Leinster SHC: Reflections

Trends emerging!

Two rounds of games into Leinster SHC and we have learned a couple of things. Kilkenny will be advancing deep into the championship and Carlow have found life tricky with the Leinster Hurling elite. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action so far and points to areas where each side will focus on in the closing rounds of the provincial championship.

Kilkenny impressive early

Top of the table – look good

Kilkenny have started this championship in good form. They were given a scare from Dublin in the opening round but thanks to some shrewd managerial half time switches and the attacking threat of the Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent, the game was secured and was followed up with a routine victory over near neighbors Carlow on the road.

Two games left on the schedule with a home game against Galway and a road trip fixture to Wexford; two games which should provide plenty of evidence on how deep Brian Cody’s side will go in the championship this summer.

Looking Forward:

TJ Reid has been in sparkling form for Kilkenny this season. He has continued his club form with the county and coupled with the likes of Colin Fennelly and rookie Adrian Mullen, they have lit up the championship.

The potential issue from Kilkenny is who else can fill the void for TJ Reid if the talisman threat is restricted from the forty. The panel contains plenty of promising prospects but can the likes of Richie Leahy assume the leadership role in the scoring department?

The injury list for Kilkenny has allowed Brian Cody to run the rule over his goalkeeping and full back positions. The schedule has been kind to Kilkenny but tougher tests lie ahead. Kilkenny defensive middle will be peppered in the next few weeks and whether Kilkenny have a backup plan if the defensive middle is exposed is a different story.

Galway: Life without Joe

Galway tests begin now

The injury to Joe Canning saw plenty of Galway locals question how the squad would cope without the talisman. We are going to find out now as Galway’s key tests begin in this championship with a crunch fixture against Wexford.

The win over Carlow was an interesting affair. Carlow provided stiff resistance for long periods and it was a good test for the Galway players looking for game time to impress management. Niall Burke took his chance and should be a key player for Galway in Canning’s absence.

A win over Wexford will see Galway within touching distance of securing a top three berth and with Dublin already under massive pressure, Galway could be in prime position to qualify before this fixture takes place.

Looking Forward:

Has Galway built up the squad depth in the off season to offset any further injury blows? Canning is out and what happens if someone like Daithi Burke were to go down with injury. The full back options look limited. This series of games will test squad depth and rotation. The squad depth verdict is still open for many Galway hurling supporters particularly the spine of the side so it will be interesting to see how the panel fare.

The scoring impetus will be duly noted. The absence of Joe Canning should mean more added responsibility to others in the forward line to express themselves. The hope is that Niall Burke, Jason Flynn, Joseph Cooney, Jonathan Glynn, Cathal Mannion provide the scoring nous required. Leadership is required from the forward line.

Dublin: Under pressure, backs against the wall!

Dublin struggling

This championship season saw optimism aplenty for Dublin. New management, a promising NHL campaign suggested that Dublin would be competitive but only one point from their first two championship games has exposed issues at both ends of the park.

The road trip to Kilkenny on the opening championship weekend was seen by many as an opportunity for Dublin to expose the injury crisis of the hosts. It all started so well but once Liam Rushe threat was snuffed out in attack, Dublin were unable to score at the rate required to secure the win. The defense also struggled to contain the threat of the Kilkenny forward line.

The home fixture against Wexford was a mixed bag. The exhilaration of a last gasp goal to salvage a draw but for long periods, Wexford controlled the middle third exchanges and Dublin’s attacking threat was inconsistent. There are issues to ponder for Mattie Kenny and backroom staff ahead of the final championship fixtures which sees a do or die fixture against Galway and a road trip to Carlow.

Looking Forward:

The key indicator for Dublin is how the likes of Danny Sutcliffe and Liam Rushe are involved in proceedings. If these two star players are on the ball influencing events, good things will happen for Dublin.

Both have had good cameos but they need to come more into these games. They will only achieve this influence if the side are on the front foot and look to attack with the sliothar and not look to clog up the middle third from a defensive sense.

The Galway fixture is the key game for Mattie Kenny’s side. They need to win this fixture, a home game and one where the side must deliver a performance. The thinking would be that they account for Carlow and five points is the magic number. All to play for but attacking potency needs to improve.

Wexford tactical switch required

Wexford face key weeks in their side development

Wexford were a puck of a sliothar away from securing a massive road trip to Dublin last weekend; thought they deserved the win on the balance of play as their key men delivered.

The goal conceded at the death was a mysterious concession with so many players on the line. Once the goalkeeper made the decision to come out and save the free, the responsibility is on the net minder and once he missed the sliothar, the ball evaded several others players in the goal. Disappointing concession.

The first game out and Wexford have hit the ground running. Impressive conditioning and work rate last weekend from the side when you compare Limerick’s performance. The opening championship game can be a tricky one to get right from a performance. Davy Fitzgerald got the team prep spot on.

Looking Forward:

Another road trip game, this time to Galway. Wexford should be looking to deliver a performance against a side who embarrassed them badly last season at Innovate Park. The work rate and tempo will be key for Wexford to unsettle a Galway side without the leadership of Joe Canning. Do not be surprised if Wexford get a result in Galway!

The tactical game plan may require a tweak. This Wexford side can express themselves more in attack but they are setup too defensively personally. There are times when Wexford will need to be defensive but would like the side to take a game by the scruff of the neck. They have the players to do so. O’Connor, McDonald, Chin are attacking threats. The running game should be a key weapon for Wexford considering their middle third pace and power. A key season for Davy Fitzgerald and team. Wexford expects!

Carlow look to take a notable scalp!

Carlow have endured a tricky start to Leinster SHC

Carlow have drawn a tricky opening first two rounds of the Leinster SHC. A road trip to All Ireland finalists Galway and then a home game against near neighbors and hurling aristocrats Kilkenny has provided Colm Bonnar’s side with first hand knowledge of the level required to compete in Tier I hurling.

Carlow impressed me when they played Galway in round one. They were well conditioned and several players caught the eye. Kavanagh and Doyle in forward line hit some lovely scores. Carlow were unlucky with some officiating decisions against them which thwarted any momentum to reduce the deficit to less than three points in the third quarter of the second half.

