but there was a sluggish look to Leinster’s back line play. The back row performance though was world class with Leavy, Deegan and the tackling machine van der Flier to the fore.
The breakdown win at the death spoke volumes. A fixture against Ulster Rugby will be intriguing in terms of the team selected by Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster. Does Leinster Rugby management give players who impressed against Munster Rugby a chance to impress against Ulster Rugby or do they keep faith with the nucleus of the team who played against Connacht Rugby to build momentum ahead of key European Cup fixtures to secure a home quarter final. The injury to Sean O’Brien is a long term concern.
Ulster Rugby welcome back their international contingent (i.e. Stockdale, Best, Henderson). The Northern province will be buoyed by an excellent comeback victory over ill-disciplined Munster Rugby last time out. The second half performance from the half-backs and back line was on point, taking advantage of Munster’s disciplinary issues to score four unanswered tries.
However, the first half performance was extremely poor. The front five performance was a horror show, three tries conceded (two tries from Munster mauls, one penalty try), it was a miracle that an Ulster forward was not sent to the sin bin given the dominance of the visitors in the opening period.
An opportunity for Ulster to revenge the earlier home loss to the same opposition this season. Ulster Rugby will be well aware of the threat of a certain Jordan Larmour but the pack cohesion of Ulster worries me no end.
Leinster Rugby get the nod here based on this point. The hope is that Ulster Rugby come and bring it for the full eighty minutes, anything else and this could be a massive confidence drain ahead of their crunch fixtures in Europe.
A quick turnaround for Johann van Graan and Munster management to reflect on a wretched festive period. Four losses out of five in the Guinness Pro 14 to fellow Irish provinces. The side have lacked cohesion, discipline against Leinster Rugby and Ulster Rugby.
Sloppy kicking game and run chases punished. The disciplinary problems surfaced at Kingspan Stadium with a yellow card and red card in quick succession. Things need to turn around quickly for the Southern province.
A game which was seen by Munster fans as good prep for European Cup fixtures is now a must win category game. Another loss and it opens up the Conference A playoff picture considerably for the likes of Connacht who come to Thomond Park with a resurgence swagger.
An emphatic win at home to Ulster before Christmas where inventive ball carrying, expansive running lines were key. Aki and Farrell at three quarters have being excellent in recent weeks and with Arnold now suspended, Connacht possess game winners in midfield.
The pack has played with cohesion and their performance against Leinster Rugby was excellent for long periods. Bealham, Dillane and Muldoon have led by example. This is a precarious fixture for Munster; a side low in confidence but the pack performance against Ulster Rugby is encouraging at least.
A tough, uncompromising contest beckons here. Munster Rugby and home crowd need a reaction and with huge European Cup games against Racing 92 and Castres, they should edge this encounter but the skill set of Connacht Rugby does worry me for the hosts. A key test for Munster’s new head coach, have the issues of recent games being addressed? All to be revealed on Saturday night.