Guinness Pro 14: Round 19 Review (Part II)

The second part of the Guinness Pro 14 Round 19 review. An efficient performance from Scarlets to beat Glasgow Warriors. Toyota Cheetahs leave it extremely late to beat Cardiff Blues and Benetton Rugby break Dragons hearts with a last gasp win also. Action packed.

If you have read my blog regularly, the Toyota Cheetahs are my hidden guilty Guinness Pro 14 pleasure. When they played Munster Rugby at Thomond Park last September, their expansive style of play was so easy on the eye. I felt even then that with a couple of games, this side would be competitive and so it has proved. Toyota Cheetahs at Bloemfontein are an incredibly hard team to beat, ask Connacht Rugby and now Cardiff Blues with late road trip heartbreak in recent weeks.

29-27. A game which Toyota Cheetahs looked to be in control at half-time. The hosts front five prominent in ball carrying setting the platform, allowing Marais to unleash his back line with devastating results. Three tries scored in that opening period, clinical offloading and passing to players in better field position.

Maxwane scoring a further two tries; his try involving the ever dangerous Blommetjies was a movie reel highlight. Venter also got onto the score board with a superb running line to unlock the Cardiff Blues defense who had to absorb massive pressure in this half. 22-6 at the break. Game over?

Credit to Cardiff Blues, they came out in the second half with renewed purpose and controlled the pack exchanges with some excellent ball carries. Three excellent tries ensued. Owen Lane scoring his sixth Guinness Pro 14 try of the season and then two quality efforts from Halaholo and Lee-Lo midway through the half exposing fragile Cheetahs defense on the outside.

Cardiff Blues now were leading the contest but the altitude factor kicked in the final quarter. Toyota Cheetahs starting to probe the defensive fringes and creating field position which then led to a series of scrums ten meters out from the Cardiff Blues’ line. The officiating crew losing patience with the visitors and pointed for a penalty try.

Whether another officiating crew would have being so whistle happy in the NH remains to be seen, suffice to say another officiating crew would have asked the Toyota Cheetahs to play the ball from the scrum and let play develop. Devastating loss for the Cardiff Blues in the context of the game and playoff picture. Nine point is now the gap between the two sides now but all not lost for Cardiff Blues. An exciting Conference A playoff race beckons still!

This was a performance that signaled intent from Scarlets ahead of key fixtures in the next couple of weeks. 22-8 win. Two teams brimming with talent. The hosts were the more cohesive performer on the day, breakdown work on point led by James Davies. Scarlets had to remain patient until the second quarter of this contest when Patchell who was the standout  performer identified a defensive gap in the Warriors line to cross for a try. Key score, created the buffer that Glasgow Warriors could not bridge.

The Glasgow Warriors performance did not lack work rate but precision and accuracy at times let them down. Davies (scrum-half) intercepting a Glasgow Warriors skip pass to score Scarlets’ second try of the evening in the second half. The day did not get much better for the visitors as Finn Russell was forced to withdraw at half-time. Thereafter, attacking play from the Conference A top team was one dimensional. Time to reflect and address for Dave Rennie for the playoffs!

Scarlets will be pleased with the defensive line speed and organization throughout. Glasgow Warriors tried to penetrate holes in the defensive line but Scarlets were solid. Beirne’s work rate from second row a perfect case study. Thirteen tackles made. Three passes.

Patchell finished off a comfortable win with a late try, good hands from the Scarlets back line seeing the half-back with the ball close to the touchline but good movement and speed saw the number ten evade a couple of Glasgow Warriors tackles to score. A statement of intent from the Scarlets who keep the pressure on Leinster Rugby in both Pro 14 but also European Rugby Champions Cup front after this performance.

The proverbial game of two halves. Benetton Rugby will be happy to secure victory at the death given that they had the bonus point try secured in the first half but lack of accuracy defensively, coupled with concentration lapses left Dragons back into the contest and will undoubtedly raise video analysis questions.

