Guinness 6 Nations: France vs. Wales Preview

Paris Friday Night Lights

The 2019 Guinness Six Nations tournament kicks off under the lights of Paris on Friday night as Wales look to prey on French frailties and lack of confidence. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the team selections.

Team News:

France: Maxime Medard; Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Romain Ntamack, Yoann Huget; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado, Uini Atonio; Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Willemse; Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: Julien Marchand, Dany Priso, Demba Bamba, Felix Lambey, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Gael Fickou, Geoffrey Doumayrou.

Wales: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Aaron Wainwright, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.

Talking Points:

France: Confidence Low

Selection policy unknown

Jacques Brunel has given Romain Ntamack and Paul Willemse their debut test match caps in this fixture. Ntamack has impressed with Toulouse this season and his inclusion means that
Mathieu Bastareaud is omitted from the match day squad entirely.

Paul Willemse debut is to run the rule over the Montpellier player and see if he complements Vahaamahina who has struggled for second row partners in recent games. I am not sure if Willemse is the answer; his performances in European Cup action have been a mixed bag. The jury is out on that selection truth be told and is an area where Wales could completely exploit.

The pack is beefy to say the least with the decision to include the likes of Atonio and Poirot in the ranks. The back row looks abrasive with the guile of Iturria at the breakdown and the ball carrying of Picamoles and Lauret who has played well in a strong Racing 92 outfit this term.

The half back pairing looks well balanced. Parra and Lopez will orchestrate the kicking game. It will be interesting to see if the half back pairing can evolve and launch their three quarters more than previously seen in recent fixtures. Ntamack demands quick ball to use his fast movement to create gain line breaks.

Wales: Well Balanced Selection

Well balanced side named by Warren Gatland

I do like this selection from Warren Gatland. He has rewarded players on form with the half back pairing. Tomos Williams gets the nod ahead of Gareth Davies, the scrum half has been excellent this season.

Gareth Anscombe when I have seen the player this season has been impressive for Cardiff Blues and Wales. It is an exciting half back pairing and their quick game management should create space for Parkes and Davies in the three quarters to exploit inexperience in the French three quarter partnership.

The pack named has a solid, consistent look to it. The front row of Evans, Owens and Francis will provide a solid scrum set piece, fancy them to turn the screw on the French front row in the second quarter.

The second row contains the mercurial leader that is Alyn Wyn-Jones and Adam Beard who has impressed this season. The back row of Navidi and Tipuric at the breakdown should edge this facet of play. Ross Moriarty’s lack of game time is a question mark but if fit will be his abrasive best with ball carries, tackle count and defensive work.

The back line has an exciting look to it. Josh Adams and George North pace on the wings. Liam Williams coming into the line will provide additional headaches for France in the back three defensive channels. Davies and Parkes at three quarters; complement each other well. Their ability to create with ball in hand coupled with an excellent kick game if required to manage a game time scenario will ease the pressure on Anscombe and Williams.

Verdict: Wales 

As I have said in previous blogs in recent weeks, this Welsh side is well setup to win this tournament. Their unbeaten record to this fixture will only inspire confidence in the ranks. The side looks more solid, more cohesive than a French side whose selection remains up in the air. I am wondering if Brunel knows what his best side is? A loss here and France are in complete free fall.

Wales’ bench looks stronger on paper. The sight of Biggar and Davies at half back to close out the contest in the final quarter is enough for me. The rest of the bench will provide the required impact. France’s squad bench individually looks the part but there is a lack of cohesion here on the selection. Demba Bamba should be starting this test match but is not. France could shock everyone (including yours truly and themselves) but this is a fixture which Wales need to provide a statement of intent early. A cohesive performance is expected from Wales. Wales for me win this fixture by seven points.

Rugby: Ireland U20 vs. England U20 Preview

Intriguing opening fixture for Ireland

Irish Independent Park (Cork) plays host to Ireland U20’s opening fixture, a daunting fixture on paper against an England U20 side who contested the 2018 U20 World Cup final against France. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the team selections.

What time is kickoff?

The game is on Friday, Feb 1st with a 7:15pm kickoff time. If you cannot get to the fixture, the game is live on RTE 2.

Form Guide:

After a disappointing campaign last season, Ireland head coach Noel McNamara will look for an upturn in fortunes for his charges. It was a challenging season last year for the side who struggled for cohesion.

There was a third place finish in the 6 Nations tournament but the U20 World Cup was a complete disappointment. A win against Japan prevented Ireland from been relegated from the U20 World Cup tournament.

England U20 were competitive last season. They finished second to France in the 6 Nations tournament; a road trip loss to Scotland was a pivotal result in their campaign. Their encounter against France was incredibly abrasive and physical. Players taking out at regular intervals with minimal intervention from match officials. A strong U20 World Cup campaign for England saw a final appearance but this time France avenged their 6 Nations loss with a 33-25 win.

Team News:  Ireland

Ireland’s side has potential to impress. Scott Penny has been a standout for Leinster Rugby senior team this season when given his cameo. The back row player will be ably assisted by John Hodnett (UCC / Munster Rugby) and Martin Moloney (Old Belvedre / Leinster Rugby).

Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Dylan Tierney Martin (Corinthians/Connacht) and Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster) need to execute at set piece to provide a platform for an exciting half-back pairing for Harry Byrne (Lansdowne/Leinster) and Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster) who will look to launch their captain David Hawkshaw (Clontarf/Leinster) in the three quarters.

The Cork crowd who will attend this fixture will see plenty of county talent in full view. Josh Wycherley (Bandon), John Hodnett (Rosscarbery) and Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution / Munster Rugby) will start and exciting Sean French (Cork Constitution / Munster Rugby) to make an impact off the bench. The home crowd will be fully behind the side.

