Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference B?

Leinster away and clear at the top of the conference

Conference B has seen one team head and shoulders ahead of their conference counterparts. Leinster Rugby have being superb and unplayable at times so far in the season with their squad depth in full effect. The league organizers will be happy to see that the two other remaining playoff berths have several teams with vested interests including Benetton Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on the conference and what to expect in this conference when the league resumes at the end of January.

Conference B Standings:

Leinster Rugby the standard bearer

The league form from the reigning tournament champions has being nothing short of sensational. Their ability to pick teams apart from any facet of play to the fore. The academy and squad players have deputized with ultra efficiency in their skill set, work rate and physicality. The top spot in the conference is pretty much secured; the key now will be to ensure that the performance levels do not dip as the side head into the playoffs.

Edinburgh Rugby are well in the playoff mix

After a slow start to the season, Edinburgh Rugby are in second place in the conference standings. Their festive period league triumphs have built serious momentum; their wins over Glasgow Warriors were noteworthy. They dismantled the Warriors pack threat. The key will be to improve their road trip performances down the homestretch. European Cup focus may have swayed team selection in previous rounds but every round from here on out needs to be given due priority. Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn are having superb seasons and their back line play has complemented the abrasive, solid pack performances this year. Mata continues to be a ball carrying machine.

Benetton Rugby; most improved side in the league

Benetton Rugby’s home win over Glasgow Warriors though surprising should not have being viewed as an earth shattering shock result. Benetton Rugby have already put Harlequins to the sword at home this season. Their performances this season have being well organized and their attacking play has evolved. The key point for Benetton Rugby is the RBS 6 Nations league block; how is the depth chart in the side? If they can be in the mix after this block of games, then Benetton Rugby could be a top three conference contender. Great to see the Italian side in the playoff mix; good news for the league, good news for the league organizers.

Scarlets injury crisis crippling

The injury list at the Scarlets this season has being cruel to watch. The lack of back row options in recent weeks even more so when Ken Owens was thrust into the eight jersey against the Dragons last weekend. Thomson absence is a big loss along with Cubby Davies whose breakdown work and guile has being sorely missed. The news that Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones are gone to the Welsh national side managerial setup is a further blow. If the injury list can subside, then the side have the serious threats out wide to cause any team in this league issues. The health issues of Leigh Halfpenny also is a concern. The side are under pressure currently and if they can get a top three berth in the conference this season, it will be a superb effort given the issues at the club.

Ulster Rugby squad depth waning?

Ulster Rugby’s season is at a pivotal point. Their squad depth chart issues surfaced again in round thirteen as Leinster Rugby took Dan McFarland’s men to the cleaners in a facile win. It had the attributes of their heavy loss to Munster Rugby at Thomond Park. The first team squad when available for selection is up there with anyone but when they are unavailable, gaps are seen despite the undoubted youth and academy talent on the books. Injury list is mounting. Can IRFU assist Ulster Rugby with astute loan signings to keep momentum? Otherwise, Ulster Rugby could be in danger of falling off the Conference B playoff race picture. Interesting times ahead for all concerned at the club.

Dragons project reset

It has being a wretched season for Dragons. Bernard Jackman has paid the price for inconsistent, poor performances on the pitch with his departure from the club before Christmas. The club are in limbo until a successor and definitive club vision and recruitment policy is implemented. The season is a right off; time to evaluate the current squad. Any new prospective recruits will be playing the wait and see game until a new successor to Bernard Jackman is identified. This is an unmitigated disaster for the club right now as it ponderously drifts towards the end of the current season. Their home win to Ospreys over the festive period will be the sole highlight of the season.

Southern Kings future is secured

The Southern Kings continue to struggle in the league; news that private investment has being secured to the team over the festive period must be seen as a positive but their performances right now on the playing side continue to be a mixed bag. A heavy road loss to Edinburgh Rugby last time out another reminder of the struggles that the side face particularly on the road. Kings next season is make or break; if they continue in this same vain, the private investment will be quickly withdrawn so it is imperative for the league organizers to get the required assurances from the club hierarchy that recruitment on the pitch is on point. The season is finished for the club; time to strategically review and identify where improvements are required.

