Heineken Champions Cup Pool Reflections

Pool of Death: Pool 4

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

Heineken Champions Cup Pools

Pool 1: Leinster Rugby can have little complaints

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Pool 2: Evenly poised pool

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Pool 4: Pool of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Pool 5: French teams hold the key

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Early Predictions:

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

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

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!

Heineken Champions Cup – Round 4 Predictions

Round 4 – Playoff dreams will be made or shattered this weekend

The decisive round four of the Heineken Champions Cup; a round where several teams will fall by the wayside with a key loss. Other sides will take advantage of sides who are already out the back door due to results last weekend.

The wannabes will be whittled down by the end of this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick provides his verdict on the fixtures scheduled. Gloucester Rugby and a bonus point try win (15 point spread) against a massively under-strength Exeter Chiefs outfit looks to too good to refuse. 

Guinness Pro14: Scottish Friday Night Fixture Preview

Scottish home wins the solid bet

Two home games for Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby this weekend as Zebre Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs respectively visit Scotland. Hawkeye Sidekick previews this action. 

Can Edinburgh Rugby put Cheetahs to the sword?

Edinburgh need to deliver a good performance

It has being an interesting couple of weeks for Edinburgh Rugby. The home form has continued to hold up as the side have struggled on the road. Last weekend was a major scare to the home record as Benetton Rugby provided more evidence (if required) of their progressive improvement with a thundering display which had Richard Cockerill’s side defending for their lives in the last quarter. 

Toyota Cheetahs will take some comfort in the manner in which Benetton Rugby were able to create gain line breaks and get back into the contest. Edinburgh have being unable to put teams fully away in the second half and this continued last weekend. They need to be more clinical in the opponent twenty-two when chances are presented this week as European Cup action could be a massive reality check. 

Edinburgh team news sees several player rotated into the side. The back line sees Johnstone, Pablo Socino named in midfield while Darcy Graham gets valuable game time on the wing. Rory Sutherland gets his debut nod at prop. 

Toyota Cheetahs continue to improve?

Toyota Cheetahs have seen encouraging signs in the last two league games. The 39-39 draw against Ulster Rugby was then followed up by a solid road trip performance against Cardiff Blues despite heading in a loss.

Team news sees Du Toit slots into the hooker position while Basson comes into the second row. Jordaan switches to flanker as Stephen Malan is selected at eight.

Verdict: Edinburgh Rugby

This is a pivotal fixture for Edinburgh Rugby. Toyota Cheetahs will test Edinburgh Rugby defensively with their free flowing offloading style but the hosts pack looks strong and would expect to score a couple of tries from the set piece. An entertaining game beckons but Edinburgh Rugby should secure the win (whether the full performance is seen is another story) in a four point win. No bonus point try win. 

Glasgow Warriors aiming for bonus point win

Bonus point on the cards at Scotstoun

Glasgow Warriors come into this contest on the back of a 29-13 win over Dragons, a good performance after a shock road trip loss to Isuzu Southern Kings in round four.

The team news looks strong; continuity and aiming to build momentum ahead of European action where Glasgow Warriors need to stand up and deliver. The Guinness Pro 14 promise descended into disappointment last season so points to prove in this competition. 

Daunting task for Zebre Rugby

Zebre Rugby enter Scotstoun with a daunting task ahead of them. They need to pick their game plan and their pack needs to secure a platform early.

Eight changes for this fixture with Balekana making his debut. Ah-Nau and Bello also make their debut in the prop positions. Violi and Brummer at the half-backs with Bisegni coming into the three quarters.

Verdict: Glasgow Warriors (BP Win)

A run of two consecutive losses and with this team selection and the growing injury crisis, hopes are low for the Italians to seriously upset Glasgow Warriors who will look to secure an early bonus point try win and clear the bench to give the squad useful game minutes. A cohesive expansive performance is expected from Dave Rennie’s charges. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 20 Preview (Friday Night Games)

A pivotal weekend of action awaits several teams this weekend. In Conference A, Glasgow Warriors have an opportunity to secure playoff home field advantage with a win over a misfiring Connacht Rugby outfit. Munster Rugby travel to the Bloemfontein to face a Toyota Cheetahs who know that a win will close the gap considerably on the Irish province setting up a fascinating last round of games in the regular season.

In Conference B, Leinster Rugby can pretty much stamp their home field playoff berth with a win at home to improving Benetton Rugby while Scarlets travel to Edinburgh looking to get pace. Ulster Rugby still harboring ambitions of playoff rugby realize that nothing short of a bonus point try win will suffice against a progressively improving Ospreys side. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

A key fixture for the hosts at fortress Scotstoun on Friday night. The mission is pretty straightforward; a victory over a Connacht Rugby side who are out of playoff contention means securing a home field semi-final in the playoffs.

