Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review

No genuine drama from the last round of league fixtures. After Ulster Rugby failed to beat Munster Rugby at Thomond Park, Edinburgh’s ticket to the playoffs was confirmed. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action in Wales, Scotland and South Africa.

Congratulations to the Toyota Cheetahs on securing their playoff spot with a 20-29 road trip win over Southern Kings who scored early with a Dukisa try. Banda then increased the lead for the hosts with two penalties until the Toyota Cheetahs hit a quick three try salvo in the second quarter. Marais , Schoeman and Cassiem all crossed over with excellent offloading and support running which the Southern Kings struggled to stifle. The game was well and truly up despite the Klaasen try straight after the break. Cheetahs were able to control the game in the final quarter to close out with comfort.

This is an superb achievement for the Toyota Cheetahs and great news for this tournament. The Cheetahs were off the pace in the first few weeks of the season but they have built a formidable fortress in Bloemfontein and their expansive brand of rugby has won many admirers this season. With fast track conditions, they will travel to Scarlets in confident form. The missed tackle count will have to improve (23) but they will relish the dry conditions and Scarlets need to be careful on how expansive they go against a team who have the skill set to beat you from anywhere on the pitch. Superb coaching work from Rory Duncan and staff!

The 1872 Cup was won by Edinburgh Rugby on a special night for anyone associated with the club. The night where they were confirmed as the third team in Conference B to participate in the playoffs, confirmation of their participation in the European Rugby Champions Cup next season. A magnificent coaching performance from Richard Cockerill and coaching staff to turn the fortunes of the side. Edinburgh Rugby have always had the talent and potential but consistency was a core issue.  The side have produced consistently high performances this season to deservedly clinch their place in the playoffs.

This local derby was abrasive and physical with several eye catching moments. Edinburgh’s composure was tested early with the early Glasgow Warriors try from DTH van der Merwe but their response was emphatic as Johnstone crashed over evading two Glasgow Warrior players enroute. Further questions were asked when Gibbins crossed over but again the hosts leveled with a robust Lay finish from close range and then not to be out done Duhan van der Merwe powerfully scored on the stroke of half-time to give the side 21-14.

Glasgow Warriors did look to get back into this encounter with another DTH van der Merwe effort on the sideline and Edinburgh Rugby were forced to defend for long periods in the last ten minutes. Each player to a man tackling on point and disrupting Glasgow ball from the ruck. Several key breakdown wins in the last five wins sealed victory. A huge morale booster for the side and the fact that they reclaimed the 1872 Cup is a perfect tonic heading into the playoffs. The most improved side of the league this season come to Thomond Park next weekend with no fears and will look to prey on Munster Rugby’s playoff failures.

A late gasp drop goal from Dan Biggar secured victory for the ever improving Ospreys side against Cardiff Blues. A game which ebbed and flowed throughout; several standout moments of creativity. Jones’ try was a perfect case study of this point with an excellent line break from Jeff Hassler before the ball made its way to Alun Wyn Jones who touched down out wide.

Cardiff Blues produced a stunning response when Anscombe scored the try of the day. His ability to evade Ospreys defenders sublime as he ran from halfway to score a sensational score. The Blues then suddenly had their second try as Smith collecting a good grubber kick from Steve Shingler to dive over.

Ospreys determination to get back into the game was seen in the second half. Biggar scored a superb effort; quality finish from close range when Cardiff Blues defensively looked to have the situation well in hand. Biggar added the conversion to make it 20-20 to setup an exciting finish.

It suddenly was becoming the battle of the tens from the kicking tee. Anscombe slotted over a tricky penalty to gave Cardiff Blues the lead again only for Biggar to level again with another penalty. Cue the end of the game, good composure from Ospreys to create the phases to put Biggar into position and the drop goal was on point. Ospreys held out for another morale boosting win.

Cardiff Blues enter European Rugby Champions Cup next season but no playoff rugby this season. Their focus turns to the European Challenge Cup final against Gloucester Rugby in Bilbao. Ospreys’ form in the second half of the season has being excellent; they will enter their key playoff tussle with Ulster Rugby with confidence. A place in the European Rugby Champions Cup is on offer. Massive reward if victory is earned!

Scarlets shook off the European Cup blues with an emphatic bonus point win against Dragons who were out gunned in all facets of play. As soon as Elias emerged with the ball for the opening try, things looked ominous for Bernard Jackman’s charges but the Dragons stayed in touch until half-time. The second half was a different story entirely.

A penalty try was awarded to the Scarlets as Dragons scrum was struggling; several scrum resets eventually causing the match official to lose patience with the Dragons. A quick brace of tries from the marauding Tadhg Beirne spelled the end of the contest and the bonus point try. Evans put further gloss on the scoreboard with a late try.

Scarlets enter the playoffs next weekend and face a dangerous home fixture against Toyota Cheetahs. Dragons’ season is now over. A season of transition and the second half of the season had plenty of setbacks. Recruiting needs to continue to supplement the talent at the club. Dee, Landman, Wainwright, Amos, Hewitt and Kirchner.

However, the discipline and defensive lapses have plighted their season. Missed tackle count was high (24) and this has being a really sore statistic this season. The pack have had positive moments but this reward was not seen on the scoreboard, allowing opposition to get back into contests.

Zebre Rugby have earned Italian derby bragging rights with a deserved road trip win over Benetton Rugby. A closely fought encounter as Benetton Rugby scored first with a good cohesive move involving Tebaldi and Allan to unleash Sgarbi to score.

Zebre Rugby absorbed the pressure from the hosts and then built their attacking platform in the second quarter. Violi (34) slotted over a penalty after concerted attacking phases and then Zebre Rugby went into the dressing rooms ahead with Sisi crashing with the pack once again prominent in the maul.

A quick try after the break from the impressive Canna (44) was a well worked score. Zebre Rugby sucking in Benetton Rugby defenders to allow space to be created for Canna out on the sideline. The pivotal score of the game as Benetton Rugby were now forced to chase the game; credit to the hosts after Sgarbi scored another well worked try and Allan slotted over.

