End of Season Term Report: Irish Provinces

Grade: A+

High Point:

Quite obvious really with winning both the European Rugby Champions Cup and Guinness Pro 14 crowns this month. The triumphs are just rewards for a side whose squad depth and game management were to the fore this season. The European Cup triumph emphasized why Leinster Rugby are the kingpins of European Club rugby.

Racing 92 tried to win this encounter with their pack; close exchanges with precious little opportunity for back lines to shine. Leinster Rugby’s composure to adapt their game plan and keep their nerve in the last quarter was to the fore while Racing 92 lose theirs. A true hallmark of an exceptional side is their ability to win matches in different ways. Leinster Rugby ticked all the boxes in this regard.

Low Point:

Nothing significant of note on the pitch. If you want to be critical, then the Guinness Pro 14 end of regular season run-in which saw a couple of noteworthy losses to Ospreys (A), Benetton Rugby (H) and Connacht Rugby (A) to conclude the regular season was disappointing.

The fringe squad members who performed so well struggled for form and cohesion in those encounters and there was a hint of end of season exertions in those performances. These squad players played significant minutes in the league while their first team colleagues were on international duty, understandable that performances waned at the end of the regular season.

The other low point was the injury problems experienced by Sean O’Brien this season. The Carlow native endured a frustrating season with shoulder and leg injuries to the fore. It is hoped that O’Brien is fit and raring to go for preseason in order to provide both province and national team with more squad depth options in the back row next season.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

With the departures of legendary Isa Nacewa and Richard Strauss from the playing setup as well as the departure of the excellent Jordi Murphy to Ulster Rugby next term, Leinster Rugby have a couple of personnel issues to contend with this close season. Nacewa’s departure cannot be underestimated.

The New Zealander was an inspirational leader in the playing group, he set the tone and work ethic for which other followed and evaluated their game as a result. No doubt, Leinster Rugby will already have identified their replacement to fill the big shoes of Nacewa but his presence and high level of performance will be missed.

Strauss was a player whose ability to create gain line breaks, his assured set piece execution was to the fore. Jordi Murphy will be a big loss to the group as well. His performances this season for province and country have being excellent. The Murphy departure is a loss but look at the back row options in the Leinster Rugby squad. O’Brien,  Josh van der Flier, Max Deegan chomping at the bit to make an impact.

The drama of where Joey Carbery will be plying his trade next season has loomed large in recent weeks. Carbery is a tricky situation. Leinster Rugby is an exceptional club and will get the opportunity to secure silverware. However, his game time at ten has being low given the cameos of Ross Byrne as well as Johnny Sexton. Does Carbery take the decision to move away from the RDS to improve his RWC 2019 chances or does he stay patient and hope to make a move up the depth chart at Leinster? Intriguing subplot.

Player of the Season:

Several standout candidates come to mind. Furlong was immense this season for province and national side. His scrummaging and work rate with / without ball was outstanding. Sean Cronin had an excellent season, rid of injury and his performances provided stability in set piece. Healy was his abrasive best in all areas of play. James Ryan was incredible and his game evaluated Devin Toner to new performance levels.

The back line unit had massive cameo moments as well with Lowe, Ringrose, Henshaw and Kearney having keynote seasons. Joint award winners for me. Dan Leavy and Scott Fardy were simply sensational this season. Leavy’s ability to control the breakdown area, his ability with ball in hand was outstanding all year, the proverbial tackling machine.

Fardy was such an astute signing from Leinster Rugby. Fardy’s versatility to fill multiple back row positions along with his ability to slot into the second row provided massive flexibility in Leinster Rugby’s squad selection. Fardy was one of the first names on the team sheet and to say that in such a star studded team speaks volumes. If you were twisting my arm, it would be Scott Fardy for the consistency in performance and appearances with the province this season.

Grade: B

High Point:

The ability of the team to continue to produce winning performances despite the departure of Erasmus, Niebaner and Aled Walters midway through the season. The Erasmus departure was poorly managed but the players and backroom staff which remained have to be applauded for keeping focused and providing van Graan with a seamless transition.

The backs to the wall performance against Toulon in Thomond Park. The French outfit dominated the ball and how Munster Rugby won this contest will be the stuff of folklore for years to come. Two superb individual efforts from Conor Murray and Andrew Conway secured the victory. Incredible performance.

The emergence of young talent in the squad to offset injuries to key personnel during the season. Sam Arnold was excellent at thirteen, a position which looked problematic when Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute had gone down with season ending injuries. Alex Wootton in the back line came to the fore; excellent try scoring and will learn massively from the season just gone.

Low Point:

Playoff woe continues for this pool of players. Another frustrating European Rugby Cup semi-final loss, a defeat to Racing 92 where Munster Rugby failed to deliver a telling blow. Racing 92 exposed a passive Munster Rugby opening quarter and three tries followed to seal the contest. Playoff mentality questions abound.

The Guinness Pro 14 semi-final playoff performance against Leinster Rugby was encouraging but when you consider the Leinster Rugby first team players who did not feature, to lose this contest was a disappointment. A slow start to the contest again punished by Leinster Rugby and when Munster Rugby did score, they let Leinster Rugby off the hook with some miserable penalty concessions.

