Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Reflections (Irish Interpros)

Drama and excitement aplenty

The eleventh round of the Guinness Pro 14 saw closely fought contests throughout the fixture list. Cardiff Blues edged an unlucky Dragons outfit. Ospreys beat Scarlets at home to provide a timely morale boost. Edinburgh Rugby’s pack set the platform for a rousing victory over Glasgow Warriors while Benetton Rugby edged past Zebre Rugby today. This blog posting will focus on the Irish inter-provincials where excitement was reserved for the RDS.

Leinster Rugby show why they are champions 

Seventeen points down with seventeen minutes to go. A fixture which Connacht Rugby provided several superb attacking moves with Jack Carty the conductor of all that he surveyed. Any other side would have been resigned to their fate but this Leinster Rugby showed massive fortitude, attitude, determination and skill to pull this game out of the fire.

What sets this side apart is how Leinster Rugby refused to panic, kept believing in their systems knowing that they should get their just rewards. Connacht Rugby visibly tired with each passing phase in that last ten minutes and from been in a position of strength, they were akin to a boxer on the ropes waiting to be put out of their misery.

Connacht Rugby game management in that final ten minutes was also quite key; a couple of occasions where the side had chances to slow the tempo and with more assured kicking from hand into touch could have still secured the win but Leinster Rugby were given the field position required and they made Connacht Rugby pay.

The cameo of Ross Byrne in the closing minutes were nothing short of sensational. His game management to keep Connacht Rugby off balance defensively to the core and with the ever willing support running of Adam Byrne (148 meters off 18 carries), it was decisive. When you add his unerring conversions at the death, it was a display which showed composure in abundance.

Leinster Rugby management will be keen to run the rule over the video analysis as Connacht Rugby exposed big gaps defensively in their cover defense throughout. Carty for sixty minutes was outstanding; constantly testing the host defensive line, his deft kicks in behind working a treat.

Blade at scrum half varied his game superbly and chipped in with a try. Squad depth in the front row was a decisive blow and it came back to haunt Connacht Rugby in the last quarter as scrum after scrum went against them and allowing Leinster Rugby to setup field position and pressure. Yet another tough road loss in the RDS for Connacht Rugby who must ensure that this loss does not spiral their season out of control.

A sensational contest. A sensational advert for the league. Leinster Rugby management will have learned plenty about their up and coming talent. Munster Rugby beware; the defensive lapses from Leinster Rugby should not be seen in Thomond Park on December 29th.

Ulster Rugby victorious

Seven point win for Ulster Rugby at Kingspan against a Munster Rugby side who will feel that officiating decisions went against them. Robert Baloucoune looking to impress should have seen red for his hit on Darren Sweetnam after eleven seconds. The yellow card was a joke call and Ulster Rugby after easily absorbing Munster Rugby attacking advances for the opening ten minutes set about winning this contest. They did so aided by executing a cohesive attacking game plan.

Munster Rugby fans will be worried heading into the Leinster Rugby contest next weekend. Defensively and tackling is on point, line speed was good from the players on duty but the distinct lack of attacking nous with ball in hand is a massive issue. A third consecutive week where Munster Rugby have struggled to make any significant gain line breaks, a third consecutive week where support runners were non-existent. 140 meters in this fixture falls well short of what is required to win a fixture. The botched try opportunity in the second half summed up the clueless decision making at the moment in the side with ball in hand. Felix Jones has work to do.

Ulster Rugby provided more evidence of their potency with ball in hand. Addison continues to be the find of the season. His running lines and passing from thirteen caused Munster Rugby endless issues. Rory Best impact off the bench was superb; his offload in the second half setting up an Ulster Rugby try. Baloucoune after his reprieve scored a smart try along with David Shanahan who was sharp around the fringes. Herring was pumped with his effort. Ulster Rugby perhaps disappointed that they did not secure a bonus point try win.

The game saw Henry Speight play his game for the Ulster Rugby side. An excellent signing this season, his presence and experience will be missed heading into the finale of the European Cup pool phases. Dan McFarland is building a nice side. Their attacking play is a joy to watch at times; how Munster Rugby fans would love the invention and creativity injected into their side?

European Challenge Cup: Round 4 Predictions

The usual good, the bad and ugly to feature in this round of the competition

If you follow this blog, I have quite a bit of contempt for this competition. No excitement, no television coverage of the tournament and put in the mix sides who are ill-equipped to compete at this level and you have a rugby tournament PR disaster on your hands. The organizers of this tournament should hang their heads in shame. 

