European Rugby Champions Cup Final Preview

The largest city in the province of Biscay and in the Basque Country as a whole plays host to the most prestigious weekend of the European professional club calendar year. Leinster Rugby and Racing 92 are eighty minutes away from being crowned king pins of Europe. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pregame notes coming into this contest.

How fit is Luke McGrath?

This is the key question that every Leinster Rugby fan is asking this week ahead of this cup final. McGrath was missing for the comprehensive victory over Scarlets in the semi-final due to an ankle injury. Jamison Gibson-Park ably deputized in the fixture which was aided in no small measure by an utterly dominant Leinster Rugby pack on the day. The fitness of Luke McGrath will determine the makeup of the Leinster Rugby twenty-three man squad.

If McGrath is fully fit to start, then James Lowe comes into the equation to fill the void in the back line left due to the hamstring injury sustained by Fergus McFadden in the Scarlets semi-final win. Otherwise, it makes for an intriguing selection poser. Lowe potentially may miss out and Jordan Larmour may come into the back three with Gibson-Park coming in as scrum half.  McGrath has to be 100% fit to feature in this fixture but there are question marks over his fitness and will the lack of game time in recent weeks have an impact in performance?

Machenaud Absence

There are scrum half issues for Racing 92 as well in the lead up to this final. The influential, inspirational Maxime Machenaud is ruled out of the showpiece event due to a season ending knee injury. Machenaud provides leadership, excellent kicking game and game management; he showed his qualities to full effect against Munster Rugby in their semi-final win. Machenaud was unerring in his kicking off the tee and his support running saw him touchdown for Racing 92’s third try of the afternoon. Teddy Iribaren will be asked to provide the necessary game management but more pressure potentially to be placed on Patrick Lambie to make things happen with ball in hand. Given the occasion, the lack of half back cohesion could be a seriously detrimental factor in the outcome of this final.

Weather Watch

Munster Rugby struggled all ends up with the heat and humidity of Bordeaux and no doubt Leinster Rugby were plotting contingency plans on how to game manage in the intense heat. However, the weather gods look to have thrown a curve ball. Rain and a relatively cool twelve degrees Celsius is the forecast right now, weather typically seen in Ireland and not in Spain. A nice boost for Leinster Rugby and one less thing to contend with as Racing 92’s experience in playing in the heat was seen to full effect in the Munster Rugby semi-final win. They picked their moments perfectly to impose their will on the game and put points on the board. This tactic will need to be tweaked now.

Pack Battle

Two incredibly abrasive packs in opposition this weekend. Given the weather conditions, the front five battle looks even more pivotal. Leinster Rugby’s Ireland international stars will look to put massive pressure on Racing 92 in the set piece where Munster Rugby enjoyed good moments in the scrum exchanges. Furlong and Healy will relish the scrum battle against the likes of Arous, Johnston and Tameifuna.

Cronin and Chat will look to secure solid line out platform and both sides have several options. Donnacha Ryan will look to cause havoc in the Leinster Rugby ranks much like he did against Munster Rugby last time out. James Ryan, Devin Toner will look to negate this threat by posing early line out woe for Racing 92 too.

The breakdown battle will be eagerly anticipated. Leinster Rugby’s demolition of Scarlets in this facet of play in the semi-final will have being duly noted by Racing 92. Leinster Rugby’s physicality to clear out opposition from the ruck area allowed Gibson-Park to launch Sexton and his three quarters in double quick time.

Fardy, Leavy and Murphy provide a solid back row selection; Leavy’s prominence in the back row exchanges will indicate how Leinster Rugby will fare. Leavy has the potential to win this game on his own given his commanding presence at ruck time. Racing 92 will need stellar performances from Lauret and Nyanga in this area of the park but it looks like Leiinster Rugby hold all the aces in this vital department. Breakdown area dominance will slow Racing 92 to a crawl and issues will abound for Racing 92 having to force the game.

Three Quarters Battle

Two excellent units on show this Saturday. Virimi Vakatawa and Henry Chavancy produced keynote displays against Munster Rugby. Vakatawa was destructive with his ball carries causing Munster Rugby serious issues; setup Thomas’ second try with a blistering turn of foot. Chavancy produced a defensive masterclass; his tackle count and ability to chop Munster Rugby’s carriers was on point and allowed Racing 92 to setup defensively with ease, causing panic in the Munster Rugby ranks.

Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw provide the Racing 92 three quarters with arguably their toughest challenge of the season. Ringrose and Henshaw’s styles complement each other so well. Henshaw’s defensive nous and power running with ball in hand were seen to full effect against Scarlets last time out allowing Ringrose to find the soft shoulder to create significant gain line breaks throughout the contest. Can Vakatawa be disciplined enough to be defensively on point for the whole game? I have my doubts and expect Leinster Rugby to target the thirteen at regular intervals defensively.

Ten Battle

Will Sexton be targeted by Racing 92 in the opening exchanges? For Racing 92 to have a chance of winning this contest, they need to stifle the influence of Sexton from the ten channel. I would expect the likes of Nyanga and Vakatawa to rampage down the Leinster ten channel to unsettle Sexton early doors but the Irish international will be prepared for the onslaught but it is something to watch out in the opening exchanges. Sexton’s understanding with his three quarters has being on point in this competition all year and if Sexton can receive quick ruck ball, Racing 92 are in for a torrid afternoon.

Racing 92 have weapons at ten to attack Leinster Rugby too. Patrick Lambie’s kicking game has the potential to keep Leinster Rugby off balance in this encounter but for this to happen, the Racing 92 back row will need to provide excellent clear out work to allow for quick ruck ball distribution. Lambie will be asked to force the issue a bit more with the absence of Machenaud from the final. Leinster Rugby’s defensive line speed should be on point and Lambie could well struggle to create an early territorial platform for his French side.

If Lambie option does not work out, Dan Carter will come into the fold. Carter’s mercurial game management may be pivotal if Racing 92 can secure a lead going into the final quarter. Carter will play percentage rugby and expect some deft passes to Chavancy during his cameo. Carbery’s cameo may be required as well for Leinster Rugby; have my concerns that Sexton will not last the entire final and the youngster will look to provide game management to close out this contest.

