Guinness Pro14: Round Eighteen Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)


Playoff implications aplenty!

The business end of the Guinness Pro14 campaign is beyond us and there is no margin for error for a host of teams looking to secure postseason action. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the Friday night action where all three fixtures have massive playoff implications in both conferences.

Edinburgh Rugby look to build momentum

It is not too dramatic to say that this is a must win game for Edinburgh Rugby tonight. A mixed set of results before the three break has left Richard Cockerill’s men currently in fifth spot in Conference B, seven points behind Ulster Rugby for the last playoff berth.

The significance of the fixture against Leinster Rugby as well as looking to build cohesion and momentum ahead of that colossal European Cup fixture against Munster Rugby means that Edinburgh Rugby name a strong lineup buoyed by the return of John Barclay in the back row to complement the power and physicality of Watson and Mata.

The pack is pretty much first choice except for the absence of Magnus Bradbury who is on the bench. The back line is loaded with creativity and pace with Graham and van der Merwe poised to create if given sufficient quick ball.

Leinster Rugby have already qualified for the postseason and their team selection is a mix of youth and experience. A late scratch to Ross Byrne sees personnel changes at ten where Ciaran Frawley slots in and Jimmy O’Brien gets game time from full back. Joe Tomane returns to the starting lineup after a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

The Leinster Rugby pack is minus the majority of Irish international as well as the reliably brilliant Scott Fardy. The pack has potential but the second row combination is a concern in terms of physicality and maul management. A team selection which has the potential to go either way.

Edinburgh Rugby need a complete performance ahead of next weekend’s huge fixture with Munster Rugby. Anything short of a win here against a depleted Leinster Rugby side would be a big disappointment. Edinburgh Rugby’s push for end of season honors starts tonight and I suspect that they will win to provide confidence ahead of European Cup action.

Connacht Rugby team selection gives Benetton a chance?

This is a crucial fixture for both sides. Both are in the playoff mix. The team selection from the hosts is intriguing as Andy Friend resists the urge to recall Marmion and Carty to the starting lineup and plumbs for Blade and Godwin in the half back slots.

Benetton Rugby on the other hand name a near full strength side. It will be interesting to see how Ian McKinley controls the game for the Italians at ten. McKinley has played well for Benetton Rugby in recent rounds and you sense that this is a big opportunity for the Irish born player to consolidate the side’s position near the summit of Conference B.

The back three threat from Benetton Rugby is significant with Ioane and Tavuyara wrecking havoc on sides this season. A tough defensive examination beckons for the likes of Leader and Healy from this threat. No Aki either for Connacht in midfield and the lack of internationals in the Connacht Rugby side opens the door ajar for Benetton Rugby to secure a road trip win.

The weather conditions are improving in Galway as I type this blog which is good news for Andy Friend’s charges whose offload game has caught the eye. Connacht Rugby need to win this fixture; failure to do so and it places even more pressure on their home fixture against Cardiff Blues.

Benetton Rugby are the most progressive side in the tournament this season; their style of rugby has evolved and there is a grit and resiliency in the pack not seen in previous seasons. I think Benetton Rugby have a serious chance of securing at minimum a loser bonus point this evening and perhaps a win. If they were to win this fixture, they will potentially have one foot in the postseason.

There is something about this fixture that is making me incredibly nervous for Connacht Rugby. The personnel selections here are risky to me personally but Andy Friend’s mantra of everyone playing their part will be key. A slight nervous nod to the hosts with the back row unit of McKeon, Fainga’a and Butler to be the key difference at the death.

Welsh derby in Cardiff – stakes are high

A huge fixture for both Cardiff Blues and Scarlets. Both sit just off the playoffs but results elsewhere coupled with a win here could catapult them into the playoff spots. A massive fixture and should see a huge crowd in attendance.

Hopefully the weather conditions are suited to an attacking game as both sides back line options are loaded with talent. Cardiff Blues have upgraded hugely in their back three options next terms with the acquisitions of Hallam Amos and Josh Adams so it is a chance for Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill to send out statements that they are not still viable options at the club.

Scarlets back line contains the likes of Halfpenny, McNicholl and Fonotia so expect explosive gain line breaks and offloading from the visitors. The fixture ultimately could be decided in the pack and Cardiff Blues on paper look to have an edge early with the likes of Ken Owens (on the bench) and explosive second row Jake Ball not in the match day squad.

The back row battle looks epic. Navidi vs. Cassiem will be worth the gate admission alone. The half back battle will be interesting as Evans is up against Patchell who will look to impress as Gareth Anscombe slots into the full back role tonight.

50/50 game for me. Slight edge for Scarlets on this fixture. Their performance against Munster Rugby impressed me no end; their conditioning and defensive work was excellent. This game will be in the melting pot until the final quarter and will be decided off the bench and Scarlets appear to have the stronger hand.

