Guinness Six Nations: Round 4 Preview

Wales and England should secure wins!

With Ireland and France facing off at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the Saturday fixture schedule sees two intriguing clashes. Wales travel to Murrayfield with momentum aplenty but will the upheaval in the regions stifle certain player’s performances? England name personnel changes for their home trip over Italy. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Scotland banana skin for Wales?

The Welsh side have been picture perfect in the tournament so far. 3/3 and after a superb second half showing against England are on the cusp of a Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Guinness Six Nations Championship.

Cue this week and the news has not been on the Welsh Rugby National team. It has focused on Project Reset, it has focused on the merger talks between Ospreys and Scarlets, it has focused on the shambolic events that unfolded on those discussions and the uncertainty that kicked up as a result.

For anyone associated with those two clubs, the distress and anxiety for those players involved, the employees at both clubs who support the team was excruciating to watch and view. To say that this week’s shambolic events have not impacted the Welsh preparations would be disingenuous and wide off the mark.

Wales travel to Murrayfield to face a Scottish side who are smarting from two disappointing test match performances. A tame loss to Ireland Rugby in round two was then compounded with an inaccurate performance over France in Paris. Defensively misreads and botched try scoring opportunities the order of the day.

Gregor Townsend has wielded the axe and made the squad take note as Greig Laidlaw is dropped for the test match. Ali Price comes in with the manager looking for fresh impetus and tempo in attacking play. A big opportunity for Price to impress and right the wrongs against Wales after last season.

Nel in the front row is a progressive move. Nel’s performances before injury with club and county have been excellent and will aid stability to a set piece which has creaked in recent weeks. The back three is altered with Darcy Graham coming in for Sean Maitland.

The opening exchanges look intriguing. Can Scotland disrupt Wales and put pressure on Anscombe at ten? Can Scotland’s back row compete at the breakdown where Josh Navidi to me may have a standout day? Can Scotland’s half back pairing of Price and Russell provide sufficient cohesion in attacking play to upset Wales?

I think for Wales, this is an even more complex fixture to negotiate now than compared to last week. Wales may need to answer a few key questions early but suspect that Wales will also look to expose Kinghorn and Graham in the aerial battle.

Wales to win but this is a banana skin fixture where a nervy ending may ensue for Warren Gatland’s side. Wales by seven points.

England hold the aces against Italy

Italy cannot get a break. It is bad enough to face England at Twickenham without England looking to bounce back after their second half showing against Wales when they were unable to respond to Wales’ superior work rate and well organized discipline in all areas of the park.

Eddie Jones was always going to make personnel changes for this test match regardless of the result at the Principality Stadium and so it has proved. Several players getting cameos to impress; the back three threat looks potent and May could seal the top try scorer accolade potentially come Saturday evening.

The pack has several personnel changes. Lawes is injured so Launchbury comes back into the side. George Kruis is named along the Wasps clubman. Ellis Genge gets game time in the front row along with Kyle Sinckler. Both players like to get involved in the verbals; expect no different on Saturday.

Brad Shields as well comes into the starting lineup to complement the outstanding Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola. This is a strong side led by Youngs and Farrell at half back, they will give Italy absolutely nothing.

Italy for their part have three key changes. Ghiraldini is benched for this test match. Parisse and Negri come into the back row. It looks a daunting challenge despite Conor O’Shea stating that they have prepared to win this test match, lofty words indeed!

The Azzuri have shown good progress this year in this championship but when push has come to shove, opposition have been able to create easy scores when required evident in Jacob Stockdale’s try in Rome two weeks ago; a soul destroyer of a score after working so hard to get points themselves immediately before hand.

Expect Cokanasiga to have a field day with ball in hand. Expect May to have a proverbial field day. Expect Italy to chase shadows for long periods. England are out to issue a statement of defiance and intent. England to win by twenty points plus and look to Wales to slip up to potentially snatch the Championship on the last day next weekend!

Guinness Six Nations: Ireland vs. France Preview

Ireland name strong side for French test

When Joe Schmidt arrived at the team selection press conference this afternoon, it was hardly a surprise to anyone present for the vast majority of players selected. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the selection.

Ultimate respect to France

The side named by Joe Schmidt is the strongest selection given the personnel available for selection. The front five sees four changes from the unit that faced Italy in Rome two weeks ago.

Front Five Changes:

Cian Healy, Rory Best, James Ryan and Iain Henderson all come into the front five with Sean Cronin and Quinn Roux missing out on the match day squad altogether due to the well documented line out malfunctions during the Italian test match. 

Back Row Better Balanced:

The back row unit sees CJ Stander return to the eight jersey. It had to happen given the Jordi Murphy experiment two weeks ago at the position failed to get off the ground. O’Mahony and van der Flier looks to have better balance than two weeks ago when the back row personnel struggled to create quick, effective ruck ball for Murray and Sexton to work with.

Half Back Cohesion Required:

The half backs will hope for a better afternoon individually and collectively this weekend. Rome was a frustrating fixture for both players. The hope is that with the back row personnel switch ups that the ruck ball issue will be improved upon. Murray’s box kicking should be far improved and Sexton perhaps will look to create field position with the boot instead of forcing plays on the gain line where he has been prone to a couple of late hits.