Back Three Battle

Leinster Rugby’s back three will become a lot more clearer once the full fitness of Luke McGrath is revealed. Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa will definitely start, solid operators whose game management experience on occasions like this is a rare commodity. Larmour or Lowe have the potential to produce massive gain line statistics at the weekend.

Racing 92 have selection posers themselves ahead of the final. Imhoff is chasing Andreu hard for a back three spot. Munster Rugby utterly failed to expose Racing 92 back three in the aerial exchanges but would expect Sexton to do just that in the opening quarter. Teddy Thomas is the key threat for Racing 92 out wide; his pace and ability to find the soft shoulder to the fore against Munster Rugby as Alex Wootton’s inexperience out wide was ruthlessly exposed with a brace of tries. Evenly matched units.

Verdict

Racing 92 to win this encounter need to utterly dominate the pack exchanges and set piece as the absence of Machenaud looks a massive loss before this contest. Leinster Rugby will have learned the lessons of Munster Rugby; defensive line speed and organization will be on point and with aces in the back row (Fardy and Leavy), ruck ball will be readily available for Leinster’s half backs to expose Racing 92 defensively out wide. Provided the wet conditions are not torrential, Leinster Rugby are firm favorites to win this encounter. Racing 92 will provide different looks to Leinster Rugby but this game will be won in the back row and half back areas; both favor Leinster Rugby right now. Leinster Rugby to win by ten points.

Leinster Rugby: On a different level?

Apologies for the delay in a blog posting on the utterly dominant Leinster Rugby performance against a well fancied Scarlets side yesterday. 38-16 was a clinical performance and like Munster today, Scarlets did not lay a meaningful shot on their opponent during the game. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the performance.

Gibson-Park Effect:

If you read my preview on the Leinster Rugby / Scarlets fixture, a key person in this contest was Gibson-Park. The scrum-half had huge pressure on his shoulders coming into this fixture; his inclusion meaning that in form James Lowe was forced to sit out. An indifferent game against the same opposition last season in Pro 12 playoff action raising questions on whether the New Zealander could produce. He emphatically answered those questions; his passing was on point, his aerial kicking excellent. Gibson-Park did get immense support from his pack who cleared out rucks in sensational fashion negating any threat from Barclay or Davies to proceedings. Luke McGrath’s injury was seen as a blow but the performance of Gibson-Park was on point. Mission accomplished.

Leinster Pack Dominance:

James Ryan is increasing his profile in the game with another emphatic performance. His performance along with Devin Toner was nothing short of sensational; superb work rate, carrying and line out execution. A superb opening try as well. Ryan negated the threat of Tadhg Beirne. The player’s upside is only the tip of iceberg; this player has the ability to be the number one second row in the world in time for the RWC 2019 tournament. Special nod to the front five as well. Furlong, Healy and Cronin were excellent throughout. Furlong’s work rate was ferocious and set the tone. Healy, abrasive at set piece and scored a great try in the second quarter. Cronin in set piece and his running lines on point. Toner as well was superb; good line out management along with Ryan. Fardy, Leavy and Murphy providing physicality and mobility to clear out Scarlets at the breakdown. Fardy was world class.

Here comes Johnny!

Sexton was sensational yesterday; his match-up against Dan Jones was emphatically advantage Leinster Rugby and he launched his three quarters with incredible accuracy. Sexton’s bicep injury will see plenty of column inches in sporting articles for the rest of the season but this was a performance which oozed class, oozed experience and composure in the play making role. Sexton rises to the occasion at this time of the season. Bilbao against his old club Racing 92 will be an intriguing plot line.

Expansive Back Line

No defensive weak links in the Leinster Rugby back line contrary to Shane Williams’ beliefs in the lead up to this fixture. Ringrose and Henshaw absorbed the threat of Parkes and Williams and created with intent particul arly in the third quarter when Scarlets defensively opened up. Sharp offloading. Henshaw’s defensive work was on point; amazing performance considering his lengthy injury layoff. Nacewa, McFadden / Larmor and Kearney provided a good back three threat and defensively were on point throughout; the fact that Scarlets did not their try until the final minute was an incredible defensive display from everyone in the Leinster Rugby side!

Squad Depth

With the game safely in the bag, Leinster Rugby management cleared their bench in the third quarter. Jack McGrath, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmor providing key cameos. This was valuable experience and game time for the bench ahead of the final against Racing 92. Andrew Porter’s performances in the front have being nothing short of sensational. There is zero weak points in this twenty-three man squad for Leinster Rugby. Squad players will be given their opportunity to impress in the lead up to the final but this twenty-three man squad delivered an emphatic performance, put a dangerous opponent out of reach well before the final quarter. Racing 92 have their hands out in Bilbao!

 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Racing 92 27 – 22 Munster Rugby

The dreams of an All Ireland European Rugby Champions Cup final never materialized. They were dashed within the first quarter of this contest as Racing 92 emphatically stamped their ticket to the big dance and a date with Leinster Rugby in Bilbao next month. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Emphatic Racing 92 Opening Quarter

Racing 92 utterly dominated the first quarter of this contest. Munster Rugby were immediately on the back foot as soon as Racing 92 decided after only three minutes to hit long down the line. Patrick Lambie who had a stellar game at out-half spiraled the kick deep into Munster’s territory. Cue the Racing 92 pack to build the phases, suck in Munster Rugby defenders and identify a clear mismatch on the outside channel as Teddy Thomas’ pace was too much for Alex Wootton to score with ease after four minutes.

More abrasive physical ball carrying followed from Racing 92. Munster Rugby struggling to slow the ball down at the breakdown; quick ruck ball for Machenaud and Lambie to unleash their back line. Vakatawa who had a standout game at thirteen highlighting his quick feet to evade Murray and Kleyn before passing to Thomas who had already sped past Wootton to finish a regulation score. Munster Rugby were rattled and soon a third try came; more decisive clear out work at the breakdown creating quick attacking ball.