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 Reflections

Playoff picture becomes somewhat clearer

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

Conference A: Top two stride further ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference B: Landslide results

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Round Sixteen (Saturday Fixtures)

Three home wins looks the solid bet

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

Benetton Rugby need to keep momentum going 

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

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

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

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

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

Edinburgh Rugby building momentum 

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

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

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

Ulster Rugby should have too much for Zebre Rugby

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Saturday Fixtures)

Road trip wins could be the order of the day

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

Stong Leinster Rugby side face Zebre Rugby on road 

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

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

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

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

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

Connacht Rugby must be wary of Toyota Cheetahs threat 

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunity knocks for Benetton Rugby

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

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

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

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

Crunch Conference A contest in Cardiff 

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Round 14 Preview

Tournament resumes with renewed swag!

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

Glasgow Warriors should secure home victory 

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

Leinster fringe players to flex their muscles 

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

Benetton Rugby look for road win at Ulster Rugby

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

Dragons entertain Munster Rugby 

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

Cheetahs primed for Zebre Rugby

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

Cardiff Blues look to rebound against Connacht Rugby 

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

Edinburgh travel to Southern Kings 

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

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)

Festive derbies the order of the day

December 21st. Christmas is fast approaching and that means that it is the matter of local bragging rights as local rivals do battle. Friday night sees Ulster Rugby entertain a much changed Munster Rugby outfit at the Kingspan Stadium while Cardiff Blues will look to pile on the misery against Dragons. Hawkeye Sidekick predicts the likely outcomes.

Ulster Rugby bench impact to settle local derby 

The two team selections announced today were quite contrasting. Ulster Rugby have made just the three changes from the side that beat Scarlets last weekend in European action.

With Iain Henderson out for an extended period, it presents a massive opportunity for Ian Nagle to stake a claim for first team inclusion. Rob Herring deputizes at hooker for Rory Best who is on the bench while the exciting winger Robert Baloucoune slots into the back three for the try scoring Jacob Stockdale.

Munster Rugby have named thirteen changes from the side which narrowly lost in the Battle of Castres last weekend. The most significant team news is the return of Jean Kleyn in the second row, a player whose power and physicality would have been ideal for the uncompromising Castres pack last week.

Sammy Arnold gets another opportunity to impress his home province; hoping to right a few wrongs from last year’s corresponding fixture when the center was given a red card in the fixture. JJ Hanrahan takes over at ten and will look to impress further management.

The exchanges here will be abrasive and feisty but Ulster Rugby have the edge in the scrum this week. Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore should have the measure of Stephen Archer and Jeremy Loughman. The depth chart off the bench looks to favor the home side as well given that Rory Best will make a cameo in the third quarter.

Munster Rugby will look to stay in this contest for as long as possible, look to Hanrahan to provide field position in order for the line out to establish a platform, something not achieved in previous European Cup weekends.

Verdict: Ulster Rugby

Ulster Rugby to prevail with Will Addison and Henry Speight key with ball in hand. Munster Rugby will do well to get a loser bonus point from this contest; the side travels to Ulster more in hope than expectation as van Graan looks to target the crunch Leinster Rugby clash at Thomond Park on December 29th.

Cardiff Blues to inflict further misery on Dragons 

It has been an extremely turbulent season at the Dragons. The season has taken more dives than Tom Daley on a springboard. Bernard Jackman has come and gone as the side travels to Cardiff Blues who will look to regain confidence after two morale sapping losses to Saracens which have eliminated them from European Cup Rugby this season.

The team news is interesting. Cardiff Blues make three personnel changes for the visit of the Dragons. Two pack changes as Olly Robinson and Dillon Lewis come in. The third change is the welcome return of Tomos Williams at scrum-half. With Ellis Jenkins sidelines, Kristian Dacey resumes team captaincy duties until the end of the season.

Dragons makes five changes from the side which lost to ASM Clermont Auvergne last weekend. Ross Moriarty significantly misses the game due to injury so more onus on Cory Hill to set the tone for the pack. Keddie and Fairbrother come into the pack while there is further changes to a back line row who have struggled for cohesion on both sides of the ball all season.

Rosser and Sage come into the back line while Rhodri Williams secures the nine berth for the local derby fixture. The side still has experienced with Hill, Kirchner, Dee in the ranks but the team still looks well exposed in the back line unit where Cardiff Blues with Scully in the ranks could have proverbial field days.

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

Dragons are saying the right things ahead of this derby fixture but cannot help but feel that cohesion issues will plight this performance. Cardiff Blues on their fast surface will look to Anscombe and Williams to provide quick ball for the likes of Halaholo to launch a pacy back three. Only one result coming here. Blues with a bonus point try win. Dragons need to stand up here but given their defensive record, it is hard to state a case for them.

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.