Ringrose return a timely boost:

The back line options sees the welcome of Garry Ringrose at thirteen. His speed, skill set will be a boost and with his partnership with Aki whose abrasive ball carrying potentially could create opportunities for Ringrose to impress.

The back three was never going to change for this test match. Kearney is the full back resident and now becomes an even more key fulcrum to this Irish side than the half backs. Kearney’s experience and performance on the big day is too valuable for this side. If the player goes down injured for any extended period, Ireland management will be scrambling for depth chart options that are in truth untested at the test match level.

Sub Bench Impact:

The bench is loaded with immediate impact. Munster front row options in Scannell, Ryan and Kilcoyne will provide mobility and assurance in the set piece. Dillane gets the nod over Roux and with Tadhg Beirne lurking in the background to get into this match day squad, only a big impact from Dillane will suffice. Jack Conan comes back into the squad after missing out against Italy.

It would have been incredibly harsh if John Cooney had lost his place on the bench to Kieran Marmion. Cooney has had insufficient game minutes to impress but the minutes that he has been on, he has been solid with the boot and passing has been good. Carty gets another opportunity to impress off the bench and will hope for more game minutes than the three minutes afforded to the Connacht Rugby star in Rome.

The squad is talented, strong and well organized. The key question is whether Ireland’s confidence is restored sufficiently for an upturn in performance levels in the set piece and with ball in hand. The word cohesion will be duly observed.

France Team Selection Consistency!

France and Jacques Brunel were relieved to get their championship back on track with a bonus point try win over a depleted Scottish side in Paris two weeks ago. The Toulouse back line and half-back fulcrums continue for this test match which will provide cohesion and understanding in these areas of the park.

What to look out for:

The kicking game contest to me is an intriguing facet of Sunday’s contest. Sexton and Murray must establish field position early in this test match; their kicking and exploitation of the French back three defensively needs to be on point to allow Ireland to settle into this contest. Failure to do so and France will have got over one massive obstacle to victory.

The set piece as well will be fascinating viewing. The scrum set piece looks abrasive. Both front row units possess world stars in this area and an early platform from this set piece could be a decisive advantage for either side.

The back row battle and the breakdown looks suited for van der Filer and O’Mahony to impress. The French back row unit is big, physical and abrasive with ball in hand but the breakdown exchanges look poised for Ireland given the increased mobility of the Ireland back row unit.

Verdict: Ireland

A fixture where we will see quite quickly which side has confidence to express themselves on the park and who will look to play conservative and wait for the other team to make a telling mistake. France will look to play with openness while Ireland will look to start with well structured, well organized play calls to provide confidence in the ranks.

Ireland have yet to fully fire in this competition but I think this could change on Sunday. This side is pretty close to performing at a high level for eighty minutes and if the half backs can provide early platform in their game management, expect Ireland to tire the French pack sufficiently to win this contest (creating penalty opportunities) in the third and fourth quarters.

A bonus point try win may be pushing it for Ireland given potential inclement weather conditions in the forecast. The focus is the performance and how Ireland on both sides of the ball have improved since Rome. Ireland by ten points after a closely fought opening thirty minutes.

Guinness Six Nations: Ireland Team Thoughts

Ireland team selections looks intriguing

An interesting couple of days beckon for the Ireland Rugby squad and supporters to see who will start against the French. Jacques Brunel has named an unchanged side (surprise, surprise) for this test match so all focus is on Joe Schmidt and Ireland Rugby management on who gets recalls, who gets another chance to impress. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the potential team selection calls ahead of Friday’s team announcement.

Front Row:

Despite the good performance of Dave Kilcoyne in Rome, Cian Healy will slot back into the front row for this test match. His experience will be required for what looks a tricky opening quarter against a hefty French pack. Healy’s work rate early should set the stage for Kilcoyne to make the required impact off the bench in the third quarter.

Rory Best is locked on to be the hooker this weekend after the mixed performance of his backups in round three. Line out misfires, penalty concessions by both hookers on duty in Rome means that Rory Best will seamlessly return to the side. The question is who will fill the back up hooker sub bench place; it is a toss up between Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin. Scannell may be the solid option for Ireland in the line out execution and may just have the nod.

The other front row position will be filled by Tadhg Furlong. The Wexford man’s performances have been solid in all facets of play and Ireland will hope for the player to impress at scrum time along with Cian Healy. The key question here is the bench and who gets the nod? Andrew Porter or John Ryan are the viable options. It is another 50/50 call for Joe Schmidt to make as both players have played well in recent months.

Second Row:

James Ryan should come back into the test match starting lineup. His work rate, physicality and athletism are sensational. His ability to manage the maul will be required in this test match both from an attacking and defensive perspective.

The big question is who will partner the Leinster Rugby second row for this fixture. Quinn Roux had a mixed day at the office in round three; the malfunctions in the line out means that the door is a jar for Iain Henderson to earn a recall. This is a huge test match fixture for Ireland in the context of RWC 2019 preparations and suspect that Henderson will get the nod given how the line out set piece spiraled out of control in Rome.