Dave Rennie has named a strong side for the fixture. Finn Russell must make do with a place on the bench as Peter Horne will be the out-half for the evening. The pack looks strong and abrasive with Brown, Gray and Fagerson featuring.

Connacht Rugby are buoyed by the news that Tiernan O’Halloran is free to play after his disciplinary case was dropped today. Kieran Keane has named a reasonably strong outfit with Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney included. The pack looks pretty much first choice as John Muldoon is kept in reserve for a third quarter onslaught.

Given the motivation of both sides, the verdict goes to the Glasgow Warriors who have the potential to create massive defensive holes in a Connacht defense which has shipped 30+ points in their last two outings. Line break defensive lapses all too common.

Connacht Rugby will hope that their pack can provide a platform and allow the likes of Aki, McKeon, Robb to create the line breaks to allow the likes of Matt Healy the opportunity to impress. This game is primed to be an open contest (weather permitting) and Glasgow Warriors have enough depth on the bench to provide fresh impetus with a bonus point try win and home field playoff advantage secured.

This is the key fixture of Conference A this weekend. A win for either side will have massive repercussions in the race for the other playoff berths in the conference. A Toyota Cheetahs win will mean that Cardiff Blues will no longer be able to secure the third playoff place and as a result close the gap considerably on Munster Rugby who know victory themselves will secure the second playoff spot and a home quarter final playoff fixture. A Munster Rugby win will give fresh hope to Cardiff Blues to secure that elusive last playoff spot as well.

The team selections are indicative of where both teams are at in this juncture of the season. Johann van Graan has omitted several big star names with Racing 92 and that European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final looming large in the horizon. This has given an opportunity for the likes of Scott, Grobler and JJ Hanrahan to secure game time and perhaps give management food for thought when announcing their squad for next weekend in Bordeaux.

The hosts have surprised many with the announcement of Johan Goosen at fly-half. This is effectively his first game of the season. The player left Racing 92 under a cloud of controversy and it will be interesting to see the player in action tomorrow night. A player with all the attributes; solid game management, good kicking game and ability to pass with efficiency. This is a nice squad addition for the Toyota Cheetahs ahead of the playoff push. Niel Marais moves from ten to twelve and provides a nice balance with Venter in midfield. Marais’ kicking game will complement the hard running style of Venter.

The weather conditions will play a factor in the outcome of this contest (apparently rain in the forecast). Munster Rugby will look to play a structured game and with the inclement weather conditions, the offloading game may be risky to execute from the hosts.

However, the altitude factor will kick in the second half and Toyota Cheetahs for me have the edge. Their ability to win games late in recent rounds at home will continue as they narrowly beat a gallant Munster Rugby effort. No bonus point try given the weather conditions. The kicking game will be interesting to watch! It will go for miles and bounce of the ball could be factor. Excited to watch this one!

This is a golden opportunity for Ulster Rugby to push massive pressure on Edinburgh Rugby who play Scarlets on Saturday afternoon. A game where Ulster Rugby and home faithful will surely unite and produce a stirring performance and atmosphere respectively.

There is a lot to like about side’s performances last weekend. Ulster Rugby went on the road and were given zero chance of beating Edinburgh but they won emphatically securing the bonus try bonus point. Ospreys continued their good run of form at home with a comprehensive beat down of Connacht Rugby in round nineteen. Their attacking play exposing Connacht Rugby at regular intervals where Hassler wrecked havoc.

Can Ulster Rugby produce another solid consistent performance? Their pack was on point last weekend and more of the same is required against an Ospreys pack unit who have progressed well in recent game with their set piece and open play. Best, Henderson and Deysel need to provide the platform early; otherwise Ospreys will feel confident of doing the league double on the Irish province.

This is a huge game for Ulster Rugby. Given the negativity surrounding the club in recent months, it is now time to produce a performance to lift the gloom over the Kingspan Stadium. The back line selected looks fast and dynamic if given quality ball. Interesting to see how McPhilips and Cooney counteract Habberfield and Biggar who have being excellent in recent games.

A huge game for Ospreys too who harbor ambitions of European Rugby Champions Cup action next season. Eight points behind Cardiff Blues with a game in hand. A win here would put pressure on the Blues who play Southern Kings away on Saturday.

50/50 game here. If Ospreys can quell the early Ulster onslaught, think the half-back of Habberfield and Biggar may have the edge on the hosts half back pairing to edge this game for the Ospreys. If the predictions come off, then it will be curtains for Ulster’s chances of securing playoff rugby and a season in European Rugby Challenge Cup beckons.  A disaster considering their attempts to recruit a head coach at this time!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 Reflections

A weekend where the South African Guinness Pro 14 sides enjoyed quite contrasting victories. The Southern Kings securing their first league win of the campaign with a powerful, dominant second half over a haplessly limited Dragons outfit. The Toyota Cheetahs snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a last gasp penalty to beat a gallant Connacht side. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

The review must start off with sending on huge congratulations to the Southern Kings. This blog has not being shy to critique the side’s misfortunes this season but it is good this week to focus on the positives. The side answered several key questions during this contest.

