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.

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.

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.

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 Reflections

Playoff picture becomes somewhat clearer

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

Conference A: Top two stride further ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference B: Landslide results

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Round Sixteen (Saturday Fixtures)

Three home wins looks the solid bet

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

Benetton Rugby need to keep momentum going 

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

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

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

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

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

Edinburgh Rugby building momentum 

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

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

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

Ulster Rugby should have too much for Zebre Rugby

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Saturday Fixtures)

Road trip wins could be the order of the day

After Edinburgh Rugby, Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby secured victories last night, focus switches to fixtures on tap today with a couple of teams in must win territory to keep their playoff hopes alive. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Stong Leinster Rugby side face Zebre Rugby on road 

Such is the talent and squad depth currently at Leinster Rugby that the first fifteen on duty today looks incredibly strong and powerful. Andrew Porter gets game time in the front row ahead of a potential test match cameo against Italy.

This lineup is a testament on the magnificent work done at the Leinster Rugby academy, looking forward to seeing the cameos from Murphy, Doris and Deegan in the back row. Jack Dunne is primed for his Leinster Rugby debut off the bench, yet another exciting prospect.

Zebre Rugby are threading water until the end of the season. After an encouraging start to the season, injuries and squad depth weaknesses have taken their toll. Michael Bradley has done as good a job as anyone could given the circumstances.

This fixture looks absolutely daunting for Zebre Rugby as Italian international players Castello, Lovotti, Padovani, Palazzani and Sisi are away with their national team squad. When you add injuries to Bellini and Meyer, you see the task in front of the Italian side.

The only saving grace for Zebre Rugby is that this is the first in the next block of fixtures. Early cohesion issues should be seen and this should hopefully allow Zebre Rugby to get a foothold in the game. However, the strength of Leinster Rugby should be seen in the third quarter to secure a bonus point try win to widen the gap to the rest of the Conference B pack.

Connacht Rugby must be wary of Toyota Cheetahs threat 

This is an intriguing fixture. Connacht Rugby have earned plaudits aplenty after their encouraging start of the season under the management of Andy Friend but we are now at the business end of the season. It is time for the side to deliver accurate, solid game managed performances. It starts today.

Connacht Rugby play host to a Toyota Cheetahs side who have shown good form leading into this fixture with tries scored at regular intervals over Zebre Rugby and Isuzu Southern Kings (home and away). Cheetahs will look to play an unstructured game; look to attack from all angles. Connacht Rugby must pick their moments to go wide and when they do, they must be clinical in execution.

Connacht Rugby are boosted with the return of Irish international contingent Ultan Dillane, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell. Kieran Marmion makes a timely return to the side on the bench.

Marnus van der Merwe and Dries Swanepoel make their debut starts for the Cheetahs, Louis Fouche comes into the side at fullback. Ox Nche and Henco Venter return to the starting lineup as well. If the weather is decent, expect Toyota Cheetahs to deliver a performance with ball in hand.

This is a 50/50 fixture, a fixture in the past that Connacht Rugby have expected to win but got turned over, thinking of the Zebre Rugby home game last season. Accuracy and game management are keywords for Connacht Rugby and I think they will just do enough. Anything less and Toyota Cheetahs and inflict a big playoff dent to Connacht Rugby’s ambitions.

Opportunity knocks for Benetton Rugby

Despite international duty call ups, this is the key Conference B fixture on tap this weekend. Benetton Rugby must prove to league observers that they are a genuine playoff threat and a home game against an inconsistent Scarlets side, there is an opportunity to deliver a marquee statement.

The team news for the Italians is mixed. A couple of Italian internationals unavailable but Benetton Rugby can call on the services of Ian McKinley and Federico Ruzza. Their back three threat is excellent with Ioane in the ranks.

Scarlets also welcome back Rhys Patchell and Steff Evans to the match day squad. Leigh Halfpenny continues to be a marquee absentee for club and country. Jones and Hardy form an exciting half back partnership.

For the league to improve and prosper, it needs a strong Italian club representation come the playoffs. Benetton Rugby for me need the victory more. This will be a tight encounter but expect a progressively improving Benetton Rugby to shade this. Scarlets are threading water until Pivac and Jones depart the club.

Crunch Conference A contest in Cardiff 

This is a fixture which could have massive implications for either Glasgow Warriors or Cardiff Blues. The hosts need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive while Glasgow Warriors need to win to keep tabs on Conference A kingpins Munster Rugby.

The team news for both sides see squad personnel changes aplenty. International duty deprives both sides of marquee first team starter. Cardiff Blues can call on the services of Turnbull, Evans and Davies while Glasgow Warriors do not have the same luxury.

Cardiff Blues have been inconsistent this season. When they are on, they are devastatingly good, quick ruck ball and attacking platform from the likes of Nick Williams and Rey Lee-Lo. When they are off, they are poor at best.

