Intercounty Hurling Hopes for 2019

Championship is back!

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

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

Media coverage for all!

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

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

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

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

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

Wide open provincial races!

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

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

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

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

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

Carlow Rising

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

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

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

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

Defensive Setup hopefully ditched!

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

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

Top players are back on the pitch soon!

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

Joanne Cantwell

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

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

Predictions:

Munster: Tipperary

Munster Top Three: Tipperary, Clare, Limerick

Leinster: Kilkenny

Leinster Top Three: Kilkenny, Wexford, Galway

Liam McCarthy: Clare

Joe McDonagh: Laois

Christy Ring: Meath

Nicky Rackard: Warwickshire

Lory Meagher: Leitrim

Heineken Champions Cup Final Preview

Five key questions ahead of this final encounter

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

Question 1: Back Row Battle

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

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

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

Question 2: Kicking Game

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

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

Question 3: Lineout Battle

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

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

Question 4: Barritt fitness

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

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

Question 5: Sexton vs. Farrell

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

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

Verdict:

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Munster Rugby 15 – 13 Benetton Rugby

Munster Rugby escape with victory

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

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

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

Possession but no end product

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

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

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

Benetton Rugby hit the front

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

Benetton Rugby squander game winning position

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

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

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

Munster Rugby respond

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

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

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

Frantic final ten minutes

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

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

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

Munster Rugby must regroup fast

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

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

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

Munster Rugby moment of truth has arrived

Can Munster Rugby get over the European Cup semi-final hurdle of recent past?

The scene is set. Spectacular Easter weekend weather and hopefully rugby to match starting with the clash of Munster Rugby and Saracens at the Ricoh Arena. Can Munster Rugby exercise the ghosts of recent European Cup semi-final defeats to defeat an outstanding Saracens outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key areas which Munster Rugby must look to exploit.

Mental Approach

The last two seasons has seen Munster Rugby enter into the semi-final with initial hope only to be dashed quite early in the contest. Two conflicting losses as Saracens pack platform and Racing 92’s back line play exposed massive chinks in the Munster Rugby armory.

These losses came about due to extremely nervy, lethargic Munster Rugby opening cameos as they looked for opposition mistakes rather than look to create a platform of their own to win the contest. Munster Rugby to win tomorrow must be brave, brave in their ability to take setbacks, brave in their ability to believe in the game plan, brave in their ability to make things happen at any stage during the contest.

These losses should be a motivational and not mental impediment to Munster Rugby. This group of players and management need to deliver a big performance at the business end of the season and this is the perfect platform and audience to do just that. Another loss without a punch being seriously landed will have devastating effects on the side long term. 

Pack Platform

A generalized word but the Munster Rugby pack to a man have to provide early tempo and momentum tomorrow. Saracens have a superb set piece and Munster Rugby will need to be clever when they attempt to pinch ball in line out as Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje will look to execute quick line out to potentially unsettle Tyler Bleyendaal in the ten channel.

The areas where Munster Rugby must focus in on the scrum and breakdown. The scrum this season has seen progressively improvement but tomorrow is an ultimate test facing up against the likes of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Titi Lamositele who have looked awesome in this competition this season. John Ryan personally has a huge role to play and his scrummaging performance will be an indicator as to how Munster Rugby do in the contest.

The breakdown battle is an area that Munster Rugby must identify and seize upon. Several live threats for the Irish province with O’Mahony, Stander and O’Donoghue. With Jackson Wray looking to nullify O’Mahony, it could be down to the likes of Tadhg Beirne to provide the starring role in the breakdown exchanges. Early breakdown success for Munster Rugby and this result is very much on.

Prepare for abrasive opening period

There should be no surprise in that the Munster Rugby back three will subjected to physical and abrasive aerial threat in the opening quarter. I am expecting Owen Farrell to pepper the likes of Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam early with testing kicks and the back three need to be strong under the dropping ball. There could be a potential late hit for good measure just to test the resolve of the Munster Rugby side.

Keith Earls’ withdrawal is a blow but provided that colleagues support Darren Sweetnam like they did against Edinburgh Rugby, the Cork native will produce a solid performance and provide a quality attacking outlet for the Irish province if given the opportunity. Haley must be all conquering tomorrow, he needs to up his game to the next level in the aerial and ball in hand stakes.

