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. 

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 5

French duo favorites to advance

The final pool of the Heineken Champions Cup has the financial and squad depth power of Montpellier and Toulon facing off against Heineken Champions Cup debutantes Newcastle Falcons and Edinburgh Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool more in hope than expectation. 

French teams hold the aces 

When this draw was announced, it looked like Toulon would be firm favorites to advance to the last eight but how things have changed? Toulon have struggled in Top 14 action only winning two league games so far, a side devoid of cohesion between the pack, half backs and back line. Don’t get me wrong, Toulon have a superb squad with the likes of Messam,  Pietersen, Belleau and Trinh-Duc but things have not gelled this season and represents hope for the others in the pool.

Montpellier come into this pool as favorites; solid start to the domestic action winning four league games out of seven. The backbone of this side is fronted by experienced South Africans starting with hooker Du Plessis, scrum half Ruan Pienaar, Serfontein and Steyn in the three quarters. The side also boasts the likes of Picamoles and Fall as well. Their 29-17 victory over Toulon at home last weekend is a good indicator; a performance built on solid pack work and where marauding Nagusa with ball in hand caused massive headaches. If Vern Cotter’s side can improve their road trip form, they should advance to the last eight of this competition.

Edinburgh Rugby come into top tier European tournament play in relatively good form. Solid home form seen in recent Guinness Pro 14 action; an abrasive pack with the likes of Gilchrist and Toolis providing assured line out. Mata at eight has the potential to dominate games from the base of the scrum. The back line has quality in abundance with the likes of Kinghorn, van der Merwe providing pace and power. The issue for Edinburgh will be their road trip form; has being poor this season so far. The other issue that comes to mind is Edinburgh’s inability to kill off teams effectively. Apart from the Toyota Cheetahs game, the home game victories have being very much down the stretch. 

Newcastle Falcons are a welcome addition to the tournament. They were immense last season with their expansive game plan but only one win this season has seen the side prop up the Premiership Rugby table. There have being several close losses in this set of results. Toby Flood will need to provide leadership aplenty with astute game management to keep the side in these contests. The opposition is high caliber and I fear that Newcastle may well open themselves up defensively and concede scores at a rate of knots. The sight of Goneva with ball in hand will be a joy to see though. 

Verdict:

Montpellier are a team which need to make a serious European Cup run this season. Their squad depth is stacked with talent and with Toulon struggling for form, they should do enough on the road to secure a last eight berth. There could be a potential second team coming out of this pool. I fear for Newcastle Falcons on their travels and the fixtures between Edinburgh Rugby and Toulon will be key. Toulon are a team on the brink, owner media outbursts, team discipline and I think Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh could secure a playoff berth.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 5 (Friday Night Preview)

Two home wins look the solid bet

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

Cardiff Blues turned the corner? 

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

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

Another must win for Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Edinburgh Rugby

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

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

Guinness Pro 14: Round 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 3 (Friday Night Fixtures)

Crunch playoff fixture at Independent Park

It might be only the third round of the tournament but a couple of key fixtures are up for decision tomorrow night. Munster Rugby play host to Conference A table toppers Ospreys while Connacht make their first road trip of the season to Edinburgh Rugby who will be desperate to secure their first win of the season. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action. 

Must win game for Munster Rugby? 

Munster call some of the big guns to the lineup

Fans of this blog (I know there is a few of ye out there) will wonder on the headline but it is a key fixture for Munster Rugby. A loss to Ospreys this weekend will see the Irish province at a minimum nine points or a maximum ten points behind Ospreys after three rounds. In a conference where Glasgow Warriors look destined to make the early season pace, it is imperative for Munster Rugby to reduce the gap to Ospreys, a key rival in the playoff race this season.

Ospreys come into this game with a 100% record. An opening day fixture win at home to Edinburgh Rugby was thoroughly deserved, a game which exploded in the last quarter and saw George North return to the Guinness Pro 14 with a debut try; some things never change. They backed this result with an emphatic dismantling of Cheetahs last weekend; the side were expansive with ball in hand throughout and the pack dominated throughout. 

