Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 3

Saracens look strong

This has the potential to be a superb pool full of inventive play and bonus point try performances. A pool where Saracens line up against reigning European Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues, Lyon and a Glasgow Warriors who this season need to stand up and deliver in this competition. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool.

Saracens looking to make amends

Lions tour. Injuries. Lack of form all contributed to Saracens only barely getting to the last eight of the competition last season. They were a team condemned heading to the Aviva Stadium to face a relentless Leinster Rugby and lessons from last season have being learned. 

Saracens in this pool looked a prime competition contender. Minimal weak points from the pack, half-backs into the back line. I am looking forward to see how Jamie George evolves in the competition this season; his set piece and mobility will be to the fore. Maro Itoje in the lock position is a supreme athlete, interesting to see how his discipline has evolved since last season where he was feeling the wrath of match officials more times than not. 

Wigglesworth and Farrell form a formidable half-back partnership and then you add the promising Lozsowski in the mix, competition is strong in this area of the park. The back line contains the experience Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch who will look to unleash the likes of Alex Goode and Liam Williams into the line at a regular rate. 

Saracens start their European crusade this season with a tricky road trip to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun. Can Glasgow Warriors prove themselves in European Cup action? A terribly disappointing effort last season and Dave Rennie will need to call on Adam Hastings to be the x-factor for his side as Finn Russell has departed for life at Racing 92. 

Glasgow Warriors will provide expansive passage of play from deep but question marks abound on the front five when facing slick, efficient counterparts. They were found wanting last season against the likes of Exeter Chiefs, Leinster Rugby and Montpellier and I am not sure if it has improved to the extent required to compete with the likes of Saracens. 

The side are a superb Guinness Pro 14 outfit but there are lingering questions on when this side will evolve and be considered as a contender in European Cup competition. The opening fixture to Saracens will answer those questions quickly. 

Cardiff Blues come into the competition on the back of progressive form in Guinness Pro 14 action. A home win against Munster Rugby has set morale soaring. Evans, Anscombe can control games and with the likes of Halaholo, Lane, Harries out wide to score tries; it is a real potent attacking edge. Furthermore, an abrasive pack led by the likes of Turnbull, Navidi, Nick Williams will mean that no pool opponent will get an easy game from the Welsh side. 

Lyon. The debutantes in this competition are stacked with squad talent but whether European fare is their priority (skeptical) remains up in the air. Doussain and Beauxis provide a formidable experience half back experience and with a solid pack and back line, the side at home will be a match for anyone but as European Challenge Cup experience has shown, the side’s mindset when in Europe can be questionable. 

Verdict:

Saracens are the form side in this pool; their domestic form is 6/6 and their toughest conceivable game could this weekend in Glasgow. If they safely negotiate this fixture, Saracens could run the rule over all other pool opponents before Christmas and safely secure a pool winner berth. 

Question marks on the other sides in this pool. The mini-league between these sides could see teams potentially cancelling each other with home wins. Glasgow Warriors could nick a playoff best runner up but I need convincing. 

Guinness Pro 14: Cardiff Blues 37 – 13 Munster Rugby

Cardiff Blues crush Munster Rugby

Prelude:

On my preview of this fixture this week,  (http://hawkeyesidekick.com/2018/09/guinness-pro-14-round-four-friday-night-fixtures) I had commented that Cardiff Blues were not a 0/3 team heading into the fixture. They would have felt that all three games slipped away due to discipline and defensive lapses. Cardiff Blues were in a back against the wall scenario; a loss here and the Guinness Pro 14 playoff ambitions would be seriously undermined. Munster Rugby were warned but quite frankly were blown away a side whose work rate at the breakdown, sparkling running game were to the fore.

Dominant Cardiff Blues

The scoreline rather flatters Munster Rugby if truth be told. Cardiff Blues winger Lane thought he was over in the opening period only to be pinged back for a block leading up to the score, a tough harsh.

The hosts were the dominant side in the set piece; the line out was an unmitigated nightmare for Munster Rugby; over throws, throws not straight, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong which then saw issues at scrum time as Arhip started to impose his presence on proceedings. 

