European Rugby Challenge Cup: Permutations Central

Challenge Cup for once looks exciting!

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

Who will make the quarter finals?

Top Eight (After Round 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playoff Verdict:

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

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

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

Worcester Warriors (4) vs. Harlequins (5)

Heineken Champions Cup: Permutations Central

Exciting pool finale beckons next weekend!

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

Current playoff picture (after Round 5)

Home Quarter Final Locks 

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

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

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

Any dramatic twists expected on the home quarter final berth?

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

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

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

Last Three Spots:

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

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

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

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

Playoff Verdict:

Saracens (1) vs. Glasgow Warriors (8)

Racing 92 (2) vs. Toulouse (7)

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

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

European Challenge Cup: Round 5 Predictions

One sided contests aplenty on the fixture list

There should be excitement aplenty in this tournament; the penultimate round of fixtures. The round where dreams of tournament success are further revitalized or cruelly dashed. However, this is the European Rugby Challenge Cup and for the majority of teams, it is an exercise in giving fringe squad players more game time in fixtures for quite a few clubs means little. Sad indictment on where this tournament has gone.

The standout fixtures look to be Connacht Rugby hosting Sale Sharks, ASM Clermont Auvergne looking to inflict further pain on Northampton Saints while Ospreys and Worcester Warriors realizing that the victor of their clash will control the Pool 2 (closest to a pool of death in this tournament). Hawkeye Sidekick steps away from his sick bed to provide his verdicts on these fixtures.

Heineken Champions Cup: Round 5 Predictions

Excitement and suspense filled round beckons!

In stark contrast to the European Challenge Cup, the Heineken Champions Cup has provided endless moments of skill, controversy and suspense. This fifth round of the pool phase will be no different and I think there could well be twists and turns in the playoff picture by Sunday night. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the fixture list.


Irish Provincial Rugby Player Updates – Jan 8th

Ian Keatley looks likely to move to Benetton Rugby next season

A couple of interesting sound bites from the Irish provinces with players in their final year of their contracts mulling over their options. Hawkeye Sidekick picks apart the key points from start of this week press releases and pays tribute to Ian Keatley, a player who has given total commitment to the Munster Rugby jersey despite some supporters protestations.

The news in Munster Rugby is that Ian Keatley looks primed to move to Benetton Rugby next season. This has to be confirmed officially by both parties and of course the player but the media sources look on point here.

It is a decision if confirmed although sad to see was inevitable given the surplus of fly-halves at the club as well as the decision to acquire Joey Carbery in the off-season. Munster Rugby’s intentions were clear; they were going in a different direction from a ten jersey perspective.

What will Ian Keatley’s legacy be at Munster Rugby? The guy has to be applauded for his grit, determination and resilience during his time. He was in the unenviable position of replacing the mercurial Ronan O’Gara and arrived in 2011 just as the core group of players who won Heineken Cups were departing the club.

The transitional phase at the club during these next few years were a mess and unfortunately for Keatley, certain sections of the Munster Rugby home supporter bayed for his head, looking for the fall guy after a shaky period of performances in the 2015 / 16 season.

It was brutal viewing. Your own fans turning on you in that way, have never seen it happen to another player in Thomond Park before or since. Munster Rugby management perhaps could have taken the player out of the firing line but they did not and what unfolded was deplorable treatment of a player from a mental standpoint.

Most players would have caved in, thrown in the towel and looked for pastures new but Keatley remain staunchly committed to the club. His performances for the club post Axel Foley’s death were on point; the supporter base fully galvanized behind the Belvedre College product last season as the side advanced to the last four of the European Champions Cup.

His performance against Leicester Tigers at home last season was ironic; he left the pitch to a chorus of applause and gratitude in stark contrast to December 2015 when he was heckled and harangued on his replacement. Sport can be quite unbelievably fickle?

No game time this season for Keatley but Benetton Rugby if confirmed have secured a quality professional, a player who can fill multiple positions. Keatley is an accomplished full back as well as twelve along with his fly-half duties.

Benetton Rugby have recruited well here; the potential gap in fly-half options at the start of next season has being mitigated by this move if it materializes.