Munster Rugby come into this fixture looking to redeem themselves after a torrid league loss to Glasgow Warriors last weekend. Glasgow Warriors were well deserving of their victory and will rue not adding a bonus point to the 25-10 win late on. Munster Rugby struggled in all facets of the game, struggled with game tempo and cohesion particularly in the opening period and unforced errors were plentiful for video analysis sessions in Limerick at the start of this week. 

I was eagerly looking forward to this game; podcast which will appear later tonight predicted a standout fixture but I cannot but feel short changed by the Ospreys team selection. I wanted to see Ospreys have a real cut off Munster Rugby but leaving Alun Wyn Jones, George North, Dan Lydiate, Aled Davies, Owen Watkin, Bradley Davies, Dan Evans, Scott Williams or captain Justin Tipuric is a kick in the solar plexes for the tournament organizers and the crowd which will assemble in Cork tomorrow. 

Munster Rugby’s team selection is interesting in stark contrast. A seasonal bow for the likes of Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, Chris Cleote and Peter O’Mahony. Darren O’Shea gets the opportunity to stake a claim in the second row along with Tadhg Beirne; a second row partnership full of physicality and mobility. A solid back line containing Goggin and Arnold which should see plenty of ball considering the Ospreys lineup provided that Duncan Williams is quick with his distribution. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby

A fixture which looks a home win banker considering the personnel changes in the Ospreys side. Disappointing not to see the likes of Tipuric, Jones and North feature but what can you do. Ospreys obviously identifying other fixtures to use these players. Stuart Berry officiating may add an unpredictable element to proceedings particularly at the set piece but Munster Rugby should have more than enough to win this contest. If not and the alarm bells will start to ring loud and clear for van Graan. BP win. 

Edinburgh Rugby in must win fixture territory

Win vital for Edinburgh Rugby

A late heartbreaking loss to Ulster Rugby last weekend has left Richard Cockerill and his side backed into the corner. The penalty award at the death from Stuart Berry was debatable and Cooney’s penalty was the final act in a game which Edinburgh conspired to lose after being 13 and 15 points up at two different periods of the contest. 

This fixture will reveal the resiliency in this Edinburgh Rugby side. There were standout phases of play last week; superbly worked tries and Simon Hickey was on point off the tee throughout. The issues were the defensive and disciplinary lapses which allowed Ulster Rugby back into the contest. Edinburgh Rugby could not handle the attacking threat of Addison last weekend; his running coming into the line caused havoc and provided superb platform for the rest of the Ulster Rugby back line unit to flourish. 

It will be interesting to see the adjustments (if any) have being made this weekend by Edinburgh Rugby. Watson, van der Merwe and Johnstone come back into the first team lineup with Bennett and Mata out of the squad entirely due to injury. Hamilton switches to eight to compensate for the loss of Mata. An abrasive pack on show which will look to dominate and look at the line out as a source of success. Connacht beware!

Connacht Rugby head into their first road trip fixture on the back of an excellent win over Zebre Rugby last weekend. Five tries scored with defensive improvements seen. Paul Boyle was a standout performer along with Blade. The set piece was decent even though the line out misfired particularly in the opening period (inclement weather a factor). 

The Connacht Rugby team sees a seasonal debut for Kieran Marmion and bench impact is assured from Bundee Aki on his opening cameo too. The front five is rotated with O’Donnell and Dillane coming in. Niyi Adeolokun slots onto the wing for Cian Kelleher. 

Verdict: Edinburgh Rugby

Nothing better to focus the mind than an opening home fixture, a must win to get the season back on the road. Murrayfield is a tough venue to get a result and I worry for Connacht Rugby in the pack exchanges as I expect Edinburgh Rugby to attack the line out and scrum from minute one. Connacht Rugby will look for the game to be expansive as possible but I think the result is the objective for Edinburgh Rugby and Cockerill will instruct his side to keep it tight until the game is secured in the final quarter when an explosive back line will express themselves. Connacht Rugby to have good moments and after a few nervy moments, Edinburgh Rugby to win by seven points.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 (Friday Night Fixture Review)

Two contrasting fixtures last night. Glasgow Warriors continued their good start to the season with a comfortable 25-10 over Munster Rugby while John Cooney was again the hero for Ulster Rugby as they defeated Edinburgh with a late gasp penalty for a 30-29 win. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Glasgow punish sloppy Munster

I feared for Munster Rugby ahead of this fixture, not because of the personnel on show but because of distinct lack of competitive hit out in the opening round fixture against a massively poor Cheetahs outfit. The lack of intensity in those exchanges was going to do Munster Rugby little favors ahead of this opening road trip to Scotstoun, a ground where Munster Rugby were battered last season.

