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.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 4 (Saturday Fixtures Preview)

Home wins the order of the day

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Glasgow Warriors

A successful 100% win South African tour for Glasgow Warriors should be secured with a bonus point try win over the hosts who have shown resiliency but ultimately have being outgunned in the pack and skill set department. Glasgow Warriors have rotated their squad around for this fixture, still look strong enough to win this contest. Seymour set to have a keynote game. 

Connacht Rugby vs. Scarlets

A fixture which I am looking forward to. It is a must win for Connacht Rugby after a road loss to Edinburgh Rugby last weekend; discipline and pack platform must improve for the hosts to upset Scarlets who will look to consolidate their solid start to the season. Connacht Rugby welcome Robin Copeland into the pack and with several Scarlets first team regulars out of this fixture, is this a potential game which Connacht Rugby can win? Connacht to win only if they produce a smart, disciplined game plan performance; otherwise Scarlets could run riot out wide. Slight edge to Connacht Rugby as the weather improves here on the Irish West Coast. 

Dragons vs. Zebre Rugby

A key game for the Dragons and the long term managerial tenure ambitions of Bernard Jackman. Dragons have looked well exposed this season; their loss to Leinster Rugby was tough to watch as Leinster Rugby systematically broke Dragons defensive system to shreds. Zebre Rugby will arrive to Rodney Parade in good confidence; a superb late win over Cardiff Blues last weekend at home the standout performance last week. Zebre Rugby will realize that their discipline and fundamental set piece execution have to be on point and provided that they are not far behind at the interval should win this contest in a close, tense affair. Dragons to win need to drastically improve and I do not see the improvement required for this game in just seven days!

Leinster Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby

The standout fixture this weekend until I saw the Edinburgh Rugby team lineup; several pack first team regulars missing and with a strong Leinster Rugby team announced, can only see one winner. Edinburgh will look to restrict quick Leinster Rugby ruck ball but to be honest, Leinster Rugby are so good in changing the focus of attack that the pack may score a couple of tries from mauls. Leinster Rugby with a late bonus point try win. 

Ospreys vs. Benetton Rugby

A tricky fixture for Ospreys to negotiate today as Benetton Rugby with fourteen players scored four tries on the road to the Scarlets last weekend. Ospreys must be careful when they look to become expansive. Ospreys should have their first team regulars back and that could be decisive in the final outcome. Benetton Rugby will show well again but I think Wyn Jones, Tipuric, North and Williams’ cameos if selected will steer the hosts home.

Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review

No genuine drama from the last round of league fixtures. After Ulster Rugby failed to beat Munster Rugby at Thomond Park, Edinburgh’s ticket to the playoffs was confirmed. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action in Wales, Scotland and South Africa.

Congratulations to the Toyota Cheetahs on securing their playoff spot with a 20-29 road trip win over Southern Kings who scored early with a Dukisa try. Banda then increased the lead for the hosts with two penalties until the Toyota Cheetahs hit a quick three try salvo in the second quarter. Marais , Schoeman and Cassiem all crossed over with excellent offloading and support running which the Southern Kings struggled to stifle. The game was well and truly up despite the Klaasen try straight after the break. Cheetahs were able to control the game in the final quarter to close out with comfort.

This is an superb achievement for the Toyota Cheetahs and great news for this tournament. The Cheetahs were off the pace in the first few weeks of the season but they have built a formidable fortress in Bloemfontein and their expansive brand of rugby has won many admirers this season. With fast track conditions, they will travel to Scarlets in confident form. The missed tackle count will have to improve (23) but they will relish the dry conditions and Scarlets need to be careful on how expansive they go against a team who have the skill set to beat you from anywhere on the pitch. Superb coaching work from Rory Duncan and staff!

The 1872 Cup was won by Edinburgh Rugby on a special night for anyone associated with the club. The night where they were confirmed as the third team in Conference B to participate in the playoffs, confirmation of their participation in the European Rugby Champions Cup next season. A magnificent coaching performance from Richard Cockerill and coaching staff to turn the fortunes of the side. Edinburgh Rugby have always had the talent and potential but consistency was a core issue.  The side have produced consistently high performances this season to deservedly clinch their place in the playoffs.

This local derby was abrasive and physical with several eye catching moments. Edinburgh’s composure was tested early with the early Glasgow Warriors try from DTH van der Merwe but their response was emphatic as Johnstone crashed over evading two Glasgow Warrior players enroute. Further questions were asked when Gibbins crossed over but again the hosts leveled with a robust Lay finish from close range and then not to be out done Duhan van der Merwe powerfully scored on the stroke of half-time to give the side 21-14.

Glasgow Warriors did look to get back into this encounter with another DTH van der Merwe effort on the sideline and Edinburgh Rugby were forced to defend for long periods in the last ten minutes. Each player to a man tackling on point and disrupting Glasgow ball from the ruck. Several key breakdown wins in the last five wins sealed victory. A huge morale booster for the side and the fact that they reclaimed the 1872 Cup is a perfect tonic heading into the playoffs. The most improved side of the league this season come to Thomond Park next weekend with no fears and will look to prey on Munster Rugby’s playoff failures.

A late gasp drop goal from Dan Biggar secured victory for the ever improving Ospreys side against Cardiff Blues. A game which ebbed and flowed throughout; several standout moments of creativity. Jones’ try was a perfect case study of this point with an excellent line break from Jeff Hassler before the ball made its way to Alun Wyn Jones who touched down out wide.

Cardiff Blues produced a stunning response when Anscombe scored the try of the day. His ability to evade Ospreys defenders sublime as he ran from halfway to score a sensational score. The Blues then suddenly had their second try as Smith collecting a good grubber kick from Steve Shingler to dive over.

Ospreys determination to get back into the game was seen in the second half. Biggar scored a superb effort; quality finish from close range when Cardiff Blues defensively looked to have the situation well in hand. Biggar added the conversion to make it 20-20 to setup an exciting finish.

It suddenly was becoming the battle of the tens from the kicking tee. Anscombe slotted over a tricky penalty to gave Cardiff Blues the lead again only for Biggar to level again with another penalty. Cue the end of the game, good composure from Ospreys to create the phases to put Biggar into position and the drop goal was on point. Ospreys held out for another morale boosting win.