Half Back Game Management

Saracens are a quality side but Munster Rugby’s kicking game and trying to exploit space behind Maitland in particular could reap rewards. Maitland is a player of serious pace and attacking ability but at times can be exposed in defensive areas. The kick game exchanges need to focus on Maitland and it is up to Murray and Bleyendaal to execute the game plan at the right time to potentially identify the space behind Maitland to prosper. It is going to be a tough task but the rewards are there for Munster Rugby if they trust their kicking game at different stages.

Farrell needs to get involved early

Munster Rugby need to set the tone early, look to eek out an early lead and involve Chris Farrell early. The three quarter has the potential to create gain line breaks and allow colleagues space and time to impress.
Lozowski at thirteen is a quality ball player, his kicking game and game making will pose Munster Rugby problems but defensively can Munster Rugby turn the tables on the player? Chris Farrell becomes a huge weapon for Munster Rugby tomorrow. He could potentially create the gain line breaks required to setup the platform for good things to follow.

Conclusion

It is a game where Saracens will enter the contest as warm favorites. Munster Rugby must focus on themselves, focus on their strengths and trust their defensive setup which has got them to this point in the season. The management and players are fully aware of the performance level but I sense that this group have a massive performance in them. A dry track, a chance for redemption and passage to the final. Saracens have massive weapons of their own but Munster Rugby have progressed. The elements must combine tomorrow and I expect a huge performance from the men in red. All the best Munster! Leave it out on the pitch, no regrets tomorrow, play for each other and stand up and fight!

Guinness Pro14: Conference A – Round 20 Preview

Playoff rugby for some has arrived!

April. The business end of the rugby union calendar. A time of year when teams hope that they have saved their best performances of the season to now to secure the silverware. This weekend promises to be exciting penultimate round with several playoff questions still unanswered.

In this blog post, Hawkeye Sidekick will look at Conference A and the fixtures on tap for this weekend. All eyes on the Sportsground as well as the top two fixtures in Benetton and RDS respectively.

Conference A:

Conference A Regular Season Run-In

Top Spot still up for grabs!

The Conference A top two are away from the chasing conference pack but the small matter of that playoff bye week hangs in the balance. Both Glasgow Warriors and Munster Rugby have tough road trip fixtures this weekend.

Munster Rugby potentially could build serious pressure on Glasgow Warriors if they can secure a victory to the progressive Benetton Rugby who will be buoyed by that 22-22 draw against Leinster Rugby in the RDS last weekend.

The Italian job for Munster Rugby is a tricky balancing act. What does Johann van Graan and management do? The news that several marquee players were given this week off to freshen up for next week’s bruiing encounter to Saracens in European Cup fare is a good indicator of the priority right now.

Munster Rugby’s squad will be predominantly squad players and players who need precious game time ahead of that Saracens game. It is a chance for players on the outside to stake a claim for a squad berth for the European Cup fixture so for Benetton Rugby, this fixture is tricky in terms of the unknown quantity that Munster Rugby could provide.

Glasgow Warriors head to Dublin to face Leinster Rugby whose run of form in recent weeks has been a mixed bag. The 22-22 draw against Benetton Rugby will grate management in terms of how the lead was lost so late on in the contest. Benetton’s patience to build the phases rewarded with defensive gaps finally opening in the Leinster Rugby rearguard.

Like Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby are facing with a dilemma. They need the likes of Sean O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw to get serious game minutes under their belt before that massive European Cup fixture with Toulouse on Easter Sunday but does management risk these players against a Warriors side who will be gunning all out for a win?

I am expecting Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster to take a pragmatic approach to team selection; expect to see O’Brien and Henshaw feature in some capacity but the side will be by and large the side that featured last weekend. Glasgow Warriors record at the RDS is poor but this is a superb opportunity for them to secure a long overdue road trip here.

The results this weekend will drive the approach of both Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors for the final round of the regular season. Both have local derby games to finish out the season at home against sides who potentially will need points to secure the playoff berth.

Munster Rugby squad this weekend will do well to secure a win against Benetton Rugby who are improving with each round. Glasgow Warriors have to be mindful of the fact that Leinster Rugby’s squad is still superb and there will be a reaction to last weekend’s draw at home to Benetton Rugby. I think that both Conference A sides will lose this weekend which will setup the final round of regular games to be a fascinating watch for top spot.