Quinn Roux and Sean Cronin in particular from the pack face an anxious wait on whether they are even in the match day squad. Tadhg Beirne’s sensational form with Munster Rugby means that Roux is under pressure to keep his squad berth. Intriguing selection poser for Ireland management on the five position.

Back Row:

It is fair to say that the Jordi Murphy eight experiment failed to get off the ground against Italy in Rome. CJ Stander if fit and raring to go should get the nod. Murphy and Conan potentially have minimal time now to impress Ireland management in the back row given Wales in the last round looks like a titanic tussle already.

The other back row positions should be filled by Peter O’Mahony and potentially Josh van der Flier whose mobility, tackle count and ability to create breakdown opportunities for himself and others could sway the decision. O’Brien as an impact sub in the third quarter looks likely here, need abrasive ball carrying options off the bench to test the French defensive line who have shown vulnerability in the second half of games.

Half Backs:

The usual suspects will get the nod and hope that the players around them assist in providing faster ruck ball in which to work with. The ball presentation for Murray has to improve; the body positions of Ireland players at ruck time has been poor at times thus resulting in Murray having to delay his delivery of pass to Sexton.

Sexton and Murray will look to ask serious questions of the French back three in the kicking game which has been inconsistent in recent rounds. I sense that we will see a far more improved performance from the unit. The bench options are intriguing. Is Joey Carbery fit or not? Contrary reports in recent days. Does Jack Carty get another opportunity off the bench? Quite simply, if Carbery is not 100%, don’t play him and Carty instead.

Three Quarters:

If Bundee Aki passes his HIA return to playing protocols, then he should slot back into the twelve channel to renew his partnership with Garry Ringrose who should return from injury. There is a nice balance in this unit. The abrasiveness of Aki with the subtle movement and skill set of Ringrose. Chris Farrell did little wrong against Italy but Ringrose is fresh and raring to go here and Ireland management will not hesitate to select the Leinster Rugby star.

Back Three:

Familiarity breeds contempt and the back three should be Rob Kearney (full back) with Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the wings. Kearney is the trusted, reliable go to for the full back berth and for the French test match, Ireland management will not have had to think much on the full back berth. Kearney is probably one of the first names on the team; his absence exposed in the England loss.

Earls and Stockdale will hope that Ireland can provide quicker ruck ball to impress. Both players have shown flair in attacking play but also shown vulnerabilities in defensive and aerial kicking duties. It is questionable whether France will seriously test these players in the kicking game defensively but they will be asked defensive questions when France are in full flow in the opening period.

Team Selection:

Front Row: Healy, Best, Furlong

Second Row: Ryan, Henderson

Back Row: Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander

Half Backs: Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton

Three Quarters: Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose

Wings: Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale

Full Back: Rob Kearney

Bench:

Pack: Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Sean O’Brien,

Half Back / Back Options: John Cooney, Jack Carty and Andrew Conway (if Jordan Larmour is unavailable for selection)

The five key elements for Ireland rugby to beat France at the weekend

Ireland cohesion rests on good fast ruck ball presentation!

In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints the five key elements which Ireland need to execute to beat France in round four of the Guinness Six Nations tournament.

1.Move the French pack around the park;

Very physical and meaty French pack (950kg at the start of the tournament), going to be a long hard slog for Ireland’s pack but if they can ball carry with pace, this French pack will lose discipline and stray offside which will create penalties and ultimately good field position to attack France deep in their own half.

2.Solid set piece

The Ireland set piece needs to be on point this weekend. France at scrum time will look to pose serious questions of our front five early so Ireland’s front five need to front up to the early onslaught. The line out malfunctions against Italy in round three cannot happen this weekend; otherwise France will have a great chance of victory on the road. Solid line out calling will be the order of the day as the weather conditions long range look mixed from Best, Ryan, Henderson and Roux.

3. Cohesion

The keyword coming from Joe Schmidt in recent weeks. Ireland have shown flashes of quality attacking play. The Keith Earls try against Scotland.
The excellent Jacob Stockdale try against Italy. The tournament so far has seen a number of promising attacks halted due to unforced errors; the final pass not going to hand. It is slowly progressing and hopefully should improve for round four of the tournament.

4.Ruck Time

A lot of people have pointed the finger at our half-backs for Ireland’s cohesion issues but not many have pointed to why the half backs have been unable to execute to their ability. The ruck time has been a mess from Ireland and clean, fast ruck ball has been in short supply for Murray and Sexton to work with. I am hoping that the clear out work is much improved from Ireland this weekend, good body positions to allow Murray to get the ball out of the ruck faster. If this happens, expect massive an upturn in Ireland’s attacking play. This French side defensively still look vulnerable and will provide gain line breaks for Ireland but it all comes down to quick ruck ball.

5.Kicking Game

An element of Ireland’s play which was not beyond reproach in the last two years has suddenly come under the microscope. The aerial kicking has being inconsistent and the open play kicking has not exposed opposition back three’s defensive so far. The kicking game was used to good effect by England in their heavy win over France. Owen Farrell consistently having space in behind the French back three to create territorial field position for which England attacked the French line out.