The home fixture against Kilkenny was a tough ask; they competed well but Kilkenny were typical Kilkenny. They went for the throat early and secured the game winning margin early. I am sure Carlow will dust themselves down and look with optimism for the rest of the championship.

Looking Forward:

Carlow are looking for a scalp in this championship. Dublin at home could be their opportunity provided that their discipline defensively improves. They have conceded far too many needless frees in the opening two rounds. The attacking threat is good and with Dublin under pressure, it is an opportunity for an upset. The Wexford road trip; another local derby game. The shackles should be off Carlow and they should go out and play their best hurling. No regrets!

Munster SHC: Reflections

Interesting subplots in the opening fixtures

A week to get our breathe back after an exhilarating opening two rounds of the Munster SHC. The supposedly home comforts theory has been smashed with only Tipperary the only side to enjoy a home win so far. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at each county, where they are and what improvements are required for each to make the top three.

Tipperary: Looking good but tougher tests lie ahead!

Tipperary attack potent

The Tipperary team have started the championship with gusto. They have signaled their intent with two outstanding attacking performances.

The way they dismantled Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh was noteworthy; their middle third work rate and tackling was unrelenting from minute one, something which was lacking last season.

The distribution from the back line and midfield to the forward lines have been noteworthy. The quick precise distribution into space for the likes of the McGrath’s and O’Dwyer to receive and create has caused nightmares for both Cork and Waterford so far. The movement of the forward line unit coupled with the goal threat inside means that Clare defensively must be on top form to thwart Liam Sheedy’s men next time around.

Looking Ahead:

The real test begins for Tipperary. Waterford will point to the red card of Conor Gleeson. Cork can argue that perhaps their side were slow to get into the tempo and rhythm of championship hurling the first day out. What is assured is that Clare will pose serious questions of Tipperary defensively.

Clare’s running game will look to expose any pace issues in the Tipperary rearguard and the fact that Tipperary’s back line have conceded their fair share of frees in the opening two games suggests that there is scope for improvement from the Premier County defensively in this area of the game.

Cork: Back in contention but consistency is key

Cork back in contention

The reaction of Cork’s backroom staff last weekend during their victory over Limerick said enough. They fought for every decision for their side. I have never seen Kieran Fraggy Murphy so emotional on a hurling pitch.

The team had to endure a week of critique from hurling pundits and supporters in their own county. The Limerick game was a release of energy to silence the doubters and they delivered a performance particularly in that third quarter where they made their game winning run.

The immediate aftermath has seen Cork get the plaudits they so richly deserve but the management and players must now knuckle down and focus for the rest of the championship. Nothing is guaranteed with this win and more hard work is required in the coming weeks.

Pa Horgan has been heroic for Cork this season. He is the talisman. He is the player that looks to create and score for the Rebel County. Horgan must be a lock for a nomination as Hurler of the Year already.

His scoring averages are through the roof and his contribution from open play has been sensational. His goal against Limerick in round two sensational; his ability to win the aerial duel with Mike Casey and the composure to dispatch the sliothar into the net oozed class.

Looking Forward:

The blueprint for Cork’s performance levels were set at LIT Gaelic Grounds. The work rate, the tempo and tackling ethos must be present for Cork for the rest of the season. Any ingredient missing from Cork’s display in the next few weeks will see losses particularly away to Ennis where realistically they need a result to get through to the top three!

The defensive back line was excellent against Limerick. Eoin Cadogan needs to continue to keep the shackles on opposition forward threats and the half back line of Downey, Ellis and Coleman will continue to dominate like they did against Limerick.

Bill Cooper and his fitness is paramount to this side. Cooper was so badly missed against Tipperary. His organizational skills and ability to read the game was so underrated.

Cork need to spread the attacking scores more from Pa Horgan. It started last weekend with Seamus Harnedy and Alan Cadogan taking on the mantle. Lehane and Kearney will also need to continue to provide attacking threat for the rest of the season. Cork are a threat to anyone this season on the back of that Limerick performance but was it an one-off? Time will tell.

Clare: Ominously well placed

Clare ominously placed

Clare sat out last weekend’s action. Their one point win over Waterford on the road on the opening round of the championship was a superb start.

The side were excellent for fifty minutes of the contest. The inside full forward unit of John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell had Waterford’s full back line in serious trouble and were unlucky not to score more than the one goal.

The middle third was aerially dominant during that period, impressed with the likes of Diarmuid Ryan whose height and physicality complements the threat of Peter Duggan in the half forward line. Tony Kelly was his marauding best; his run game and long range shooting is sensational. Kelly is a majestic stick player!

Looking Forward:

The one critique for Clare to address is that they made life extremely hard for themselves in the last quarter of the Waterford game. They allowed Waterford to setup a platform in the middle third as they pulled players back defensively to close space in the Waterford forward line.

There is a question mark on how Clare close these games? I would like to see them go for the throat and close out games with attacking play. The summer championship see teams with vast array of long range shooting options so to deploy additional players forty meters from your goal is at times questionable.

Clare management need to pick and chose their moments to become ultra defensive. This side is naturally setup to attack teams and perhaps they should let the team attack as their best form of defense. Kilkenny in their prime were sensational in attacking teams to submission. Clare should follow suit.

Clare’s home form will be tested with home fixtures to Tipperary and Cork plus throw in a small derby clash with near neighbors for Limerick. This is not the time for Clare to become ultra cautious in their approach. Trust the player’s skill set and good things will come!

Limerick: Champions must regroup fast!

Regroup required

Limerick may have received a timely reality check in their loss to Cork. They have two weeks to regroup as management and squad to reflect and address the work rate and middle third issues which were exposed against Cork.

This side does not become a poor one overnight. The fact that Cork had a serious seventy minutes of championship hurling under their belt prior to last weekend was a key factor. Limerick struggled to get to the rhythm and tempo of the contest; were put under incredible pressure by a Cork middle third who worked tirelessly throughout.

The fixture at Walsh Park was always a crucial fixture but it is do or die for both Waterford and Limerick sides in round three. A loss for either and their championship season is done and dusted. Limerick with two games to go would then need to turn the tables on Clare and Tipperary which is a tall order so this fixture is a massive must win.