Keatley can slot in and make a genuine case to be the ten starter for the club when the Italian contingent including Ian McKinley come back from the RWC 2019. A good move for Ian Keatley and his family; nice part of the world to play your rugby. All the best Ian from Hawkeye Sidekick!

Jaco Taute – Leicester Tigers Bound?

The news also from the Munster Rugby camp is that South African three quarter powerhouse Jaco Taute looks destined to move to the Leicester Tigers next season. Taute has struggled for game time since picking up a serious knee injury last season and with the emergence of Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin and Sam Arnold, that predicament may continue.

The player galvanized the unit when he arrived in October 2016 and his attacking and defensive nous was key to Munster Rugby’s resurgence. I met the player a couple of times in Limerick and I have to say Jaco is an absolute gentleman.

Leicester Tigers is a club in transition. The long term vision of the club needs stability at the head coaching role position so hopefully Geordan Murphy gets the time to implement his ideas and recruitment strategy to the party. Taute’s physicality in ball carrying should aid the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Matt Toomua immensely next season.

Taute’s defensive skill set and organizational ability to get players around him to reset was a key facet during his time in Munster Rugby; something that the Tigers are in serious need of. A player who has provided a key contribution to the Munster Rugby jersey.

Cian Kelleher in Leinster Rugby attire again from next season

The rumors were out at the weekend outside the Sportsground about the future of Cian Kelleher and today was confirmation from a Connacht Rugby that the player is leaving the club at the end of the current season to most likely Leinster Rugby (even the club have yet to confirm the story on their end).

Kelleher was brave to leave the Leinster Rugby setup in search of first team rugby but the risk has being rewarded handsomely with standout performances this season particularly under the guidance of Andy Friend. His performances against the Irish provinces this season alone an indication of the progression in his skill set and player development.

Leinster Rugby’s squad depth means that the player is not guaranteed a back three slot but questions will abound on who from the current squad may go at the end of the season?

Some big names at the club in the back three positions currently. Kelleher will have a superb opportunity to secure invaluable game minutes early next season; he needs to take the opportunity with both hands with the Irish RWC 2019 squad contingent back for European Cup action in November.

Jack Carty commits to Connacht Rugby for two more years!

As Jack Carty stated today, it was a no brainer decision. Carty has committed his future to Connacht Rugby by signing a new two year contract. Why would Carty leave the Sportsground? His performances this season have being outstanding, his consistency in all facets of play reaching new heights under the managerial guidance of Andy Friend.

The performance levels have risen as well by genuine competition in the squad ranks for the ten jersey with the acquisition of David Horowitz and Conor Fitzgerald who have shown well this season. Good recruitment policy from the club has set the platform for Carty to be challenged and flourish.

Carty has excelled and his relationship with Marmion or Blade in the half-back unit has being key to Connacht’s resurgence this season. A contract which was very much expected to be signed, sealed and delivered any day has being confirmed. Well deserved contract extension!

Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference B?

Leinster away and clear at the top of the conference

Conference B has seen one team head and shoulders ahead of their conference counterparts. Leinster Rugby have being superb and unplayable at times so far in the season with their squad depth in full effect. The league organizers will be happy to see that the two other remaining playoff berths have several teams with vested interests including Benetton Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on the conference and what to expect in this conference when the league resumes at the end of January.

Conference B Standings:

Leinster Rugby the standard bearer

The league form from the reigning tournament champions has being nothing short of sensational. Their ability to pick teams apart from any facet of play to the fore. The academy and squad players have deputized with ultra efficiency in their skill set, work rate and physicality. The top spot in the conference is pretty much secured; the key now will be to ensure that the performance levels do not dip as the side head into the playoffs.

Edinburgh Rugby are well in the playoff mix

After a slow start to the season, Edinburgh Rugby are in second place in the conference standings. Their festive period league triumphs have built serious momentum; their wins over Glasgow Warriors were noteworthy. They dismantled the Warriors pack threat. The key will be to improve their road trip performances down the homestretch. European Cup focus may have swayed team selection in previous rounds but every round from here on out needs to be given due priority. Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn are having superb seasons and their back line play has complemented the abrasive, solid pack performances this year. Mata continues to be a ball carrying machine.