Guinness Pro14: Scarlets 10 – 6 Munster Rugby

Arm wrestle won by Scarlets

Scarlets revived their Conference B playoff hopes with a superb defensive stand to thwart Munster Rugby by four points. The result sees Glasgow Warriors move to the top of the Conference A standings as Munster Rugby were left to rue several try scoring opportunities squandered during the eighty minutes. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Ground Control – We have a problem

This was a fixture that deserved better weather conditions than the swirling wind and rain in Llanelli. The opening exchanges saw Munster Rugby impose their territorial dominance on the contest and an early Bill Johnston penalty gave the visitors an early 0-3 lead, then cue the television feed went down.

As Eir Sports and other providers scrambled to restore coverage, the worse case scenario took place, the only try of the contest was scored while the coverage was down but was reliably informed that good pack play from Scarlets saw the ball spin out to Ioan Nicholas with space to score. Halfpenny slotted the extras and the hosts led 7-3 as the television feed was restored.

Munster Rugby dominance not reflected on scoreboard

The remainder of the opening half was spent by and large in the Scarlets half as Munster Rugby built the phases and the tackle count on their hosts. Several incursions deep into Scarlets territory failed to yield any scores albeit the penalty count for Scarlets was increasing at a rate of knots, something that Mike Adamson did not want any part of.

The key attacking miss from Munster Rugby in that opening period was the line break from full back Mike Haley. An excellent run and with runners to his outside chose to go inside where Scarlets defensive cover was present. A spurned opportunity. The pass out wide would have yielded a try and something that was picked up upon by Shane Williams on the punditry duties.

All the pressure built up by Munster Rugby had a familiar theme. Munster Rugby pack looking to ram their way over from short distance but were met with a wall of Scarlets defensive resistance. With the ball treacherously slippy, any attempt to go expansive ended in knock on’s and surrendering possession.

The half did end with Munster Rugby securing a penalty just on the break. Bill Johnston unerring in his accuracy off the tee amid tricky weather conditions. 7-6 at the break. Munster Rugby doing all the attacking but showing little in terms of the scoreboard. Scarlets sprinted into the dressing rooms with a pep in their step after an excellent defensive display.

Decisive opening ten minutes of second half

Scarlets regrouped at the resumption of the second half and started to pepper Munster Rugby in defense with some astute line running, creating gain line breaks in the process.

A concerted spell of phases saw Scarlets near the Munster Rugby posts which forced the visitors to concede the penalty. The penalty call was to go for the posts, a smart move considering the conditions. Halfpenny slotted home the penalty to make it 10-6.

The rest of the contest was abrasive, an arm wrestle in truth with Munster Rugby looking to hit back with a try. They thought that they scored when Jean Kleyn saw amble space in front of him and crashed over. It looked too good to be true and it was as Rhys Marshall obstructed Hardy in front of Kleyn. The try chalked off by the TMO. It summed up the night perfectly for Munster Rugby. The work rate not in question but the level of precision and composure required to unlock the Scarlets defense was lacking in crucial moments.

Additional Munster Rugby pressure ensued and Arno Botha was held up just short of the line. The red line fever took over Botha who instead of presenting the ball back to colleagues to build more pressure stretched for the line only for the ball to be ripped away.

It effectively spelled the end of the Munster Rugby attacking threat as Rhys Patchell’s introduction saw a more polished kicking game from the Scarlets in comparison to Munster Rugby whose kicking lacked any cohesion or posed any serious questions of the Scarlets back three.

Kevin O’Byrne was introduced and produced a brilliant turnover for Munster Rugby to setup a grand finale but more inaccuracy in possession saw possession spilled. Scarlets ran down the clock and with the likes of Uzair Cassiem absolutely standout with twenty-seven tackles, the hosts won the contest. They deserved the victory based on their determined defensive display throughout and played Mike Adamson superbly at ruck time and the offside line which was not officiated throughout.

Munster Rugby will need to reflect on this performance in relation to the attacking decision making. The blunt pack orientated drive it approach was easily covered by Scarlets throughout and it was only when Haley and Sweetnam had line breaks that their defensive cover was anyway stretched. Edinburgh Rugby will look at how Scarlets’ low tackling style stopped Munster Rugby go forward at source and as a result prevented Mathewson and Johnston half backs from creating any noteworthy breaks.

A couple of weeks to regroup for Munster Rugby. A couple of weeks to remedy the attacking shape error count from this fixture but it has being indicative in recent trips to Wales. A loss will focus the management and squad for the run in; a home game to Zebre Rugby should secure playoff qualification but a top spot in the conference needs to be the target but they have given Glasgow Warriors the opportunity tonight to reclaim.

Scarlets will be hugely buoyed after this win. Their defensive display was on point throughout and when Munster Rugby threatened their try line, they closed ranks and created turnover ball again and again. Scarlets will look to get injured bodies back for the run in and do not discount this side in not making the playoffs. They are the sleeper team in this competition particularly when the pitches start to firm up. A morale boosting victory.