Cardiff Blues enter European Rugby Champions Cup next season but no playoff rugby this season. Their focus turns to the European Challenge Cup final against Gloucester Rugby in Bilbao. Ospreys’ form in the second half of the season has being excellent; they will enter their key playoff tussle with Ulster Rugby with confidence. A place in the European Rugby Champions Cup is on offer. Massive reward if victory is earned!

Scarlets shook off the European Cup blues with an emphatic bonus point win against Dragons who were out gunned in all facets of play. As soon as Elias emerged with the ball for the opening try, things looked ominous for Bernard Jackman’s charges but the Dragons stayed in touch until half-time. The second half was a different story entirely.

A penalty try was awarded to the Scarlets as Dragons scrum was struggling; several scrum resets eventually causing the match official to lose patience with the Dragons. A quick brace of tries from the marauding Tadhg Beirne spelled the end of the contest and the bonus point try. Evans put further gloss on the scoreboard with a late try.

Scarlets enter the playoffs next weekend and face a dangerous home fixture against Toyota Cheetahs. Dragons’ season is now over. A season of transition and the second half of the season had plenty of setbacks. Recruiting needs to continue to supplement the talent at the club. Dee, Landman, Wainwright, Amos, Hewitt and Kirchner.

However, the discipline and defensive lapses have plighted their season. Missed tackle count was high (24) and this has being a really sore statistic this season. The pack have had positive moments but this reward was not seen on the scoreboard, allowing opposition to get back into contests.

Zebre Rugby have earned Italian derby bragging rights with a deserved road trip win over Benetton Rugby. A closely fought encounter as Benetton Rugby scored first with a good cohesive move involving Tebaldi and Allan to unleash Sgarbi to score.

Zebre Rugby absorbed the pressure from the hosts and then built their attacking platform in the second quarter. Violi (34) slotted over a penalty after concerted attacking phases and then Zebre Rugby went into the dressing rooms ahead with Sisi crashing with the pack once again prominent in the maul.

A quick try after the break from the impressive Canna (44) was a well worked score. Zebre Rugby sucking in Benetton Rugby defenders to allow space to be created for Canna out on the sideline. The pivotal score of the game as Benetton Rugby were now forced to chase the game; credit to the hosts after Sgarbi scored another well worked try and Allan slotted over.

However, Zebre Rugby were not to be denied. A composed pack performance from Michael Bradley’s side setting up several penalty opportunities. Violi slotting over three penalties to make the game safe. A quality win from Zebre Rugby and one that should be a blueprint to winning further games in the league next season. A season of transition; a season where Zebre Rugby have provided good moments and identified players capable of representing the Italian team. Biagi, Bellini to name but a few.

Eighteenth league win for an Italian side in the tournament is a new record. Additional progress and improvement is required from both Italian teams and hope springs eternal here. Good fundamental structures are being built in Italy via underage and at professional club rugby structures. Whether Michael Bradley is around to see the progress next season is another story; a man who may be subject to speculation on a couple of head coaching roles over to Ireland. Time will tell!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 21 Preview

Round 21. The final round of the regular league season has arrived. The organizers perhaps have missed a weekend on scheduling but more to that later in this blog. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

The South African sides start the final round on Saturday afternoon. It is a fixture which the Toyota Cheetahs have a vested interest in. A win against the Southern Kings will secure playoff rugby and a road trip to either Leinster Rugby or Scarlets depending on which side finishes second in Conference B.

Toyota Cheetahs will be disappointed with their second half performance against Munster Rugby. Team indiscipline providing Munster Rugby with penalty opportunities which were slotted over in the second half. It was a disappointing result considering the opening period performance where the Toyota Cheetahs scored two well worked tries. Tian Meyer very prominent in game management and passing game.

Southern Kings have had a season to forget; the crowd attendances coupled with some heavy losses this season has provided a massive reality check for the franchise. They need to recruit well in the off season which starts next week. Their win against Dragons is their video reel moment of the season. It needs to be more next season.

Local bragging rights but one side has all the motivation to win this contest. Toyota Cheetahs to take this win with a bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. The back line of the Cheetahs with the likes of Venter, Small could have standout days in the statistics front. Kings to compete need their front eight to come to the party; difficult to see this happening.

This derby is about one person and one person only. This is the last Connacht Rugby playing appearance for the legendary John Muldoon. The Portumna native signs off from the Sportsground after 327 games with the province. Muldoon has being at the club through thick and thin. He has experienced the highs and lows. Define commitment, honor and leadership, look no further than John Muldoon who joins Bristol Rugby (Bears)  next season!

An intriguing subplot to this game is how Leinster Rugby will approach the game. After their emphatic win against Scarlets last weekend, will Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster decide to rest front line players? I am expecting a mixed team selection from the Conference A leaders. They need to top their conference and would expect a couple of marquee players to feature. Lowe, Larmour, Daly come into the reckoning. Ruddock, Deegan, Molony perhaps coming into the pack. it will be a side with intent and Connacht Rugby need to produce a top performance to sigh off Muldoon’s playing career with Connacht Rugby with a win.

Connacht Rugby team selection should be along familiar lines to recent weeks. O’Halloran, Healy and Adelokun should provide pace and threat in the back three. Aki surely starts at twelve, questions abound on who will partner the Irish international. Robb, Farrell or Griffin (if fit) could come in. Marmion and Carty form the half-back partnership which will play behind a pack whose mobility and passing threat will be a threat. Dillane needs to produce a stellar game here for Connacht Rugby and for the Irish rugby neutral. The Kerry man has had a difficult season and needs a good performance here to show Irish management of his worth.

Interesting game. I thought before round twenty that Connacht Rugby could potentially win this contest but due to Benetton Rugby’s win against Leinster Rugby, the stakes have being raised. Leinster Rugby will look to continue their impressive form and for a couple of fringe players, a chance for redemption after some indifferent performances. Connacht Rugby to provide entertainment but their defensive shape will be exposed more than once this weekend. Leinster Rugby to win this game narrowly.

