Guinness Pro14: Round 8 Reflections (Irish Provinces)

Glasgow and Leinster had good weekends

A weekend where the November test match series kicked into action with several sides looking at their squad depth to ensure vital victories. It was a weekend where Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby extended their leads in both Conference A and B respectively. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Irish provincial success in South Africa 

The Twitter reaction to the Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby road trip successes in South Africa has me cracking up this evening while writing this blog article. Look at the sides named by both Irish provinces today, the potential in the side undoubted but there was always going to be passages of play when the cohesion with or without the ball was missing. Cue fan reactions (knickers in the proverbial figure eight). Bonus point try wins secured. Mission accomplished. 

Leinster Rugby accuracy may not have being to the armchair fan’s liking  but the 31-38 road trip win provides the Irish province with such a healthy lead at the top of Conference B. Nine points clear of Ulster Rugby and ten points clear of Scarlets in third with both sides facing the daunting task of having to secure results at fortress RDS. It is a time position to be in at this early stage of the season. The squad depth of the province shown when you see the likes of James Tracy, Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy on the pitch. They are the form side of the league at this moment in time. 

Munster Rugby secured their first road win of the league with a hard earned 26-30 road trip win to the Cheetahs. The good and the bad seen to full effect as Munster Rugby secured a bonus point try win; some great attacking play and the cameos of the back three was a real positive. The bad was the defensive meltdown in the third quarter where Cheetahs exploited big defensive gaps. The altitude was a factor but the parting of the Munster Rugby defense was seen in the previous round at home to Glasgow Warriors so something for management to look at in the coming weeks. 

Kevin O’Byrne was a standout today, put the hand up for more game time with an all action performance. The youngsters in the side did not let the side down and was delighted to see Liam Coombes cross over for a well earned try.

Mike Haley continues to settle nicely in the full back position and his running line for the game winning try was well executed. Munster Rugby secure a vital win on the road; move up to second place in the Conference A where Glasgow Warriors are well out in front and debatable whether they can be caught at this stage. Their demolition of Ospreys (albeit understrength) was a Matawalu showcase of skill and pace to score a hat-trick of tries. 

Bernard Jackman is a man under pressure

After a red eye flight back from Boston in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I headed to the Sportsgrounds in the hope of a thrilling encounter. This was an encounter which Connacht Rugby needed to come out fighting after a horrendous road trip performances to an Ospreys selection missing numerous first team stars at Bridgend last time out. The fixture was competitive for the first quarter but as soon as Connacht Rugby hit the front, Dragons’ heads dropped and a 26-0 lead at half-time to the hosts spelled the end of the contest. 

Connacht Rugby admittedly increased the tempo in that second quarter, better clear out work in the ruck exchanges with Marmion and Horowitz starting to create more line breaks as the game wore on. Horowitz produced an interesting cameo; he plays off the cuff evident in the Colby Fainga’a’s try where the Australian ten spotted a gap and created the line break opportunity. His kicking to the corners impressed me and thankfully for Connacht Rugby, there is a player who can push Jack Carty to the next level. 

Bernard Jackman stated post-game that he can see progress and improvement from his charges but the performance after the first quarter was a horror show; three deplorably blotched line breaks in the opening period which exhibited a distinct of composure on the final pass or handling is a coaching issue.

The number of tries conceded this season is sky rocketing out of control (33) and unless Dragons can secure a much needed morale boosting win next time out, there will be questions on his tenure. Dragons progression this season was expected given the high profile Hibbert and Moriarty signings but it has being anything but. Hope Jackman pulls the situation around but the skill set in his side on this weekend’s showing lacks the quality required to unlock opposition defenses at regular intervals.

Connacht Rugby win but they will rarely have an easier home contest all season. The back three looked a threat all game and the pack carries exposed massive defensive holes in the Dragons’ first line of defense. Buckley and Dillane for me stood out in the ball carrying stakes. Colby Fainga’a along with Jarrod Butler provided mobility and pace off the back of the scrum.

Horowitz has being duly mentioned and Godwin provided a timely reminder of his potency with ball in hand from three quarters. Connacht Rugby need to kick on now until the festive period; key games to get well and truly into the playoff mix now as it looks like a four way battle for the second and third spot in Conference A.