The team has progressed from last season but the scope of improvement is there for all to see. The ability of the side to execute at the business end of the season was exposed yet again; the ability of players to execute the basics at a high level was inconsistent at the business end of the season.

Grobler saga. The media attention on the player and the decision to bring the player into the setup knowing that this was only for a season was a mistake in hindsight, surely there was a homegrown talent which could have filled the squad berth. The Erasmus saga was embarrassing. Enough said.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

A couple of positions are up for grabs. With Simon Zebo departing for Racing 92, the full back slot is up for grabs. Haley, Fitzgerald and Conway come into the equation to fill this position. Zebo’s ability to play off the cuff and create try scoring opportunities from nothing was seen to full effect in the Edinburgh Rugby playoff win.

There is speculation on the ten jersey. Bleyendaal endured another torrid season with injury and his absence provided the opportunity for Keatley to impress. Keatley was excellent until the playoffs and then his form and confidence fell apart. Hanrahan attempted to fill the jersey in the Guinness Pro 14 playoff and it was a mixed bag. Johnston needs to be given game time in the preseason to see if the undoubted potential of the player can flourish next season. Joey Carbery’s name has being bandied around in the media circles. If Carbery arrives, then it means that at least one fly-half will need to leave to make squad depth space.

The prop position as well was exposed in the last couple of weeks of the season. Archer played through the pain barrier to give valuable game time minutes down the stretch. Loughman and O’Connor should come back into the fray next season but both players still are inexperienced at this level.

Player of the Season:

Three standout performers this season. Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony. All were colossal figures in Munster’s most prominent moments this season. Murray for me was the standout player for Munster Rugby this season. His game management, defensive nous and ability to score tries from nothing were to the fore. Earls and O’Mahony provided massive leadership and inspirational moments for the side too but I cannot look past Murray this season. He was superb.

Grade: C-

High Point:

Gain line breaks aplenty for the province this season and the back line when supplied with fast ball were dangerous. Piutau was a menace with ball in hand. McCloskey and Ludik also prominent in the attacking side of the game.

The emergence of John Cooney at the nine position was the highlight; an unenviable scenario to fill the boots of Ruan Pienaar but Cooney’s performance were of high quality throughout. His kicking game to the fore and his ability to score tries impressive to earn a call up to the Ireland national side tour to Australia.

Securing European Rugby Champions Cup rugby next season. Their defeat of Ospreys with a depleted side was a standout moment. The side were vulnerable, backs against the wall but each player on duty performed excellently. There is massive potential in this Ulster Rugby club, the fan base is superb. The new head coach with a couple of shrewd signings can have an immediate positive impact.

Low Point: 

Jackson and Olding trial dominated news reels for months. The trial regardless of what was said by the province had to have had a negative morale impact. The trial verdict did not stifle opposition to the retention of Jackson and Olding and both players were forced out due to sponsors reservations. A sorry saga for everyone involved and the decision of Les Kiss to jump ship during the trial did little to stem the negative morale in the camp.

Inconsistent performances. Jekyll and Hyde cameos were the norm this season. A half of quality and then a half of poor mediocrity allowing opposition to get back into contests. The change in head coach did not stem this trend. Several fixtures stand out to me. The road trip draw to Dragons where Ulster Rugby combusted at a rate of knots. The Munster Rugby away performance where they controlled the opening period but then failed to show in the second half. Two games where wins were possible.

The retirements of Payne, Trimble and Bowe will reduce squad back line depth chart. The departure of Piutau is a blow too, it will be interesting to see how Ulster Rugby look to replace the void left by these departures from the squad. The decision on when Dan McFarland takes over at Kingspan needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

Paddy Jackson’s departure has left a void at ten. McPhilips has undoubted talent in the position but there needs to be an experienced player also in the position as well. Carbery and Byrne were touted but this link has cooled in recent weeks. Does Steenson come into the equation? Ten channel reinforcements as well as back line recruits are paramount. The pack are boosted by the signings of Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy but more front five depth is required.

Player of the Season:

Difficult season but for sheer consistency this season, it has to be John Cooney. No brainer.

Grade: D

High Point:

When Connacht Rugby produced a cohesive performance, they were a match for any side. Their derby wins against Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby in the Sportgrounds emphasized this point. Their pack was abrasive and mobile while the half-backs launched their back line with fast ball where Aki and Farrell created gain line breaks. The European Challenge Cup campaign saw Connacht Rugby top their pool, several keynote wins on the road.

The emergence of Tom Farrell to the side; the twelve was a standout. His ability to find the soft shoulder was on point, creating gain line breaks. Delahunt is a player with incredible upside; impressed me massively at the end of the season with his ball carrying and set piece execution. McKeon and Butler were standouts in the back row.

Low Point:

Inconsistency performances. The ability of Connacht Rugby to contrive to lose narrow games due to self inflicted mistakes. The restart after a Connacht Rugby score was a problematic area in the first half of the season. The defensive line and speed was at times exposed by better sides. The losses to Zebre Rugby particularly hurt in terms of the performance levels and the sheer inability of Connacht Rugby to setup a platform.