Glasgow Warriors have arrested the league slide somewhat but this is a tough road trip assignment. If they can negate the opening quarter, no reason why Dave Rennie’s charges cannot get a win out of this but the victory need is more for the hosts. Cardiff Blues loss and their playoff ambitions will be massively dented, must win territory required from here on out. Blues to win but Glasgow Warriors should earn a loser point at least.

Guinness Pro14: Round 14 Preview

Tournament resumes with renewed swag!

End of January. It is the end of the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup pool phase campaigns which means that the Guinness 6 Nations tournament is not far off. It also means that the Guinness Pro14 sides will need to look long and hard at their depth chart to tackle this latest block of fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixtures scheduled for round fourteen.

Glasgow Warriors should secure home victory 

Ospreys travel to Glasgow Warriors on the back of a couple indifferent European Challenge Cup losses. The focus is now to secure playoff rugby but the injuries, international call ups mean that squad depth for the Welsh region looks vulnerable. Glasgow Warriors have stuttered in recent Guinness Pro14 fixtures but this is a glorious opportunity for Dave Rennie’s charges to get back on the win column. Glasgow Warriors look primed for a bonus point try. Ospreys worrying form of late is set to continue.

Leinster fringe players to flex their muscles 

Scarlets injury list is slowly improving but they were no match for Racing 92 last weekend. Their marquee players are summons for Welsh test match rugby and the depth chart in the back row will be duly observed. Leinster Rugby have had an excellent couple of weeks since their loss at Thomond Park. The squad depth is awesome and expecting the likes of Doris, Deegan, O’Brien to impress here. Unless Scarlets pack can set a platform, this looks like a routine home win for the hosts with a late bonus point try in the offing. Scarlets are in limbo until Pivac and Jones depart for Wales at the end of the current season.

Benetton Rugby look for road win at Ulster Rugby

This is one of the intriguing fixtures this weekend. In any other season, you would easily dismiss this fixture and call it a home win but Benetton Rugby have progressively improved this season. They are currently third in Conference B. Ulster Rugby are under pressure to win this fixture but given the injury list and international call ups, this fixture suddenly looks like a complete and utter banana skin. Benetton Rugby will be missing numerous Italian squad members for this clash but the system deployed this season will mean that they will be competitive until the final quarter. Tight encounter beckons with the hosts just edging this. A loss for Ulster Rugby and it could be a nervy end of the season run in to clinch a playoff berth.

Dragons entertain Munster Rugby 

Dragons squad impact due to the international call ups is minimal. Munster Rugby on the other hand are missing numerous first line players but it provides an opportunity for young players Daly, O’Connor to impress. Dragons exited the European Challenge Cup with a chastening home loss to ASM Clermont. Munster Rugby cohesion issues early mean that this fixture is in the melting pot. Inclement weather adds further intrigue. Slight vote to Munster Rugby but this is going to be closer than many expect. Dragons will react to the heavy home loss from last weekend.

Cheetahs primed for Zebre Rugby

Toyota Cheetahs are on a two game winning streak. Zebre Rugby will be missing some key players such as Cana for the fixture which is decisive. I fear for Zebre Rugby in this fixture; the squad depth has been exposed in recent weeks and with the altitude of Bloemfontein, the team selected could flag in the second half. Cheetahs expansive style of game with this current squad is slowly gelling together and there is a bonus point try here for the South Africans.

Cardiff Blues look to rebound against Connacht Rugby 

A potentially exciting contest may be tempered by the wet weather promised for Saturday. Let us hope that the rain promised clears for this fixture as both sides will look to throw the ball around. Cardiff Blues need is more in this fixture; five points behind fourth placed Connacht Rugby ahead of this tussle. A win is required. A loss will mean an uphill task to get back into the playoff race. Connacht Rugby have had an indifferent record here and suspect that this will continue due to key personnel absentees. Cardiff Blues if on form should win this encounter, expecting the New Zealand contingent in the side to setup the platform for victory. Close encounter. Connacht Rugby to come away with a loser point.

Edinburgh travel to Southern Kings 

A nice reward for Richard Cockerill’s side after a very pleasing European Cup campaign. Nice weather in South Africa to recharge battered bodies and a chance for fringe squad players to impress. Kings have been indifferent again in recent weeks and if Edinburgh Rugby can establish continuity and cohesion sufficiently should win this fixture in the fourth quarter. Kings will have their moments but the player pool in the side still is not at the level required for this competition. Private investment is secured for the side going forward and it needs to be used to identify talent within the Super Rugby club fraternity looking for game time to make an impact for this club. Edinburgh Rugby win.

Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference B?