Ulster secured road trip win to Benetton Rugby

A significant result for Ulster Rugby on the road. Benetton Rugby have being progressing nicely this season and leading 7-0 at the break, the Italians would have fancied finishing off the job in the second half due to Ulster Rugby’s recent road trip woes. 

Credit though to Ulster Rugby, thought it was a very professional and efficient display in the second half. Speight’s creativity to the fore with ball in hand and the pack finally created a platform for Shanahan and Burns to launch their runners in the third quarter with tries from the impressive Reidy and Herring.  

The result was key here; the situation that Ulster Rugby found themselves in and the resiliency to get a result on the road in Italy has to be applauded. The fans made have a different perspective but this could be a key result for Ulster Rugby in the context of the playoff picture come next April. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 5 (Friday Night Preview)

Two home wins look the solid bet

Two interesting contests on the books for Friday night. Cardiff Blues fresh from their emphatic victory over Munster Rugby last week entertain the Toyota Cheetahs who will hope to continue their performance from last week when they drew 39-39 each to Ulster Rugby. Edinburgh Rugby are again faced with a must win game at home, this time they face a Benetton Rugby side who have won plenty of plaudits for their performances this season. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action. 

Cardiff Blues turned the corner? 

Last week was a keynote victory for Cardiff Blues. It was a must win game for the Welsh side and they produced a superb cohesive performance to dismantle Munster Rugby. All units functioned so well and the threat with ball in hand was incredible throughout which resulted in a thoroughly deserved bonus point try victory. 

The keyword this week is consistency. Can Cardiff Blues continue to deliver a performance like last week? Can Cardiff Blues continue to play on the front foot? Can Cardiff Blues’ back row unit continue to impress in the breakdown area like last week? The answers to these questions will be key to determining whether Toyota Cheetahs have any realistic chance of securing anything from the contest. 

Cardiff Blues team news sees three personnel changes in the pack. Scott Andrews (prop), Rory Thornton (lock) and Olly Robinson (back row) all come into the side. Turnbull slots into the eight channel to replace Nick Williams who enjoyed his outing against Munster Rugby no end last week. 

Toyota Cheetahs come into the game on the back of an exciting 39-39 draw against Ulster Rugby. They could have won this contest only for a last gasp Henry Speight try, converted by Billy Burns to salvage a draw for the Irish province. There were plenty of positives for Toyota Cheetahs last week; several excellent phases of play and the pack unit look more cohesive than previous weeks. Defensively, there are still questions. 

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

Cardiff Blues need to keep momentum and the exciting back line named means that Toyota Cheetahs are going to be challenged on the outside channels. Toyota Cheetahs will look to run their expansive game as well but I think Cardiff Blues with Turnbull, Anscombe, Halaholo and Lane should have too much for their visitors particularly in the third / fourth quarters. Cardiff with another home BP win. 

Another must win for Edinburgh

The perils of a slow start to the season sees Edinburgh Rugby in a second successive must win home game. Scratch the result last weekend; the Leinster Rugby juggernaut in the RDS is a mission impossible for most sides this season so Richard Cockerill and management wisely rested keynote first team starters for this fixture. 

Edinburgh Rugby last weekend did compete well against Leinster Rugby; competed well in the breakdown and their ability to retain possession worked the Leinster Rugby tackle count high but they were ultimately undone by a red card and the reigning European Club kingpins took advantage. 

Edinburgh Rugby have freshened up their side and familiar names feature. Blair Kinghorn, Matt Scott and Henry Pyrgos are all back. Simon Hickey returns at fly-half at stand-off. The pack sees recalls for Stuart McInally (hooker), WP Nel (prop), Grant Gilchrist (lock), Hamish Watson (back row) and Bill Mata (eight) in the back row unit. Pretty much the first team out here and a win is the objective. 

Personnel aplenty for Benetton Rugby too. The back three has changed with Jayden Hayward (full back) and wings Ratuva Tavuyara / Luca Sperandio all starting. The three quarters sees Tommaso Iannone and Luca Morisi feature with Dewaldt Duvenage (scrum-half) and Tommaso Allan (fly-half) as half backs. 

Marco Riccioni (prop) comes into the front row as Dean Budd and Marco Fuser come into the second row.  Robert Barbieri (eight) comes into the starting lineup. Plenty of switches and Benetton Rugby are looking for a result this weekend. 

