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 Four (Friday Night Fixtures)

Road trips beckon for Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby

Round four of the Guinness Pro 14 has two Friday night fixtures on the books. Ulster Rugby conclude their South African tour with a fixture against the Toyota Cheetahs while Munster Rugby must negotiate a tricky banana skin road trip fixture at Cardiff Blues. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on both games. 

Ulster Rugby look to continue their winning ways

Ulster Rugby primed for another win

Ulster Rugby will look to build on the good second half performance against Isuzu Southern Kings and secure another win in the competition. They face a Toyota Cheetahs side devastated by key personnel departures in the off-season as well as key injuries to the current squad.  Mohoje long term knee injury is a massive loss and the hosts here look incredibly vulnerable. 

Yet another crushing defeat for the Toyota Cheetahs last weekend as Glasgow Warriors skill set and attacking lines were too much for the hosts who have now leaked a worrying 136 points from three games. One could argue that Munster Rugby, Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors are going to be at the business end of the season but defensive gaps and lapses have being alarming so far particularly in the third and fourth quarter of games so far; no quick fix.  

Ulster Rugby have made a couple of personnel changes for this fixture. Shanahan gets a chance to impress at scrum-half due to the absence of John Cooney. Will Addison returns to the full back slot. Herbst, O’Sullivan, Rea and Kernohan all get valuable game time. 

The key battle in this contest will be the front five battle. Can Toyota Cheetahs bully Ulster Rugby in the set piece? If they can, the hosts could have a chance but Ulster Rugby should win provided that they remain patient in their execution and phases with an exciting back line on hand to expose a fragile Cheetahs defensive confidence. 

Verdict: Ulster Rugby

After a competitive opening half, expect Ulster Rugby to stride out to another win. The altitude factor will mean that Ulster Rugby win but without the bonus point try but if they can win at Bloemfontein, a minimum eight points return from their South African tour will be a fantastic return and start to the season. Addison to have a proverbial day.

Cardiff Blues in must win territory

Cardiff Blues under pressure to win

It has being one strange start to the season for Cardiff Blues; three opening games where Cardiff Blues had the game in their grasp only to surrender the result in the closing exchanges as Leinster Rugby, Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby have all prospered from Cardiff Blues discipline and defensive lapses. 

This is a side which are better than the 0/3 start to the season; several standout players in the ranks. The back line is stacked with physicality, pace and try scoring prowess. Anscombe slots into the full back spot, will look to use his kicking game to setup a platform. 

Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo are an explosive three quarter combination. Scully and Harries provide the after burners and Harries try count has being a standout positive for the side this season so far.

The pack is stacked with talent with the likes of Arhip, Dacey, Turnbull, Navidi, Williams all featuring; a side well capable of turning a miserable start of the season around.

Munster Rugby come into this contest after an emphatic win over a massively under-strength Ospreys last week. A game which saw the talent of Carbery and Beirne to the maximum but both players will realize that a road trip assignment to Cardiff Blues is a different proposition entirely. 

The Munster Rugby side has an exciting feel; an opening look at CJ Stander who slots into the eight channel. He links up with Cleote and O’Mahony in the back row which should see some keynote exchanges with Navidi, Jenkins and the marauding Nick Williams.

The half back partnership will be interesting to see. Evans at ten is a standout; great ball player whose ability to create with ball in hand and solid kick game makes him a standout threat for the Irish province. Duncan Williams needs to speed up his distribution from set piece and ruck ball to allow Joey Carbery to shine with ball in hand.

Pleasing to see Jaco Taute back in the three quarters; an intense welcome from Lee-Lo beckons and JJ Hanrahan comes into the full back position looking to prove a point after a miserable Glasgow Warriors outing in round two. The wing play of Sweetnam and Conway should be prominent provided Munster Rugby pack enjoy good periods of dominance. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby

Like the look of this Munster Rugby side and this will be a serious test against a Cardiff Blues side who will provide seriously tricky moments. Cardiff Blues performance lapse deep into games could be exposed yet again in this round and I think Munster Rugby have the sufficient talent to get over the line by three points. Cardiff Blues left to rue more good moments in a game with minimal return. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 1 (Friday Fixture Preview)

Roll on the new season!

The wait is finally over. The eve of the second Guinness Pro 14 tournament is upon us; an intriguing off season with several clubs acquiring potentially astute signings. The season kicks off on Friday night with three fixtures up for decision. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict the opening night winners and losers. 

Can Cardiff Blues upset Leinster Rugby? 

A tricky opening night road trip fixture for Leinster Rugby to negotiate. The reigning Guinness Pro 14 champions will be without numerous first team starters who played for Ireland in the Australian summer tour. It is an opportunity yet again for the squad to impress.

Leinster Rugby’s team sheet sees a debut for the physically imposing Joe Tomane in the three quarters where he will be partnered by Rory O’Loughlin who will look to kick on after an excellent season with the Irish province last term. 

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have named the promising Caelan Doris at eight. It will be interesting to see how the Ireland U20 star fares in this opening fixture with the likes of Max Deegan eager to get back into the first team fold. 

Huge onus will be on Scott Fardy to provide the experience and leadership in a front five which will sees Tracy, Bent, Molony in the ranks. Rhys Ruddock captains the side in Johnny Sexton’s absence. The back three have a point to prove and Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne and leading try scorer in the league last season Barry Daly will look to get their season off to a solid start. 