Guinness Pro14: Regular Season Run In

Exciting end to the regular season run in!

We are down to the business end of the Guinness Pro14 regular season. A loss now could have disastrous consequences for a side’s playoff ambitions. In this blog posting, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the playoff picture in both conferences and pinpoints a couple of key fixtures down the stretch.

Given that Zebre Rugby in Conference A and Dragons / Isuzu Southern Kings in Conference B are out of the playoff picture, they have been excluded in this fixture schedule illustration. Hopefully, these sides can use it as motivation for next season!

Conference A: One playoff berth up for grabs

Conference A: Regular Season Run In

It is fair to say that Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors have secured the first two playoff berths in the conference. One more win for either will officially lock them into the post season which means that one from four sides will secure the third playoff berth.

The key question is who will top the conference and significantly secure a home field semi-final playoff fixture. Munster Rugby currently on top right now but they face a very tricky away assignment to Scarlets this evening. If Munster Rugby secured a win here, it would be massive given that Glasgow Warriors have a tricky last three league fixture run with Ulster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and a local derby against Edinburgh Rugby to finish off the season. All to play for in the top spot battle and bonus point try points could be decisive.

The other question is who will join Glasgow Warriors and Munster Rugby in the playoff postseason. Cardiff Blues currently hold sway but a tricky fixture run in beckons with fixtures against playoff rivals in the run in. It could be an extremely nervy run in for the Blues given their inconsistent performances this season.

A key indicator on the Conference A playoff battle could be revealed in Galway later today. Connacht Rugby and Ospreys lock horns in a must win fixture for both sides. Momentum for the victor while the loser will be facing an uphill battle to get back in the playoff race. An intriguing fixture beckons.

Toyota Cheetahs are currently looking from the outside at present after another road trip loss in Ireland. A home stand at the end of the regular season may be too little too late so the South Africans are looking for results to go for them to get in the race.

Conference B: Leinster Rugby in the big dance

Conference B Run In

The Conference B top spot race was officially wrapped up for Leinster Rugby last night during their 19-7 win over Toyota Cheetahs. In truth, this was a done deal since before Christmas such has been the dominance of the side in Conference B fixture play. It will be intriguing to see how Leinster Rugby management play the remainder of the regular season as they face Conference B sides who are vying for playoff berths. Do we look to give game time to squad players or integrate international players into these fixtures at various stages? Selection could be decisive in the fortunes of the sides below them.

Benetton Rugby are currently in second place of the conference. For me, they have been the story of the Guinness Pro14. Their progression started at the end of last season with a good unbeaten run and they have continued that form into this season. A run in which sees the Italians face Edinburgh Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby looks tough but it would be great for the tournament organizers to get Benetton Rugby into the big dance. This afternoon’s fixture against Edinburgh Rugby is pivotal, a win at home to Richard Cockerill’s gives them control of their own destiny given their tough fixture run in.

Ulster Rugby have progressively improved since a sticky spell of results just before Christmas. The emergence of Eric O’Sullivan and timely return to form of Marty Moore in the front row providing pack platform in which the back line have flourished. The run in looks really exciting but tough. Any road trip to Scotstoun is a daunting task. The home finale against Leinster Rugby could make or break Ulster Rugby’s season at this point.

Edinburgh Rugby out of the Conference B playoff contenders have the trickiest run in. Fixtures against all their main conference playoff protagonists feature and then there could potential distractions with the Heineken European Cup campaign. The side are loaded with attacking and pack unit threats but this fixture list looks quite daunting and a loss away to Benetton Rugby today could the beginning of the end of their playoff ambitions.

Scarlets are the team lurking in the long grass. Injuries, club departures have exposed the club this season. A key fixture against Munster Rugby beckons today, a win here and they are back in the playoff hunt. The last two fixtures potentially are ten point hauls with Zebre and Dragons on the fixture list. Scarlets have the ability to secure a playoff berth but the fixture today cannot be understated. A loss to Munster Rugby and their playoff hopes are in dire straits.

Predictions:

Conference A:

  1. Munster Rugby (mixed results but should just do enough)
  2. Glasgow Warriors (tough run in decisive in top spot battle)
  3. Connacht Rugby (close with Cardiff Blues; Ospreys fixture key)

Conference B:

  1. Leinster Rugby
  2. Ulster Rugby
  3. Scarlets (to break Benetton Rugby hearts on the last day)

Guinness Pro14: Round 17 Predictions

Key fixtures lined up this weekend

After Leinster Rugby secured their home Guinness Pro14 semi-final playoff berth tonight, the stage is set for several fixtures which could prove decisive in who else joins the Irish province in the post-season. A pivotal day for the likes of Connacht Rugby, Scarlets and Benetton Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the fixtures and tries to predict the winners.