Team News:  England

England’s side named is loaded with experience at this age level. The big news from their team selection today is the inclusion of three key players. Marcus Smith starts in the ten jersey, a player who has the full array of skill set to test out this promising Ireland U20 side.

Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors) is well regarded by Eddie Jones so much so that the player got his senior debut against Japan last November. Marcus Street starts his third U20 campaign, vastly experienced and his set piece has been consistently good.

Players to Watch: The Ten Jersey

The battle of the ten’s will be intriguing. Harry Byrne (brother of Ross Byrne) is a player with massive potential and upside. He will require the Ireland pack to set the platform but has an excellent kicking game and his ability to launch his runners at the right time was seen last season.

Marcus Smith is a player who potentially is a dark horse for England RWC 2019 inclusion. His dynamism with ball in hand is to the fore; he will look to engage defenders in order to create gain line breaks for colleagues. The kicking game is good (can be improved upon) but it is his flair with ball in hand which will be highlighted in this fixture.

Verdict: England

Out of the England side who lined out against France in the U20 World Cup final last year, nine players start on Friday night. This experience speaks volumes at this level of competition; the cohesion and understanding between these players gives England the edge in this fixture. Noel McNamara’s charges will do well to get anything out of this encounter. England look too slick, too experienced for an ambitious Ireland side. Cohesion issues to start the tournament but England have the experience and understanding to secure this win with a potential BP at the death.

Guinness 6 Nations Preview: Team Expectations

Team expectations vary

The opening weekend of the tournament is fast approaching with a couple of standout fixture. France entertain Wales on Feb 1st and on Saturday, Scotland host Italy before Ireland and England clash in a game which looks like a massive physical contest already. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at each side’s expectations for this tournament.

Ireland: The side to be shot at 

Reigning tournament kingpins. The side who toppled New Zealand last November. The side are on the pedestal and will be shot at during this tournament. E

The expectations will be to retain the championship but it is a tough ask with progressively improving England, Scotland and Wales on the schedule. No grand slam this year.

If the championship is off the table, perhaps it would be wise to get more game time for squad members who are vying for those final spots for RWC 2019; solidify squad selection ahead of Japan later in the year.

The scrum half options are looking stretched with Marmion, McGrath out of the selection plans for now. Blade comes into the squad as third choice and it is an superb opportunity for John Cooney to secure valuable ground on Marmion and McGrath in the battle for the backup scrum half berth.

Wales: Serious championship contender

The final goodbye for Warren Gatland and this tournament. An end of an era for Wales this season as Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones take over the national team reins after RWC 2019.

I sense that this will be a superb championship campaign for Wales. A couple of injuries but the squad has the right blend of youth and experience. The pack looks formidable with Owens, Lee, Jones, Tipuric in fine form at present.

The half back options look really good with an explosive back line containing Jonathan Davies in the three quarters to game manage and then you see Jake Ball coming back from injury against Leinster Rugby last night, squad depth will be boosted by the end of the tournament.

They would be my pick for the tournament. No grand slam but they have Ireland at home which could be a winner take all fixture finale. Gatland may get his hands on the 6 Nations in his season finale with Wales.

England: Eddie Jones Show  

England have the talent pool to be a viable contender for the championship but discipline issues still are a question mark for me. The back three will need to improve their aerial ability; it will be tested next weekend in Dublin.

The plus point is the pack setup. Their set piece should be extremely strong with Maro Itoje playing superbly well for Saracens this season. The pack contains the Vunipola brothers who will provide platform ball for the half backs. The fitness of Owen Farrell is a concern heading into the tourney.

Eddie Jones will look to unsettle opposition teams and officials with pregame comments; there will be some good sound bites too but the pressure is on Jones ahead of the RWC 2019. Another mediocre tournament showing here and his position could be under serious threat before departing for Japan.

Scotland: Squad progression key 

The injury list is big and Gregor Townsend has been forced to shuffle the squad personnel for this tournament. I think it is a blessing for Scotland; make decisions on the RWC 2019 squad and further confirm the depth charts across the side.

What to expect from Scotland? High tempo attacking offload game. The players are well suited to the game plan and they will look to expose defensive lapses from anywhere on the field with Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn in the ranks.

The issue is potentially the pack. The set piece at times could be under considerable pressure from the likes of England, France and Ireland. How will Scotland improve their maul defense? It was exposed last season in this tournament. A strong showing against Italy next weekend is a must.

France: Destination Unknown 

Serious limbo. Serious anarchy in the French national side. Brunel is throwing the dice with this squad selection with Ntamack leading the squad selection sheet as a marquee player even though he is yet to be capped.

We are fully aware of France’s player pool, talent and ability to play off the cuff but the squad and team have suffered so much in cohesion issues in recent years. Players come in, players go out. No continuity and the team has suffered.

What am I expecting? Strong set piece execution with a mixed bag in open play. The half back pairing is up in the air. Who does Brunel go for? Less than twelve months from a RWC and there are still massive questions on the first team selection let alone the squad.

Wales at home on Friday night is the most important game for France in over four decades; a loss here and this spirals out of an uncontrollable tailspin. A nation will look on with interest, fear and intrigue all in equal measure!

Italy: Improvement the key 

Italy will not win this tournament. Italy probably won’t finish in the top three but for Conor O’Shea, there needs to be viable signs of improvement and optimism going into the RWC 2019.

The Benetton Rugby’s resurgence this season should provide momentum for the national side but the international test match arena is a different animal and their defensive organization was cut to ribbons in November. Abrasive pack phases but precious little in attacking play in the back line.