Glasgow Warriors were the sharper team from minute one in this contest. They preyed on Munster Rugby indiscipline and accuracy in the opening period to build a 22-0 lead at the interval with the aid of a strong breeze. The half saw one side dominate all facets of play with the hosts dominating the breakdown exchanges (some borderline clear outs) allowing Horne and Hastings at half-back the time and space to launch their back line out wide. 

Hastings loop pass for the opening try was a thing of beauty setting up Gibbins for a simple score on the sideline. This was the sign of things to come for Munster Rugby; more tackle reps and more gain line exchanges lost. Two additional tries were leaked before the interval. Hogg scoring after a deft drubber kick and then Ashe reacted to a JJ Hanrahan lapse in concentration to score which signaled the end of the contest. 

Munster Rugby were made to pay for a slow start and then were unable to establish any platform. The opening period could not get any worse as Neil Cronin and Billy Holland departed the scene in this period. Carbery, Marshall, Beirne and the rest of the bench were summoned well before the end of the third period, an indication of the woes experienced by the visitors.

Glasgow Warriors defended with depth and physicality in the second half as Munster Rugby to their credit improved significantly but the scoreboard gap was never going to be pulled back. Several line breaks from Munster Rugby courtesy of Carbery playmaking and Beirne’s direct running but skill set issues surfaced in decision making and offloading on the final pass. 

The five meter line-out towards the end of the contest summed up Munster’s evening. A miserable set piece execution mopped up by the hosts and the hosts looked for the bonus point try that they deserved, nothing doing and a four point vs. zero point outcome was written in the stars.

Glasgow Warriors look the part at the moment but we have said that before last season; the acid test for this side is in European Cup action. The side’s inability to mix in the pool stages last season was the disappointment of the European Champions Cup last term, time to address and hit out in this competition. An exciting back line and with a flourishing half back partnership in Horne and Hastings, the pack need to make additional improvements to give the side that extra edge to win silverware this season. 

Munster Rugby fans went into a frenzy last night but the warning signs were there ahead of this result. The lack of quality opposition last weekend did little to battle harden the side for a tussle like this. As a result, the physicality and sharpness required to set the platform was not at the standard required. 

What is of most concern is the skill set progression. Glasgow Warriors creativity, offloading and basic skill set execution were so superior to Munster’s and the Irish province need to take a long hard look at their basic skill set in the weeks to come to be a viable contender in all fronts. Munster fringe squad members did themselves little favors last night and expect the front line brigade to be summoned in the coming weeks. 

Ulster home game, yet another John Cooney party piece to win another close contest down the stretch. I plumbed for Edinburgh Rugby on the fixture (Ulster fans should want me to predict against them for the rest of the year). 

A couple of pleasing aspects to the Ulster Rugby performance. The resiliency of the side to come back from a difficult opening period where Edinburgh Rugby went 0-13 down. Hickey looked the part for the visitors, orchestrating attacking moves on the back of a dominant pack. 

Ulster Rugby regrouped superbly though and with John Cooney and Billy Burns at half-back, there is outstanding potential for creating line breaks. The gap was seventeen points going into the early exchanges of the second half when the comeback started. 

Addison went over for his first Ulster try, with Cooney slotting the conversion but another Hickey penalty gave Edinburgh more of a cushion at 26-13.

Addison made a half-break before laying off a perfect pass to Cooney, who went in under the posts and converted his own try to narrow the deficit to six points.