Kieran Keane’s departure was massively mismanaged. The canines around the Sportsground knew that the New Zealander was surplus to requirements before Connacht Rugby then decided to issue a press statement release. It showed the board in a poor light and raises questions on the board’s convictions in backing their own appointment. Andy Friend needs 100% support from the board.

The form of Ultan Dillane. The second row’s form dipped this season and the Kerry man needs to come back with gusto next season. Keane preferred other alternatives to Dillane and his form has resulted in missing out on Ireland national team squad selection.

The end of an era. John Muldoon exits Connacht Rugby as a player. An emotional last home game against Leinster Rugby. The Portumna native was quite simply legendary for the province. His unerring loyalty to the club in the hard times is an example to anyone. Andrew Browne also left the club, a player who contributed massively to the development of the province in recent years.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

Andy Friend’s appointment by Connacht Rugby last week is a welcome step. Friend will be present for the start of preseason, something that Keane did not have. A preseason to evaluate the players and coaching staff and look to implement his expansive game plan ethos to the club.

Several key signings this off-season. The signing of Copeland, Horowitz and Goodwin are quality additions which will boost squad depth competition. The capture of the Fijian Sevu Reece has the ability to be one of the signings of the season provided the player can sharpen up his defensive side of play.

An off-season where everyone associated with Connacht Rugby need to knuckle down and work harder to get back to competing in Guinness Pro 14 and European Challenge Cup action.

Player of the Season:

Difficult season. Tom Farrell impressed. Bundee Aki cameos in European and Guinness Pro 14 were excellent. Tiernan O’Halloran had several eye-catching displays but I think Kieran Marmion was probably the player of the season. His game management was solid throughout the year, his ability to support the ball carrier seen with several tries at the back end of the season. A summer tour to Australia has the potential for Marmion to establish himself as the backup to Conor Murray.

European Rugby Champions Cup Final Preview

The largest city in the province of Biscay and in the Basque Country as a whole plays host to the most prestigious weekend of the European professional club calendar year. Leinster Rugby and Racing 92 are eighty minutes away from being crowned king pins of Europe. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pregame notes coming into this contest.

How fit is Luke McGrath?

This is the key question that every Leinster Rugby fan is asking this week ahead of this cup final. McGrath was missing for the comprehensive victory over Scarlets in the semi-final due to an ankle injury. Jamison Gibson-Park ably deputized in the fixture which was aided in no small measure by an utterly dominant Leinster Rugby pack on the day. The fitness of Luke McGrath will determine the makeup of the Leinster Rugby twenty-three man squad.

If McGrath is fully fit to start, then James Lowe comes into the equation to fill the void in the back line left due to the hamstring injury sustained by Fergus McFadden in the Scarlets semi-final win. Otherwise, it makes for an intriguing selection poser. Lowe potentially may miss out and Jordan Larmour may come into the back three with Gibson-Park coming in as scrum half.  McGrath has to be 100% fit to feature in this fixture but there are question marks over his fitness and will the lack of game time in recent weeks have an impact in performance?

Machenaud Absence

There are scrum half issues for Racing 92 as well in the lead up to this final. The influential, inspirational Maxime Machenaud is ruled out of the showpiece event due to a season ending knee injury. Machenaud provides leadership, excellent kicking game and game management; he showed his qualities to full effect against Munster Rugby in their semi-final win. Machenaud was unerring in his kicking off the tee and his support running saw him touchdown for Racing 92’s third try of the afternoon. Teddy Iribaren will be asked to provide the necessary game management but more pressure potentially to be placed on Patrick Lambie to make things happen with ball in hand. Given the occasion, the lack of half back cohesion could be a seriously detrimental factor in the outcome of this final.

Weather Watch

Munster Rugby struggled all ends up with the heat and humidity of Bordeaux and no doubt Leinster Rugby were plotting contingency plans on how to game manage in the intense heat. However, the weather gods look to have thrown a curve ball. Rain and a relatively cool twelve degrees Celsius is the forecast right now, weather typically seen in Ireland and not in Spain. A nice boost for Leinster Rugby and one less thing to contend with as Racing 92’s experience in playing in the heat was seen to full effect in the Munster Rugby semi-final win. They picked their moments perfectly to impose their will on the game and put points on the board. This tactic will need to be tweaked now.

Pack Battle

Two incredibly abrasive packs in opposition this weekend. Given the weather conditions, the front five battle looks even more pivotal. Leinster Rugby’s Ireland international stars will look to put massive pressure on Racing 92 in the set piece where Munster Rugby enjoyed good moments in the scrum exchanges. Furlong and Healy will relish the scrum battle against the likes of Arous, Johnston and Tameifuna.

Cronin and Chat will look to secure solid line out platform and both sides have several options. Donnacha Ryan will look to cause havoc in the Leinster Rugby ranks much like he did against Munster Rugby last time out. James Ryan, Devin Toner will look to negate this threat by posing early line out woe for Racing 92 too.

The breakdown battle will be eagerly anticipated. Leinster Rugby’s demolition of Scarlets in this facet of play in the semi-final will have being duly noted by Racing 92. Leinster Rugby’s physicality to clear out opposition from the ruck area allowed Gibson-Park to launch Sexton and his three quarters in double quick time.

