European Rugby Challenge Cup: Quarter Final Predictions

This is an immense rugby weekend in European professional club rugby circles. This weekend marks the business end of the season where teams will come to the party and seize the opportunity while others will wilt and run out of gas. Several fascinating fixtures on tap in this much maligned competition this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick takes his crystal ball out and tries to predict the winners (not many road wins beckon!).

Highly impressed with Newcastle Falcons this season. Shrewd player recruitment last season has reaped the rewards. Toby Flood has provided experience, game management, leadership and excellent kicking game to complement a youthful Newcastle squad who are challenging for a top six Aviva Premiership finish.

Newcastle Falcons bring in wingers Alex Tait and Zach Kibirige to replace Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti among six starting changes. Sam Stuart comes into the halves, while hooker Scott Lawson, prop Scott Wilson and Ryan Burrows also start.

An interesting lineup but one that Dean Richards trusts to do the job. You are always looking at the French club mindset in this competition. The mindset has being indifferent to this competition at times, not sure where this competition ranks with Brive who have looked vulnerable on the road this season.

If Newcastle Falcons can start on the front foot and players such as Matavesi start to dominate from three quarters, Brive could cave in at a rate of knots. This would be a shock if Newcastle did not win this fixture with something to spare; the reward is a home semi-final as well. Added motivation for the side here and expect them to win going away.

Pau have being the surprise package of this tournament so far. They went 6/6 in their pool phase, beating Gloucester Rugby emphatically home and away. Simon Mannix’s charges will fancy their chances of advancing to the last four; a raucous home crowd support and a Stade Francais side who have being woefully inconsistent on the road this season.

Pau’s pack selection looks pretty decisive in this fixture. Solid operators in the ranks such as Armitage, Domingo and then you add the ex-Munster contingent to the mix who know how to win playoff rugby (Dave Foley, Paudie Butler, Sean McDougall), you get the sense that the side have the nous, game management to win this fixture.

Stade Francais have massive threats as well, expansive back field with Steyn at full back who will happily join the line and create line breaks. Pilsson has great range but yet again can be inconsistent in execution particularly on the road. There are question marks on the pack, questioning the back row ability to win the breakdown. Sergio Parisse on the bench but may be too late for him to make a game winning impression.

Pau have being a breathe of fresh air in this competition this season, would be a shame that they depart the tournament now after taking the pool stages so seriously. Pau for me at home look a solid bet to win over a Stade Francais who will produce a performance of frustration showing the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

The history books are certainly not on Connacht Rugby’s side this weekend. 0/5 against their opposition this weekend. Last weekend’s performance was a mixed bag and the locals around the province will look for a response this weekend.

Gloucester Rugby come in on the back of a bonus point try win over relegation doomed London Irish last weekend. Gloucester’s opening quarter and final quarter performance were poor and gives Connacht Rugby hope of victory. In between, the West Country side were on point in the pack exchanges and produced some excellent line breaks to score several tries. Trinder and Marshall were standouts in the back line. Afoa in the front row solid as always.

How do Connacht Rugby win this contest? Can the front five disrupt Gloucester set piece ball sufficiently? The line out at times for Gloucester has misfired spectacularly. The Pau home loss evidence of this in January; an ambitious line out call to the back of the line towards the end of the opening half when on their five meter line was a knucklehead play. It got the treatment it deserved; Armitage crashed over for a Pau try as the set piece was overthrown.

Connacht Rugby’s expansive style will gel well with Gloucester’s style of play, expect plenty of line breaks. Connacht Rugby need to bring in their defensive line speed and first time tackles to the party. Their exit strategy was poor last weekend. The performance needs to be on point this week. Accuracy is the keyword in all facets of play.

Gloucester Rugby have undeniable quality across the park. The game management at times can be an issue, attempt to run the ball from their own posts. Billy Burns is a work in progress, exciting half-back but inclined to become one dimensional in his attacking play with very little kicking game in open play. Billy Twelvetrees provides the game management closer tag, looks to close out victories for the side off the bench.

It will be interesting to see how the bookies view this contest. Both sides have performance consistency issues; both sides will have defensive lapses. It is about who wins the set piece battle with Romain Poite officiating. The scrum set piece could be the decisive factor here; penalty concessions either side here could be the difference.

Connacht Rugby have the backs against the wall mentality here this weekend. A defeat here and the season is over. Gloucester Rugby can be exposed but it will require an accurate Connacht Rugby effort to execute the game plan to do so.

Training has gone well this week in the camp, lessons of last weekend learned and with a pacy back three too, going for a home win (heart ruling head here).

Gloucester’s back three also poses a serious threat. Good weather conditions, expect line breaks and tries galore provided Poite lets the game flow. The Clan terrace will be buzzing.

Fascinating contest here. The breakdown battle for me is the key factor to this fixture. Both teams with progressive form entering this contest. Hardie vs. Navidi battle looks epic. Enough said, both are seven specialists and it will be fascinating to see how both negate the other at the breakdown.

Edinburgh Rugby are one of the stories of the Guinness Pro 14 season. Their form in recent months under the guidance of Richard Cockerill has being excellent. Home win against Glasgow Warriors with fourteen players, putting Ulster Rugby to the sword at Kingspan Stadium, a good South African tour. Third place in Conference B consolidated in recent weeks so can focus on this tournament with interest.

Solid squad assembled by Edinburgh Rugby. The front five has experience galore. Nel and Gilchrist are massive standouts in the side, set the tone. Hardie is a superb seven. The half back partnership is excellent and then you have Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to come into the fray to close out the contest. Exciting back line with Kinghorn, Fife, Duhan van der Merwe.

They are a team which has an excellent trait; they find a way to win at the death. They refuse to give up on a result and their performances in recent weeks have borne this out. Ulster Rugby road trip was a key victory; the composure to win the contest with the drop goal shows composure, maturity and leadership. A team with massive aspirations this season and going forward!

Cardiff Blues have increased their performance in recent months so much so that they are now in the Conference A playoff hunt putting pressure on the Toyota Cheetahs. An experienced front five with the likes of Rees and Jenkins in the ranks. The eight channel is covered by Nick Williams. Allen in the second row and Navidi in the seven position, pack is solid.

Blues have progressed well in their expansive play. Anscombe is a key cog in terms of game management and with the likes of Lane and Evans playing at a high level, they will travel to Edinburgh with no fear. All the pundits will point to a home victory.