The first question was their resiliency after their trouncing to Leinster Rugby in round sixteen. Dragons started the contest on the front foot and were ten points up after twenty-six minutes. 0-10. It backed the Southern Kings into a corner. Would they fight or surrender meekly? The answer was emphatically fightback and the performance thereafter was excellent.

Southern Kings needed leaders to set the example, the man who stepped up was Luzuko Vulindlu whose two tries either side of half time set the foundation for victory. Credit also goes to the Southern Kings pack who decided to take the game by the scruff of the neck and started to dominate the close exchanges.

The opening Luzuko Vulindlu try inspired the side and the second half was emphatic. Vulindlu’s second try was the decisive score. It rocked Dragons back on their heels and the Southern Kings players on duty sensed that the elusive opening league win was within their grasp.

The team produced some excellent passages of play in the second half. The cohesion between pack and back line on point, creating line breaks against an over worked and now visibly tiring Dragons outfit. Banda was a constant menace with ball in hand from full back. Kurt Coleman was managing the game with confidence from ten. His contribution for Vulindlu’s second try cannot be understated; superb work.

A six try haul, five in the second half. This is a result well overdue and hopefully provides confidence and momentum for the franchise. It is imperative that the Southern Kings win a couple of more games before season’s end to attract additional talent in the off-season. Well done to management who stuck with pretty much the same squad who were demolished by Leinster Rugby last week. An excellent turnaround in fortunes!

As the Van Morrison song goes ‘there will be days like this’. Bernard Jackman was at pains to emphasize to the Welsh rugby public last summer that this season was a season of transition for the Dragons, evaluating the current squad and look to build for subsequent seasons. After this 45-13 trouncing on the road,, those words are ringing out loud and clear.

This has to be considered the low point for the Dragons season. A contest which had started so well for the Welsh region. Apart from the opening half performance of Dorian Jones who scored all the Dragons points, there is precious little positives for Bernard Jackman and the coaching staff to focus on in video analysis of this contest this week.

The opening period defensive structure was on point for the first thirty minutes of this contest but it all collapsed like a deck of cards as soon as the Southern Kings scored their opening try. Doubts started to creep through the players, first time tackles were being missed, players visibly looking forlorn and tired not able to assist their colleague in defensive duties.

The second half was a horror show. The first minute of the second half set the tone for the rest of the half. Kurt Coleman evaded several Dragons tackles deep in his own half. His line break setup Vulindlu to crash over. From being deep in Southern Kings territory, the ease at which the hosts created massive line breaks was apparent with each passing minute.

The Dragons squad is predominantly young and inexperienced at this level of competition. The work rate and effort cannot be faulted but for some, this game should spell the end of their Dragons careers. For far too long, individual defensive lapses have being punished. The lack of conditioning in a couple of Dragons forwards in the second half was a serious concern.

Bernard Jackman and management have identified recruits for next season. Moriarty and Hibbert are quality signings, provide experience and much needed leadership to the ranks but more recruits are required to increase quality. The back line division have massive potential but again are being let down by sloppy game management.

Jackman may not be under severe pressure now but given the recruitment so far for next season, you can envisage another problematic season next year for the Dragons. The pressure will then surely come on even though the franchise needs a couple more years to bed in, develop the youth in the squad who have shown promised.

The coming weeks are critical for Dragons long term future. The management need to review and cull players who are not hitting the mark. Opportunities have being provided this season for the current squad to impress given the big injury list, some have taken their chance, others have taken stage fright.

Never say die attitude was in full abundance from the Toyota Cheetahs in this round. Connacht Rugby never died and played for the full eighty minutes. Toyota Cheetahs were made to work hard for this victory. An one point victory at home compared to a one point reversal in round sixteen. It shows the fine margins in this league at times.

What worked? Dynamic offloading was seen to good effect at various parts of this contest. Francois Venter again to the fore. His eighty-five meters coming from incisive line breaks, excellent speed and game management. Venter surely must be in Rassie Erasmus’ plans for the national side this year. Venter was ably assisted by the ever dangerous full back Clayton Blommetjies who was constantly probing for line breaks.

Niel Marais was on point with his kicking off the tee and was constantly probing on the gain line looking to launch Venter. His penalty at the death showed massive composure to win this contest. A key win for the Toyota Cheetahs in their pursuit of playoff rugby.

What did not work? Defensive issues were exposed by Connacht Rugby who provided their own expansive style to this contest which was most enjoyable. Nineteen missed tackles testament to this fact. The Irish provinces ability to create and bring recalled Tiernan O’Halloran into the line was key. Matt Healy consistently posing issues for the hosts defensively with ball in hand.