Cardiff Blues will look to kick on after an incredibly positive second half of last season culminating in the European Challenge Cup final win. This final win should increase confidence within the camp and head coach John Mulvihill will look for the likes of Ellis Jenkins to provide key leadership this season with the shock retirement of Sam Warburton.

The hosts name a solid side for this opening fixture. Arhip and Thornton with debuts for the club after their moves from rivals Ospreys. Arhip in particular looks a shrewd signing; the Moldovan is an efficient scrum operator. The workhorse Nick Williams will be asked to setup primary platform ball, looking to smash Ross Byrne in the ten channel. 

Cardiff Blues half back pairing looks quality. Williams and Evans forged a successful partnership last season and if they can establish quick ruck ball, their back line has the ability to put Leinster Rugby under massive pressure. Halaholo and Lee-Lo have the perfect mix of creativity and physicality and this can only be good news for Harries (on debut), Lane and Morgan to impress with ball in hand. 

Verdict: Cardiff Blues

Tough encounter beckons, expect tries from both sides given the personnel in the ranks but Cardiff Blues know that they need to start this season much better than last year and I edge this encounter to the hosts as Leinster Rugby cohesion issues will surface in the back and pack units. Leinster Rugby to secure at least a loser bonus point. Pressure is on Cardiff Blues to win this fixture. 

Quality match-up at the Liberty

A potential standout fixture with several standout players on both team sheets and the victor tomorrow night will look with confidence going into the early season fixture list. 

Ospreys’ were made to pay for a poor start to last season; the departure of Steve Tandy who was replaced by Allen Clarke sparked a revival in the second half of the season but defeat to Ulster Rugby in the end of season playoff means European Challenge Cup this season. 

Ospreys have made several astute signings. The key marquee signings were Scott Williams (Scarlets), George North (Northampton Saints) and Aled Davies (Scarlets). Tom Botha (Cheetahs) has the potential to be a dark horse signing this season. All players make their debut for the club. 

The hosts have named a strong pack. Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies provide experience, leadership and set piece efficiency. The back row is stacked with talent as Tipuric, King and Lydiate will look to disrupt Edinburgh Rugby quick ruck ball. 

The key area of interest is the half-back partnership for the Ospreys. Webb and Biggar have departed. Aled Davies and Luke Price start the post Webb / Biggar era and it will be interesting to see how the new half back partnership fare. Sam Davies on the bench will look to make an impact if this unit does not fire early doors. 

Edinburgh Rugby were the most progressive side of the tournament last season (close call with the Cheetahs). Richard Cockerill and backroom staff have really impressed; there is a winning culture at the club and they have not being afraid of cutting players who fell below the standards expected of a professional rugby player, not looking at anyone in particular John Hardie. 

The Scottish side name a strong side for this opener as well which makes this fixture so mouthwatering. Debut cameos for Scott, Hickey, Pygros, Schoeman and Luke Hamilton. Hickey in particular has the potential to provide that extra creativity required to get Edinburgh over the line in key playoff fixtures. Duhan van der Merwe will look to push on after a superb debut season in the league.

The pack looks experience with quality performers throughout. McInally, Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist and Mata will be tested to the maximum by the Ospreys pack unit; the breakdown battle has all the ingredients to be explosive. Luke Hamilton will be a player to watch this season for Edinburgh; abrasive work rate and ability around the fringes. 

Verdict:

A very close fixture to call. There are going to be some exceptional back and pack battles on show. The key duel is the half back contest and siding with the experienced Edinburgh combination. Cohesion issues will be apparent early but there should be some excellent passages of play. Both teams have the ability to secure bonus point tries such is their threat out wide. Nip and tuck but Hickey looks the key man here for the visitors. 

Zebre Rugby look a solid bet

The transfer in and outs for each side is usually not that remarkable in the Guinness Pro 14 league typically but the rate of turnover in the Cheetahs and Southern Kings is astounding. Just the twenty-two departures for the Southern Kings who floundered badly in their debut season last year. 

I am looking at the starting lineup and the word cohesion and game time leaps out. Thirteen new faces in the squad and six of those will be in the squad with full-back Michael Botha, lock Schalk Oelofse and flanker Henry Brown in the starting XV as JC Astle, Ulrich Beyers and Luphumlo Mguca are named amongst the replacements.

Zebre Rugby have invested in their squad for the new season. Eleven signings to the squad and four of those look to make an impact off the bench. Francois Brummer, Massimo Ceciliani, Giosue Zilocchi and Apisai Tauyavuca are all primed to make their debuts in a Zebre jersey.

Michael Bradley given the circumstances last season has done an excellent job as head coach; last season was to provide structures and foundations to build on this season. The hope is that Zebre Rugby can compete well in the majority of the league fixtures but easier said than done! 

Verdict: Zebre Rugby

This is a game where Isuzu Southern Kings personnel changes and lack of playing time together will be exposed. Zebre Rugby have a more solid squad and starting lineup and I expect Canna at ten to control tempo and game management to allow their back line to secure a bonus point win. Kings hopefully compete here but the signs look grave even at this early stage. 

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.