However, Zebre Rugby were not to be denied. A composed pack performance from Michael Bradley’s side setting up several penalty opportunities. Violi slotting over three penalties to make the game safe. A quality win from Zebre Rugby and one that should be a blueprint to winning further games in the league next season. A season of transition; a season where Zebre Rugby have provided good moments and identified players capable of representing the Italian team. Biagi, Bellini to name but a few.

Eighteenth league win for an Italian side in the tournament is a new record. Additional progress and improvement is required from both Italian teams and hope springs eternal here. Good fundamental structures are being built in Italy via underage and at professional club rugby structures. Whether Michael Bradley is around to see the progress next season is another story; a man who may be subject to speculation on a couple of head coaching roles over to Ireland. Time will tell!

Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review: Irish Provincial Derbies

The regular Guinness Pro 14 season is over with minimal surprises in the final playoff shakeup. In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick will review the Irish provincial derbies where Connacht Rugby gave John Muldoon and Andrew Browne a resounding send off with a a seven try demolition of Leinster Rugby. In the other fixture, Munster Rugby assembled squad fought back to secure a 24-24 draw with Ulster Rugby who were eliminated from the Guinness Pro 14 playoff race.

A resounding Connacht Rugby performance fitting for the day that was in it. An emotionally charged Sportsground crowd paid tribute to the service and commitment of John Muldoon and Andrew Browne who are hanging up the boots.

For Muldoon, it was an incredible send off in the week leading up to this fixture. The social media videos of appreciation and gratitude to the Portumna native were on point. It was setup for Connacht Rugby to produce a performance for their departing players and what a performance!

This performance should  be the blueprint for Connacht Rugby next season. The intensity, work rate and organization were on point. The defensive line speed exposed in recent weeks was a different animal yesterday. Connacht’s defensive line speed gave Leinster Rugby no opportunity to set a platform.

The breakdown work by the hosts also caught the eye; a couple of marquee breakdown wins on Leinster possession creating momentum. The ability of Connacht Rugby to slow Leinster Rugby ball down at ruck time also a key facet of the win yesterday.

The seven try haul yesterday illustrated what Connacht Rugby are capable of when they are accurate in all facets of play. Delahunt had a stellar game; the hooker sniping around the fringes with ball in hand and was pivotal in the opening try. Leinster Rugby switching off around the fringes and Delahunt had made thirty meters.

Jack Carty at ten was excellent and his game management along with Marmion gave the side composure throughout and they picked their cue to unleash Niyi Adeolokun out wide to score the opening try of the afternoon and it was not going to stop there.

Tiernan O’Halloran (132 meters gained) who was prominent coming into the line scored a try borne of good game reading as he was able to identify James Lowe pass to Noel Reid. The finish was routine but the manner in how the player identified the opposition play, executed it was a highlight reel moment. Delahunt was again a key cog for the third try; another gain line break around the fringes for Marmion to touch down. 21-3 at the break. No time to ease the intensity and so it proved.

The second half was a procession as Leinster Rugby were becoming increasingly stretched out wide. The fourth try was a superb score; a sweeping move from one end of the pitch to the other. Farrell who has had a standout season for Connacht Rugby this season with a thirty meter gain line break. The quick ruck ball and passing out wide to that man Delahunt again who had the skill set to flick a pass to Niyi Adeolokun on the sideline to run unopposed for the bonus point try.

Connacht Rugby were now rampant and another try highlight good tactical nous and execution. Carty identifying space behind a now passive Leinster Rugby defense. O’Halloran’s run was made to perfection; good pass to the supporting runner Marmion to score. 33-3. Take a photo of that scoreboard; not many teams put a score on Leinster Rugby and this was what it was; a rout. The Blade try was more of the same; gain line breaks created from quick ruck ball. The conversion was taken by John Muldoon, the ball is still in orbit, the conversion was good. Perhaps another coaching role for Muldoon to fulfill for Pat Lam at Bristol next season?

An incredible send off for the players leaving the club. An end of an era at the club with the likes of Muldoon and Browne leaving the club. The coaching staff, players (existing and new) will regroup and this performance needs to be referenced as the level that the side need to aspire to. Their physicality, work rate, game management were outstanding yesterday and Kieran Keane knows that his charges can execute a high octane expansive rugby game plan. Interesting times at Connacht Rugby next season!

Let us not beat around the bush here. The Leinster Rugby squad depth has being lauded this season; their attempts to win Guinness Pro 14 and European Cup is still on course but in recent weeks, it has become increasingly apparent that some of the fringe players are now running on empty entering the playoffs.

47-10. Connacht Rugby lauded this fixture with their superior work rate, attacking threat and ability to punish several defensive lapses throughout the contest. A lack of cohesion between the pack and back line was prevalent throughout and Ross Byrne struggled to contribute in any meaningful fashion. Carbery at fifteen tried to make things happen along with James Lowe but it was a forlorn task.

The second row performance was a major issue. Thornbury was the standout performer and Molony and Kearney were overwhelmed by the performances of their opponent. Roux was abrasive in his tackling, work rate around the fringes. Thornbury was immense; his ability to defend the maul and breakdown work to the fore. A potential Ireland summer tour newcomer?

One of those days in the office. Three Guinness Pro 14 losses in their last four league fixtures. Leinster Rugby still managed to top the conference B standings on points difference to the Scarlets but the manner of the performance for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will not be put under the carpet; accountability is required from the players who played this fixture. The defensive lapses were frequent and often and when an opposition hooker is making sixty meters in gain line breaks, something has to be said!

The only shining light for Leinster Rugby was the return of Tom Daly in the three quarters. There was a couple of misreads but Daly’s work rate was good and his threat with ball in hand (limited) showed plenty of upside. Barry Daly scored an excellent try to take his tally to twelve tries this season in the league. The positives from yesterday are in short supply. Move on and hope that the European Cup squad are not inflicted by the end of season lethargic disease sweeping through the fringe squad players right now.

24-24. Thomond Park. This scoreline on any other season would have being viewed as a decent result but Ulster Rugby were up against a Munster Rugby squad consisting mainly of prospects and players around the fringes of the European Cup squad.

The performance summed up the season for Ulster Rugby. The pack led superbly well by Rory Best, Iain Henderson took control of the game in the opening period. Three well worked tries scored. Stockdale line break setting up McCloskey was a perfect response to Munster Rugby’s early try. Best scored a brace as the Ulster Rugby front five with territorial advantage started to push the Munster Rugby pack backwards at a rate of knots. McPhilips from ten was excellent.