Scotland on the road to start the tournament. A key fixture to see how Italy fare; they will be buoyed by their performance last season when the two sides met but lack of composure and game management to close out the fixture was punished by Scotland’s late push.

Improvement is the key here, otherwise Italy enter into the run in for the RWC 2019 with minimal confidence and optimism. Let’s hope for the tournament organizers that they can win a game here; otherwise the Georgia debate will surface yet again!

Predictions:

  1. Wales
  2. Ireland
  3. England
  4. Scotland
  5. France
  6. Italy

Guinness 6 Nations Preview: Players under the radar

Players who look destined to impress

The Guinness Six Nations tournament all kicks off next weekend and it is a tournament where the respective team coaches will look to solidify their RWC 2019 squad selections. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the sleeper players who could make an impact in this season’s tourney.

Italy: Michele Campagnaro

A horrendous injury ravaged season last year for the player but has impressed this season for Wasps. The player is abrasive in his ball carries and defensively solid. A player if Italy can secure go forward ball could easily impress. Conor O’Shea will look for more from his three quarters after a mixed bag last season.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

There is massive competition for the ten spot in this Welsh side, a team which should go very close in this year’s championship. Why Anscombe? His versatility to play ten, fifteen and three quarters means that he should see game time in the tournament. His kicking and passing game is superb; his ability to get his runners on the front foot is a key asset. A player to seriously watch and monitor as the tournament progresses considering Leigh Halfpenny’s recent concussion issues.

France: Romain Ntamack 

France are in absolute limbo. The squad selection has five newcomers, expected reaction after their shock loss to Fiji last November. Romain Ntamack looks like a player who will be a standout for France in this tournament. His form for Toulouse has been sensational; his pace and attacking lines are sublime. His defensive side is a work in progress but his creativity will have the French nation salivating with excitement.

Scotland: Darcy Graham

A player whose progression in the last twelve months with Edinburgh Rugby has now seen his well merited national team call up. The winger is elusive with ball in hand and always seem to pop up for a decisive try. The back three positions will be hard fought with Hogg, Kinghorn looking for game time but for Scotland to realistically challenge in RWC 2019, squad depth needs to be identified and Graham fits the bill. The player could potentially be an absolute gem.

England: Jack Clifford 

The Queensland native should the under the radar player for England. His back row skill set is impressive; excellent versatility to pack down at flanker or eight. His ball carrying, breakdown work and defensive work is impressive and his physicality is well suited to Eddie Jones’ game plan mantra. The player could surprise Ireland next weekend!

Ireland: Will Addison 

It all depends how Joe Schmidt approaches the tournament. Does he give new squad members game time if the championship is still in the balance? This will be an abrasive tournament with plenty of player withdrawals. The three quarters section is loaded with talent but Will Addison did his claims no harm with an impressive November international series. His versatility to play full back and three quarters to the fore. His form for Ulster Rugby this season has been sensational; his ability to find the soft shoulder and kicking game on point. His defensive work has progressively improved as well.

Guinness Pro14: Round 14 Preview

Tournament resumes with renewed swag!

End of January. It is the end of the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup pool phase campaigns which means that the Guinness 6 Nations tournament is not far off. It also means that the Guinness Pro14 sides will need to look long and hard at their depth chart to tackle this latest block of fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixtures scheduled for round fourteen.

Glasgow Warriors should secure home victory 

Ospreys travel to Glasgow Warriors on the back of a couple indifferent European Challenge Cup losses. The focus is now to secure playoff rugby but the injuries, international call ups mean that squad depth for the Welsh region looks vulnerable. Glasgow Warriors have stuttered in recent Guinness Pro14 fixtures but this is a glorious opportunity for Dave Rennie’s charges to get back on the win column. Glasgow Warriors look primed for a bonus point try. Ospreys worrying form of late is set to continue.

Leinster fringe players to flex their muscles 

Scarlets injury list is slowly improving but they were no match for Racing 92 last weekend. Their marquee players are summons for Welsh test match rugby and the depth chart in the back row will be duly observed. Leinster Rugby have had an excellent couple of weeks since their loss at Thomond Park. The squad depth is awesome and expecting the likes of Doris, Deegan, O’Brien to impress here. Unless Scarlets pack can set a platform, this looks like a routine home win for the hosts with a late bonus point try in the offing. Scarlets are in limbo until Pivac and Jones depart for Wales at the end of the current season.

Benetton Rugby look for road win at Ulster Rugby

This is one of the intriguing fixtures this weekend. In any other season, you would easily dismiss this fixture and call it a home win but Benetton Rugby have progressively improved this season. They are currently third in Conference B. Ulster Rugby are under pressure to win this fixture but given the injury list and international call ups, this fixture suddenly looks like a complete and utter banana skin. Benetton Rugby will be missing numerous Italian squad members for this clash but the system deployed this season will mean that they will be competitive until the final quarter. Tight encounter beckons with the hosts just edging this. A loss for Ulster Rugby and it could be a nervy end of the season run in to clinch a playoff berth.

Dragons entertain Munster Rugby 

Dragons squad impact due to the international call ups is minimal. Munster Rugby on the other hand are missing numerous first line players but it provides an opportunity for young players Daly, O’Connor to impress. Dragons exited the European Challenge Cup with a chastening home loss to ASM Clermont. Munster Rugby cohesion issues early mean that this fixture is in the melting pot. Inclement weather adds further intrigue. Slight vote to Munster Rugby but this is going to be closer than many expect. Dragons will react to the heavy home loss from last weekend.