This to me is the closest game of the weekend. Blues pose mobility and breakdown issues for Edinburgh Rugby to address. This game could conceivably go to extra time as I do not think either side will give an inch. Edinburgh to potentially shade it at the death but this will be a game where the fine margins will be minute.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Quarter Final Predictions

Easter weekend has finally arrived. The European Rugby Champions Cup quarter final action kicks off in Wales where Scarlets and La Rochelle will do battle. Easter Saturday has an intriguing battle with injury ravaged Munster Rugby facing the squad depth of Toulon. Easter Sunday has the potential to be epic with ASM Clermont hoping that home advantage will get them over the line against a rejuvenated Racing 92 while Leinster and Saracens battle it out in a heavyweight tussle at the Aviva Stadium. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict some winners from these tantalizing fixtures.

This on paper has offloading central written all over the fixture but given the inclement weather conditions forecast, the dynamics of this fixture have changed. Scarlets front five need to set the platform early; huge onus on the likes of Lee, Owens, Evans, Beirne to achieve this so as to provide quality possession for their half backs to unleash their exciting back field.

Scott Williams for me plays such a crucial role for this side. His pace and line break ability provides the nous to unlock any defense. Along with Hadleigh Parkes, the three quarter partnership is an excellent unit. Parkes provides superb defensive awareness and a good open field kicking game. Steff Evans is a try scoring machine. Potency aplenty.

La Rochelle have had a mixed couple of months; their form has dipped since the start of the year and struggled over the line to advance to the last eight of this competition after quite an assured, exciting start. Massive injury blows with La Rochelle with All Blacks flanker Victor Vito (calf) and France centre Geoffrey Doumayrou (knee) both ruled out. Another All Black, second row Jason Eaton, is also sidelined.

Scarlets are quite strong favorites to advance here given that team news but La Rochelle’s game plan may switch from expansive to hitting the trenches with the pack. The weather conditions have prompted Wayne Pivac to go for a six (forwards) / two (backs) split on the bench.

Kicking game needs to be on point from the hosts as La Rochelle do have exciting back field options themselves. Aguillon and Botia will relish open field to run into provided if Scarlets kick chase is not at the standard required.

Hopefully the weather does not play its part as this fixture has excitement written all over it. Scarlets after an even first quarter to express themselves in the second half to win by seven points. La Rochelle are a danger but the injuries to Vito and Doumayrou look fatal to their hopes.

Thomond Park sold out signs appeared on Monday; no ticket in sight for this eagerly anticipated encounter. Munster Rugby have injury concerns aplenty but the expectation is that Zebo, Conway and Rory Scannell will be fit to line out for this contest. The injuries to Keith Earls and Chris Farrell in the back field are a blow but it is an opportunity for the likes of Arnold and Wooton to take and they will not let the side down.

Toulon come into this contest high with confidence. Their 49-0 home win to ASM Clermont provided ample evidence of their capabilities. The front five never let their opposition to settle or create any platform. They mauled effectively and with the battering ram Basteraud a prominent ball carrier, tries quickly ensued. Fekitoa was immense with his ball carries.

How do Munster Rugby win this contest? Effective game management and kicking game particularly in exit strategy. Munster cannot let Toulon camp in their twenty-two for long periods so the onus is on Murray and Keatley to take charge and kick well.

The back row contest intrigues me. Will Munster Rugby throw a curve ball and name Conor Oliver as the seven? A superb grappler in the breakdown, Oliver’s mobility could be decisive. O’Donoghue, Copeland and O’Callaghan obviously come into the reckoning as well.

Toulon’s game plan will be interesting. I suspect that they will try to run the ball through Munster Rugby at the weekend but I think Munster Rugby’s defensive line speed, conditioning and mobility across the park may be the difference here. Toulon on the road have being a pale shadow of the team at home this season. Toulon to lose composure and the penalty battle ultimately.

The atmosphere will be electric on Saturday. Nigel Owens officiating the game adds to the occasion. Munster Rugby know their backs are against the wall and if they can expose Toulon’s back three defensively in the kicking game, there is no question that Munster Rugby can win. It is with this hope that Munster Rugby emerge victorious after a titanic struggle. Munster by three points.

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ASM Clermont look vulnerable here. A home fixture for ASM Clermont should be a nailed on win but this season has seen ASM Clermont really struggle for form and consistency. The side last weekend were an embarrassment, shut down, out fought, out thought. The tackle completion rate of 67% speaks volumes; the side were not at it last weekend.

Soul searching week in Clermont which Racing 92 will enter the game in relatively good spirits. Racing 92 have the pack to win this battle and with an exciting back field containing Teddy Thomas, all is primed for a superb performance on the road.

Clermont will surely bounce back and have a reaction from last weekend’s road trip mauling but this side are a pale shadow of the side which trounced Saracens at the back end of last year. Injuries have certainly taken their toll and has created cohesion issues in various units.

Racing 92 have the fortitude and leadership required here to absorb the home side’s early promise to win this tie going away. The half back battle will be interesting. Lopez and Parra need to dominate game management but with Machenaud and Carter potentially in opposition, cannot see that happening.

The Racing 92 pack looks abrasive and with Donnacha Ryan continuing to produce consistently high performances, there is a road trip win here for Racing 92. The prize is motivation enough; a home semi-final berth. Racing 92 to upset ASM Clermont who will need to wait yet another year for European Cup triumph. Racing 92 to win in a cagey affair; penalty kicking contest and win by six points.

This is the fixture of the weekend. The key question for me is how much do Leinster Rugby have in the tank? After a tasking international fixture window, the fringe squad players looked flat against Ospreys last weekend. It makes team selection easy for Cullen and Lancaster (not ideal) this weekend as they have to bring back all the Irish internationals. No fringe players put the hand up for selection which was disappointing.

Was the Ospreys performance last weekend a case of an off day or does it suggest fatigue in the squad? If fatigue is creeping in, it is coming at the business end of the season when you do not want it to happen. There is no better side to exploit fatigue and weakness in conditioning than Saracens.

Saracens bring a formidable side to the Aviva Stadium. Solid, abrasive pack but has the finesse out wide to finish off teams with excellent tries. Aviva Stadium is a happy hunting ground for Saracens. Last season, they did a professional job on Munster Rugby. They quietened the crowd, nullified Munster Rugby’s game plan and won with a bit to spare. The venue has good memories.

Leinster Rugby are an excellent side too. Their pack will be abrasive with the front row of Furlong, Cronin and Healy looking to probe at set piece. The second row and back options are excellent. Toner, Ryan and Fardy will provide solid line out options. The back row options of Leavy, Conan and Murphy are on point. Expect massive collisions!

The half back battle will be intriguing. McGrath / Sexton vs. Wigglesworth / Farrell. The kicking game is going to be superb viewing. Both units possess excellent kicking games and will decide which team emerges victorious. Saracens will look for Leinster indiscipline; look to work the scoreboard. 3,6,9.,12 and if that happens, Leinster Rugby are chasing the game, the perfect setup for Saracens.

The back lines possess serious threats as well. Liam Williams provides added values with ball in hand for the Saracens outfit. Garry Ringrose at thirteen is coming into this side relatively fresh, expect some serious line breaks from the player but it will be tough when facing the likes of Barritt.