Scarlets travel to Rodney Parade to face a Dragons side who need a win desperately. No league win in this calendar year; several near misses which have exposed squad depth and game management issues at key junctures. Bernard Jackman and team have endured a miserable second half to the season and need a win here to sign-off with some optimism heading into the off-season.

Scarlets were given a lesson last weekend; their pack were negated from the breakdown as Leinster Rugby’s clear out work was sublime. Scarlets team selection will be interesting; expect several personnel changes but with a chance of top spot in Conference B, Wayne Pivac may decide to play the likes of Evans, Parkes, Williams to provide the go forward ball required.

Dragons to start this contest with gusto but a lack of attacking nous not to put points on the board will be exposed. Scarlets will eventually wear the Dragons pack down and it is a road win for the Scarlets. I am not sure if this will be enough to secure conference top spot but a good performance will do wonders for the side after last weekend’s performance at the Aviva Stadium.

Bernard Jackman and club player recruitment needs to be deep for next season; otherwise he is under pressure to keep his job next season!

This is an intriguing fixture. Cardiff Blues fresh from their Pau win last weekend have an outside chance of securing a top three playoff berth. Ospreys have secured fourth place in the conference and face a playoff match in the coming weeks.

Clarke has being rewarded for a good interim period as Ospreys head coach and takes the reins full time from next season. Ospreys have played with energy, work rate and creativity during his tenure. Dan Evans a standout from full back. The pack have improved their cohesion where Wyn-Jones and Davies have provided stellar second row play.

Cardiff Blues were immense in their breakdown work last weekend. Navidi and colleagues did a proper job on Pau. Evans at ten game managed well. The side were disciplined in their defensive play and they were a threat in the back three. Eighty minutes from European Challenge Cup glory; players fighting for squad berth places. Nice problem for Blues management to have.

A game which has the potential for tries. Edging this encounter to Ospreys as Cardiff Blues may not be as fresh with their efforts from last weekend. Blues have secured their European Rugby Champions Cup berth, a great season for the side after a shaky start. Ospreys will look to build momentum ahead of their playoff tussle to secure European Rugby Champions Cup as well.

The tournament organizers have missed a trick on the scheduling of this encounter. Ulster Rugby still have a chance of securing a top three Conference B finish. The game kicks off at 17:35 PM GMT. Edinburgh Rugby kick off their fixture at 19:45 PM GMT. Edinburgh Rugby will know exactly what need to do before kick off, a shame that the organizers could not put both fixtures on at the same time and see if any drama could be created.

Munster Rugby look vulnerable in this fixture. Another disappointing European Cup semi-final loss, a loss where the game was taken out of reach before the Irish province could hit a decisive blow. It is going to take time to reflect, repair the bodies and the mental scars after this outing so the Munster Rugby side will comprise mostly of squad players; a fixture where Munster have already secured a second place in Conference A.

Ulster Rugby come into the game knowing that they need realistically a bonus point try performance. Their side will be pretty much full strength. Best and Henderson looking to lead from the pack while Cooney, Piutau will look to provide the game management and threat out wide to secure this fixture objective.

Munster Rugby’s side should be exciting, expect the likes of Dan Goggin, Stephen Fitzgerald, Mike Sherry to get game time. Grobler will come into the equation along with Wycherley in the second row. The back row should see personnel changes too with Oliver set to get game time along with Copeland. Ulster Rugby need this win more; they will win this game but top three looks remote given the fixture scheduling.

Benetton Rugby finish off a promising season with a local bragging rights fixture against a Zebre Rugby side whose have shown good promise at various parts of this season. Benetton’s confidence will be sky high after their road trip win against Leinster Rugby. A win which was truly merited. A win where both pack and back line units contributed. Allan’s try to win the game was fitting to win any contest.

Michael Bradley’s side edged past Dragons but had an emphatic win over Ospreys last time out. Their spirit and work rate are not in question and Bradley has identified a couple of promising Italian players who could step up to the international side. Biagi, Bellini look like genuine finds this season and credit to the management for given these players the confidence to express themselves.

Benetton Rugby have had the edge on these derby games. It would be good for Benetton Rugby to consolidate their end of season performance with another solid performance. The side were on point against Leinster Rugby and their composure in dealing with Tebaldi’s yellow card in the final quarter was superb.

50/50 game until the third quarter when the benches are sprung and Benetton Rugby look to have the better weapons to make an impact with the likes of Budd and McKinley in the ranks. Benetton Rugby to win this contest in a season which should be the springboard for both sides to go to higher heights next season.

As mentioned, it was a shame that tournament organizers did not schedule this game at the same time as the Munster / Ulster clash. 19:45 PM GMT kickoffs would have provided a nice contrast, teams scoring tries, league table permutations, maybe next year hey!

Edinburgh Rugby are the progressive team of the league this season. Their performances from late October have being excellent; their win against Glasgow over the festive period was a real marker of their intent to make progress in this competition.

Cockerill and management have done a stellar job and identifying cohesion in the pack and back units. Berghan, Gllchrist, Toolis have being standouts. Hidalgo-Clyne experience at nine. Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn have shown massive upside in their back line play. Dougie Fife as well has shown well.

The key question here is Glasgow Warrior’s mindset on this fixture. They are top team of Conference A. Will they rest key players for the playoffs? Their first team charges faced Ulster Rugby last weekend and their performance fell well short of the standards set in this competition this season. Defensive line speed inconsistencies plagued their performance last weekend and Ulster Rugby took full advantage.

Motivation is with the hosts here and I think they will edge this encounter. A loss here without a loser point and Ulster Rugby get a top three berth in most dramatic fashion but I don’t see this happening. Edinburgh Rugby will be focused on what is required; no external pressures, just go out and perform. Glasgow to provide good moments but Edinburgh to secure the win here.

 

Guinness Pro 14 Round 20: Preview (Saturday Games)

Ulster Rugby’s win against Ospreys tonight (8-0) puts a little bit of pressure on Edinburgh Rugby ahead of their tussle against Scarlets but this fixture has being diluted given the selection of the visitors. With a huge European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster Rugby next weekend, the priorities are self-evident.