Both sides will look at the missed tackle count. 25 vs. 23 is way too high for a side to win a Guinness Pro 14 encounter. Benetton Rugby will not be as lucky to win a game with this statistic for the remainder of the season. The hosts were excellent though with ball in hand. Several well worked tries courtesy of Ruzza (1′), Allan (27′), Ioane (23′) and Tebaldi (40′). Game over surely?

Dragons responded well and scored three tries of their own. Hill (50′), Rosser (61′), Edwards (65′) all crossed over and Dragons looked the better side for long periods of the half but lack of game management to close out the contest came into the equation.

Benetton Rugby got vital field position in those last eight minutes; squandered two good chances before Dragons indiscipline conceded the late penalty where Tebaldi slotted over. Devastating loss for Bernard Jackman and Dragons but Benetton Rugby continue to register wins in the league. A work in progress but the signs are encouraging.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 19 Preview

After the excitement of European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup last weekend, it is time to get back to the brass tax of Guinness Pro 14. A weekend which could see several teams come tantalizingly close to securing their place in the playoffs. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

This is the pivotal contest in Conference B. A win for Edinburgh Rugby in this encounter will see Richard Cockerill’s charges almost secure their place in the playoffs. The team news makes for interesting reading. Edinburgh make six changes to the side that were humbled by Cardiff Blues in European Challenge cup action last weekend. Hidalgo-Clyne, Weir, Burleigh and Berghan all come into the starting lineup. All solid selections.

Ulster Rugby have given opportunities to a couple of promising academy players. Tom O’Toole (prop), Matthew Dalton (second row) come into the side and are joined by Matthew Rea and Nick Timoney. An explosive looking back line is named with Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Louis Ludik and Charles Piutau named at full back.

Third plays fourth in this encounter. It is a game that Ulster Rugby have to win to have any realistic chance of extending their regular league season. Ulster Rugby on the road this season have being inconsistent at best so it will be interesting to see how Ulster Rugby perform with the likes of Rory Best and Iain Henderson in the ranks.

Slight edge to Edinburgh Rugby who look to have more cohesion in their ranks. The half-back pairing selected is vastly experienced and with the likes of Gilchrist, Toolis and Berghan all coming back to the pack; they look to edge the pack battle. Playoff ticket almost stamped after this result for Edinburgh. A win to compound another miserable week for Ulster Rugby off the pitch.

This Conference A fixture is a dead rubber with both sides realistically out of the playoff hunt. Ospreys name a strong selection for this fixture with the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Dan Biggar in the ranks. Their performance against Leinster Rugby in round eighteen was excellent; physicality with superb expansive line breaks. Dan Evans was sublime on the night and will be looking to add to his try scoring tally.

Connacht Rugby ring the changes from the side who exited European competition last weekend at home to Gloucester Rugby. A chance for Kieran Keane and management to give game time to squad players. Delahunt, Carey, Cannon come into the pack as Ultan Dillane starts which is good to see. A brand new three quarter unit as Robb and Griffin replace Aki and Farrell.

A game which should produce tries considering the two back lines named, the hosts look well primed in the pack to create the platform to secure another morale boosting home victory to conclude the season. Ospreys win with a late bonus point try in this one as Connacht Rugby’s defensive breakdowns in recent weeks will be exposed yet again.

A fixture which has home win written all over it. The big question as I publish this blog (April 5th) is the Leinster Rugby team selection that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will name for this encounter. The assumption is that the players who excelled last weekend in European action will get the weekend off so it could be a squad selection of squad players as well as a chance for Sean O’Brien to impress potentially.

The Leinster Rugby squad depth is excellent and it is dread that Zebre Rugby travel to the RDS for this encounter particularly when you see the game tape from their last road trip; an embarrassing loss to Glasgow Warriors who scored sixty plus points.