Cheetahs primed for Zebre Rugby

Toyota Cheetahs are on a two game winning streak. Zebre Rugby will be missing some key players such as Cana for the fixture which is decisive. I fear for Zebre Rugby in this fixture; the squad depth has been exposed in recent weeks and with the altitude of Bloemfontein, the team selected could flag in the second half. Cheetahs expansive style of game with this current squad is slowly gelling together and there is a bonus point try here for the South Africans.

Cardiff Blues look to rebound against Connacht Rugby 

A potentially exciting contest may be tempered by the wet weather promised for Saturday. Let us hope that the rain promised clears for this fixture as both sides will look to throw the ball around. Cardiff Blues need is more in this fixture; five points behind fourth placed Connacht Rugby ahead of this tussle. A win is required. A loss will mean an uphill task to get back into the playoff race. Connacht Rugby have had an indifferent record here and suspect that this will continue due to key personnel absentees. Cardiff Blues if on form should win this encounter, expecting the New Zealand contingent in the side to setup the platform for victory. Close encounter. Connacht Rugby to come away with a loser point.

Edinburgh travel to Southern Kings 

A nice reward for Richard Cockerill’s side after a very pleasing European Cup campaign. Nice weather in South Africa to recharge battered bodies and a chance for fringe squad players to impress. Kings have been indifferent again in recent weeks and if Edinburgh Rugby can establish continuity and cohesion sufficiently should win this fixture in the fourth quarter. Kings will have their moments but the player pool in the side still is not at the level required for this competition. Private investment is secured for the side going forward and it needs to be used to identify talent within the Super Rugby club fraternity looking for game time to make an impact for this club. Edinburgh Rugby win.

Heineken Champions Cup: Pool Phase Review

The cream has come to the top!

So that is the end of the pool phase of the Heineken Champions Cup for another year. A competition phase which on the final weekend did not create that excitement that we typically expect. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool phases and casts his eye further down the track (foolish or not) to end of March and the quarter final pairings.

Who impressed?

You cannot look past the top three seeds in the quarter finals. I thought they were the standout teams. Saracens look in the mood to go deep in this tourney and their performance last weekend minus Owen Farrell was a timely reminder to all opposition of their potency and squad depth. The pack is formidable. Itoje is running the show in the second row and his discipline is vastly improved in this campaign. They have put Glasgow Warriors to the sword twice in the pool and with another meeting at the end of March; the smart money is for a Saracens home win. Their balance and game management has been on point this season.

Racing 92 has been throwing the ball a bit this season? Their home form performance have been nothing short of sensational. Their ability to create such a high tempo game has exposed their pool opposition so far. Scarlets last weekend tried to stand toe to toe but were destroyed in a rampant third quarter cameo. Simon Zebo, Finn Russell have settled so well into the club and with a hardworking pack at the core; their fixture against Toulouse has fireworks writing all over it.

Leinster Rugby continue to rumble on in this tournament. Their opening night demolition of Wasps was incredible; their supporting running, offloading and set piece prowess with James Ryan at the heart of everything good in the engine room was the platform for what that has followed. Yes, there has been a loss on the road to Toulouse but that was an incredible contest. Leinster Rugby entertaining Ulster Rugby in the last eight of the competition. Player injuries coming out of the RBS 6 Nations could be a key factor here. Their squad depth was flexed in the last two rounds. Ross Byrne seamlessly stepped into fill Johnny Sexton’s shoes. Adam Byrne has been a revelation in the back three this season. Sean Cronin has become a marauding try scoring machine, equal on tries with Jacob Stockdale! The champions are not going away you know!

Progressing Nicely

I have to say that the progression in Edinburgh Rugby these last two seasons has been nothing short of superb. The job that Richard Cockerill and management have done with this team has been sensational. The manner in which Hardie was given his marching orders last season was a serious statement on how the management wanted their players to represent themselves and the club. There is a performance etiquette that needs to be delivered by the players who put on the jersey week in week out. Their pool performances looked on the outside to be daunting but they handled the threat posed by the juggernaut Montpellier and RC Toulon with ease. The front row performance last weekend in particular was excellent. Nel played with a freedom that I have not seen in the player before. His behind the legs past to Mata indicative of the confident that the prop is playing with at the moment. His front row colleagues destroyed Montpellier. Pierre Schoeman is a man mountain wrecking ball at scrum time. Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham coupled with the continued emergence of Blair Longhorn means that this is a side which deserves respect and have an excellent chance of semi-final progression.

Scope for improvement:

For Edinburgh Rugby to make to the last four, they will need to get past a Munster Rugby side who gutted their way through to the last eight of the competition yet again. An extremely tough pool for Munster Rugby starting from day one on that hurricane style day at Sandy Park. Munster Rugby critically took care of Gloucester Rugby and then had to deal with officiating incompetence in Castres. The team are battle hardened. The desire and determination to win is beyond reproach. The attacking side of the game continues to be inconsistent and exposed when teams pressure the side with their defensive line speed and flooding the breakdown area. The good news for Munster Rugby has been the performances of Joey Carbery who has bounced back well from that Castres road trip display. Tadhg Beirne continues to be a beast in the open and breakdown exchanges. Mike Haley solid under the high ball and Chris Farrell provided he remains injury free can provide go forward ball at the end of March. 50/50 game with Edinburgh. The scrum battle even right now looks a key battle and the battle of Mata vs. Stander will be worth the gate admission fee. A team who have scope to improve which is always good this time of the year.