Scarlets have made wholesale changes for this fixture and the side comprises of squad players. It is a golden opportunity for Edinburgh Rugby to get back on the win column after a disappointing two weeks where Cardiff Blues and Ulster Rugby have come to Murrayfield and come away with deserved victory.

The Edinburgh Rugby pack surely will build the platform tomorrow and expect solid performances from Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist to lead from the front. Hidalgo-Clyne at nine has the skill set to unleash his pacy back line where Fife and van der Merwe should have excellent gain line statistics coming from this game.

Scarlets’ selection is understandable given the looming European Cup fixture and this will be the opportunity for Edinburgh to secure a bonus point try win; securing third place in Conference B. Scarlets will make do with second in the Conference B,  a dangerous side to come up against in the playoffs given the drying track conditions.

A fixture which will yield a morale boosting victory for either Zebre Rugby or Dragons. Both sides will look to right a few wrongs from round nineteen. Zebre Rugby showed some good moments in the opening half against Leinster Rugby but failed to put points on the board. Leinster Rugby massacred Zebre Rugby in the second half when cohesion was established.

Dragons had a topsy turvy loss to Benetton Rugby last weekend. Bernard Jackman’s charges looked out of it in the opening period; leaking four tries to Benetton Rugby but they fought back incredibly well to lead the contest deep into the contest only for discipline to rear its head to give Benetton Rugby the decisive penalty kick to win the contest.

Dragons have based themselves in Italy this week; a chance to increase morale and improve team continuity. Bernard Jackman and management have made three changes for this side. Charlie Davies replaces Owain Leonard at scrum-half, whilst Luke Garrett comes into the front row and Joe Davies comes into the second row.

Zebre Rugby make five changes for the fixture. Castello suffered a knee injury during the Six Nations Championship, but has been passed fit to return. Venditti starts on the left wing, so Mattia Bellini switches to the right.  Luus and Bello come into the front row with Johan Meyer set to start at open side. The inclusions add quality to the side.

50/50 contest. Dragons have plenty to prove in terms of closing out games; they had a superb chance to win last week. They need the win desperately to end a horrific league streak. Zebre Rugby though for me if their pack can assert dominance and with Canna and Venditti on hand to game manage the back line. Zebre Rugby win narrowly.

Leinster entertain Benetton Rugby at the RDS with some keynote inclusions. Jordan Larmour returns to the side at full back, his ball carrying hitting the line should be sharp and will cause the visitors massive headaches. Pack changes aplenty. McGrath, Strauss, Porter form the front row. Molony and Nagle are the second row combo and there is a welcome return to action for Sean O’Brien. Carbery starts at ten; interesting to see how he performs. Given the squad being rested this weekend, Leinster Rugby’s team is still strong. Daly on the wing poised for further tries.

Jayden Hayward,  Andrea Bronzini and Monty Ioane feature in the Benetton Rugby back line. Iannone and captain Alberto Sgarbi occupy the centre positions while the half-backs are Tito Tebaldi at scrum half and Tommaso Allan at fly-half. The front row is made up by Federico Zani, Luca Bigi and Simone Ferrari and need to set the platform for Benetton Rugby to impress. They have fifty points in the league so far and still harbor hopes of catching Ulster Rugby for fourth place. Benetton Rugby will bring a huge effort to the game.

Leinster Rugby though for me are the firm favorites to win this contest. A couple of players on show will need to produce excellent performances to be part of the plans for the European Cup fixture next weekend. Massive motivation for the likes of O’Brien, Larmour, McGrath to impress. Carbery at ten potentially the standout performer. Leinster Rugby victory; hard earned given Benetton Rugby’s defensive shape has improved considerably this season. No bonus point but sufficient to secure top spot in Conference A for the playoffs.

Intriguing fixture to end round twenty. Cardiff Blues will be buoyed by Munster Rugby’s road trip win at Bloemfontein which opens the door for the Blues to close the gap in the battle for third in the conference. When you add to the fact that Ospreys lost as well tonight, then it could be a significant weekend for anyone involved with the Blues.

Cardiff Blues were devastated to lose so late to Toyota Cheetahs last weekend. Spirited fightback and then to lose to a penalty try award deep into injury time was hard to take. Blues have made a couple of pack personnel changes. Andrews starting in the front-row. Turnbull comes into the second row. Nick Williams starts at the back of the pack and Ellis Jenkins captains the side at openside flanker. Anscombe switches to full back to accommodate Evans at ten. Solid team.

Southern Kings come into the fixture on the back of a mixed performance against Munster Rugby. A good opening thirty minutes had Munster Rugby under pressure but then discipline and defensive lapses in the third quarter key to Munster Rugby pulling away for the bonus point win. Southern Kings have made a couple of changes as well; Vulindlu returns to the back line and provides attacking threat. Several personnel pack changes as well.

Port Elizabeth should see plenty of quality tries in this encounter. The Cardiff Blues back line has the potential to cut loose here with their pace ad power. For me, their pack is more cohesive and Evans will control game management at ten. Cardiff Blues to win here after a topsy turvy opening period. Navidi at six the game changer; his grappling ability at the breakdown a key positive for the visitors.

 

 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 19 Review (Part II)

The second part of the Guinness Pro 14 Round 19 review. An efficient performance from Scarlets to beat Glasgow Warriors. Toyota Cheetahs leave it extremely late to beat Cardiff Blues and Benetton Rugby break Dragons hearts with a last gasp win also. Action packed.

If you have read my blog regularly, the Toyota Cheetahs are my hidden guilty Guinness Pro 14 pleasure. When they played Munster Rugby at Thomond Park last September, their expansive style of play was so easy on the eye. I felt even then that with a couple of games, this side would be competitive and so it has proved. Toyota Cheetahs at Bloemfontein are an incredibly hard team to beat, ask Connacht Rugby and now Cardiff Blues with late road trip heartbreak in recent weeks.

29-27. A game which Toyota Cheetahs looked to be in control at half-time. The hosts front five prominent in ball carrying setting the platform, allowing Marais to unleash his back line with devastating results. Three tries scored in that opening period, clinical offloading and passing to players in better field position.