The hope is that Zebre Rugby are competitive and do not get hammered but if the weather conditions are good, expect the Leinster Rugby squad assembled to produce a cohesive performance which could heap more road trip agony for Michael Bradley’s charges. Bonus point try win for Leinster Rugby beckons hopefully in the second half and not in the opening period. Zebre’s pack needs to produce a performance but I cannot see it.

A Conference A fixture which could have huge ramifications in the direction of the playoff race. If Toyota Cheetahs can win this contest, they will open up a significant end of season points gap to Cardiff Blues who are improving with each passing round. A victory for Cardiff Blues and we are setup for an interesting Conference A playoff race for third place.

Cardiff Blues will be buoyant after their 6-20 road trip over well fancied Edinburgh Rugby last weekend in European Challenge Cup action. An accurate, clinical opening period setting the platform for victory. The Cardiff Blues pack were excellent during the game and the cohesion between the pack and back line was impressive at times.

Toyota Cheetahs enter this fixture after another couple of weeks of inactivity. Their last fixture was a convincing bonus point try win to the Dragons; absorbing early pressure from the hosts to close out the contest in emphatic fashion. The home confines of Bloemfontein will be most welcome.

In their first fixture this season, Cardiff Blues emerged 25-20 victors. A game which ebbed and flowed throughout as Toyota Cheetahs were made to pay for accuracy issues at both sides of the ball. Cardiff Blues will pose serious problems in the back row and back line areas but Toyota Cheetahs with home advantage and altitude advantage sees them just pip Cardiff Blues in an entertaining match-up.

This looks like the fixture of the round if solid squad selections are announced. However, Scarlets may rest key personnel after last weekend’s win at home to La Rochelle. Does Wayne Pivac decide to rest players now or next weekend ahead of their Leinster European Rugby Champions Cup showdown in two weeks? Intriguing selection beckons for the hosts.

Glasgow Warriors have already secured playoff and home field advantage so it will be interesting to see the team selection from Dave Rennie. A game where they can produce a performance with zero pressure, expect an open expansive game from the top team in Conference A.

This fixture is dependent on the Scarlets squad; if it is a solid team selection, expect an epic encounter but I sense that the squad named will be predominantly squad players with some players needing additional game time. Edge to Glasgow Warriors at this time.

A fixture of little consequence, only pride. Dragons probably have more reasons to win this contest, a long awaited first league win of the year. A season which has seen Bernard Jackman’s charges exposed due to inexperience and squad depth, it is imperative that the Welsh region win a game before season end to rid this wretched league loss record.

Benetton Rugby though will look to consolidate a solid season in Conference B. Their performances this season have being on point, secured a mid-table league position and their level of performance has impressed me with some superb victories to more illustrious opposition on paper throughout the season.

Slight edge to Benetton Rugby; their squad looks better on paper to Dragons who will continue to struggle to put points on the board despite having exciting talent out wide where Hewitt has the potential to become an excellent winger. Marty Banks game management pivotal for me down the stretch.

Munster Rugby travel to Kimberley. A timely tour of South Africa to recharge the batteries this week after that bruising win over Toulon last weekend. An emotional trip for the likes of Stander, Kleyn, Grobler and van Graan to their native homeland. Munster Rugby enter this fixture with both Simon Zebo and Darren Sweetnam unavailable for selection due to injuries sustained last weekend.

Johan van Graan will look to change up the side this weekend so the likes of James Hart and JJ Hanrahan potentially could be given game time at half-back. Stephen Fitzgerald could conceivably come into the line up at full back. Conor Oliver looks a solid bet to feature in the back row.

Southern Kings will look to produce a positive start against Munster Rugby; the game conditions indicate a match full of entertaining open expansive phases and tries. Provided Munster Rugby can execute in the set piece efficiently, then the advantage in this encounter goes to the visitors. Hopefully, there will be a good crowd in attendance to see the fixture.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 – March 23rd Fixture Preview

All the euphoria of Ireland’s Natwest 6 Nations success last weekend is done and dusted, it is time for the Guinness Pro 14 to take center stage. A critical round for the teams who will be involved in European Champions and Challenge Cup competitions next weekend; a last opportunity for those teams to create momentum ahead of those fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Connacht in must win territory

A critical fixture for Connacht Rugby. A loss at home at the hands of a resurgent Edinburgh Rugby side will condemn the side to looking at the playoff race unfold from the outside. Kieran Keane has decided to rest his international players apart from Quinn Roux for this fixture. Apart from that, the side is pretty much full strength.