The second half was a different story. As soon as Robin Copeland came back from his sin bin cameo, Ulster Rugby started to lose their discipline. Luke Marshall sent to the sin bin for deliberate kill the ball in a ruck with Munster Rugby primed to score from close range. Copeland did not have to be asked twice to touchdown from close range on forty-eight minutes and from leading 24-14 and looking comfortable, it was now backs to the wall.

Another contest whereby Ulster Rugby gave away the initiative to their opposition. All too familiar. The second half also saw an increasingly malfunctioning Ulster Rugby set piece. Munster Rugby were now in the ascendancy as Cronin and Archer were on top in their duels. The line out was losing primary possession; several steals as Grobler and O’Shea were becoming more prominent as the game wore on.

On another day, Ulster Rugby could have won this fixture with late penalty awarded to the visitors but given their predicament, they needed the elusive fourth try but another malfunctioning line out caught by Grobler who then advanced forty meters down the pitch signaled the end of Ulster’s hopes of winning the game and also securing a top three Conference B berth.

A new head coach is apparently locked in. Rumors of Jim Mallinder joining have intensified in recent weeks but no official announcement for another couple of weeks. The need to recruit for the side needs to happen now. The nine position needs to be examined. Cooney and Shanahan are the nine options now. The ten position needs coverage with Paddy Jackson’s departure. The front row should be boosted by the arrival of Marty Moore. The back row boosted by the arrival of Jordi Murphy and of course there is a three quarter slot to be filled with the departure of Stuart Holding.

A key fixture against the Ospreys now beckons for Ulster Rugby. A loss here and it is European Challenge Cup Rugby next season, not a tournament which will entice prospective players to join. A critical few weeks ahead for everyone connected with Ulster Rugby!

A honorable draw for Munster Rugby given the personnel changes for this fixture. The opening period was a mixed bag; two good pack led tries from Williams and Scott in the opening period but Ulster Rugby were dominant for long periods and had built a ten point lead at the break.

The performance in the second half was much improved; the work rate around the park increased significantly. Good pack platform created for the Copeland try. The set piece was advantage Munster in the final quarter and Ulster’s line out was malfunctioning at a rate of knots.

Several standout performers from Munster Rugby. Grobler departing the club at the end of the season was immense; his work rate and physicality to the fore. His ability to disrupt Ulster Rugby in the second half was outstanding; his maul defense and line out steals complementing Darren O’Shea’s performance in the second row.

Oliver’s mobility on point at seven; good breakdown work. The half back partnership improved as the game wore on. Williams / Hart improve their ruck ball distribution to Hanrahan who was then able to unleash Arnold and Goggin. Nash, Fitzgerald and Sweetnam were all dangerous with ball in hand.

Stephen Fitzgerald was the shining light and offers huge potential upside for Munster Rugby next season. His electric pace and ability to find the soft defensive shoulder resulting in several gain line breaks. Eight carries for eighty-two meters speaks volumes.

The youngsters in the side really stepped up to the plate. Nash had nine carries for forty-six meters. Arnold had fifty-three meters from ten carries. Sweetnam enjoyed fifty-nine meters from five ball carries. Plenty of positives.

The first team charges come back into the team selection fold next weekend for the visit of Edinburgh Rugby but the squad players and prospects have put their hand up for selection. A nice selection headache for van Graan and management to mull over this week.

Clan Terrace View Podcast: Tribute to John Muldoon

The latest Clan Terrace View podcast is now up for your viewing pleasure. Philip Smith and Hawkeye Sidekick pay tribute to Connacht Rugby legend John Muldoon and Andrew Browne. The podcast discusses how the Guinness Pro 14 organizers have missed a trick in the scheduling for this final round of fixtures. A preview of the Irish provincial derby fixtures as well as the AIL 1A playoff semi-finals. Enjoy!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 21 Preview

Round 21. The final round of the regular league season has arrived. The organizers perhaps have missed a weekend on scheduling but more to that later in this blog. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

The South African sides start the final round on Saturday afternoon. It is a fixture which the Toyota Cheetahs have a vested interest in. A win against the Southern Kings will secure playoff rugby and a road trip to either Leinster Rugby or Scarlets depending on which side finishes second in Conference B.

Toyota Cheetahs will be disappointed with their second half performance against Munster Rugby. Team indiscipline providing Munster Rugby with penalty opportunities which were slotted over in the second half. It was a disappointing result considering the opening period performance where the Toyota Cheetahs scored two well worked tries. Tian Meyer very prominent in game management and passing game.

Southern Kings have had a season to forget; the crowd attendances coupled with some heavy losses this season has provided a massive reality check for the franchise. They need to recruit well in the off season which starts next week. Their win against Dragons is their video reel moment of the season. It needs to be more next season.

Local bragging rights but one side has all the motivation to win this contest. Toyota Cheetahs to take this win with a bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. The back line of the Cheetahs with the likes of Venter, Small could have standout days in the statistics front. Kings to compete need their front eight to come to the party; difficult to see this happening.

This derby is about one person and one person only. This is the last Connacht Rugby playing appearance for the legendary John Muldoon. The Portumna native signs off from the Sportsground after 327 games with the province. Muldoon has being at the club through thick and thin. He has experienced the highs and lows. Define commitment, honor and leadership, look no further than John Muldoon who joins Bristol Rugby (Bears)  next season!

An intriguing subplot to this game is how Leinster Rugby will approach the game. After their emphatic win against Scarlets last weekend, will Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster decide to rest front line players? I am expecting a mixed team selection from the Conference A leaders. They need to top their conference and would expect a couple of marquee players to feature. Lowe, Larmour, Daly come into the reckoning. Ruddock, Deegan, Molony perhaps coming into the pack. it will be a side with intent and Connacht Rugby need to produce a top performance to sigh off Muldoon’s playing career with Connacht Rugby with a win.

Connacht Rugby team selection should be along familiar lines to recent weeks. O’Halloran, Healy and Adelokun should provide pace and threat in the back three. Aki surely starts at twelve, questions abound on who will partner the Irish international. Robb, Farrell or Griffin (if fit) could come in. Marmion and Carty form the half-back partnership which will play behind a pack whose mobility and passing threat will be a threat. Dillane needs to produce a stellar game here for Connacht Rugby and for the Irish rugby neutral. The Kerry man has had a difficult season and needs a good performance here to show Irish management of his worth.