Munster Rugby unable to stem the tide were narrow defensively and again Alex Wootton was faced with a 2:1 defensive scenario. The youngster went to his outside. Thomas evaded with ease and went on the inside, no backup Munster cover as Thomas strode for the try; a cheeky pass to Machenaud to score. 21-3 after twenty-two minutes. Pivotal opening period. The contest was as good as over in the heat of Bordeaux. Racing 92 were clinical.

Nervy Munster Rugby

This result will irk Munster Rugby management and players for weeks to come. Both sides came into this contest pretty much evenly matched; not much between the sides this season in the pool phase but Munster Rugby were nervy and tentative throughout. The defensive line speed and first time tackles were not at the levels required. 66% tackle completion in the first half told its own story. Munster Rugby were struggling at the breakdown as Racing 92 were utterly dominant.

CJ Stander did win an excellent turnover ball but the subsequent kick from Ian Keatley was inaccurate; failed to find touch and then Lambie kicked the ball back forty meters to force the Munster Rugby pack pretty much where CJ Stander had won the original penalty. Momentum for Munster Rugby was in short supply; the line out was an area of huge concern. Niall Scannell and pack missing four line out calls in the second quarter; two of which were extremely close to the Racing 92 line.

Inaccuracy central for Munster Rugby and even the cool Conor Murray was rushing passes from the ruck. Errand passing out wide despite no platform being built by the pack. The scrum set piece at least was a good point for Munster Rugby but it was few and far between in an utterly wretched opening period. The last ten minutes exposed massive failings in Munster Rugby’s attacking game plan.

Racing 92 using the chop tackle to good effect negating the likes of Stander, Kleyn, O’Mahony. One out ball carrying was the order of day as Racing 92 absorbed wave after wave of attack. Arnold was unlucky with his close range effort but the panic had kicked in within the Munster Rugby ranks. Keatley working hard but game management was deserting him; a questionable drop goal decision in the opening period then followed by Rory Scannell indicative of Munster’s spooked demeanor in the opening quarter. Composure in short supply.

Racing 92 up the ante early in the second half

The early exchanges of the second half again exposed the composure and demeanor of both sides. Racing 92 recycling, attempting to offload at every given opportunity. Once the move broke down, Andreu and Murray then had a wrestle; red mist descended as Murray then pushed Vakatawa with his hand; Vakatawa claiming contact to his eyes (nothing in it).

After consultation with the TMO, Doyle awarded the penalty and the ever reliable Machenaud slotted over to give the Parisian club a 27-3 advantage. Cue a flurry of substitutes from both sides as the heat was taking its toll on the starting lineups. The game was over.

Munster Rugby refuse to give up

The Irish province at this stage cleared the bench and credit the replacements for making an excellent impact albeit too little too late. Rhys Marshall provided stability in the line out and was dangerous with ball in hand, unlucky not to get a try in the third quarter only for JP Doyle to be in the way of a Racing 92 defender. Marshall did get his reward with a smart finish on 76th minute. Munster Rugby management hoped that Marshall would come with the game in the melting pot; unfortunately the game had gone from Munster Rugby long before.

Robin Copeland provided sharp running lines and on another day, his ability to evade Racing 92 defensive tackles were to the fore in the final quarter and created good field position. Simon Zebo brought flair and much needed creativity to proceedings; his ability to spot space inside Racing 92 defense was seen for Conway’s try. Zebo did not look to be hindered by his hip injury; ran with gusto throughout his cameo. Grobler was abrasive and physical in the tight exchanges along with Ryan and Cronin. JJ Hanrahan provided good moments from half-back but the damage was done as Racing 92’s intensity levels dropped in the last ten minutes safe in the knowledge that the game was in the books.

Racing 92: Bilbao Bound

A comprehensive opening period. Racing 92 had a game plan and executed it in the first thirty minutes with physicality and work rate. Munster Rugby’s slow start to the game was punished; 21-3 after twenty-two minutes was just desserts for a dominant period of play. Donnacha Ryan and his front five colleagues ball carried with intensity and quick offloading game and ruck clear out gave Munster Rugby little opportunity to regroup defensively. They spotted the inexperienced Wootton as a potential avenue of opportunity and Teddy Thomas given time and space to roam executed magnificently.

Lambie and Machenaud controlled the half-back for long periods as Murray was looking forlorn with a pack going backwards. Keatley was under the cosh from minute one, his kicking game was off and no variation to negate Racing 92 high defensive line speed. This was as good a performance from Racing 92 seen in Europe this season; the first fifty minutes were superb; the intensity levels did drop thereafter and is something that Leinster Rugby will take note with interest. Whether Racing 92 can sustain the level of effort for a longer period against Leinster Rugby is a difficult question? However, given their squad depth with the likes of Claasen, Rokocoko and Carter in tow; they are a live threat for Bilbao.

Munster Rugby: Reflections

Playoff rugby games require a side to be on point from minute one. The flat opening quarter performance from Munster Rugby will have management, backroom staff and players looking for answers. Did the South African tour take more out of the playing group than first anticipated? The effects of playing in altitude last week perhaps a factor? Either way, Racing 92 bossed territory, ball carrying in the first thirty minutes. The platform was built and the result was stamped before Munster Rugby could hit a decisive blow.

The inaccuracies and nervy game management which ensued will pose questions of the playing and management group to evolve further. Munster Rugby are a good side but at the business end of the season, they have being exposed. Time to reflect and see where adjustments can be made. The players on duty could not do anymore, but the classy moments of the game came from Racing 92. Younger players in the squad need to learn and evolve from this experience. For Simon Zebo, the Munster European odyssey is over. For Murray, Stander and O’Mahony, another year to see if they can get over the line and secure an European Cup final appearance.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Leinster Rugby vs. Scarlets Preview

Dublin. Aviva Stadium. A city and stadium where Scarlets have very fond memories of after last season’s Guinness Pro 12 final triumph. A week before this final triumph, Scarlets had dumped Leinster Rugby out of the Pro 12 competition with an emphatic defensive and attacking performance with fourteen men! Will any of those memories spook Leinster Rugby ahead of this tussle? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Gibson-Park Effect

This game will be decided by the performance of Gibson-Park. The New Zealander comes into the side as Luke McGrath is ruled out due to injury. Gibson-Park will look to right a few wrongs facing the Scarlets this weekend. The scrum-half was exposed in his defensive play and general game management in that playoff loss. Leinster Rugby looked very one dimensional on that night. Gibson-Park needs to zip the ball from the ruck and his kicking game needs to be on point, a facet of play at times that can be a little inconsistent. The inclusion of Gibson-Park has meant that James Lowe sits out the weekend. Double blow for Leinster Rugby. Gibson-Park needs to deliver this weekend. If he does, Leinster Rugby will advance to the final.