Edinburgh make five changes from the side which accounted for Munster Rugby last weekend in a scrappy encounter. Kinghorn returns to the full back role. Marfo returns to the front row. Berghan and Gilchrist come into a strong looking pack.

50/50 contest here. Connacht Rugby need a strong performance before their Challenge Cup encounter against Gloucester Rugby. However, performance consistency has being a problem in recent rounds. Edinburgh will look to quell the hosts advances in the opening period and win this contest in the second half based on a solid pack platform. Edinburgh’s form and winning habit to get them over the line here in a close contest.

Can the Dragons roar past the Cheetahs?

This looks like an arduous task for Bernard Jackman’s charges. After a deflating beat down on the road to the Southern Kings, morale in the camp must be low. It is a blessing that the international contingent are available for selection to hopefully arrest the team performance slide.

Cory Hill, Elliot Dee and Hallam Amos all come into the start lineup. The three quarters partnership is an unknown quantity as Edwards and Beard are named. Kirchner plays from full back, interesting to see if the South African international can join the attacking line and contribute. Aaron Wainwright and Lewis Evans come into the back row and tight-head prop Lloyd Fairbrother lines up in the front row.

Cheetahs name a couple of changes to their starting lineup. Marais moves to inside centre to compensate for an injury to Nico Lee, meaning Fred Zeilinga comes in at fly-half. William Small-Smith returns to the side from injury on the right wing and Rabz Maxwano starts on the other wing. Oupa Mohoje comes into the back row.

The track conditions are vital in this fixture as the Cheetahs will look to create an expansive game from the first whistle. Can the Dragons pack stifle the Cheetahs at the breakdown? Dragons attacking options in Hewitt and Amos potentially will provide pace and creativity.

Dragons kicking game needs to be on point throughout; there will be occasions where loose kicking and game management will happen and the Cheetahs will flourish. Cheetahs to put pressure on Munster Rugby with a road trip win, no bonus point try.

Glasgow Warriors to dominate Zebre Rugby

It is top versus bottom in Conference A. Zebre Rugby’s focus this weekend is to be competitive. The pack needs to be on point in their ability to disrupt Warriors ball and provide a solid set piece platform for Canna to attempt to create line break opportunities.

It is going to be a tall order. Glasgow Warriors have named a strong squad for this fixture. Dave Rennie will be keen to start this tranche of games in the competition will renewed vigor on both sides of the ball. The pack looks strong with the likes of Fagerson and Harley in the unit. Hastings gets game time at ten. Jackson, Grigg, Van der Merwe feature in an exciting back line.

Zebre Rugby recall their Italian internationals for this contest; their road trip win in Galway was a high point and more of the same organized defensive setup with fluidity in their attacking play is required. The question for Zebre Rugby is how expansive do they become as their hosts will relish an open field battle.

Expect tries galore in this encounter. Glasgow Warriors to pull away in this fixture in the third quarter as Zebre’s pack is put on the back foot. Hoping Michael Bradley’s side produce a defiant performance but this Warriors side at home are an incredibly hard outfit to breakdown and their ability to launch defense into attack will be too much at times. Bonus point try win for Glasgow.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 Preview

The unusual March cold weather known in the business as ‘the beast from the east’ has deprived us of all Irish, Welsh and Scottish Guinness Pro14 fixtures this weekend. Disappointing considering the games that were on tap but thankfully there are no such problems south of the equator where Dragons and Connacht Rugby look to secure wins against the Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs respectively. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Conference B clash where bottom team faces second bottom. A pivotal fixture as Southern Kings will look to secure a first league win of the season (long overdue) or Dragons securing their first league win since last September.