Interesting game. I thought before round twenty that Connacht Rugby could potentially win this contest but due to Benetton Rugby’s win against Leinster Rugby, the stakes have being raised. Leinster Rugby will look to continue their impressive form and for a couple of fringe players, a chance for redemption after some indifferent performances. Connacht Rugby to provide entertainment but their defensive shape will be exposed more than once this weekend. Leinster Rugby to win this game narrowly.

Scarlets travel to Rodney Parade to face a Dragons side who need a win desperately. No league win in this calendar year; several near misses which have exposed squad depth and game management issues at key junctures. Bernard Jackman and team have endured a miserable second half to the season and need a win here to sign-off with some optimism heading into the off-season.

Scarlets were given a lesson last weekend; their pack were negated from the breakdown as Leinster Rugby’s clear out work was sublime. Scarlets team selection will be interesting; expect several personnel changes but with a chance of top spot in Conference B, Wayne Pivac may decide to play the likes of Evans, Parkes, Williams to provide the go forward ball required.

Dragons to start this contest with gusto but a lack of attacking nous not to put points on the board will be exposed. Scarlets will eventually wear the Dragons pack down and it is a road win for the Scarlets. I am not sure if this will be enough to secure conference top spot but a good performance will do wonders for the side after last weekend’s performance at the Aviva Stadium.

Bernard Jackman and club player recruitment needs to be deep for next season; otherwise he is under pressure to keep his job next season!

This is an intriguing fixture. Cardiff Blues fresh from their Pau win last weekend have an outside chance of securing a top three playoff berth. Ospreys have secured fourth place in the conference and face a playoff match in the coming weeks.

Clarke has being rewarded for a good interim period as Ospreys head coach and takes the reins full time from next season. Ospreys have played with energy, work rate and creativity during his tenure. Dan Evans a standout from full back. The pack have improved their cohesion where Wyn-Jones and Davies have provided stellar second row play.

Cardiff Blues were immense in their breakdown work last weekend. Navidi and colleagues did a proper job on Pau. Evans at ten game managed well. The side were disciplined in their defensive play and they were a threat in the back three. Eighty minutes from European Challenge Cup glory; players fighting for squad berth places. Nice problem for Blues management to have.

A game which has the potential for tries. Edging this encounter to Ospreys as Cardiff Blues may not be as fresh with their efforts from last weekend. Blues have secured their European Rugby Champions Cup berth, a great season for the side after a shaky start. Ospreys will look to build momentum ahead of their playoff tussle to secure European Rugby Champions Cup as well.

The tournament organizers have missed a trick on the scheduling of this encounter. Ulster Rugby still have a chance of securing a top three Conference B finish. The game kicks off at 17:35 PM GMT. Edinburgh Rugby kick off their fixture at 19:45 PM GMT. Edinburgh Rugby will know exactly what need to do before kick off, a shame that the organizers could not put both fixtures on at the same time and see if any drama could be created.

Munster Rugby look vulnerable in this fixture. Another disappointing European Cup semi-final loss, a loss where the game was taken out of reach before the Irish province could hit a decisive blow. It is going to take time to reflect, repair the bodies and the mental scars after this outing so the Munster Rugby side will comprise mostly of squad players; a fixture where Munster have already secured a second place in Conference A.

Ulster Rugby come into the game knowing that they need realistically a bonus point try performance. Their side will be pretty much full strength. Best and Henderson looking to lead from the pack while Cooney, Piutau will look to provide the game management and threat out wide to secure this fixture objective.

Munster Rugby’s side should be exciting, expect the likes of Dan Goggin, Stephen Fitzgerald, Mike Sherry to get game time. Grobler will come into the equation along with Wycherley in the second row. The back row should see personnel changes too with Oliver set to get game time along with Copeland. Ulster Rugby need this win more; they will win this game but top three looks remote given the fixture scheduling.

Benetton Rugby finish off a promising season with a local bragging rights fixture against a Zebre Rugby side whose have shown good promise at various parts of this season. Benetton’s confidence will be sky high after their road trip win against Leinster Rugby. A win which was truly merited. A win where both pack and back line units contributed. Allan’s try to win the game was fitting to win any contest.

Michael Bradley’s side edged past Dragons but had an emphatic win over Ospreys last time out. Their spirit and work rate are not in question and Bradley has identified a couple of promising Italian players who could step up to the international side. Biagi, Bellini look like genuine finds this season and credit to the management for given these players the confidence to express themselves.

Benetton Rugby have had the edge on these derby games. It would be good for Benetton Rugby to consolidate their end of season performance with another solid performance. The side were on point against Leinster Rugby and their composure in dealing with Tebaldi’s yellow card in the final quarter was superb.

50/50 game until the third quarter when the benches are sprung and Benetton Rugby look to have the better weapons to make an impact with the likes of Budd and McKinley in the ranks. Benetton Rugby to win this contest in a season which should be the springboard for both sides to go to higher heights next season.

As mentioned, it was a shame that tournament organizers did not schedule this game at the same time as the Munster / Ulster clash. 19:45 PM GMT kickoffs would have provided a nice contrast, teams scoring tries, league table permutations, maybe next year hey!

Edinburgh Rugby are the progressive team of the league this season. Their performances from late October have being excellent; their win against Glasgow over the festive period was a real marker of their intent to make progress in this competition.

Cockerill and management have done a stellar job and identifying cohesion in the pack and back units. Berghan, Gllchrist, Toolis have being standouts. Hidalgo-Clyne experience at nine. Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn have shown massive upside in their back line play. Dougie Fife as well has shown well.

The key question here is Glasgow Warrior’s mindset on this fixture. They are top team of Conference A. Will they rest key players for the playoffs? Their first team charges faced Ulster Rugby last weekend and their performance fell well short of the standards set in this competition this season. Defensive line speed inconsistencies plagued their performance last weekend and Ulster Rugby took full advantage.

