Munster SHC Final Preview

Intriguing subplots at LIT Gaelic Grounds

Apologies one and all. A quite hectic couple of weeks on the day job front has meant little time to blog, little time to reflect on the shadow boxing which went on two weeks ago in Thurles. This weekend should be completely different proposition as Limerick and Tipperary lock horns again for Munster SHC bragging rights. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the team news and key contests that will decide this provincial decider.

Team News:

Limerick team news was hardly a surprise. The return of Gearoid Hegarty into the starting lineup and Declan Hannon back at half back with Paddy O’Loughlin making way. Peter Casey gets another opportunity to impress in the forward line after a mixed performance last time out. The rest of the team ran along familiar lines. Cian Lynch back in the midfield area as well.

Tipperary’s selection was an intriguing one. We knew that Bonner Maher was out for the rest of the season and that Cathal Barrett was going to miss out on the provincial decider or was he? Barrett is named at corner back, a welcome boost for Liam Sheedy but is Barrett’s hamstring fully recovered?

It is a big call from Liam Sheedy and Tipperary management. The squad depth chart at corner back perhaps a concern for management. If Barrett plays on Sunday and pulls up with a more severe hamstring injury then conceivably Tipperary’s All Ireland hopes could be up in smoke before the All Ireland series begins.

Key Battles:

Can Limerick’s half back line set the platform to create the running game? Hannon’s return to the half back position will see game management and much improved distribution from defense. He will look to slot in front of the full back line and look to set the tempo and launch attacks from deep. The counter argument is that Hannon could be moved around the half back line thus negating his impact and allowing Callanan the space to produce a match wining performance yet again.

Tipperary’s middle third has impressed throughout this championship. Their ferocious work rate, slick skill set and movement has caught the eye with numerous attacking contributions from the Maher’s in the half back line, the play making brilliance of Noel McGrath, the energy and power of Michael Breen and the slick attacking lines of O’Dwyer, Bonner and Forde.

How Limerick look to negate these units will be intriguing to see. O’Donoghue and Lynch in midfield have huge roles to play on Sunday. O’Donoghue providing defensive nous and looking to man mark Noel McGrath at all times. Lynch’s running game from deep should pose Tipperary defensive issues to combat and his ability to create for the likes of Gillane inside.

The story of the full forwards could be a key talking point pregame. Both Aaron Gillane and Seamus Callanan have shown their brilliance this season and Callanan was sublime in Thurles two weeks ago. His goal oozed class and his movement caused Limerick’s full back line endless problems. Gillane had good moments as well but Tipperary adjusted well in the third quarter to cut the supply of ball into the Patrickswell clubman as Limerick’s running game waned significantly in the second half.

For Limerick to win, the run game is paramount. The run game needs to put Tipperary defensively under pressure. The run game should yield frees to keep the scoreboard ticking over. The squad depth looks favored for the reigning All Ireland Champions. The likes of Dowling, Flanagan, Ryan, O’Donovan to come in and make an impact.

Tipperary have massive potential in the likes of Mark Kehoe but the bench looks unproven and the decision to start Barrett an indicator that the corner back options in reserve are a tough vulnerable. If Tipperary stop the Limerick run game like they did last time out, then the Munster SHC title will be headed to the Premier County.

Verdict:

Plenty of Limerick supporters are quietly confident of a win this weekend but Tipperary personally are the favorites heading into this contest. They have been the form side of the province this season; their defensive and attacking performances have been standouts. 4/4 in the round robin. It seems harsh that they have to travel to their opposition for the decider.

Limerick management will have learned plenty from the loss to Tipperary two weeks ago. Tipperary’s full back line will be tested from minute one and if there are any doubts on Barrett”s fitness, they will be answered in double quick time. Sean O’Brien as well could be tested more extensively particularly if Peter Casey is deployed in a more advanced position.

Tipperary need to have this game put to bed heading into the final quarter so expecting a fast start from Liam Sheedy’s men. The bench impact is a concern and whether Tipperary will have the gap required to close out this contest heading into the final quarter remains up in the air. The absence of Bonner Maher is huge.

