Ireland Thirteen Jersey Conundrum?

An open training session for Ireland Rugby at the Aviva Stadium, a chance for the supporters and players to meet and greet. A training session which should not have had any consequence saw a massive injury blow as Ireland’s man of the match against Wales Chris Farrell twisted his knee. Pending a scan, it looks like the Munster center’s Natwest 6 Nations tournament is over. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the options available for Joe Schmidt to fill the much coveted thirteen jersey.

Jinxed position?

With injuries to Robbie Henshaw and now the unfortunate training incident with Chris Farrell, some people would think that the thirteen jersey is jinxed. Joe Schmidt has emphasized squad depth and this tournament will certainly reveal the strength in depth in the pivotal back line position. Several candidates have stayed patient in recent weeks and now the injury news today will be vying for a role in the Ireland squad in the last two rounds of the competition.

Ringrose Factor

Gary Ringrose would look to be in pole position to resume in the three quarters. Ringrose has endured a frustrating season; several niggling injuries have prevented the player from getting valuable game minutes. His talent and skill set are undoubted; his cameo against the Southern Kings last week was a timely reminder of what he brings to the table. His ability to create line breaks, his ball carrying ability to create for others also to the fore.

His defensive side has evolved and improved since his debut with Ireland last season. Joe Schmidt will be confident that the player will produce for Ireland against Scotland despite the lack of game minutes in recent months. A player who will provide fresh energy in midfield and I am personally excited to see how Ringrose gels with Aki in the three quarters in March.

Rory Scannell

Scannell is a twelve and if there were unexpected issues with Gary Ringrose not to start against Scotland, Ireland management could decide to move Aki to thirteen and recruit the Munster player at twelve. The player’s versatility is his key asset; his ability to link play and keep opposition off balance are his strengths.

The Cork native processes an excellent kicking game which has helped Ian Keatley enormously this season. Scannell has being part of the national team training squad this season. He knows the system well. Schmidt knows the player and this is another option for Ireland management.

No mention of Keith Earls here as I think Ireland management will keep the Munster player out on the wing where he has impressed this season.

Luke Marshall

The forgotten man of the Ireland setup. Luke Marshall a couple of seasons ago look destined for a lengthy international stay but a series of concussions and injury issues have resulted in the player falling down the pecking order.

What does Luke Marshall bring to the table? Excellent attacking game, good defender and ability to create for others with slick passing. The history of concussions appears to behind the player and I would be very surprised if Luke Marshall does not get the call to join the squad in Carton House this week.

Sam Arnold

Chris Farrell has had an impressive season with Munster Rugby but his season has also seen a couple of injury niggles which provided Sam Arnold an opportunity to stake a claim for the province. The former Ulster Rugby recruit has taken his chance superbly with some eye catching performances.

His line break ability has being excellent, his defensive work and tackling has being on point. Yes, there was that red card against his former employers at the start of the year but this was one negative in a series of promising performances for Munster.

Sam Arnold may not feature in this tournament but I would expect the player to feature in the Australian tour this summer. Arnold looks destined to play a key role for Munster Rugby given this latest injury blow for Chris Farrell. An assignment to negate and dominate Bastareaud in a ERC quarter final will be the task assigned for Arnold.

Connacht Angle

This would be a left field move from Joe Schmidt but two other players who are on the outer fringes of the national squad would be Eoin Griffin and Tom Farrell. Griffin has produced a couple of standout moments in Europe this season and his performance against Benetton Rugby last weekend was on point. Well experienced, Griffin’s ability to learn the Schmidt system would be an intriguing side note.

Tom Farrell has being the standout back line player for Connacht this season. The number twelve can play the thirteen position as well. A player whose ability to find gain line meters has being to the fore this season. Furthermore, his leadership qualities in several provincial and European games means that the player surely is in the thoughts of Ireland management long term (dare I say 2019 RWC!).

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Three Reflections – Scotland

25-13. Scotland beat England for the first time in ten years. Murrayfield was rocking. Scottish management devised the perfect game plan while the players executed this game plan to the letter of the law. It shows how far Scotland have come in the last year. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on Scotland.

Upward curve

This tournament has seen Scotland in different poses. The opening round of the competition saw Scotland strike a forlorn figure, a team who failed to fire against an energetic, expansive Welsh side. A heavy road trip loss ensued and questions were directed at all concerned with the national side whether the progression of last year was a flash in the pan?

Gregor Townsend’s men have responded emphatically to the questions leveled. Yes, they had their moments of weakness against France and Teddy Thomas (Ireland also) but the pack built the platform with patience and perseverance which yielded several penalties which were dispatched by Laidlaw. A key win which set the platform for the round three performance.

Hail Hail Finn Russell!

What worked so well for Scotland? The ability to execute a high tempo, expansive game plan was the key. A game plan managed to perfection by Finn Russell. The Glasgow Warriors fly-half was sensational last weekend. His ability to keep England off balance with astute passing and kicking game was the key, a stark contrast to the heavy artillery smashing through the gain line by England.

Scotland pack delivers

The Scotland back row were immense in their ball carrying and breakdown work. It was a test match which should be a tribute to John Barclay in truth. His ability to stifle England ball at the breakdown was a key component to this victory. England could not establish consistent quick ruck ball and it was down in no small part to the likes of Barclay ably assisted by Watson and McInally.

The Scottish front five came to the party last weekend. The set piece was solid throughout and then in the defining closing quarter started to turn the screw in the scrum. WP Nel’s introduction was inspirational; his experience was key to giving Scotland the advantage in this facet of play down the stretch. The defensive maul was on point too, at times an Achilles heel for the side.

Back Line Flair

Back line creativity was in abundance. Huw Jones will take the plaudits for his performance, two superbly taken tries in the opening period but all players within the unit excelled. Stuart Hogg was his menacing best with ball in hand. His ability to create line breaks and cause defensive chaos with his ball carries were seen to full effect last weekend.

Sean Maitland was solid under the aerial bombardment, constantly looking for work and his try was superbly well taken. The same goes for Tommy Seymour whose injury is a concern ahead of the Irish fixture in two weeks. Peter Horne provided balance to the unit. His kicking game is so underestimated. A quality player in the ranks.

Bench Impact

The bench made the a huge impact. I have already mentioned the WP Nel contribution, great to see the prop back in the international test match arena. Ali Price was on point with his game management and his ability to continue the quick tempo game plan was duly noted.

Swinson and Denton provided ferocious work rate and platform solidity. Bhatti was prominent in his efficient line out as well as his open play. Kinghorn and Grigg did not miss a beat in their back line duties. A superb performance from all concerned.

Management

Credit to Scottish management. The game plan was superbly devised, focused on the team’s strengths and exposed England defensively with a high class passing game plan. The high tempo, offloading game was too much for England in that opening period and defensively were on point in the second half when England launched attack after attack. This team will arrive in Dublin in fine form and confidence.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 3 Reflections – England

The warning signs of round two were not heeded by England who fell to a road trip loss to Scotland at boisterous Murrayfield. It is a reality check for England and the decisions that Eddie Jones and management make now post this test match loss could define their ambitions for World Cup glory in 2019. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.