Verdict: Edinburgh Rugby

Dry conditions should see both sides look to become expansive. The pack battle edge goes to Edinburgh with the likes of McInally, Toolis and Gilchrist in the mix. Edinburgh Rugby need to be incredibly accurate tomorrow night, otherwise Benetton Rugby have shown this season they have the back field ability to cut open sides apart in open play. 

Considering both sides rested marquee names last week, expecting a close contest here and Edinburgh Rugby should edge this but if they leave points on the pitch like they did against Connacht Rugby in round three, Benetton Rugby could be in prime position for another marquee win. However, Richard Cockerill’s side get the nod for me, it is a must win; otherwise the Guinness Pro 14 season will have taken a massive nosedive.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 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 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 Semi-Final Qualifier Reflections

Two contrasting home side performances this weekend as Munster Rugby and Scarlets secured their passage to the last four of the competition. For Edinburgh Rugby particularly, it was a case of what might have being. For Toyota Cheetahs, the result was emphatic and time to rebuild for next season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

An interesting match to analyze post-game. Edinburgh Rugby on the statistical numbers did everything to win this game. The visitors controlled possession (62%) and territory (62%) against their hosts but the side’s lack of playoff experience proved costly with two key lapses allowing Munster Rugby to take full advantage.

Edinburgh Rugby’s line out has being a stand out in an excellent season but a line out malfunction (over throw) from hooker McInally was gleefully accepted by the ever alert Rhys Marshall who evaded three Edinburgh Rugby tackles to crash. JJ Hanrahan confidently slotted home the extras and one would have presumed that Munster Rugby would have kicked on. Think again.

Richard Cockerill’s charges then set about creating a platform and kudos to the front five who put in a massive shift in the second quarter. Munster Rugby attempting to slow down ball but Hidalgo-Clyne was starting to increase the tempo of the game with quick passing from the ruck area. Opportunities then followed as van der Merwe and Bennett slicing through the home defense; it should have yielded a try but a knock-on five meters out from the Munster Rugby line denied the visitors a deserved five points.

Blair Kinghorn then got in on the act; finding a soft Munster defensive shoulder to make a thirty meter gain line break. Edinburgh Rugby were creating chances but a lack of composure in the red zone was costing them massively. Edinburgh Rugby did put points on the board, two penalties from Hidalgo-Clyne after James Cronin was twice pinged for offside. Cronin for his penalty concessions was prominent in work rate and created a couple of vital turnovers along with Jack O’Donoghue in that second quarter. 7-6 at the break. Munster Rugby flattered to be in front.

The second half started with Munster Rugby’s pack increasing the tempo and cohesion. Good territorial gains leading up to the move of the game. There appeared little trouble for Edinburgh Rugby as a wayward pass forced Simon Zebo to retreat to collect the ball but the full back spotted space behind the first set of defender, a deft chip collected by Zebo who then had the game management to pick out Keith Earls out wide with a wonderful skip pass. Earls still had work to do but the Irish international’s speed was too much for the defensive Edinburgh cover. JJ slotted over again and suddenly it was 14-6.

Munster Rugby continued to probe, further good pack play resulting in an Edinburgh Rugby offside. Hanrahan again slotted home the penalty. 17-6 and Edinburgh Rugby were now being asked serious questions by the hosts. Credit to the visitors though, they refused to panic and continued to build the phases. Munster Rugby pinged and Hidalgo-Clyne slotting over an excellent long range penalty to make it 17-9. Cue the scrum half substitution with Fowles replacing the assured Hidalgo-Clyne.

Fowles though brought speed around the ruck area and a good boot with some excellent touch finders. Fowles provided a lifeline for Edinburgh Rugby at the end of the third quarter following excellent ball carrying from Mata and Kinghorn. Fowles evading several Munster tackles to cross over. The conversion from van der Walt was good and we had a playoff contest again. Cue nerves among the home crowd at Thomond Park.

The next twelve minutes ebbed and flowed with Munster Rugby absorbing all that Edinburgh Rugby could throw at them. A period of concerted pressure from Munster Rugby ten minutes from time yielded another penalty opportunity and all credit to JJ Hanrahan for having the leadership to take on the kick after missing a similar kick in the opening period. This kick was more decisive and opened a four point gap. 20-16. Still time for the visitors to win this encounter but Munster Rugby defensively were on point and a line out steal at the death allowing Munster Rugby to run the ball dead to the relief of the home crowd in attendance.