The penalty count for the Toyota Cheetahs was only seven but I have mixed feelings on the officiating on duty. A crucial win which sets up the South African franchise for the rest of the season. The Toyota Cheetahs are a seriously formidable outfit in Bloemfontein and their battle with Munster Rugby for the second place in the conference will be intriguing in the weeks to come.

27-26 loss, utter devastation as Niel Marais’ penalty with the last play of the game secured the victory for the hosts. In this day and age, when you see a penalty count of 7-13 in favor of the hosts; you look to see whether the official crew looked to sanction with yellow cards. No yellow cards in this contest.

A couple of penalty calls at the end on another day looked harsh. The penalty to win the contest, not releasing on the floor was incredibly harsh. The penalty at scrum time. The penalty count in the final quarter was a decisive factor in who won this contest. It would be interesting to see how a NH officiating crew would have interpreted those scenarios.

What worked? Three tries scored, all tries created with incisive passing and movement. Matt Healy had a superb outing, his two tries were well taken but his overall work rate and ball carries caused the Toyota Cheetahs endless issues. Eoin Griffin as well had an excellent outing, a superb try scored after the break which looked to have edged Connacht into a decisive match advantage.

Many teams who have come to Bloemfontein have struggled with their performance in the final quarter of games. Connacht’s work rate was still on point until the last minute. Some will argue that the culminating penalty count was an indicator of Connacht Rugby fatigue and lapses in decision making but I disagree.

The loss is disappointing but the performance was very good. They were a couple of defensive line break lapses but Toyota Cheetahs with their offloading game will never be quiet for long periods. Their tries were well worked but did expose mismatches in the Connacht Rugby defensive line.

The set piece at times was a little inconsistent. The line out had a number of malfunctions. The restarts again were a source of concern. Venter was unlucky to knock on when Dillane and lifters misjudged horribly a restart late in the opening period. The altitude a potential factor but it has being a facet of play under the microscope this season. Video analysis required to address these issues ahead of their crunch Gloucester Rugby clash.

Ireland Thirteen Jersey Conundrum?

An open training session for Ireland Rugby at the Aviva Stadium, a chance for the supporters and players to meet and greet. A training session which should not have had any consequence saw a massive injury blow as Ireland’s man of the match against Wales Chris Farrell twisted his knee. Pending a scan, it looks like the Munster center’s Natwest 6 Nations tournament is over. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the options available for Joe Schmidt to fill the much coveted thirteen jersey.

Jinxed position?

With injuries to Robbie Henshaw and now the unfortunate training incident with Chris Farrell, some people would think that the thirteen jersey is jinxed. Joe Schmidt has emphasized squad depth and this tournament will certainly reveal the strength in depth in the pivotal back line position. Several candidates have stayed patient in recent weeks and now the injury news today will be vying for a role in the Ireland squad in the last two rounds of the competition.

Ringrose Factor

Gary Ringrose would look to be in pole position to resume in the three quarters. Ringrose has endured a frustrating season; several niggling injuries have prevented the player from getting valuable game minutes. His talent and skill set are undoubted; his cameo against the Southern Kings last week was a timely reminder of what he brings to the table. His ability to create line breaks, his ball carrying ability to create for others also to the fore.

His defensive side has evolved and improved since his debut with Ireland last season. Joe Schmidt will be confident that the player will produce for Ireland against Scotland despite the lack of game minutes in recent months. A player who will provide fresh energy in midfield and I am personally excited to see how Ringrose gels with Aki in the three quarters in March.

Rory Scannell

Scannell is a twelve and if there were unexpected issues with Gary Ringrose not to start against Scotland, Ireland management could decide to move Aki to thirteen and recruit the Munster player at twelve. The player’s versatility is his key asset; his ability to link play and keep opposition off balance are his strengths.

The Cork native processes an excellent kicking game which has helped Ian Keatley enormously this season. Scannell has being part of the national team training squad this season. He knows the system well. Schmidt knows the player and this is another option for Ireland management.

No mention of Keith Earls here as I think Ireland management will keep the Munster player out on the wing where he has impressed this season.

Luke Marshall

The forgotten man of the Ireland setup. Luke Marshall a couple of seasons ago look destined for a lengthy international stay but a series of concussions and injury issues have resulted in the player falling down the pecking order.

What does Luke Marshall bring to the table? Excellent attacking game, good defender and ability to create for others with slick passing. The history of concussions appears to behind the player and I would be very surprised if Luke Marshall does not get the call to join the squad in Carton House this week.

Sam Arnold

Chris Farrell has had an impressive season with Munster Rugby but his season has also seen a couple of injury niggles which provided Sam Arnold an opportunity to stake a claim for the province. The former Ulster Rugby recruit has taken his chance superbly with some eye catching performances.