Looking Forward:

Time for Limerick to do their talking on the hurling pitch. Cork successfully got under Limerick’s forward threat skin with Gillane continually looking to engage with Eoin Cadogan in the sledging stakes when he should have been focused on making those trademark diagonal runs to create attacking opportunities.

The Limerick half back line cannot play as badly as an unit as they did last weekend. Their positioning, their lack of dominance under the dropping ball and the lack of running game from them to setup an attacking platform all hurt the side. Two weeks of preparation to address this.

Limerick management must regroup the players and look to restore confidence in the ranks. The loss will have dented confidence but now is not the time to ditch their trademark game plan. The focus should be on the basic skill set, the first touch and passing was inconsistent last weekend.

This is a side that needs to deliver a performance. Waterford away is a tough assignment. Time will tell if this Limerick side can embrace the favorites / champion tag? They are the side to be shot at.

Waterford: Backs against the wall time!

Waterford backs against the wall

Waterford are 0/2 from the championship so far. A one point loss to Clare at home in Walsh Park was a disappointment given the excitement of the Waterford public that their side would be playing their home games in the county.

Walsh Park is a tough venue for any visiting side but the occasion on round one got a couple of players. The shackles came off with twenty minutes to go against Clare and despite not playing to their full potential could have snatched a draw.

The Thurles road trip was summed up by the second yellow card for Conor Gleeson, a clear game changer but the resolute fight from the Deise immediately after the red card at the start of the second half was commendable. The losing margin means little as they were then forced to chase the game and left a potent Tipperary forward line with the space to create and score.

Looking Forward:

Waterford management and backroom staff need to answer two key questions. How do they involve Austin Gleeson more in these contests? Gleeson is their standout talent and the fact that he has fleetingly featured in the two championship games is not good enough.

Is Gleeson a wing forward? He is not asserting any dominance or influence on proceedings. I sense Gleeson needs to be deployed either at half back or midfield in order to run with the sliothar. The fixture against Limerick is make or break for Waterford. If Gleeson is subdued yet again, the championship will be over.

The free taking issue is one to watch for Waterford in the remaining championship games. Bennett or O’Mahony? O’Mahony is a stand out free taker. Every point will be required now, no brainer decision.

The scores against in the last two championship is a source for concern as well. Quick ball from Limerick to the inside full forward line has the potential to create havoc for the Waterford full back line so the game management of Tadhg De Burca will be vital next weekend given the injury of Philip O’Mahony sustained last weekend.

Guinness Pro14 Final Preview

Parkhead plays hosts to a sensational final

After the many months of fierce competitive action, the two playoff semi-finals last weekend confirmed that the two Conference teams in the regular season are head and shoulders above the opposition in the league.

Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby lock horns in a final at the majestic Parkhead where attacking rugby should be in plentiful supply on Saturday evening.

Will it be a final game to savior for Stuart Hogg before departing Glasgow Warriors for Exeter Chiefs or will Leinster Rugby’s experience and overall quality prevail? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the final action.

Regular Season Run In:

Both sides had different regular season run ins. Leinster Rugby were the form side of Conference B and they clinched their top spot with the minimum of fuss and the last four regular league fixtures saw Leo Cullen rotate his squad.

Glasgow Warriors on the other hand had to go down to the final game of the regular season. After a wobble at the start of the calendar year, they recovered superbly under Dave Rennie to secure numerous bonus point wins.

Once Munster Rugby lost on the road to the Scarlets back in March, Glasgow Warriors strode to the top of Conference A and never looked like relinquishing the place. Worthy top seeds.

Playoff Push:

Leinster Rugby had a potentially difficult banana skin fixture against local rivals Munster Rugby last weekend. After such a tough European Cup loss to Saracens the week before, it was seen as an opportunity for Munster Rugby to upset the side.

However, Leinster Rugby showed their class defensively and with ball in hand to take this fixture away from Munster Rugby in the second half. They were defensively superb; only one line break for Munster Rugby all game and then they broke out to score two superb tries, the first of those which involved the whole front row unit. Cronin crashed over but the setup work from Conan, Healy and Furlong was world class.

Glasgow Warriors had a couple of weeks to prepare for their home semi-final fixture against Ulster Rugby. The performance was outstanding, they exposed Ulster’s sluggish line speed and tentative start to take this game early. Hastings in particular shone in open play and his distribution and timing of the pass allowed his ball carriers to create line break after line break.

It was a performance which showed Glasgow Warriors potent attacking sense. Their clear out work at ruck time was immense, early ball for the half backs to impress. Ulster Rugby never had a prayer. Fifty points scored evidence of their clinical display.

Key Battles:

The post-game comments from Leinster Rugby head coach Leo Cullen have irked Glasgow Warriors supporters and the club given the twits in the hours afterwards from those comments. It has galvanized the Glasgow Warriors and the city of Glasgow and West Scotland for this; everyone is united and determined to win the Guinness Pro14. Not the most opportune comment from Leo Cullen ahead of the final!

The pack battle is going to be interesting to observe. Glasgow Warriors weapons in attack are extensive but as shown by Saracens, a well drilled pack unit can massively expose Glasgow Warriors in the set piece. The maul from Saracens in their European Cup quarter final saw Glasgow Warriors’ hopes evaporated pretty quickly. Can Leinster Rugby front five in particular provide that platform? If they do, then Leinster Rugby have one hand on the trophy.

The half back battle will be a keynote area. Luke McGrath’s performance in particular will be under the microscope after the disappointment of the Heineken Champions Cup final where his contribution at the end of the half saw Saracens create a try scoring opportunity to level the final and provide massive momentum for Saracens who never looked back. Can McGrath provide more assured game management at critical junctures? Sexton and McGrath will look to create in open play but they must pick their moments against this potent Warriors back three.

The Glasgow Warriors back row unit and their ability to turnover and create quick ruck ball could be potentially the story of this final. They have destroyed the Irish provinces this season at home in this facet of play and Leinster Rugby will be fully aware of the dangers if they provide Glasgow Warriors quick ball for the likes of Hogg and Seymour to impress.

Verdict:

I should be going for Leinster Rugby here. Their experience on these final occasions has been on point but there is something about the buildup to this contest which is pointing to a Glasgow Warriors win.