Fardy, Leavy and Murphy provide a solid back row selection; Leavy’s prominence in the back row exchanges will indicate how Leinster Rugby will fare. Leavy has the potential to win this game on his own given his commanding presence at ruck time. Racing 92 will need stellar performances from Lauret and Nyanga in this area of the park but it looks like Leiinster Rugby hold all the aces in this vital department. Breakdown area dominance will slow Racing 92 to a crawl and issues will abound for Racing 92 having to force the game.

Three Quarters Battle

Two excellent units on show this Saturday. Virimi Vakatawa and Henry Chavancy produced keynote displays against Munster Rugby. Vakatawa was destructive with his ball carries causing Munster Rugby serious issues; setup Thomas’ second try with a blistering turn of foot. Chavancy produced a defensive masterclass; his tackle count and ability to chop Munster Rugby’s carriers was on point and allowed Racing 92 to setup defensively with ease, causing panic in the Munster Rugby ranks.

Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw provide the Racing 92 three quarters with arguably their toughest challenge of the season. Ringrose and Henshaw’s styles complement each other so well. Henshaw’s defensive nous and power running with ball in hand were seen to full effect against Scarlets last time out allowing Ringrose to find the soft shoulder to create significant gain line breaks throughout the contest. Can Vakatawa be disciplined enough to be defensively on point for the whole game? I have my doubts and expect Leinster Rugby to target the thirteen at regular intervals defensively.

Ten Battle

Will Sexton be targeted by Racing 92 in the opening exchanges? For Racing 92 to have a chance of winning this contest, they need to stifle the influence of Sexton from the ten channel. I would expect the likes of Nyanga and Vakatawa to rampage down the Leinster ten channel to unsettle Sexton early doors but the Irish international will be prepared for the onslaught but it is something to watch out in the opening exchanges. Sexton’s understanding with his three quarters has being on point in this competition all year and if Sexton can receive quick ruck ball, Racing 92 are in for a torrid afternoon.

Racing 92 have weapons at ten to attack Leinster Rugby too. Patrick Lambie’s kicking game has the potential to keep Leinster Rugby off balance in this encounter but for this to happen, the Racing 92 back row will need to provide excellent clear out work to allow for quick ruck ball distribution. Lambie will be asked to force the issue a bit more with the absence of Machenaud from the final. Leinster Rugby’s defensive line speed should be on point and Lambie could well struggle to create an early territorial platform for his French side.

If Lambie option does not work out, Dan Carter will come into the fold. Carter’s mercurial game management may be pivotal if Racing 92 can secure a lead going into the final quarter. Carter will play percentage rugby and expect some deft passes to Chavancy during his cameo. Carbery’s cameo may be required as well for Leinster Rugby; have my concerns that Sexton will not last the entire final and the youngster will look to provide game management to close out this contest.

Back Three Battle

Leinster Rugby’s back three will become a lot more clearer once the full fitness of Luke McGrath is revealed. Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa will definitely start, solid operators whose game management experience on occasions like this is a rare commodity. Larmour or Lowe have the potential to produce massive gain line statistics at the weekend.

Racing 92 have selection posers themselves ahead of the final. Imhoff is chasing Andreu hard for a back three spot. Munster Rugby utterly failed to expose Racing 92 back three in the aerial exchanges but would expect Sexton to do just that in the opening quarter. Teddy Thomas is the key threat for Racing 92 out wide; his pace and ability to find the soft shoulder to the fore against Munster Rugby as Alex Wootton’s inexperience out wide was ruthlessly exposed with a brace of tries. Evenly matched units.

Verdict

Racing 92 to win this encounter need to utterly dominate the pack exchanges and set piece as the absence of Machenaud looks a massive loss before this contest. Leinster Rugby will have learned the lessons of Munster Rugby; defensive line speed and organization will be on point and with aces in the back row (Fardy and Leavy), ruck ball will be readily available for Leinster’s half backs to expose Racing 92 defensively out wide. Provided the wet conditions are not torrential, Leinster Rugby are firm favorites to win this encounter. Racing 92 will provide different looks to Leinster Rugby but this game will be won in the back row and half back areas; both favor Leinster Rugby right now. Leinster Rugby to win by ten points.

Guinness Pro 14 Semi-Final Qualifier Reflections

Two contrasting home side performances this weekend as Munster Rugby and Scarlets secured their passage to the last four of the competition. For Edinburgh Rugby particularly, it was a case of what might have being. For Toyota Cheetahs, the result was emphatic and time to rebuild for next season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

An interesting match to analyze post-game. Edinburgh Rugby on the statistical numbers did everything to win this game. The visitors controlled possession (62%) and territory (62%) against their hosts but the side’s lack of playoff experience proved costly with two key lapses allowing Munster Rugby to take full advantage.

Edinburgh Rugby’s line out has being a stand out in an excellent season but a line out malfunction (over throw) from hooker McInally was gleefully accepted by the ever alert Rhys Marshall who evaded three Edinburgh Rugby tackles to crash. JJ Hanrahan confidently slotted home the extras and one would have presumed that Munster Rugby would have kicked on. Think again.

