Hawkeye Sidekick

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.