Motivation is with the hosts here and I think they will edge this encounter. A loss here without a loser point and Ulster Rugby get a top three berth in most dramatic fashion but I don’t see this happening. Edinburgh Rugby will be focused on what is required; no external pressures, just go out and perform. Glasgow to provide good moments but Edinburgh to secure the win here.

 

Leinster Rugby: On a different level?

Apologies for the delay in a blog posting on the utterly dominant Leinster Rugby performance against a well fancied Scarlets side yesterday. 38-16 was a clinical performance and like Munster today, Scarlets did not lay a meaningful shot on their opponent during the game. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the performance.

Gibson-Park Effect:

If you read my preview on the Leinster Rugby / Scarlets fixture, a key person in this contest was Gibson-Park. The scrum-half had huge pressure on his shoulders coming into this fixture; his inclusion meaning that in form James Lowe was forced to sit out. An indifferent game against the same opposition last season in Pro 12 playoff action raising questions on whether the New Zealander could produce. He emphatically answered those questions; his passing was on point, his aerial kicking excellent. Gibson-Park did get immense support from his pack who cleared out rucks in sensational fashion negating any threat from Barclay or Davies to proceedings. Luke McGrath’s injury was seen as a blow but the performance of Gibson-Park was on point. Mission accomplished.

Leinster Pack Dominance:

James Ryan is increasing his profile in the game with another emphatic performance. His performance along with Devin Toner was nothing short of sensational; superb work rate, carrying and line out execution. A superb opening try as well. Ryan negated the threat of Tadhg Beirne. The player’s upside is only the tip of iceberg; this player has the ability to be the number one second row in the world in time for the RWC 2019 tournament. Special nod to the front five as well. Furlong, Healy and Cronin were excellent throughout. Furlong’s work rate was ferocious and set the tone. Healy, abrasive at set piece and scored a great try in the second quarter. Cronin in set piece and his running lines on point. Toner as well was superb; good line out management along with Ryan. Fardy, Leavy and Murphy providing physicality and mobility to clear out Scarlets at the breakdown. Fardy was world class.

Here comes Johnny!

Sexton was sensational yesterday; his match-up against Dan Jones was emphatically advantage Leinster Rugby and he launched his three quarters with incredible accuracy. Sexton’s bicep injury will see plenty of column inches in sporting articles for the rest of the season but this was a performance which oozed class, oozed experience and composure in the play making role. Sexton rises to the occasion at this time of the season. Bilbao against his old club Racing 92 will be an intriguing plot line.

Expansive Back Line

No defensive weak links in the Leinster Rugby back line contrary to Shane Williams’ beliefs in the lead up to this fixture. Ringrose and Henshaw absorbed the threat of Parkes and Williams and created with intent particul arly in the third quarter when Scarlets defensively opened up. Sharp offloading. Henshaw’s defensive work was on point; amazing performance considering his lengthy injury layoff. Nacewa, McFadden / Larmor and Kearney provided a good back three threat and defensively were on point throughout; the fact that Scarlets did not their try until the final minute was an incredible defensive display from everyone in the Leinster Rugby side!

Squad Depth

With the game safely in the bag, Leinster Rugby management cleared their bench in the third quarter. Jack McGrath, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmor providing key cameos. This was valuable experience and game time for the bench ahead of the final against Racing 92. Andrew Porter’s performances in the front have being nothing short of sensational. There is zero weak points in this twenty-three man squad for Leinster Rugby. Squad players will be given their opportunity to impress in the lead up to the final but this twenty-three man squad delivered an emphatic performance, put a dangerous opponent out of reach well before the final quarter. Racing 92 have their hands out in Bilbao!

 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Racing 92 27 – 22 Munster Rugby

The dreams of an All Ireland European Rugby Champions Cup final never materialized. They were dashed within the first quarter of this contest as Racing 92 emphatically stamped their ticket to the big dance and a date with Leinster Rugby in Bilbao next month. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Emphatic Racing 92 Opening Quarter

Racing 92 utterly dominated the first quarter of this contest. Munster Rugby were immediately on the back foot as soon as Racing 92 decided after only three minutes to hit long down the line. Patrick Lambie who had a stellar game at out-half spiraled the kick deep into Munster’s territory. Cue the Racing 92 pack to build the phases, suck in Munster Rugby defenders and identify a clear mismatch on the outside channel as Teddy Thomas’ pace was too much for Alex Wootton to score with ease after four minutes.

More abrasive physical ball carrying followed from Racing 92. Munster Rugby struggling to slow the ball down at the breakdown; quick ruck ball for Machenaud and Lambie to unleash their back line. Vakatawa who had a standout game at thirteen highlighting his quick feet to evade Murray and Kleyn before passing to Thomas who had already sped past Wootton to finish a regulation score. Munster Rugby were rattled and soon a third try came; more decisive clear out work at the breakdown creating quick attacking ball.

Munster Rugby unable to stem the tide were narrow defensively and again Alex Wootton was faced with a 2:1 defensive scenario. The youngster went to his outside. Thomas evaded with ease and went on the inside, no backup Munster cover as Thomas strode for the try; a cheeky pass to Machenaud to score. 21-3 after twenty-two minutes. Pivotal opening period. The contest was as good as over in the heat of Bordeaux. Racing 92 were clinical.

Nervy Munster Rugby

This result will irk Munster Rugby management and players for weeks to come. Both sides came into this contest pretty much evenly matched; not much between the sides this season in the pool phase but Munster Rugby were nervy and tentative throughout. The defensive line speed and first time tackles were not at the levels required. 66% tackle completion in the first half told its own story. Munster Rugby were struggling at the breakdown as Racing 92 were utterly dominant.

CJ Stander did win an excellent turnover ball but the subsequent kick from Ian Keatley was inaccurate; failed to find touch and then Lambie kicked the ball back forty meters to force the Munster Rugby pack pretty much where CJ Stander had won the original penalty. Momentum for Munster Rugby was in short supply; the line out was an area of huge concern. Niall Scannell and pack missing four line out calls in the second quarter; two of which were extremely close to the Racing 92 line.

Inaccuracy central for Munster Rugby and even the cool Conor Murray was rushing passes from the ruck. Errand passing out wide despite no platform being built by the pack. The scrum set piece at least was a good point for Munster Rugby but it was few and far between in an utterly wretched opening period. The last ten minutes exposed massive failings in Munster Rugby’s attacking game plan.