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 Reflections

Playoff picture becomes somewhat clearer

On a weekend where the Guinness Six Nations took the spotlight, key results in the Guinness Pro14 round sixteen fixture list has seen gaps form in the standings and for some, it is now must win territory to even get back into the playoff race. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Conference A: Top two stride further ahead

Contrasting fixtures for Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors in round sixteen. While Glasgow Warriors were putting Connacht Rugby (43-17) to the sword with a sparkling display of running rugby, Munster Rugby were in the trenches securing a victory at the Liberty Stadium thanks in no small part to the performance of Tadhg Beirne who was outstanding.

Mike Haley was the hero for Munster Rugby as thirty plus phase effort saw the impressive full back cross over for the game winning touchdown. Ospreys had a chance to win late but that man Beirne was on hand to secure a vital breakdown win. A key victory for Munster Rugby.

With the top two extending the gap from their conference foes, it was an opportunity for Cardiff Blues to close right up and slot into third place with a final quarter surge to beat Edinburgh 17-19 on the road. The result looked beyond the Welsh side heading into the third quarter as Edinburgh were ten points up heading into the final quarter but Jason Harries played inspired and setup the victory. Cardiff Blues back in the playoff hunt and with a home against beleaguered Isuzu Southern Kings next, they could potentially consolidate their playoff position.

A week to forget for Toyota Cheetahs. Nico Lee’s grovelling apology for ‘Snotgate’ was bad for PR but then there was a potentially devastating loss on the road to Scarlets today. Scarlets reveled in the dry track conditions and Toyota Cheetahs were down and out by the end of the opening quarter. Cheetahs need results to go for them in the next couple of rounds to get into this playoff race. It looks unlikely right now and this road trip could be the beginning of the end for their season.

Zebre Rugby. The squad depth issues were wholly exposed at Kingspan Stadium as predicted here in the preview round sixteen blog. Ulster Rugby ran riot and a fifty points plus scoreline was indicative of how easy the fixture was for the Irish province. Zebre Rugby unfortunately have rampaging Glasgow Warriors next at home; best of luck there!

If you are looking for the marquee fixture next weekend, then Connacht Rugby vs. Ospreys is it. Two sides who need the win for their playoff ambitions. Ospreys’ run of form has been poor but they showed signs with Keelan Giles that their attacking play is improving. Connacht Rugby need to regroup after that trouncing in Glasgow. The vanquished could be facing post season playoff anguish.

Conference B: Landslide results

The Conference B playoff contenders all won except for Edinburgh Rugby. Leinster Rugby flirted with Isuzu Southern Kings in the opening quarter but then put on the after burners in the second and third quarters to cut loose and inflict another forty point loss on the South Africans. A miserable Irish leg for the Kings.

Benetton Rugby were the standout performer on this round. A game which looked like a banana skin was put to be bed early and to score fifty-seven points to a Dragons side who do not know where the abyss is was a true standout. Benetton Rugby will refocus and prepare for a crunch clash against Edinburgh Rugby next weekend; this looks a standout Conference B clash. It is great to see Benetton Rugby so competitive this season and the confidence in the club is starting to be seen in the national side.

Ulster Rugby as mentioned above were easy winners against Zebre Rugby. A road trip to Rodney Parade and Dragons is next for the Irish province. Will Dragons react after their miserable outing against Benetton Rugby? Ulster Rugby will need to be on their guard but it is hard to see how Dragons bounce back next weekend. Bernard Jackman was axed but no bounce in results. The club are lacking direction and leadership on and off the park, worrying times.

Isuzu Southern Kings are done and dusted this season, the side never got going in truth. Cardiff Blues fresh from their Edinburgh Rugby road trip win will be in full confidence and attacking flow next weekend. The pain does not stop for the Kings!

Scarlets were very impressive against Toyota Cheetahs today; a superb response after the road trip loss to Benetton Rugby last weekend. The free flowing running lines were in full view in that opening period. A key fixture at home to Munster Rugby next weekend could be decisive for their Guinness Pro14 playoff hopes.

Guinness Six Nations: Italy vs. Ireland Reflections

Bonus Point win secured but questions raised for Ireland

At the start of the day, the objective was clear for Ireland. A bonus point try win was the minimum requirement on a perfect February afternoon in Rome. The mission was accomplished but not before a nervy examination from an Italian side who were abrasive and impressive with ball in hand when given the opportunity. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Now is not the time to panic

The mass hysteria from the Irish Twitter feeds during this game was surreal. You thought that Ireland had lost this test match quite heavily such was the commentary on the performance. The players and management will be the first to acknowledge that elements of the performance were patchy but after going in at half time 16-12 down, they won the second half 0-14.

It feels like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Ireland had trounced Italy today, it still would not be good enough for some. A second successive win and Ireland are within striking distance of both Wales and England. After the England loss, this is as good as it can be for Ireland at this juncture of the tournament.

It is time for the Irish sporting public to take a deep breathe, relax and give the management and players the time, the support, the space to regroup to address the issues exposed today and move on with confidence for the French fixture in two weeks time.

The Good

We have to start with the good news. The Ireland attacking threat of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls lit up this contest from an Ireland perspective. Both players when give sufficient ball impressed. Stockdale for me was our biggest threat of the afternoon and anytime he got the ball, gain line yards were made with ease. Keith Earls nous and ability to create something from nothing was seen to full effect in that second half; sublime line breaks and then his try was about pure opportunism.