Munster Rugby win but massive improvement will be required to even compete against Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. The statistics make for harsh reading. Munster Rugby lost the territorial and possession battle. Thirty missed tackles during the eighty minutes. 237 meters gained vs. 504 meters gained by Edinburgh Rugby. This game was won by two moments of individual brilliance from Marshall and Zebo.

Munster Rugby looked to evolve their game plan but t did not work; no platform created and the over indulgence in box kicks seen to full effect. The attacking cohesion was not present for Munster Rugby; lack of opportunities for Arnold and Scannell to impress. They effectively lived off scraps. Playoffs are all about the wins but the performance was negated by a determined Edinburgh Rugby side. Credit goes to the cameo of Ciaran Parker. The Shannon club man came on early for the injured Stephen Archer and did not let the side down. Simon Zebo was sublime in the dry track conditions, constantly probing. Keith Earls was lively with ball in hand.

The identify of this Munster Rugby is becoming a question personally in these last few weeks. What style of play is the side comfortable in playing? Pack orientated ruled the roost until end of March where there has being increased emphasis to launch the back line with increasing frequency. Stander earned thirty meters from eight carries, one carry putting van der Walt on his rear end. O’Mahony was targeted by Edinburgh Rugby in the breakdown contest; had two players for attention at all times. O’Donoghue work rate and breakdown work was the highlight here. Munster Rugby will be firm underdogs for this semi-final, time for team and management to regroup and come together to execute an effective game plan to beat an outstanding Leinster Rugby side.

Edinburgh Rugby left everything out on the pitch. They controlled affairs, their pack was excellent in building the platform with Gilchrist, Berghan and Toolis prominent. The lack of composure at vital moments yesterday will be duly noted and lessons learned next season. An excellent job by Cockerill and coaching staff; the side have come up leaps and bounds and with the likes of Schoemann, Barclay and Hickey; optimism is high for next season. Playoff rugby is decided on fine margins. Two lapses of concentration from Edinburgh was the difference. Harsh lesson but one this group of players will learn from. Most progressive team of the league this season.

The scoreline speaks volumes. 43-8. The game was as good as over at the break as Scarlets performed an utterly professional performance. Toyota Cheetahs were made paid for an extremely flat opening period performance as the hosts scored three tries with Steff Evans scoring a brace of tries and another from Leih Halfpenny.

Evans reveled in the open space afforded by Toyota Cheetahs whose defensive line speed at times was jaded at best. Good skill set from Evans to spot space, good grubber kick as well to create even more opportunity to roam. Toyota Cheetahs simply could not live the threat of the Welsh international winger and deservedly received the man of the match accolade.

Scarlets back line had a superb day at the office. Prydie had eighty meters from five carries. Scott Williams had sixty-one meters from five carries. Evans had seventy-two meters gained from seven carries. Hadleigh Parkes had sixty plus meters from nine carries. It tells the tale of Scarlets pack securing the platform and allowing the back line time to attack.

The second half was a procession for Scarlets in the third quarter. Toyota Cheetahs defensive line and ability to defend the hosts maul was disintegrating at a rate of knots. James Davies crashing over as Scarlets were taking out their European Cup elimination out on the South African side. Every time Scarlets went into the Toyota Cheetahs twenty-two, they looked like scoring. Three tries in the third quarter evidence of this.

Scarlets then called ashore a host of players. Emotional scenes as departing John Barclay and Scott Williams were given rapturous send offs. Two big players to lose from any dressing room. Scarlets will need to recruit well to offset this loss in the coming months along with the departure of Beirne.

Toyota Cheetahs to their credit tried to secure consolation scores and their gain line break statistics indicate as much. Clayton Blommetjies made one hundred meters gain line. Francois Venter was immense with ball in hand 109 meters from nine carries. Maxwane on another day would have scored a couple of tries in the final quarter but a lack of composure to touchdown proving fatal. 

The South African side have being a superb addition to the league this season. Their open, expansive style is immense viewing. However, several personnel departures from the club will test the club in their recruitment process. Clayton Blommetjies departs for Scarlets and showed his ability with ball in hand with the late consolation. Francois Venter departs along with Rory Duncan to Worcester Warriors. Excellent players and head coach departing the club, hard to fill the void. 