Head on the block time. Tipperary go into this as favorites but I suspect that Limerick management have devised a game plan and strategy to unsettle the Tipperary middle third to secure this victory. Peter Casey needs to deliver on Sunday and expect him to be a prominent player at the weekend. Limerick to edge this encounter by three points but Limerick’s middle third work rate and execution must be on the money this weekend.

Heineken Champions Cup Pool Reflections

Pool of Death: Pool 4

It was only a couple of weeks ago since Saracens triumphed in Newcastle to lift the Heineken Champions Cup but the Heineken Champions Cup tournament organizers are keen to start discussions about the new season in earnest with the completion of the European Cup draws this afternoon. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool match ups.

Heineken Champions Cup Pools

Pool 1: Leinster Rugby can have little complaints

A satisfactory draw for Leinster Rugby on reflection. The pool opposition comes in the form of Lyon who showed little regard or attention span for this tournament last season. It remains highly unlikely that the French side track record in this competition will change next season. A talented squad but the priority is elsewhere: domestic success is paramount.

Northampton Saints will look to profit from Lyon’s lack of interest in this pool. The Franklin Gardens’ outfit have marquee players in the pack with Hartley and Lawes in the ranks. The emergence of Mallinder to orchestrate the back line evolved as last season progressed and should continue for upcoming season.

Benetton Rugby were the revelation of the Guinness Pro14 last season and should have taken the scalp of Munster Rugby in the playoffs only for lack of experience to close out the contest. Astute signings like Ian Keatley will boost the squad depth chart and expect the Italians to be uncompromising opposition for all their pool opponents this term.

Verdict:

Leinster Rugby should be looking to run away with this pool. The long term goal is to secure a top two seed for the quarter finals. Given the opposition, they should achieve this aim with ease. Northampton Saints potentially may sneak the runner up spot here despite good cameos from Benetton Rugby.

Pool 2: Evenly poised pool

On paper, a pool which looks quite close to call. The main talking point being the return of Stuart Hogg back to Scotstoun with his new club Exeter Chiefs. It was bound to happen that Glasgow Warriors and Exeter Chiefs would lock horns and so it has proved given this backdrop.

What to expect from this pool? I am rather interested in how La Rochelle evolve this season with Ronan O’Gara now the head coach. The French side’s expansive, attacking approach was so easy on the eye but it also resulted in the side conceding too many points to opponents. Can O’Gara address the concerns on the defensive side of the ball while not tampering with the fabric and attacking ethos of the club? The results could be a mixed bag initially.

Glasgow Warriors come into the new season with renewed determination to right the wrongs of last season. This pool does not have Saracens so the Scottish side can to be looking at top spot here but there have been key personnel losses and whether the new recruits can bring the same quality is too early to judge early doors. The jury is out on the Warriors for the new season.

Exeter Chiefs have bolstered their squad with the acquistion of Stuart Hogg, a full back with devastating attacking line ability and a big boot to execute the kicking game. The side continue to evolve but their pack is the cornerstone and it will continue to be in their set piece and attacking maul. Glasgow Warriors have been warned! Devoto, Slade and Nowell are quality back line options.

Sale Sharks are the mysterious side of this pool. They have potent attacking options. Strauss, De Klerk, McGinty and Ashton can provide key cameo moments and then you add the versatility of Beaumont in the back row at the breakdown and this is a side to be fully respected. AJ Bell Stadium is a tough place to go and get a result; expect a couple of teams to get turned over by Sale Sharks.

Verdict:

Great opportunity for Exeter Chiefs to stamp their authority early on this pool given the personnel and coaching changes in Glasgow and La Rochelle. Sale Sharks have the potential to turn over any one of these sides at home. Exeter Chiefs impressed me massively last season, they are primed for a good run in this competition this year and suspect that they will target this competition given this pool. Exeter Chiefs and potentially La Rochelle to advance.

Pool 3: Can ASM Clermont Auvergne deliver on the road?

This pool is intriguing for a number of reasons. ASM Clermont Auvergne make a welcome return to this competition; their squad is stacked with talent and quality. Their home form imperious but there are question marks on their form on the road still, something that the other pool opponents will look to exploit.

Ulster Rugby come into this season with renewed heart, a complete transformation from twelve months prior where there was doom and gloom. Dan McFarland, coaching staff and playing staff should be commended for last season; competitiveness restored and on another day could have taken the scalp of Leinster Rugby in the quarter final of this competition.