Blunt England

25-13. The final stages of this test match summed up England’s attacking style perfectly. England continually looking to smash their way through the Scottish defense who were solid throughout and superior in the breakdown when the opportunity arose.

England were incredibly blunt in their attacking play throughout this test match. May, Nowell and Watson received precious little quick ruck ball to test the Scottish defense out wide. The pack were tasked with building the platform with numerous punishing ball carries but it was quite one dimensional. Barclay, Watson and McInally lapped up the breakdown exchanges as a result.

Half Back Struggle

Finn Russell was sensational throughout, started the game with confidence and England were unable to temper his influence thereafter. Russell’s ability to create line breaks for colleagues was evident in the tries scored. The grubber kick was on point for the opening try. It set the tone for Scotland to create further opportunities. Kudos to Laidlaw too as the scrum half was decisive in his passing.

Care and Ford in contrast were struggling to create any attacking tempo or rhythm during this contest. Care’s ability to create line breaks off the fringes was quickly nullified and Ford was unable to effect the game at ten as the Scottish back row continued to grow in confidence with each passing minute.

Leadership

Owen Farrell to his credit provided the leadership last weekend. His penalty kicking was good and his running line for England’s try was sublime and gave his side hope of victory early in the second half. England though continued to use their big men to bore holes in the Scottish defense. No distinct change in attacking plans which was disappointing. No subtle changes to the game plan to throw Scotland a different look.

Missed Opportunities

There were missed opportunities. Danny Care’s intercept was called back and then Courtney Lawes knock on (in the tackle) which saw England only to be also called back. Two key incidents on another day which could have turned the tide but it was not to be.

Adapt Game Plan

If England learn anything from this loss, it is that they need to evolve their game plan on the pitch when the need arises. The England players looked drilled to death at times; executing the same game plan for limited results.

England were exposed by Italy last season for not adapting on the pitch to a left field tactic. It was a similar story last weekend and until England players can take on this mantle, questions on their game management will continue. There is so much that management can do for the playing group.

Personnel Changes

The key question will be whether Eddie Jones makes any changes to the side which will face France in round four of the tournament. Paris traditionally is a tough place to go and even more so for a player looking to make an impression when called into the test match starting lineup.

Daly comes into the equation as a back line option. His versatility and kicking game could prompt Jones to act as England’s back field defense struggled at times. Jones’ second try a perfect point as Brown and Watson collectively failed to take down Jones.

The England front row could see a change as well. Will Jamie George finally get his opportunity to stake a claim for the hooker position? Dylan Hartley’s subdued performance surely opens the door for George to impress. Joe Marler will be looking for game time as well given inconsistencies at scrum time in recent tournament rounds.

Second row changes probably will be minimal. Itoje is probably one of the first players on the team sheet. The only talking point here could be whether Eddie Jones feels that George Kruis should come in if he decides to draft Jamie George into the front row. The Saracens lineout axiis could feature in Paris.

The back row was a mixed bag for England. The absence of Billy Vunipola was particularly felt. No go forward ball from the back row unit who struggled in the breakdown exchanges. Sam Underhill comes into consideration but his yellow card raises question on his discipline. Hughes at eight failed to fire while Robshaw fought the good fight but was second best to John Barclay who was superb from start to finish.

A defeat against Scotland will always hurt England but the manner of the loss will be of more concern for Eddie Jones. England are at a critical juncture. Their squad is stacked with physicality, skill set and game winners but how do the England players improve their game management and decision making in test matches such as last weekend?

England will be a viable 2019 Rugby World cup contender provided lessons are learned. This loss will focus the minds as the 12-6 win over a Welsh side missing several experienced test match starters clearly did not. A critical end to this tournament beckons for England, another loss in this campaign and questions will be asked on whether the Eddie Jones revolution is regressing. Compelling viewing beckons!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 3 Reflections – Ireland

A weekend which did not fail to disappoint. Ireland just about got over the line over a determined Welsh challenge in an exciting test match.  Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Ireland performance.

Ireland win but areas to improve upon

The moment Gareth Anscombe threw that sweeping pass out to the wing, it was heart in the mouth stuff. Jacob Stockdale had committed to coming inside, he needed to intercept the ball, failure to do so and Wales potentially had a game winning try well and truly on. Stockdale has to be commended for finishing off the intercept to make the game safe but it should not have come to that for Ireland to secure this test match victory.

The possession count for Ireland in this test match was excellent (78% in the opening period). Five tries scored against a Welsh defensive who have traditionally nullified the threat from Ireland. The back row produced a stellar performance to nullify the threat of Josh Navidi and contributed with endless ball carries to setup excellent Ireland field position so how come did Wales score three tries given limited opportunities?

The defensive shape of Ireland in the second half particularly last quarter was ragged. McFadden exposed several times in that last quarter due to lack of defensive cover. The Welsh third try will be a video analysis 101 moment for Ireland. McFadden’s decision to become the second tackler was fair enough but his inability to stop the offload was poor allowing Steff Evans ample time and space to score to setup a dramatic climax.

Rob Kearney at full back was exposed on more than one occasion in the aerial battle. Wales’ aerial kick strategy was on point in the opening period of this contest as Biggar executed his kicking to a high level. Stockdale is such a threat ball in hand but his defensive skill set is a work in progress; his decision making in defensive position will need to improve but the attacking threat is sublime.

Sexton with ball in hand was excellent but his kicking off the tee was a mixed bag. 3/7 off the tee told its own story. The first two penalty kicks were unconvincing at best and that set the tone for the day on this aspect of play. His decision to take a quick tap and go deep in the second half could have had massive consequences. Three points blown and potentially an injury worry with Conor Murray leg trapped in a ruck.

The Good

What worked for Ireland? The resiliency of the side again was to the fore. After a nervy opening where Halfpenny was unerring in his opening penalty attempt. Ireland went up the other end of the pitch to score. Sexton’s superbly identifying Halfpenny out of position setting up Stockdale for an excellent score. This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Wales scored. Ireland responded.

The newcomers to the Ireland side rose to the occasion. Andrew Porter in the front row provided solidity at set piece and was busy in open play with his tackle count. Chris Farrell was sensational in the thirteen channel. The Munster center was prominent from kickoff, rising high to win an initial aerial challenge and also was the fulcrum to create line breaks. A worthy man of the match winner.

James Ryan and Devin Toner were excellent in the Ireland second row. Line out accuracy. John Ryan’s scrummaging was superb at the death to yield a critical penalty in the last quarter. Everyone contributed to this side. Squad depth issues not seen.

The back play at times was sensational. Keith Earls complemented Jacob Stockdale with several eye-catching breaks. His pace, ability to create try scoring opportunities from nothing seen to full effect in the second half when his kick on the sideline in the second half nearly saw a try being scored.

Conor Murray provided leadership throughout and his passing was on point. His ability to slot home the vital penalty on seventy-six minutes showed massive courage and determination given his injury scare moments before. Murray did need the post to assist but the kick needed to go over and he stepped over superbly. His aerial kicks saw productive results after a shaky opening quarter.