Scarlets were outstanding, took advantage of a jaded Toyota Cheetahs side. The pack were incredibly on point and dominated the set piece. The half-backs provided assured game management and launched their back line with increasingly unerring accuracy. Patchell was a standout at ten; his passing and kicking into space to the fore. Everything is set for an incredible tussle with Glasgow Warriors in two weeks time. Both titans going at it. I cannot wait!

Guinness Pro 14: Semi-Final Qualifier Preview

Enter the playoffs. Enter four teams this weekend where two will advance to face either Glasgow Warriors or Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. Two intriguing weekend fixtures beckon with Edinburgh Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs traveling on the road with no pressure; a dangerous proposition for both Munster Rugby and Scarlets. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Several subplots come to mind in this contest. The key word for both teams is recovery and how effectively both front line players have recovered from recent action. Munster Rugby first team players had a free weekend to recover mentally and physically from a traumatic loss to Racing 92 in Bordeaux. How have the players reacted to this loss will be seen to full effect this weekend? Edinburgh Rugby on the other hand had a sensational weekend to savior; a 1872 Cup win over Glasgow Warriors, playoff rugby secured and most significantly a return to the European Rugby Champions Cup competition next season. The Glasgow Warriors game was ferocious in physicality and one wonders if Edinburgh Rugby’s charges will have the same level of intensity for this playoff encounter. After such an euphoric high, can Richard Cockerill’s men produce another high octane performance?

With dry weather conditions forecast in Limerick, this contest should provide good attacking moments during the contest. Munster Rugby will look to the likes of Sam Arnold, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway to provide line break excellence out wide. Arnold was abrasive in his defensive and ball carrying duties last weekend and more of the same should provide the hosts with a good solid platform. The performance of Rory Scannell will be duly noted; his kicking game from open play has the potential to unsettle Edinburgh Rugby defensively in their line speed and ability to push up on Munster Rugby.

Edinburgh Rugby have shown a progressive upturn in their back line play this season. Several huge threats with ball in hand. Duhan van der Merwe is an excellent player and the South African showed Munster Rugby management his power and physicality touching down twice in their sole meeting this season at Murrayfield. His pace and power are on point. Blair Kinghorn’s ability to create gain line breaks has being to the fore this season; rewarded with a deserved call up to the national side. Fife is another player who has impressed with ball in hand. His 100 meters gained last weekend against Glasgow a perfect illustration of his ability. Threats which Munster Rugby must be wary of.

The half-back battle looks intriguing. How will Murray and Keatley react and bounce back from a mixed performance against Racing 92? Will Edinburgh Rugby look to put maximum pressure on Keatley early to unsettle the half back partnership? Murray vs. Hidalgo-Clyne will be interesting viewing. Hildalgo-Clyne has all the skill set to unsettle Munster Rugby around the fringes, a solid kicking game and his ability to link back with an excellent support running game to the fore. Weir or van der Walt will need to provide stability in the opening exchanges and then look to build expansively.

The pack battle will be epic here. Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill are a resolute, abrasive unit with several standout players. Nel in the front row provides experience and nous on set piece. Berghan has being hugely impressive this season in his work rate and set piece execution. Gilchrist and Toolis are a formidable second row partnership, more than capable of disrupting an opposition line out. Mata and Bradbury are abrasive ball carriers.

Munster Rugby’s pack will look to right several wrongs from their Racing 92 loss. The line out was an unmitigated disaster in the opening half of the European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final. Throws and jumping was completely off; spooked by the presence of Donnacha Ryan potentially but the manner in how set piece was lost so deep in Racing 92 territory will have irked all those involved in the fixture. The set piece surely will improve this weekend. The scrum was the facet of play which provided good front five moments for Munster Rugby and they will look to impose their will to build the platform. Several ball carrying threats in the pack. Kilcoyne and Marshall provide mobility around the fringes. Stander and O’Mahony will look to impose their presence on the play; how they do this if Edinburgh Rugby adopt the chop tackle tactic will be interesting viewing?