The galvanizing effect that the final has had on Glasgow and Scotland in general is something that cannot be ignored. The Glasgow Warriors have the attacking threat to win this and coupled with an unrepentant work rate to win this home final, they get the nod from me.

I am worried for Leinster Rugby and the wear / tear of the season has had on their marquee players; if they need to come from behind, can the side deliver at the death?

The players and talent in the side are present but the energy levels are questionable given their recent European Cup involvement. Glasgow Warriors are the fresher side here. It should be fireworks central! Let us hope that the final delivers!

Munster Rugby: 2018 / 19 Season Review

Thomond Park: Munster unbeaten at home but issues to address

It is a couple of days since Munster Rugby bowed out of the Guinness Pro14, a semi-final playoff loss to Leinster Rugby, a loss where the attacking side of the ball saw only one line break, a loss where Leinster Rugby’s front row engineered an opening try that settled the contest. It has been a tough end to the season for the men in red. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the season and ponders how the side can improve and progress next season.

The Good:

Folks have dwelt enough on the doom and gloom at the province but let us review the season as a whole. Munster Rugby were yet again at the business end of European and Domestic competition.

The European Cup pool was a tricky one to negotiate for various reasons. Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester Rugby provided physicality and skill set while Castres were uncompromisingly cynical in their approach against the Irish province.

There are sides in the off season right now who would love to be in Munster Rugby’s position. It is the sheer high expectations at the club that there is a sense of disappointment in the semi-final playoff losses. A good place to be, everyone looking to improve and get to the next level which is win silverware.

Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park were fortresses this season. Munster Rugby went unbeaten in both venues; the atmosphere in the Cork venue was exhilarating on those Friday night games. Thomond Park came alive at crucial stages; think back to the Glasgow Warriors home fixture where it looked like Munster Rugby were on the ropes only for Rory Scannell to rescue the fixture with that superb long range penalty.

The Munster Rugby side saw several promising youth prospects get their opportunity to impress. It was great to see the likes of Calvin Nash, Dan Goggins and Fineen Wycherley get their opportunities. Several other underage players impressed on the road trip to Benetton Rugby at the back end of the regular season; the underage talent pool in the province is producing talent and it will be interesting to see how these players coupled with the emergence of players such as Craig Casey fare next season.

The scrum and defensive structures were plus points personally this season. The scrummaging more often than not provided a good platform for the team to attack opposition. The defensive line speed and structure was quite impressive this season for long periods and the ability to not concede penalties at the death against Edinburgh Rugby and Benetton Rugby was commendable.

The Bad:

The business end of the season. The playoffs continues to be a source of great frustration and concern for management, players and supporters. The playoffs this season in both European Cup and Guinness Pro14 action saw prevailing themes.

The line out was exposed at key intervals by Saracens and Leinster Rugby. The consistency of the set piece is a key improvement area for the side; surprising given the line out options in the side with the likes of Kleyn, Beirne, Holland, O’Mahony.

The side struggled in these playoffs to bring a clear attacking game plan to the table. One out runners was the predominant attacking methodology, look to smash their way through opposition but minimal momentum generated in ruck ball distribution and ball carrier line speed, this threat was quickly gobbled up by opposition.

The lack of game time collectively this season for Murray and Carbery. Both players had injury plagued seasons and unfortunately when it came to the business end of the season, the lack of game time was exposed. The kicking game was nullified by opposition and it was used against Munster Rugby particularly against Saracens.

Murray and Carbery if fully fit next season will provide more continuity in attacking play for the province but for this to succeed, the side need to review their ruck ball delivery and clear out work as at times, opposition were able to quickly stifle any momentum that Munster Rugby tried to build in the attacking sense from the breakdown area.

When you consider the back line unit throughout the season, the word that comes to mind is ‘change’, change in terms of personnel changes either in the three quarters or back three. You can get away with it for so long until you face an opponent who are so well drilled (Saracens / Glasgow / Leinster) that the level of cohesion and continuity is exposed.

Wondering also about whether the team peaked too soon again this season? Their best rugby in past seasons has been left in the start of the calendar year and the side have looked to be out of ideas and legs for the playoff push. I am not sure how this can be addressed; the side looked jaded particularly in those playoff games against Saracens, Benetton Rugby and Leinster Rugby down the stretch.

It is not like management have not used squad rotation this side but the side’s attacking lines lacked any significant bite down the stretch; the running lines and distinct lack of ball carrying support runners were standout moments from this year’s playoff run. Players’ confidence was dented on the attacking side of the ball.

Going Forward:

The media hounds have seen the failure of Munster Rugby not to reach the summit this season and they have been unapologetic in their assessment. The coaching departures of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones represents a chance for Munster Rugby to evaluate what their game plan will be next season. Great players and coaching tenures from both men.

Does this team go back to a Rob Penney style of rugby (people have short memories on how the Rob Penney era ended?). Does the team look to make subtle changes to the attacking and defensive setups to get to the next level? The coaching selections that Munster Rugby and Johann van Graan are faced with are critical. I detect that it could be the latter.

The rumors of Graham Rowntree as a potential defensive coach is positive news; his experience with club, county and British & Irish Lions is vast and his set piece knowledge could prove an invaluable tool for the side long term if appointed.

The backs coach is an intriguing appointment. Does van Graan look to his native country to recruit or does the IRFU / Munster Rugby have someone in mind?

Mike Ruddock personally is a guy that should be getting an interview at least. A vastly experienced, well respected head coach. His ethos on the attacking side of the ball seen with Lansdowne in recent seasons; they have been a joy to watch with their endless ball carrying support lines along with excellent ball carrier line speed and quick ruck ball distribution.

The appointments have to be considered; the quick buck option will not do. The frustration is building among the squad members who have been with the club for a long period. They see their window of opportunity to win silverware slowly disappear and the sights of Saracens and Leinster Rugby winning with a bit to spare makes these coaching appointments all the more significant.

The supporters will look on with interest; the supporters will always support the side. Munster Rugby yet again delivered quality standout moments throughout the season but the failures in the post season this year has to be the catalyst for the province to reflect and make the prudent steps to improve the side and organization to get to the next level.