This round will see the interested sides stride forward and secure their last eight spot with two rounds to go. For others, it will palpable relief that they are out of contention to focus on domestic affairs and for others, the trauma of the beat down (Dragons, Enisei-STM and Timisoara) that they will receive could take months to recover from. Hawkeye Sidekick predicts the winners, the losers and the massive losers. 

Irish Rugby Grassroots Blog Series

A blog series on the Irish schools and local rugby grass root clubs which are nurturing and developing the current provincial academy and senior squad members. The numbers produced were based on current academy and senior squad players who have gone through the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland educational systems. The statistics generated may surprise some. This blog post collates the articles which focused on this topic: 

Connacht Rugby: What Second Level Schools are developing the homegrown talent for the provincial setup?

Connacht Rugby age profile and astute talent acquisition bodes well for the future 

During a post game night on the tiles after Connacht’s win over the Dragons a couple of weeks ago, one of the lads in the crew asked where did a particular player who was introduced play at schools level. We were stumped and it raised a further question for me on which second level schools were feeding the provincial and ultimately national senior teams setups? 

This blog series will look and recognize the secondary schools who are to the fore in underage rugby player development. They are at times the forgotten piece of the jigsaw. Without second level schools, there would be no talent pool outlet for local rugby clubs, professional provincial and national team setups.

This opening article focuses on Connacht Rugby. The statistics are based on the indigenous born players who have come through the Irish or Northern Ireland educational system. The statistics may surprise some but it is an exercise which provides key trends going forward. 

Connacht Rugby Squad: Age profile 

The Irish born player age profile in the squad is around twenty-six years. The current first team squad’s eldest player is Robin Copeland (31). The playing squad has a good blend of youth and experience. The emergence of academy talent such as Conor Fitzgerald, Colm De Buitlear this season bodes well. Paul Boyle as well has burst onto the professional rugby scene this year and with astute coaching from Andy Friend and staff, optimism abounds in the Sportsground. 

Schools Demographic:

The school county breakdown for the Connacht Rugby squad is: Galway (12) and Dublin (10), Tipperary (4),  Sligo (3), Westmeath (3), Mayo (2), Laois (2), Kilkenny (2) and representation from Cork (1), Down (1), Limerick (1), Antrim (1), Wexford (1)

Connacht Rugby — Secondary School County By County Breakdown
Connacht Rugby Squad – School Breakdown

Grass Roots Rugby Club Association: 

The local rugby club scene is well represented in the Connacht Rugby squad ranks with Corinthians, Galwegians and Buccaneers forming a good chunk of the squad currently. 

Local Rugby Clubs represented in provincial squad
Local Rugby Clubs represented in provincial squad

Schools Observations:

  1. The conveyor belt of talent from the Dublin school system is self evident in this squad makeup like in the other provinces. Blackrock College (5), Gonzaga College (2), De La Salle (1), Castleknock College (1), St.Michael’s (1). 
  2. Connacht schools are also well represented in the squad makeup. Garbally, Summerhill, St.Joseph’s provide nine players to the current playing squad. 
  3. The emergence of rugby talent in areas not typically associated with the game is seen in this schools breakdown. Ultan Dillane attended Tralee CBS (Kerry). Colm De Buitlear hails from Connemara. Matthew Burke from Ballinrobe. A pleasing trend for rugby union player development within the province. 

Guinness Pro14: Round Ten Reflections

Standout and abysmal performances in equal measure

With the November international series out of the way for another year, it was back to the brass tax of Guinness Pro 14 action; a round of fixtures which exposed team priorities, squad depth issues and worrying form for teams as they face into the second tranche of European games. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Performance of the week: Glasgow Warriors

There were a couple of standout teams in this round. Munster Rugby’s opening half performance against an under strength Edinburgh Rugby caught the eye. The Leinster Rugby juggernaut containing numerous academy and fringe squad players continued their ruthless try scoring exploits on the road to the Dragons. Connacht Rugby’s road trip at Bloemfontein has to be called out too but it is Glasgow Warriors win over Scarlets that is the defining display this weekend. When the hosts were reduced to fourteen players after Alex Allan’s red card early, it looked like a long day at the office for the Warriors but instead of contain, they produced a quite scintillating second and third quarter performance with two eye catching tries. Thomson lights out with the boot against a Scarlets which was loaded with first team players. A massive statement of intent. 