Breakdown Battle

A marvelous battle at the breakdown beckons. Dan Leavy vs. James Davies. Two players who will look to disrupt and secure ruck ball. Both players are fine exponents of this facet of play. Davies” pace and mobility evident last season; he was a major cog in the Guinness Pro 12 title winning side. A constant menace but facing him is Dan Leavy who is playing sublime rugby this season. Leavy has being a wrecking ball in the ruck area and his ability to pinch ball was to the fore against Saracens in the quarter final. Both players have good supporting back row units as well. Murphy vs. Shingler is another meaty tussle in the breakdown but also in the ball carrying duties.

Scarlets Half-Back Switch

Wayne Pivac has thrown a curve ball to some with the inclusion of Dan Jones at ten, meaning that Rhys Patchell moves to full back and Leigh Halfpenny to the wing. Jones was superb in the 30-27 win over Toulon in the final pool game last January. His ability to link up play and execute the right pass on the gain line to Parkes and Williams is to the fore. Jones also has an effective kicking game. Leinster Rugby need to put pressure on the half-back early doors, otherwise it could be a long afternoon for the Irish province. A gamble for some but you can see the logic. Jones will throw the ball with intent early doors.

Back Three Battle

Leinster Rugby are coming into this fixture as marginal favorite. The back three units for either side look good on skill set. Leinster’s back three has vast experience but Scarlets look to have the speed advantage here and if this game gets fractured, I would fear for Leinster Rugby’s back three given the pace of Evans, Halfpenny and Patchell who will look to set Evans free with deft kicks in behind. Scarlets by virtue of their selection of Jones at ten is quite clear; look to test Leinster’s back three defensively early door to build a platform and scoreboard advantage. A dry track for this pacy Scarlets side is another bonus; this side will take beating.

Beirne vs. Ryan Battle

What a contest beckons! Tadhg Beirne has being outstanding for Scarlets in recent seasons. The second row who joins Munster Rugby next season has an enormous work rate in set piece and maul exchanges. It will require James Ryan to continue his upward performance curve to stem the influence of Beirne. Failure to do so and Scarlets are going to the final. Beirne is a wrecking ball with ball in hand. His performances this season have being nothing short of sensational. Devin Toner will also need to play his part; line out solidity is required and his ability to support Ryan to stifle Beirne will be required at certain junctures.

Henshaw Return

Robbie Henshaw coming into the Leinster Rugby is a timely boost. The Athlone man is defensively excellent, cleans up defensively for colleagues consistently. His attacking threat with ball in hand will pose an issue for Williams and Parkes as well. He complements Ringrose perfectly. His physicality is on point and allows Ringrose to be creative with ball in hand. Solid three quarter partnership for Leinster Rugby tomorrow; definitely required given the absence of Lowe from the squad.

Verdict

Extra time looms for me in this contest. Both sides will have good moments and I think Leinster Rugby will just get over the line. Leinster Rugby will have to absorb some nervy moments from a Scarlets side who will throw different looks. The scrum-half performance for Leinster Rugby is a massive factor here; giving Gibson-Park the benefit of the doubt but if he struggles, the side will struggle for continuity. No pressure. Expect tries at regular intervals, cannot wait for this fixture!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Racing 92 vs. Munster Rugby Preview

It is decision day for Racing 92 and Munster Rugby in the warm confines of Bordeaux on Sunday afternoon. For the winner, eighty minutes away from winning an European Cup. For the loser, it will be a case of what might have being and a summer of analyzing where things went wrong. In this article, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key match-ups in this encounter where minute margins could decide this encounter.

Squad Depth

Given the weather forecast in Bordeaux this weekend (sunny – 28 degrees Celsius), the twenty three man squads on show will be utilized to the maximum. The last quarter of this contest could be absolutely massive as starting players begin to tire, defensive line speed and organization is not as precise. Cue the replacements to make a decisive line break or set piece win to edge the contest.

Munster Rugby’s squad depth has improved since last season. The front row replacements are strong and solid, evident in their cameos against Toulon. Niall Scannell has edged selection over Rhys Marshall but is this a ploy from the Munster Rugby management to unleash the dynamic ball carrying ability of the New Zealander hooker in the second half? Ryan and Cronin are superb scrum operators and their work in open exchanges is on point.

The inclusion of Simon Zebo on the substitutes bench is another selection which suggests fitness concerns on the player. Conway slots in at full back, dependable alternative but Zebo if fully fit surely would have got the nod here. Has Munster Rugby management decided that Zebo is better suited off the bench given that he will be playing for the Parisian’s next season?

The back row options for Munster Rugby off the bench will be primarily Robin Copeland and Gerbrandt Grobler. Copeland has the potential to be a pivotal player in the closing stages of this contest. Copeland is more than capable of producing a superb gain line break. Grobler’s physicality and mobility comes into the equation as well. The South African can play either second row or back row.

Racing 92 like Munster Rugby have gone 5:3 forward split. The French club have the luxury of Dan Carter to come off the bench to produce a world class attacking moment for Patrick Lambie. Carter’s game management and vision could be pivotal to close out this contest if Racing 92 are in front going into the final quarter. The pack options are solid and abrasive. Szarzewski, Afatia and Claassen will look to provide leadership and go forward ball upon their introduction.