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)

Festive derbies the order of the day

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

Ulster Rugby bench impact to settle local derby 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Ulster Rugby

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

Cardiff Blues to inflict further misery on Dragons 

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

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

Dragons part with Bernard Jackman

Dragons starting Christmas head coaching shopping

November 3rd saw Dragons come to the Sportsground to face Connacht Rugby, it was a chance to run the rule over the Dragons and see what improvement if any had taken place in the Welsh region outfit. The fixture was a miserable experience for the Dragons; blotched try scoring opportunities and a porous defense seeing a 33-12 loss. 

Bernard Jackman comments post-game were that the side and players were improving but the manner of the performance, the despondency of the players on duty with each score conceded suggested that the Dragons board would need to evaluate the head coach sooner than the end of the season. The news today that both parties have parted ways is disappointing but probably a necessary move for both to reassess and move on. 

The announcement of Bernard Jackman as Dragons head coach in 2017 was seen as a surprise announcement by many Rodney Parade fans but respected rugby pundits pointed to his coaching tenure with Grenoble which eventually led to the head coaching role in the summer of 2016.

However, Bernard Jackman experienced a turbulent and challenging season as head coach; a huge injury backlog and lack of funds to bolster an already stretched squad saw the Tullow man depart the club in March 2017. The club was relegated from Top 14; there would be no momentum shift to the season.

The Dragons head coaching role was seen as a perfect opportunity for Jackman to relaunch his career and to put his stamp on the club, a club which had struggled in past seasons, a club who were looking for a new start and new beginnings, a club which looked to Jackman to develop a young squad with the promise of funds and key personnel player signings to bolster the squad. 

The opening season as Dragons head coach was always going to be difficult. The side struggled for cohesion and consistency last season, shipping 94 tries and scoring only 43 tries which was the lowest in the league. Only seven wins in thirty-one games last season but the signings of Richard Hibbard and Ross Moriarty in the pack was embers of optimism to drive the side on from a performance and results perspective this season. 

Unfortunately, Dragons have languished even further this season. The team on paper looks to have genuine talent with Eliot Dee, Richard Hibbard, Cory Hill, Ollie Griffiths, Ross Moriarty, Tavis Knoyle, Gavin Henson, James Tovey, Hallam Amos, Jordan Williams and Zane Kirchner.

No excuses on the performance levels which defensively have fallen well short of the standard required. Their home loss to Leinster Rugby a couple of weeks ago against a side admittedly consisting of Leinster academy and fringe players was a hammer blow for Jackman.

Even more so has being the statistics generated so far this season. Lowest try scorers (18) and highest tries against for the team (44) this season; no indication of an upturn in fortunes. The board pulled the trigger. 

Dragons board must have looked at the progress of the Italian sides such as Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby who have improved notably in recent seasons; the side have not gone in that upward curve and after a loss to Northampton Saints last weekend which spelled the end of their European Challenge Cup interest (realistically) this season, they have pulled the plug on Jackman. 

It will be interesting to hear from Jackman in the coming weeks on his departure from the Dragons. Both will look to rebound but for both, it looks like a long road ahead to redemption. Jackman is undoubtedly a good coach but the head coach role stints have being a mixed bag, cannot see a club or national side immediately offering a head coaching role anytime soon. The Tullow native will get back on the coaching ticket of a team (club / national) in due course but now is the time for reflection. 

Dragons unless they have someone already on their radar will now look to recruit a successor for Jackman which will be tough right now considering that coaches working in other clubs will not be released until the end of the current season (if lucky). It may be the case of looking to the backroom staff still at the club to steer the side through the rest of the season. Club in limbo which is far from ideal. 

Do the club go for an experienced head coach and are prepared to commit to their vision of the club long term (3-5 years), something they failed to do with Bernard Jackman? If so, then the likes of Mike Ruddock, Andy Robinson, Jim Mallinder come into the foreground. All have quality coaching credentials from a club perspective. 

If the club are looking for a good coach who has the potential for head coaching success, then Felix Jones (Munster) may fit the bill. Jones is well regarded in Munster and Irish rugby circles and but whether the Dragons go for another Irish appointment is unlikely. Jason Strange who is the attacking coach for Cardiff Blues may be an outside bet; good success at Welsh club level. 