Player of the week: Keith Earls / Chris Farrell

The Moyross native helped himself to a eight minute hat-trick. The opposition may not have being up to much but take nothing away from the running lines and try scoring execution on show for those tries. Earls oozed class every time he picked up the ball. Munster Rugby’s running lines and offload game was a joy to watch and this has to be the template for the side going forward. Chris Farrell was incredible with his ball carrying duties and what a boost it is for Munster Rugby to have the Tyrone native back in the squad again. 

Walking the plank this week: Bernard Jackman 

A couple of weeks, I hated to point out that Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman was under pressure after an abject road trip loss to Connacht Rugby. A timely win last time out against Edinburgh Rugby looked to have eased those concerns but the manner of their home loss to Leinster Rugby has seen massive negative reaction from Dragons supporters.

Dragons were second best on all facets of play; their defensive line speed and organization was labored and the young Leinster Rugby players on show were only too grateful to exploit the space. 50+ points again and the pressure is back on Jackman.

Dragons is a project in progress but the manner of these defeats is a massive concern. The board will need to be strong here but Jackman could be increasingly isolated from the fan base which could spell doom. 

Disappointment of the week: Team Selections 

There was big disparity in certain team selections this weekend. Leinster Rugby’s side was without numerous first team personnel but it did not matter as they trounced Dragons showing their incredible squad depth.

However, other team’s squad depth is not as strong and for Edinburgh Rugby, it was a chastening experience in Cork on Friday night. Munster Rugby were rampant throughout and the three quarter and ten channel was isolated throughout.

The tournament has seen quite a few representational team selections in preference for bigger fixtures in recent rounds. Sad to see as it devalues the league completely. 

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 7 Fixtures (Friday)

Squad depth the key this weekend

After the excitement of European Cup action, it is back to the Guinness Pro 14 league action. This period will see squad depth charts tested to the maximum as the November test match series looms large. This weekend will see depleted first team lineups for the Welsh and Scottish sides in particular. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Friday night fixtures. 

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Scarlets 

A depleted Scarlets squad travel to South Africa to face the Southern Kings who after two weeks without match action will be eager to get off the blocks quickly. The side selected by Scarlets is good but there is potential for the Kings to expose their visitors particularly in the front five. The hosts name an unchanged line from round six, continuity retained and it is a fixture which the South African side could pull a surprising win here. Kings by less than seven points provided that their basic fundamentals are on point.

Ulster Rugby vs. Dragons 

A strong Ulster Rugby lineup has being announced for this league fixture. Dragons have no less than ten changes to the side that played in round six. The quality of the Ulster Rugby back line has the potential to cause absolute havoc for Dragons. Speight returns with Addison and McCloskey also featuring. A big day for Robert Baloucoune who makes his debut, the winger is an absolute speed merchant and could be in line for a couple of try scoring opportunities. I am fearing for Dragons here. Ulster Rugby look well placed to secure a bonus point try win ahead of the November test series. 

Zebre Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby 

Intriguing fixture awaits here. Edinburgh Rugby fresh from their comprehensive beat down of Toulon last weekend in Europe must refocus and get their away form sorted in the Guinness Pro 14. Zebre Rugby have had a good of their own; beating Bristol Bears at home last weekend. Squad depth in the closing quarter will be key and I think the visitors have the edge. Edinburgh Rugby to shade this by less than seven points. Mata is the key player for Edinburgh; his ball carrying providing the required platform. 

Ospreys vs. Connacht Rugby 

This is a key fixture for Connacht Rugby this season in the context of the Guinness Pro 14 season. The side selected by Andy Friend is strong with Aki, Marmion and Roux in the starting lineup. Ospreys are without numerous Welsh internationals and the squad depth will be tested in this fixture. The starting lineups would favor the visitors but their road trip form despite the Ulster Rugby win last time round have being a mixed bag. A difficult game to call. Connacht Rugby have had a wretched time at the Liberty Stadium but given the side named, pressure aplenty to get a result here. Connacht Rugby to secure a rare win in Swansea. If not, then questions will be asked of the side and the progress made this season. 