Racing 92 using the chop tackle to good effect negating the likes of Stander, Kleyn, O’Mahony. One out ball carrying was the order of day as Racing 92 absorbed wave after wave of attack. Arnold was unlucky with his close range effort but the panic had kicked in within the Munster Rugby ranks. Keatley working hard but game management was deserting him; a questionable drop goal decision in the opening period then followed by Rory Scannell indicative of Munster’s spooked demeanor in the opening quarter. Composure in short supply.

Racing 92 up the ante early in the second half

The early exchanges of the second half again exposed the composure and demeanor of both sides. Racing 92 recycling, attempting to offload at every given opportunity. Once the move broke down, Andreu and Murray then had a wrestle; red mist descended as Murray then pushed Vakatawa with his hand; Vakatawa claiming contact to his eyes (nothing in it).

After consultation with the TMO, Doyle awarded the penalty and the ever reliable Machenaud slotted over to give the Parisian club a 27-3 advantage. Cue a flurry of substitutes from both sides as the heat was taking its toll on the starting lineups. The game was over.

Munster Rugby refuse to give up

The Irish province at this stage cleared the bench and credit the replacements for making an excellent impact albeit too little too late. Rhys Marshall provided stability in the line out and was dangerous with ball in hand, unlucky not to get a try in the third quarter only for JP Doyle to be in the way of a Racing 92 defender. Marshall did get his reward with a smart finish on 76th minute. Munster Rugby management hoped that Marshall would come with the game in the melting pot; unfortunately the game had gone from Munster Rugby long before.

Robin Copeland provided sharp running lines and on another day, his ability to evade Racing 92 defensive tackles were to the fore in the final quarter and created good field position. Simon Zebo brought flair and much needed creativity to proceedings; his ability to spot space inside Racing 92 defense was seen for Conway’s try. Zebo did not look to be hindered by his hip injury; ran with gusto throughout his cameo. Grobler was abrasive and physical in the tight exchanges along with Ryan and Cronin. JJ Hanrahan provided good moments from half-back but the damage was done as Racing 92’s intensity levels dropped in the last ten minutes safe in the knowledge that the game was in the books.

Racing 92: Bilbao Bound

A comprehensive opening period. Racing 92 had a game plan and executed it in the first thirty minutes with physicality and work rate. Munster Rugby’s slow start to the game was punished; 21-3 after twenty-two minutes was just desserts for a dominant period of play. Donnacha Ryan and his front five colleagues ball carried with intensity and quick offloading game and ruck clear out gave Munster Rugby little opportunity to regroup defensively. They spotted the inexperienced Wootton as a potential avenue of opportunity and Teddy Thomas given time and space to roam executed magnificently.

Lambie and Machenaud controlled the half-back for long periods as Murray was looking forlorn with a pack going backwards. Keatley was under the cosh from minute one, his kicking game was off and no variation to negate Racing 92 high defensive line speed. This was as good a performance from Racing 92 seen in Europe this season; the first fifty minutes were superb; the intensity levels did drop thereafter and is something that Leinster Rugby will take note with interest. Whether Racing 92 can sustain the level of effort for a longer period against Leinster Rugby is a difficult question? However, given their squad depth with the likes of Claasen, Rokocoko and Carter in tow; they are a live threat for Bilbao.

Munster Rugby: Reflections

Playoff rugby games require a side to be on point from minute one. The flat opening quarter performance from Munster Rugby will have management, backroom staff and players looking for answers. Did the South African tour take more out of the playing group than first anticipated? The effects of playing in altitude last week perhaps a factor? Either way, Racing 92 bossed territory, ball carrying in the first thirty minutes. The platform was built and the result was stamped before Munster Rugby could hit a decisive blow.

The inaccuracies and nervy game management which ensued will pose questions of the playing and management group to evolve further. Munster Rugby are a good side but at the business end of the season, they have being exposed. Time to reflect and see where adjustments can be made. The players on duty could not do anymore, but the classy moments of the game came from Racing 92. Younger players in the squad need to learn and evolve from this experience. For Simon Zebo, the Munster European odyssey is over. For Murray, Stander and O’Mahony, another year to see if they can get over the line and secure an European Cup final appearance.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Leinster Rugby vs. Scarlets Preview

Dublin. Aviva Stadium. A city and stadium where Scarlets have very fond memories of after last season’s Guinness Pro 12 final triumph. A week before this final triumph, Scarlets had dumped Leinster Rugby out of the Pro 12 competition with an emphatic defensive and attacking performance with fourteen men! Will any of those memories spook Leinster Rugby ahead of this tussle? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Gibson-Park Effect

This game will be decided by the performance of Gibson-Park. The New Zealander comes into the side as Luke McGrath is ruled out due to injury. Gibson-Park will look to right a few wrongs facing the Scarlets this weekend. The scrum-half was exposed in his defensive play and general game management in that playoff loss. Leinster Rugby looked very one dimensional on that night. Gibson-Park needs to zip the ball from the ruck and his kicking game needs to be on point, a facet of play at times that can be a little inconsistent. The inclusion of Gibson-Park has meant that James Lowe sits out the weekend. Double blow for Leinster Rugby. Gibson-Park needs to deliver this weekend. If he does, Leinster Rugby will advance to the final.

Breakdown Battle

A marvelous battle at the breakdown beckons. Dan Leavy vs. James Davies. Two players who will look to disrupt and secure ruck ball. Both players are fine exponents of this facet of play. Davies” pace and mobility evident last season; he was a major cog in the Guinness Pro 12 title winning side. A constant menace but facing him is Dan Leavy who is playing sublime rugby this season. Leavy has being a wrecking ball in the ruck area and his ability to pinch ball was to the fore against Saracens in the quarter final. Both players have good supporting back row units as well. Murphy vs. Shingler is another meaty tussle in the breakdown but also in the ball carrying duties.

Scarlets Half-Back Switch

Wayne Pivac has thrown a curve ball to some with the inclusion of Dan Jones at ten, meaning that Rhys Patchell moves to full back and Leigh Halfpenny to the wing. Jones was superb in the 30-27 win over Toulon in the final pool game last January. His ability to link up play and execute the right pass on the gain line to Parkes and Williams is to the fore. Jones also has an effective kicking game. Leinster Rugby need to put pressure on the half-back early doors, otherwise it could be a long afternoon for the Irish province. A gamble for some but you can see the logic. Jones will throw the ball with intent early doors.