The West is awake!

The third Conference A playoff spot is very much up for grabs. Ospreys are still not out of the playoff hunt but they require a big favor from Cardiff Blues at Connacht Rugby this weekend to stay in the hunt. The conference game of the round is in Galway as Connacht Rugby play host to the Cardiff Blues.

Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest several marquee players last weekend in Zebre was justified but only just. The performance with ball in hand was patchy, nervy and indecisive. The defensive line structure and organization was the highlight but Andy Friend and coaching staff will be the first to acknowledge that a repeat performance this weekend will mean a home loss.

The Irish province will bring back the big guns for this fixture. The news that Bundee Aki is back in the first team squad for the weekend is a massive boost as is the news that Tom Farrell is able to play after sustaining an eye injury in the victory over Zebre Rugby.

Cardiff Blues went toe to toe with Munster Rugby last weekend. Their performance with ball in hand was pacy, inventive and oozed class on the outside where they exposed Munster Rugby with several keynote breaks. The three try haul was not enough for victory as Munster Rugby’s big pack players made the impact in the third quarter to blow the game wide open.

The scoreline from the Irish Independent Park was very harsh on Cardiff Blues as for sixty minutes in the contest, they were in the contest. Their attacking play is a key strength and with Anscombe pulling the strings along with Williams in the half backs, creativity was in abundance.

The worry for Cardiff Blues was in the set piece; there was a couple of line out throw miscues and the scrum faltered at various times. The maul defense in the third quarter was exposed and allowed Munster Rugby easy yards and penalty opportunities. This needs to improve for Cardiff Blues this weekend.

The weather conditions in Galway right now are pleasant and sunny but the long range forecast for the region on Saturday is for a breezy, wet day which will mean that the two sides who like to create an expansive game plan are negated and forced to implement a more rigid pack platform orientated game.

The battle of the fly-halfs will be fascinating on the day. Does Jarrod Evans resume his ten duties or does Gareth Anscombe continue to impress? It is cup final footie for both sides so management need to get this decision spot on.

Jack Carty has been Connacht’s go to player this season and the same is expected this weekend. Marmion and Carty vs. Williams and Anscombe / Evans in terms of performance and game management is going to have a huge bearing on the game.

50/50 call on this fixture. Connacht Rugby have issued the rallying cry for their fans to come out and support the side this weekend. The biggest game in three years is the sales pitch; they are not far wrong as victory this weekend secures Heineken Champions Cup rugby next season.

The weather conditions are going to make this game difficult. What side uses the elements best? Cardiff Blues are extremely dangerous when given good quick ruck ball so Butler, Faing’aa and McKeon to negate this threat.

Slight edge for Connacht Rugby based on the fact that their side perhaps are a little bit fresher but in all honesty, Connacht Rugby may have to go to Thomond Park and try to get a result in Munster Rugby at the end of the month.

Ospreys hoping for one more opportunity!

Ospreys are in South Africa and face the Southern Kings in a bonus point try must win fixture. The playoff picture is out of their hands this weekend; do the business in South Africa and hope that the Cardiff Blues can produce the road trip win which would give Ospreys a chance for that playoff berth in the final round of the regular season against the Cardiff Blues.

The form of Ospreys at the start of this calendar year has placed the side in a difficult situation but their play and performances have improved in recent rounds; if they get the result required, they could be primed to launch one last salvo against Cardiff Blues at the end of the month. No pressure on them and the performance should see significant upside.

Random Rugby Thoughts

Apologies one and all for the lack of blog activity in recent days, the day job (which is not this) has been a bit oh, a bit ah feck in recent days but fear not a couple of thoughts in this blog on the weekend action and stories from this week.

Edinburgh Rugby blew their golden opportunity

The bottom line from Murrayfield is that Edinburgh Rugby blew a massive golden opportunity to advance to the last four of the Heineken Champions Cup. For a side to dominate play as much as Edinburgh Rugby did in this encounter and still come up four points short, it must be hugely disappointing for the management, players and backroom staff of the club.