Looking further afield

Fourteen points after three games is an excellent return from Ireland but Joe Schmidt and management will know that there is plenty of scope for improvement. However, the squad depth question prior to the Welsh contest was answered emphatically. There is squad depth to fill in several positions in the second row, front row, back row areas.

Questions do still remain with regards to the ten jersey until Carbery gets the game time to show his worth. The cameo of McFadden was a mixed bag defensively and is an area that needs to be evaluated. The full back position as well needs to be examined. Rob Kearney is solid but we need other players to stake a claim to the jersey. A summer tour to Australia hopefully will address these concerns.

However for now. this has being an excellent start to the tournament for Ireland Rugby. Three wins from three sets up the team well but with challenges against the live threat of Scotland and also the perennially strong England at Twickenham, the Championship and Grand Slam is still very much wide open.

The Welsh Challenge

Wales announced their side to face Ireland in the eagerly anticipated Natwest 6 Nations fixture at the Aviva Stadium. An early team selection which shows confidence in the squad chosen for the fixture. It remains to be seen if Ireland’s team selection will look to focus on their strengths or focus on the Welsh threat. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the Welsh team announced.

Team News

With experienced players back for selection, it was inevitable that Wales would look to change things up against Ireland. Dan Biggar makes his tournament bow at fly-half, a move which sees Rhys Patchell who started against Wales omitted totally from the test match squad with Gareth Anscombe dropping to the replacements. Anscombe’s cameo at ten against England along with his versatility to play three quarters and full back positions were positives in the decision to retain his services this weekend. Patchell travels with the side as a reserve, a blow for the player but the Scarlets ten has shown his ability in this tournament to suggest that he will get further game time before this tournament concludes.

Worcester Warriors try scoring winger Josh Adams is also omitted from the squad. His place in the side going to fit again Liam Williams who impressed for Saracens last weekend against Sale Sharks. Williams is a sublime talent, his ability with ball in hand coupled with excellent defensive and kicking game meant that Gatland and management were going to find it extremely hard to not select the former Scarlets star for this test match. Adams is a player who is on the upward curve and similarly to Patchell, I expect the winger to gain further test match minutes before the end of the tournament. A superb find for Wales this season, one that should develop into an excellent test match winger in the seasons to come.

The other big discussion point was whether the colossal back row Toby Faletau would feature this weekend in Dublin. His knee injury problems have being addressed but lack of game time was a key issue. You have to say the decision of Welsh management to allow Faletau to play for Bath Rugby and get good quality game minutes is the smart move given the performance of Ross Moriarty in this tournament. Moriarty’s work rate has being on point in this tournament and to be honest, the Gloucester Rugby player would have being disappointed to miss on his test match starting berth.

Team Selection

The word continuity comes to mind when you see the Welsh starting lineup. The number of Scarlets players (current and former) in the team means that continuity and cohesion between the pack and forwards is incredibly high. Scarlets expansive style of game has being seen to full effect with Wales during this tournament. Their ability to create line breaks from deep was evident in their Scotland win and on another day Wales should have had two more tries on the scoreboard (TMO gaffe on Anscombe try as well as the Scott Williams effort) against England.

The back line is loaded with pace and talent. Liam Williams and Steff Evans will look to exploit any defensive gaps from Ireland who have being guilty of several lapses in their victories over France and Italy. The Teddy Thomas try stemming from a quick line out, Ireland defensively not setup and Thomas took full advantage. The Italians took advantage of some poor Ireland defensive in the second half of their contest two weeks ago. Wales will be buoyed by this and Ireland will need to be on point defensively throughout particularly with a new Ireland three quarter partnership primed for the contest.

The Welsh three quarters will look to expose any defensive frailties in this new Ireland three quarter partnership. Aki will need to pick his moments to come off the line and make decisive hits to stop Welsh attacks in their tracks. How does Farrell or Ringrose look to protect the Ireland defensive line if Aki comes off the line and misses his tackle? Is the communication and understanding in the net new three quarters in two weeks sufficient in the Ireland ranks to effectively deal with the Welsh threat? I have my doubts.

Hadleigh Parkes provides power, physicality but also a good kicking game to keep back line opponents off balance. Scott Williams ability to break the game line is a positive for Wales and he will look for his back row players to create excellent quick ruck ball.

Leigh Halfpenny resumes service at full back. A sublime player whose kicking off the tee is unerring. Halfpenny will look to dominate the aerial battle in the opening period and look to come into the line when attacking opportunities allow. This is a quality back line for Wales and if the weather is dry, the Welsh side will be confident of creating out wide at regular intervals.

The half back battle this weekend in Dublin looks fascinating. Davies and Biggar lock horns against Murray and Sexton. Davies and Murray looking to create around the fringes but will look to their back rows to set the required platform at ruck time to execute this game plan. Biggar and Sexton will look to show different looks to keep their opposition off balance. Their ability to launch excellent diagonal kicks and aerial bombs could be key in the opening exchanges to create a territorial platform. Both players will also look to run the game at the gain line. Fascinating battle beckons in this area of the pitch. 50/50 for me.

The back row contest also looks like compelling viewing. Josh Navidi at seven has had excellent moments in this tournament. His performance against Scotland was sensational; his work at the breakdown to win opposition ball was to the fore. Navidi was closely watched by England but the Cardiff Blues back rower did have his moments, his work rate and tackle count were high throughout. A player who has the potential to be the decisive factor for Wales to win this contest. Both Shingler and Moriarty supplement Navidi with physicality, high work rate and mobility. The breakdown battle will be eagerly competitive. Josh van der Flier is a loss for Ireland in this area but Dan Leavy has filled the role with distinction against Italy.

The front five looks solid. The front row impressed against England who after reviewing the video analysis summoned the Georgians for scrum reps, a massive complement for the Welsh front row who were excellent at scrum time. Evans, Owens and Lee also provide mobility and excellent skill set in open play, recall Lee’s flick pass in the England test match.

The second row combination is the colossal Alun Wyn Jones and Cory Hill. Jones’ work rate and leadership sets the tone for others to follow. Cory Hill’s work rate is ferocious. The line out was an area which at times failed to fire in opportune attacking opportunities against England, an area Ireland could look to test out early in this contest. No weak link in this test side.

The subs bench has a good blend of youth and experience with undoubted match winners to come off the bench in the last quarter. Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe and George North are all solid picks. All players have international game minutes under their belt in this tournament.

Dee is a player of massive potential; his throwing to the line out and open play is on point. Jones and Francis provide excellent front row cover. Francis has played well for Exeter Chiefs this season; scrum technique has improved this season. The experienced Bradley Davies will provide solid work rate and leadership in the set piece upon his introduction. Tipuric in the second half at the breakdown could be an instrumental figure. Anscombe and North provide the creativity and nous to potentially unlock the Irish defensive late on.