The breakdown was crisp in its execution from Cardiff Blues; quick ruck ball to allow the half backs to launch their exciting back line. Munster Rugby tried to stem the quick ball but it was a forlorn effort as the likes of Turnbull, Williams and Navidi had the edge all night. 

Munster Rugby had moments of brilliance from Carbery and Conway to score two quality team tries in the opening period to keep the Irish province in touch but the second half was a no contest as Cardiff Blues exposed more defensive decision making and yet more unforced errors in set piece and open play. 

Munster Rugby – Skill Set Issue?

The result is concerning for Munster Rugby but what is of more concern is that the skill set across the side looks well short when faced against a decent starting lineup. Let us forget the Toyota Cheetahs and Ospreys (B team selection), two non-event fixtures. When it has being put up to Munster Rugby against Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues on the road, the side have being lacking in execution, creating a pack platform and general one dimensional attacking play. 

Try Analysis 

The Cardiff Blues tries will be horror viewing for Munster Rugby; too many easy meters gained on first phase possession. Halaholo will rarely have a better night all season; his statistics when published are going to be huge. Mike Sherry struggled all night long as he was grasping into thin air on  Halaholo in midfield which led to an easy forty meter gain. The quick ball that followed saw Nick Williams crash over, exposing Sherry in the defensive line to score the opening try. 

Munster Rugby did respond with two standout moments. Cloete steal in the breakdown on the touch line allowing Conway to advance with ball in hand, a deft kick in behind to negate Anscombe saw the Irish winger score in the corner.

Carbery was integral to the second try; a good aerial take and the fly-half was off on an excellent run. Tadhg Beirne’s role in the try cannot be underestimated; his effort to get in with play key when the ball was held short of Cardiff Blues’ line. The ball finally got back to Carbery and good work from Cloete to create a defensive misread inside for Conway to score in the corner again. Two tricky conversions missed but Munster Rugby were showing intent at last.

Halaholo right foot step again exposing Munster defensively (where was the tactical preparation on the player) to provide more easy gain line meters three minutes. Halaholo’s awareness to see the ever alert Tomos Williams to score with ease; great support running from the scrum half who with a dominant pack was the superior nine on the night.

The second half presumably would have seen Munster Rugby making the necessary adjustments but a key stop by the hosts in the third quarter on their line signaled the end of the Munster Rugby fightback.  Halaholo scoring a well deserved try; lead up to the try saw Jaco Taute caught defensively outside and with non-existent Munster Rugby defensive support out wide, the try was a procession. 

Munster Rugby huffed and puffed but it was getting all very one dimensional; one out ball carries and then forcing passes which went forward more times than not. The composure from Munster Rugby was surprisingly lacking considering the personnel on show; a reality check for all concerned. 

Cardiff Blues deserved their bonus point and it came at the death with Tomos Williams benefiting from more good work from the hosts pack, making easy yards down the middle. The quick ruck ball exposing Munster Rugby defensively and Williams crashed over. Cue the home celebrations!

Munster Rugby Not In Crisis Yet

Munster Rugby crisis, probably not yet but the warning signs from yet another below par road trip performance has to be a concern for Munster Rugby management.

The set piece will be pinpointed by opposition in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, Mike Sherry is going to have to front up on the video analysis on Monday; a game to forget and with Rhys Marshall and Niall Scannell chipping at the bit to get game time, game time for Sherry looks quite limited.

The lack of skill set and unforced errors across the side will be horrific viewing; hopefully this performance will be a watershed for Munster Rugby, otherwise with two Irish provincial derbies coming up, morale may take a pounding ahead of the Heineken Cup competition next month. 

Well done Cardiff Blues; thoroughly deserved victory and this is the platform hopefully for them to launch their season back on track. Turnbull was outstanding throughout and with an exciting back line (Harries impressive), a lot to be positive about if you are a Cardiff Blues fan today!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 Reflections (Saturday)

Round Two. This is not the time for any teams to panic but there are grounds for concern particularly for the Cheetahs who shipped yet another heavy loss; hopefully they can bounce back in the upcoming rounds. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Benetton Rugby Renaissance

You have to start with the story of the weekend. Benetton are top of Conference B and what a dramatic way for the Italian side to do so. It looked like so near, yet so far hitting eighty minutes. Cardiff Blues down to thirteen players with Benetton Rugby deep in the visitors half; the composure shown to setup the scrum and timing the pass out wide to perfection for Ioane to score the try is a sign of the progression in the ranks, last year they would have botched the chance. Allan’s conversion was sweetly struck; the crowd roar was enough. An incredible result for Benetton Rugby and Cardiff Blues are left to rue more woe in the final quarter. 

