Hawkeye Sidekick

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!