Munster Rugby were there for the taking particularly in that opening period. No genuine advantage for Edinburgh when Tadhg Beirne was sin binned early doors; lack of composure and patience to work the phases to create the pivotal gap. The lack of discipline and concentration encompassed with Keith Earl’s quick thinking and tap which led to the opening Munster Rugby try.

The pivotal Tadhg Beirne penalty at the death was controversial but the manner in which Edinburgh Rugby defensively managed the subsequent play was pivotal ultimately; the misalignment of forward players allowing the overlap for Earls to touchdown. Individual and collective lapses contributed to this Edinburgh Rugby loss; blame the officials all they want, it was down to team errors on the pitch.

Munster Rugby got out of jail. A similar performance against Saracens and it could be a long arduous afternoon. The lack of platform in the opening period was stark and the concession of territory in that half should have seen a bigger deficit in the opening period. To get in at the break only three points was an escape of Alcatraz proportions.

Richard Cockerill is doing a superb job in Edinburgh Rugby but his comments on the game were disappointing at best; his side showed indecision at vital times in the contest, similar to their playoff loss to Munster Rugby last season at Thomond Park. Time to reflect, time to stay quiet and correct the wrongs from last weekend for Edinburgh Rugby in the coming weeks; otherwise European Challenge Cup is the destination next season and a potential trip to Ensei STM! 

Toulouse gamble pays off

Incredible contest between Toulouse and Racing 92. I just love Toulouse when they play off the cuff like they did in the opening period last weekend; it was sensational. The precision in their passing was out of this world. Medard’s running lines from full back a joy to watch. Their resiliency to get going despite down to fourteen players for so long was a testament to the team’s refusal not to be denied. Dupont and Ntamack were top class in the key moments. Racing 92 exposed for their ultra expansive game plan; reap what you sow. The side offer points to opposition and no better side than Toulouse to secure the road trip win — was my tip of the weekend by the way if you were on my Facebook site!

Leinster Rugby get the job done (just)

Credit to Ulster Rugby, the side performs to a level not seen in many a season. When you consider their performances this time last year, it has been a massive transformation under Dan McFarland. The Ulster Rugby line speed defensively was superb and they matched Leinster Rugby for long periods. Jacob Stockdale’s try blooper was crucial but even more so was the conversion miss from John Cooney when the game was tied at eighteen. A pivotal miss and it let Leinster Rugby off the hook completely. To go in front at this stage would have cranked up the pressure on Leinster Rugby at the death; no ease feat to secure a score in those conditions.

Leinster Rugby have received their reality call. The opening period was a touch off and Ulster Rugby grew into the contest with each passing minute. Dan Leavy’s injury is devastating; a key Ireland back row resource gone for RWC 2019 and Joe Schmidt will need to look at the depth chart to make an impact with both sides of the ball that Leavy provides for club and country. Ross Byrne’s character and leadership came to the fore; his decision to go for the posts despite suffering cramps showed massive balls and his kick was outstanding. It was fitting to win any contest. Toulouse in a couple of weeks but Leinster Rugby will be pleased with the resiliency, determination and composure to seal the win late; incredible set of phases to close out the contest.

Saracens rampage through the Warriors!

No surprise to be honest, thought Saracens pack had too much beef, physicality and skill set for Glasgow Warriors counterparts and so it proved. Glasgow Warriors showed their uptempo, open play but Saracens exposed Glasgow Warriors repeatedly with their indecisive line speed and breakdown work. Quick ball for Goode to launch his back line and Liam Williams had the proverbial field day.

It was an eye-catching performance from Saracens. The performance oozed quality but despite Warriors struggles, they managed to put 20+ points on the board which is a source of optimism for Munster Rugby. Can Munster Rugby address the issues that plagued their performance against Saracens two years ago? Can the pack and front eight provide the platform to work the scoreboard? If it goes the other way early, the result is up for the Irish province.

Saracens are playing with confidence. Saracens are looking solid in the squad depth chart. Saracens will be favorites in the semi-final but Munster Rugby will relish the underdog tag. Munster Rugby have to turn up on a semi-final fixture and perform to their full potential. It has not happened in recent seasons; this group of players have to deliver at this stage of the competition. I am expecting fireworks aplenty in the Ricoh!

