Munster Rugby moment of truth has arrived

Can Munster Rugby get over the European Cup semi-final hurdle of recent past?

The scene is set. Spectacular Easter weekend weather and hopefully rugby to match starting with the clash of Munster Rugby and Saracens at the Ricoh Arena. Can Munster Rugby exercise the ghosts of recent European Cup semi-final defeats to defeat an outstanding Saracens outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key areas which Munster Rugby must look to exploit.

Mental Approach

The last two seasons has seen Munster Rugby enter into the semi-final with initial hope only to be dashed quite early in the contest. Two conflicting losses as Saracens pack platform and Racing 92’s back line play exposed massive chinks in the Munster Rugby armory.

These losses came about due to extremely nervy, lethargic Munster Rugby opening cameos as they looked for opposition mistakes rather than look to create a platform of their own to win the contest. Munster Rugby to win tomorrow must be brave, brave in their ability to take setbacks, brave in their ability to believe in the game plan, brave in their ability to make things happen at any stage during the contest.

These losses should be a motivational and not mental impediment to Munster Rugby. This group of players and management need to deliver a big performance at the business end of the season and this is the perfect platform and audience to do just that. Another loss without a punch being seriously landed will have devastating effects on the side long term. 

Pack Platform

A generalized word but the Munster Rugby pack to a man have to provide early tempo and momentum tomorrow. Saracens have a superb set piece and Munster Rugby will need to be clever when they attempt to pinch ball in line out as Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje will look to execute quick line out to potentially unsettle Tyler Bleyendaal in the ten channel.

The areas where Munster Rugby must focus in on the scrum and breakdown. The scrum this season has seen progressively improvement but tomorrow is an ultimate test facing up against the likes of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Titi Lamositele who have looked awesome in this competition this season. John Ryan personally has a huge role to play and his scrummaging performance will be an indicator as to how Munster Rugby do in the contest.

The breakdown battle is an area that Munster Rugby must identify and seize upon. Several live threats for the Irish province with O’Mahony, Stander and O’Donoghue. With Jackson Wray looking to nullify O’Mahony, it could be down to the likes of Tadhg Beirne to provide the starring role in the breakdown exchanges. Early breakdown success for Munster Rugby and this result is very much on.

Prepare for abrasive opening period

There should be no surprise in that the Munster Rugby back three will subjected to physical and abrasive aerial threat in the opening quarter. I am expecting Owen Farrell to pepper the likes of Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam early with testing kicks and the back three need to be strong under the dropping ball. There could be a potential late hit for good measure just to test the resolve of the Munster Rugby side.

Keith Earls’ withdrawal is a blow but provided that colleagues support Darren Sweetnam like they did against Edinburgh Rugby, the Cork native will produce a solid performance and provide a quality attacking outlet for the Irish province if given the opportunity. Haley must be all conquering tomorrow, he needs to up his game to the next level in the aerial and ball in hand stakes.

Half Back Game Management

Saracens are a quality side but Munster Rugby’s kicking game and trying to exploit space behind Maitland in particular could reap rewards. Maitland is a player of serious pace and attacking ability but at times can be exposed in defensive areas. The kick game exchanges need to focus on Maitland and it is up to Murray and Bleyendaal to execute the game plan at the right time to potentially identify the space behind Maitland to prosper. It is going to be a tough task but the rewards are there for Munster Rugby if they trust their kicking game at different stages.

Farrell needs to get involved early

Munster Rugby need to set the tone early, look to eek out an early lead and involve Chris Farrell early. The three quarter has the potential to create gain line breaks and allow colleagues space and time to impress.
Lozowski at thirteen is a quality ball player, his kicking game and game making will pose Munster Rugby problems but defensively can Munster Rugby turn the tables on the player? Chris Farrell becomes a huge weapon for Munster Rugby tomorrow. He could potentially create the gain line breaks required to setup the platform for good things to follow.

Conclusion

It is a game where Saracens will enter the contest as warm favorites. Munster Rugby must focus on themselves, focus on their strengths and trust their defensive setup which has got them to this point in the season. The management and players are fully aware of the performance level but I sense that this group have a massive performance in them. A dry track, a chance for redemption and passage to the final. Saracens have massive weapons of their own but Munster Rugby have progressed. The elements must combine tomorrow and I expect a huge performance from the men in red. All the best Munster! Leave it out on the pitch, no regrets tomorrow, play for each other and stand up and fight!