Cork Senior Hurlers provide Limerick with plenty to ponder

Cork resurrect their season; Limerick need to regroup

As Nicky Quaid was about to pass the sliothar to a defensive colleague in the fifth minute of second half injury time, the final whistle went with huge roars of approval from the large Cork travelling support, management and players.

A defining game in their championship season and the Rebels delivered a performance to quieten those who doubted the team after their disappointing home loss to Tipperary last weekend.

Cork’s middle third which was much maligned last week in terms of work rate, game management and defensive tracking were on it from minute one. They harassed, they pressured, they executed the game plan of isolating the inside Limerick full back line to a tee.

Bill Cooper was outstanding in the engine room of Cork’s midfield. The Youghal man was composed with the ball and his game management and organization was immense.

It was an excellent day for the Cork management whose decision to start Aidan Walsh in the half forward line paid huge dividends. The Kanturk talisman was a focal point in the air and his breaking of ball for the likes of Meade and Kearney saw several noteworthy points from play.

The Cork half forward lines consistent quick movement caused Limerick’s much vaunted half back line serious troubles. There was an uneasiness about Limerick’s half back play today; the unit were consistently caught out on the Cork puck out strategy and with no genuine support from their half forward line and midfield, it left massive holes for Alan Cadogan and Pa Horgan to exploit inside.

Cork have resurrected their season on the back of this performance. They will be the first to realize that this performance guarantees nothing in the coming weeks but what it does show is that John Meyler’s charges when on form can beat anyone and significantly have the guile and game smarts to close out a contest. The margin of victory was accurate given the context of the proceedings.

Where now for Limerick? The game was a day to forget for all involved including management who struggled to find answers to Cork’s tactical switches throughout. There was a nervousness to Limerick’s play; regulation passes came unstuck causing additional defensive issues and score concessions.

The middle third was the fulcrum last year for Limerick but they were absent for long periods of this contest. The half back line never set the aerial platform. Hannan was increasingly isolated with Cork’s half forward line movement. Morrissey was pushed too far up the pitch to compete with Aidan Walsh in the air as Richie English faced an unenviable task. Byrnes was often in his full back line looking to receive ball. No team can win a championship based on the struggles of the half back line.

The midfield unit struggled. O’Donovan running game was quickly snuffed out and it affected other parts of his game; his usually high standard of sideline cutting was absent. Cian Lynch fought gallantly with some lung bursting runs but you felt that Lynch decided to take the leadership mantle on and win the game on his own; a glorious goal opportunity spurned in the closing stages when a sharp pass to Dowling was the better option.

The half forward line was sporadic for long periods. Hayes at times won the dirty ball but Hegarty and Tom Morrissey struggled for rhythm and aerial duels today. Downey and Coleman personally were standouts for Cork; they played a superbly astute game plan in the aerial battle and their pace and passing was exceptional.

The inside full forward line was threatening when good early ball came from the Limerick midfield and half back line. Graeme Mulcahy’s goal was razor sharp; good anticipation after a Hannan miscued point reached the Kilmallock man. His goal was emphatic; there was nothing Anthony Nash could do.

Aaron Gillane is a player I greatly admire but today Cork got under his skin yet again. His red card last year down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh was only going to invite further sledging today and he unfortunately took the bait; engaging with verbals with Cadogan throughout and not providing the full forward platform that Limerick required with his running down the channels. Gillane is better than that.

Peter Casey worked hard but precious little went right for the Na Piarsaigh front man; guilty of several unforced possession losses. It was a day to forget for Limerick.

Limerick’s performance was flat; their performance lacked the bite and drive required in Munster SHC. Limerick’s looked one paced throughout and it will be interesting to see the reaction in the camp ahead of a crucial tussle in two weeks time on the road. The players looked leggy heading into the final quarter; pressure had tolled.

The running game and passing game which has served Limerick so well in the last eighteen months was a non-factor. The work rate and ability to win the 50/50 ball was second best today. The reality check has being issued; it was sent loud and clear in LIT Gaelic Grounds.

For management, it will require cool heads and composure to dissect this flat performance. It is the first day out in the championship; seven weeks since their last competitive game is a factor but the players will know themselves the levels required to compete in this provincial championship.

The team pride themselves on their standards and one would hope that the players and management are honest in their appraisal of today. Lessons need to be learned and quickly. An interesting two weeks beckons. John Kiely looked like a man who was absolutely livid with that display in his post game comments.

One game does not make a team a bad outfit but this was a performance to focus the minds of all associated with Limerick; the euphoria of last year’s championship win has being smashed after today. It is the here and now and failure to produce better performances in the coming weeks will see an early summer exit for the reigning All Ireland Senior Hurling Champions.

For Cork, a day to be proud of. A game which required a performance was delivered and for the squad and management, confidence should be restored to launch another provincial tilt. With Horgan, Harnedy and Cadogan in the forward line sparkling, this level of consistency is the blueprint.

If Cork can deliver this performance until the end of the season, then they will be a tough side to watch. Two teams met today; one team entered the arena with their backs and reputations on the line, that team delivered, that team was Cork!

Senior Hurling Reflections

Key fixtures on tap this weekend

After the opening round of provincial championship games, early trends have emerged. This weekend is backs against the walls for some, for others the prize of a much coveted home win will be crucial in their championship ambitions. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixtures on tap.

Munster SHC: Cork and Waterford in must win territory

The mission statement is simple for Cork and Waterford this weekend; it is a must win game. A loss this weekend and their championship ambitions will be given a fatal blow.

Cork travel to Limerick whose performance will be keenly observed. The squad looks well equipped to go deep in the championship but for that to happen John Kiely’s charges must deliver from the first minute tomorrow.

Cork have taken stock of their loss to Tipperary at home last weekend; the lack of defensive and middle third dominance was glaring. Cooper comes back to the starting lineup, a massive boost as his experience was sorely missed.

Limerick have named a strong first fifteen with fourteen of those featuring in the All Ireland final last year. Peter Casey in the corner forward position potentially could be a pivotal player for Limerick as Cork focus their attention on the likes of Hayes and Gillane.