50/50 game here. Leinster Rugby to summon the energy to get over the line in an epic tussle. However, if Leinster Rugby’s Irish players do not get to the pitch of the game early, this is a game that could conceivably get away from Leo Cullen’s men pretty quickly. Edge of the seat viewing. I cannot wait!

 

 

 

 

Connacht Rugby vs. Gloucester Rugby Preview

Gloucester Rugby make the trip to Galway looking to secure a European Rugby Challenge Cup semi-final berth against a Connacht side who come into this contest with questions aplenty to answer. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action and identifies a couple of pregame talking points.

What Connacht Rugby will turn up?

It has being a very Jekyll and Hyde season for Connacht Rugby. When they have being accurate, excellent performances have ensued, thinking of their home win to Munster Rugby and how close they were to pulling off an elusive road trip win away to Leinster Rugby.

When Connacht Rugby have not being accurate, it has resulted in disastrous cameos particularly at home seen to full effect against the likes of Zebre Rugby and Edinburgh Rugby in recent months. It is a worrying trend for Kieran Keane and management and they have struggled to come up with an answer to this inconsistency.

Restarts, kicking game, defensive breakdown issues all exposed in recent weeks. The loss to Edinburgh and the manner of the loss has to have had an effect; players and management singing off the same hymn sheet. Otherwise, this could be a long afternoon against an expansive, pacy Gloucester Rugby side.

Gloucester Rugby look to start better this week

A road trip win at Madejski Stadium last weekend on first glance looks like a good morale boosting victory ahead of European Challenge Cup action. 29-33 but looking at the game highlights, this was an absolute horror show from Gloucester in the opening period.

Error strewn, penalty guzzling opening quarter performance where London Irish strode out to a 17-0 lead. Suffice to say, a better well equipped side would have kept Gloucester at arms length for the rest of the contest. All credit for the fightback and the ability to win the fixture. Several excellent line breaks from Hanson and Marshall.

Given those circumstances, there is hope for Connacht Rugby if they can start with high tempo and accuracy in the opening exchanges. Can Connacht test the fringes enough to create line breaks? Defensive lapses in both halves of football, something acknowledged by Ackermann in post-game comments.

Decisive Opening Quarter Pack Exchanges

The front five battle looks intriguing in this contest. Gloucester’s pack boasts the likes of John Afoa and Ed Slater in the ranks and their ability to retain the ball in the tight exchanges was seen to full effect last weekend in their comeback win. However at times, the line out can be a little inconsistent. This was seen against Pau at Kingsholm this season where an ambitious throw to the back of the line out was gleefully picked up by Armitage to score.

Connacht are going to have to absorb pressure in the scrum as Gloucester’s front row have impressed this season in this area. It will be up to the likes of Bealham to stem the tide and look to secure a platform. Big onus on Dillane as well to deliver an excellent performance. He needs to put pressure on the line out seening as Hibbert is out of this contest.

The back row exchanges will be abrasive and competitive. Ludlow is an expansive seven who ably supports from a ball carrying perspective in attack. Polledri is potentially could be the replacement for Parisse in the Italian national side and Ackermann is an incredible athlete and physical eight. Ackermann’s duel with Muldoon will be a major talking point.

Considering Romain Poite will be officiating the game, the set piece exchanges in the scrum become even more important. Connacht need to set the tone early. Afoa as prop could be a decisive match winner in this facet of play and penalties could be won for Burns or Twelvetrees to slot over. Connacht are due warned!

Intriguing Game Management

I have watched quite a bit of both sides this season and the one thing that jumps out to me before this contest is game management. Gloucester Rugby have shown the good, the bad and the downright ugly in game management this season; elude back to their road trip loss to Northampton Saints where they decided to play from their own posts instead of protecting their lead and executing an kick exit strategy.

Cue penalty conceded close to their line, penalty try to Saints and Gloucester Rugby had lost the game. Connacht as well were guilty of hapless game management last weekend; need we say anymore on the Fife try and the game winning try by Weir? Hopeless game management of both situations.

Gloucester Rugby will look to run the ball at every opportunity like Connacht Rugby but there needs to be a balanced approach as well. Kicking game will be vital so it is imperative for Jack Carty / Craig Ronaldson and Billy Burns / Billy Twelvetrees to hit good positional kicks to touch at different intervals.

Two sides who like to play the game in the right area but perhaps not in the right areas? Any game management miscalculation on Saturday could prove fatal in either side’s hopes of securing a last four berth. An intriguing clash beckons, hopefully Poite lets the game flow but he will be fussy at the breakdown, offside and line-out which could be at odds to officiating in this competition seen by both sides so far this season.

Munster Rugby vs. Toulon Preview

Easter Weekend. It is decision day for Munster Rugby and Toulon in their quest to secure an European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final berth. Sold out Thomond Park. Limerick is a buzz with excitement for this fixture given the personnel that Toulon have in their squad. Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints a couple of major talking points ahead of this game.

Emotion needs to be kept in check by Munster

The early week news conference given by Johann van Graan was interesting to say the least. The typical sound bites of respecting the opposition were uttered but not before van Graan proclaimed ”You want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning’. His eyes welling up when he uttered those words.

Emotion is something that needs to be held on tap during game week; preparation needs to be on point, tactics and personnel responsibilities assigned and executed well on the training paddock. Munster Rugby have being guilty of leaving performances in the locker room last season when emotive talk was uttered.

I am thinking in terms of the Saracens European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final and the Guinness Pro 12 final with Scarlets last season where Munster Rugby where the performance was flat and one dimensional. Talks of emotive speeches before hand was a trend.

The head coach needs to lead by example, clinical and meticulous in preparation. It is a huge game for van Graan; his first playoff contest as Munster Rugby head coach. The press conference during the week emphasized as much and emotion needs to be used at the right time when appropriate.

Toulon Confidence

Many people have pointed to their performance last weekend against ASM Clermont. Toulon to their credit were excellent, a 49-0 shutout win over a Clermont side whose tackle completion statistic of 67% spoke volumes. Toulon benefited from a visiting side whose pack failed to assert any platform and the team who were second best throughout.

Clermont’s defensive display bordered on embarrassing at times and one would hope that Munster Rugby will produce a better performance without the ball with excellent defensive line speed, competitive breakdown work as well as hitting first time tackles.

Toulon Threats

There are threats throughout this Toulon side. The front five pack a massive punch and their attacking line outs and mauls will look to test their Munster Rugby’s counterparts and exploits gaps in the fringes. Bastareaud is the attacking fulcrum where all good things come. The center was prominent in last weekend’s blowout win, offloading at regular intervals, assists for Ashton and Fekitoa tries.