Ulster Rugby will be only too aware that they will need the likes of Rob Herring to step up big this season given the imminent retirement of Rory Best. The pack platform with Coetzee and the continued improvement of O’Sullivan and Moore in the pack is required for Ulster Rugby to unleash their exciting back line.

Bath Rugby and Harlequins will be eyeing up this pool with interest too. The West Country side showed good cameos in the competition last season but there were too many lapses, none more so than Freddie Burns try cock up against Toulouse at home. A managerial change in direction should provide renewed focus to a squad who have the talent but whether they have the consistency to deliver for an entire pool campaign remains unanswered.

Harlequins. A strong second half to the Gallagher Premiership season, a club with tradition and noted for their cohesive attacking play. A youthful side with the likes of Marchant and Smith looks potentially mouth watering and expect plenty of quality attacking cameos from the London side.

Verdict:

ASM Clermont Auvergne with their home form look odds on to qualify but there is hope for the other three in the pool. Ulster Rugby may profit from the two English sides cancelling each other. Home form and loser road trip points will be huge. 50/50 whether a second team comes out of this pool.

Pool 4: Pool of Death

No other words for it. Munster Rugby fans were forewarned after the seeding draw this week but the pool was not kind. Saracens, Racing 92 and Ospreys means six titanic pool games in store.

A pool like this has to be embraced by all sides. The pool fixtures will be immense and the players and coaching staff teams will relish pitting their wits against each other.

Saracens will obviously enter the pool as favorites. They are the reigning champions. They are the side to be knocked off their perch. Quality squad depth and numerous match winners in the pack and back line. Owen Farrell leadership at half back continues to impress.

Racing 92. A team who left plenty of regret this past season. Undoubted talent and scoring prowess but were opened up far too easily at times. A return for Simon Zebo back to Thomond Park, bound to be an emotional return as well for Donnacha Ryan as well.

Ospreys. The sole Welsh side in the competition will look to impress early. Jones’ leadership along with Tipuric in the pack will need to set the tone for a side who have had a number of notable player departures. Interesting to see how Allen Clarke gels the side; early Guinness Pro14 momentum required.

What of Munster Rugby? Coaching personnel appointments in recent weeks; excitement from the supporters on what Rowntree and Larkham will bring to the table. The pressure is now on the playing squad, the skill set has to evolve and improve. The acid test will be answered sooner than in previous campaigns.

Verdict:

Tough pool. Tough fixtures. Home form is paramount and also the objective of not given pool opposition any points from these fixtures could separate the victors from the vanquished. Early fixture results will be crucial, cannot be behind the eight ball early in this pool. Saracens with their squad have to be favored to progress, prospect of another side coming from this pool looks remote. Bonus point try wins look problematic.

Pool 5: French teams hold the key

Toulouse and Montpellier are paired in this final pool. Toulouse’s recent domestic league success will only bring on the likes of Dupont and Ntamack. A side who impressed with their attacking play last season. Huget and Medard will look to stamp their authority on proceedings early.

Montpellier. A true enigma. The squad depth is incredible. The coaching ticket world class but they have not been able to deliver in this competition. Ruan Pienaar’s departure looks a massive void. The domestic focus becomes a factor here and Montpellier will look to rotate their squad on the road trips which provides hope for the other non-French sides in the pool.

Step forward Gloucester Rugby and Connacht Rugby, two sides who have the attacking capability and home confines to make their French juggernaut opponents feel very uncomfortable. The fixture between these two sides will be key to seeing if either one of them are involved in the shakeup. Danny Ciprani holds the keys of the Kingsholm side. If he fires, the side are on it.

Connacht Rugby for me need to embrace this pool, play without fear and look to execute their uptempo attacking game plan in these fixtures. The pack platform may be problematic to establish but excited to see how Andy Friend’s side fare; expecting a couple of marquee results here.

Verdict:

Toulouse have unfinished business with this competition after this past season. Their pack and attacking play should see them advance as pool winners and potentially a top two seed. Montpellier are a side whose interest could wane quickly. Gloucester Rugby and Connacht Rugby potentially could be the shakeup for the final best runner up spot, too hard to call.