If Limerick can produce the work rate, tempo and slick passing game which they showed in the NHL final, then the Cork middle third are in for a long afternoon. Cork need more from Harnedy, Lehane to support Pa Horgan who was outstanding last weekend.

The opening exchanges in this contest will be pivotal. If Limerick can start in good fashion, then this game is theirs. Cork will travel to Limerick with no fear; they did a job on Limerick in the NHL earlier this year. Limerick have been warned and will want to send out a massive statement of intent. Limerick for me by five points after a testing opening period.

Waterford were very disappointing last weekend. Their performance was off from minute one. The skill set and first touch was off. Was it due to the long awaited Walsh Park cameo? Some players let the occasion get to them and the free taking situation was a source of concern throughout.

When you consider Padraic O’Mahony is one of the standout free takers in the country, how is he not on the frees? A question for Waterford management to reflect on. Points went a begging last weekend and it was crucial when it came down to the wire.

The inside full forward line needs bolstering. Maurice Shanahan for me is the perfect full forward target man alongside Patrick Curran. Both players could contribute if given space in a two man full forward line.

Tipperary on the other hand will look to consolidate their performance last weekend. O’Dwyer was majestic in the half forward line but will he and the Tipp forward line unit be afforded the same space and time as last weekend?

The Tipperary half back line were standout. The Maher’s last weekend dominated everything in the air and they setup a massive attacking platform with quality scores and distribution from long range. It was great to see Brendan Maher back to his prime after a horrific knee injury last year.

The outcome of this game is the performance of Austin Gleeson. If the Waterford talisman continues to be a minimal game change influencer in the half forward line, the game is up for Waterford. Gleeson needs to be either half-back or roving in the middle third to make things happen.

Tipperary for me were very impressive last weekend. The pace and speed of Waterford will test them defensively but their scoring power looks awesome again. Tipperary for me by five points.

Leinster SHC: Wexford enter the fold

I am looking forward to the fixture of Carlow and Kilkenny. It will be a good barometer to see Carlow’s form in this championship; their promising cameo against Galway last weekend was full of energy and work rate. Kavanagh and Doyle shone for Carlow.

Kilkenny showed why they will go deep in the championship later in the year; their ability to adjust at half time against Dublin was managerial masterclass 101. The tactic switches worked perfectly and with the Ballyhale contingent playing superb hurling in the attack, this win was the impressive performance last weekend.

What to expect in Netwatch Park? Carlow to provide stiff resistance in a local derby contest. Kilkenny to make the adjustments to secure a road trip win but the hope is that Colm Bonnar’s side will be competitive for the whole contest. The discipline issue was highlighted last weekend in Galway and has to improve this weekend and for the rest of the championship.

Kilkenny for me with TJ Reid providing inspiration and creativity in a six points win.

Dublin like Cork and Waterford are in a backs against the wall situation. A home fixture to focus the minds after a demoralizing second half loss to Kilkenny. The defensive setup from Dublin was exposed in the second half as TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly tore into the Dublin rearguard creating player overlaps.

The sight of Greg Kennedy catching a Kilkenny free was an embarrassment to anyone associated with Dublin hurling. The four week ban was soft; should have a couple of months to act as a deterrent. Mattie Kenny and selectors need to focus on hurling and not this stupid stuff.

Wexford. What an enigma in the championship last season, potential and promised evaporated and a meek All Ireland quarter final exit was a disappointing end to the season.

This fixture is going to be huge for Wexford. The hope is that the team’s key stars will come to the party. Ryan, O’Connor, Chin, McDonald need to provide leadership and set the tone for others to follow.

The fixture with Dublin could be a cagey affair; middle third stalemate as both teams flood the area. The Dublin attacking threat needs to improve; precious little from Rushe in the second half and inside full forward line.

A slight hesitant nod to Dublin by a point or two but Wexford should be competitive and dare I say would not be surprised to see them win on the road. Dublin need to deliver here or Mattie Kenny will put under the microscope.

Intercounty Hurling Hopes for 2019

Championship is back!

And so it begins. The odyssey for the Liam McCarthy, Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher begins in earnest this weekend where we should see epic tussles in all competitions.

Hawkeye Sidekick is in reflective mood ahead of the big throw in and outlines his hopes and dreams for the upcoming championship season.

Media coverage for all!

The start of the Gaelic Football championship was greeted by the media hordes with some indifference. Games were not broadcast to the maximum viewing audience; an opportunity to show case these fixtures to a global audience.

An opportunity spurned by the media who have won televised rights to these games. An opportunity which should be given to other media organizations who are genuinely interested in covering all teams participating in the championship and not just the big games.

The start of this season’s hurling championship sees a tasty Midlands derby in Tullamore tonight where Offaly will face a rejuvenated Laois side in the Joe McDonagh competition.

Hopefully, we will see a match report tomorrow in the national broadsheets for this fixture and other fixtures played this weekend but you might have trouble finding it nestled amongst the articles about the big marquee Munster and Leinster SHC fixtures set this weekend.

Hurling needs as much coverage as possible come championship time and hopefully TG4 or Eir can take on the mantle for competitions such as McDonagh / Ring / Meagher and Rackard with care and respect for these competitions that they deserve!

Wide open provincial races!

Limerick looked superb in the NHL but a loss against Cork next weekend and they are under huge pressure to get even out of Munster SHC let alone the All Ireland series later in the season. The provincial championships in Munster and Leinster look extremely competitive.

Munster SHC looks potent. Waterford at last get some home comforts but whether Walsh Park will suit their fast tempo game is another story. Cork and Tipperary clash and renew old rivalries down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh which hopefully can stand up to the fixture. Clare are the dark horse this season, regrets from last season should spur them on and then you have Limerick who are the side to be shot at this season. Anyone’s guess who the top three will be from this.

Leinster SHC has been in recent times dominated by Galway and Kilkenny but I think there is a growing feeling that either Dublin or Wexford are primed to cause shocks and go deep in the championship.

Kilkenny have a tricky banana skin fixture at home to Dublin this weekend; injuries aplenty to contend with. Can Dublin be defensively solid yet look potent in attack at the same time? Defensively minded formation against Limerick in NHL semi-final was good but the attacking side of the game was neglected.