Jack McGrath moves to Ulster Rugby

A key personnel signing for Ulster Rugby next season. They are getting a player who is keen to prove a point, a player who wants to secure quality first team minutes, a proven British & Irish Lions player. Jack McGrath if he can stay injury free is a superb asset for Ulster Rugby next season and more evidence that the province continues to impress in their squad depth chart particularly in the troublesome front row.

Cara Cup (snooze)

I am sorry but I am not seeing the lure of this Cara Cup; a disjointed tournament as Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby arrive to Boston, MA. Given the domestic club game and pivotal fixtures in the UBL, feeling for clubs who are missing key players in their relegation and promotion key fixtures. What is the benefit of this tournament? I am not seeing it and if someone can enlighten me, please do. Munster Rugby’s squad was noteworthy with the inclusion of James Hart and Duncan Williams. Does this mean that both players are entering the final stages of their Munster Rugby career? 

Darren Cave announces retirement

The announcement this morning from Darren Cave of his retirement at the end of the season spoke volumes; an open letter to the Ulster Rugby supporters to break the news is indicative of the relationship that Cave has with the support base. Tight knit relationship. A solid three quarters who has served his province so well for so many seasons. A player who could have gone elsewhere but showed loyalty to his home province throughout. He owes nothing to Ulster Rugby. Best wishes Darren on your retirement!

Edinburgh Rugby vs. Munster Rugby – Five areas which will decide the game

Quarter Final drama beckons!

The waiting is almost over. A place in the last four of the Heineken Champions Cup is the prize for Edinburgh Rugby and Munster Rugby tomorrow at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick identifies the five areas which could be potentially decisive in the outcome of this contest.

Scrum Dominance

The early scrum exchanges tomorrow are going to be immense; an early platform for either side could be the difference between victory or defeat. Edinburgh Rugby’s front row at scrum time in the pool stages looked incredibly strong. Schoeman and Nel in particular providing their side with excellent attacking platform with penalty winning cameos in this set piece. Their performance against Montpellier in the final round of the pool was nothing short of fantastic; set the platform with scrum dominance and their all round play was sensational so much so that Nel was trying trick shot passes to Bill Mata.

Munster Rugby to have any chance in this contest must be strong and organized in the scrum particularly in the opening period. The scrum to be fair for the Irish province has been a key asset this season but this Edinburgh Rugby front row represent a significant challenge. A challenge that John Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne should relish. Pascal Gauzere tends not to wait too long before making a decision at scrum time so both sides will be keen to get an early foothold early.

Back Row Unit Explosion

The back row units tomorrow for this contest could be the story of the game. In a game of high octane intensity, the breakdown and ball carrying from either unit will be vital.

Both sides possess match winners in abundance. Edinburgh Rugby welcome back the experience and guile of John Barclay to complement the likes of Bill Mata and Hamish Watson who are destructive with ball in hand. Barclay will look to slow down Munster Rugby ball, get in the face of Conor Murray at ruck time and look to unsettle.

Bill Mata has been a revelation this season with ball in hand. His ball carrying / meters gained statistics are through the roof. Munster Rugby’s back row will be fully aware of Mata’s potency with ball in hand, will look to protect Joey Carbery in the ten channel. The intriguing part tomorrow is whether Munster Rugby isolate Mata in defensive situations; Edinburgh Rugby allow Mata to drift off and reserve energy for ball carrying. You will see him at times out on the wing when opposition is building the phases. Munster Rugby need to identify the mismatch on Mata to create the ultimate dividend.

Munster Rugby’s back row unit looks to have mobility, abrasiveness and breakdown nous to compete in this fixture. The emergence of Jack O’Donoghue is a huge boost; his high octane performance last week will be required again this week in the tackle count and breakdown battle to allow Peter O’Mahony the time to pinch ball at regular intervals. CJ Stander at eight needs to impose his authority on the game early; look to ask probing question of Mata in his tackling / defensive work which at times can be wild.

Munster Rugby Cohesion Issues

Heading into this fixture, I am a bit worried on the attacking cohesion of Munster Rugby. The face that Joey Carbery has not played since playing a key cameo in Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations victory over Scotland in February is a concern. The cohesion between colleagues and half back partner Conor Murray will be exposed if it is off.

The attacking lines from Munster Rugby at times this season have been at times one dimensional. Exeter Chiefs kicking and high press game stifled Munster Rugby creativity in their final pool game decider at Thomond Park so it will be interesting if Edinburgh look to deploy the same tactic this weekend.