Guinness Pro14: Conference A – Round 20 Preview

Playoff rugby for some has arrived!

April. The business end of the rugby union calendar. A time of year when teams hope that they have saved their best performances of the season to now to secure the silverware. This weekend promises to be exciting penultimate round with several playoff questions still unanswered.

In this blog post, Hawkeye Sidekick will look at Conference A and the fixtures on tap for this weekend. All eyes on the Sportsground as well as the top two fixtures in Benetton and RDS respectively.

Conference A:

Conference A Regular Season Run-In

Top Spot still up for grabs!

The Conference A top two are away from the chasing conference pack but the small matter of that playoff bye week hangs in the balance. Both Glasgow Warriors and Munster Rugby have tough road trip fixtures this weekend.

Munster Rugby potentially could build serious pressure on Glasgow Warriors if they can secure a victory to the progressive Benetton Rugby who will be buoyed by that 22-22 draw against Leinster Rugby in the RDS last weekend.

The Italian job for Munster Rugby is a tricky balancing act. What does Johann van Graan and management do? The news that several marquee players were given this week off to freshen up for next week’s bruiing encounter to Saracens in European Cup fare is a good indicator of the priority right now.

Munster Rugby’s squad will be predominantly squad players and players who need precious game time ahead of that Saracens game. It is a chance for players on the outside to stake a claim for a squad berth for the European Cup fixture so for Benetton Rugby, this fixture is tricky in terms of the unknown quantity that Munster Rugby could provide.

Glasgow Warriors head to Dublin to face Leinster Rugby whose run of form in recent weeks has been a mixed bag. The 22-22 draw against Benetton Rugby will grate management in terms of how the lead was lost so late on in the contest. Benetton’s patience to build the phases rewarded with defensive gaps finally opening in the Leinster Rugby rearguard.

Like Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby are facing with a dilemma. They need the likes of Sean O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw to get serious game minutes under their belt before that massive European Cup fixture with Toulouse on Easter Sunday but does management risk these players against a Warriors side who will be gunning all out for a win?

I am expecting Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster to take a pragmatic approach to team selection; expect to see O’Brien and Henshaw feature in some capacity but the side will be by and large the side that featured last weekend. Glasgow Warriors record at the RDS is poor but this is a superb opportunity for them to secure a long overdue road trip here.

The results this weekend will drive the approach of both Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors for the final round of the regular season. Both have local derby games to finish out the season at home against sides who potentially will need points to secure the playoff berth.

Munster Rugby squad this weekend will do well to secure a win against Benetton Rugby who are improving with each round. Glasgow Warriors have to be mindful of the fact that Leinster Rugby’s squad is still superb and there will be a reaction to last weekend’s draw at home to Benetton Rugby. I think that both Conference A sides will lose this weekend which will setup the final round of regular games to be a fascinating watch for top spot.

The West is awake!

The third Conference A playoff spot is very much up for grabs. Ospreys are still not out of the playoff hunt but they require a big favor from Cardiff Blues at Connacht Rugby this weekend to stay in the hunt. The conference game of the round is in Galway as Connacht Rugby play host to the Cardiff Blues.

Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest several marquee players last weekend in Zebre was justified but only just. The performance with ball in hand was patchy, nervy and indecisive. The defensive line structure and organization was the highlight but Andy Friend and coaching staff will be the first to acknowledge that a repeat performance this weekend will mean a home loss.

The Irish province will bring back the big guns for this fixture. The news that Bundee Aki is back in the first team squad for the weekend is a massive boost as is the news that Tom Farrell is able to play after sustaining an eye injury in the victory over Zebre Rugby.

Cardiff Blues went toe to toe with Munster Rugby last weekend. Their performance with ball in hand was pacy, inventive and oozed class on the outside where they exposed Munster Rugby with several keynote breaks. The three try haul was not enough for victory as Munster Rugby’s big pack players made the impact in the third quarter to blow the game wide open.