Leinster away and clear at the top of the conference

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

Conference B Standings:

Leinster Rugby the standard bearer

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

Edinburgh Rugby are well in the playoff mix

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

Benetton Rugby; most improved side in the league

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

Scarlets injury crisis crippling

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

Ulster Rugby squad depth waning?

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

Dragons project reset

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

Southern Kings future is secured

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

Guinness Pro14: Round 8 Reflections (Irish Provinces)

Glasgow and Leinster had good weekends

A weekend where the November test match series kicked into action with several sides looking at their squad depth to ensure vital victories. It was a weekend where Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby extended their leads in both Conference A and B respectively. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Irish provincial success in South Africa 

The Twitter reaction to the Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby road trip successes in South Africa has me cracking up this evening while writing this blog article. Look at the sides named by both Irish provinces today, the potential in the side undoubted but there was always going to be passages of play when the cohesion with or without the ball was missing. Cue fan reactions (knickers in the proverbial figure eight). Bonus point try wins secured. Mission accomplished. 

Leinster Rugby accuracy may not have being to the armchair fan’s liking  but the 31-38 road trip win provides the Irish province with such a healthy lead at the top of Conference B. Nine points clear of Ulster Rugby and ten points clear of Scarlets in third with both sides facing the daunting task of having to secure results at fortress RDS. It is a time position to be in at this early stage of the season. The squad depth of the province shown when you see the likes of James Tracy, Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy on the pitch. They are the form side of the league at this moment in time. 

Munster Rugby secured their first road win of the league with a hard earned 26-30 road trip win to the Cheetahs. The good and the bad seen to full effect as Munster Rugby secured a bonus point try win; some great attacking play and the cameos of the back three was a real positive. The bad was the defensive meltdown in the third quarter where Cheetahs exploited big defensive gaps. The altitude was a factor but the parting of the Munster Rugby defense was seen in the previous round at home to Glasgow Warriors so something for management to look at in the coming weeks. 

Kevin O’Byrne was a standout today, put the hand up for more game time with an all action performance. The youngsters in the side did not let the side down and was delighted to see Liam Coombes cross over for a well earned try.

Mike Haley continues to settle nicely in the full back position and his running line for the game winning try was well executed. Munster Rugby secure a vital win on the road; move up to second place in the Conference A where Glasgow Warriors are well out in front and debatable whether they can be caught at this stage. Their demolition of Ospreys (albeit understrength) was a Matawalu showcase of skill and pace to score a hat-trick of tries. 

Bernard Jackman is a man under pressure

After a red eye flight back from Boston in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I headed to the Sportsgrounds in the hope of a thrilling encounter. This was an encounter which Connacht Rugby needed to come out fighting after a horrendous road trip performances to an Ospreys selection missing numerous first team stars at Bridgend last time out. The fixture was competitive for the first quarter but as soon as Connacht Rugby hit the front, Dragons’ heads dropped and a 26-0 lead at half-time to the hosts spelled the end of the contest. 

Connacht Rugby admittedly increased the tempo in that second quarter, better clear out work in the ruck exchanges with Marmion and Horowitz starting to create more line breaks as the game wore on. Horowitz produced an interesting cameo; he plays off the cuff evident in the Colby Fainga’a’s try where the Australian ten spotted a gap and created the line break opportunity. His kicking to the corners impressed me and thankfully for Connacht Rugby, there is a player who can push Jack Carty to the next level. 

Bernard Jackman stated post-game that he can see progress and improvement from his charges but the performance after the first quarter was a horror show; three deplorably blotched line breaks in the opening period which exhibited a distinct of composure on the final pass or handling is a coaching issue.

The number of tries conceded this season is sky rocketing out of control (33) and unless Dragons can secure a much needed morale boosting win next time out, there will be questions on his tenure. Dragons progression this season was expected given the high profile Hibbert and Moriarty signings but it has being anything but. Hope Jackman pulls the situation around but the skill set in his side on this weekend’s showing lacks the quality required to unlock opposition defenses at regular intervals.

Connacht Rugby win but they will rarely have an easier home contest all season. The back three looked a threat all game and the pack carries exposed massive defensive holes in the Dragons’ first line of defense. Buckley and Dillane for me stood out in the ball carrying stakes. Colby Fainga’a along with Jarrod Butler provided mobility and pace off the back of the scrum.

Horowitz has being duly mentioned and Godwin provided a timely reminder of his potency with ball in hand from three quarters. Connacht Rugby need to kick on now until the festive period; key games to get well and truly into the playoff mix now as it looks like a four way battle for the second and third spot in Conference A.

Ulster secured road trip win to Benetton Rugby

A significant result for Ulster Rugby on the road. Benetton Rugby have being progressing nicely this season and leading 7-0 at the break, the Italians would have fancied finishing off the job in the second half due to Ulster Rugby’s recent road trip woes. 