Benetton Rugby; most improved side in the league

Benetton Rugby’s home win over Glasgow Warriors though surprising should not have being viewed as an earth shattering shock result. Benetton Rugby have already put Harlequins to the sword at home this season. Their performances this season have being well organized and their attacking play has evolved. The key point for Benetton Rugby is the RBS 6 Nations league block; how is the depth chart in the side? If they can be in the mix after this block of games, then Benetton Rugby could be a top three conference contender. Great to see the Italian side in the playoff mix; good news for the league, good news for the league organizers.

Scarlets injury crisis crippling

The injury list at the Scarlets this season has being cruel to watch. The lack of back row options in recent weeks even more so when Ken Owens was thrust into the eight jersey against the Dragons last weekend. Thomson absence is a big loss along with Cubby Davies whose breakdown work and guile has being sorely missed. The news that Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones are gone to the Welsh national side managerial setup is a further blow. If the injury list can subside, then the side have the serious threats out wide to cause any team in this league issues. The health issues of Leigh Halfpenny also is a concern. The side are under pressure currently and if they can get a top three berth in the conference this season, it will be a superb effort given the issues at the club.

Ulster Rugby squad depth waning?

Ulster Rugby’s season is at a pivotal point. Their squad depth chart issues surfaced again in round thirteen as Leinster Rugby took Dan McFarland’s men to the cleaners in a facile win. It had the attributes of their heavy loss to Munster Rugby at Thomond Park. The first team squad when available for selection is up there with anyone but when they are unavailable, gaps are seen despite the undoubted youth and academy talent on the books. Injury list is mounting. Can IRFU assist Ulster Rugby with astute loan signings to keep momentum? Otherwise, Ulster Rugby could be in danger of falling off the Conference B playoff race picture. Interesting times ahead for all concerned at the club.

Dragons project reset

It has being a wretched season for Dragons. Bernard Jackman has paid the price for inconsistent, poor performances on the pitch with his departure from the club before Christmas. The club are in limbo until a successor and definitive club vision and recruitment policy is implemented. The season is a right off; time to evaluate the current squad. Any new prospective recruits will be playing the wait and see game until a new successor to Bernard Jackman is identified. This is an unmitigated disaster for the club right now as it ponderously drifts towards the end of the current season. Their home win to Ospreys over the festive period will be the sole highlight of the season.

Southern Kings future is secured

The Southern Kings continue to struggle in the league; news that private investment has being secured to the team over the festive period must be seen as a positive but their performances right now on the playing side continue to be a mixed bag. A heavy road loss to Edinburgh Rugby last time out another reminder of the struggles that the side face particularly on the road. Kings next season is make or break; if they continue in this same vain, the private investment will be quickly withdrawn so it is imperative for the league organizers to get the required assurances from the club hierarchy that recruitment on the pitch is on point. The season is finished for the club; time to strategically review and identify where improvements are required.

Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference A?

Exciting final block of games beckon!

With European Cup action taking center stage for the next two weekends, it is time to review where we are in the Guinness Pro14 conferences and what we should expect when the league resumes at the end of this month. Hawkeye Sidekick takes on the story from here starting with Conference A.

Conference A Standings:

What to look out for?

Munster Rugby

Munster Rugby are top of the conference after last weekend’s set of results. The side produced their best attacking performance of the season in their BP win over Connacht Rugby on the road in round thirteen.

Key European Cup fixtures beckon and the side will need to continue to evolve and improve on both sides of the ball to be a realistic Guinness Pro14 contender. The road trip fixture to Ospreys looks key in determining whether the side will be vying for a top spot playoff berth.

Glasgow Warriors

Glasgow Warriors have hit a complete slump. Three consecutive league losses has opened the conference wide open. Warriors are a quality outfit but the European Cup pool finale could potentially shape how they perform upon the resumption of the league. I still think that they are the team to beat in this conference but the pack issues exposed in recent weeks and lack of cohesion in attacking play which surface against Edinburgh Rugby needs to be addressed in a hurry.

