Guinness Pro 14: Round 13 Preview

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A closely fought victory where heart and determination superseded flair and creativity.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.

 

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!