Regardless of the appointment, there is no short term fix for the Dragons. The club are in a rut even after their lavish name change last season. The culture of losing is as prevalent as ever at the club. It will require shrewd player recruitment to establish additional squad depth in multiple pack and back line positions. Jackman may have gone but the Dragons needs to be examined top to bottom as everyone needs to be held accountable for the disastrous run of results not just this season but for the past decade.

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. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 4 (Saturday Fixtures Preview)

Home wins the order of the day

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Glasgow Warriors

A successful 100% win South African tour for Glasgow Warriors should be secured with a bonus point try win over the hosts who have shown resiliency but ultimately have being outgunned in the pack and skill set department. Glasgow Warriors have rotated their squad around for this fixture, still look strong enough to win this contest. Seymour set to have a keynote game. 

Connacht Rugby vs. Scarlets

A fixture which I am looking forward to. It is a must win for Connacht Rugby after a road loss to Edinburgh Rugby last weekend; discipline and pack platform must improve for the hosts to upset Scarlets who will look to consolidate their solid start to the season. Connacht Rugby welcome Robin Copeland into the pack and with several Scarlets first team regulars out of this fixture, is this a potential game which Connacht Rugby can win? Connacht to win only if they produce a smart, disciplined game plan performance; otherwise Scarlets could run riot out wide. Slight edge to Connacht Rugby as the weather improves here on the Irish West Coast. 

Dragons vs. Zebre Rugby

A key game for the Dragons and the long term managerial tenure ambitions of Bernard Jackman. Dragons have looked well exposed this season; their loss to Leinster Rugby was tough to watch as Leinster Rugby systematically broke Dragons defensive system to shreds. Zebre Rugby will arrive to Rodney Parade in good confidence; a superb late win over Cardiff Blues last weekend at home the standout performance last week. Zebre Rugby will realize that their discipline and fundamental set piece execution have to be on point and provided that they are not far behind at the interval should win this contest in a close, tense affair. Dragons to win need to drastically improve and I do not see the improvement required for this game in just seven days!

Leinster Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby

The standout fixture this weekend until I saw the Edinburgh Rugby team lineup; several pack first team regulars missing and with a strong Leinster Rugby team announced, can only see one winner. Edinburgh will look to restrict quick Leinster Rugby ruck ball but to be honest, Leinster Rugby are so good in changing the focus of attack that the pack may score a couple of tries from mauls. Leinster Rugby with a late bonus point try win. 

Ospreys vs. Benetton Rugby

A tricky fixture for Ospreys to negotiate today as Benetton Rugby with fourteen players scored four tries on the road to the Scarlets last weekend. Ospreys must be careful when they look to become expansive. Ospreys should have their first team regulars back and that could be decisive in the final outcome. Benetton Rugby will show well again but I think Wyn Jones, Tipuric, North and Williams’ cameos if selected will steer the hosts home.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 Reflections (Saturday)

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

Benetton Rugby Renaissance

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

Ospreys impress but big concerns for Cheetahs

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

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

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

Connacht Rugby off the mark

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

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

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

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

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

Dragons but only just

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

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

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

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

Scarlets win but Leinster Rugby close

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

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

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

Guinness Pro 14 Round 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: Preview (Saturday Games)

Ulster Rugby’s win against Ospreys tonight (8-0) puts a little bit of pressure on Edinburgh Rugby ahead of their tussle against Scarlets but this fixture has being diluted given the selection of the visitors. With a huge European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster Rugby next weekend, the priorities are self-evident.

Scarlets have made wholesale changes for this fixture and the side comprises of squad players. It is a golden opportunity for Edinburgh Rugby to get back on the win column after a disappointing two weeks where Cardiff Blues and Ulster Rugby have come to Murrayfield and come away with deserved victory.

The Edinburgh Rugby pack surely will build the platform tomorrow and expect solid performances from Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist to lead from the front. Hidalgo-Clyne at nine has the skill set to unleash his pacy back line where Fife and van der Merwe should have excellent gain line statistics coming from this game.

Scarlets’ selection is understandable given the looming European Cup fixture and this will be the opportunity for Edinburgh to secure a bonus point try win; securing third place in Conference B. Scarlets will make do with second in the Conference B,  a dangerous side to come up against in the playoffs given the drying track conditions.