Credit though to Ulster Rugby, thought it was a very professional and efficient display in the second half. Speight’s creativity to the fore with ball in hand and the pack finally created a platform for Shanahan and Burns to launch their runners in the third quarter with tries from the impressive Reidy and Herring.  

The result was key here; the situation that Ulster Rugby found themselves in and the resiliency to get a result on the road in Italy has to be applauded. The fans made have a different perspective but this could be a key result for Ulster Rugby in the context of the playoff picture come next April. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 5 (Friday Night Preview)

Two home wins look the solid bet

Two interesting contests on the books for Friday night. Cardiff Blues fresh from their emphatic victory over Munster Rugby last week entertain the Toyota Cheetahs who will hope to continue their performance from last week when they drew 39-39 each to Ulster Rugby. Edinburgh Rugby are again faced with a must win game at home, this time they face a Benetton Rugby side who have won plenty of plaudits for their performances this season. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action. 

Cardiff Blues turned the corner? 

Last week was a keynote victory for Cardiff Blues. It was a must win game for the Welsh side and they produced a superb cohesive performance to dismantle Munster Rugby. All units functioned so well and the threat with ball in hand was incredible throughout which resulted in a thoroughly deserved bonus point try victory. 

The keyword this week is consistency. Can Cardiff Blues continue to deliver a performance like last week? Can Cardiff Blues continue to play on the front foot? Can Cardiff Blues’ back row unit continue to impress in the breakdown area like last week? The answers to these questions will be key to determining whether Toyota Cheetahs have any realistic chance of securing anything from the contest. 

Cardiff Blues team news sees three personnel changes in the pack. Scott Andrews (prop), Rory Thornton (lock) and Olly Robinson (back row) all come into the side. Turnbull slots into the eight channel to replace Nick Williams who enjoyed his outing against Munster Rugby no end last week. 

Toyota Cheetahs come into the game on the back of an exciting 39-39 draw against Ulster Rugby. They could have won this contest only for a last gasp Henry Speight try, converted by Billy Burns to salvage a draw for the Irish province. There were plenty of positives for Toyota Cheetahs last week; several excellent phases of play and the pack unit look more cohesive than previous weeks. Defensively, there are still questions. 

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

Cardiff Blues need to keep momentum and the exciting back line named means that Toyota Cheetahs are going to be challenged on the outside channels. Toyota Cheetahs will look to run their expansive game as well but I think Cardiff Blues with Turnbull, Anscombe, Halaholo and Lane should have too much for their visitors particularly in the third / fourth quarters. Cardiff with another home BP win. 

Another must win for Edinburgh

The perils of a slow start to the season sees Edinburgh Rugby in a second successive must win home game. Scratch the result last weekend; the Leinster Rugby juggernaut in the RDS is a mission impossible for most sides this season so Richard Cockerill and management wisely rested keynote first team starters for this fixture. 

Edinburgh Rugby last weekend did compete well against Leinster Rugby; competed well in the breakdown and their ability to retain possession worked the Leinster Rugby tackle count high but they were ultimately undone by a red card and the reigning European Club kingpins took advantage. 

Edinburgh Rugby have freshened up their side and familiar names feature. Blair Kinghorn, Matt Scott and Henry Pyrgos are all back. Simon Hickey returns at fly-half at stand-off. The pack sees recalls for Stuart McInally (hooker), WP Nel (prop), Grant Gilchrist (lock), Hamish Watson (back row) and Bill Mata (eight) in the back row unit. Pretty much the first team out here and a win is the objective. 

Personnel aplenty for Benetton Rugby too. The back three has changed with Jayden Hayward (full back) and wings Ratuva Tavuyara / Luca Sperandio all starting. The three quarters sees Tommaso Iannone and Luca Morisi feature with Dewaldt Duvenage (scrum-half) and Tommaso Allan (fly-half) as half backs. 

Marco Riccioni (prop) comes into the front row as Dean Budd and Marco Fuser come into the second row.  Robert Barbieri (eight) comes into the starting lineup. Plenty of switches and Benetton Rugby are looking for a result this weekend. 

Verdict: Edinburgh Rugby

Dry conditions should see both sides look to become expansive. The pack battle edge goes to Edinburgh with the likes of McInally, Toolis and Gilchrist in the mix. Edinburgh Rugby need to be incredibly accurate tomorrow night, otherwise Benetton Rugby have shown this season they have the back field ability to cut open sides apart in open play. 

Considering both sides rested marquee names last week, expecting a close contest here and Edinburgh Rugby should edge this but if they leave points on the pitch like they did against Connacht Rugby in round three, Benetton Rugby could be in prime position for another marquee win. However, Richard Cockerill’s side get the nod for me, it is a must win; otherwise the Guinness Pro 14 season will have taken a massive nosedive.