The ability to dust themselves down at half-time when down 16-12 was admirable given the circumstances. The team were caught rotten on the
Morisi try, looking to play expansive and a breakdown in the move led to the kick downfield. This was an afternoon where nothing seemed to stick for Ireland; the more harder they tried, the more unforced errors came. It was a frustrating afternoon but to come away with a bonus point try win given the scenario at half-time was pleasing.

Italy”s attacking play was negated somewhat in that second half. Tebaldi’s influence on proceedings waned on fifty minutes and Ireland took control of the aerial battle. Tebaldi had a good afternoon up until that point as he played off the cuff, something that I have not seen him do. Italy were expressive with ball in hand, this is what they should be looking to do from now on.

Unforced errors capped off the Irish performance but at least Ireland were creating genuine try scoring opportunities. Earls and Stockdale line breaks in the second half on another day could have seen tries scored.

Aki injury affected rhythm and tempo

The opening quarter was decent from Ireland. Yes, there were a couple of early knock on incidents but Ireland with Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell looked dangerous when given quick ruck ball to work with. The two players were central to the Quinn Roux try.

Whether it was related to the withdrawal of Bundee Aki but Ireland’s threat in the three quarters for the second quarter was minimal and contained. Italy’s defensive line speed easily preempting Ireland’s attacking moves as Ireland ball carriers more often than not received the ball in a static position. Ireland were not probing the outside channels nor where they creating territorial platform with any type of kick game from open play.

Frustrating day for the Ireland half backs

Sexton at ten set the tone with his usual playing on the gain line but the tempo and cohesion around him was not there this afternoon. As a result, Sexton was more often than not getting a late Italian hit such was the delay in ball carriers getting into the position that Sexton required of them. It was a frustrating afternoon.

Murray will have mixed feelings on the afternoon. Ireland’s presentation of ball at ruck time has been poor so far in this tournament and it continued today. The new pack personnel perhaps not cohesive enough but Murray needed to get a stray Ireland forward leg out of the way more often than not to get the ball away; precious few seconds wasted and allowed Italy to defensively setup.

The scrum-half did score the crucial bonus point try for Ireland; crashing over when Ireland’s maul delivered. Murray will wonder on some of the protection issues that were clearly apparent today. The sight of an Italian forward coming in straight through the gate unchecked ripping the ball from Murray will not be an image or sequence that the Irish players or management will want to see.

Breakdown Imbalance

The breakdown area saw O’Mahony have several marquee moments but Italy had their own moments in that second and third quarter. The breakdown nous of a Leavy or van der Flier was missed. O’Brien tried hard without success. Murphy was ineffectual. Leavy, van der Flier will have duly noted the back row imbalance today.

Squad players get chance with mixed results

The key element from this test match from my perspective was how the squad players who were given sufficient game time to impress today fared. It is fair to say that it was a very mixed bag with some perhaps missing their big opportunity to secure a place for the Ireland RWC 2019 squad.

Dave Kilcoyne put in a combative, abrasive performance in the front row. His scrummaging winning Ireland early attacking platform. His ball carrying and tackling were on point; it was a satisfactory performance from the UL Bohs player and should see more action before the end of the tournament.

Sean Cronin started his first Six Nations test match today and it was a trying day on a number of fronts. The line out malfunctioned; the misfires were not all down to the hooker but there were a couple of overthrows in that second quarter which coughed up easy field position. Cronin was also caught offside in his eagerness to get off the line.

The fact that Cronin was whipped off after forty-seven minutes was a statement that Cronin was the fall guy for the set piece issues; harsh. Niall Scannell came on; the line out was still inconsistent and a high tackle yielded an Italian penalty. Rory Best and Rob Herring will have watched the proceedings with interest. Best will come back in for the France game. Herring may be given game time given the difficulties at hooker today. Hooker depth chart and the backup slot is up for grabs.

Dillane and Roux had mixed afternoons. Roux started the game well and his try was well executed; his drive to the line emphatic. The line out that went so well against Scotland was exposed at regular intervals today as Dean Budd in particular proving an absolute hindrance for Ireland to execute the line out with any confidence of efficiency. Dillane was all action; had key moments in his tackling and ball carries but there were also some unforced errors (not the only one to commit this). Dillane continued to pick himself up and it showed his spirit and resiliency to keep going until the end.

James Ryan is guaranteed to start against France and whether Iain Henderson features looks to be an intriguing question right now. Henderson was all action in his cameo appearance and whether Quinn Roux will be given another opportunity will rest on who was at fault for the line out misfires during video analysis this week at Carton House.

Jordi Murphy and the number eight experiment will surely be consigned to the filing cabinet where Robbie Henshaw and the full back experiment was consigned a couple of weeks ago. Minimal impact with ball in hand, no significant go forward ball for Ireland to capitalize on as Murray continued to use other runners at regular intervals. Jordi Murphy has flexibility to fill the other back row positions but the eight channel option is questionable after today. Jordi Murphy missed a big chance today to impress.