Fekitoa with ball in hand is an explosive ball carrier and Munster Rugby’s defensive shape and organization will need to be on point this weekend. Massive threats all over the park and I have not even mentioned the likes of Isa and Lobbe in the engine room of the pack. Nonu could also feature in the three quarters. The squad assembled is immense. Belleau or Trinh Duc for the ten jersey. Intriguing selections beckon for Fabien Galthie.

Munster injury concerns

Ireland’s success in the Natwest 6 Nations tournament has come at a price for Munster Rugby. The back line squad depth is being tested to its limits. Chris Farrell and Keith Earls are unavailable due to injury. There are doubts on the fitness of Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway ahead of this contest along with Rory Scannell who is following return to play protocol.

Munster Rugby potentially may need to summon several young players to get over the line this weekend. Alex Wooton has had an excellent breakout season, prominent in the Scarlets Pro 14 home win last weekend. His performances in European Cup games this season when featured has being on point. Sam Arnold at thirteen has a massive task this weekend; attempt to nullify Bastareaud while providing pace and mobility to create line breaks. Arnold’s pace on the outside potentially could cause Toulon massive issues. The players who will feature will not let the side down.

Rory Scannell

It is imperative that Rory Scannell features in this contest. His versatility and kicking game in open play will provide an added dimension to Munster’s attacking play. Scannell has the potential to keep Toulon’s midfield off balance with his game management and kicking game to unleash Sam Arnold at thirteen.

Munster Seven Jersey Conundrum

The pack will be along familiar lines with the big question is who will fill the seven jersey. Chris Cloete and Tommy O’Donnell are sidelined with injury and it opens the door for the likes of Robin Copeland, Dave O’Callaghan or Conor Oliver to contribute from the start.

Copeland is in terrific form at present; his man of the match performance against Scarlets  last weekendmust have the Wexford man in a strong position to start. Oliver could be the dark horse selection, grapples well at the breakdown and his mobility to support the ball carrier a huge plus. Dave O’Callaghan brings utter physicality on both sides of the ball.

Effective Kicking Game

This is going to be so crucial to decide who wins this contest. Munster Rugby’s kicking game last weekend was incredibly poor in the opening period, a repeat and Toulon could do serious damage. Conor Murray will be a significant upside to this facet of play for Munster Rugby, his kicking game will allow Munster to test the Toulon back three.

Chris Ashton at full back could be exposed at precise times by Murray and Keatley during this contest. The Toulon back three on paper are sensational with ball in hand but questions defensively are there to be exploited. Toulon’s game plan will be interesting. Will they look to execute a kicking game or attempt to run the ball using their pack? Munster Rugby to win need to dominate this facet of play. A clash of styles beckon!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 Review (Part 2)

As promised, the second part of the Guinness Pro 14 Round 17 review. It was a mixed bag for the Italian and South African sides while Glasgow Warriors moved one win away from securing a home playoff semi-final berth. For the Dragons, it was a case of same again with yet another loss in the league.

Glasgow Warriors were at their devastating best with a 68-7 trouncing of a shell shocked Zebre Rugby. In my blog preview of round seventeen, I was concerned for Zebre Rugby; how expansive would they go before being opened up by the Warriors.

The simple answer was that Zebre Rugby did not have to go expansive to get thumped, the hosts did the needful themselves with an excellent cohesive pack and back unit performance which left the Italians at times chasing shadows.

The scoreline speaks volumes. 40-0 up at the break only a try from Canna early in the second half prevented the whitewash. The passing game at times was sublime with DTH van der Merwe prominent throughout and a brace of tries for his efforts.

If that was not enough, Zebre Rugby gifted an intercept try as well as a penalty try as their pack were going backwards at a rate of knots. Glasgow Warriors have being the form side of the Conference A from the very first game.

Warriors thoroughly deserve their home semi-final berth which should be clinched in the coming weeks. The key will be how the side keep their performances at a high level while also looking at the playoffs and resting key personnel along the way.

 

Zebre Rugby were taught a massive lesson in road trip performance; they failed to deliver a performance from minute one relinquishing territory and points thereafter at a worryingly rate. Two steps back in this fixture for the side.

Zebre Rugby will know that they will not face a side like Glasgow Warriors every day of the week but given the lack of fundamentals in their play last Friday night, plenty of sides would fancy running a score against the Italians which is a shame considering the progress that Michael Bradley’s side has made. The team and squad depth looked jaded here and perhaps the fatigue element is beginning to show as we approach the final quarter of the season given the inexperience in the playing group.

Toyota Cheetahs are my guilty pleasure of this tournament. They do not deviate from their game plan; it is a fast paced, expansive contest regardless of the conditions. Their third quarter performance blew a youthful Dragons outfit out of the water inspired by Sibahle Maxwane and Fred Zeilinga who crossed over for three tries collectively in that period.

The pace, power and passing selection were all superb for these tries and it opened the contest up. A vital fourth try was scored before the end to keep the pressure on Munster Rugby as well as keeping Cardiff Blues at arms length. Conference A is a race for the the second and third spots. Glasgow Warriors are over the horizon and it is now a tossup between Munster Rugby, Cheetahs and Cardiff Blues to see who fills the other two playoff berths.

I would love to see the Cheetahs in the playoffs, their brand of rugby in drying track conditions mean that they are a serious threat for anyone in this conference come May. Blommetjies at full back is sensational joining the line; his pace was a key factor in this victory for the South Africans. An exciting playoff run in beckons with Munster Rugby yet to travel to Bleomfontein.

This was always a season of transition for Dragons. The new franchise tag. A new head coach arriving at Rodney Parade needing to run the rule over a youthful squad. The last couple of months in the league has being incredibly hard; no wins in the league in 2018. There are glimpses of potential in the side; a good opening quarter failed to put the required scores on the board. Hewitt on the wing is an emerging talent, pace and tidy finisher and was again on the scoresheet.

The issue for Dragons is when they do go under the cosh, their defensive lapses and penalty count soar due to the inexperience in the squad. Cheetahs exploited Dragons defensively with their expansive ball carrying game plan. Blommetjies in particular had a field day coming into the line. Dragons had no answer in the second half even though Dee scored with ten minutes to go to make the contest interesting at the death. Experience is key and Dragons do not have it in many areas.

The recruitment process needs to identify further experienced, solid performers in the pack, center and half-back positions. Otherwise, Bernard Jackman will be walking the tightrope this time next year. It is a key period for Dragons management right now; they need to heed the players who are not hitting the standard required. Jackman gets the pass this season but this side needs to evolve next season, otherwise the fans will make their feelings known by not attending home games at Rodney Parade. Critical preparation for next season has already begun!