His line break ability has being excellent, his defensive work and tackling has being on point. Yes, there was that red card against his former employers at the start of the year but this was one negative in a series of promising performances for Munster.

Sam Arnold may not feature in this tournament but I would expect the player to feature in the Australian tour this summer. Arnold looks destined to play a key role for Munster Rugby given this latest injury blow for Chris Farrell. An assignment to negate and dominate Bastareaud in a ERC quarter final will be the task assigned for Arnold.

Connacht Angle

This would be a left field move from Joe Schmidt but two other players who are on the outer fringes of the national squad would be Eoin Griffin and Tom Farrell. Griffin has produced a couple of standout moments in Europe this season and his performance against Benetton Rugby last weekend was on point. Well experienced, Griffin’s ability to learn the Schmidt system would be an intriguing side note.

Tom Farrell has being the standout back line player for Connacht this season. The number twelve can play the thirteen position as well. A player whose ability to find gain line meters has being to the fore this season. Furthermore, his leadership qualities in several provincial and European games means that the player surely is in the thoughts of Ireland management long term (dare I say 2019 RWC!).

EPL Reflections

Six games down. Thirty-two games to go. Several subplots already at the start of the season and the ever evolving managerial merry go round has already started. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the good, the mediocre and the god damn awful teams so far.

Happy Days F.C.

Shout out to Huddersfield Town, Newcastle and Brighton & Hove Albion who have competed well in the first set of fixtures. Defensively solid so far but this will be tested severely this weekend with fixtures against the big guns. Huddersfield Town look to stop the Harry Kane show. Newcastle entertain Liverpool at the raucous St. James’ Park while Brighton & Hove Albion will hope that Arsenal suffer an UEFA Europa League at the Emirates. It will be interesting to see how from these teams takes the mantle as chief goalscorer. Goals have being a rare commodity for these sides; needs to improve and you suspect that these teams will be dragged into a relegation battle come December if this area of play does not improve. Good start but the real test starts now with squad depth tested due to injuries and suspensions now.

Shout out to Manchester City and Manchester United for their respective starts this season. City have played some superb football in recent weeks but we were saying the same this time last year as well. Questions still defensively for Guardiola but going forward, they have wrecked havoc with Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne, Sterling and Jesus catching the eye. A tough test awaits at the Bridge this weekend; a true acid test to see if City are the real deal this season or will their defensive issues of last season rear its head again. Manchester United are unrecognizable this season; goals are flying in and the signings of Lukaku and Matic (still baffled why Chelsea let him go) have propelled the side to new levels. Lukaku’s pace is a new dimension to United’s play and his goal rate against the mid-table and bottom league teams will mean that United are not far off the title. Lindelof has not set the world alight, patience required for the Swede as Bailly / Jones / Smalling are ahead of him in the pecking order. De Gea continues to perform at an incredibly high level and with the return of Zlatan come January, United fans will look with optimism for the league. A home fixture against a Crystal Palace side who will park the bus Roy Hodgson Fulham F.C. on the road style will test out the theory whether United can take care of these teams this season; something they failed to do last season. No genuine acid test for United and Jose Mourinho. Roll on October to see if United cut the mustard!

Chelsea have started to gain momentum in recent weeks. After a nightmare opening day loss to Burnley, Chelsea have gone back to basics, defensively solid and with Morata scoring at will along with the return of Hazard, the reigning champions will have a huge say on where the title resides next May. Conte may face squad depth issues particularly if Morata or Kante go down with any significant injury. The Costa episode is now consigned to the history books thankfully. Onwards and upward.

Tottenham. Wembley is their new home and there are still teething problems but their form on the road has being superb in recent weeks. Harry Kane cannot stop scoring. Ali and Eriksen are performing at a high level and Tottenham have looked reasonably solid defensively. A team which needs to produce a meaningful title tilt this season; last two season’s have being unconvincing at best. Tottenham when the pressure and title questions were applied had no answers. They need to answer the critics on this question this season. With Kane scoring at will, surely the Spanish juggernauts are having a look?

Watford under Silva have played some excellent football this season. Their speed and pace in attacking positions means that Troy Deeney must accept a place on the bench. Silva and Watford have recruited extremely well. Richarlison and Gray are excellent signings; offer genuine pace and threat in the penalty area. Watford will be hovering around the top ten this season. The only concern is at times defensively they can be opened up. City had a field day at Vicarage Road where the full back positions were given a torrid time. Thankfully, for the Hornets, they don’t play City every week!