Cue the try of the night. Ulster stole Edinburgh ball deep in their own half and  Henry Speight offloaded to Cooney, who released the Gilroy to run in a fabulous try from 60 meters out. Cooney hit the extras to make it 27-26 but Hickey looked to secure the win for Edinburgh with a superb kick just before the eighty minutes. 

Ulster Rugby though refused to drop the heads; a great restart steal setting up multiple phases. The penalty award will be hotly contested; 50/50 call but Ulster Rugby got it and Cooney slotted over from 40 meters, amazing scenes at full time. Ulster Rugby are 2/2; set the platform for the rest of the season and defeating a playoff contender to boot in Edinburgh who are under pressure to win next weekend. 

Ulster Rugby’s attacking play is a joy to watch at the moment; creativity from Burns launching McCloskey and Cave. Speight, Gilroy and Addison are potent runners; the concern is the squad depth if injuries surface. A solid start for McFarland’s men but improvement is required in the defensive side of the ball. Edinburgh Rugby had opportunities to put this game to bed, other teams will not be as charitable. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 (Friday Night Fixtures)

An interesting opening round of Guinness Pro 14 fixtures, at least no head coach got sacked this week unlike in Premiership Rugby where Leicester Tigers pulled the trigger on Matt O’Connor.

Two interesting fixtures up for decision this weekend; a chance for Munster Rugby to redeem themselves at Scotstoun and can Ulster Rugby continue their good start to the season against an Edinburgh outfit eager to improve their performance after last weekend’s road trip loss to the Ospreys. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Warriors eager to start with a home win

Glasgow Warriors open their home stand this season with a visit from Munster Rugby. Munster Rugby will not have to be reminded of their last visit to Scotstoun; a miserable 37-10 reversal where the hosts outgunned Munster Rugby in all facets of play.

Glasgow opened the season with a dramatic 27-26 road trip over Connacht Rugby. A bonus point try effort exposing Connacht Rugby’s fragile defensive structures and lapses was deserved; the drop goal from Hogg to win the contest was sublime.

Yes, there were defensive issues around the fringes but Glasgow Warriors will be content with the level of performance and their ability to retain composure when down to fourteen players in the third quarter of the encounter so much so that they scored an unanswered try during this period. The maul, scrum were particularly dominant.

Glasgow Warriors name a strong side for this encounter. Hogg, Seymour, Grigg, Horne, DTH are all named in an exciting back line which will look to Pete Horne and Adam Hastings for quick ball and game management. The pack is imposing with the likes of Brown, Gray and Wilson in the ranks. The bench looks potent coming into the third quarter with the likes of Matawalu looking for his opportunity to impress as the game opens up. 

Munster Rugby had a free hit last weekend. The opposition unfortunately was poor and it is incredibly tough to evaluate Munster Rugby’s opening season salvo. The new players to the squad acquitted themselves well, impressed with Daly on the wing with his defensive nous. Sweetnam was the back line standout, rampaging through Cheetahs defensive line. Arno Botha looks imposing on both sides of the ball. There were inaccuracies with the offload game but the bonus point win and not to leak a score will have pleased van Graan and management. 

Let us be frank. Munster Rugby’s season effectively starts now and it will be interesting to see how the side fare this weekend. I will be particularly interested in how the half back pairing fare. Neil Cronin had an excellent cameo last weekend but the pressure will be increased on the road; can he deliver quick ball for his half back partner JJ Hanrahan to launch the likes of Arnold and Scannell? 

The Munster Rugby is decent; still a few absentees to the side. Murray’s absence and the length of his layoff yet to be disclosed has being commented on within the province. Stander, O’Mahony, Earls and Conway yet to feature but we will see a cameo from Tadhg Beirne off the bench this weekend. Where will he slot in? Second row or back row. Versatility but needs to bed down in a particular position. 

The back line unit is quite new and their defensive organization will be tested by a Glasgow Warriors side who will look to launch the ball out wide at every opportunity. Daly and Sweetnam will get plenty of defensive tackle reps tomorrow night. Mike Haley slots into the full back position, decent home debut and hope to see the player progress in the weeks to come. 