The scoreline from the Irish Independent Park was very harsh on Cardiff Blues as for sixty minutes in the contest, they were in the contest. Their attacking play is a key strength and with Anscombe pulling the strings along with Williams in the half backs, creativity was in abundance.

The worry for Cardiff Blues was in the set piece; there was a couple of line out throw miscues and the scrum faltered at various times. The maul defense in the third quarter was exposed and allowed Munster Rugby easy yards and penalty opportunities. This needs to improve for Cardiff Blues this weekend.

The weather conditions in Galway right now are pleasant and sunny but the long range forecast for the region on Saturday is for a breezy, wet day which will mean that the two sides who like to create an expansive game plan are negated and forced to implement a more rigid pack platform orientated game.

The battle of the fly-halfs will be fascinating on the day. Does Jarrod Evans resume his ten duties or does Gareth Anscombe continue to impress? It is cup final footie for both sides so management need to get this decision spot on.

Jack Carty has been Connacht’s go to player this season and the same is expected this weekend. Marmion and Carty vs. Williams and Anscombe / Evans in terms of performance and game management is going to have a huge bearing on the game.

50/50 call on this fixture. Connacht Rugby have issued the rallying cry for their fans to come out and support the side this weekend. The biggest game in three years is the sales pitch; they are not far wrong as victory this weekend secures Heineken Champions Cup rugby next season.

The weather conditions are going to make this game difficult. What side uses the elements best? Cardiff Blues are extremely dangerous when given good quick ruck ball so Butler, Faing’aa and McKeon to negate this threat.

Slight edge for Connacht Rugby based on the fact that their side perhaps are a little bit fresher but in all honesty, Connacht Rugby may have to go to Thomond Park and try to get a result in Munster Rugby at the end of the month.

Ospreys hoping for one more opportunity!

Ospreys are in South Africa and face the Southern Kings in a bonus point try must win fixture. The playoff picture is out of their hands this weekend; do the business in South Africa and hope that the Cardiff Blues can produce the road trip win which would give Ospreys a chance for that playoff berth in the final round of the regular season against the Cardiff Blues.

The form of Ospreys at the start of this calendar year has placed the side in a difficult situation but their play and performances have improved in recent rounds; if they get the result required, they could be primed to launch one last salvo against Cardiff Blues at the end of the month. No pressure on them and the performance should see significant upside.

Random Rugby Thoughts

Apologies one and all for the lack of blog activity in recent days, the day job (which is not this) has been a bit oh, a bit ah feck in recent days but fear not a couple of thoughts in this blog on the weekend action and stories from this week.

Edinburgh Rugby blew their golden opportunity

The bottom line from Murrayfield is that Edinburgh Rugby blew a massive golden opportunity to advance to the last four of the Heineken Champions Cup. For a side to dominate play as much as Edinburgh Rugby did in this encounter and still come up four points short, it must be hugely disappointing for the management, players and backroom staff of the club.

Munster Rugby were there for the taking particularly in that opening period. No genuine advantage for Edinburgh when Tadhg Beirne was sin binned early doors; lack of composure and patience to work the phases to create the pivotal gap. The lack of discipline and concentration encompassed with Keith Earl’s quick thinking and tap which led to the opening Munster Rugby try.

The pivotal Tadhg Beirne penalty at the death was controversial but the manner in which Edinburgh Rugby defensively managed the subsequent play was pivotal ultimately; the misalignment of forward players allowing the overlap for Earls to touchdown. Individual and collective lapses contributed to this Edinburgh Rugby loss; blame the officials all they want, it was down to team errors on the pitch.

Munster Rugby got out of jail. A similar performance against Saracens and it could be a long arduous afternoon. The lack of platform in the opening period was stark and the concession of territory in that half should have seen a bigger deficit in the opening period. To get in at the break only three points was an escape of Alcatraz proportions.

Richard Cockerill is doing a superb job in Edinburgh Rugby but his comments on the game were disappointing at best; his side showed indecision at vital times in the contest, similar to their playoff loss to Munster Rugby last season at Thomond Park. Time to reflect, time to stay quiet and correct the wrongs from last weekend for Edinburgh Rugby in the coming weeks; otherwise European Challenge Cup is the destination next season and a potential trip to Ensei STM! 