Burnley have had a good start to the season. A memorable road trip win over Chelsea on the opening day has provided impetus for Sean Dyche’s side to sit comfortably in the league. Summer transfer policy has being smart; sold Andre Gray for a considerable return on investment and then used the money to bring in experienced Walters and the abrasive Chris Wood to support Sam Vokes in the goals department. Burnley will be defensively organized but they will be tested in the coming months with the injury lay-off to Tom Heaton who was excellent for the club last season. Pope and Lingaard will look to provide continuity but it is a big ask. Tarkowski has being a revelation this season to offset the loss of Michael Keane who was also sold for a tidy sum. Burnley provided that the Heaton injury does not impact the side massively defensively should be mid-table / lower mid-table this season. The goal threat looks good provided that Brady can provide the required quality on the set piece which will be their primary source for chances.

Mediocrity Central F.C.

Liverpool should be in the top four this season but their reluctance to change tact and address their defensive issues is bordering on the ridiculous. After a summer dominated by the Coutinho / Barcelona saga, the defensive woes have quickly taken over as the chief headline. The goalkeeping position was not addressed in the summer. Mignolet and Karius are excellent shot stoppers but fail to inspire confidence dealing with set pieces or command of their areas. The back four have being left exposed by a marauding midfield unit who are cavalier to their attacking play, leaving massive space for teams to counter on the break. Yes, there have being poor defensive moments from the center backs this season but no cover from midfield is a key confidence issue. Can or Henderson have to provide defensive leadership and support Matip / Lovren in defensive duties. Mane and Salah are superb threats out wide but question marks on Firminho as the genuine twenty goal a league striker remain; too inconsistent. Klopp is under pressure and it will be interesting to see how he and his backroom staff look to address the obvious flaws in their performance. A distinct lack of edge upfront converting chances and of course how to tighten up the team defensively. Coutinho’s work rate defensively is under the microscope as well.

Arsenal. 4-0 loss to Liverpool has seemed to spark a reaction from the players and manager as the results have improved since. A draw at the Bridge. The 2-0 win against WBA was noteworthy as they have now a striker in Lacazette who will score twenty goals in the league this season. An exciting player and a genuine goal poacher. The issues for Arsenal though is defensively. I am not convinced by their back three / four formation. Leicester City provided the warning shots on the opening day of the season. The heart of that defense lacks leadership and they are prone to be opened up too easily. WBA should have scored in the previous fixture only for Monreal to produce a heroic clearance off the line. Add the penalty incident and there is two clear goal chances. Better sides will punish Arsenal defensively. Sanchez situation is also an issue; the player wants out, expect City to look to sign the player in January. Arsenal will struggle for top four contention. Europa League commitments will not help either; player recovery and squad depth will be severely tested.

WBA. Tony Pulis will have the team safe as houses again this season but it should be more than that this season and potentially chasing a top six finish is the objective. The Arsenal game was a fixture which if the officiating was on point should have seen WBA win a penalty and potentially see Arsenal down a player. It failed to materialize and Arsenal went onto win 2-0. WBA will look to Rondon again for the goal threat required. Rodriguez has looked sharp as well this season and with improved service from the likes of Philips and McClean, WBA will be secure in the league for another season. Hovering on the good but they need to push on now.

The Shits F.C

Southampton are a club in a transitional phase. Pellegrino has arrived at the club and the initial results and performances have being underwhelming. Goal threat and support for the striker is a serious issues evident in their 1-0 loss to Manchester United. Long’s work rate and running down the channels could not be questioned but he struggled with a distinct lack of support. The second issue is the situation with Virgil van Djik. The Dutch center back wants away but Liverpool ducked away from the deal early in the summer and the player was left in limbo. Southampton need the player back in the first team squad, provide solidity at the back. A tough season beckons for Soton and one wonders if Pellegrino will be still in the post come January. The fans are not impressed.

Stoke City. 2-2 draw against Manchester United, take the complements like a fattened puppy near an open fire, all cosy and happy with life. Fast forward since then and the performances have being abject. Chelsea did not have to get out of second gear last weekend. Bristol City have already knocked them out of the League Cup. The squad depth looks questionable even with the likes of Jese in the books. Bojan, Walters, Whelan have all left the club and you wonder if there is an extensive injury list, how Stoke will cope? Stoke need to get their season back on track. They have flattered to deceive this season in the league apart from the Manchester United game. Time to get back to business.

Swansea City. Tammy Abraham is a striker who will be a work in progress. The key player for Paul Clements is Renato Sanchez but the Portuguese player has not set the EPL alight with his early performances. The brand of football is nice on the eye but there have being woeful defensive lapses this season already. The concession of the Watford game winner ample evidence; a terrible Swansea pass exposing the team defensively. Mawson looks like he has a mistake in him every game and surely Swansea will look to recruit defensively in the next window.  Swansea just about got away with it last season and staved off relegation but until Sanchez starts to fire, the trap door could be a reality this season. Cut out the stupid defensive mistakes and try to get Bony and Abraham chances to provide the goals to win games as defensively. They look well short currently. Clements could be on the tightrope in a couple of weeks.