European Cup: Irish Provinces Round Two Preview

Tough road trips the order of the day

After a superb opening weekend for the Irish provinces last week (three wins and one draw), things went tougher in round two where all teams except for Munster Rugby are on their opening European Cup road trip. A weekend which should indicate plenty on how the season in Europe should pan out. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action. 

Leinster Rugby good form to continue?

Sexton on fire

No disrespect to Wasps but Leinster Rugby’s first real test in Europe will be this weekend. A trip to Toulouse is always a challenge but given how Leinster Rugby are playing currently, it is a trip which the Irish province will look with confidence. 

Leinster Rugby team news is minimal to say the least. Rob Kearney misses out due to injury so Joe Tomane slots onto the wing while Jordan Larmour if provided sufficient time and space could destroy Toulouse from full back. It is as you were for the rest of the side which comprehensively routed Wasps 52-3 last weekend. 

Toulouse won at Bath Rugby last weekend on the road. Yes, they were let off the hook by Freddy Burns’ late horror show and Toulouse will be the first to admit that they got out of jail. The weather in the South-West of France in recent weeks has being horrendous; rain aplenty which should slow the pitch down significantly.

The pack platform is going to be vital and Toulouse’s disciplinary issues after last weekend could come back to haunt them. Kaino is such a big loss, imposing back row whose tackle count and ball carrying are sensational. If Leinster Rugby are patient here, they will see joy in the third quarter particularly as Toulouse start to tire and give away penalties. 

Leinster Rugby will be asked questions out wide with the likes of Medard in the ranks but Leinster Rugby have the ability to beat you in the loose, set piece or out wide. Leinster Rugby to go away here by ten points after an opening period arm wrestle. 

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Munster Rugby look to kick on 

Grobler on the bench for Gloucester Rugby

Saturday lunchtime kickoff at Thomond Park. An opening European Cup rugby home fixture in Limerick and the venue will be buzzing. After a good draw on the road to Exeter Chiefs last weekend in stormy Sandy Park, Munster Rugby need to kick on and get their campaign fully up and running with a full eighty minute performance against Gloucester Rugby. 

The team news is interesting. Munster Rugby have made four personnel changes for the clash. A brand new front row is a shrewd move and reward for the likes of James Cronin and John Ryan on their cameos last week. Tommy O’Donnell as well gets the nod in the back row, his ball carrying was on point last week and setup Stander’s try. 

Gloucester Rugby make two changes to the side that beat Castres at home last weekend. Grobler must make do with a place on the bench and is replaced by Ed Slater. Matt Banahan replaces Charlie Sharples. The side showed good attacking cameos last weekend with Tom Marshall prominent. 

The key point here is the pack and who creates the platform. Munster Rugby have to start at a high tempo to allow Carbery to orchestrate his three quarters. A big game is required from Dan Goggin who needs to unleash his wide men at regular intervals. Gloucester Rugby were vulnerable on the flanks defensively against Castres last weekend at times. 

A fixture which Munster Rugby know that a win is required; a bonus point is attainable provided that the home side’s basic skill set is up to standard. Gloucester Rugby will look to bed in and try to stay in the contest until the third quarter; hoping that Danny Ciprani produces moments of brilliance. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby (BP Win)

Ulster Rugby face daunting challenge 

Daunting road trip

A trip to Racing 92 and the Arena beckons for Ulster Rugby this weekend. It was a good morale boosting win over Leicester Tigers last weekend but the level of competition this weekend is a significant upgrade. 

Racing 92 will look to impose their will on Ulster Rugby in the pack battle; the set piece battle has prompted Marty Moore’s introduction to the side. Kieran Treadwell comes into the lineup at the expense of Alan O’Connor. 

The worry is the absence of John Cooney at nine. The scrum-half has being outstanding again this season. No disrespect to David Shanahan but he will put under the cosh from the first whistle, struggling to see where Ulster Rugby create in the half-back channels and Racing 92 will look to create gain line breaks at will too. 

Racing 92 back line arsenal is vast. Finn Russell should see game time and then you have the likes of Simon Zebo lurking with intent. Ulster Rugby have to be completely switched on here from minute one; tempo will be sky high and the game will be uptempo given the closed roof and pitch. 

The Parisian side for me are one of the sides which could seriously put it up to Leinster Rugby this season in Europe. A statement of intent unfortunately may be issued at home and Ulster Rugby could feel the full force despite a positive opening period. Squad depth issues will be exposed for the Irish province.  