This was an excellent road trip win for Benetton Rugby, a defining one in that they needed to close out a contest late and they duly did so. Marty Banks provided leadership and game management to steer the side to this win. Five tries scored in total against the Southern Kings. An excellent opening half offensively from Benetton Rugby but defensively struggled particularly in that final quarter. One point in the difference but Benetton Rugby were disciplined to win the contest.

A progressive season for the Italian side and games like this should create momentum and confidence heading into next season. The pack is progressing, still not the finished article but set the platform in this victory with the opening period try burst to start the contest. The back line assisted by Marty Banks continues to evolve with ball in hand but defensively cannot lapse as badly again particularly on the Makase line break, no try but the defensive lapse would be punished by a better side.

So close yet so far again, the Southern Kings were made paid for a slow start and it cost them this fixture. A one point loss at home hurts badly and particularly when they had a man advantage in the third quarter, they failed to put points on the board. In actual fact, Benetton Rugby scored a penalty during this period to win this ten minute period 0-3 which was vital to the final outcome.

The word consistency comes into the equation with the Southern Kings. When they are accurate with ball in hand, they are an effective side. They scored five tries during this contest but the defensive side of the ball is way off the standard required.

The lack of discipline at crucial stages in the second half evident; hopefully there will be solid recruitment in this franchise next season across all units. It is required to give Southern Kings a chance to compete in this league; otherwise would suggest to the South African RFU to disband the team immediately.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 Reflections

The weekend before European Champions and Challenge Cup quarter final weekend yielded some interesting results. For some, it marks realistically the end of the playoff pursuit. For others, it sees further momentum built heading into the business end of the season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action from an Irish province perspective (other games to be covered tomorrow!).

When you are a head coach and coaching staff a week out from a European Challenge Cup quarter final fixture, you are looking for a good solid outing where players are putting their hands up for selection, defensively sound with solid game management to boot.

Kieran Keane has a massive job on his hands to raise the morale of this Connacht team given the performance produced last Friday night. How do you as a head coach try to analyze the mess that was Dougie Fife’s opening try after ten seconds?

O’Halloran’s kick was blocked so you would imagine no big deal but the response and ineptitude of the Connacht players after the block was extraordinary. No leadership. No communication. No initiative to take control of the situation. Healy looking at Blade to take control and vice versa. Comedy central defensive stuff.

There were some excellent attacking moments from the hosts, they scored three well worked tries. O’Halloran’s opening try an excellent score, great running line and the pass to the full back from McKeon was sublime. The try from Tom Farrell in the second half was well taken. Jack Carty was on point with his kicking before going off on the hour.

However, the video analysis in Connacht will have to focus on the defensive lapses. There were too many gain line breaks from Edinburgh which should have being stifled at source throughout. Duhan van der Merwe’s try was a sensational solo effort but also put the spotlight on the outside defense. The South African easily getting over as his pace left the back three in his wake.

The game winning touchdown was an apt way of summarize Connacht’s woes on the night. Ronaldson was guilty of some poor kicks prior to his decision to attempt to kick in behind Edinburgh’s fast defensive line. The kick was a debatable play; the execution was poor and Weir took full advantage, blocking the kick and touching down (just about) to give Edinburgh the lead which they would not relinquish.

Connacht at vital times failed to execute in game management, several speculative passes out wide did not stick giving easy territory to Edinburgh who were the more organized side. Their ability to not lose composure in the final quarter crucial; they sensed that Connacht would cough up ball to setup an opportunity and so it proved.

Edinburgh march on with added momentum while Connacht’s Guinness Pro 14 playoff bid has ended before April has begun. Another miserably inconsistent home showing. The international players and Muldoon were misses but let us face facts, the players on the pitch had enough experience to game manage and win this contest with twenty minutes to go which will infuriate the coaching team.

If Gloucester Rugby watch this video game tape, they will look to put pressure on Connacht’s kicking game throughout. The kicking game apart from Jack Carty was a mixed bag; labored and with no significant chase to support the kick. All haphazard stuff and a week to go before a crucial European Challenge Cup fixture!

22-29 on reflection was about right. Edinburgh were the more accurate side, deserved their victory. You would hope that the loss will sting Connacht into a reaction next weekend. The performance levels have to improve. Connacht fans will wonder what side turns out next weekend in Europe. Intriguing behind the scenes incidents beckon in Galway this week!

A massive reality check for Leinster Rugby against a resurgent Ospreys side. The visitors can have little qualms on the result as Ospreys were the hungrier side who physically dominated pack exchanges with Wyn Jones and Tipuric prominent throughout. Quick ruck ball allowing Biggar to launch his three quarters with unerring accuracy and success particularly in the opening half.

Leinster Rugby at times were chasing shadows such were the running lines employed by Ospreys on the night. Dan Evans had a sensational evening; scored a brace of tries and was a constant threat with ball in hand when hitting the line.

Habberfield had an excellent game at nine, his link up play with Biggar was excellent. The scrum half was rewarded with a fine score just before the interval. Leinster defensively missing first up tackles allowing Ospreys to create line breaks. Habberfield’s supporting running line on point to go over unopposed.

Tipuric then got in on the action straight after the break, crashing over as the Ospreys pack asserted dominance with a commanding maul before the bonus point try. Tipuric’s work around the fringes and his ability to win ball at the breakdown was excellent. A worthy man of the match recipient.

Leinster Rugby will acknowledge that they were second best on the night. A couple of internationals in the ranks had mixed performances; excesses of recent weeks catching up with them. There were further injury concerns as Fergus McFadden, Noel Reid and Dave Kearney went off with serious injury and are surely extreme doubts for European action next weekend.

Leinster Rugby though never gave up and had a good cameos from the likes of Barry Daly who scored just before the interval. A question mark on the grounding for sure and the hosts will feel hard done by. O’Loughlin also crossed after a deft chip behind but their resurgency was quietened down in the final exchanges as Ospreys pack reasserted further dominance. Biggar did the rest with two excellent penalties to close out the contest. 32-18.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster on the basis of this performance will have an easy time with some team selections. Healy, Cronin, Furlong, Toner / Ryan, Leavy, Sexton, Ringrose will all return to the lineup. Can Sean O’Brien prove his fitness as well for that titanic struggle against Saracens? Momentum needs to be generated this week on the training paddock as the performance at Ospreys was nowhere near good enough.

19-7 win over the Scarlets only tells a portion of the story. A win to provide momentum for sure from a Munster Rugby perspective but the injury crisis has deepened even further. Tommy O’Donnell unlucky run of injuries this season continues; forced off in the second half with a shoulder injury. O’Donnell was the perfect foil for Toulon to replace also injury stricken Chris Cloete.

What worked for Munster Rugby last night? The second half display was very much on point. The pack were abrasive around the fringes. Copeland relished the Scarlets challenge with a sublime performance of ball carrying, breakdown work. The Wexford man was a big performer and given his recent form must be in with a good chance of starting against Toulon next weekend. Arnold’s line breaks excellent along with Hanrahan.