This is an extremely solid Welsh side and when you consider that the likes of Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau are not in the squad, this is a formidable test team selected by Gatland. Wales will be defensively sound throughout. Their breakdown work on point if given the opportunity by Ireland. The key question is whether the layoffs for the likes of Biggar and Williams will affect their performance. They are both superbly talented players but can they hit the ground running at the weekend? Time will tell. Ireland bottom line have their work cut out to beat this side. Is Warren Gatland destined to add more woe to Ireland this weekend? Roll on Saturday to find out!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 15 Reflections

An intriguing weekend of action with some keynote results for the Italian clubs, Glasgow Warriors punching their ticket for the playoffs already (yes, it is only February) and excellent wins for Cardiff Blues, Leinster Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby and Ospreys. Hawkeye Sidekick picks out the key moments from round fifteen.

Italian team resurgence

It is only right to start off with giving kudos to Zebre Rugby and Benetton Rugby who had excellent road trip victories. Zebre Rugby started the Italian club renaissance with an excellent performance full of work rate, creativity with ball in hand and defensively well organized.

Connacht were under par but take nothing away from this performance from Michael Bradley’s charges who nullified the hosts attacking play, stifled in the pack exchanges and with Canna on point in game management, the eight point win was well deserved. The ability of Zebre Rugby to create line breaks with subtle passing inside was evident from early doors. The disallowed opening half try was a superb passage of play and should be the blueprint for the side to progress and compete in this league.

Zebre Rugby were boosted undoubtedly by the return of their Italian contingent. Canna, Mbanda and Meyer were excellent throughout. Their performances set the tone and others around them followed suit.

The line speed defensively from Zebre Rugby was immense throughout evident in their third try. Connacht’s exit strategy blocked by impressive pressure from the Italians. A result which hopefully sees the side grow and prosper. The trip to Foto for the Zebre Rugby team last week worked wonders!

Benetton Rugby held out to beat a Dragons team who are now without a Pro 14 league win since September. The 15-18 road trip win was a case study in resolve, refusing to panic after a disappointing start to the contest leaking ten points early. The ability of the side to regroup and then scored two tries of their own in the opening period was striking.

Marty Banks has become a prominent member of the Benetton Rugby side. His experience and game management again stood out particularly in the second half when the game was in the balance. The New Zealander picked the right option in the final quarter and his sixty-five minute penalty was the game winner.

A magnificent weekend for the Pro 14 Italian clubs. This blog at times has lamented the lack of form of the Italian national side but sincerely hope that these set of results are the stimulus to provide renewed confidence and performance levels for club and country. Pro 14 tournament organizers will hope this is a key weekend for the competition; the league needs competitive Italian sides. Time will tell but this weekend has being superb for all involved with Italian rugby.

Glasgow secure playoff rugby

Congratulations to Glasgow Warriors for securing their ticket to the playoffs already. They have being superb in the league and their expansive style of play was showcased again in an exciting encounter against the Toyota Cheetahs last Friday night. Matawalu was his typical sublime best, making line breaks from nothing, offloading to colleagues with unerring accuracy in wintry conditions at Scotstoun.

Glasgow’s cohesion was on point this weekend and some of the tries were superbly created and executed. Dave Rennie’s charges ability to suck opposition players into contact to move the ball seamlessly out to the wing has being superb this season. The traits were seen again as the pack gradually wore down a determined Cheetahs outfit, breakdown work improved in the third quarter and opportunities then were created.

A marvelous achievement for all involved with Glasgow Warriors. Playoff rugby secured already, key is to keep the form consistent for the business end of the season. The squad has being decimated by international call-ups but the players who have stepped into the side have seamlessly executed the game plan.

No disgrace for Toyota Cheetahs on this performance. Like last weekend, their expansive open play saw several eye catching moments and were competitive for long periods but once the Glasgow Warriors pack asserted momentum and platform, they had no answers. Playoff rugby still a realistic aim but pack improvements particularly on the road is required.

Edinburgh strike late to secure decisive win

The manner of the victory will increase further confidence in the Edinburgh Rugby ranks. The composure at the death to control an attacking scrum five meters out from the Ulster line, the ability to control the subsequent breakdown, the ability to pass to Weir and the drop goal execution were all on point.

Ulster Rugby will rue this 16-17 loss but there was some positive facets of play throughout. The manner in which Cooney scored the opening try of the contest was excellent; swift ball handling setting up a player overlap on the wing which ultimately saw John Cooney superbly supporting the play to score.

Edinburgh Rugby have flourished in recent months under RIchard Cockerill who has the side playing a lovely brand of rugby. Abrasive, well organized yet creative when the opportunities present themselves. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne personally was a standout performer, constantly looking for weaknesses around the Ulster defensive fringes. His line break in the opening period and drubber kick for the first Edinburgh was sensational. Wonder if Gregor Townsend was watching?

The second try for Edinburgh Rugby was well worked, a superb line taken by Carmichael who continues to impress with each passing week. The second row pace and power to get over was superb and setup a scintillating last quarter which ebbed and flowed until the final whistle.

Edinburgh Rugby jump to third in the Conference B standings and are setup well to challenge for the league playoff push now after successive victories over Leinster Rugby and Ulster Rugby now. Gibbes and Ulster Rugby management know now that there is a battle to secure playoff rugby, interesting to see how the side react to this latest reversal.

Cardiff Blues pace too much for Munster Rugby

25-18 scoreline but it does not tell the full story of this encounter. Munster Rugby have being guilty of not starting well in recent fixtures albeit not punished. However, Cardiff Blues punished a very slow Munster Rugby start to create decisive daylight in the opening period to win this contest.

The two sides style of play were poles apart. While Cardiff Blues played with flair and creativity, creating line breaks at regular intervals in the opening period, Munster Rugby were incapable of making any genuine line breaks in open exchanges. Munster Rugby cohesion was well and truly off and the first two tries emphasized this point.

The first Cardiff Blues try taking advantage of slack defensive over at the line out, swift passing exchanges setting Rees away for an easy twenty meter carry which led to the opening try. The second try was a nightmare for Duncan Williams, a slow exit strategy was blocked (Marshall lax in defensive duties too) and the resultant passage of play leading to Cardiff Blues scoring their try. Williams struggled for tempo throughout and Hart’s cameo in the second half will ignite debate on the backup nine position.

Owen Lane was tipped on this blog during last week’s preview as one to watch. Lane’s incredible pace was too much for Munster Rugby’s back field for the Cardiff Blues third try. The drubber kick was superbly executed but it was all Lane in his pace and execution for the try. An immense player with ball in hand and one to watch for the Cardiff Blues going forward.

After a slow season start, Cardiff Blues have picked up key momentum in recent months. Qualification out of the Pool of Death in the European Challenge Cup has boosted confidence, which has resulted in player confidence to execute a more expansive game plan. Two impressive Pro 14 wins in consecutive weeks has Cardiff Blues well set to secure European Champions Cup rugby next season, great to see!

Munster Rugby will be first to admit that the performance levels were not at the standards expected but the second half performance was spirited with the pack improving with good cohesive spells in the set piece and maul. Cleote and Fitzgerald tries were well worked but they left themselves too much to do in the second half. The penalty from Bleyendaal at the death secured a loser bonus point, something which looked beyond them in the opening half.