If Carbery and Murray have a platform to create then Munster Rugby have a serious chance of progression tomorrow.

Back Three Aerial Battle

This is an intriguing part of the fixture. Haley, Conway and Earls vs. Graham, Hoyland and van der Merwe. The aerial exchanges against both sides back three units is going to be intense in the opening period. Will Edinburgh Rugby be unsettled by the absence of Blair Kinghorn in the ranks?

Graham is a superb, elusive winger but a serious test awaits the player against Munster Rugby in the full back position. Any hesitancy will be exploited again and again building platform for the Irish province. The attacking ability of the Edinburgh back three is excellent with Duhan van der Merwe a potential match winner with his lightning pace and physicality with ball in hand.

Munster Rugby have experience in the back three unit. Haley is proving to be an astute piece of business for the province with his cameos this season. His role tomorrow will be to remain solid under the dropping ball and look to hit the line at speed to link up with Earls or Conway who have shown their skill set at regular intervals this season.

The attacking threat from both back threes is beyond question but the ability to provide defensive assurance under the high dropping ball tomorrow will be the money shot tomorrow. 

Closers

Both subs benches in the third quarter could play pivotal roles. There is experience aplenty in Edinburgh’s reserves with the likes of Ford, Hickey, Dell, Berghan waiting to make a vital game winning cameo. Munster Rugby have experience in the ranks with Billy Holland, Stephen Archer, Alby Mathewson and Tyler Bleyendaal all capable of providing key contributions.

Unless someone strikes the front early with a devastating opening salvo, this game for me looks like it will go down to the wire. Game management, composure and experience will be asked and answers will be required from the bench. Both sides are evenly matched on the bench.

Verdict

50/50 game for me and it is the toughest one of the quarter finals to call. Slight edge to Munster Rugby based on the Edinburgh Rugby back three reshuffle; exposed potentially in defensive situations tomorrow but the Irish province will have to be to deliver their best performance of the season to get this result. Any sloppy, cohesion issues from Munster Rugby and they will be eliminated.

Guinness Pro14: Round Eighteen Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)


Playoff implications aplenty!

The business end of the Guinness Pro14 campaign is beyond us and there is no margin for error for a host of teams looking to secure postseason action. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the Friday night action where all three fixtures have massive playoff implications in both conferences.

Edinburgh Rugby look to build momentum

It is not too dramatic to say that this is a must win game for Edinburgh Rugby tonight. A mixed set of results before the three break has left Richard Cockerill’s men currently in fifth spot in Conference B, seven points behind Ulster Rugby for the last playoff berth.

The significance of the fixture against Leinster Rugby as well as looking to build cohesion and momentum ahead of that colossal European Cup fixture against Munster Rugby means that Edinburgh Rugby name a strong lineup buoyed by the return of John Barclay in the back row to complement the power and physicality of Watson and Mata.

The pack is pretty much first choice except for the absence of Magnus Bradbury who is on the bench. The back line is loaded with creativity and pace with Graham and van der Merwe poised to create if given sufficient quick ball.

Leinster Rugby have already qualified for the postseason and their team selection is a mix of youth and experience. A late scratch to Ross Byrne sees personnel changes at ten where Ciaran Frawley slots in and Jimmy O’Brien gets game time from full back. Joe Tomane returns to the starting lineup after a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

The Leinster Rugby pack is minus the majority of Irish international as well as the reliably brilliant Scott Fardy. The pack has potential but the second row combination is a concern in terms of physicality and maul management. A team selection which has the potential to go either way.

Edinburgh Rugby need a complete performance ahead of next weekend’s huge fixture with Munster Rugby. Anything short of a win here against a depleted Leinster Rugby side would be a big disappointment. Edinburgh Rugby’s push for end of season honors starts tonight and I suspect that they will win to provide confidence ahead of European Cup action.

Connacht Rugby team selection gives Benetton a chance?

This is a crucial fixture for both sides. Both are in the playoff mix. The team selection from the hosts is intriguing as Andy Friend resists the urge to recall Marmion and Carty to the starting lineup and plumbs for Blade and Godwin in the half back slots.