Ulster Rugby must be applauded for the manner in which they came back to win at Welford Road last weekend. They were under the cosh for long periods of the contest but they hung in and with excellent back line talent in Baloucoune, Stockdale and Addison they got back into the game and never looked back. The pool phase was a good learning curve for Dan McFarland; his charges had to show resiliency after a heavy loss to Racing 92 but their reaction to beat Scarlets (home and away) was emphatic. A road trip to Dublin beckons but the attitude should be clear for Ulster Rugby. They should enter the fixture with minimal pressure; pundits will write them off and the side are well capable with their back line to pose Leinster Rugby issues. The forward pack will need to step up to a different level and the news of the injury to Iain Henderson is a worry. The emergence of Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore is a welcome boost for a side which struggled in the front row unit exchanges last season.

Toulouse were sneaky out yesterday. They realized that another try scored against Bath Rugby would mean a return trip to Dublin. You saw the mindset of the club management and players in yesterday’s second half display to Bath Rugby. They wanted no part in a Leinster Rugby rematch. They will take their chances to beat Racing 92 on the road; not an impossible task as the style of play adopted by Racing 92 will suit Toulouse and their off the cuff attacking approach to the game. It is great to see Toulouse back to the forefront of European Club Rugby. Their performance against Leinster Rugby at home was a timely reminder of how superb they can be with ball in hand. Medard continues to inspire those around them. The Leinster Rugby road trip loss exposed pack and defensive issues; needs to improve to realistically beat Racing 92 in the quarter finals.

Glasgow Warriors. Eighth seed. They have thank Edinburgh Rugby for their place in the playoffs. The Saracens losses exposed issues yet again in the pack set piece amid the typical attacking flair out wide. Adam Hastings has developed well in the half back position but their pack problems are a huge concern and I do not see much joy for them on the road again to Saracens. A team who for me have under achieved in this competition and with the likes of Stuart Hogg gone to Exeter Chiefs next season, the window for the Warriors to get into a semi-final / final of this competition looks more remote with each passing season.

Disappointments of the competition:

RC Toulon were a massive disappointment in this tournament this season. A team with vastly acquired talent but unable to string together cohesion anywhere on the park. The team ethos was missing in this tournament as soon as Newcastle Falcons beat them in the opening round. The white flag was raised against Edinburgh Rugby. Time RC Toulon started to focus on their homegrown talent and less on glamorous import acquisitions. RC Toulon need to look long and hard on their long term plans. Legacy built with Johnny Wilkinson is been eroded at a rate of knots.

Scarlets were one game away from making the European Cup final last season but they were nowhere near it this season. Injury crisis for sure played a part but the departures of the likes of Beirne, Barclay were more massive than first anticipated. Pivac and Jones leave for Wales at the end of the season; unsure on the talent recruitment policy at the club with managerial setup in limbo. Scarlets have a lovely style of play but they were put to sword far too often this season in this competition. A year of transition next season beckons for the club. Sad to see!

Leicester Tigers are descending into absolute anarchy. Their performance against Ulster Rugby last weekend typified their predicament. Dominant for long periods, unable to put opposition away and then defensive frailties exposed in quick time in the third quarter. The club need stability; make a decision and if Geordan Murphy is their man, stand by him for the long term. Matt O’Connor dismissal after one game this season is not a move typically seen by a club like Leicester Tigers. Things are not right at the club and I am not convinced that they will be getting back into this competition next season. Rebuild is the keyword!

Officiating inconsistency. The sheer inconsistent in officiating the breakdown and incidents where players are taken out in the air was further magnified in the last couple of rounds. The Castres vs. Munster Rugby fixture was deplorable; dark arts in full view but the officiating crew failed to impose their authority or the laws of the game. Other games fell foul of inconsistent officiating also. Breakdown is a joke at the moment. Players not staying on their feet. Players coming in from the side. Players sealing off the ball. Where is the fair contest? For a player to win a turnover at the breakdown these days, you need to be hit at least five times from different angles to get anything and still stay on your feet.

Heineken Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 9 – 7 Exeter Chiefs

Heineken Champions Cup Drama at Thomond Park

Munster Rugby secured top spot in Pool 2 with a nerve jangling, tension filled 9-7 victory over Exeter Chiefs at a sold out Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick was in attendance and reflects on the fixture twenty-four hours on from the result.

There was a sense of expectancy in the air around Thomond Park pregame as supporters of both Munster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs mingled in the fan zone and club houses adjoining to the hallowed venue. The warm up sessions from both sides was an indication of how the contest would go; both pack units executing set piece drills with increasing velocity.

Stand Up and Fight sung by Jean Wallace lifted the roof off the West Stand as the atmosphere cranked up to the maximum. The scene was set for the pool 2 decider and the early exchanges were brutally physical and abrasive. Both sides looking for potential weaknesses with early attacking phase play but line breaks were at a premium.

Strong Munster Rugby start

Munster Rugby opened the scoring on six minutes with a Joey Carbery penalty straight in front of the posts after good work from the Munster Rugby pack. Stander ripping the jersey from an Exeter Chiefs second row to highlight an offside indiscretion as the maul progressed with interest. The end of this play saw Conor Murray go down with an apparent shoulder injury but the scrum half continued in the contest.

Exeter Chiefs response immediate

If the home supporters thought that this would be another cakewalk end of pool home game fixture, they were duly put on notice as Exeter Chiefs response to the opening score was emphatic on thirteen minutes.

A crunching hit on Peter O’Mahony causing a turnover and after Niall Scannell was pinged at the breakdown, Exeter Chiefs had no hesitation to go for the corner. Simmonds’ kick was on the money and it was maul time for the English side.

The maul was brought down just on the Munster Rugby line; with a penalty already secured from that collapse, Don Armand crashed over after good recycling and phase play. TMO was called to confirm and the try was given. The conversion was emphatically kicked over by Simmonds and Munster Rugby were behind.