Southern Kings had a torrid European three game tour. The blowout loss to Leinster Rugby must be considered the low point of the season so far. Leinster Rugby dominated proceedings from start to finish and already had their fourth try registered within the first quarter. The display was well below the standards required and there needs to be a reaction in the ranks this weekend.

Deon Davids has kept faith by and large with the players who faced Leinster Rugby, a statement from the head coach for his charges to make amends for last weekend, a chance for the players to secure that elusive first league win. Banda comes into the back line while Lerm slots into the number eight jersey.

Dragons by contrast have made six changes to the starting lineup in a bid to secure a long elusive Guinness Pro 14 win. Exciting Ashton Hewitt returns to the back three. Jarryd Sage partners Jack Dixon in the three quarters, a chance for Sage to impress against his former club. Sarel Pretorius is selected at nine. Flankers Harri Keddie and Ollie Griffiths return to the starting lineup.

Bernard Jackman’s charges endured a miserable defeat at the hands of Edinburgh Rugby at Eugene Cross Park. Dragons never threatened a result until the last quarter when Landman scored a try to make it a three point game but Edinburgh responded emphatically with two late tries, securing the bonus point.

This is an incredibly tough game to call. Southern Kings cannot be as bad as they were last weekend but how much can they improve in one week? Their overall performance was appalling at times. Dragons on the other hand despite losing league fixtures have shown good flashes of play and being competitive for long periods.

Something is telling me that the Southern Kings’ first league win has arrived in a tight encounter. Kings in home confines will raise their game and their home performances have being decent for good periods of play. Dragons lack of game management to close out this contest will be exposed yet again.

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The other league fixture looks like a daunting challenge for everyone concerned with Connacht Rugby. Bloemfontein is a fortress for the Toyota Cheetahs who will be thankful for home comforts this weekend given their recent European road trip results.

The altitude factor will be particularly hard for the Irish province in the final quarter as the Toyota Cheetahs will continue to play an expansive uptempo style, looking for defensive gaps with quick passing, running lines and deft kicks in behind. Barry has being prominent in his try scoring count this season and with Francois Venter at thirteen, good things with ball in hand are not too far away.

Cheetahs secured a bonus point try performance last weekend to the Ospreys but were pipped late on for the win. A critical loss in the context of the playoff race and gives Munster Rugby a little breathing space in second after their win over Glasgow Warriors last weekend.

Connacht Rugby restored much needed morale and confidence with a hard fought road trip win to the improving Benetton Rugby in round sixteen. The performance was solid which was in stark contrast to the display delivered against Zebre Rugby in round fifteen.

The word consistency is a keynote term for Connacht Rugby this season. Just when you think that they have turned the corner, they produce a miserable performance like the one against Zebre Rugby. It is very hard to gauge how Connacht Rugby will go here truth be told. The hope is that the touring party will be fully focused on this tour of South Africa.

Connacht Rugby on their day can beat anyone; their expansive play aided by a mobile, abrasive front five can cause opposition plenty of issues. Carty at ten will be a pivotal figure in this fixture, His game management will need to be on point; choosing when to kick deep and when to launch his three quarters where Tom Farrell will look to impress.

The downside for Connacht Rugby is that this comes in the middle of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament. Aki, Marmion are unavailable for selection and are big absentees when faced with a trip to Bloemfontein. Connacht’s best bet here is to earn a loser bonus point or more conceivably a bonus point try point.

This contest should provide some scintillating phases of play. Both sides will look to establish an expansive style of play early. The Toyota Cheetahs need this win to restore confidence but also to conceivably eliminate Connacht Rugby from the playoff picture. Toyota Cheetahs aided by Francois Venter (if selected) should have too much for Connacht Rugby here with a decisive final quarter burst. A bonus point try win is not out of the question.