Benetton Rugby on the other hand name a near full strength side. It will be interesting to see how Ian McKinley controls the game for the Italians at ten. McKinley has played well for Benetton Rugby in recent rounds and you sense that this is a big opportunity for the Irish born player to consolidate the side’s position near the summit of Conference B.

The back three threat from Benetton Rugby is significant with Ioane and Tavuyara wrecking havoc on sides this season. A tough defensive examination beckons for the likes of Leader and Healy from this threat. No Aki either for Connacht in midfield and the lack of internationals in the Connacht Rugby side opens the door ajar for Benetton Rugby to secure a road trip win.

The weather conditions are improving in Galway as I type this blog which is good news for Andy Friend’s charges whose offload game has caught the eye. Connacht Rugby need to win this fixture; failure to do so and it places even more pressure on their home fixture against Cardiff Blues.

Benetton Rugby are the most progressive side in the tournament this season; their style of rugby has evolved and there is a grit and resiliency in the pack not seen in previous seasons. I think Benetton Rugby have a serious chance of securing at minimum a loser bonus point this evening and perhaps a win. If they were to win this fixture, they will potentially have one foot in the postseason.

There is something about this fixture that is making me incredibly nervous for Connacht Rugby. The personnel selections here are risky to me personally but Andy Friend’s mantra of everyone playing their part will be key. A slight nervous nod to the hosts with the back row unit of McKeon, Fainga’a and Butler to be the key difference at the death.

Welsh derby in Cardiff – stakes are high

A huge fixture for both Cardiff Blues and Scarlets. Both sit just off the playoffs but results elsewhere coupled with a win here could catapult them into the playoff spots. A massive fixture and should see a huge crowd in attendance.

Hopefully the weather conditions are suited to an attacking game as both sides back line options are loaded with talent. Cardiff Blues have upgraded hugely in their back three options next terms with the acquisitions of Hallam Amos and Josh Adams so it is a chance for Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill to send out statements that they are not still viable options at the club.

Scarlets back line contains the likes of Halfpenny, McNicholl and Fonotia so expect explosive gain line breaks and offloading from the visitors. The fixture ultimately could be decided in the pack and Cardiff Blues on paper look to have an edge early with the likes of Ken Owens (on the bench) and explosive second row Jake Ball not in the match day squad.

The back row battle looks epic. Navidi vs. Cassiem will be worth the gate admission alone. The half back battle will be interesting as Evans is up against Patchell who will look to impress as Gareth Anscombe slots into the full back role tonight.

50/50 game for me. Slight edge for Scarlets on this fixture. Their performance against Munster Rugby impressed me no end; their conditioning and defensive work was excellent. This game will be in the melting pot until the final quarter and will be decided off the bench and Scarlets appear to have the stronger hand.

Edinburgh Weekender Guide

Edinburgh primed for Munster Rugby visit

The end of the Guinness Six Nations tournament which means that the Heineken Champions Cup is not far off. Munster Rugby will travel to Murrayfield to face Edinburgh Rugby in an eagerly anticipated last eight contest. Ahead of the fixture, Hawkeye Sidekick made a trip to Edinburgh to gauge the mood and where to check out for Munster Rugby fans who are travelling over for the weekend.

Transportation:

The easiest way to get to Murrayfield is on the Edinburgh tram service with frequent departures from either Princes Street or Edinburgh Airport; very impressive setup. Good bus service schedule as well last weekend in the city center while over as well. Useful links enclosed below.

http://edinburghtrams.com/plan-a-journey/murrayfield-stadium

https://www.rome2rio.com/s/Edinburgh/Murrayfield-Stadium

Places to Go:

Edinburgh Castle:

Before or after the game at Murrayfield, there is plenty to do and see around Edinburgh. If you are anywhere near the city center, then make sure to visit Edinburgh Castle, the historic landmark which looks out over the city. A compelling story on the site and how it has evolved over time.

Edinburgh Castle

Old Town:

I loved the old town, the royal mile has many shops, bars and restaurants amidst the music of the bag pipers along the stretch. When you add the late night bars in the Cowgate district, then the area is a must visit for the weekend. Check out The Three Sisters bar.

A nice coffee shop that I visited was Zebra Coffee Company on Bank Street, a nice cozy coffee house with plenty to whet the appetite.