Andrew Conway came in unexpectedly early due to the HIA withdrawal of Bundee Aki. Conway was sharp with ball in hand, was put under pressure defensively once or twice due to Tebaldi’s game management to switch play out wide at regular intervals during that second and third quarter. Conway was not given ample quick ball to truly impress but it was a solid outing and one that management will have duly noted.

The other substitutes that came on did their jobs sufficiently well in the short amount of allocated time given. John Cooney looked sharp with his passing and kick game to close out the contest. Jack Carty’s cameo saw a couple of decent plays hitting runners with good speed. The forward bench options all contributed to the win late on.

A win for Ireland in Rome. Italy contributed to the test match with a good display but Ireland know that there is work to be done on the training paddock in the next week to get to the level required to compete and beat France.

Guinness Pro14: Round Sixteen (Saturday Fixtures)

Three home wins looks the solid bet

The Guinness Pro14 fixtures set for Saturday are interesting in terms of the playoff ramifications come the end of the season. The hosts of these fixtures look solid favorites but for Cardiff Blues in particular, it is a game where a win is paramount. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the form guide.

Benetton Rugby need to keep momentum going 

A defining round fifteen victory for Benetton Rugby in their victory over Scarlets at home. The result was impressive for a number of reasons. The ability of Benetton Rugby to get off the canvas multiple times to keep to the game plan was admirable; the ability of Ian McKinley to link attacking play was impressive and the ability of the pack to stave off Scarlets advances late incredible.

After such an euphoric victory last weekend, it will mean nothing if they cannot back up this performance and beat a Dragons side who are out of playoff contention with little to play for. This is a potential banana skin fixture for the progressive Italian club if they do not execute to the levels required.

The team selections have yet to be announced but suffice to say that Benetton Rugby will be missing a couple of marquee players from last weekend. Ian McKinley will miss out as he is on Italian national team duty on Sunday but the side has sufficient talent in the pack to set the platform to win this contest.

Dragons will be without the likes of Dee and Wainwright for this fixture. They showed good attacking play last weekend against Edinburgh but their defensive line speed and first time tackling were at times a shambles. Their last quarter display was poor and the failure of the side to produce a cohesive eighty minute performance this season is mystifying considering the experience of Hibbard and Henson in the ranks.

This is a fixture where Dragons’ pack could struggle as Benetton Rugby impressed in the set piece exchanges. Benetton Rugby are aware of the mission this weekend; a victory is paramount and if they can achieve a bonus point try then great but this is a fixture that could be a struggle for the Italians more than pundits would expect. Benetton to win but no bonus point as Dragons will look to hang on as much as they can in this contest.

Edinburgh Rugby building momentum 

This is probably the marquee Guinness Pro14 game on Saturday. Edinburgh Rugby showed the good and the bad in their bonus point try victory over Dragons. The good was undoubtedly their tries scored; some inventive running plays with Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe prominent. The bad was the defensive lapses particularly in the opening period, massive gaps that Dragons exploited to score tries.

Cardiff Blues come into this game desperately looking for a victory to keep in the Conference A playoff race. A home loss last time out against Glasgow Warriors; a mixed bag like their hosts last weekend with a poor opening period ultimately undoing all the good work of the Blues late. Their ball carrying and attacking threat is up there with the best in the league but their defensive side of play can be inconsistent and teams have exposed this in recent rounds.

The smart money would be on an Edinburgh Rugby win but if Cardiff Blues can compete and stay in touch until the third quarter, they have a serious chance of securing that coveted road trip win that could transform their Guinness Pro14 season. However, I have question marks on how they counteract the threats of Edinburgh Rugby out wide. Duhan van der Merwe is playing at a higher level to last season; looks the key man for Edinburgh Rugby to secure a win.

Ulster Rugby should have too much for Zebre Rugby

The Ulster Rugby Guinness Pro14 campaign has reached a pivotal point. After a morale boosting shutout win over Ospreys last weekend, it is now time to consolidate their playoff position in Conference B with Scarlets potentially facing a stiff challenge to the Toyota Cheetahs on Sunday.

Zebre Rugby arrive at Kingspan Stadium after a home loss to Leinster Rugby. The resiliency was to the fore as they battled gamely after going 0-21 down early to Leinster Rugby as they fought back to make it a 19-21 score at the break. Shrewd game management to take points instead of going for the line in the third quarter proved costly as Leinster Rugby regained composure to take the game away from the Italians.

This weekend will see both sides undermanned due to Guinness Six Nations commitments. Ulster Rugby for me look the solid bet to claim a bonus point try. O’Sullivan, Moore and Balacoune look the key players for Ulster Rugby provided that McPhilips / Burns can execute the attacking game plan to a high level.

Zebre Rugby will look to compete but in effect, they are out of playoff contention. It is a time to evaluate the squad depth for Michael Bradley and I think they will look to prove a point after a traumatic South African road trip recently. They do not want an embarrassing scoreline inflicted again. Ulster Rugby to win with a bonus point try though as squad depth issues on the Zebre Rugby will rear their head in the third quarter off the bench.