Johann van Graan and management will look to address the glaring performance issues this week. They need to and more with a rampant Glasgow Warriors arriving this week for a key conference battle. A win is required but the display this week will have focused minds in the Munster camp to step up and become more accurate, otherwise face home field embarrassment.

Leinster win but Scarlets secure a losing bonus point

20-13. Leinster Rugby win the battle of the top two Conference B sides, shame that the fixture was not played with full squads. James Lowe was the standout performer in this contest. His line breaks and threat will ball in hand sensational and his two try haul in the opening period pivotal to the win.

Leinster Rugby have additional injury concerns heading into the business end of the season. Luke McGrath’s withdrawal will be monitored closely by the club and national team. Any significant layoff and Leinster Rugby squad depth at nine will be tested. An interesting medical prognosis beckons early this week on the scrum half.

Credit to the Scarlets, played with width as always and Beirne again stood out for the Welsh region. McNicholl looked sharp before his withdrawal and this losing bonus point effort could be golden in who reaches the top of the conference come end of April. Dan Jones was unerring his goal kicking at the death to secure that point. All to play for Conference B summit battle, the return battle should be epic.

Ospreys overcome the Southern Kings

Southern Kings continue to look for that elusive Pro 14 league win. On the positive side, their opening half performance was encouraging with two well worked tries but the second half saw a much more improved Ospreys pack performance to secure victory and a bonus point try to boot. Positive signs from the South African side but plenty of scope for improvement to get that elusive win.

The Ospreys pack pivotal to the home win scoring two penalty tries in the second half and the win was completed with an excellent Hassler effort whose running line was sublime. 26-12 scoreline. Ospreys will be happy with the result, the performance was a mixed bag particularly in the opening period after a promising start allowing the Southern Kings field position and game line breaks.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 15 Preview

As the Natwest 6 Nations tournament teams take a well earned bye week this weekend, the spotlight firmly is placed back on the Guinness Pro 14 where several standout fixtures are on the bill in both conferences. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the fixtures.

Round 15 kicks off at the Sportsground where Connacht will look to continue their recent good run of form with another win against Zebre Rugby who welcome back several Italian international players into the mix. Quite frankly, they needed the likes of Canna, Meyer, Mbanda back to the fold given their performance against Munster last weekend which was a chastening experience particularly in the second half. The inclusion of the Italian internationals will add physicality and much needed game management.

Connacht will enter this contest looking to exact revenge for a miserable 24-10 reversal to Zebre Rugby last December, a distinct low point of the season for Kieran Keane’s charges. Nothing went right on the day as the pack struggled to create the platform, fly-half issues apparent and a back line going backwards at a rate of knots.

The Irish province have steadily improved since the road trip debacle and their victory last weekend against Ospreys was a keynote performance. Tom Farrell in the three quarters impressing again with his ability to break the game line and involve supporting runners at different intervals. The manner in which Connacht closed out the contest last week bodes well for this weekend.

Zebre Rugby have plenty to prove in this contest and the likes of Gaffney and Parata will look to impress back in Ireland. Ronaldson continues at ten for Connacht while Leader deputizes for the hamstrung Tiernan O’Halloran which squashes any hopes the full back had of featuring for the national side. Given the Zebre Rugby lineup, Connacht’s bench impact will be key in the final quarter to secure a home win but a bonus point try win may be pushing it.

An intriguing clash at Scotstoun as Glasgow Warriors play host to conference playoff rivals Toyota Cheetahs. Glasgow Warriors were left to rue missed second half opportunities to secure a road trip over Dragons last weekend. A 15-15 draw which exposed cohesion issues in the side early in the opening period but the side grew into the contest.

Toyota Cheetahs come into the contest fresh off a 25-20 road trip loss to Cardiff Blues. A game which Cheetahs started well saw the South African side then struggle in the pack exchanges allowing Cardiff Blues pack to setup the platform to win the contest. The lack of game time at times showed with the Cheetahs and they will hope that their skill set is vastly improved this weekend.

It is a daunting challenge for the Toyota Cheetahs this weekend. Glasgow are unbeaten at home in the league this season. The style of play should be compelling viewing given the expansive game plans of both sides which could suit the Cheetahs. Expect plenty of tries in this one and do not surprised if the Toyota Cheetahs come away with at least a bonus try point at least.

Glasgow Warriors have named a solid side for this fixture. Jackson at full back complemented well with the likes of Jones and Matawalu on the wings looking for line breaks. George Horne will look to control at nine on the back of a pack containing Fagerson, Fusaro, Harley and Swinson.

Cheetahs have standout talents in Francois Venter and Craig Barry out wide who will punish any defensive lapses. The back row have a massive role in this contest to upset and nullify Glasgow Warrior’s quick ruck ball distribution. Expect fireworks in this fixture. Warriors to win this contest late with Toyota Cheetahs securing at least two points from the tie.

After a road trip loss to Connacht Rugby last time out, Ospreys will be happy to get back to the Liberty Stadium and the visit of the Southern Kings this weekend. Ospreys for long periods last weekend were competitive against Connacht Rugby but failed to convert territory into points on the board. Connacht’s bench made the necessary impact in the last quarter to secure the victory.

Southern Kings were exposed against Ulster Rugby last weekend, a performance which highlighted some good attacking play but saw issues in the pack and defensive setup of the side where Gilroy secured a hat-trick of tries. The manner of the performance last weekend is a huge concern ahead of this weekend’s fixture.

Ospreys welcome back Justin Tipuric into the first team and there is an exciting look to the back line with the likes of Evans, Fonotia and Watkin featuring. Sam Davies will be eager to impress at ten. The pack looks solid to secure the platform required. Southern Kings have minimal changes for this fixture and provided that Ospreys execute at a high level, a bonus point try win is on the cards.

A standout contest in the context of securing a playoff berth come the end of the regular season. Ulster Rugby started life without Les Kiss with a fifty plus point thrashing of the Southern Kings but face a progressively improving Edinburgh Rugby outfit. The result this weekend could be a decisive factor in who from the two sides are advancing to the playoffs.

Ulster Rugby were professional in their rout over the Southern Kings. The back line play at times on point and the pack also enjoyed prominent moments of dominance and were defensively solid with good line speed throughout. Gibbes will look for similar performance levels this weekend but this has being the Achilles heel for the side in recent seasons, stringing two quality performances back to back.

Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill have gradually improved their performance levels this season. Their late win against Leinster Rugby last weekend was another key indicator of their progression; refusing to concede the result late on and got their rewards with the late Mark Bennett try. A solid side who have back line threats in Bennett, Fife and van der Merwe while van der Walt’s confidence has grown with each passing game. Hidalgo-Clyne has being a standout in some of his cameos this season.

An evenly matched contest beckons. The pack battle looks key here. Can Edinburgh Rugby put pressure on the Ulster Rugby scrum? The breakdown battle looks intriguing also and huge onus on Jean Deysel to provide the platform with his ball carrying ability. It is a game evenly poised. Slight edge to the hosts but Edinburgh Rugby cannot be discounted here. Interesting battle awaits.