Back Three Battle

Leinster Rugby are coming into this fixture as marginal favorite. The back three units for either side look good on skill set. Leinster’s back three has vast experience but Scarlets look to have the speed advantage here and if this game gets fractured, I would fear for Leinster Rugby’s back three given the pace of Evans, Halfpenny and Patchell who will look to set Evans free with deft kicks in behind. Scarlets by virtue of their selection of Jones at ten is quite clear; look to test Leinster’s back three defensively early door to build a platform and scoreboard advantage. A dry track for this pacy Scarlets side is another bonus; this side will take beating.

Beirne vs. Ryan Battle

What a contest beckons! Tadhg Beirne has being outstanding for Scarlets in recent seasons. The second row who joins Munster Rugby next season has an enormous work rate in set piece and maul exchanges. It will require James Ryan to continue his upward performance curve to stem the influence of Beirne. Failure to do so and Scarlets are going to the final. Beirne is a wrecking ball with ball in hand. His performances this season have being nothing short of sensational. Devin Toner will also need to play his part; line out solidity is required and his ability to support Ryan to stifle Beirne will be required at certain junctures.

Henshaw Return

Robbie Henshaw coming into the Leinster Rugby is a timely boost. The Athlone man is defensively excellent, cleans up defensively for colleagues consistently. His attacking threat with ball in hand will pose an issue for Williams and Parkes as well. He complements Ringrose perfectly. His physicality is on point and allows Ringrose to be creative with ball in hand. Solid three quarter partnership for Leinster Rugby tomorrow; definitely required given the absence of Lowe from the squad.

Verdict

Extra time looms for me in this contest. Both sides will have good moments and I think Leinster Rugby will just get over the line. Leinster Rugby will have to absorb some nervy moments from a Scarlets side who will throw different looks. The scrum-half performance for Leinster Rugby is a massive factor here; giving Gibson-Park the benefit of the doubt but if he struggles, the side will struggle for continuity. No pressure. Expect tries at regular intervals, cannot wait for this fixture!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Racing 92 vs. Munster Rugby Preview

It is decision day for Racing 92 and Munster Rugby in the warm confines of Bordeaux on Sunday afternoon. For the winner, eighty minutes away from winning an European Cup. For the loser, it will be a case of what might have being and a summer of analyzing where things went wrong. In this article, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key match-ups in this encounter where minute margins could decide this encounter.

Squad Depth

Given the weather forecast in Bordeaux this weekend (sunny – 28 degrees Celsius), the twenty three man squads on show will be utilized to the maximum. The last quarter of this contest could be absolutely massive as starting players begin to tire, defensive line speed and organization is not as precise. Cue the replacements to make a decisive line break or set piece win to edge the contest.

Munster Rugby’s squad depth has improved since last season. The front row replacements are strong and solid, evident in their cameos against Toulon. Niall Scannell has edged selection over Rhys Marshall but is this a ploy from the Munster Rugby management to unleash the dynamic ball carrying ability of the New Zealander hooker in the second half? Ryan and Cronin are superb scrum operators and their work in open exchanges is on point.

The inclusion of Simon Zebo on the substitutes bench is another selection which suggests fitness concerns on the player. Conway slots in at full back, dependable alternative but Zebo if fully fit surely would have got the nod here. Has Munster Rugby management decided that Zebo is better suited off the bench given that he will be playing for the Parisian’s next season?

The back row options for Munster Rugby off the bench will be primarily Robin Copeland and Gerbrandt Grobler. Copeland has the potential to be a pivotal player in the closing stages of this contest. Copeland is more than capable of producing a superb gain line break. Grobler’s physicality and mobility comes into the equation as well. The South African can play either second row or back row.

Racing 92 like Munster Rugby have gone 5:3 forward split. The French club have the luxury of Dan Carter to come off the bench to produce a world class attacking moment for Patrick Lambie. Carter’s game management and vision could be pivotal to close out this contest if Racing 92 are in front going into the final quarter. The pack options are solid and abrasive. Szarzewski, Afatia and Claassen will look to provide leadership and go forward ball upon their introduction.

Line-out Battle

This result could be summarized by the performance of Racing 92’s second row Donnacha Ryan. If Ryan has had an excellent game, Racing 92 have won this game. Ryan and his line-out calling will be of huge consequence to the outcome of this encounter. Ryan called an astute line out game in the round five pool fixture between the two sides. Munster Rugby struggled on their own ball and had precious little joy attacking the Racing 92 set piece.

Munster Rugby management and players though should provide more questions to Ryan and Chat this time. Expect Peter O’Mahony to look to disrupt at every given opportunity. Kleyn and Holland need to be on point with their calls to Niall Scannell particularly in the opening quarter. No over throws, keep things simple early doors.

The Irish province were under pressure for long periods against Toulon in their epic quarter final win but the one facet of play which did go well on the day was the line out. They forced line out steals with O’Mahony to the fore, his menace factor at record levels. Marshall and Scannell were incredibly accurate with their throws. For Munster Rugby to win, this facet of set piece play needs to be advantage red.

Half-Back Battle

An intriguing half-back battle beckons on Sunday. Machenaud and Lambie face up against Murray and Keatley. Conor Murray on current form is the player in this area of the pitch who looks like a game changer. I am expecting Munster Rugby to vary their play at decisive moments. The kick game will be executed but it will be done with a purpose to put pressure on the Racing 92 back three. Ian Keatley and Rory Scannell can also provide effective kicking game to create territorial gains.

Machenaud has had a stellar season. His kick game is solid and kicking off the tee has being on point. Will he try to vary his game, looking to snip around the fringes? Lambie is a superb footballer, he will look to launch his three quarters consistently. It is up to Munster Rugby to have an excellent defensive line speed from minute one to not let Lambie get into rhythm. A fascinating contest beckons. Will Racing 92 have plans for Conor Murray?