Munster Rugby kept their composure in a vile officiating display at Thomond Park. Mitrea and officiating crew need to be called to account for a shambolic performance. Both sides will have grievances. No officiating of players at the breakdown, very little credence to teams and persistent offside. Both sides will need to look at this facet of play because other European Cup officiating teams will ping for sure next weekend.

The James Cronin try incident reduced this game as a farce. Cronin reaching out to touchdown, clearly no double movement. If this interpretation of the law was applied thereafter, do not think either side would have strung more than three phases of play each. The Wooton try at the end, personally looked a forward pass but TMO gave it. Inconsistency at its best and something that Scarlets also can feel aggrieved.

What did not work for Munster Rugby? Woefully slow start to the fixture. Aled Davies benefiting from quick offloading to go over as Scarlets threatened to cut loose in that opening quarter. Their passing was crisp and on point. Munster somehow survived the early onslaught and gained a foothold in the game. Kleyn and the front five building a platform.

The key point coming out of this contest is that both sides will not be thanking Mitrea and officiating crew for their officiating style. It was a poor performance. James Davies was lucky not to see a yellow card after sticking his foot out at Sam Arnold who went crashing to the ground. No penalty, no card. It will be different next week.

I thought Scarlets were a lock next week but after seeing their second half performance, I have my doubts. The side tired rapidly in the final quarter and their game plan became very one dimensional. Hopefully, the side can regroup and beat La Rochelle as they are a joy to watch with ball in hand but there were signs that certain key players faded out of the contest due to fatigue.

For Munster Rugby, it will be a case of seeing who is fit to start against Toulon. The seven jersey needs to be filled and with Cloete / O’Donnell out, it opens the door for a squad player to fill the jersey entering the business end of the season. Oliver, Copeland come into the mix for me here. The back line worries me with the physicality of Nonu and Basteraud in midfield, more during the week on this site on that threat.

A critical win for Munster Rugby to keep Toyota Cheetahs at arm’s length but Johann van Graan will look for the performance levels to vastly improve next weekend. The kicking game in particular needs to improve drastically, very poor in the opening period allowing Scarlets to create deep in Munster territory. Things to tweak and improve upon might not be the best thing for Munster this week. Backs to the wall attitude required for Munster!

Edinburgh Rugby put down the gauntlet with their road win to Connacht on Friday night. Ulster Rugby were asked the question to respond and they failed in an abject manner. The season looks lost after this fixture. Thirteen points behind Edinburgh Rugby and it looks like the Irish province just want the season to finish now.

Cardiff Blues like Edinburgh Rugby have being progressive in recent months. Cardiff Blues have beaten Munster Rugby at home in recent weeks and sensed an Ulster Rugby whose defensive vulnerabilities on the road were seen again in this fixture.

Ulster Rugby were unable to handle Jarrod Evans on the day. Evans controlled affairs superbly well and his first minute try set the tone. Blues hit their second try fourteen minutes later when Scully went over after some impressive attacking play from Morgan and Williams.

The Irish province were forced to chase the game thereafter; penalty opportunities were kicked to touch in the desperate hope of scoring tries but Cardiff Blues defensively stood up to the test and picked their moments in the second half to secure the bonus point try.

Darcy went over after concerted phase play from the hosts and then with the clock in red, Evans fed replacement prop Lewis to crash over. A critical fourth try which keeps Cardiff Blues in the playoff hunt. Ulster Rugby are a shambles at present.

Gibbes gone at the end of the season. No significant player recruits apart from Murphy and Moore. On the basis of this performance, they need much more squad improvements across all units. The lack of discipline at times was incredible. Herbst’s yellow card summed up the indiscipline; dangerous clearout with the arm which could have seen a red card.

Further Ulster distractions this week as Paddy Jackson and Stuart Holding await their fate in a Belfast courtroom. It is a season to forget for Ulster Rugby. Who will look to take over as head coach? It is looking bleak for Ulster, sad to see given the personnel and skill set that is at the club. All quite baffling to say the truth.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 – March 23rd Fixture Preview

All the euphoria of Ireland’s Natwest 6 Nations success last weekend is done and dusted, it is time for the Guinness Pro 14 to take center stage. A critical round for the teams who will be involved in European Champions and Challenge Cup competitions next weekend; a last opportunity for those teams to create momentum ahead of those fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Connacht in must win territory

A critical fixture for Connacht Rugby. A loss at home at the hands of a resurgent Edinburgh Rugby side will condemn the side to looking at the playoff race unfold from the outside. Kieran Keane has decided to rest his international players apart from Quinn Roux for this fixture. Apart from that, the side is pretty much full strength.

Edinburgh make five changes from the side which accounted for Munster Rugby last weekend in a scrappy encounter. Kinghorn returns to the full back role. Marfo returns to the front row. Berghan and Gilchrist come into a strong looking pack.

50/50 contest here. Connacht Rugby need a strong performance before their Challenge Cup encounter against Gloucester Rugby. However, performance consistency has being a problem in recent rounds. Edinburgh will look to quell the hosts advances in the opening period and win this contest in the second half based on a solid pack platform. Edinburgh’s form and winning habit to get them over the line here in a close contest.

Can the Dragons roar past the Cheetahs?

This looks like an arduous task for Bernard Jackman’s charges. After a deflating beat down on the road to the Southern Kings, morale in the camp must be low. It is a blessing that the international contingent are available for selection to hopefully arrest the team performance slide.

Cory Hill, Elliot Dee and Hallam Amos all come into the start lineup. The three quarters partnership is an unknown quantity as Edwards and Beard are named. Kirchner plays from full back, interesting to see if the South African international can join the attacking line and contribute. Aaron Wainwright and Lewis Evans come into the back row and tight-head prop Lloyd Fairbrother lines up in the front row.

Cheetahs name a couple of changes to their starting lineup. Marais moves to inside centre to compensate for an injury to Nico Lee, meaning Fred Zeilinga comes in at fly-half. William Small-Smith returns to the side from injury on the right wing and Rabz Maxwano starts on the other wing. Oupa Mohoje comes into the back row.

The track conditions are vital in this fixture as the Cheetahs will look to create an expansive game from the first whistle. Can the Dragons pack stifle the Cheetahs at the breakdown? Dragons attacking options in Hewitt and Amos potentially will provide pace and creativity.

Dragons kicking game needs to be on point throughout; there will be occasions where loose kicking and game management will happen and the Cheetahs will flourish. Cheetahs to put pressure on Munster Rugby with a road trip win, no bonus point try.

Glasgow Warriors to dominate Zebre Rugby

It is top versus bottom in Conference A. Zebre Rugby’s focus this weekend is to be competitive. The pack needs to be on point in their ability to disrupt Warriors ball and provide a solid set piece platform for Canna to attempt to create line break opportunities.