Ospreys impress but big concerns for Cheetahs

Ospreys needed a hit out this weekend and Cheetahs were the perfect opposition to increase confidence in their creativity and line breaking ability. The performance was professional and this game was done well before half-time. Jones and Tipuric were the standouts with George North continuing to impress with ball in hand (another try for the winger). 

The pace of the Ospreys was all too much for Cheetahs in the third and fourth quarters with points leaked at an alarming rate. All facets of play looked sharp (despite the opposition) but Aled Davies at nine is a key squad addition.

The departure of Rhys Webb was a big position to fill but Aled Davies has provided speed in distribution around the ruck area. Ospreys will enter the fixture with Munster Rugby with good confidence. North’s threat out wide is providing a x-factor for the Welsh region; great to see the player back in the Pro 14 league. 

Connacht Rugby off the mark

32-13. Andy Friend and management enjoyed their first win in the league with a convincing victory over an ill-disciplined Zebre Rugby outfit. Played in slippery conditions, Connacht Rugby started on the front foot and after an early Carty penalty started to vary their attacking game plan. 

Blade was particularly impressive; sharp in passing distribution but his ability to pop up out wide to pick up attacking breaks was prominent in the early try scores. Paul Boyle continues his early season promise with two good tries, a player who has emerged well in preseason.

Zebre Rugby’s discipline was at times erratic at best; four quick penalties in the first thirteen minutes of this contest told the tale and it was no surprise that two of their team were sent to the sin early in the second half when the referee finally lost patience. 

Connacht Rugby won the sin bin period (15 vs. 13) by only 7-3; another moment where the hosts let their opposition off the hook but Zebre Rugby fatigue from this period was seen in the tries scored by Griffin and Adelokun. 

The set piece at times was a mixed bag in the opening period; a couple of poorly executed line outs in good attacking positions will be reviewed by the hosts but this fixture was to get a win on the board; mission accomplished and next up is a road trip to Edinburgh Rugby who are under the gun to get their first win of the season next weekend. 

Dragons but only just

The good, the bad and the ugly was seen with the Dragons in their 27-22 win over Isuzu Southern Kings at Rodney Parade. A great opening period saw two good tries scored and all looked good; the back three pace and speed causing Southern Kings massive issues. Griffiths and Moriarty looking the part in the back row. 

There is a good young talent in this side but the lack of composure in this side is never too far away. Rhodri Williams’ yellow card saw the visitors score two quick fire tries as Dragons defensive organization went to pieces; the half-time whistle could not come quick enough. From a position of dominance, the hosts were only 17-10 up and was quickly chalked in the third quarter. 

The contest in the balance saw the experienced squad players come to the fore thankfully for Bernard Jackman and management and Lewis’ cameo in the third quarter was instrumental to victory; a good try and conversion giving the breathing room required as the Southern Kings again probed at the death. 

An opening season win for Dragons but there are plenty of improvement areas to address. Southern Kings were resilient but better teams will rip through their pack and ten channel as the season progresses. A match which exposed both sides’ weak points. 

Scarlets win but Leinster Rugby close

It was a close call for Scarlets as the Leinster Rugby juggernaut started to gain momentum in the last quarter. Scarlets had to summon all their defensive and breakdown nous to secure their opening league win. 

Ken Owens was inspired for Scarlets; the early try should have set the platform but McFadden / Lowe responded with excellent tries. The game ebbed and flowed throughout but Gareth Davies try looked to open game for the hosts but back came Leinster Rugby with Ruddock crashing over for Leinster’s third try. Cue frantic closing exchanges. 

No disaster for Leinster Rugby; a loss yes but the fight and spirit of the team again spoke volumes. The Irish international players who were in the team got quality game minutes; the only issue is the second row options. Toner, Ryan, Fardy and then you are looking at the options. Nagle, Kearney, Molony need to push on this season for Leinster Rugby. 

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.

 

 

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.