A 50/50 contest. The mindset of Munster Rugby this weekend will be paramount in this fixture. Are the scars of Bordeaux still raw and inhibit performances in key positions? The playoff context will be assessed by the media pack from a Munster Rugby. Can Munster Rugby deliver in a playoff setting? If Edinburgh Rugby can keep in touch going into the final quarter, nerves will creep into Thomond Park but I sense that Munster Rugby have a point or two to prove to themselves and the neutral this weekend. Edinburgh’s efforts last weekend will be exposed in the second half as a fresher Munster Rugby side will come up trumps by seven to ten points.

This is the fixture of the weekend personally. This is a fixture in which we could be talking about for years to come given the genuine expansive style of play offered by both teams. Toyota Cheetahs are coming into this fixture with little pressure on the side; a memorable debut Guinness Pro 14 season, a playoff run to boot and it is a proud achievement for everyone connected with the club. Their ability to attack from anywhere on the pitch has being seen to full effect this season; even last weekend, their dismantling of Southern Kings in the second / third quarter was impressive. Good cohesion between pack and back line. Incisive offloading and support running.

Toyota Cheetahs will relish the dry track conditions and Scarlets need to be extremely careful on how expansive they will be during this contest. Toyota Cheetahs will want a completely loose game where both sides are defensively stretched. Their back line with the likes of Small, Venter and Blommetjies who are superb ball carriers form a massive threat for the hosts. Tian Meyer is a solid operator at scrum-half and whether his half back partner is either Marais or Goosen will provide problems in their kicking game and game management to unleash an exciting back line.

Scarlets like Munster Rugby have wounds to heal both mentally and physically. Their loss to Leinster Rugby was hard to watch and the manner of the result where Leinster Rugby’s pack dismantled Scarlets in the breakdown and set piece. It must have proved tough viewing for the Welsh region in video analysis last week. Like Munster Rugby, they failed to impose themselves on the fixture, failed to deliver a punch to their opponent. There needs to be a reaction but how the side have recovered from this set back will be key to the fixture.

Scarlets are an incredible side. The pack is abrasive and mobile. Evans, Lee and Owens are quality front row operators. Beirne in the second row has provided standout performances in his open play, breakdown duties as well was popping up with several outstanding tries. The back row will look to right the wrongs of the Leinster Rugby loss; expect James Davies, John Barclay to shine in this encounter. The half-back partnership of Davies and Patchell is excellent and they will unleash their three quarters at regular intervals. Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes will relish the challenge posed by the Toyota Cheetahs and provide the platform for Evans and Halfpenny to impress in the wide channels.

For Toyota Cheetahs to win this contest, their pack has to start well from minute one. There cannot be an opening period lull or lull period at any point. Cheetahs pack when on form are a match for anyone but their indiscipline in recent rounds suggests that perhaps Scarlets can get an upper hand in this facet of play. Cheetahs to provide massive entertainment here provided George Clancy does not disrupt the flow of the game. These are two superb, expansive teams and it needs officiating to promote this, to promote the league to a wider audience. Scarlets to win a try fest in the closing quarter. As mentioned, a potential game for the ages!

Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro 14: Round 21 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 20 Review (Friday Night Games)

Friday night drama a plenty. Congratulations to Glasgow Warriors who efficiently cast aside Connacht Rugby 35-22 to secure top spot in Conference A. Munster Rugby finish their SA tour with a morale boosting 17-19 win over a Toyota Cheetahs outfit while Ulster Rugby huffed and puffed and had to wait until the final minute to secure a 8-0 win over a gutsy Ospreys side. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Glasgow Warriors emphatically secured top spot in Conference A with an opening period trouncing of a Connacht Rugby side who have a look of a side who cannot wait for the season to end. Glasgow responded to an early set concession to score three tries in the opening period. A quick try response from Hogg on three minutes opened the floodgates and Connacht Rugby defensive line as Alex Dunbar scored on twenty-six minutes and the industrious Fraser Brown crashed over after sustained pressure on the Connacht Rugby try line. Pyrgos secured the bonus point try immediately after the break. Defensive resistance non-existent. Gain line yards easily made by the hosts.