Earls Effect

Keith Earls inclusion to the starting line up is a massive boost for Munster Rugby. His cameo performance against Racing 92 at the U-Arena in January was world class, created his try from nothing and put fear into Racing 92 defensively throughout. Earls has had a good injury layoff but all reports suggest that Earls has trained extremely well in recent weeks. Given the absence of Zebo, Earls’ experience to assist Wootton will be pivotal.

Conditioning

This aspect of play will be highlighted in the final quarter if this game is on the line. Munster Rugby’s win against Toyota Cheetahs last weekend emphasized excellent conditioning to secure a win in altitude. The effects of this fixture hopefully for Munster Rugby will not have an adverse impact early doors because this side finishes games very strong.

For Racing 92 to win, they need to build a cushion in the opening period and then hope for Carter to close out the contest. Racing 92 will give this Munster Rugby side chances to win this contest. It will require Munster Rugby to have the composure, game management to execute at a high level to get over the line. A fascinating contest beckons!

Guinness Pro 14 Round 20: Preview (Saturday Games)

Ulster Rugby’s win against Ospreys tonight (8-0) puts a little bit of pressure on Edinburgh Rugby ahead of their tussle against Scarlets but this fixture has being diluted given the selection of the visitors. With a huge European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster Rugby next weekend, the priorities are self-evident.

Scarlets have made wholesale changes for this fixture and the side comprises of squad players. It is a golden opportunity for Edinburgh Rugby to get back on the win column after a disappointing two weeks where Cardiff Blues and Ulster Rugby have come to Murrayfield and come away with deserved victory.

The Edinburgh Rugby pack surely will build the platform tomorrow and expect solid performances from Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist to lead from the front. Hidalgo-Clyne at nine has the skill set to unleash his pacy back line where Fife and van der Merwe should have excellent gain line statistics coming from this game.

Scarlets’ selection is understandable given the looming European Cup fixture and this will be the opportunity for Edinburgh to secure a bonus point try win; securing third place in Conference B. Scarlets will make do with second in the Conference B,  a dangerous side to come up against in the playoffs given the drying track conditions.

A fixture which will yield a morale boosting victory for either Zebre Rugby or Dragons. Both sides will look to right a few wrongs from round nineteen. Zebre Rugby showed some good moments in the opening half against Leinster Rugby but failed to put points on the board. Leinster Rugby massacred Zebre Rugby in the second half when cohesion was established.

Dragons had a topsy turvy loss to Benetton Rugby last weekend. Bernard Jackman’s charges looked out of it in the opening period; leaking four tries to Benetton Rugby but they fought back incredibly well to lead the contest deep into the contest only for discipline to rear its head to give Benetton Rugby the decisive penalty kick to win the contest.

Dragons have based themselves in Italy this week; a chance to increase morale and improve team continuity. Bernard Jackman and management have made three changes for this side. Charlie Davies replaces Owain Leonard at scrum-half, whilst Luke Garrett comes into the front row and Joe Davies comes into the second row.

Zebre Rugby make five changes for the fixture. Castello suffered a knee injury during the Six Nations Championship, but has been passed fit to return. Venditti starts on the left wing, so Mattia Bellini switches to the right.  Luus and Bello come into the front row with Johan Meyer set to start at open side. The inclusions add quality to the side.

50/50 contest. Dragons have plenty to prove in terms of closing out games; they had a superb chance to win last week. They need the win desperately to end a horrific league streak. Zebre Rugby though for me if their pack can assert dominance and with Canna and Venditti on hand to game manage the back line. Zebre Rugby win narrowly.

Leinster entertain Benetton Rugby at the RDS with some keynote inclusions. Jordan Larmour returns to the side at full back, his ball carrying hitting the line should be sharp and will cause the visitors massive headaches. Pack changes aplenty. McGrath, Strauss, Porter form the front row. Molony and Nagle are the second row combo and there is a welcome return to action for Sean O’Brien. Carbery starts at ten; interesting to see how he performs. Given the squad being rested this weekend, Leinster Rugby’s team is still strong. Daly on the wing poised for further tries.

Jayden Hayward,  Andrea Bronzini and Monty Ioane feature in the Benetton Rugby back line. Iannone and captain Alberto Sgarbi occupy the centre positions while the half-backs are Tito Tebaldi at scrum half and Tommaso Allan at fly-half. The front row is made up by Federico Zani, Luca Bigi and Simone Ferrari and need to set the platform for Benetton Rugby to impress. They have fifty points in the league so far and still harbor hopes of catching Ulster Rugby for fourth place. Benetton Rugby will bring a huge effort to the game.

Leinster Rugby though for me are the firm favorites to win this contest. A couple of players on show will need to produce excellent performances to be part of the plans for the European Cup fixture next weekend. Massive motivation for the likes of O’Brien, Larmour, McGrath to impress. Carbery at ten potentially the standout performer. Leinster Rugby victory; hard earned given Benetton Rugby’s defensive shape has improved considerably this season. No bonus point but sufficient to secure top spot in Conference A for the playoffs.

Intriguing fixture to end round twenty. Cardiff Blues will be buoyed by Munster Rugby’s road trip win at Bloemfontein which opens the door for the Blues to close the gap in the battle for third in the conference. When you add to the fact that Ospreys lost as well tonight, then it could be a significant weekend for anyone involved with the Blues.

Cardiff Blues were devastated to lose so late to Toyota Cheetahs last weekend. Spirited fightback and then to lose to a penalty try award deep into injury time was hard to take. Blues have made a couple of pack personnel changes. Andrews starting in the front-row. Turnbull comes into the second row. Nick Williams starts at the back of the pack and Ellis Jenkins captains the side at openside flanker. Anscombe switches to full back to accommodate Evans at ten. Solid team.

Southern Kings come into the fixture on the back of a mixed performance against Munster Rugby. A good opening thirty minutes had Munster Rugby under pressure but then discipline and defensive lapses in the third quarter key to Munster Rugby pulling away for the bonus point win. Southern Kings have made a couple of changes as well; Vulindlu returns to the back line and provides attacking threat. Several personnel pack changes as well.

Port Elizabeth should see plenty of quality tries in this encounter. The Cardiff Blues back line has the potential to cut loose here with their pace ad power. For me, their pack is more cohesive and Evans will control game management at ten. Cardiff Blues to win here after a topsy turvy opening period. Navidi at six the game changer; his grappling ability at the breakdown a key positive for the visitors.