Richard Cockerill’s charges then set about creating a platform and kudos to the front five who put in a massive shift in the second quarter. Munster Rugby attempting to slow down ball but Hidalgo-Clyne was starting to increase the tempo of the game with quick passing from the ruck area. Opportunities then followed as van der Merwe and Bennett slicing through the home defense; it should have yielded a try but a knock-on five meters out from the Munster Rugby line denied the visitors a deserved five points.

Blair Kinghorn then got in on the act; finding a soft Munster defensive shoulder to make a thirty meter gain line break. Edinburgh Rugby were creating chances but a lack of composure in the red zone was costing them massively. Edinburgh Rugby did put points on the board, two penalties from Hidalgo-Clyne after James Cronin was twice pinged for offside. Cronin for his penalty concessions was prominent in work rate and created a couple of vital turnovers along with Jack O’Donoghue in that second quarter. 7-6 at the break. Munster Rugby flattered to be in front.

The second half started with Munster Rugby’s pack increasing the tempo and cohesion. Good territorial gains leading up to the move of the game. There appeared little trouble for Edinburgh Rugby as a wayward pass forced Simon Zebo to retreat to collect the ball but the full back spotted space behind the first set of defender, a deft chip collected by Zebo who then had the game management to pick out Keith Earls out wide with a wonderful skip pass. Earls still had work to do but the Irish international’s speed was too much for the defensive Edinburgh cover. JJ slotted over again and suddenly it was 14-6.

Munster Rugby continued to probe, further good pack play resulting in an Edinburgh Rugby offside. Hanrahan again slotted home the penalty. 17-6 and Edinburgh Rugby were now being asked serious questions by the hosts. Credit to the visitors though, they refused to panic and continued to build the phases. Munster Rugby pinged and Hidalgo-Clyne slotting over an excellent long range penalty to make it 17-9. Cue the scrum half substitution with Fowles replacing the assured Hidalgo-Clyne.

Fowles though brought speed around the ruck area and a good boot with some excellent touch finders. Fowles provided a lifeline for Edinburgh Rugby at the end of the third quarter following excellent ball carrying from Mata and Kinghorn. Fowles evading several Munster tackles to cross over. The conversion from van der Walt was good and we had a playoff contest again. Cue nerves among the home crowd at Thomond Park.

The next twelve minutes ebbed and flowed with Munster Rugby absorbing all that Edinburgh Rugby could throw at them. A period of concerted pressure from Munster Rugby ten minutes from time yielded another penalty opportunity and all credit to JJ Hanrahan for having the leadership to take on the kick after missing a similar kick in the opening period. This kick was more decisive and opened a four point gap. 20-16. Still time for the visitors to win this encounter but Munster Rugby defensively were on point and a line out steal at the death allowing Munster Rugby to run the ball dead to the relief of the home crowd in attendance.

Munster Rugby win but massive improvement will be required to even compete against Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. The statistics make for harsh reading. Munster Rugby lost the territorial and possession battle. Thirty missed tackles during the eighty minutes. 237 meters gained vs. 504 meters gained by Edinburgh Rugby. This game was won by two moments of individual brilliance from Marshall and Zebo.

Munster Rugby looked to evolve their game plan but t did not work; no platform created and the over indulgence in box kicks seen to full effect. The attacking cohesion was not present for Munster Rugby; lack of opportunities for Arnold and Scannell to impress. They effectively lived off scraps. Playoffs are all about the wins but the performance was negated by a determined Edinburgh Rugby side. Credit goes to the cameo of Ciaran Parker. The Shannon club man came on early for the injured Stephen Archer and did not let the side down. Simon Zebo was sublime in the dry track conditions, constantly probing. Keith Earls was lively with ball in hand.

The identify of this Munster Rugby is becoming a question personally in these last few weeks. What style of play is the side comfortable in playing? Pack orientated ruled the roost until end of March where there has being increased emphasis to launch the back line with increasing frequency. Stander earned thirty meters from eight carries, one carry putting van der Walt on his rear end. O’Mahony was targeted by Edinburgh Rugby in the breakdown contest; had two players for attention at all times. O’Donoghue work rate and breakdown work was the highlight here. Munster Rugby will be firm underdogs for this semi-final, time for team and management to regroup and come together to execute an effective game plan to beat an outstanding Leinster Rugby side.

Edinburgh Rugby left everything out on the pitch. They controlled affairs, their pack was excellent in building the platform with Gilchrist, Berghan and Toolis prominent. The lack of composure at vital moments yesterday will be duly noted and lessons learned next season. An excellent job by Cockerill and coaching staff; the side have come up leaps and bounds and with the likes of Schoemann, Barclay and Hickey; optimism is high for next season. Playoff rugby is decided on fine margins. Two lapses of concentration from Edinburgh was the difference. Harsh lesson but one this group of players will learn from. Most progressive team of the league this season.

The scoreline speaks volumes. 43-8. The game was as good as over at the break as Scarlets performed an utterly professional performance. Toyota Cheetahs were made paid for an extremely flat opening period performance as the hosts scored three tries with Steff Evans scoring a brace of tries and another from Leih Halfpenny.

Evans reveled in the open space afforded by Toyota Cheetahs whose defensive line speed at times was jaded at best. Good skill set from Evans to spot space, good grubber kick as well to create even more opportunity to roam. Toyota Cheetahs simply could not live the threat of the Welsh international winger and deservedly received the man of the match accolade.