Verdict: Glasgow Warriors

The lack of a quality opening fixture for Munster Rugby could be exposed in round two. Glasgow Warriors are battle hardened more given their fixture last weekend and for that, the home side edge this encounter. Munster Rugby’s bench welcomes back Jaco Taute, a nice squad inclusion after his injury layoff.

A pivotal second home game for Ulster Rugby this weekend. I feared for Ulster Rugby last weekend against Scarlets but the work rate and potent back line play of McCloskey and Speight was decisive in a narrow victory. John Cooney continued to show massive leadership and was ably assisted by Billy Burns who had an excellent debut for the province. 

Personnel switches for the hosts in this encounter as we see the debut of Jordi Murphy in a potentially explosive back row. Murphy, Timoney and Coetzee has mobility, physicality and ability to effect the breakdown battle. There are changes in the front row as Herring, Kane come in and Treadwell partners Henderson in the second row. 

Edinburgh Rugby come into this game with pressure applied. Their loser point effort to Ospreys was disappointing; exposed some poor ball handling and game management during the contest which no doubt have being worked on the team in training this week. 

Richard Cockerill is forced to rejig the back line as Duhan van der Merwe is injured with centurion Tom Brown coming into the fray. Nel and Ritchie come into the pack; the battle in the back row looks a key match-up. Can Mata get sufficient pack platform to create line breaks tomorrow night? 

Verdict: Edinburgh Rugby

Ulster Rugby to win this contest need impact off the bench and I do not see it particularly in the half back and back line combinations. Edinburgh Rugby know that a second successive defeat to the league campaign will see the side well behind the pace in Conference B and when their opposition is potent playoff contender, the pressure is heightened even more. I expect a far better performance from Edinburgh Rugby this week and despite good exchanges from Ulster Rugby, the visitors front five should provide enough platform to allow Hickey to win this contest by a narrow margin. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 1 (Friday Fixture Preview)

Roll on the new season!

The wait is finally over. The eve of the second Guinness Pro 14 tournament is upon us; an intriguing off season with several clubs acquiring potentially astute signings. The season kicks off on Friday night with three fixtures up for decision. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict the opening night winners and losers. 

Can Cardiff Blues upset Leinster Rugby? 

A tricky opening night road trip fixture for Leinster Rugby to negotiate. The reigning Guinness Pro 14 champions will be without numerous first team starters who played for Ireland in the Australian summer tour. It is an opportunity yet again for the squad to impress.

Leinster Rugby’s team sheet sees a debut for the physically imposing Joe Tomane in the three quarters where he will be partnered by Rory O’Loughlin who will look to kick on after an excellent season with the Irish province last term. 

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have named the promising Caelan Doris at eight. It will be interesting to see how the Ireland U20 star fares in this opening fixture with the likes of Max Deegan eager to get back into the first team fold. 

Huge onus will be on Scott Fardy to provide the experience and leadership in a front five which will sees Tracy, Bent, Molony in the ranks. Rhys Ruddock captains the side in Johnny Sexton’s absence. The back three have a point to prove and Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne and leading try scorer in the league last season Barry Daly will look to get their season off to a solid start. 

Cardiff Blues will look to kick on after an incredibly positive second half of last season culminating in the European Challenge Cup final win. This final win should increase confidence within the camp and head coach John Mulvihill will look for the likes of Ellis Jenkins to provide key leadership this season with the shock retirement of Sam Warburton.

The hosts name a solid side for this opening fixture. Arhip and Thornton with debuts for the club after their moves from rivals Ospreys. Arhip in particular looks a shrewd signing; the Moldovan is an efficient scrum operator. The workhorse Nick Williams will be asked to setup primary platform ball, looking to smash Ross Byrne in the ten channel. 

Cardiff Blues half back pairing looks quality. Williams and Evans forged a successful partnership last season and if they can establish quick ruck ball, their back line has the ability to put Leinster Rugby under massive pressure. Halaholo and Lee-Lo have the perfect mix of creativity and physicality and this can only be good news for Harries (on debut), Lane and Morgan to impress with ball in hand. 