It is going to be a tall order. Glasgow Warriors have named a strong squad for this fixture. Dave Rennie will be keen to start this tranche of games in the competition will renewed vigor on both sides of the ball. The pack looks strong with the likes of Fagerson and Harley in the unit. Hastings gets game time at ten. Jackson, Grigg, Van der Merwe feature in an exciting back line.

Zebre Rugby recall their Italian internationals for this contest; their road trip win in Galway was a high point and more of the same organized defensive setup with fluidity in their attacking play is required. The question for Zebre Rugby is how expansive do they become as their hosts will relish an open field battle.

Expect tries galore in this encounter. Glasgow Warriors to pull away in this fixture in the third quarter as Zebre’s pack is put on the back foot. Hoping Michael Bradley’s side produce a defiant performance but this Warriors side at home are an incredibly hard outfit to breakdown and their ability to launch defense into attack will be too much at times. Bonus point try win for Glasgow.

Podcast Central: Ireland Grand Slam Special (Part 1 and Part 2)

The euphoria of Ireland’s Grand Slam win is captured in these podcasts recorded early this week. Hawkeye Sidekick and Philip Smith reflect on a superb day for Irish rugby!

Review of the England game. Ireland delivered to a man. England floundered with ball in hand. 

Reflections on Ireland and where Joe Schmidt’s side needs to improve upon before embarking on their trip to Australia this summer as well as the November visit of New Zealand to the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland Grand Slam Champions: Reflections

The Natwest 6 Nations tournament is in the books. A highly impressive Ireland performance securing a 24-15 victory over an English side who were kept at arms length throughout. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the success for the new Natwest 6 Nations champions.

Defining Ireland Performance?

Ireland’s performance at Twickenham personally was a defining moment for the national side. This was a controlled, clinical performance where the players executed the coaching game plan to the letter of the law.

The coaching mismatches were evident as early as six minutes into this contest. Ireland identifying Watson’s vulnerabilities under the high ball with Sexton executing the aerial bomb on point. The chase from Rob Kearney to disrupt in that aerial challenge, coupled with Ringrose’s support running to Kearney if the ball went loose was sublime.

The clinical nature in which Ireland set out about exposing England’s defensive gaps was astounding. The move to open up England for the second try was sensational. The roles of Sexton, Furlong, Aki to Stander who crashed over. Simmonds exposed badly in the England defensive line as Bundee Aki carved out a massive hole in the England defense.

England may have thought that the Ireland attacking threat was done for the opening period when the impressive Sexton went off for a blood substitution. Think again. Murray identifying slack defense in the England ranks allowing the try scoring machine Jacob Stockdale to create; nice kick over the top exposing Brown and May defensively to score the decisive third try before the interval.

The second half may have seen a reduced possession count for Ireland but the visitors were still dangerous with ball in hand. The fact that Ireland consolidated rather than hit the line for attacking line outs spoke volumes. Murray kicking on point as Ireland hit 24 points; now was time to soak up England pressure and close out the contest. Mission accomplished.

Ireland performances in the past would have being error strewn, nervy at times, winning a cliffhanger to secure the win but this was a calm, collected performance from Ireland. The performance level at Twickenham from Ireland is the blueprint going forward. All players were on point. Kudos to the back row, they dominated the open and breakdown exchanges which then saw England lose discipline thereafter.

Leavy, O’Mahony and Stander deserve huge credit for the work rate, ball carries and defensive work against England. The front five fronted up superbly as well against a lively opposition pack. Henderson’s selection was truly merited with a performance full of work rate, ball carrying and game management of the line out. James Ryan was outstanding; ball carrying and set piece execution on point. The front row continued to probe England in the scrum and work rate around the fringes was on point. Best in clear out work exceptional.

Ireland Squad Depth Identified

This was a challenging Natwest 6 Nations tournament for many teams due to injuries to several standout players. Ireland were no exception. When you consider the opening round of the tournament, Ireland were on the brink.

Teddy Thomas’ try had given the edge to France; more late heartbreak for Ireland to contend with but the team have shown incredible resiliency. 41 phases! 41 phases of hard work, fronting up, looking to break a resolute French gain line. The Sexton diagonal kick to Earls. Henderson’s ball carry making a couple more precious meters. Sexton drop goal. We know the rest! The momentum machine was now on overdrive.

Ireland squad injuries has created interesting test match selections and also provided key indications to the neutral whether Ireland have the squad depth. The answer with respect to the personnel drafted to the front row, second row, three quarters is an emphatic yes.

Andrew Porter’s cameo against Italy and Wales. James Ryan coming into the side to replace Donnacha Ryan. Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier provided quality support in the seven position along with Jack Conan at the eight channel. Sean O’Brien’s absence, a worry coming into this tournament negated well.

The thirteen channel was a source of injury woe throughout the tournament. Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell and Gary Ringrose all played massive parts to this side. Henshaw had an encouraging start to the tournament; his try showed his potential with ball in hand but then injury struck. Farrell then was summoned to fill the breach and what a contribution against Wales. Man of the match. Physically imposing, prominent in ball carries and game management but then injury struck again. Enter Ringrose who gave Huw Jones the run around in round four and then provided assured gain line breaks and the pivotal opening try against England.

Ireland Squad Depth Concerns?

At the start of the tournament, I questioned the squad depth of this side. Suffice to say that the injuries have helped answer this question in certain units. The nine and ten jersey are areas where squad depth is not yet fully determined.

Marmion played his part as the backup to the imperious Conor Murray; it was a shame that Luke McGrath was not able to play more game minutes as well.  Will John Cooney get an opportunity to impress after a promising Ulster debut season?

The ten jersey belongs to Sexton but we need to see the backup in this position during the Australian tour. Joey Carbery is the designate backup and should feature against Australia.

Can we determine a third option at the fly-half position? With Paddy Jackson currently in legal proceedings, other options need to be explored and assessed. Carty, Hanrahan, Keatley come into the mix. Tyler Bleyendaal’s injury woes continue. Does Rory Scannell come into the mix as an utility ten?

Key positions for Ireland ahead of the RWC 2019 to determine squad depth. Ireland’s fulcrum is Murray and Sexton and contingency is required in these positions if 2015 RWC injury crisis hits in the half-backs.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Five Preview

The Natwest 6 Nations tournament concludes tomorrow with all eyes on Twickenham where England will look to do what Ireland did to them last year and deny Joe Schmidt’s men of the Grand Slam and Triple Crowns titles to complement the championship accolade already won last weekend. Scotland and Wales will look to end their campaigns with victories over a hapless Italy and progressively improving France respectively.