Scarlets back line had a superb day at the office. Prydie had eighty meters from five carries. Scott Williams had sixty-one meters from five carries. Evans had seventy-two meters gained from seven carries. Hadleigh Parkes had sixty plus meters from nine carries. It tells the tale of Scarlets pack securing the platform and allowing the back line time to attack.

The second half was a procession for Scarlets in the third quarter. Toyota Cheetahs defensive line and ability to defend the hosts maul was disintegrating at a rate of knots. James Davies crashing over as Scarlets were taking out their European Cup elimination out on the South African side. Every time Scarlets went into the Toyota Cheetahs twenty-two, they looked like scoring. Three tries in the third quarter evidence of this.

Scarlets then called ashore a host of players. Emotional scenes as departing John Barclay and Scott Williams were given rapturous send offs. Two big players to lose from any dressing room. Scarlets will need to recruit well to offset this loss in the coming months along with the departure of Beirne.

Toyota Cheetahs to their credit tried to secure consolation scores and their gain line break statistics indicate as much. Clayton Blommetjies made one hundred meters gain line. Francois Venter was immense with ball in hand 109 meters from nine carries. Maxwane on another day would have scored a couple of tries in the final quarter but a lack of composure to touchdown proving fatal. 

The South African side have being a superb addition to the league this season. Their open, expansive style is immense viewing. However, several personnel departures from the club will test the club in their recruitment process. Clayton Blommetjies departs for Scarlets and showed his ability with ball in hand with the late consolation. Francois Venter departs along with Rory Duncan to Worcester Warriors. Excellent players and head coach departing the club, hard to fill the void. 

Scarlets were outstanding, took advantage of a jaded Toyota Cheetahs side. The pack were incredibly on point and dominated the set piece. The half-backs provided assured game management and launched their back line with increasingly unerring accuracy. Patchell was a standout at ten; his passing and kicking into space to the fore. Everything is set for an incredible tussle with Glasgow Warriors in two weeks time. Both titans going at it. I cannot wait!

Guinness Pro 14: Semi-Final Qualifier Preview

Enter the playoffs. Enter four teams this weekend where two will advance to face either Glasgow Warriors or Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. Two intriguing weekend fixtures beckon with Edinburgh Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs traveling on the road with no pressure; a dangerous proposition for both Munster Rugby and Scarlets. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Several subplots come to mind in this contest. The key word for both teams is recovery and how effectively both front line players have recovered from recent action. Munster Rugby first team players had a free weekend to recover mentally and physically from a traumatic loss to Racing 92 in Bordeaux. How have the players reacted to this loss will be seen to full effect this weekend? Edinburgh Rugby on the other hand had a sensational weekend to savior; a 1872 Cup win over Glasgow Warriors, playoff rugby secured and most significantly a return to the European Rugby Champions Cup competition next season. The Glasgow Warriors game was ferocious in physicality and one wonders if Edinburgh Rugby’s charges will have the same level of intensity for this playoff encounter. After such an euphoric high, can Richard Cockerill’s men produce another high octane performance?

With dry weather conditions forecast in Limerick, this contest should provide good attacking moments during the contest. Munster Rugby will look to the likes of Sam Arnold, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway to provide line break excellence out wide. Arnold was abrasive in his defensive and ball carrying duties last weekend and more of the same should provide the hosts with a good solid platform. The performance of Rory Scannell will be duly noted; his kicking game from open play has the potential to unsettle Edinburgh Rugby defensively in their line speed and ability to push up on Munster Rugby.

Edinburgh Rugby have shown a progressive upturn in their back line play this season. Several huge threats with ball in hand. Duhan van der Merwe is an excellent player and the South African showed Munster Rugby management his power and physicality touching down twice in their sole meeting this season at Murrayfield. His pace and power are on point. Blair Kinghorn’s ability to create gain line breaks has being to the fore this season; rewarded with a deserved call up to the national side. Fife is another player who has impressed with ball in hand. His 100 meters gained last weekend against Glasgow a perfect illustration of his ability. Threats which Munster Rugby must be wary of.

The half-back battle looks intriguing. How will Murray and Keatley react and bounce back from a mixed performance against Racing 92? Will Edinburgh Rugby look to put maximum pressure on Keatley early to unsettle the half back partnership? Murray vs. Hidalgo-Clyne will be interesting viewing. Hildalgo-Clyne has all the skill set to unsettle Munster Rugby around the fringes, a solid kicking game and his ability to link back with an excellent support running game to the fore. Weir or van der Walt will need to provide stability in the opening exchanges and then look to build expansively.

The pack battle will be epic here. Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill are a resolute, abrasive unit with several standout players. Nel in the front row provides experience and nous on set piece. Berghan has being hugely impressive this season in his work rate and set piece execution. Gilchrist and Toolis are a formidable second row partnership, more than capable of disrupting an opposition line out. Mata and Bradbury are abrasive ball carriers.