Early Predictions:

Pool Winners: Leinster Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Saracens and Toulouse

Best Runners Up: Northampton Saints, Ulster Rugby and La Rochelle

UEFA Champions League Final: Key Talking Points (Preview)

The waiting is finally over. Madrid. June 1st, 2019. An All England UEFA Champions League final showpiece between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixture, identifies the key talking points leading into this fixture.

Does Harry Kane start?

For me, the answer would be no but whether Mauricio Pochettino thinks so is an entirely different question. Kane is a potent striker but there are questions on match fitness here. If he is to start, then it is a massive gamble as if it is not fully right, an early substitution would derail Tottenham.

The performances of Moura and Son in this tournament have been excellent. Both players have pace to burn and would pose serious questions for Liverpool’s defensive back four. Pochettino has to trust his squad tonight, pick the players who are fully fit and ready to do a job. Kane can be left in reserve and brought on in the second half to score the vital goal.

Tottenham formation?

It is a tricky question to answer. There are issues in the full back positions for Tottenham to address. Can Rose and Trippier provide sufficient defensive cover from the threat of Mane to allow Tottenham to go three at the back? Mane and Salah are going to rotate and probe on the flanks all night and can Robertson and Alexander-Arnold provide the attacking threat to overwhelm the Tottenham flanks?

Liverpool midfield?

It is an area of the park that Liverpool have excelled in this season. Henderson, Fabinho, Wynaldum and Milner have provided the side with stability defensive while also supporting the front three consistently all season. You then add the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain who is looking to impress and you have serious competition for those starting three midfield berths.

Milner is going to feature tonight, expect him to start ahead of Henderson who will be summoned to close out the contest. It is a tough, tough call for Klopp to make. Someone in this midfield engine room is going to be disappointed by the omission.

Liverpool Front Three

This is where the final is won or lost tonight for Liverpool. Firminho needs to be fully match fit and be on it from the opening minute. His work rate without the ball sets the tone for others around him to press. Mane and Salah can then look to probe more on the flanks to exploit Tottenham.

Will Daniel Sturridge provide a key cameo tonight? Firminho for me may only go sixty / seventy minutes tonight given his injury issues as of late. Sturridge is the type of player who revels in occasions such as tonight. Do not be surprised if Sturridge popped up and scored the winner?

Managerial Composure

The cup final record of Klopp is poor (lost last six finals). Pochettino has never won a managerial honor to date despite his excellent managerial resume. Can Klopp control his emotion enough tonight to allow his side to impress? Can Pochettino trust his squad to execute the game plan, stay compact for the opening hour to potentially allow Harry Kane to come on and win the final?

Verdict

As a neutral tonight, I am hoping for an early goal to set the tie alight. This final could get increasingly cagey and nervy otherwise. Liverpool will enter the final as warm favorites but I expect Tottenham to come into the fixture with no pressure and with Eriksen, they have a match winner in their ranks. If Tottenham Hotspur can keep in the game after sixty minutes, they are my tip to win with Kane to come off the bench and score the winner!

Munster GAA Hurling Championship: Round 3 Preview

Plenty at stake this weekend

After a week’s hiatus, the Munster Senior Hurling Championship is back. An opportunity for sides to review their performances to date as well as a chance to earmark this weekend as the weekend to send out the performance to spook the rest of the competition. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the fixtures up for decision.

Do or Die contest at Walsh Park

Waterford are in must win territory; two disappointing losses to Clare and Tipperary has the Deise with their backs against the wall. This weekend sees Limerick travel to Walsh Park who themselves are looking for a performance and result after a disappointing opening fixture loss to Cork at home.

How is the fixture going to go? I expect Waterford this time around in Walsh Park to produce a stirring display. The shackles of the opening home fixture are a distant history and the side know that they have to deliver this weekend, otherwise their season is up at 4pm tomorrow.

Waterford need their leaders to set to the mark. Austin Gleeson needs to be the focal point for this side; his performances to date in the championship have seen flashes of brilliance but Waterford need more from their outfield talisman. Dare I say will Waterford management ask Gleeson to roam in the middle third for possession as his vision and game reading are sensational.

With Philip O’Mahony out of the fixture, the mantle of defensive leadership needs to come from the likes of Connors, Moran and Fives. These players are vastly experienced and need to create the defensive platform for the middle third to prosper.