A fixture which will yield a morale boosting victory for either Zebre Rugby or Dragons. Both sides will look to right a few wrongs from round nineteen. Zebre Rugby showed some good moments in the opening half against Leinster Rugby but failed to put points on the board. Leinster Rugby massacred Zebre Rugby in the second half when cohesion was established.

Dragons had a topsy turvy loss to Benetton Rugby last weekend. Bernard Jackman’s charges looked out of it in the opening period; leaking four tries to Benetton Rugby but they fought back incredibly well to lead the contest deep into the contest only for discipline to rear its head to give Benetton Rugby the decisive penalty kick to win the contest.

Dragons have based themselves in Italy this week; a chance to increase morale and improve team continuity. Bernard Jackman and management have made three changes for this side. Charlie Davies replaces Owain Leonard at scrum-half, whilst Luke Garrett comes into the front row and Joe Davies comes into the second row.

Zebre Rugby make five changes for the fixture. Castello suffered a knee injury during the Six Nations Championship, but has been passed fit to return. Venditti starts on the left wing, so Mattia Bellini switches to the right.  Luus and Bello come into the front row with Johan Meyer set to start at open side. The inclusions add quality to the side.

50/50 contest. Dragons have plenty to prove in terms of closing out games; they had a superb chance to win last week. They need the win desperately to end a horrific league streak. Zebre Rugby though for me if their pack can assert dominance and with Canna and Venditti on hand to game manage the back line. Zebre Rugby win narrowly.

Leinster entertain Benetton Rugby at the RDS with some keynote inclusions. Jordan Larmour returns to the side at full back, his ball carrying hitting the line should be sharp and will cause the visitors massive headaches. Pack changes aplenty. McGrath, Strauss, Porter form the front row. Molony and Nagle are the second row combo and there is a welcome return to action for Sean O’Brien. Carbery starts at ten; interesting to see how he performs. Given the squad being rested this weekend, Leinster Rugby’s team is still strong. Daly on the wing poised for further tries.

Jayden Hayward,  Andrea Bronzini and Monty Ioane feature in the Benetton Rugby back line. Iannone and captain Alberto Sgarbi occupy the centre positions while the half-backs are Tito Tebaldi at scrum half and Tommaso Allan at fly-half. The front row is made up by Federico Zani, Luca Bigi and Simone Ferrari and need to set the platform for Benetton Rugby to impress. They have fifty points in the league so far and still harbor hopes of catching Ulster Rugby for fourth place. Benetton Rugby will bring a huge effort to the game.

Leinster Rugby though for me are the firm favorites to win this contest. A couple of players on show will need to produce excellent performances to be part of the plans for the European Cup fixture next weekend. Massive motivation for the likes of O’Brien, Larmour, McGrath to impress. Carbery at ten potentially the standout performer. Leinster Rugby victory; hard earned given Benetton Rugby’s defensive shape has improved considerably this season. No bonus point but sufficient to secure top spot in Conference A for the playoffs.

Intriguing fixture to end round twenty. Cardiff Blues will be buoyed by Munster Rugby’s road trip win at Bloemfontein which opens the door for the Blues to close the gap in the battle for third in the conference. When you add to the fact that Ospreys lost as well tonight, then it could be a significant weekend for anyone involved with the Blues.

Cardiff Blues were devastated to lose so late to Toyota Cheetahs last weekend. Spirited fightback and then to lose to a penalty try award deep into injury time was hard to take. Blues have made a couple of pack personnel changes. Andrews starting in the front-row. Turnbull comes into the second row. Nick Williams starts at the back of the pack and Ellis Jenkins captains the side at openside flanker. Anscombe switches to full back to accommodate Evans at ten. Solid team.

Southern Kings come into the fixture on the back of a mixed performance against Munster Rugby. A good opening thirty minutes had Munster Rugby under pressure but then discipline and defensive lapses in the third quarter key to Munster Rugby pulling away for the bonus point win. Southern Kings have made a couple of changes as well; Vulindlu returns to the back line and provides attacking threat. Several personnel pack changes as well.

Port Elizabeth should see plenty of quality tries in this encounter. The Cardiff Blues back line has the potential to cut loose here with their pace ad power. For me, their pack is more cohesive and Evans will control game management at ten. Cardiff Blues to win here after a topsy turvy opening period. Navidi at six the game changer; his grappling ability at the breakdown a key positive for the visitors.