Kicking Game Advances 

The remainder of the half saw a cat and mouse battle ensue. Exeter Chiefs making sure that their exit strategy was clinically executed. Nick White must be applauded for his kick game as time after time, his kicks gave his colleagues maximum time to chase and close down the Munster Rugby ball receiver. The breakdown battle was chaotic. Exeter Chiefs disrupting Munster Rugby ruck ball.

With Garces content to let the breakdown battle turn into a free for all, Munster Rugby were increasingly getting isolated in their ball presentation and Conor Murray needed to box kick more frequently that anticipated with mixed results. Exeter Chiefs were rattling Munster Rugby in their line speed, breakdown work and kicking game.

Jittery Munster Rugby attacking play

This fixture was now a test of Munster Rugby’s ability to execute their attacking game plan. The pack ball carries were struggling to create holes in the Chiefs defense and as a result, there was an air of panic at times with some of the attacking plays run by Munster Rugby. It resembled at times their performance against Racing 92 in Bordeaux last season.

With Munster Rugby not getting any joy in the way of attacking gain line breaks, it came as a relief that the home side front row won a penalty for an emphatic scrum drive on twenty minutes. Joey Carbery’s kick was unerringly accurate and the gap was now down to a point. 6-7.

Exeter Chiefs continued to probe with mixed results. Jack Nowell at full back looking most likely to create attacking opportunities from his full back position. Their persistence to kick deep into Munster Rugby territory was having good rewards and more indecisive Munster Rugby game management with ball in hand saw the English side in prime position to score more point on forty minutes only for quality breakdown work allowing Stander to run the ball out into touch.

There was an increasingly air of the nervousness in the stands at half-time. Munster Rugby’s pack platform had not materialized. As a result, the attacking game plan was neutralized by Exeter Chiefs. The kicking game was been won by Exeter Chiefs; adjustments were required from the hosts.

Precious scoring opportunities

The second half saw both sides have potentially promising moments. The game was preciously offering little in terms of expansive play. This was a proper arm wrestle; a game of attrition, a game of sheer physicality as both sides battered the other with minimum creativity. Brawn was the order of the day.

Munster Rugby on video analysis will look to key contributions of a number of personnel in the pack. Tadhg Beirne in the third quarter was outstanding, his jackal positioning over the breakdown winning three penalties to launch attacking platforms. CJ Stander ball carrying and tackle count setting the tone.

Exeter Chiefs continued to threaten with their attacking maul a key threat. More points were turned down by the visitors heading into the fourth quarter as they looked to turn the screw to secure a decisive second try. The game was becoming more and more frayed for the hosts as Murray and Conway had good opportunities denied by superb last ditch defending.

Line out steal from Holland key

Cue the key moment of the contest. Tadhg Beirne departed the pitch and was replaced by the ever reliable Billy Holland. A line out five meters out from the Munster Rugby line. The defensive line out was ditched and the decision was to contest the line out. The risk was clear; lose the line out and the try was almost certainly conceded. The lift from Loughman and Stander for Holland was outstanding; the steal sublime and the energy in the crowd was reinvigorated as the home supporters rose in unison to applaud the play.

The line out steal was a key moment as Exeter Chiefs were now losing the gain line battle to Munster Rugby. Phase play was more direct from the hosts and there was more urgency in ball presentation and quicker ruck ball from Mathewson upon his introduction. Dan Goggin and Arno Botha starting to see more ball carries and creating more gain line breaks.

It set the platform for the key penalty award on seventy minutes. Exeter Chiefs pinged in the line out and there was no hesitation from Carbery to go for the posts. His kicking was emphatic and the Thomond Park faithful roared the kick over. 9-7 and suddenly Exeter Chiefs need to change their game plan to get back into the contest.

However, Munster Rugby defensively have to be applauded for a disciplined performance in those closing stages. Their line speed was on point and their decision to commit to the breakdown was superb. Rhys Marshall was a key cog in several defensive plays. The New Zealand stalking the ball carrier and making several key hits resulting in lost gain line yards for Exeter Chiefs.

Exeter Chiefs from been just outside the Munster 22 were now back on the Munster Rugby 10 meter line. Their attacking passing moves were rather static and moving ponderously from side to side culminating in Munster Rugby exposing an Exeter Chiefs player and putting him into touch. Garces blew the final whistle. Palpable relief.

Munster Rugby Learnings

What did we learn last night? The determination, grit, hunger and sheer desire to win this contest from Munster Rugby was to the fore. They lost the territory and possession battle. They lost the open kicking game but Munster Rugby refused to wilt and Exeter Chiefs like so many other teams who come to Thomond Park were caught at the death and lost the contest.

The breakdown was a mess. Garces and officiating crew should have handled this area of play better but it clearly rattled Munster Rugby in their ability to launch attacks. The attacking game plan was frantic at times; rushed game management decisions with ball in hand all too common. The ferocity of the breakdown will continue to be like this in the quarter final; coaching and player review of this area is required.

The Munster Rugby scrum did go well last night and should have yielded more reward. There was at least three scrums where Munster Rugby were unlucky not to win penalties. Kilcoyne, Scannell and Ryan provided a solid set piece throughout. The maul defense improved massively after Armand’s try.

Exeter Chiefs kicking game plan caused Munster Rugby massive issues. Haley was assured under the high ball but there were clear cohesion issues in how Munster Rugby players were slow to support their full back for a possible offload. This needs to improve as the business end of the season fast approaches.

A hard fought win, a gritty performance but Munster Rugby management will realize that the level of accuracy with ball in hand has to improve dramatically by the time the side travel to Murrayfield at the end of March to face Edinburgh Rugby side.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Permutations Central

Challenge Cup for once looks exciting!