Can Maurice Shanahan provide the physicality and composure in the full forward line to unsettle Limerick defensively? Shanahan on his day is an absolute nightmare to contain so it will be interesting to see if Limerick decide to withdraw Declan Hannon back in front of the full back to mope up Waterford long ball in?

Limerick have been stung after their home loss to Cork. It can be seen as a blessing given that it happened so early in the championship. This two week window has given John Kiely and management an opportunity to reflect and regroup the panel to deliver a better overall performance this weekend.

For Limerick to win this fixture, look at the performance of the middle third in the first quarter. The half back line so usually a rock for this side were pulled out of position and Cork were able to create numerous opportunity for Horgan and Cadogan inside. The Limerick half back line never setup the platform during the contest; a repeat of the Cork showing and John Kiely’s men are facing into another loss.

The Limerick management have tweaked the starting lineup. Two personnel changes from the side that lost to Cork. Byrnes and O’Donovan drop out for O’Loughlin and O’Donoghue who will bring height and physicality to proceedings but will this affect the Limerick running game in the middle third?

I was surprised that Limerick only dropped two players from the starting lineup. Several forwards were on the cusp after their Cork cameos. It is a huge day for Peter Casey tomorrow; ability is not in question but he needs to provide scoring threat inside to complement Gillane now as he was sporadic in his contribution last time out.

50/50 call. I always fear a side who are facing a potential last man standing scenario. This is where Waterford are this weekend, expecting the home side to tear into Limerick early. The Limerick performance in the opening quarter should set the tone for them, players will look to rebound from that troubling opening day loss.

The tight confines of Walsh Park does no favors for this Waterford side, they have played better in the confines of Thurles in recent years which showcases their pace and mobility out wide. This is a contest where physicality could be decisive and I think Limerick have the edge in this department.

There is a question mark on the Waterford full back position and with Aaron Gillane looking to provide a reminder of his talents, Limerick for me have the edge by three to four points. A far from perfect Limerick performance but I think this group of players are looking to redeem themselves after the Cork loss.

The real test starts for Tipperary

There has been plenty of positive, feel good commentary coming from the media and within the Tipperary camp in the last two weeks. Tipperary are back. Hold on, not too quickly as the next two Munster Championship fixtures will tell plenty of where Tipperary are.

Why do I say this? Cork were indifferent in the opening round, exposed Tipperary discipline in the opening period. Waterford were reduced to fourteen players, staged a superb twenty minute salvo thereafter until Tipperary scored that opening goal. There are areas of both performances which Liam Sheedy and management will not be happy with.

Saying that, Tipperary’s forward line units have gone extremely well aided in no small part to the performances of the Maher’s in the half back line and the resurgence of Michael Breen in the middle third. The movement and scoring prowess of the Tipperary has been sensational.

The Tipperary forward line face their toughest test to date. Cusack Park is an old school pitch, tough road trip venue, supporters are on your back from minute one. The Clare setup will be interesting in the middle third, look to cut the space for the Tipperary forward line by deploying the likes of Ryan and Duggan in deep positions.

Clare are my fancy for Munster SHC honors this season. There is a potency in their aerial threat with Ryan and Duggan in the half forward providing excellent primary possession options for Tuohy in goal. Tony Kelly free flowing displays, game reading par excellence lit up the Waterford opening round victory.

The Banner County have superb options in midfield to contribute in the scoring department. Colm Galvin is a player who continues to excel and then you have the threat of the front two of John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell inside where their understanding and prowess is impressive.

The role of Podge Collins in this fixture could make or break this fixture. The Cratloe man will be roaming around the middle third, picking up the second ball and looking to provide both defensive and attacking options for his side. What do Tipperary do with the player? Zonal mark Collins or look to man mark the player out of the contest but leave space inside for Conlon and Collins?

This is the pick of the games this weekend. Clare are a formidable side at home and expect that to continue. Tipperary’s back line is prone to conceding easy frees and with Peter Duggan looking as sharp as last season, it will provide Clare with easy scores to settle into the contest.

The manner in which Tipperary will look to solve Clare’s middle third setup will be the talking point; potential and skill set in the side but Liam Sheedy and management may need to execute a running based game at times to create space for the Tipperary inside full forward line in the final quarter. It is all set up to be an excellent day of small ball.