Ospreys well placed

Ospreys are currently in third position in the league; their form has being mixed in recent weeks. Good wins over Cardiff Blues and Scarlets but then a road trip loss to the Dragons. George North continues to impress with ball in hand. The big question for me on the Ospreys is when their key marquee players are away on international duty, how will the side perform? November saw some wretched performances on the road when their squad was stretched. This cannot be repeated coming down the homestretch.

Connacht Rugby progressing nicely

Connacht Rugby have shown massive upside this season. A new coach and revitalized mindset has seen the side play highly entertaining rugby this season. Their performance against Munster Rugby last weekend at times was sublime; quick ruck pass unleashing Tom Farrell and Cian Kelleher to create havoc in the Munster Rugby defensive ranks.

When you consider that Aki, Buckley and O’Brien were out of the side against pretty much first team Munster Rugby outfit, it is where Connacht Rugby’s head space is at when they are disappointed by not winning the contest. A key home fixture against Ospreys could make or break the side’s season in a couple of weeks.

Blues need to fix consistency issues

Cardiff Blues have being frustrating to watch this season. When they click into gear, the side are loaded with threats from multiple areas. When they are not, they are mediocre. The key will be to figure out the consistency issues in the side. Blues have a couple of keynote fixtures against Conference A opposition upon league resumption; their road form has to improve for the side to be a serious playoff contender.

Cheetahs should make late playoff charge

Cheetahs. After a very slow start to the season, the side are starting to gain momentum. They were very impressive in their first run out of the year on the road to Zebre Rugby last weekend. Their expansive style of play will cause teams no end of issues. Two games in hand over everyone else in the conference, Cheetahs should account for the Southern Kings in the next few weeks. A potential ten points haul and they are back into playoff picture contention. For the league, Toyota Cheetahs need to be in the playoff mix.

Zebre Rugby cast adrift

Zebre Rugby are cast adrift at the bottom of the conference. After early promise, squad depth issues have being ruthlessly exposed so the objective for Michael Bradley’s charges will be to aim for European Challenge Cup playoff contention.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 13 Preview (Irish Provincial Fixtures)

Last round of Irish Provincial derbies up for decision

A hectic festive period sees teams juggle squad rotation to the max ahead of crunch European Cup fixtures next weekend. Munster Rugby travel to the Sportsground with a strong looking squad on paper against a Connacht Rugby side missing a couple of first team regulars. Leinster Rugby will be keen to get on winning ways as they entertain an Ulster Rugby side who have left off the majority of the marquee starters. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

All points to a Leinster Rugby bonus point win 

The team selections for this RDS fixture left me quite underwhelmed. Ulster Rugby have decided to rest their first team stars with a key fixture against Racing 92 looming on the horizon next weekend. Leinster Rugby have juggled the team selection after an ill-disciplined performance against Munster Rugby on the road. The fixture looks like a cohesive mess.

Ulster Rugby have looked at the fixture; weighed their options and decided that this fixture is beyond them. A bit harsh but when you decide to blood four academy players in the cauldron of the RDS after Leinster Rugby have just being beaten last time out, enough said. Lambs to the slaughter?

The youngsters in the side will try hard but there is a feeling here of their Thomond Park performance on this one. It will be important for the likes of Herbst, O’Connor, Timoney, Shanahan and McPhilips to try and set the tone early for others to follow.

The performance against Connacht Rugby last weekend was well off the standard required; pack struggled for set piece dominance and the back three defensively at times were caught more than once by Farrell, Aki and Godwin in ball carrying.

Leinster Rugby’s video analysis of their Thomond Park first half performance would have being a sight to behold. Discipline went out the window in that opening period and cost them the game. Lowe’s red card capped off a horrendous half and it could have being worse.

The only crumb of comfort for Cullen and Lancaster was the second half performance. With fourteen players, they defended with gusto and organization scoring two tries of their own. An intercept try from Earls deep in Munster Rugby territory was the only blotch to the copybook.

The team selection from Leinster Rugby blends fringe players with players who need game time ahead of the crunch Toulouse fixture next weekend. Rob Kearney returns to the full back slot and his experience will be vital in organizing a talented but still raw back three. Adam Byrne and Barry Daly need game time and this will be a good hit out.