Zebra Coffee Company

Princes Street:

The main shopping thoroughfare of the city with plenty of retail stores to browse at the weekend. Bus stops and tram stops aplenty on this street to connect to Murrayfield, Leith et al. Edinburgh Waverley Train Station is situated at the East End of Princes Street. Scott Monument as well as several museums to visit as well on the thoroughfare too.

Rose Street:

There are so many good thoroughfares in the city to enjoy an evening. During my visit last weekend, I spent a couple of good nights down Hanover Street and Rose Street where there are several standout bars and restaurants.

A couple of standouts were Robertsons 37, Auld Hundred (live music), The Kenilworth, The Boozy Cow (quality cocktails) and a quality seafood restaurant called Mussel Inn. If you love your seafood, then go here but word of warning, the restaurant gets quite busy over the weekend so book early!

If you want a nice cozy bar with good banter and hospitality, then check out Thistle Street Pub (39 Thistle Street). The scotch and Belhaven flowed the night that I was there, a warm welcome assured.

Thistle Street Bar; an absolute gem

Scotch Tour:

I am not the biggest scotch fan but I went on the Scotch Whiskey Experience tour on Castle Street. Go for the fifty minute tour to get the rundown on how the refreshment is produced and find out what distinguishes a Lowland from a Highland scotch.

https://www.tripadvisor.ie/Attraction_Review-g186525-d188878-Reviews-The_Scotch_Whisky_Experience-Edinburgh_Scotland.html

Royal Yacht Britannia

A quick bus trip down to the Ocean Terminal will find you at the Royal Yacht Britannia which was in use by the Royals until 1997. An interesting tour on the life and times of the yacht and hear about the famous dignitaries who were on board. A superb insight on how the yacht operated. The decor of the yacht is mirrored in the nearby shopping center adjoining Britannia. I was skeptical on the tour at the start but it was enjoyable. Check out the fudge bar stand on the boat!

Royal Yacht Britannia

A city that I thoroughly enjoyed visiting last weekend; there is so much so to do that I have probably missed numerous other noteworthy attractions but this is a sampler for the Munster Rugby fans who are arriving to the city next weekend. Edinburgh Rugby fans are in buoyant, confident mood ahead of this quarter final and after that exhilarating Scottish second half performance at Twickenham, confidence will be in ample supply amongst the locals.

Guinness Six Nations: Rome and Twickenham Round 5 Preview

Twickenham test match could be interesting

The end of the Guinness Six Nations tournament, gosh that went quick. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the upcoming fixtures on tap for the weekend in Rome and Twickenham where England’s championship destiny will be laid out before them before kickoff.

Battle for the wooden spoon

Italy and France kickoff the action on Saturday with the early test match fixture. A fixture which to be honest is tough to call. What is the mindset of the French side after a shambolic road trip loss to Ireland last weekend? No distinct game plan on show and Brunel has shuffled the team again for a response. Guirado continues in the captaincy role but for how long?

Italy name personnel changes as well, excited to see how Zanon performs at the weekend; a genuine center who has the skill set to impress at world level. Conor O’Shea also gives Polledri and Sisi test match minutes to create a pack platform. The smart money still is for France to win this fixture as despite Italy’s improvements, their attacking field display and defensive back three performance is still glaring. France to win in an open contest.

England primed for another quality cameo

The Scottish back line selection just shows the injury list currently with the side. Maitland is summoned back quickly from injury to slot into the full back berth with McGuigan and Graham forming an inexperienced back three. It is a daunting task for Scotland but the pack fronted by Edinburgh Rugby have the cohesion but whether they have the raw horsepower to compete with an abrasive English pack is a different story.

England oozed physicality and precision in their emphatic victory over Italy last weekend. The squad depth chart gets run yet again with Slade coming back into the starting lineup. Cokanasiga is omitted much to the relief of Scotland. A game where Finn Russell’s game management will be key; kicking game to setup territorial platform will be required but the pack and back line injuries look decisive here.

England will be primed to avenge their loss to Scotland last season and expect Eddie Jones’ side to inflict more misery to Scotland in this test match. Manu Tuilagi looks primed for another keynote performance with ball in hand. England with a bonus point try but whether it will matter given the result at the Principality Stadium remains to be seen.