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.

 

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Quarter Final Predictions

This is an immense rugby weekend in European professional club rugby circles. This weekend marks the business end of the season where teams will come to the party and seize the opportunity while others will wilt and run out of gas. Several fascinating fixtures on tap in this much maligned competition this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick takes his crystal ball out and tries to predict the winners (not many road wins beckon!).

Highly impressed with Newcastle Falcons this season. Shrewd player recruitment last season has reaped the rewards. Toby Flood has provided experience, game management, leadership and excellent kicking game to complement a youthful Newcastle squad who are challenging for a top six Aviva Premiership finish.

Newcastle Falcons bring in wingers Alex Tait and Zach Kibirige to replace Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti among six starting changes. Sam Stuart comes into the halves, while hooker Scott Lawson, prop Scott Wilson and Ryan Burrows also start.

An interesting lineup but one that Dean Richards trusts to do the job. You are always looking at the French club mindset in this competition. The mindset has being indifferent to this competition at times, not sure where this competition ranks with Brive who have looked vulnerable on the road this season.

If Newcastle Falcons can start on the front foot and players such as Matavesi start to dominate from three quarters, Brive could cave in at a rate of knots. This would be a shock if Newcastle did not win this fixture with something to spare; the reward is a home semi-final as well. Added motivation for the side here and expect them to win going away.

Pau have being the surprise package of this tournament so far. They went 6/6 in their pool phase, beating Gloucester Rugby emphatically home and away. Simon Mannix’s charges will fancy their chances of advancing to the last four; a raucous home crowd support and a Stade Francais side who have being woefully inconsistent on the road this season.

Pau’s pack selection looks pretty decisive in this fixture. Solid operators in the ranks such as Armitage, Domingo and then you add the ex-Munster contingent to the mix who know how to win playoff rugby (Dave Foley, Paudie Butler, Sean McDougall), you get the sense that the side have the nous, game management to win this fixture.

Stade Francais have massive threats as well, expansive back field with Steyn at full back who will happily join the line and create line breaks. Pilsson has great range but yet again can be inconsistent in execution particularly on the road. There are question marks on the pack, questioning the back row ability to win the breakdown. Sergio Parisse on the bench but may be too late for him to make a game winning impression.

Pau have being a breathe of fresh air in this competition this season, would be a shame that they depart the tournament now after taking the pool stages so seriously. Pau for me at home look a solid bet to win over a Stade Francais who will produce a performance of frustration showing the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

The history books are certainly not on Connacht Rugby’s side this weekend. 0/5 against their opposition this weekend. Last weekend’s performance was a mixed bag and the locals around the province will look for a response this weekend.

Gloucester Rugby come in on the back of a bonus point try win over relegation doomed London Irish last weekend. Gloucester’s opening quarter and final quarter performance were poor and gives Connacht Rugby hope of victory. In between, the West Country side were on point in the pack exchanges and produced some excellent line breaks to score several tries. Trinder and Marshall were standouts in the back line. Afoa in the front row solid as always.

How do Connacht Rugby win this contest? Can the front five disrupt Gloucester set piece ball sufficiently? The line out at times for Gloucester has misfired spectacularly. The Pau home loss evidence of this in January; an ambitious line out call to the back of the line towards the end of the opening half when on their five meter line was a knucklehead play. It got the treatment it deserved; Armitage crashed over for a Pau try as the set piece was overthrown.

Connacht Rugby’s expansive style will gel well with Gloucester’s style of play, expect plenty of line breaks. Connacht Rugby need to bring in their defensive line speed and first time tackles to the party. Their exit strategy was poor last weekend. The performance needs to be on point this week. Accuracy is the keyword in all facets of play.

Gloucester Rugby have undeniable quality across the park. The game management at times can be an issue, attempt to run the ball from their own posts. Billy Burns is a work in progress, exciting half-back but inclined to become one dimensional in his attacking play with very little kicking game in open play. Billy Twelvetrees provides the game management closer tag, looks to close out victories for the side off the bench.

It will be interesting to see how the bookies view this contest. Both sides have performance consistency issues; both sides will have defensive lapses. It is about who wins the set piece battle with Romain Poite officiating. The scrum set piece could be the decisive factor here; penalty concessions either side here could be the difference.

Connacht Rugby have the backs against the wall mentality here this weekend. A defeat here and the season is over. Gloucester Rugby can be exposed but it will require an accurate Connacht Rugby effort to execute the game plan to do so.

Training has gone well this week in the camp, lessons of last weekend learned and with a pacy back three too, going for a home win (heart ruling head here).

Gloucester’s back three also poses a serious threat. Good weather conditions, expect line breaks and tries galore provided Poite lets the game flow. The Clan terrace will be buzzing.

Fascinating contest here. The breakdown battle for me is the key factor to this fixture. Both teams with progressive form entering this contest. Hardie vs. Navidi battle looks epic. Enough said, both are seven specialists and it will be fascinating to see how both negate the other at the breakdown.

Edinburgh Rugby are one of the stories of the Guinness Pro 14 season. Their form in recent months under the guidance of Richard Cockerill has being excellent. Home win against Glasgow Warriors with fourteen players, putting Ulster Rugby to the sword at Kingspan Stadium, a good South African tour. Third place in Conference B consolidated in recent weeks so can focus on this tournament with interest.

Solid squad assembled by Edinburgh Rugby. The front five has experience galore. Nel and Gilchrist are massive standouts in the side, set the tone. Hardie is a superb seven. The half back partnership is excellent and then you have Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to come into the fray to close out the contest. Exciting back line with Kinghorn, Fife, Duhan van der Merwe.

They are a team which has an excellent trait; they find a way to win at the death. They refuse to give up on a result and their performances in recent weeks have borne this out. Ulster Rugby road trip was a key victory; the composure to win the contest with the drop goal shows composure, maturity and leadership. A team with massive aspirations this season and going forward!

Cardiff Blues have increased their performance in recent months so much so that they are now in the Conference A playoff hunt putting pressure on the Toyota Cheetahs. An experienced front five with the likes of Rees and Jenkins in the ranks. The eight channel is covered by Nick Williams. Allen in the second row and Navidi in the seven position, pack is solid.

Blues have progressed well in their expansive play. Anscombe is a key cog in terms of game management and with the likes of Lane and Evans playing at a high level, they will travel to Edinburgh with no fear. All the pundits will point to a home victory.

This to me is the closest game of the weekend. Blues pose mobility and breakdown issues for Edinburgh Rugby to address. This game could conceivably go to extra time as I do not think either side will give an inch. Edinburgh to potentially shade it at the death but this will be a game where the fine margins will be minute.