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that this competition grates on me for many reasons. However, the tournament’s pool phase concludes next weekend with several decisions still up in the air. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on where we are and tries to predict what may unfold.

Who will make the quarter finals?

Top Eight (After Round 5)

The only side who are guaranteed a home quarter final is the top seed ASM Clermont Auvergne. The French side secured top spot in their pool with an exciting 48-40 win over Northampton Saints. After that, it is a mess with several sides still in contention for a late quarter final playoff.

Looking at the fixture list next weekend, La Rochelle if serious about this competition should account for Zebre Rugby on the road; anything else and they could be sensationally knocked out of the competition. Sale Sharks host a hapless Perpignan who have not won in a while; expecting a bonus point try win early from the Manchester based club.

Worcester Warriors have won the pool and are at home to Stade Francais who may play a second string squad for the fixture who have a remote chance of making the final playoff berth. Worcester Warriors have been methodological and should do the job based on good set piece and superior work rate.

Harlequins travel to Agen on Friday night. Agen will be delighted to see the back of this tournament; they perennially despise this competition and they will be popping the champagne corks after the final whistle. Their focus is and always will be Top 14 survival. Quins if they perform should secure a bonus point try win here with ease.

Bristol Bears and Northampton Saints have routine home fixtures against Enisei-STM and Timisoara Saracens respective. BP try wins beckon and passage to the last eight. The only team who look vulnerable and I say this because Bordeaux-Begles have played well in the tourney in recent weeks is Connacht Rugby.

The Irish province had a superb 20-18 win over Sale Sharks last weekend. Bordeaux-Begles may decide to call upon several first team stars and their abrasive pack may mean that this game is in the melting point until the third quarter. Cool nerves are required from Connacht Rugby. If Connacht Rugby were to lose, then Benetton Rugby would be main benefactor.

The two vulnerable teams for me on this final weekend are La Rochelle and Connacht Rugby but I think they are playing sufficiently well enough to get results on the road.

Playoff Verdict:

ASM Clermont Auvergne (1) vs. Connacht Rugby (8)

La Rochelle (2) vs. Northampton Saints (7)

Sale Sharks (3) vs. Bristol Bears (6)

Worcester Warriors (4) vs. Harlequins (5)

Heineken Champions Cup: Permutations Central

Exciting pool finale beckons next weekend!

The fifth round of Heineken Champions Cup is now in the books. Several sides’ ambitions to advance to the playoffs officially extinguished while others move onto next weekend and a weekend of destiny. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the permutations which may unfold next weekend.

Current playoff picture (after Round 5)

Home Quarter Final Locks 

The debate on home quarter final berths was decisively answered this weekend. Saracens remain unbeaten in pool phase play. Their bonus point try win over Lyon on the road means that they are the number one seed right now with a home fixture against Glasgow Warriors scheduled next weekend.

Racing 92’s two point haul on the road to Ulster Rugby yesterday means that they hold the second seed. Racing 92 will fancy their chances of securing a win over a Scarlets side at home with precious little to play for; a potential bonus point up for the grabs.

Leinster Rugby made an emphatic statement, demolishing Toulouse minus several marquee first team starters. Wasps on the road will be interesting but the manner of the performance yesterday in the RDS means that the reigning champions should secure the third quarter final berth.

Any dramatic twists expected on the home quarter final berth?

We are down to the last home quarter final berth and it could be decided as soon as Friday night at 10pm. The equation is simple. If Edinburgh Rugby beat Montpellier, they secure the final home quarter final spot with a minimum of 23 points. A Montpellier game opens the home quarter final berth up for grabs on Saturday!

The side who would avail of this scenario is Munster Rugby but they are faced with a tricky encounter at Thomond Park as Exeter Chiefs still have a chance of pool progression. Exeter Chiefs’ mission is simple; beat Munster Rugby without allowing the Irish province any points. Tough task but no better than Exeter Chiefs to embrace and go for broke.

Munster Rugby impressive in their win over Gloucester Rugby on Friday night need to secure a bonus point try win to hit the twenty-two points mark. This may still not be good enough to secure the home quarter final berth but that is the aim right now. The Battle of Castres and the lack of officiating on that December night may come back to haunt Munster Rugby, Wayne Barnes and the EPCR organization. A home quarter final dashed.

Last Three Spots:

The pressure may build for those currently in spots six, seven and eight spots if Montpellier were to upset Edinburgh Rugby on the road. Given Montpellier’s road trip woes, it looks an arduous task but let us look at the impact if the French side did pull off the upset win.

Montpellier would jump to min (20 points) / max (21 points) and win Pool 5. Edinburgh Rugby are currently on nineteen points at present and you would expect them to add to that tally. They should advance to the quarter finals. Who may need be vulnerable if this scenario plays out?

Ulster Rugby travel to a Leicester Tigers who are devoid of confidence. It is the best opportunity for Ulster Rugby to secure a road trip win at Welford Road and with a Tigers squad looking at Gallagher Premiership survival, a bonus point try is potentially on the cards. Ulster Rugby should be safe.

Glasgow Warriors head to Saracens; arduous mission to secure any points from this fixture. Glasgow Warriors do have nineteen points in the bag; that might be enough to secure a ticket for the big dance but it all depends on Edinburgh / Montpellier on Friday.