Solid England Selection

Eddie Jones has wielded the axe for the last game of the tournament. A huge compliment to the Ireland half back pairing is the decision of Jones to pair Saracens team colleagues Wigglesworth and Farrell together in opposition. Wigglesworth is a solid operator at nine; game management, good kicking game and will look to release quick ruck ball for Owen Farrell who is now playing in his prime test match position. Jones is frightened of the threat posed by Murray and Sexton; this half back selection speaks volumes.

Owen Farrell now from the ten channel can dictate play on his terms. His kicking game is on point and his decision making to pass the ball so close to the gain line allows his colleagues a perfect platform to create line breaks. Joseph’s inclusion at thirteen a direct result of Farrell moving to ten. Joseph’s power and pace with ball in hand could seriously test Ireland defensively.

Ben Te’o retains his place at twelve and will provide the abrasive ball carrying aspect to this England three quarters partnership. It will be interesting to see if England’s support running is improved from last weekend; only five offloads last weekend and for England to seriously rumble Ireland, they will need to create tempo in their running play with good support line running throughout.

The pack was always going to have personnel changes given the injuries to Hughes and Lawes. The back row will have a wealth of experience as Haskell and Robshaw will look to create breakdown dominance. Simmonds come into the pack at eight; will be interesting to see if Simmonds can produce quick go forward ball at the back of the scrum. Questions on back row balance here? Time will tell.

Eddie Jones has recalled Dylan Hartley and Kyle Sinckler to the front row. Dan Coles and Jamie George are omitted. The two starting players have massive potential and skill set but question marks on their discipline at times will be tested tomorrow. Ireland may look to target both in the pack exchanges.

On paper, England have named a side which looks to be their best of the tournament. With an explosive back three as well as Daly for long range penalty kicks, England will look to establish supremacy early and force Ireland chase the game resulting in more opportunities for England to exploit down the stretch.

Ireland’s team selection went along familiar lines. Devin Toner for Iain Henderson is a coaching selection call. Toner has not put a foot wrong in this tournament since coming in against Wales in round three. Henderson provides incredible work rate and energy which will be required to stifle the influence of Itoje and Kruis in the England second row. Toner coming off the bench to call the set piece in the second half could be huge.

The structured game plan that Ireland have employed in this tournament has reaped the benefits; four wins, three of which securing the try bonus point which has allowed Ireland to claim the championship with a game to spare. Ireland’s pack will face their stiffest examination so far in this tournament; imperative a solid platform is created in the opening quarter.

The set piece will be tested by England who despite their struggles on the road have produced good front five performances particularly in the set piece. France struggled at times last weekend in the scrum and line out so Rory Best and his pack will need to play the percentages in the opening exchanges, not to let the home crowd get too involved early doors.

Garner’s officiating at the breakdown will be intriguing to watch in the early exchanges. How do Ireland and England adjust to his officiating style? Garner attempts to provide teams the opportunity to become expansive. Garner is at times resolute in penalizing teams attempting to kill the ball so both teams will need to adapt this facet of play.

I expect a strong England challenge tomorrow. There will be a backlash. Several England players looking to impress Jones and management; stake a claim for summer tour starting berths. 50/50 call. Ireland will need to cope with adversity at different points of this test match. The defensive structure will need to improve further in comparison to last week’s performance.

Hoping for an Ireland win but given the superiority and dominance that England enjoy in Twickenham and the fact that Ireland have not won at the venue for eight years, I am slightly leaning towards an England win. The losses to Scotland and France have awoken England and tomorrow, we will see the response.

Scotland stroll in Rome

I will not dwell too much on this test match. Italy’s work rate cannot be faulted but there are fundamental flaws in their game plan. A half back pairing whose game management is a mixed bag. No distinct kicking game from nine allowing opposition to gobble up Italian attacking threats with ease. The back line defensive shape at times has being very poor; soft tries conceded at a rate of knots and worryingly the pack has being second best in recent games.

If the weather allows, Scotland could put a big score up with their expansive play. Scotland will be keen to bounce back from the loss to Ireland last week. A twenty point loss was harsh considering the opportunities that Scotland created in that test match. Huw Jones’ pass to Stuart Hogg if it had gone to hand was a try. Peter Horne’s intercept try. A couple of second half breaks resulting in poor passing at the critical time.

Scotland’s pack will look to impose their authority on proceedings. Nel returns to the front row and will provide set piece stability. The Scotland back row will look to stifle Sergio Parisse and allow quick ruck ball to be presented to Laidlaw and Russell to cause damage in the back line featuring Seymour and Grigg; two superb ball carriers and with the ability to create line breaks at will here.

With Richie Gray back in the test match starting lineup, this has all the hallmarks of being an arduous afternoon for the Azzuri in front of their home crowd. Italy have not progressed in this tournament, the elusive tournament win seems as remote as ever (now entering into a full third season). The hope is that the U20 players and improving Pro 14 club success can be the springboard for future national team success.

Scotland to win at a canter,expect plenty of tries and phases of sheer brilliance from Scotland who will relish the track conditions on offer. Scotland to win by twenty points, bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. For Italy and Conor O’Shea, time to reflect and see where improvements in player recruitment can be made.

Wales and France conclude the tourney

Warren Gatland has recalled the big guns to face a French side who after two consecutive wins in this tournament must travel to Cardiff in relatively high spirits. Captain Alun Wyn Jones returns to the pack along with flanker Josh Navidi, prop Rob Evans and hooker Ken Owens, while Aaron Shingler is on the bench. Dan Biggar is back at fly-half, and full-back Leigh Halfpenny and centre Scott Williams are also included.

France have being forced to make a couple of personnel changes. Guilhem Guirado is injured so his place at hooker is taken by Adrien Pelissie. Cedate Gomes Sa starts at tight-head prop in place of Rabah Slimani. Gael Fickou comes in on the wing with Benjamin Fall moving to full-back in place of Hugo Bonneval. Bastareaud captains the side.

Guirado for me is a big loss to this French side, his skill set and work rate set the tone for others to follow. Fickou is a thirteen playing on the wing, interesting to see how North and Liam Williams look to expose Fickou in the wide exchanges.

Wales are aiming to finish second in the tournament; considering the injuries that they have being dealt during this tourney, it is a good outcome. Squad depth is definitely improved in the Welsh setup with plenty of fringe players before this tournament now firmly in Gatland’s plans going forward.

The Welsh back line is exciting and I think given the personnel changes for France in this area, edge goes with the hosts. Parkes will look to negate Basteraud’s influence while Scott Williams potentially could produce a man of the match performance with his dynamic ball carrying and line breaks.

Wales to edge this one by seven points. France to show additional positives in this showing but the changes to the side ultimately could expose their squad depth down the stretch. Camara aside, question marks on the breakdown battle for France where Navidi’s breakdown work could be decisive.