Wexford need to push on this season, a few years of steady progression from Davy Fitzgerald’s men but the championship performances apart from the Kilkenny win two seasons back have been a mixed bag. Hoping that the likes of McDonald, Ryan, Chin and O’Connor can deliver game winning performances. Munster has provided much excitement in recent years and it is time Leinster SHC delivered in the same vain.

Carlow Rising

The Galway team sheet against Carlow this weekend can be considered in two ways. Galway management looking at options ahead of tougher battles in the championship or giving players who have impressed in training a chance to stake their claim in the jersey. You know what school of thought will be plastered on the Carlow dressing room wall tomorrow!

Carlow arrive in Galway in good form and confidence. Their progression under Colm Bonnar has been exceptional, excellent grassroots structures coupled with Carlow IT’s emergence in Fitzgibbon Cup has propelled the county to new heights.

This is a side who have had an excellent NHL 1B campaign. They drew with Galway, staved off relegation with a road trip win over Offaly. If their discipline can hold, they will match teams for long periods in this championship. Hopefully, Carlow rattle a top side in Leinster SHC and provide more talking points.

Galway have been warned. The team selection if the side do not settle early this weekend has all the hallmarks of an upset waiting to happen. Carlow need to deliver quick ball into Doyle and the inside full forward line and test out Galway early doors.

Defensive Setup hopefully ditched!

Let us hope that teams decide to ditch the defensive orientated setup. It would be great if teams went man for man but I fear that you will see sides stifling the middle third with goal chances a rare commodity. Cork vs. Tipperary personally should be an epic encounter tomorrow; both sides will love to rattle the other in 1-1 situations but this could be exception than the norm this season.

Defensive setup works to only a point. The summer months require more nous and creativity from an attacking sense. Dublin in particular need to provide an answer to that mission statement in the coming weeks.

Top players are back on the pitch soon!

The sight of Eoin Murphy, Joe Canning and the like looking on at the fixtures this weekend due to injury is a massive disappointment. Hopefully all marquee players will feature in the championships sooner than rather. We need the top stars on the pitch, showcasing their talent and the sport of hurling to the viewing public.

Joanne Cantwell

The unenviable task of replacing the legendary Michael Lyster falls to Joanne Cantwell, a journalist I have admired and respected for several years. Hopefully, she can settle into the Sunday Game show role and let the pundits flow with their viewpoints and key match up points.

Let us hope that key flash points and match winning scores are given the time required. It is an exciting time for the Sunday Game show and I have no doubt Joanne will deliver big time!

Predictions:

Munster: Tipperary

Munster Top Three: Tipperary, Clare, Limerick

Leinster: Kilkenny

Leinster Top Three: Kilkenny, Wexford, Galway

Liam McCarthy: Clare

Joe McDonagh: Laois

Christy Ring: Meath

Nicky Rackard: Warwickshire

Lory Meagher: Leitrim

Heineken Champions Cup Final Preview

Five key questions ahead of this final encounter

The semi-final fixtures spoke volumes. Despite Toulouse and Munster Rugby’s best efforts, it was futile as the the two best teams in the competition secured their places in the final with convincing victories. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key question where this eagerly anticipated fixture will be won or lost.

Question 1: Back Row Battle

The back row battle will be intense and the opening moments of this contest from the officiating crew will determine how this game will be played. Garces in the semi-final did not officiate the breakdown area and Saracens took full advantage by swarming the ruck area and causing massive issues for Conor Murray and Munster Rugby to create anything worthwhile.

Wray and Rhodes were immense in these exchanges and Leinster Rugby have been duly warned. Billy Vunipola was his marauding best creating quality ball for Owen Farrell to orchestrate and game management with excellent efficiency.

The loss of Dan Leavy for Leinster Rugby is a massive blow but can the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan stifle the breakdown counter rucking of Saracens. This is a huge facet to this fixture.

Question 2: Kicking Game

Saracens were clinically ruthless in their kicking game against Munster Rugby. From minute one, Owen Farrell peppered Munster Rugby’s back three with challenging aerial bombs. Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam were isolated more than once and this created key early territorial gains for Saracens which worked the Munster Rugby tackle count to exhaustion.

A similar tactic will be expected this weekend but the Leinster Rugby back three potentially of Lowe, Kearney and Byrne should have the street smarts to deal with the threat and potentially launch solid counter attacks if space arises. Leinster Rugby must be incredibly strong under the high ball in these opening exchanges.

Question 3: Lineout Battle

The two best line out set piece operators are in the final. Jamie George has been outstanding for Saracens this season in this competition; the assurance in his throwing coupled with the decisive set piece calls of George Kruis and Maro Itoje have provided the Gallagher Premiership with guaranteed quality ball to work with.

Leinster Rugby have question marks on the hooker position. Will Leinster Rugby look to recall Sean Cronin or go with James Tracy who impressed against Toulouse last time out? Cronin’s line out execution has being under the spotlight this season and Saracens will look to target Leinster Rugby early albeit the reigning champions have James Ryan, Scott Fardy options. The quality of throwing and the precision in the line out calls is going to be huge.

Question 4: Barritt fitness

The fitness of Brad Barritt will be a key talking point prior and during this final contest. Barritt is so uber consistent in his performance on both sides of the ball but his defensive abilities and organization set the tone for his colleagues to follow. Barritt left it all on the line against Munster Rugby last time out as the Irish province failed to get anything going in the wide channels.

Barritt departed at the break but his impact was immense. His ankle injury will be duly noted and can Leinster Rugby’s three quarters expose any injury impact here? Ringrose’s mobility could be huge in potentially securing go forward ball.

Question 5: Sexton vs. Farrell

It is the key match for the media hoards this weekend. Johnny Sexton vs. Owen Farrell. Sexton was outstanding in the Toulouse semi-final win as his pack provided the platform to impress with ball in hand. Owen Farrell similarly was outstanding for Saracens against Munster Rugby. His tenacity and work rate was of a leader in the side; his tackle on Haley to secure a vital opening half penalty was evidence of this.

Both players will be eager to launch their back lines early doors but the game management and kicking game from both needs to be there to keep their opponent off balance. An intriguing match up; both will look to bring game to the gain line, expect fireworks.