Line-out Battle

This result could be summarized by the performance of Racing 92’s second row Donnacha Ryan. If Ryan has had an excellent game, Racing 92 have won this game. Ryan and his line-out calling will be of huge consequence to the outcome of this encounter. Ryan called an astute line out game in the round five pool fixture between the two sides. Munster Rugby struggled on their own ball and had precious little joy attacking the Racing 92 set piece.

Munster Rugby management and players though should provide more questions to Ryan and Chat this time. Expect Peter O’Mahony to look to disrupt at every given opportunity. Kleyn and Holland need to be on point with their calls to Niall Scannell particularly in the opening quarter. No over throws, keep things simple early doors.

The Irish province were under pressure for long periods against Toulon in their epic quarter final win but the one facet of play which did go well on the day was the line out. They forced line out steals with O’Mahony to the fore, his menace factor at record levels. Marshall and Scannell were incredibly accurate with their throws. For Munster Rugby to win, this facet of set piece play needs to be advantage red.

Half-Back Battle

An intriguing half-back battle beckons on Sunday. Machenaud and Lambie face up against Murray and Keatley. Conor Murray on current form is the player in this area of the pitch who looks like a game changer. I am expecting Munster Rugby to vary their play at decisive moments. The kick game will be executed but it will be done with a purpose to put pressure on the Racing 92 back three. Ian Keatley and Rory Scannell can also provide effective kicking game to create territorial gains.

Machenaud has had a stellar season. His kick game is solid and kicking off the tee has being on point. Will he try to vary his game, looking to snip around the fringes? Lambie is a superb footballer, he will look to launch his three quarters consistently. It is up to Munster Rugby to have an excellent defensive line speed from minute one to not let Lambie get into rhythm. A fascinating contest beckons. Will Racing 92 have plans for Conor Murray?

Earls Effect

Keith Earls inclusion to the starting line up is a massive boost for Munster Rugby. His cameo performance against Racing 92 at the U-Arena in January was world class, created his try from nothing and put fear into Racing 92 defensively throughout. Earls has had a good injury layoff but all reports suggest that Earls has trained extremely well in recent weeks. Given the absence of Zebo, Earls’ experience to assist Wootton will be pivotal.

Conditioning

This aspect of play will be highlighted in the final quarter if this game is on the line. Munster Rugby’s win against Toyota Cheetahs last weekend emphasized excellent conditioning to secure a win in altitude. The effects of this fixture hopefully for Munster Rugby will not have an adverse impact early doors because this side finishes games very strong.

For Racing 92 to win, they need to build a cushion in the opening period and then hope for Carter to close out the contest. Racing 92 will give this Munster Rugby side chances to win this contest. It will require Munster Rugby to have the composure, game management to execute at a high level to get over the line. A fascinating contest beckons!

Connacht Rugby Woe

28-33. Connacht Rugby dreams of ending John Muldoon’s playing career with the Irish province with a European Rugby Challenge Cup were dashed as Gloucester Rugby retained their 100% record against Connacht Rugby with a deserved victory and a home semi-final. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action and the performance was unerringly familiar from the Westerners.

I do believe we’re a little bit naive as a team still. From my perspective we have an issue allowing teams into scoring areas. We know what’s going on, but unfortunately we slip up at times – Kieran Keane

This is a statement that will drive many Connacht Rugby fans cuckoo. Kieran Keane was magnanimous in his assessment of the team’s performance post-game but the points raised have being predominant for the whole season and there appear little progressive to address these chronic issues.

The game had started so well for Connacht Rugby. The opening exchanges won conclusively by the hosts as Gloucester Rugby yet again started a game ponderously. An excellent opening three minutes, a scrum penalty won and then a line out steal but the management of the line out steal again raises serious questions of team communication and organization.

Credit to Quinn Roux for the line out steal, an excellent play. He tipped the ball back on the Connacht side but the ball was directed in no man’s land. The nearest players to the ball were Denis Buckley and Matt Healy. The bounce of the ball cruelly reaching Hanson who with no defensive cover to contend with strode unopposed to the try line. Healy exposed for being too deep. Buckley not fast enough to deal with the passage of play.

A disastrous start from a promising opening. Gloucester Rugby you would have thought would have settled into the contest but there were continuing to attract the attention of Poite with their late arrival to line outs. Six penalties amassed when Ben Morgan was sinned bin for a high tackle on Tom Farrell.

The ten minute spell did yield a foothold for Connacht and it was a sweeping attacking move, full of pace and expansive threat that resulted in Marmion crossing over. A superb try where McCartney and Aki were prominent. The conversion was missed by Carty but the hosts were in the game. Aki then followed with a typically abrasive effort.

However, the defensive frailties and lapses in concentration were then seen to full effect by the hosts at the end of the half. Tom McCartney’s knock on after Gloucester Rugby blotched a throw to the back of the line out was critical. The resultant scrum setting up Marshall to score with ease; easy gain line yards created by the multiple Gloucester ball carriers before that score.

The Trinder try just before the interval emphasized the lack of defensive nous required in a key European fixture from Connacht Rugby. Trinder identified the mismatch against Roux and his pace was too much for the Irish international second row. Connacht’s defensive coach has to ask questions of how the side reacted to this line break. The back three in particular not providing any coverage. Soft score again to concede.

The one aspect of play which was exposed in the Sportsground was the lack of quality kicking option off the tee for Connacht Rugby. While Owen Williams was lights out with his kicking both out of hand and off the tee, Jack Carty was struggling with his kicking with the tee. Kick-able points were lost and when Williams hit a monster effort just after the break, it really emphasized the fact. Horowitz’s arrival will increase competition at ten in the province; it is required.

Marmion was left to become the sole creative force in the half-backs. The scrum half was excellent, sniping throughout and his grubber kick for Connacht’s winger Niyi Adeolokun to touchdown was a marvelous score. The conversion was again spurned but a subsequent penalty gave Connacht Rugby hope. 18-20 all to play for. Time to bring defense. Nope.

The manner in which John Afoa scored was embarrassing for Connacht. Defensive misreads and decision making allowing Gloucester to spin the ball out to Afoa with minimal fuss. Afoa could not realize his luck and ran from thirty meters to score the decisive try of the contest. Soul destroying from Connacht. Sensational score from Gloucester. 18-27.