Munster Rugby’s pack will look to right several wrongs from their Racing 92 loss. The line out was an unmitigated disaster in the opening half of the European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final. Throws and jumping was completely off; spooked by the presence of Donnacha Ryan potentially but the manner in how set piece was lost so deep in Racing 92 territory will have irked all those involved in the fixture. The set piece surely will improve this weekend. The scrum was the facet of play which provided good front five moments for Munster Rugby and they will look to impose their will to build the platform. Several ball carrying threats in the pack. Kilcoyne and Marshall provide mobility around the fringes. Stander and O’Mahony will look to impose their presence on the play; how they do this if Edinburgh Rugby adopt the chop tackle tactic will be interesting viewing?

A 50/50 contest. The mindset of Munster Rugby this weekend will be paramount in this fixture. Are the scars of Bordeaux still raw and inhibit performances in key positions? The playoff context will be assessed by the media pack from a Munster Rugby. Can Munster Rugby deliver in a playoff setting? If Edinburgh Rugby can keep in touch going into the final quarter, nerves will creep into Thomond Park but I sense that Munster Rugby have a point or two to prove to themselves and the neutral this weekend. Edinburgh’s efforts last weekend will be exposed in the second half as a fresher Munster Rugby side will come up trumps by seven to ten points.

This is the fixture of the weekend personally. This is a fixture in which we could be talking about for years to come given the genuine expansive style of play offered by both teams. Toyota Cheetahs are coming into this fixture with little pressure on the side; a memorable debut Guinness Pro 14 season, a playoff run to boot and it is a proud achievement for everyone connected with the club. Their ability to attack from anywhere on the pitch has being seen to full effect this season; even last weekend, their dismantling of Southern Kings in the second / third quarter was impressive. Good cohesion between pack and back line. Incisive offloading and support running.

Toyota Cheetahs will relish the dry track conditions and Scarlets need to be extremely careful on how expansive they will be during this contest. Toyota Cheetahs will want a completely loose game where both sides are defensively stretched. Their back line with the likes of Small, Venter and Blommetjies who are superb ball carriers form a massive threat for the hosts. Tian Meyer is a solid operator at scrum-half and whether his half back partner is either Marais or Goosen will provide problems in their kicking game and game management to unleash an exciting back line.

Scarlets like Munster Rugby have wounds to heal both mentally and physically. Their loss to Leinster Rugby was hard to watch and the manner of the result where Leinster Rugby’s pack dismantled Scarlets in the breakdown and set piece. It must have proved tough viewing for the Welsh region in video analysis last week. Like Munster Rugby, they failed to impose themselves on the fixture, failed to deliver a punch to their opponent. There needs to be a reaction but how the side have recovered from this set back will be key to the fixture.

Scarlets are an incredible side. The pack is abrasive and mobile. Evans, Lee and Owens are quality front row operators. Beirne in the second row has provided standout performances in his open play, breakdown duties as well was popping up with several outstanding tries. The back row will look to right the wrongs of the Leinster Rugby loss; expect James Davies, John Barclay to shine in this encounter. The half-back partnership of Davies and Patchell is excellent and they will unleash their three quarters at regular intervals. Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes will relish the challenge posed by the Toyota Cheetahs and provide the platform for Evans and Halfpenny to impress in the wide channels.

For Toyota Cheetahs to win this contest, their pack has to start well from minute one. There cannot be an opening period lull or lull period at any point. Cheetahs pack when on form are a match for anyone but their indiscipline in recent rounds suggests that perhaps Scarlets can get an upper hand in this facet of play. Cheetahs to provide massive entertainment here provided George Clancy does not disrupt the flow of the game. These are two superb, expansive teams and it needs officiating to promote this, to promote the league to a wider audience. Scarlets to win a try fest in the closing quarter. As mentioned, a potential game for the ages!

Connacht Rugby: At a crossroads

After a memorable demolition of Leinster Rugby to mark the departures of John Muldoon and Andrew Browne, the optimism around Lough Atalia for next season has being replaced by speculation on the head coaching role. Media reports suggest that the Kieran Keane era is over after a season. The silence coming from Connacht Rugby is deafening and is causing speculation aplenty. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the carnage caused.

Background

The speculation on Kieran Keane started on April 30th, a couple of hours after Ulster Rugby had confirmed that former Connacht coaching member Dan McFarland was joining the club on a three year deal. Twitter was alive with speculation on the reasons; initially thought that it was family reasons but more reporting suggested acrimony within the player ranks, communication issues and questionable tactical changes during the season considering the squad at his disposal.

Good Initial Vibes

The appointment of Kieran Keane from the outside this time last year was positive. The New Zealander had an excellent resume, His greatest success arguably came as head coach of Tasman Makos, where he guided the team to an ITM Cup Championship victory and promotion into the Premiership in 2013, taking them to the final of the latter competition a year later and gaining plaudits for his attacking style of rugby in the process. Even Connacht CEO Willie Ruane was enthused: “Kieran’s rugby CV speaks for itself and immediately highlighted to us that he was the perfect fit for Connacht Rugby in the context of the profile of coach that we were looking for.” This looked a good fit. A coach from the Chiefs who liked to execute an expansive, uptempo game. Where was the risk?

Why did Kieran Keane not work out?