It is weekend’s like this that the tournament organizers do not do themselves any favors. Can you imagine the quality on show if Leinster Rugby and Scarlets had full squads to chose from? The game would be spectacular and a sublime advertisement for the league but the fixture is scheduled slap bang in the Natwest 6 Nations tournament. What might have being?

Leinster Rugby will reflect with mixed emotions on last weekend’s road trip loss to Edinburgh Rugby; several standout performances where Max Deegan again showed extremely well in the back row. Barry Daly was prominent with ball in hand and scored a try which looked a match winner with fourteen minutes left. Edinburgh had other ideas and the late defensive lapse will be duly noted.

Scarlets enter this contest as well on the back of a road loss to Benetton Rugby who played superbly throughout, giving Scarlets precious little to secure an attacking platform. Scarlets were minus plenty of first team players but still had the likes of Beirne and Davies in their squad. A performance to focus the minds ahead of a trip to the RDS.

The breakdown battle will be absolutely key this weekend. James Davies at seven has the potential to win this contest on his own given his form and ability. Leinster’s back row will need to be on top of their game to minimize the influence of the flanker during this contest. Beirne as well in the second row will look to wreck havoc against Leinster Rugby in set piece and open play.

The squad depth of Leinster Rugby looks better than Scarlets for me. The back line has experience with McFadden and Dave Kearney in the ranks. The pack will contain the likes of Fardy, Strauss and Bent. A game which should see some good moments of play for me is diluted. Scarlets will compete well but the squad depth off the bench will be the difference. Leinster win on the cards here.

Cardiff Blues enter this contest fresh from a superb 25-20 win over the Toyota Cheetahs. A contest where several superb attacking line breaks were created with Williams in the back line. The pack was solid and secured a good platform for long periods. A team who will look to exact revenge of last season’s home reversal to Munster Rugby, a game which Cardiff Blues did not close out and were punished for in the last quarter.

Munster Rugby realistically will have a better outlook on their squad depth after this encounter. Zebre Rugby rarely threatened last weekend from an attacking sense with the opening period marred by a high penalty count. It is a facet of play that Munster Rugby need to reflect on going into the business end of the season. They have to their credit adapted well to officiating in the second quarter but you sense that the early penalty count will prove decisive against them in time.

Team news will be interesting for Munster Rugby. Who plays in the half-back positions? Will Tyler Bleyendaal get game minutes? Will Grobler continue to make an impression off the bench? It is a close contest to call but I think Cardiff Blues could have sufficient threat out wide coupled with an abrasive, mobile pack to win narrowly. Lane on the wing is a player of massive upside.

It remains to be seen if Benetton Rugby will have any of their international players available but suffice to say that their performance last weekend at home to Scarlets (22-12 win) should provide the squad with plenty of confidence. Ioane was the main man for Benetton with his try scoring haul but Marty Banks played superbly well controlling the game when required. An astute signing from Benetton. The question is whether Dragons will be as defensively loose as Scarlets last weekend. I have my doubts.

Dragons competed well against Glasgow Warriors. 15-15 draw which showed massive determination in the second half to not lose the contest late on. The opening period saw some excellent passages of play as well from Bernard Jackman’s side. It is a contest where pack platform will be key and Dragons in front of their home support have a slight edge with an exciting back line to be launched with Kirchner a key component.

 

 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 14 Reflections

The first round of the tournament played during the Natwest 6 Nations competition saw teams forced to dig deep into their squad depth charts and the results produced were interesting to say the least. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Team Performance of the week

Benetton Rugby’s performance in not just beating the Scarlets but securing the bonus point try win in the process is the standout performance of the round. After a weekend where Zebre Rugby were trounced by Munster Rugby and the Italian national team easily beaten by Ireland, Benetton Rugby lifted the mood for Italian Rugby fans with a performance full of work rate, game management and creativity.

Ioane was the standout performer with his hat-trick but the performances of Banks, Morisi and Zanon set the tone for which the rest of the team followed. The use of the diagonal kick seen to good effect with the opening two tries for Benetton Rugby. Scarlets simply had no response for a rampant Italian side. A result to focus minds in the Welsh region ahead of a crunch road trip to Leinster Rugby this weekend.

Honorable mention to the Dragons who held the Glasgow Warriors to a fifteen all draw at Rodney Parade. A scintillating opening period where each clubs defensive coaches were having canaries in the stands such was the openness of the contest. Glasgow will rue a lack of precision in the second half to win this contest but Dragons young charges fronted up and deservedly did not lose this contest. A boost for Bernard Jackman, management and playing squad.

Exciting finish of the week

When Barry Daly scored for Leinster Rugby for their third try of the contest with sixteen minutes left, neutrals may have being forgiven to think that the contest was gone from Edinburgh but this team have a good habit of striking late to win tight encounters. Edinburgh Rugby secured this win courtesy of the move of the game. Van der Walt chipping deftly ahead, Glenn Bryce soaring for the ball in the air and knocking it backwards into Bennett’s path and the experienced back was not going to cough up this opportunity. The resultant conversion from Sam Hidalgo-Clyne was of no consequence. Edinburgh Rugby had won the contest. Cue the celebrations! Edinburgh Rugby still in the playoff hunt and their upturn in form continues. Leinster Rugby will dust themselves down, look at the defensive lapses ahead of the Scarlets top of the conference fixture next.

Keynote player arrival of the week

The arrival of Gerbrandt Grobler to proceedings during the Munster Rugby contest against Zebre Rugby was the keynote player introduction this week. Ireland sporting and rugby media have written at length over why the player should or should not be playing for Munster Rugby in recent months due to his past doping history.

It has being quite the thorny issue for some in the province and nationally but the player has incredible upside (a player who did play for Racing 92 last season). Physicality, mobility and ability to seamlessly integrate into van Graan’s game plan will mean that the player is a prominent player for the province come the business end of the season. The rapturous welcome for the player spoke volumes, more to come from the player and it will be interesting to see how the player evolves into the game plans of the first team in the coming weeks starting with the Cardiff Blues on the road this weekend!

Dismal team performance of the week

The South African sides were again off the pace in this round of league fixtures. The stop / start nature of the league in recent months have done very little to allow either the Cheetahs or Southern Kings to gain any form or momentum.

While the Cheetahs lost more ground on Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors with a road trip loss, the Southern Kings were quite simply overwhelmed by Ulster Rugby on Friday night. The same failings that have plagued the side consistently this season in full view; the inability to adapt to the wintry NH conditions and players unable to execute at a high level with far too many unforced errors.