Credit to Connacht Rugby who refused to give up but the defensive lapses which have plagued the season so far had provided its cameo yet again. No way can a side win with such unforced errors defensively. The Healy try was an excellent effort, another opportunity to bring the defense. Nope.

Connacht’s defensive shape exposed by Gloucester Rugby again who spread the ball out wide after a quality period of killing the clock. Connacht sucked in defensively and Jarrod Butler had no option but to deliberately knock on. No communication from Connacht Rugby players out wide to call colleagues over. Twelvetrees duly converted the penalty. 28-33. Game over.

Given the manner in which Gloucester Rugby started proceedings, this is a devastating result for Connacht Rugby. Players failed to deliver, players caved in with the pressure of playoff rugby. It is a surprise given the experience in the ranks. The team defensively were put to the sword, coaching ticket needs to reflect. For all the attacking worth, their defensive on the outside was the like the parting of the Red Sea.

Kieran Keane deserves another season at least to implement his game plan but the defensive side of the ball has being an issue throughout his first season in charge. I remain intrigued to see how the side evolve next season; the talent is there but the naivety has to stop, the hard nosed defensive work of Connacht two seasons ago is a distant memory. Pride in the defensive side of the game is required for this side to proceed.

The officiating in Galway left plenty to be desired. Poite was extremely lenient to Gloucester Rugby in that opening quarter. Sharples was lucky to stay on the pitch when taking a player out in the air. Ludlow on another day could have seen red for the no arms challenge on Marmion in the second half . The penalty count was way too high in that opening period and a better side would have punished Gloucester Rugby.

For Connacht Rugby, the season is up. It has being a season which has offered much but delivered little. Two outstanding home wins to Munster Rugby and Ulster Rugby the standouts. There have being too many inconsistent / poor performances to mention and the new recruits coming to the club need to hit the ground running to increase the performance levels of the side.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 5 Preview

The penultimate round of the European Rugby Challenge Cup pool stage will provide a better picture of who will be quarter final bound in April. A round which is critical for several teams to make a push for qualification. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Pool 1: Falcons primed for home quarter-final berth

Newcastle Falcons play host to Ensei-STM this weekend at Kingston Park knowing that a bonus point win will pretty much guarantee home field advantage in the quarter finals.

After a sensational 28-20 win over Exeter Chiefs last weekend, confidence will be high in Dean Richard’s camp and unfortunately I do not see Ensei-STM posing many problems for the Aviva Premiership outfit.

A bonus point try point will be secured well before the final whistle with the relentless offloading game of the Falcons proving too much at times for the Russian outfit.

The other fixture is in this pool sees the Dragons travel to Bordeaux-Begles. With both sides locked on eleven points, the objective is simple this weekend. Win to progress to the final pool game to determine their destiny.

It remains to be seen how serious Bordeaux-Begles will take this fixture. The word indifferent comes to mind given their performances back in December.

Dragons are facing an incredible injury crisis at present and given that their youthful squad were dismantled with ease by Scarlets last time out, it is hard to see how Bernard Jackman can lift his troops ahead of this crunch fixture. Home win.

Pool 2: Evenly poised

This destiny of this pool will be more clear come Sunday evening as the four teams in the pool still are well in the hunt to top the pool.

Cardiff Blues and Toulouse once upon a time was a marquee fixture in the Heineken Cup. How things have changed? Both sides are in transitional phase with the French giants in danger of missing out on a quarter final berth.

Blues had a terrific road trip victory over Toulouse earlier in this pool but the results and form since then have being a little inconsistent. This is a fixture where the Blues pack need to front up against a physically imposing Toulouse front five.

Toulouse’s approach to this fixture will be interesting. A team who have embraced European Cup competition historically. The Pro 14 league campaign has being mediocre to say the least; issues from last season where the pack have being overpowered in second halves of games still apparent.

This is an intriguing fixture for the neutral and one where home field advantage could prove crucial. Cardiff Blues mobility in the pack and breakdown skill set looks superior to Toulouse. Josh Navidi to be a prominent figure. Home win. Toulouse to crash out of Europe.

In the other pool fixture, Sale Sharks minus AJ McGinty face Lyon. Yet again, the approach of the French outfit will be interesting ahead of this game. I expect their squad will be mostly fringe players with some first team players who require further game time as they focus on Pro 14 title ambitions which has dipped in recent weeks.

The injury to McGinty is a bitter blow for Sale Sharks as the USA International has progressed well this season providing assured game management and kicking game but James O’Connor can transition into the position and expect fireworks if that happens.

Such an important game for Sale Sharks and expect the likes of de Klerk, McGuigan and Beaumont to lead from the front. Home win again as Lyon’s experimental squad selection will lack the cohesion to win the contest.

Pool 3: Pau and Gloucester to win

This is a two horse race to see who wins this pool. It will all come down to the final pool game at Kingsholm when Gloucester Rugby host Pau.

Both sides should have too much for their opponents this weekend. Gloucester Rugby will be keen to right the wrongs of last weekend and the careless manner of their defeat to Northampton Saints at the death.

A road trip to France is never easy but Agen have shown zero interest in this competition. Even with a first team selection, they are in serious danger of being thumped by a pacy Gloucester outfit. Bonus point road trip win for the Aviva Premiership side.

Pau entertain Michael Bradley’s Zebre Rugby who will look to compete for long periods of this fixture. Pau will know the strengths of Zebre given their road trip scare earlier to the same opposition in the pool phase last year.

Buoyed by recent domestic form upturn, Pau’s pack will build the necessary platform to secure a bonus point try win over the Italian outfit.

All roads lead to Gloucester Rugby on game day six. Both Pau and Gloucester will qualify but in which order remains a uncertain right now.

Pool 4: Edinburgh vs. Stade Francais is the standout

The Friday night lights clash of Edinburgh and Stade Francais looks the marquee fixture of this competition this weekend. Both sides will look to entertain with expansive running lines.

Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill have progressed well in recent months. The home win to Glasgow Warriors, doing so fourteen players for most of the contest was a huge morale booster.