Everton. Money bags in the summer but the squad have being slow to gel. Take the Rooney night out and it has being a miserable start to the season. Niasse saved Everton last weekend, a player which Koeman did not rate at the start of the season. The genuine striker goal threat is missing right now. The Lukaku effect is glaring. Rooney and Glyfi are going to have to produce the goods for Everton to propel them up the table. The Barkley saga when he comes back to full fitness will be intriguing as well. The only good news is that Coleman is back in training and Calvert-Lewin has shown good glimpses but is a work in progress. Cohesion is required and the Europa League demands will not help in this regard. Top ten position in the league considering the investment this summer is not what the owners envisaged.

Leicester City. The former league champions have hit the skids again. Shakespeare is a manager under pressure. The team have shown flashes of excellence but defensive lapses and lack of scoring threat in games have seen the team just off the relegation zone. Gray’s future plans has being a distraction. Mahrez’s future looks as uncertain as a shaky fence in hurricane season. Leicester City need results fast, whether Shakespeare gets the time to get those results is another story. In Vardy, Leicester City must trust for the goals. Must win game against Bournemouth at the weekend or Shakespeare will be written out of the EPL annals this season.

West Ham United have spent again with gusto in the summer but clearly no further along to propel themselves into the top ten of the league. Joe Hart has looked vulnerable as the team have struggled. Chicharito has being a shining light but Slaven Bilic is under the gun. A good run of results ended with a defeat to Tottenham, time to get on another run soon and with Swansea City visiting, hopes should be high. If a loss occurs though, then expect Bilic to be given his marching order during the international break. The squad under his management has being a mixed bag. Snodgrass transfer spoke volumes. How can you dispense with a player who you only signed at the start of the year? Fonte has arrived but minimal impact. Onus again on Noble, Cresswell, Reid to get the team going in the right direction.

AFC Bournemouth have had a tough start to the season. Arsenal and City in the first six games but three points was a disappointing haul considering other teams played. Everton last weekend was a game that got away in the final quarter. Defensively have looked weak this season. The lack of a clean sheet in the league speaks volumes. Midfield has lacked work rate, quality passing and tempo at times and Defoe has not received the service to score goals. Worrying times. Eddie Howe needs a result this weekend. Leicester City the visitors and one wonders what will happen if AFC Bournemouth lose again? Hope they can get out of the relegation mire but it is a tough ask given the start.

Crystal Palace have already disposed of their manager; their footballing vision and identify done in four league games. It is over to Roy Hodgson to rescue the side with a brand of football which involve defensive solidity and counter attack prowess considering the likes of Zaha, Puncheon and Benteke in the ranks. The squad contains Cabaye as well so there is genuine game winners in the pack. Goals are an issue for the club and some of the chances spurned have beggared belief. Defensively, Palace have being exposed in the central defensive positions. Dann and Delaney have being isolated at times and it is now time for Sakho to come in and produce heroics like last season. United this weekend, best of luck as well as the game against Chelsea. How morale will be then will be interesting. Palace’s board must take flak for this mess; transfer policy lacked cohesion and their inability to support De Boer in the transfer market spoke volumes. The nice passing football brand they required could never be achieved with the squad assembled. A sorry mess at the moment. Hodgson will do well to keep Palace up; confidence is fragile but he has a knack of getting teams to perform as his days with Fulham will testify.

David Wessels: Munster Savior?

Speculation and it can only be called speculation at this point with David Wessels strongly linked to the Munster Rugby head coaching role. With rumors in Australia that Super Rugby Pro 14 outfit Melbourne Rebels is very much interested in Wessels as well, is this a classic agent created media report to attract interest for his client or is it a done deal for Wessels to come to Munster replacing Rassie Erasmus. Hawkeye Sidekick has his say and wonders if this appointment is the right fit for the club at this time.

Wessels is an interesting candidate. If you were a recruiter, you would say that Wessels is a well rounded candidate with plenty of life experiences so far for such a relatively young age. He graduated with a Bachelor of Business Science and has also completed his Masters, in IT. Before embarking on a rugby coaching career,  Wessels was head of new media Touchline Media. He also helped launch the website, SARugby.com, now integrated into the Planet Rugby platform, a South African based rugby news site.

You are probably wondering on the coaching experience part of the resume. Wessels began his professional coaching career as a consultant for the Stormers in the 2008 season, a year later he took on the assistant coaching role at the University of Cape Town (Ikeys), winning the Varsity Cup and the Western Province League competition for the first time in 37 years. After eleven years in Cape Town he moved to the ACT Brumbies in 2012 as their Defense Consultant. Under his guidance, they went on to have the second best defensive record in Super Rugby. Western Force then hired Wessels as a defensive consultant for the Western Force, and later Senior Assistant Coach for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons. Wessels then took over as Interim Head Coach for the last three games of the Western Force’s 2016 season. No wins in those three cameos.