Gilroy will not have scored an easier hat-trick of tries than last Friday night. Gibbes and Ulster Rugby management will be happy with the start but realize that a home trip to Edinburgh Rugby will be more of a gauge of whether the side are on an upturn in form and performance. Southern Kings need the season to end now.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Reflections

The second round of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament saw Ireland totally outclass an Italian side whose defensive frailties were exposed at alarming intervals, England go to the trenches to beat a determined Welsh side who will rue the TMO decision not to award Gareth Anscombe an opening half try and Scotland coming late to beat an extremely ill-disciplined French outfit at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

England win but TMO dominates post game discussions

The video clip above is probably the talking point of the round this weekend and whether you are in the England or Welsh camp, you will have your points on why the try was waved away or not? It was an incredibly close call for the TMO to make. Glenn Newman had several angles. Did Gareth Anscombe touch the ball down first before Anthony Watson? Did Gareth Anscombe have control over the ball?

The fact that Anthony Watson immediately touched the ball down fully after Gareth Anscombe’s initial touch made the decision more complex for the TMO. No try was the decision but you see tries given for less than Gareth Anscombe’s effort and pressure on the ball. It was an incredibly pivotal point in the contest that England won 12-6.

If the incident does anything, it raises the topic of how much downward pressure is required to award a try from a TMO perspective. You tend to see TMO’s giving the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side in cases such as this in NH rugby. It has created a massive hole in the interpretation of downward pressure when a try is scored.

Full control is now required according to Glenn Newman, the response of the tournament organizers and World Rugby will be interested (if any) in the coming days to clarify this situation. It won’t be the first time this happens on a rugby game with high stakes involved.

The test match itself was an arm wrestle. England were very impressive in the first quarter and did not give Wales a chance of impose their will on the contest. The opening try for May was sublime. Farrell spotting acres of space in the Welsh defense to set May free who finished with precision.

The second England try was all about the imposing Joe Launchsbury who had the presence of mind to offload to the supporting May soon after with two Welsh players for company. 12-0 lead for England and it looked ominous for Wales.

Credit though to Wales whose work rate was immense throughout. The work rate was on point and the pack started to create a good platform from which penalties were being conceded by the hosts. Patchell had a mixed afternoon as England squeezed up with high defensive line speed minimizing his overall impact on the contest.

The key positive from the Welsh camp were the performance of the front row who were excellent at scrum time as well as the cameo of Gareth Anscombe when switched to ten. His flair and ability to get his colleagues over the game line was to the fore in the second half. The number ten position is very much for Anscombe after this display; assured performance.

Wales will rue the TMO decision but there was also the key try saving tackle from Sam Underhill whose tackle on Scott Williams saved a certain try. The lack of ball handling and composure at times from Wales also contributed to this loss. A key turnover just before half-time after Wales had turned down the opportunity of three points was a morale sapper.

England win this hard fought encounter; their defensive work was on point throughout. The back row stifled at the breakdown as Navidi struggled to gain a foothold in these exchanges. The half back partnership were efficient if not spectacular and Mike Brown produced an excellent performance at full back. Farrell was all action and his game management for the opening try sensational. To a man, England delivered the victory.

Ireland outclass poor Italy

Let us not beat around the bush here. Italy were shambolic. Ireland beat what was in front of them to the extent that the bench was fully cleared ten minutes into the second half. It was all very routine for Ireland as they set about dismantling the wafer thin Italian defense.

Line breaks were created with huge frequency in that opening period and it was no surprise that Ireland led 28-0 at the break. Henshaw crashing over from close range after the pack had sucked in the Italian defense. Naive Italian defending on the fringes saw Murray waltz in unopposed. Aki used his strength superbly to crash over from close range and the Connacht centre was again involved as his line break and pass saw Earls score for the bonus point try.

The fixture saw a couple of negatives from an Ireland perspective. Tadhg Furlong pulling up early doors was a concern; initial team report suggests that it is not serious but I am not so sure as the manner in which the Wexford man pulled up suggested more of a hamstring pull than a precautionary withdrawal.

Even more of concern was the shoulder injury sustained by Robbie Henshaw after his second try of the contest. The try was as a result of an intercept but the shoulder injury means a long period on the sidelines beckon. Disappointing for the player who was sharp along with Aki in their attacking duties.

Italy were hopelessly out classed but did manage to create a foothold in the contest in the third quarter as Ireland’s lack of cohesion (due to clearing the bench) saw three tries conceded in a seventeen minute spell.

The Ireland fringe players got good test match minutes. Larmour gave a glimpse of his attacking skills but also a realization that his defensive work is a work in progress. Carbery at ten looked to boss the game but lack of game minutes was evident in some questionable game management calls. Porter was superb in the front row. Marmion was efficient at nine. Stander and Healy professional in their work rate.

This game showcased Ireland’s ability to cut loose but the opposition was weak. The Georgia question and this tournament was a key thought personally in the opening period of this contest given how easy Ireland were creating and scoring tries at will. Italy can argue that they scored three tries but let us be honest, the scoreline flattered the Italians as Ireland’s continuity faded after fifty minutes. Italy lacked any guile up front and for all the back line intent with ball in hand, defensively were all at sea. Hard days to come for Conor O’Shea and management this season. 2019 RWC looks daunting already.

Ireland will look for positive fitness reports on Furlong but this was mission accomplished. Wales in two weeks time looks an incredibly tough encounter. Wales will not fear Ireland and given their personnel who will offload and create from expansive play, it will be intriguing to see how Schmidt approaches the fixture.

Sexton and Murray were excellent again. Keith Earls continues to impress; his last minute try saving tackle told you everything you needed to know about the player. Selfless, hard working, team player. The effort to save a last ditch tackle could be the difference between winning this tournament or not if points differences comes into play.

Scotland keep composure to beat France

A much needed morale boosting victory for Scotland against France at Murrayfield. The opening quarter was sensational stuff. France’s player of the season Teddy Thomas scoring a superb try to open France’s account. Their expansive approach to the contest a joy to see. Scotland facing an early period of crisis fought back well and recalled Maitland scoring well.

Laidlaw’s contribution today cannot be underestimated. The scrum-half provided experience and game management throughout, something that Finn Russell struggled with today. It was an out of sorts Russell today in terms of kicking, missing touch on a couple of key stages. Townsend down the stretch made the call to win this test match. Russell hauled off. Price on and Laidlaw switched to ten.

The move worked as Scotland’s pack started to win the 50/50 exchanges and French discipline issues surfacing at a rate of knots. John Lacey consistently pinging France for various offenses from not rolling away to offside. French composure was shot in the final quarter, such a critical juncture of the contest. The composure issues then saw some questionable game management decisions as well but by this stage, France were under the cosh. The game was as good as gone.

Laidlaw’s assured kicking securing the victory. The win was huge for Scotland; a backs to the wall week of preparation, another loss and it was curtains for the championship and would have raised questions on the recent Scottish team and their form leading into this tournament.

Gregor Townsend today delivered a message to his players on the park; failure to execute and you will be benched. To bench Russell was a massive call, it worked handsomely this time as Price was swift in his distribution speeding up play. The ten position ahead of the English clash will be duly noted. Russell needs to step up his performance levels. An intriguing two weeks to the England clash await.

For France, another test match which on another day should have seen a win. Their play in these last two games have at times being good but yet again the lack of discipline seen in the Guy Noves and Philip Saint Andre eras reared its head today. For the brilliance of the tries, France surrender penalties at an alarming rate and Lacey’s penalty count on another day should have seen a French player spend time in the sin bin.