Maxwane scoring a further two tries; his try involving the ever dangerous Blommetjies was a movie reel highlight. Venter also got onto the score board with a superb running line to unlock the Cardiff Blues defense who had to absorb massive pressure in this half. 22-6 at the break. Game over?

Credit to Cardiff Blues, they came out in the second half with renewed purpose and controlled the pack exchanges with some excellent ball carries. Three excellent tries ensued. Owen Lane scoring his sixth Guinness Pro 14 try of the season and then two quality efforts from Halaholo and Lee-Lo midway through the half exposing fragile Cheetahs defense on the outside.

Cardiff Blues now were leading the contest but the altitude factor kicked in the final quarter. Toyota Cheetahs starting to probe the defensive fringes and creating field position which then led to a series of scrums ten meters out from the Cardiff Blues’ line. The officiating crew losing patience with the visitors and pointed for a penalty try.

Whether another officiating crew would have being so whistle happy in the NH remains to be seen, suffice to say another officiating crew would have asked the Toyota Cheetahs to play the ball from the scrum and let play develop. Devastating loss for the Cardiff Blues in the context of the game and playoff picture. Nine point is now the gap between the two sides now but all not lost for Cardiff Blues. An exciting Conference A playoff race beckons still!

This was a performance that signaled intent from Scarlets ahead of key fixtures in the next couple of weeks. 22-8 win. Two teams brimming with talent. The hosts were the more cohesive performer on the day, breakdown work on point led by James Davies. Scarlets had to remain patient until the second quarter of this contest when Patchell who was the standout  performer identified a defensive gap in the Warriors line to cross for a try. Key score, created the buffer that Glasgow Warriors could not bridge.

The Glasgow Warriors performance did not lack work rate but precision and accuracy at times let them down. Davies (scrum-half) intercepting a Glasgow Warriors skip pass to score Scarlets’ second try of the evening in the second half. The day did not get much better for the visitors as Finn Russell was forced to withdraw at half-time. Thereafter, attacking play from the Conference A top team was one dimensional. Time to reflect and address for Dave Rennie for the playoffs!

Scarlets will be pleased with the defensive line speed and organization throughout. Glasgow Warriors tried to penetrate holes in the defensive line but Scarlets were solid. Beirne’s work rate from second row a perfect case study. Thirteen tackles made. Three passes.

Patchell finished off a comfortable win with a late try, good hands from the Scarlets back line seeing the half-back with the ball close to the touchline but good movement and speed saw the number ten evade a couple of Glasgow Warriors tackles to score. A statement of intent from the Scarlets who keep the pressure on Leinster Rugby in both Pro 14 but also European Rugby Champions Cup front after this performance.

The proverbial game of two halves. Benetton Rugby will be happy to secure victory at the death given that they had the bonus point try secured in the first half but lack of accuracy defensively, coupled with concentration lapses left Dragons back into the contest and will undoubtedly raise video analysis questions.

Both sides will look at the missed tackle count. 25 vs. 23 is way too high for a side to win a Guinness Pro 14 encounter. Benetton Rugby will not be as lucky to win a game with this statistic for the remainder of the season. The hosts were excellent though with ball in hand. Several well worked tries courtesy of Ruzza (1′), Allan (27′), Ioane (23′) and Tebaldi (40′). Game over surely?

Dragons responded well and scored three tries of their own. Hill (50′), Rosser (61′), Edwards (65′) all crossed over and Dragons looked the better side for long periods of the half but lack of game management to close out the contest came into the equation.

Benetton Rugby got vital field position in those last eight minutes; squandered two good chances before Dragons indiscipline conceded the late penalty where Tebaldi slotted over. Devastating loss for Bernard Jackman and Dragons but Benetton Rugby continue to register wins in the league. A work in progress but the signs are encouraging.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 19 Preview

After the excitement of European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup last weekend, it is time to get back to the brass tax of Guinness Pro 14. A weekend which could see several teams come tantalizingly close to securing their place in the playoffs. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

This is the pivotal contest in Conference B. A win for Edinburgh Rugby in this encounter will see Richard Cockerill’s charges almost secure their place in the playoffs. The team news makes for interesting reading. Edinburgh make six changes to the side that were humbled by Cardiff Blues in European Challenge cup action last weekend. Hidalgo-Clyne, Weir, Burleigh and Berghan all come into the starting lineup. All solid selections.

Ulster Rugby have given opportunities to a couple of promising academy players. Tom O’Toole (prop), Matthew Dalton (second row) come into the side and are joined by Matthew Rea and Nick Timoney. An explosive looking back line is named with Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Louis Ludik and Charles Piutau named at full back.

Third plays fourth in this encounter. It is a game that Ulster Rugby have to win to have any realistic chance of extending their regular league season. Ulster Rugby on the road this season have being inconsistent at best so it will be interesting to see how Ulster Rugby perform with the likes of Rory Best and Iain Henderson in the ranks.

Slight edge to Edinburgh Rugby who look to have more cohesion in their ranks. The half-back pairing selected is vastly experienced and with the likes of Gilchrist, Toolis and Berghan all coming back to the pack; they look to edge the pack battle. Playoff ticket almost stamped after this result for Edinburgh. A win to compound another miserable week for Ulster Rugby off the pitch.

This Conference A fixture is a dead rubber with both sides realistically out of the playoff hunt. Ospreys name a strong selection for this fixture with the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Dan Biggar in the ranks. Their performance against Leinster Rugby in round eighteen was excellent; physicality with superb expansive line breaks. Dan Evans was sublime on the night and will be looking to add to his try scoring tally.

Connacht Rugby ring the changes from the side who exited European competition last weekend at home to Gloucester Rugby. A chance for Kieran Keane and management to give game time to squad players. Delahunt, Carey, Cannon come into the pack as Ultan Dillane starts which is good to see. A brand new three quarter unit as Robb and Griffin replace Aki and Farrell.

A game which should produce tries considering the two back lines named, the hosts look well primed in the pack to create the platform to secure another morale boosting home victory to conclude the season. Ospreys win with a late bonus point try in this one as Connacht Rugby’s defensive breakdowns in recent weeks will be exposed yet again.