Playoff Verdict:

Saracens (1) vs. Glasgow Warriors (8)

Racing 92 (2) vs. Toulouse (7)

Leinster Rugby (3) vs. Ulster Rugby (6)

Edinburgh Rugby (4) vs. Munster Rugby (5)

FAI Junior Cup: Aisling Annacotty 2 – 1 Newport Town AFC

Aisling Annacotty edge local derby FAI Junior Cup tie

Aisling Annacotty advance to the last sixteen of the FAI Junior Cup as a late Aaron Murphy header broke Newport Town AFC hearts in a high energy, competitive encounter in Annacotty. Hawkeye Sidekick was in attendance and reports on a 2-1 triumph for the Limerick District League Premier Division outfit.

As soon as the draw was made in early December, this fixture stood out for anyone in the Midwest. Aisling advanced to the last thirty-two of this competition with an excellent 4-0 win over Blarney Celtic on the road. Newport Town AFC who play in the Limerick District League 1B advanced to this stage of the competition courtesy of a nail biting penalty shootout win over Carbery (Sligo) at home.

The form book suggested that Aisling Annacotty would have too much quality for Newport Town AFC but the romance of the cup never dies and the 1B outfit set about their task from the first whistle with organization, determination and skill. The Tipperary outfit were the dominant side for the opening exchanges; winning the second balls and with the ever dangerous Christy Doyle upfront posed a threat for the hosts defense.

Davy Ryan on the flank for Newport Town AFC had a strong opening and his link up play setup Doyle for the first chance of the game on eighteen. Doyle’s rasping drive brilliantly kept out by the Aisling Annacotty net minder. Newport Town AFC were compact and creating further chances as Doyle again tested the home defense with a header on thirty minutes.

A good start from the visitors was undone on thirty-three minutes as Aisling Annacotty took the lead with their first realistic chance of the game. Good work down the left flank caused chaos in the Newport defense, the ball was cleared but the second ball was headed back towards goal where Jason Lipper was on hand to nail home taking advantage of lack of defensive tracking from Newport. The finish was tidy, little time to set himself as Jimmy Fyffe came quickly out of his goal but the header was decisive. 1-0 Aisling.

A local derby was always going to see some cards issued by the man in the middle and so they duly came. The most significant of those yellow cards was on 37 minutes when Christy Doyle was given a yellow for cheekily heading the ball out of the Aisling keeper’s hands and putting it in the net. That card would become a key talking point as the game wore on.

Newport Town AFC buoyed by a strong away support responded well and more good play down the right flank nearly saw the Tipperary side win a penalty. Doyle brought down just outside the edge of the box, the subsequent free kick was saved but the threat from the visitors was still abundant to the locals in attendance. Half-time: 1-0.

The opening period was at times cagey with both sides content to sit back and see what the other side would do. The middle third was quite congested but the second half started with good tempo with both sides making encouraging attacking breaks. Half chances for both sides in the opening exchanges as the game was opening out.

Aisling Annacotty’s young side looking to hit Newport Town AFC on the break but the Tipperary side were dealing with the threat and duly equalized midway through the half. The goal was all about Davy Ryan as his incisive run into the box and lay off left Christy Doyle with the chance and the effort was emphatically placed to the right hand corner. 1-1. The away support roared with approval. Game on!

Heading into the last twenty minutes of the contest, it was a 50/50 contest. Aisling responding well to the concession of the goal and started to make advances to the Newport Town AFC goal. Cue the key incident of the game. Christy Doyle who was ever dangerous for Newport Town slid into a tackle and with a yellow card already to his name, he needed to get the tackle spot on. Unfortunately for Newport Town AFC, he was slightly late and the match officials after taking time to consider their decision issued a second yellow card. Newport Town AFC down to ten players. Advantage very much with Aisling Annacotty.

The player advantage initially did not hinder Newport Town AFC as the O’Sullivan brothers continued to take the fight to their opponent with some lung bursting runs from deep. The 1B side were continuing to make the tackles and their defense were well organized until five minutes from time when Aisling Annacotty struck the front.

Newport Town AFC will reflect on how the goal was conceded. A cross from the right flank was delivered just in front of the defense and goalkeeper. It forced Newport Town AFC defensively to make a decision. Jimmy Fyffe made the call to come out but was just beaten to the ball by Aaron Murphy who headed superbly into the net. Cue home celebrations! 2-1 Aisling.

A devastating goal to concede. The 1B side punished again for another defensive lapse. The fine margins in a cup tie highlighted by the goal. Newport Town AFC tried to respond and only for a last ditch tackle from Aisling Annacotty, an equalizer could have been scored. On the other side, Aisling could have scored a third only for a smart save from Jimmy Fyffe as Newport Town AFC went for broke.

The final whistle was greeted with relief by Aisling Annacotty. Their young side had won, the performance at times lacked composure but their resiliency to keep in the contest and wait for their opportunities was impressive. Jason Lipper, Brian Butler, Aaron Murphy stood out at different intervals. A key win for the side whose young age profile bodes well for the future.

Newport Town AFC were a credit to their division. The 1B side performed superbly well and belied their league divisional status. They matched their Premier Division opposition for long periods and to a man played with work rate, determination and attacking menace. The red card was a sickening blow and the game winner was cruel luck on the side who provided much to an exciting local derby.

Aisling Annacotty advance to the last sixteen. The facilities were first rate and the manner in which the club is been run and the future plans means that the Limerick club are primed for success on and off the pitch for years to come. This result will increase morale and confidence in this young group of players ahead of a busy Premier League calendar block.

Newport Town AFC romantic run ends in the FAI Junior Cup but the memories of this cup run will be remembered for years to come. The penalty shoot out win over Carbery a season highlight. Derryleigh Park is a fine venue and with the incredible support from Newport, the club’s future looks bright. The players in the side need to kick on now and secure 1B promotion. The season cannot die now. The travelling support was considerable and added plenty of atmosphere to the occasion.