The side has played some excellent rugby. The South African Guinness Pro 14 road trip saw the side played well against the Cheetahs and a bonus point try win over the Southern Kings highlighting the skill set of Hidalgo-Clyne.

The hope is that Stade Francais will field a strong outfit in this fixture. Murrayfield under the lights deserves two well matched sides going at it.

The French side have plenty of threats with the likes of Parisse, McLeod, Bosman in their ranks. Geraghty may get the nod at ten and the former London Irish fly-half has played well in this competition.

The proverbial cracker beckons, hard to call but Edinburgh’s hunger and appetite for this competition should just see them over the line but Stade Francais cannot be written off.

The other fixture is a dead rubber. London Irish who have disappointed this season on all fronts play Krasny Yar who may fancy an upset but I do not see that happening. London Irish’s pack to provide the platform for a morale boosting victory.

Pool 5: Connacht look to secure home quarter-final

Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest Aki, Dillane and Marmion last weekend was primarily because of this upcoming fixture away to Worcester Warriors. Put simply, Connacht Rugby victory guarantees potentially a top two quarter final seed and a home tie.

Worcester Warriors are seven points behind the Irish province but they know that victory here will reignite their European Challenge Cup ambitions.

A side stacked with talent and experience. O’Callaghan continues to provide leadership and work rate in the front five. Denton at eight is a superb ball carrier. Josh Adams has being a revelation on the wing; his try haul immense. Connacht beware!

Kieran Keane’s charges endured a miserable second half performance to lose 39-13 to Munster last time out. The performances in the other festive period Irish interpros were excellent so a repeat and the road trip win required is achievable.

A marquee fixture in this competition. Connacht Rugby to be realistically considered a top contender for this competition need to produce a performance and road trip win.

Yes, they will more than likely beat a much changed Brive side the following weekend but it is weekend’s like this that define teams and success. Slight edge for Connacht Rugby here in an entertaining contest, the front five battle will be interesting.

The other fixture here is a dead rubber. Oyonnax are destined for Pro 14 relegation and this competition has continued in the same abysmal fashion. Brive if interested in this fixture should win but this is a French fixture, anything will go, who cares? Both are out of this competition. Toss of a coin. Brive to win.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 1 Review


The first round of pool games are now in the books. An intriguing weekend with familar front runners sending ominous statements of intent, newcomers looking to impress while others face make or break fixtures this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick mulls over the action.

Pool 1: Oh La La La Rochelle!

The story of this pool. The debutantes to this competition provided fans with familiar performance traits to beat Harlequins at the Stoop in an entertaining encounter. The hosts tried hard but La Rochelle dynamic ball carriers, running lines were exceptional at times and many sides would have struggled to come to the terms with their threat. Doumayrou (2), Priso and Forbes crossed for La Rochelle tries and aided by a solid display from Ryan Lamb secured the five points on offer. Quins could not try any harder but the lapses in concentration continued to be a killer for them. Collier, Marchant, Matthews scored well executed tries but defensively they were exposed. La Rochelle entertain Ulster Rugby next; top of the pool clash and one that could indicate who tops the pool come January. La Rochelle have provided flair, creativity and physicality in the opening round like they did in the Pro 14 last season. European Cup opponents are well warned. Ulster Rugby are in touch after a hard fought win over an injury depleted Wasps at Kingspan Stadium. A tricky encounter given the weather conditions but Ulster Rugby showed their skill and hunger with a decisive second half performance. Stockdale on the wing is an imposing player and it was a superb try to open up the contest. Wasps did expose Ulster front row issues in the scrum, more equipped side will make hay on this aspect of play. Wasps injury toll continues like Hurricane Ophelia. Gopperth was summoned from the sick bay to play ten and then twelve when injury struck the side again. Wasps and Quins are in must win territory this weekend, whoever loses is effectively out of the competition so high stakes at the Ricoh. Ulster Rugby travel to La Rochelle, a difficult fixture made harder by the performance of the French side last weekend and their first ERC Champions Cup fixture, it is a tall order. Ulster Rugby would gratefully grab a loser point right now.

Pool 2: Saracens march on ominously

The standout performance in this opening round was the emphatic 13-57 win of Saracens on the road at Franklin Gardens. This was an annihilation for Northampton Saints; the pack was destroyed in the maul, scrum, lineout and provided Farrell with the time and space to unleash the likes of Liam Williams at will. Saracens evolution to an efficient expansive running style was seen to full effect last weekend. The running lines of the ball carrier, the supporting lines from colleagues is a joy to see. Saracens pack were imperious as mentioned. Kruis controlled the lineout and exposed Saints in the process as Hartley struggled to hit second and third in the line. Eddie Jones surely must be worried on the form of his England captain. Jamie George is the form hooker for England this season. Saracens have a road trip to the Ospreys next and on the basis of their opening pool performance, another five points look a certainty. Ospreys continue to improve but again were on the wrong side of a result to Clermont who after opening half struggles regrouped and got a valuable road trip win. No Abendanon for Clermont but Steeding and Raka first half efforts were enough on the day. It was a ragged opening day performance from Clermont after an early brace of tries. They surrendered their dominance and allowed Ospreys back into the contest where Webb became a prominent figure scoring a try and controlling game management affairs. Clermont’s final quarter was a mixed bag. A couple of penalties to offset sloppy defensive work which led to two further Ospreys tries. Clermont on this form will struggle to compete with Saracens. Ospreys are looking at an early season exit from the ERC with the dominant Saracens next at the Allianz. The pressure on Steve Tandy intensifies.