A fixture which has home win written all over it. The big question as I publish this blog (April 5th) is the Leinster Rugby team selection that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will name for this encounter. The assumption is that the players who excelled last weekend in European action will get the weekend off so it could be a squad selection of squad players as well as a chance for Sean O’Brien to impress potentially.

The Leinster Rugby squad depth is excellent and it is dread that Zebre Rugby travel to the RDS for this encounter particularly when you see the game tape from their last road trip; an embarrassing loss to Glasgow Warriors who scored sixty plus points.

The hope is that Zebre Rugby are competitive and do not get hammered but if the weather conditions are good, expect the Leinster Rugby squad assembled to produce a cohesive performance which could heap more road trip agony for Michael Bradley’s charges. Bonus point try win for Leinster Rugby beckons hopefully in the second half and not in the opening period. Zebre’s pack needs to produce a performance but I cannot see it.

A Conference A fixture which could have huge ramifications in the direction of the playoff race. If Toyota Cheetahs can win this contest, they will open up a significant end of season points gap to Cardiff Blues who are improving with each passing round. A victory for Cardiff Blues and we are setup for an interesting Conference A playoff race for third place.

Cardiff Blues will be buoyant after their 6-20 road trip over well fancied Edinburgh Rugby last weekend in European Challenge Cup action. An accurate, clinical opening period setting the platform for victory. The Cardiff Blues pack were excellent during the game and the cohesion between the pack and back line was impressive at times.

Toyota Cheetahs enter this fixture after another couple of weeks of inactivity. Their last fixture was a convincing bonus point try win to the Dragons; absorbing early pressure from the hosts to close out the contest in emphatic fashion. The home confines of Bloemfontein will be most welcome.

In their first fixture this season, Cardiff Blues emerged 25-20 victors. A game which ebbed and flowed throughout as Toyota Cheetahs were made to pay for accuracy issues at both sides of the ball. Cardiff Blues will pose serious problems in the back row and back line areas but Toyota Cheetahs with home advantage and altitude advantage sees them just pip Cardiff Blues in an entertaining match-up.

This looks like the fixture of the round if solid squad selections are announced. However, Scarlets may rest key personnel after last weekend’s win at home to La Rochelle. Does Wayne Pivac decide to rest players now or next weekend ahead of their Leinster European Rugby Champions Cup showdown in two weeks? Intriguing selection beckons for the hosts.

Glasgow Warriors have already secured playoff and home field advantage so it will be interesting to see the team selection from Dave Rennie. A game where they can produce a performance with zero pressure, expect an open expansive game from the top team in Conference A.

This fixture is dependent on the Scarlets squad; if it is a solid team selection, expect an epic encounter but I sense that the squad named will be predominantly squad players with some players needing additional game time. Edge to Glasgow Warriors at this time.

A fixture of little consequence, only pride. Dragons probably have more reasons to win this contest, a long awaited first league win of the year. A season which has seen Bernard Jackman’s charges exposed due to inexperience and squad depth, it is imperative that the Welsh region win a game before season end to rid this wretched league loss record.

Benetton Rugby though will look to consolidate a solid season in Conference B. Their performances this season have being on point, secured a mid-table league position and their level of performance has impressed me with some superb victories to more illustrious opposition on paper throughout the season.

Slight edge to Benetton Rugby; their squad looks better on paper to Dragons who will continue to struggle to put points on the board despite having exciting talent out wide where Hewitt has the potential to become an excellent winger. Marty Banks game management pivotal for me down the stretch.

Munster Rugby travel to Kimberley. A timely tour of South Africa to recharge the batteries this week after that bruising win over Toulon last weekend. An emotional trip for the likes of Stander, Kleyn, Grobler and van Graan to their native homeland. Munster Rugby enter this fixture with both Simon Zebo and Darren Sweetnam unavailable for selection due to injuries sustained last weekend.

Johan van Graan will look to change up the side this weekend so the likes of James Hart and JJ Hanrahan potentially could be given game time at half-back. Stephen Fitzgerald could conceivably come into the line up at full back. Conor Oliver looks a solid bet to feature in the back row.

Southern Kings will look to produce a positive start against Munster Rugby; the game conditions indicate a match full of entertaining open expansive phases and tries. Provided Munster Rugby can execute in the set piece efficiently, then the advantage in this encounter goes to the visitors. Hopefully, there will be a good crowd in attendance to see the fixture.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 Review (Part 2)

As promised, the second part of the Guinness Pro 14 Round 17 review. It was a mixed bag for the Italian and South African sides while Glasgow Warriors moved one win away from securing a home playoff semi-final berth. For the Dragons, it was a case of same again with yet another loss in the league.

Glasgow Warriors were at their devastating best with a 68-7 trouncing of a shell shocked Zebre Rugby. In my blog preview of round seventeen, I was concerned for Zebre Rugby; how expansive would they go before being opened up by the Warriors.

The simple answer was that Zebre Rugby did not have to go expansive to get thumped, the hosts did the needful themselves with an excellent cohesive pack and back unit performance which left the Italians at times chasing shadows.

The scoreline speaks volumes. 40-0 up at the break only a try from Canna early in the second half prevented the whitewash. The passing game at times was sublime with DTH van der Merwe prominent throughout and a brace of tries for his efforts.

If that was not enough, Zebre Rugby gifted an intercept try as well as a penalty try as their pack were going backwards at a rate of knots. Glasgow Warriors have being the form side of the Conference A from the very first game.

Warriors thoroughly deserve their home semi-final berth which should be clinched in the coming weeks. The key will be how the side keep their performances at a high level while also looking at the playoffs and resting key personnel along the way.

 

Zebre Rugby were taught a massive lesson in road trip performance; they failed to deliver a performance from minute one relinquishing territory and points thereafter at a worryingly rate. Two steps back in this fixture for the side.

Zebre Rugby will know that they will not face a side like Glasgow Warriors every day of the week but given the lack of fundamentals in their play last Friday night, plenty of sides would fancy running a score against the Italians which is a shame considering the progress that Michael Bradley’s side has made. The team and squad depth looked jaded here and perhaps the fatigue element is beginning to show as we approach the final quarter of the season given the inexperience in the playing group.