Plenty of speculation in this regard. There have being rumors of discontent within the camp particularly on post-game comments attributed to Keane of the team. The comments were spiky to say the least on most facets of play. I recall some comments about the inability of Connacht Rugby to deal with restarts; loss of focus down to the players. Zebre Rugby fixtures saw the team implode both home and away and Kieran Keane came out with some interesting comments particularly last December.

“We didn’t have a lot of energy in the tank today or willingness. Everything broke down on us.

“All the option-taking was a bit average, to be fair.

“They are a good side, they’re playing at home, you knew their tails would be up.

“We talked a lot about that during the week, our preparation was really good.

“I’m going to have to sit down and talk it through with the coaches. Some individuals didn’t endear themselves too well.

The manner of the criticism from the head coach has no doubt irked several squad members and no doubt there were tensions in the dressing room. It raises the question of how open can a head coach be to the media when performances are not at the levels expected? Yes, there is a degree of protecting the players from media criticism but some of these comments were perhaps exposing the players on duty for further ridicule. Game time tactical decisions were also questioned at various points of the season by supporters and perhaps that has come to the attention of the Connacht Rugby board.

Several players I am led to believe had issues with game time afforded to them. Understandable position and happens in every team dynamic. The head coach is supposed to make the hard calls and sees what is going on in the training paddock and on game day in application and work rate. I think this point reported to the media is a moot point. Players who were not given game time obviously were not doing it in training and need to work harder.

Did Connacht Rugby think that Kieran Keane was going to be a Pat Lam like for like replacement? Did they think that Kieran Keane would throw himself at the role as well as give good time to various community initiatives. Keane is a different character to Pat Lam. Lam was open and engaged with the community. Keane was conservative, old school ethos and his priority this year was on Connacht Rugby on the training ground and game day preparation. Keane potentially in the second season may have performed more community initiative work. His first season should have being viewed as transitional.

Connacht Rugby Interview Process

It needs to be said. The interview process from Connacht Rugby last season needs to be reviewed in the light of their decision to fire Kieran Keane from his role after one year. The criteria which they set out to find the successor to Pat Lam has to be assessed. Kieran Keane apparently ticked all the boxes for Connacht Rugby last year in the interview process but not now? No strategic planning in the decision to offload Keane and the club have to reset and endure another transitional year. What do Connacht Rugby board want from their new manager? Does the new head coach need to be a home grown prospect? Does the new head coach need to be a charismatic figure to promote the Connacht Rugby brand? What game plan does Connacht Rugby want to implement? Kieran Keane came from an expansive, uptempo passing ethos. Internal questions to answer for Willie Ruane and board members who undertook the interview process last year. The new prospective head coach needs more than twelve months to be evaluated.

IRFU Intervention

Yet another head coach is gone from Ireland. Munster Rugby had to bide their time until Rassie Erasmus came out with the worst kept secret in rugby and say that he was leaving at the start of the season. This Connacht Rugby head coach speculation is yet more negative news for the IRFU in how they manage the role of head coach. Did Kieran Keane demand more resources from IRFU in key positions before his departure? There has being talks of Ulster acquiring either Carbery or Byrne in recent weeks. Did Kieran Keane feel that IRFU should also consider Connacht Rugby in these discussions? Whatever way you look at this, Connacht Rugby need resources and personnel to climb the Pro 14 league table. IRFU need to manage the head coaching role across the four provinces. The vacuum in leadership on the topic of head coach positions needs to improve quickly.

Connacht Rugby Head Coach Contenders

Given the decision to dismiss a head coach after only twelve months, do not think you are going to see many foreign coaches look for this role. No long term strategy shown by Connacht Rugby here. The new head coach is an indigenous selection. Nigel Carolan is the favorite for the job (if he wants the role). Carolan has served his time with province and Ireland national team structures. Carolan likes to play an expansive style of rugby, allowing players to express themselves. If Carolan does not want the job, Connacht Rugby would do worse and approach Felix Jones at Munster Rugby. A coach with massive potential, well regarded in coaching circles and has being instrumental in the transition in head coaching changes in Munster Rugby this season along with Jerry Flannery. Mike Ruddock from Lansdowne RFC comes into the equation, a coach with massive coaching resume. Solid operator. Michael Bradley is an outside bet but I think it is Nigel Carolan’s job to be honest.

Final Thoughts

Sad to see Kieran Keane go but Connacht Rugby have their reasons. It paints a negative picture of the club. Keane came into the club after a disappointing 2017 season which spiraled out of control once Pat Lam had confirmed his departure from the province. Kieran Keane to be realistically evaluated needed at least two seasons in charge. One season to instill your beliefs to a club is not long enough. The other disappointment is for the incoming players arriving at the club next season who signed for Keane. Goodwin, Horowitz and Copeland will be looking for assurances in the coming weeks if they are still a right fit for the club. The vacuum in the head coaching role leaves recruitment for other positions stagnant and in the Guinness Pro 14, you cannot do that. Connacht Rugby are already behind the eight ball as it is, this news does little to improve the situation. Best wishes to Kieran Keane on his future role, a good rugby man, a man who has worked alongside Dave Rennie. Two New Zealanders with contrasting first seasons in NH Pro 14 rugby. Keane is an astute rugby operator, he will dust himself down and take stock and go again. Connacht Rugby on the other hand  need to move fast  to prevent being left behind!