I am particularly interested in how Ciaran Frawley bounces back from last weekend. His sub cameo unfortunately saw an errand pass which Earls intercepted and scored for the game winning try. Frawley’s response this weekend will be interesting, see if the player can dust himself down and perform to the high levels that he has produced so far this season.

The pack looks abrasive despite key personnel absentees. Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter look a potent front row. Molony and Kearney are solid set piece operators and then there is massive youth, pace and power in Murphy, Penny and Deegan in the back row.

Verdict: Leinster Rugby (BP Win)

The hope here is that Ulster Rugby start well with gusto and get an early lead. Anything else and this will be a long, arduous, horrendous experience for a talented yet inexperienced Ulster Rugby outfit. Leinster Rugby’s bench looks stacked as well if required. No rest for Ulster Rugby in this fixture I fear.

Munster Rugby looking for attacking display 

The team selection from van Graan and Munster Rugby team selection speaks volumes; they have identified that the attacking side of the ball in the back line needs to tighten up and more game time this weekend ahead of a crucial European Cup fixture schedule is what is required.

The big news is the return of Chris Farrell in the three quarters. If you are to believe some fan forums, Farrell’s absence has being the key reason for a stagnant back line performance. I think there is more than one player for the struggles but the Tyrone native’s return is much welcomed given his physicality on both sides of the ball. Dan Goggin switches to twelve and needs to impress this week to realistically be a genuine starter for the rest of the season.

Conway, Earls and Wootton form the back three and it will be interesting (weather permitting) how Munster Rugby’s back line play will fare tomorrow in Galway. With Carbery and Mathewson at the half-back berths, quick ruck ball is paramount to launch the back line. The ruck ball in recent weeks has being very slow, poor setup on the ruck too (additional player or two over committing to the ruck). Interesting to see how this facet of play goes from the team in red.

A strong pack is named. Peter O’Mahony, Arno Botha and Tommy O’Donnell form an abrasive back row unit with Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn in the second row. John Ryan, Jeremy Loughman and Niall Scannell in the front row. The cohesion issues in the line out should improve from tomorrow’s outing. The scrum set piece has being good, a good opportunity to run the rule over Loughman in a starting role.

Andy Friend has wielded the changes for this encounter; an excellent home win against Ulster Rugby last weekend has seen the side infused with fresh legs. Inspirational captain Jarrad Butler misses out for the hosts due to injury but the back row is loaded mobility, pace and breakdown nous with Colby Fainga’a, Eoghan Masterson and Gorey native Paul Boyle in the ranks.

The half back partnership of Blade and Carty continues; the partnership has excelled in recent weeks and why break continuity? The big news is that Tom Daly makes his Connacht Rugby debut alongside Tom Farrell. A potential abrasive, exciting three quarter partnership and will be tested by Goggin and Farrell on the other side of the ball.

Matt Healy returns to the back three with Cian Kelleher continuing on the other wing. The lineup is complete by Darragh Leader who has looked a different player this season with his confident aerial and ball carrying ability.

Verdict: Munster Rugby (close win)

A strong Munster Rugby outfit; if the starting lineup fails to fire with ball in hand tomorrow, then massive questions in confidence will be raised in the camp ahead of a crunch European Cup pool finale. The bench looks strong with the likes of Murray, Bleyendaal and Stander in the ranks. The team need to deliver.

Connacht Rugby have greatly impressed me this season. The absence of Aki is a blow and cohesive issues with Daly / Farrell will happen. The bench impact looks strong in the pack but the back line options look stretched and because of that, it is Munster Rugby who will edge this contest. The performance of Chris Farrell will be duly observed.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 12 Preview (Irish Provinces)

Local derby bragging rights on the line

The first blog posting after Christmas, hoping one and all had a good festive period and ate all round you. Best wishes for 2019! The Irish provinces cheer will be in short supply over the next couple of days as Connacht Rugby entertain Ulster Rugby at Sportsground. Munster Rugby who are under pressure to produce a vastly improved performance with ball in hand face down the current standard bearer Leinster Rugby. Expect fireworks!