Toyota Cheetahs are my guilty pleasure of this tournament. They do not deviate from their game plan; it is a fast paced, expansive contest regardless of the conditions. Their third quarter performance blew a youthful Dragons outfit out of the water inspired by Sibahle Maxwane and Fred Zeilinga who crossed over for three tries collectively in that period.

The pace, power and passing selection were all superb for these tries and it opened the contest up. A vital fourth try was scored before the end to keep the pressure on Munster Rugby as well as keeping Cardiff Blues at arms length. Conference A is a race for the the second and third spots. Glasgow Warriors are over the horizon and it is now a tossup between Munster Rugby, Cheetahs and Cardiff Blues to see who fills the other two playoff berths.

I would love to see the Cheetahs in the playoffs, their brand of rugby in drying track conditions mean that they are a serious threat for anyone in this conference come May. Blommetjies at full back is sensational joining the line; his pace was a key factor in this victory for the South Africans. An exciting playoff run in beckons with Munster Rugby yet to travel to Bleomfontein.

This was always a season of transition for Dragons. The new franchise tag. A new head coach arriving at Rodney Parade needing to run the rule over a youthful squad. The last couple of months in the league has being incredibly hard; no wins in the league in 2018. There are glimpses of potential in the side; a good opening quarter failed to put the required scores on the board. Hewitt on the wing is an emerging talent, pace and tidy finisher and was again on the scoresheet.

The issue for Dragons is when they do go under the cosh, their defensive lapses and penalty count soar due to the inexperience in the squad. Cheetahs exploited Dragons defensively with their expansive ball carrying game plan. Blommetjies in particular had a field day coming into the line. Dragons had no answer in the second half even though Dee scored with ten minutes to go to make the contest interesting at the death. Experience is key and Dragons do not have it in many areas.

The recruitment process needs to identify further experienced, solid performers in the pack, center and half-back positions. Otherwise, Bernard Jackman will be walking the tightrope this time next year. It is a key period for Dragons management right now; they need to heed the players who are not hitting the standard required. Jackman gets the pass this season but this side needs to evolve next season, otherwise the fans will make their feelings known by not attending home games at Rodney Parade. Critical preparation for next season has already begun!

This was an excellent road trip win for Benetton Rugby, a defining one in that they needed to close out a contest late and they duly did so. Marty Banks provided leadership and game management to steer the side to this win. Five tries scored in total against the Southern Kings. An excellent opening half offensively from Benetton Rugby but defensively struggled particularly in that final quarter. One point in the difference but Benetton Rugby were disciplined to win the contest.

A progressive season for the Italian side and games like this should create momentum and confidence heading into next season. The pack is progressing, still not the finished article but set the platform in this victory with the opening period try burst to start the contest. The back line assisted by Marty Banks continues to evolve with ball in hand but defensively cannot lapse as badly again particularly on the Makase line break, no try but the defensive lapse would be punished by a better side.

So close yet so far again, the Southern Kings were made paid for a slow start and it cost them this fixture. A one point loss at home hurts badly and particularly when they had a man advantage in the third quarter, they failed to put points on the board. In actual fact, Benetton Rugby scored a penalty during this period to win this ten minute period 0-3 which was vital to the final outcome.

The word consistency comes into the equation with the Southern Kings. When they are accurate with ball in hand, they are an effective side. They scored five tries during this contest but the defensive side of the ball is way off the standard required.

The lack of discipline at crucial stages in the second half evident; hopefully there will be solid recruitment in this franchise next season across all units. It is required to give Southern Kings a chance to compete in this league; otherwise would suggest to the South African RFU to disband the team immediately.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 15 Reflections

An intriguing weekend of action with some keynote results for the Italian clubs, Glasgow Warriors punching their ticket for the playoffs already (yes, it is only February) and excellent wins for Cardiff Blues, Leinster Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby and Ospreys. Hawkeye Sidekick picks out the key moments from round fifteen.

Italian team resurgence

It is only right to start off with giving kudos to Zebre Rugby and Benetton Rugby who had excellent road trip victories. Zebre Rugby started the Italian club renaissance with an excellent performance full of work rate, creativity with ball in hand and defensively well organized.

Connacht were under par but take nothing away from this performance from Michael Bradley’s charges who nullified the hosts attacking play, stifled in the pack exchanges and with Canna on point in game management, the eight point win was well deserved. The ability of Zebre Rugby to create line breaks with subtle passing inside was evident from early doors. The disallowed opening half try was a superb passage of play and should be the blueprint for the side to progress and compete in this league.

Zebre Rugby were boosted undoubtedly by the return of their Italian contingent. Canna, Mbanda and Meyer were excellent throughout. Their performances set the tone and others around them followed suit.

The line speed defensively from Zebre Rugby was immense throughout evident in their third try. Connacht’s exit strategy blocked by impressive pressure from the Italians. A result which hopefully sees the side grow and prosper. The trip to Foto for the Zebre Rugby team last week worked wonders!

Benetton Rugby held out to beat a Dragons team who are now without a Pro 14 league win since September. The 15-18 road trip win was a case study in resolve, refusing to panic after a disappointing start to the contest leaking ten points early. The ability of the side to regroup and then scored two tries of their own in the opening period was striking.

Marty Banks has become a prominent member of the Benetton Rugby side. His experience and game management again stood out particularly in the second half when the game was in the balance. The New Zealander picked the right option in the final quarter and his sixty-five minute penalty was the game winner.

A magnificent weekend for the Pro 14 Italian clubs. This blog at times has lamented the lack of form of the Italian national side but sincerely hope that these set of results are the stimulus to provide renewed confidence and performance levels for club and country. Pro 14 tournament organizers will hope this is a key weekend for the competition; the league needs competitive Italian sides. Time will tell but this weekend has being superb for all involved with Italian rugby.

Glasgow secure playoff rugby

Congratulations to Glasgow Warriors for securing their ticket to the playoffs already. They have being superb in the league and their expansive style of play was showcased again in an exciting encounter against the Toyota Cheetahs last Friday night. Matawalu was his typical sublime best, making line breaks from nothing, offloading to colleagues with unerring accuracy in wintry conditions at Scotstoun.