Verdict:

For me this final comes down to the pack battle. I have been so impressed by both sides this season in this competition. The front five battle in the scrum will be epic. Both possess game winners in this set piece alone. Both sides will look to be defensively solid and how both sides play Garces will be key.

The nod for me goes with Leinster Rugby still. They are the reigning champions in this competition and until someone knocks them off their perch, they are favorites. Saracens overall game plan has massively evolved but if Leinster Rugby pack can stifle the platform of Saracens early, then there are potent weapons for the reigning champions to win this.

I am expecting fireworks early doors, will predict Garces loses control of this encounter in the opening quarter and a flashpoint will not be far away if both sides attack the breakdown as ferocious as I expect. It is a final for composure and cool heads at critical times and I suspect Leinster Rugby will prevail if only just.

Guinness Pro14: Munster Rugby 15 – 13 Benetton Rugby

Munster Rugby escape with victory

May Bank Holiday weekend and Limerick is in festival mode. The annual Riverfest is on and the city center is a hive of activity, people enjoying the weather, the music, the food, the hospitality.

The same vibe was in short supply for the locals who attended this playoff fixture against Benetton Rugby at Thomond Park.

A game where Munster Rugby were exposed for long periods but persevered to secure a hard fought if fortunate result. Hawkeye Sidekick was in attendance and reflects on the action.

Possession but no end product

Munster Rugby started with typical work rate and determination. Possession was secured and forced Benetton Rugby into the tackle count early in the opening quarter. However, accuracy issues in attacking running lines were exposed as ball was conceded to the Italians at a frequent rate.

The best opportunity from Munster Rugby to score the opening try in the opening period was when Tadhg Beirne barreled over from close range only to knock the ball on. It typified the performance from the hosts and the Benetton Rugby side grew in confidence as the game’s opening quarter concluded. Darren Sweetnam had another opportunity but a fumble also put paid to putting points on the board.

Even though Munster Rugby would take the lead from Tyler Bleyendaal, the deficit was quickly erased as Nigel Owens pinged Peter O’Mahony at ruck time to present an easy three points for Tommaso Allan to level the scores. After the sustained period of pressure from Munster Rugby to start the contest, Benetton Rugby would have been delighted with the start.

Benetton Rugby hit the front

Allan from the ten jersey than started to exert his influence on the game. His game management in the second quarter on point and his execution of deft kicks in behind the Munster Rugby defensive line coupled with quality passing to his three quarters suddenly had the hosts on the back foot. Ratuva Tavuyara dived over in the corner for a try, which was converted by Allan and the visitors had a 10-3 lead.  Munster Rugby were behind and needed to regroup in a hurry at the break.

Benetton Rugby squander game winning position

The words in the Munster Rugby dressing room had the desired effect as good phase play setup a penalty for Bleyendaal to cut the arrears to four points but Benetton Rugby were a constant threat in their ball carrying and offloading game.

Two big opportunities were spurned by the Italians in a vital third quarter period. Steyn knocked on when presented with a glorious opportunity to score under the posts.

The move preceding to the knock on saw Benetton Rugby expose Munster Rugby’s outside defense and the supporting running lines from the Italians had Munster Rugby’s cover defense in all sorts of trouble. Soon after, yet another spill from Benetton in a promising position was to take place. Huge moments in the context of the result.

Munster Rugby respond

The response from Munster Rugby from these near misses were admirable considering the circumstances. The side were extremely flat throughout, their attacking play was non-existent, one off runners throughout and there was a distinct nervy look to any attack games past the ten channel. The confidence to provide support lines for ball carriers was a mixed bag.

The usual suspects stepped up for Munster Rugby. The back row in particular were industrious in the breakdown exchanges. Cloete had prominent steals. O’Mahony work rate was infectious and Stander became a huge influence in the breakdown, winning a couple of key turnovers in the final quarter.

During this period, Munster Rugby had cleared the bench and all players contributed massively. Botha’s ball carries and tackle count was excellent. JJ Hanrahan and Alby Mathewson looking to create and game manage. The Munster Rugby pack phase work started to improve, tempo and quicker ruck ball resulting in a couple of penalty opportunities which Hanrahan slotted over.

Frantic final ten minutes

Playoffs. Tiny margins affect the outcome of results and indiscipline from Benetton Rugby player Dewaldt Duvenage kicking the ball away in frustration, which brought a penalty up to the halfway line was pivotal. Credit to JJ Hanrahan. It was a kick right on his distance capability. The kick was superbly struck and somehow Munster Rugby were ahead.

Benetton Rugby will point to a couple of officiating calls even before this. Stander’s breakdown work and whether he was supporting himself perhaps questionable. The clear out of the ruck from John Ryan which saw Benetton Rugby lose ball only two meters from the Munster Rugby saw Benetton Rugby question Nigel Owens who looked to be running out of his patience with the Italian’s side exuberance in celebrating every decision that went their way.

Benetton Rugby have been the most progressive side in the Guinness Pro14 tournament this season and their pack’s ability to engineer two drop goal opportunities in the dying minutes of the game was evidence of their composure and ability to execute the game management. The two drop goals were poor executed, the first drop goal was ideally setup. Small margins and Benetton Rugby will know that this game was theirs.

Munster Rugby must regroup fast

The performance in yet another playoff game was a disappointment. The platform was secured in that opening period but no bite or guile in attacking play given the enormous territorial advantage was abject. The coaching game plan was unclear today. The players looked like a group who produced their best work on the training paddock during the week; over trained perhaps as there was zero zip in the Munster Rugby play today.

The defensive line was at times caught repeatedly. The ten and twelve channel was a source of quality gain line breaks for Benetton Rugby. The pack at times were loose in their set piece execution. Plenty to ponder and address ahead of a now daunting trip to Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. A week to recuperate, the bodies looked exhausted on full time.

The Thomond Park faithful breathed a huge sigh of relief on full time but no one is kidding themselves after this performance; a similar cameo in two weeks time and it will be a humiliation and question marks will be cast over the coaching and playing staff. Critical times for all concerned with Munster Rugby; playoff rugby and the side have struggled yet again. There needs to be a response in two weeks time.

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!