Munster Rugby and the IRFU have stressed this week the need for a seamless transition between Erasmus and the prospective new head coaching hire. Wessels is also being linked to the Melbourne Rebels and considering some Australian media reports this week, the Rebels still believe that they will get their man. Munster Rugby and IRFU need to close the deal now if they are convinced that Wessels is their guy.

If David Wessels does get the Munster Rugby head coaching job, it will be a managerial appointment pretty much into the unknown. There is a distinct lack of head coaching experience (just over a season); the South African has served his time in various defensive consultant / assistant coaching roles. It is a risk for Munster Rugby given this fact. The upside is that Wessels could conceivably join up with the team mid-season and work with the existing backroom staff to seamlessly get immersed in the culture and running of the club.

Erasmus is a superb organizer, knows how to implement club structures for long term success. Wessels on the other hand has not this experience from his resume accomplishments. This season has seen the Force finish seventh in the Australasian conference. Six wins out of fifteen league fixtures in a competition. The hope is that Wessels brings the good elements from his Stormers, Brumbies and Western Force tenures to elevate Munster’s performances to the next level which is required this season. Wessels will be learning on the job in effect; hopefully the side will win games early to allow the South African to settle into the post if accepted.

An intriguing head coaching link. Some could consider this appointment as a gamble but IRFU and Munster Rugby have apparently examined all options. Wessels if media reports are to be confirmed is their man. Intriguing times indeed. Munster Rugby fans are again into the unknown. Erasmus came into the head coaching job with little background but did a fine job. Wessels’ come into the equation with even less rugby management experience. One would hope that Munster Rugby and the IRFU have done the required research, otherwise this appointment could damage the province long term.

 

 

In Memoriam: Jimmy Magee

jimmy_magee

RIP Jimmy Magee

Just an ordinary morning start today, listening to Today FM from the National Ploughing Championships. All very upbeat until Paul Collins suddenly came back on air to relay the sad news of the passing of Jimmy Magee.

A death which has saddened everyone here in Ireland from all walks of life. You did not have to love sport to not love Jimmy Magee; charismatic, genuine, jovial, communicator, sports broadcaster beyond reproach. Jimmy had it all.

My childhood memories were in the 80’s and Jimmy Magee was a prominent face on the television in my family homestead. His commentary of numerous Olympiad were instant standouts; describing great Irish sporting performances abroad.

John Treacy in Los Angeles was a particular standout; remember a sunny summer’s day in North Clare at my grandparents and news was filtering through of an impending Ireland medal at the Olympics. Quick, switch on the television and my grandparents and I sat captivated by the marathon event for the next two hours, assisted in no small measure by the commentary from Jimmy Magee.

I remember the Wanamaker Mile race commentaries when the likes of Eamon Coughlan, Frank O’Mara and Marcus O’Sullivan would produce superb performances in the acclaimed Madison Square Garden, New York. Stirring commentaries; captured the excitement of the event perfectly.

Katie Taylor in London 2012 when Jimmy expertly called the action in the boxing ring; providing knowledge and assurance in a language which was so eloquent but yet discernible to all viewers of the broadcast. I loved Jimmy’s style of commentary particularly when it came to boxing, a sport which requires so much knowledge and insight. Many commentators have tried and utterly failed at delivering a coherent boxing broadcast. Jimmy was the standard bearer from my perspective; his knowledge of athletes was second to none. He loved commentating on the Cuban boxers whose footwork, hand speed were sublime.

The boxing angle continued well into 2000’s when RTE took the step of broadcasting professional boxing bouts. Bernard Dunne’s world title victory against Cordoba was an astonishing fight in 2009; ebbed and flowed throughout but the commentary from Jimmy Magee captured the atmosphere and scene perfectly. Jimmy Magee was the blueprint, the template which all other Irish sport broadcasters and journalists were compared against.

Jimmy Magee entered the world of evening television with George Hamilton hosting Know Your Sport. The ‘Memory Man’ was in his element; posing questions on various specialized sporting areas. No sporting area was out of the bounds. The entertainment value was superb; sad to see the show end in 1998. A genuinely entertaining sports show in Ireland.

FIFA World Cup’s for me personally were forever associated with the commentary of Jimmy Magee. His first world cup commentary was in 1966 and continued until 2010. The commentary on Diego Maradona’s wonder goal against England in 1986 was as he said different class!

Ireland has lost a true sporting broadcasting great today. Ireland has lost a journalist of massive reputation and class. Ireland has lost a national treasure today. I have not even mentioned about his extensive publications and press columns. His articles were always incisive and would refresh the memory on a specific event gone by.  Gone but never forgotten. Jimmy Magee. RIP.