Verdict: Cardiff Blues

Tough encounter beckons, expect tries from both sides given the personnel in the ranks but Cardiff Blues know that they need to start this season much better than last year and I edge this encounter to the hosts as Leinster Rugby cohesion issues will surface in the back and pack units. Leinster Rugby to secure at least a loser bonus point. Pressure is on Cardiff Blues to win this fixture. 

Quality match-up at the Liberty

A potential standout fixture with several standout players on both team sheets and the victor tomorrow night will look with confidence going into the early season fixture list. 

Ospreys’ were made to pay for a poor start to last season; the departure of Steve Tandy who was replaced by Allen Clarke sparked a revival in the second half of the season but defeat to Ulster Rugby in the end of season playoff means European Challenge Cup this season. 

Ospreys have made several astute signings. The key marquee signings were Scott Williams (Scarlets), George North (Northampton Saints) and Aled Davies (Scarlets). Tom Botha (Cheetahs) has the potential to be a dark horse signing this season. All players make their debut for the club. 

The hosts have named a strong pack. Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies provide experience, leadership and set piece efficiency. The back row is stacked with talent as Tipuric, King and Lydiate will look to disrupt Edinburgh Rugby quick ruck ball. 

The key area of interest is the half-back partnership for the Ospreys. Webb and Biggar have departed. Aled Davies and Luke Price start the post Webb / Biggar era and it will be interesting to see how the new half back partnership fare. Sam Davies on the bench will look to make an impact if this unit does not fire early doors. 

Edinburgh Rugby were the most progressive side of the tournament last season (close call with the Cheetahs). Richard Cockerill and backroom staff have really impressed; there is a winning culture at the club and they have not being afraid of cutting players who fell below the standards expected of a professional rugby player, not looking at anyone in particular John Hardie. 

The Scottish side name a strong side for this opener as well which makes this fixture so mouthwatering. Debut cameos for Scott, Hickey, Pygros, Schoeman and Luke Hamilton. Hickey in particular has the potential to provide that extra creativity required to get Edinburgh over the line in key playoff fixtures. Duhan van der Merwe will look to push on after a superb debut season in the league.

The pack looks experience with quality performers throughout. McInally, Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist and Mata will be tested to the maximum by the Ospreys pack unit; the breakdown battle has all the ingredients to be explosive. Luke Hamilton will be a player to watch this season for Edinburgh; abrasive work rate and ability around the fringes. 

Verdict:

A very close fixture to call. There are going to be some exceptional back and pack battles on show. The key duel is the half back contest and siding with the experienced Edinburgh combination. Cohesion issues will be apparent early but there should be some excellent passages of play. Both teams have the ability to secure bonus point tries such is their threat out wide. Nip and tuck but Hickey looks the key man here for the visitors. 

Zebre Rugby look a solid bet

The transfer in and outs for each side is usually not that remarkable in the Guinness Pro 14 league typically but the rate of turnover in the Cheetahs and Southern Kings is astounding. Just the twenty-two departures for the Southern Kings who floundered badly in their debut season last year. 

I am looking at the starting lineup and the word cohesion and game time leaps out. Thirteen new faces in the squad and six of those will be in the squad with full-back Michael Botha, lock Schalk Oelofse and flanker Henry Brown in the starting XV as JC Astle, Ulrich Beyers and Luphumlo Mguca are named amongst the replacements.

Zebre Rugby have invested in their squad for the new season. Eleven signings to the squad and four of those look to make an impact off the bench. Francois Brummer, Massimo Ceciliani, Giosue Zilocchi and Apisai Tauyavuca are all primed to make their debuts in a Zebre jersey.

Michael Bradley given the circumstances last season has done an excellent job as head coach; last season was to provide structures and foundations to build on this season. The hope is that Zebre Rugby can compete well in the majority of the league fixtures but easier said than done! 

Verdict: Zebre Rugby

This is a game where Isuzu Southern Kings personnel changes and lack of playing time together will be exposed. Zebre Rugby have a more solid squad and starting lineup and I expect Canna at ten to control tempo and game management to allow their back line to secure a bonus point win. Kings hopefully compete here but the signs look grave even at this early stage. 

Guinness Pro 14 Semi-Final Qualifier Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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