Toulouse gamble pays off

Incredible contest between Toulouse and Racing 92. I just love Toulouse when they play off the cuff like they did in the opening period last weekend; it was sensational. The precision in their passing was out of this world. Medard’s running lines from full back a joy to watch. Their resiliency to get going despite down to fourteen players for so long was a testament to the team’s refusal not to be denied. Dupont and Ntamack were top class in the key moments. Racing 92 exposed for their ultra expansive game plan; reap what you sow. The side offer points to opposition and no better side than Toulouse to secure the road trip win — was my tip of the weekend by the way if you were on my Facebook site!

Leinster Rugby get the job done (just)

Credit to Ulster Rugby, the side performs to a level not seen in many a season. When you consider their performances this time last year, it has been a massive transformation under Dan McFarland. The Ulster Rugby line speed defensively was superb and they matched Leinster Rugby for long periods. Jacob Stockdale’s try blooper was crucial but even more so was the conversion miss from John Cooney when the game was tied at eighteen. A pivotal miss and it let Leinster Rugby off the hook completely. To go in front at this stage would have cranked up the pressure on Leinster Rugby at the death; no ease feat to secure a score in those conditions.

Leinster Rugby have received their reality call. The opening period was a touch off and Ulster Rugby grew into the contest with each passing minute. Dan Leavy’s injury is devastating; a key Ireland back row resource gone for RWC 2019 and Joe Schmidt will need to look at the depth chart to make an impact with both sides of the ball that Leavy provides for club and country. Ross Byrne’s character and leadership came to the fore; his decision to go for the posts despite suffering cramps showed massive balls and his kick was outstanding. It was fitting to win any contest. Toulouse in a couple of weeks but Leinster Rugby will be pleased with the resiliency, determination and composure to seal the win late; incredible set of phases to close out the contest.

Saracens rampage through the Warriors!

No surprise to be honest, thought Saracens pack had too much beef, physicality and skill set for Glasgow Warriors counterparts and so it proved. Glasgow Warriors showed their uptempo, open play but Saracens exposed Glasgow Warriors repeatedly with their indecisive line speed and breakdown work. Quick ball for Goode to launch his back line and Liam Williams had the proverbial field day.

It was an eye-catching performance from Saracens. The performance oozed quality but despite Warriors struggles, they managed to put 20+ points on the board which is a source of optimism for Munster Rugby. Can Munster Rugby address the issues that plagued their performance against Saracens two years ago? Can the pack and front eight provide the platform to work the scoreboard? If it goes the other way early, the result is up for the Irish province.

Saracens are playing with confidence. Saracens are looking solid in the squad depth chart. Saracens will be favorites in the semi-final but Munster Rugby will relish the underdog tag. Munster Rugby have to turn up on a semi-final fixture and perform to their full potential. It has not happened in recent seasons; this group of players have to deliver at this stage of the competition. I am expecting fireworks aplenty in the Ricoh!

Jack McGrath moves to Ulster Rugby

A key personnel signing for Ulster Rugby next season. They are getting a player who is keen to prove a point, a player who wants to secure quality first team minutes, a proven British & Irish Lions player. Jack McGrath if he can stay injury free is a superb asset for Ulster Rugby next season and more evidence that the province continues to impress in their squad depth chart particularly in the troublesome front row.

Cara Cup (snooze)

I am sorry but I am not seeing the lure of this Cara Cup; a disjointed tournament as Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby arrive to Boston, MA. Given the domestic club game and pivotal fixtures in the UBL, feeling for clubs who are missing key players in their relegation and promotion key fixtures. What is the benefit of this tournament? I am not seeing it and if someone can enlighten me, please do. Munster Rugby’s squad was noteworthy with the inclusion of James Hart and Duncan Williams. Does this mean that both players are entering the final stages of their Munster Rugby career? 

Darren Cave announces retirement

The announcement this morning from Darren Cave of his retirement at the end of the season spoke volumes; an open letter to the Ulster Rugby supporters to break the news is indicative of the relationship that Cave has with the support base. Tight knit relationship. A solid three quarters who has served his province so well for so many seasons. A player who could have gone elsewhere but showed loyalty to his home province throughout. He owes nothing to Ulster Rugby. Best wishes Darren on your retirement!