Verdict: Racing 92 (potential BP win)

Youth and Experience from Connacht Rugby

Interesting team lineup from Andy Friend

An interesting team lineup from Connacht Rugby. The term ‘youth and experience’ abound from this team sheet. A momentous day for Fitzgerald (ten) and De Buitlear (wing) who make their starting debuts for the province. Buckley, O’Halloran and Farrell return to the side to provide experience as well. 

This is such a key fixture in the context of Sale and Connacht’s aspirations for European Challenge Cup glory. With the French sides in this pool not genuinely interested in the competition, it is a two horse race to secure top spot in the pool. 

Sale Sharks have shown their intention loud and clear with a very strong team selection. McGuigan, O’Connor, Ashton and De Klerk will provide massive attacking threat. Rob Webber and Josh Beaumont will lead by example in the pack. 

Hopefully, the rookies in the Connacht Rugby side have good afternoons but this is a tough assignment given the selection of Sale Sharks. If Connacht Rugby can get a loser bonus point, then would be a good outcome. 

Verdict: Sale Sharks 

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 1 Review

Unexpectedly predictable

The first round of European Rugby Challenge Cup is done and dusted. It was a round where the main contenders flexed their muscles while the teams that we thought would struggle did and badly. Hawkeye Sidekick is not surprised. 

What we learned:

Who wants to win this tournament? ASM Clermont, Harlequins, Bristol Bears, Benetton Rugby, Connacht Rugby, Sale Sharks, Ospreys, La Rochelle, Stade Francais, Worcester Warriors, Dragons, Northampton Saints.

Who want nothing to do with the tournament? Agen, Grenoble, Bordeaux Begles (four hookers brought to Galway, good job it lashed down for the game as the selection would have looked pitiful). 

Who have no chance of winning the tournament? Zebre Rugby (not advancing from the pool), Ensei STM (eighteen points shine of leaking one hundred points) and Timisaora Saracens (overwhelmed all over the park).

Standout Performance:

Harlequins, Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors had keynote wins but the manner in which ASM Clermont disposed of Northampton Saints was quite emphatic. The French side ripped through the hosts at will scoring six excellent well worked tries. Northampton Saints saved face with two late tries to put some points on the board but this was as emphatic a win you will see all season in Europe. ASM Clermont look primed to be the key protagonist in this tourney. Forty-one points scored on the road; impressive. 

Low Point:

The news of abuse to Irish official Joy Neville from Perpignan team and fans last weekend. A decision according to the rule books is a red card. Neville involved the TMO and they made the call. The Perpignan natives got restless and their barrage of abuse to the Irish official was disgraceful. Perpignan’s season spirals out of control. They were already struggling to contain Sale Sharks on the ground when the red card came. A team who could easily down tool on this tournament on the back of that home loss. 

What to expect next week: 

Several epic hammerings look on the card. La Rochelle have a home fixture against Ensei STM where the French side scored eighty-two points last weekend against the same opposition. I think it is safe to say a similar mauling is on the cards; does the tournament no favors. The same goes for Timisaora Saracens who travel to ASM Clermont. Best of luck team, you are getting an absolute hiding of epic proportions. 

Pau and Stade Francais on paper looks a tasty French encounter. Stade Francais after losing to Worcester Warriors at home are in must win territory; will be interesting to see Pau’s team selection and performance after last weekend’s loss to Ospreys.

Sale Sharks and Connacht should be an excellent encounter. AJ McGinty facing his old Irish province, both sides will look to play on the front foot so expecting tries in that encounter.

Worcester Warriors and Ospreys also looks much more tasty compared to last week. Warriors were superb in their win in Paris; strong end to the game and they will look with confidence to face an Ospreys side whose pack wore down Pau to secure a decisive win.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Preview

Excitement to be saved until next year

If you have read this blog, I have a love / hate relationship with the European Rugby Challenge Cup tournament. The concept is noble but there are glaring issues with how the format has played out in recent seasons; mismatched opposition thumped on the road, French sides for the most part not particularly interested instead focusing on domestic league affairs. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the good, the bad and downright miserable aspects of this tournament. 