France will argue with the officiating in these past two weekends but teams need to adapt to the officiating crew and in this second half, the discipline and pen count on show could not warrant a test match win. Plenty to address as Italy arrive to Marseilles in two weeks. France and Brunel in backs against the wall prep then.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 14 Preview

The Guinness Pro 14 tournament resumes after a two week hiatus, a chance for teams to regroup, a chance for fringe squad players to stake their claim for regular first team minutes for the rest of the season. The 6 Nations stage of this tournament really forces sides to maximize their full squad and if a side can get on a good run in the coming weeks, who knows what may happen come the business end of the season. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

An intriguing fixture to kick this round of the competition. How will the Ospreys perform without Steve Tandy in charge? How will Connacht Rugby play without their players on international duty. A key fixture for both clubs particularly Connacht Rugby who head to South Africa to face the Cheetahs soon in a tranche of games against conference rivals.

Blade resumes scrum half duties in Marmion’s absence for the hosts. Griffin and Farrell form the three quarters partnership. O’Halloran will look to break the line from full back. An exciting back line. Ospreys as well have an explosive back line selected. Dan Evans has played some superb rugby this season and starts at full back. Dirksen and Howells will provide pace out wide if given opportunities by Fonotia and Beck. The pack battle looks 50/50 on paper as Rob McCusker joins the 100 appearance club for the club.

Slight nod to Connacht Rugby on this fixture given the injury list and international absentees from the Ospreys. Allen Clarke will look for a response from his charges and it will happen but I think the last quarter and squad depth could be exposed down the stretch provided Connacht Rugby executed at a high performance level which at times has being inconsistent. Connacht to edge this by three points.

If this fixture was played prior to the Natwest 6 Nations tournament, you would easily pick Glasgow Warriors for a bonus point try win. However, with international call ups aplenty, Dave Rennie will need to juggle his team and continuity could be an issue heading into this contest.

Bernard Jackman will look for his side to continue recent encouraging performances in Europe and Anglo / Welsh Cup action. The side by and large has being unaffected by the international fixture calendar this season so it is a big opportunity for the Dragons to produce a good cohesive performance.

It is a fixture primed for an ambush, edging towards Dragons purely because of the enforced squad personnel changes that need to take place on the Glasgow Warriors side but it could an exciting finish particularly as the Warriors built momentum as the game progresses. If Dragons lose badly here, Jackman and management will need to make hard calls on player contracts.

This has the potential to be the game of the round. Both sides are missing players due to international duty but it should not deflect from the fixture given some of the personnel on duty. Edinburgh have being progressing well in recent months under Richard Cockerill with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne outstanding at scrum half.

Leinster Rugby’s squad depth is evident in the back line selected for this fixture. International players such as Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden feature and with Ross Byrne providing assured game management so far this season, the attacking back line is well set.

The pack is much changed due to the international fixtures this weekend. Michael Bent features at prop and emerging talent such as Max Deegan get more valuable game time. A big game for Ross Molony here could do wonders for his ambitions of securing further first team action come the business end of the season.

Edinburgh Rugby also have threats in the back line. Fife, Bennett and van der Merwe if given time and space will create try scoring opportunities. The ten battle is intriguing as van der Walt will look to win his duel against Ross Byrne, two players who like to create expansive line breaks.

This fixture ultimately will be decided in the packs. Both sides have much changes packs and cohesion is a major factor in determining the victor. Leinster Rugby are slight favorites for this contest but would not be surprised if Edinburgh Rugby courtesy of Hidalgo-Clyne late on win the contest. A fascinating contest beckons.

 

A historic night at Kingspan Stadium as Joy Neville officiates her first Pro 14 fixture, a referee whose upward progression has being immense this season and her ability to allow play to develop should be seen to full effect tomorrow night. Best of luck Joy!

The fixture also provides an intriguing subplot as it is the first game post Les Kiss for Ulster Rugby. Two seasons of sheer frustration and inconsistency resulted in the well respected coach losing his job. It is now down to the players to respond and produce a cohesive performance in the process.

If you were picking a side to showcase your talents, then Southern Kings would tick all the boxes. No key acquisitions from the club since the start of the calendar year and it remains to be seen if the side can adapt to the wintry NH conditions.

Ulster Rugby have named a strong lineup despite without the likes of Best and Henderson in the ranks. You can sure that Gibbes has put the playing squad at his disposal through the ringer this week. An exciting back line with the likes of Gilroy, Marshall and McCloskey in the ranks. The pack looks strong and cohesion in the back row with the selections of Timoney and Reidy.

A bonus point try win looks on the cards for Ulster Rugby in this fixture as I have little faith in Southern Kings to provide the cohesion, pack platform and accuracy to upset the hosts here.

An intriguing fixture in Cardiff as Cheetahs look to set a marker for the rest of the season but they face a Cardiff Blues team who have steadily improved in recent months. European Challenge Cup qualification was a superb achievement for the Welsh region in a pool containing the likes of Lyon, Toulouse and Sale Sharks.

Cheetahs suffered massively when travelling to Italy in their last excursion to the Northern Hemisphere. They struggled for cohesion and accuracy for long periods of their loss to Benetton Rugby. A mixed lead up to this fixture with the news that their head coach Rory Duncan will become Worcester Warriors head coach next season. A blow for the franchise. Franco returns to the club to fill the void so continuity at least.

The Cheetahs do have the comfort of welcoming back Francois Venter, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Tier Schoeman, Malcolm Jaer and Luther Obi on this tour. Venter in particular will provide leadership and skill set to open up a game. 50/50 contest. If Cardiff Blues can stifle the free flow offloading game of the Cheetahs, then it is advantage to the hosts. The lack of game time for the Cheetahs is also a factor too.

The return of Michael Bradley to Thomond Park. The fixture on Saturday night looks quite diluted given the number of personnel changes on both sides. Zebre Rugby performances have being very up and down in recent months and with squad depth looking fragile for this tie, the hosts are well primed for a bonus point try win.

Johann van Graan’s team selection and approach to this contest will be fascinating to watch. A couple of weeks to implement some net new aspects of play with the squad. Will van Graan look for pack dominance or execute an expansive game plan? News that Tyler Bleyendaal is near full fitness is excellent news to increase further competition for the ten jersey.

Provided that Munster Rugby play with direction and execute the fundamentals to a relatively high level, there will be no upset on the cards. A chance for the likes of Alex Wootton to further enhance his gain line yards and try scoring statistics. A slow start but the hosts will do enough to secure the bonus point try to potentially open more daylight between themselves and Cheetahs.

The last game of the round and one where cohesion will be the key point of the pregame notes. With the number of internationals away from both clubs, continuity may be an issue. Scarlets and Benetton Rugby have lost up to fifteen players each to their national teams. It then comes down to squad depth and Scarlets look to have the edge when you consider they still have Beirne in the pack. Scarlets win here but it won’t be pretty. The return of James Davies and Ryan Elias key to getting the Welsh region over the line for the win.