Glasgow’s cohesion was on point this weekend and some of the tries were superbly created and executed. Dave Rennie’s charges ability to suck opposition players into contact to move the ball seamlessly out to the wing has being superb this season. The traits were seen again as the pack gradually wore down a determined Cheetahs outfit, breakdown work improved in the third quarter and opportunities then were created.

A marvelous achievement for all involved with Glasgow Warriors. Playoff rugby secured already, key is to keep the form consistent for the business end of the season. The squad has being decimated by international call-ups but the players who have stepped into the side have seamlessly executed the game plan.

No disgrace for Toyota Cheetahs on this performance. Like last weekend, their expansive open play saw several eye catching moments and were competitive for long periods but once the Glasgow Warriors pack asserted momentum and platform, they had no answers. Playoff rugby still a realistic aim but pack improvements particularly on the road is required.

Edinburgh strike late to secure decisive win

The manner of the victory will increase further confidence in the Edinburgh Rugby ranks. The composure at the death to control an attacking scrum five meters out from the Ulster line, the ability to control the subsequent breakdown, the ability to pass to Weir and the drop goal execution were all on point.

Ulster Rugby will rue this 16-17 loss but there was some positive facets of play throughout. The manner in which Cooney scored the opening try of the contest was excellent; swift ball handling setting up a player overlap on the wing which ultimately saw John Cooney superbly supporting the play to score.

Edinburgh Rugby have flourished in recent months under RIchard Cockerill who has the side playing a lovely brand of rugby. Abrasive, well organized yet creative when the opportunities present themselves. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne personally was a standout performer, constantly looking for weaknesses around the Ulster defensive fringes. His line break in the opening period and drubber kick for the first Edinburgh was sensational. Wonder if Gregor Townsend was watching?

The second try for Edinburgh Rugby was well worked, a superb line taken by Carmichael who continues to impress with each passing week. The second row pace and power to get over was superb and setup a scintillating last quarter which ebbed and flowed until the final whistle.

Edinburgh Rugby jump to third in the Conference B standings and are setup well to challenge for the league playoff push now after successive victories over Leinster Rugby and Ulster Rugby now. Gibbes and Ulster Rugby management know now that there is a battle to secure playoff rugby, interesting to see how the side react to this latest reversal.

Cardiff Blues pace too much for Munster Rugby

25-18 scoreline but it does not tell the full story of this encounter. Munster Rugby have being guilty of not starting well in recent fixtures albeit not punished. However, Cardiff Blues punished a very slow Munster Rugby start to create decisive daylight in the opening period to win this contest.

The two sides style of play were poles apart. While Cardiff Blues played with flair and creativity, creating line breaks at regular intervals in the opening period, Munster Rugby were incapable of making any genuine line breaks in open exchanges. Munster Rugby cohesion was well and truly off and the first two tries emphasized this point.

The first Cardiff Blues try taking advantage of slack defensive over at the line out, swift passing exchanges setting Rees away for an easy twenty meter carry which led to the opening try. The second try was a nightmare for Duncan Williams, a slow exit strategy was blocked (Marshall lax in defensive duties too) and the resultant passage of play leading to Cardiff Blues scoring their try. Williams struggled for tempo throughout and Hart’s cameo in the second half will ignite debate on the backup nine position.

Owen Lane was tipped on this blog during last week’s preview as one to watch. Lane’s incredible pace was too much for Munster Rugby’s back field for the Cardiff Blues third try. The drubber kick was superbly executed but it was all Lane in his pace and execution for the try. An immense player with ball in hand and one to watch for the Cardiff Blues going forward.

After a slow season start, Cardiff Blues have picked up key momentum in recent months. Qualification out of the Pool of Death in the European Challenge Cup has boosted confidence, which has resulted in player confidence to execute a more expansive game plan. Two impressive Pro 14 wins in consecutive weeks has Cardiff Blues well set to secure European Champions Cup rugby next season, great to see!

Munster Rugby will be first to admit that the performance levels were not at the standards expected but the second half performance was spirited with the pack improving with good cohesive spells in the set piece and maul. Cleote and Fitzgerald tries were well worked but they left themselves too much to do in the second half. The penalty from Bleyendaal at the death secured a loser bonus point, something which looked beyond them in the opening half.

Johann van Graan and management will look to address the glaring performance issues this week. They need to and more with a rampant Glasgow Warriors arriving this week for a key conference battle. A win is required but the display this week will have focused minds in the Munster camp to step up and become more accurate, otherwise face home field embarrassment.

Leinster win but Scarlets secure a losing bonus point

20-13. Leinster Rugby win the battle of the top two Conference B sides, shame that the fixture was not played with full squads. James Lowe was the standout performer in this contest. His line breaks and threat will ball in hand sensational and his two try haul in the opening period pivotal to the win.

Leinster Rugby have additional injury concerns heading into the business end of the season. Luke McGrath’s withdrawal will be monitored closely by the club and national team. Any significant layoff and Leinster Rugby squad depth at nine will be tested. An interesting medical prognosis beckons early this week on the scrum half.

Credit to the Scarlets, played with width as always and Beirne again stood out for the Welsh region. McNicholl looked sharp before his withdrawal and this losing bonus point effort could be golden in who reaches the top of the conference come end of April. Dan Jones was unerring his goal kicking at the death to secure that point. All to play for Conference B summit battle, the return battle should be epic.

Ospreys overcome the Southern Kings

Southern Kings continue to look for that elusive Pro 14 league win. On the positive side, their opening half performance was encouraging with two well worked tries but the second half saw a much more improved Ospreys pack performance to secure victory and a bonus point try to boot. Positive signs from the South African side but plenty of scope for improvement to get that elusive win.

The Ospreys pack pivotal to the home win scoring two penalty tries in the second half and the win was completed with an excellent Hassler effort whose running line was sublime. 26-12 scoreline. Ospreys will be happy with the result, the performance was a mixed bag particularly in the opening period after a promising start allowing the Southern Kings field position and game line breaks.