The Good

Obviously, it is because of the arrival of several marquee European Rugby teams. The presence of Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys, Harlequins, Northampton Saints, La Rochelle to the competition this season will see some serious playoff fixtures come next April. For now, these teams will look to go through the motions, give squad players sufficient minutes and secure their playoff berth with the minimum of fuss. When you add the likes of Connacht Rugby, Pau and Stade Francais to the mix, the business end of this competition should be superb. I am hoping also that a progressive Benetton Rugby can continue on the upward curve and look to secure playoff rugby too. 

The Bad

The sheer indifference of some French Pro 14 sides to the competition. Who am I referring to? I am referring to the sides who are looking at a relegation scrap and decide that this competition is not a priority sending out representational sides particularly on the road. Agen last season were a case study point. Perpignan and Grenoble may go in the same direction depending how their November league form fares. It is a serious issue for the tournament organizers. 

The Miserable

I applaud the efforts of Ensei STM, Timisoara Saracens but unless there are some serious upsets, both these sides look primed for epic hammerings. What is the point and lesson for these sides having to endure heavy loss after heavy loss? I am struggling for answers. There should be a third tier competition for teams such as this and potential tournament organizer ingenuity to have developmental teams setup in Berlin, Bonn, Moscow, Madrid, Lisbon, Helsinki, Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm. These teams could be formed using players who are out of contract or representing countries playing in Tier Two competition. Ensei STM host La Rochelle in the early hours of Saturday morning, hopefully not a hammering but the return leg could be a 100+ point concession. 

Pool 1 Preview:

Northampton Saints entertain ASM Clermont with Nigel Owens officiating. It sounds like a Heineken Cup fixture but it isn’t. Clermont made to pay for an injury plagued second half of last season finishing just far enough away from the relegation spots. Northampton Saints also had a wretched season costing Jim Mallinder his job. The performances thereafter did not improve much and the off season has seen several keynote departures. Both sides will fancy their chances of rebuilding form and confidence in this pool with Dragons and Timisoara Saracens for company. Dragons at home will rise for the visits of Northampton and ASM Clermont but squad depth issues will be ruthlessly exposed. Timisoara Saracens are cannon fodder unfortunately. ASM Clermont and Northampton to advance from this pool. 

Pool 2 Preview:

A genuinely solid pool here. Pau were a side who embraced the competition and got to the last four losing away to Cardiff Blues. I have a soft spot for the team given the Munster Rugby association (i.e. Butler, Mannix). Pau will be up against it with Ospreys and Stade Francais who both look re-energized after poor seasons last year. Ospreys and Pau clash looks like a tasty pack battle. Stade Francais play Worcester Warriors and it will be interesting to gauge team lineups for each side. Warriors have had a couple of keynote domestic results but is relegation concerns going to determine team selection? Potentially one team getting out of this pool with plenty of twists and turns. Ospreys get the edge based on the fact that the French sides may cancel each other out in their home fixtures. 

Pool 3 Preview: 

My pet peeve on understrength team selections could rear their head in this pool. Perpignan who are propped at the bottom of Top 14 may use this competition to rest front line players for a November league push. Bordeaux Begles are infamous for sending over less than stellar match day squad so it is a straight fight between Connacht Rugby and Sale Sharks to secure top spot. Connacht Rugby have shown promise under Andy Friend and Sale Sharks have impressed this season with some key cameos particularly AJ McGinty. Connacht Rugby potentially get the edge to advance and potentially Sale Sharks as well if the French sides in this pool give up on the competition come round three. 

Pool 4 Preview: 

Ensei STM will be a daunting road trip for Bristol Bears, Zebre Rugby and this weekend’s opponents La Rochelle from a linguistics perspective but the playing side should straightforward. Yes, Stade Francais were upset there last season but it was an one off. Ensei STM are five points fodder for all other pool opponents. La Rochelle look the class act in this pool with Bristol Bears potentially advancing to the last eight of the competition on the basis of the fact that they secure ten points from Ensei STM. 

Pool 5 Preview:

This is a huge opportunity for Benetton Rugby to impress. The Italians are a live threat based on their Guinness Pro 14 performances. Grenoble’s ambitions in this competition are unclear and I fancy Benetton Rugby to win their opener. Harlequins and Agen face off at the Stoop and I would be shocked if Quins do not hammer Agen given the French side’s history in this competition. Harlequins to top the pool with Benetton Rugby potentially securing a playoff berth if other results go their way in January. It would be great news for Italian rugby if that happened.