What impact has the Leinster Rugby loss had on Connacht Rugby?

The key question going into this fixture. After such an excellent performance for three quarters in the RDS last weekend, it was a devastating last ten minutes for Connacht Rugby. Their much coveted victory in the RDS evaporated as Leinster Rugby’s attacking play coupled with passive game management and kicking from Connacht Rugby saw the game turn on its head.

The morale of the Connacht Rugby squad has to have taken a hit. The manner of the result was a bitter pill to swallow so Andy Friend and management team will have had their work cut out to get the side in the right mindset to win this contest.

Connacht Rugby named yet another strong team selection for this derby fixture. Four personnel changes sees Conor Carey and Shane Delahunt come into the front row. Quinn Roux partners the impressive Gavin Thornbury in the second row. Sean O’Brien comes into the back row.

The subs bench looks strong and with the Stephen Fitzgerald (on loan from Munster Rugby) expected to make a debut from the bench, there are options for Andy Friend to call upon if the need arises.

Ulster Rugby are coming to the Sportsground with revenge on their mind. It is an opportunity to right the wrongs after a disappointing home performance to the same opposition earlier in the season. Connacht Rugby dominated all facets of play and only for a Nick Timoney try at the death to make the 22-15 look closer than it was.

Dan McFarland comes back to his former club and names a good squad for the fixture. Alternations in the back line as Robert Baloucoune is suspended which means that McPhilips, Cave and Kernohan come in to freshen the side up. Timoney comes into an abrasive back row containing Coetzee and Murphy.

Verdict: Connacht Rugby

The Ulster Rugby starting lineup looks strong but question marks on the bench impact is prevalent here. Connacht Rugby’s performance depends on their mindset after that traumatic Leinster Rugby loss. If they are on point, expecting a good performance with Blade and Carty at half-back and with a strong bench should go home.

Ulster Rugby’s performance against an under-strength Munster Rugby last time out produced good moments with ball in hand but still were unable to pull clear. Addison vs. Aki looks the individual match-up to look out for; a national team trial selection.

Munster Rugby: Backs against the wall

The last few weeks have being a mixed bag for all associated with Munster Rugby. After the battle of Castres and then a loser point against Ulster Rugby, it has exposed massive issues with ball in hand. It is time to find form and confidence ahead of key European Cup action but with Leinster Rugby coming to Limerick, it will be difficult.

It will be interesting to see how Munster Rugby’s game plan with ball in hand evolves for this fixture. If Munster Rugby execute at the levels they have being in recent weeks, this could be a humiliation. There needs to be more variety in attacking lines. Ball carrier needs support runner options, something absent in recent weeks. Game management needs to improve; better kicking game required this week.

Munster Rugby make several changes to the side who lost to Ulster Rugby last time out. The cavalry is called upon as Stander, Murray, Beirne, Conway and Earls come into the ranks. Goggin and Scannell form yet another three quarter partnership; a troublesome area for the side given the state of flux. No Peter O’Mahony so Fineen Wycherley continues in the back row.

Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster wield the changes too. Key marquee names get game time in this local derby. Healy, Ryan, Furlong, Conan, van der Flier, Sexton, McGrath, Lowe, Ringrose, Larmour will look to impress. Larmour from full back could have a proverbial field day if Munster Rugby defensively are not at from minute one. Larmour was the marquee performer in this corresponding fixture last season.

I am struggling on how Munster Rugby can win this encounter. The defensive line speed and tackling have being solid but line out and attacking play has being inconsistent, two facets of play which Leinster Rugby excel in and with a quality back row, quick ruck ball from the hosts will be difficult to acheive.

A big game for Joey Carbery who needs to produce a measured performance. These are the games which Carbery was brought into the side for and after an indifferent performance against Castres on the road, he needs to stand up and deliver here.

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Folks will argue that Munster Rugby have being on the end of some poor officiating crew decisions but the general game plan and execution in the side have being poor as well. Munster Rugby need to show a measured improvement and they will but Leinster Rugby hold all the aces here. Strong throughout the pitch and with impact from the bench with ball in hand, they will secure another victory on the road.