Mission accomplished. Glasgow Warriors took the foot off the gas and Connacht Rugby responded with a late Blade try but the damage was done. Glasgow Warriors were so accurate with ball in hand, great running lines for the ball carrier. In contrast, Connacht Rugby were reduced to one out ball carrying attacks and when they tried to create out wide, it was ponderous, no-one committing Glasgow defenders to tackle, all very predictable. Connacht Rugby’s twenty-one missed tackles way too high. Glasgow proceed with confidence to the playoffs. Connacht Rugby are devoid of any confidence heading into the final stretch and with a home tie against Leinster Rugby, it is a daunting finish to the season. Kieran Keane and management have issues to address!

An efficient second half display where the pack asserted a platform in the set piece combined with excellent penalty kicking secured a 17-19 win over the Toyota Cheetahs. The hosts started so well and exposed Munster Rugby in the opening period with excellent offloading. Blommetjies scoring an excellent team try on eleven minutes; good lineout possession and quick hands from Venter at thirteen to allow Blommetjies to cross over. The try scorer leaves Toyota Cheetahs for Scarlets next season; a shrewd piece of business from the Welsh region. Tian Meyer crossed over in the second quarter; quick hands creating the player overlap and Meyer had the simplest of tasks.

James Hart was injured in the lead-up to the Meyer try and enter the game changer, Conor Murray. The scrum-half was the class act of the fixture. He made his presence felt immediately with a sharp close range finish. JJ Hanrahan who had an excellent game kicked the conversion to make it 14-7 but then Munster Rugby gave three points straight back with a needless penalty. Goosen at ten slotting over, an impressive opening game for the ex-Racing 92 player. 17-7 at the break. The task for Munster Rugby looked daunting.

However, the visitors pack regrouped at the break and started to assert dominance in the set piece and open exchanges. Penalties were being leaked by Toyota Cheetahs at a rate of knots and JJ Hanrahan slotted over a couple of regulation penalties to make it a 17-16 game. Cue the monster penalty kick from Murray. The ball is still travelling in orbit such was the distance of the kick. World class strike and Munster Rugby defensively and disciplinary wise remained on point to win; a potential let off on the second scrum at the death but a win was secured.

The officiating on display was at times tragic. Munster Rugby were reduced to fourteen players (Zebo sent to the bin) for an innocuous incident. Adamson refusing to ping Cheetahs players not rolling away from the ruck, increased penalty count not yielding any warning; facets of the game which will be punished next weekend in European Cup action. A superb SA tour for Munster Rugby; good PR created for the club over in South Africa.

8-0. Ulster Rugby battered Ospreys tonight but there was a distinct lack of creativity or ambition in the attacking play of the hosts. Fifty-two minutes in and Ospreys were already on 120 tackles made but still Ulster Rugby inability to execute in the opposition twenty-two was starting to rile up the local support. Shanahan at nine looked one dimensional in game management. Cooney did not provide any kicking game when switched to ten. Lateral, players receiving the ball too deep and could not break the gain line. It was a shocking attacking display. Ospreys were defensively sound but it was very predictable attacking lines.

Timoney’s disallowed try summed up the night perfectly for Ulster Rugby. A well executed kick in behind the Ospreys defense but the lack of conviction from the back rower to secure possession allowed Watkin the time to dislodge the ball and prevent the try. 3-0 heading into the 78th minutes. Ulster Rugby fans may have being fearing the worse as Ospreys started to summon a late attacking threat. However, Dan Biggar’s pass out wide was poor and the loose ball was collected by try scoring machine Jacob Stockdale to score from midfield. 8-0. Full time.

Ospreys will rue a couple of officiating decisions that went against them. The disallowed try when Kieron Fonotia charged across the Ulster line after a turnover, but the officials chalked it off for an alleged earlier infringement by Alun Wyn Jones in the opening period was a huge call. The Hassler yellow card was 50/50 for me personally. Ospreys showed amazing resiliency to continue to defend as manfully as they did. It was an incredible effort; 186 tackles made tonight.

Ulster Rugby continue to fight for their playoff lives. The emphatic performance never materialized but the key men of the side led from the front. Best, Henderson, Deysel and Piutau were immense. The distinct lack of attacking threat will be reviewed this week, perhaps it was the enormity of the fixture which stifled creativity. Cooney’s penalty in the opening period created the buffer but this result should not have being in question given the dominance enjoyed by Ulster Rugby tonight. Gibbes struck a frustrated figure. Dwayne Peel will be shaking his head in video review. To be a fly on the wall for that attacking video review.