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Reflections (Irish Interpros)

Drama and excitement aplenty

The eleventh round of the Guinness Pro 14 saw closely fought contests throughout the fixture list. Cardiff Blues edged an unlucky Dragons outfit. Ospreys beat Scarlets at home to provide a timely morale boost. Edinburgh Rugby’s pack set the platform for a rousing victory over Glasgow Warriors while Benetton Rugby edged past Zebre Rugby today. This blog posting will focus on the Irish inter-provincials where excitement was reserved for the RDS.

Leinster Rugby show why they are champions 

Seventeen points down with seventeen minutes to go. A fixture which Connacht Rugby provided several superb attacking moves with Jack Carty the conductor of all that he surveyed. Any other side would have being resigned to their fate but this Leinster Rugby showed massive fortitude, attitude, determination and skill to pull this game out of the fire.

What sets this side apart is how Leinster Rugby refused to panic, kept believing in their systems knowing that they should get their just rewards. Connacht Rugby visibly tired with each passing phase in that last ten minutes and from being in a position of strength, they were akin to a boxer on the ropes waiting to be put out of their misery.

Connacht Rugby game management in that final ten minutes was also quite key; a couple of occasions where the side had chances to slow the tempo and with more assured kicking from hand into touch could have still secured the win but Leinster Rugby were given the field position required and they made Connacht Rugby pay.

The cameo of Ross Byrne in the closing minutes were nothing short of sensational. His game management to keep Connacht Rugby off balance defensively to the core and with the ever willing support running of Adam Byrne (148 meters off 18 carries), it was decisive. When you add his unerring conversions at the death, it was a display which showed composure in abundance.

Leinster Rugby management will be keen to run the rule over the video analysis as Connacht Rugby exposed big gaps defensively in their cover defense throughout. Carty for sixty minutes was outstanding; constantly testing the host defensive line, his deft kicks in behind working a treat.

Blade at scrum half varied his game superbly and chipped in with a try. Squad depth in the front row was a decisive blow and it came back to haunt Connacht Rugby in the last quarter as scrum after scrum went against them and allowing Leinster Rugby to setup field position and pressure. Yet another tough road loss in the RDS for Connacht Rugby who must ensure that this loss does not spiral their season out of control.

A sensational contest. A sensational advert for the league. Leinster Rugby management will have learned plenty about their up and coming talent. Munster Rugby beware; the defensive lapses from Leinster Rugby should not be seen in Thomond Park on December 29th.

Ulster Rugby victorious

Seven point win for Ulster Rugby at Kingspan against a Munster Rugby side who will feel that officiating decisions went against them. Robert Baloucoune looking to impress should have seen red for his hit on Darren Sweetnam after eleven seconds. The yellow card was a joke call and Ulster Rugby after easily absorbing Munster Rugby attacking advances for the opening ten minutes set about winning this contest. They did so aided by executing a cohesive attacking game plan.

Munster Rugby fans will be worried heading into the Leinster Rugby contest next weekend. Defensively and tackling is on point, line speed was good from the players on duty but the distinct lack of attacking nous with ball in hand is a massive issue. A third consecutive week where Munster Rugby have struggled to make any significant gain line breaks, a third consecutive week where support runners were non-existent. 140 meters in this fixture falls well short of what is required to win a fixture. The botched try opportunity in the second half summed up the clueless decision making at the moment in the side with ball in hand. Felix Jones has work to do.

Ulster Rugby provided more evidence of their potency with ball in hand. Addison continues to be the find of the season. His running lines and passing from thirteen caused Munster Rugby endless issues. Rory Best impact off the bench was superb; his offload in the second half setting up an Ulster Rugby try. Baloucoune after his reprieve scored a smart try along with David Shanahan who was sharp around the fringes. Herring was pumped with his effort. Ulster Rugby perhaps disappointed that they did not secure a bonus point try win.

The game saw Henry Speight play his game for the Ulster Rugby side. An excellent signing this season, his presence and experience will be missed heading into the finale of the European Cup pool phases. Dan McFarland is building a nice side. Their attacking play is a joy to watch at times; how Munster Rugby fans would love the invention and creativity injected into their side?