Pool 3: Leinster beat Nadolo inspired Montpellier

Leinster’s 24-17 win was an excellent victory minus the services of O’Brien and Sexton. Ross Byrne stepped up producing a solid performance at ten. Carbery at full back responded to a shaky opening with a superb cameo thereafter scoring a superb try. Leinster defensive line speed at times was sublime but with Nadolo around, resistance is sometimes futile. Adam Byrne exposed on the outside on two occasions for tries, no shame in that as Nadolo is an awe inspiring physical specimen. Adam Byrne was the center of a key officiating moment during the contest; a deliberate knock-on and Wayne Barnes only issued a yellow card and not a penalty try to boot to level the scores. A key decision which could be pivotal come January. No consistency in players deliberately knocking on close to their line or when an opponent has a clear opportunity to score. Leinster Rugby got the rub of the green and got the win. Leinster travel to Glasgow Rugby who once again let themselves down in an European Cup tie. A promising opening period descended into anarchy as Exeter Chiefs pack and a misfiring Glasgow resulted in a clear victory at Sandy Park. Two early tries for Glasgow Warriors in the opening period and one would have felt that Dave Rennie’s side would unleash further woe on the hosts but Exeter Chiefs pack knuckled down and started to dominate. Glasgow Warriors front five simply did not have any answers. Exeter Chiefs led at the break 14-10 and then further increased their advantage without the services of Jack Nowell. Steenson was excellent at ten. Exeter travel to France and it will be a difficult assignment; loser bonus point is the aim and they will need to show resilency when Nadolo strikes, it is going to happen at some stage during the contest. Glasgow on the other hand have a must win with Leinster Rugby; it will be a fixture which challenges the hosts style of play. Do they strip back their expansive style and get back to a more fundamental performance driven display? Gray needs to step up and get his front five in the ascendancy. A loss here and ERC season is effectively over. High stakes game and Dave Rennie has decisions to make.

Pool 4: Nakarawa offloading masterclass

The performance of round one was the display of Nakarawa. Racing 92’s win was inspired by the second row whose ball carrying and ability to offload at all times caused Leicester Tigers massively defensive headaches around the fringes. The three tries scored from the hosts came from this offloading display. Leicester Tigers did come away with a loser point and they exposed Racing 92 defensively in that opening period with some excellent running lines. Hamilton exposed non-existent Racing 92 fringe defense and May used his afterburners to cross over. Both sides tightened up after the break and it was a nip and tuck affair; both teams spurned golden opportunities. A vital win for Racing 92 ahead of a trip to Thomond Park next weekend. Many will look at the squad selection that Racing 92 will announce during the week, a mix of fringe players and Munster Rugby will take renewed confidence, something in short supply with the Irish province in recent weeks. A labored draw at Castres who were quite frankly robbed of a home win at the death (awful officiating). Murray had to take ten minutes for the team as the hosts pack controlled the close exchanges early doors; a drubber kick causing issues and Murray had to take out the Castres runner. The Castres opening try showed a lack of ambition and game smarts. Chris Farrell’s physicality and ball carrying should have seen the centre take up the ball but instead decided to hit a trademark skip pass out wide. Teams have copped onto the tactic and it was picked off. Credit to Munster, they fought back repeatedly with some excellent phases setting up Zebo for the opening try, the period of play which saw Castres reduced to fourteen players and the quick thinking of Murray to setup Kilcoyne to crash over. However, Castres love when the game is disorganized and loose. Their second try exposed Munster defensively out wide and they took advantage of some idiotic penalty concessions. Robin Copeland was the luckiest person on the pitch when he clearly gave away a penalty at the ruck. The officiating crew unbelievably gave a knock-on only and when you consider the Zebo knock-on in the second half not pinged, Munster got out of jail. An intriguing pool which will ebb and flow.

Pool 5: Toulon win but Scarlets show intent

21-20. A cliffhanger game at the death, a loss which will yield positives for Scarlets in terms of their fightback and ability to get into position to win the contest. Toulon win but question marks abound on discipline and game management decisions. They play at time such superb rugby and then minutes later reduced to a pub league side. Trinh-Duc’s late penalty rescued the result for the hosts. Bath beat Benetton Rugby but not the runaway score that many would have expected. Benetton Rugby were in the game until the final quarter and Toulon and Scarlets will know that they will to perform at a high level to secure a bonus point win over the Italians. Scarlets face Bath on Friday night, an intriguing game, both sides will be expansive. Scarlets in must win territory. Intriguing second round of fixtures await.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Preview

The European Rugby Challenge Cup, a competition which has had a mixed response from teams in recent seasons putting out second and third string sides leading to one sided results. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on this season’s tournament.

Pool 1: Bordeaux, Dragons, Enisei-STM, Newcastle Falcons

Enisei-STM enter the competition hoping to continue their progress from last season. The Russians will look to home advantage as an opportunity to shock their pool opponents but it is a tall order given the quality in the other teams. No distinct form guide for Enisei-STM and one suspects that this side will be taking to school in their road trips.

Dragons. New brand. New identity. Renewed pride in the Gwent region. The season so far domestically has being a mixed bag but Bernard Jackman has being keen to point out that this is a work in progress and that the season will be used to evaluate a youthful squad and determine where reinforcements are required. Dragons have their work cut out given that they face Bordeaux Begles and Newcastle Falcons.

Newcastle Falcons have really impressed this season in the Aviva Premiership. Dean Richards has assembled a squad whose physicality in the pack has set the platform for Toby Flood to unleash a potent back line. Falcons loss to Exeter Chiefs last weekend showed the good and bad of the side; their invention in open play was excellent but they were exposed in the set piece exchange, giving away penalty and territory with devastating consequences. A side who will fancy their chances of progression.

Bordeaux Begles are the form side of the pool but as you will gauge as you read this article, the attitude of the French sides to this competition in recent years has being underwhelming. Will Bordeaux embrace the competition and field strong sides? If they do, then the squad is stacked with talent. The enigma of squad selection opens the door for Newcastle Falcons truth be told. Even with their third team, Begles should have too much for Enisei. After that, it is anyone’s guess.

Verdict: 

If Bordeaux Begles embrace the competition, they top the pool without question, Otherwise, Falcons come into the equation as pool winners. I suspect that both sides will advance to the last eight of the competition despite Dragons trying to upset the form guide. Enisei-STM will be the cannon fodder of the pool and expect the try scored count in this pool to be ridiculously high.

Pool B: Cardiff Blues, Lyon, Sale Sharks, Toulouse

An excellent, competitive pool. Toulouse will use the tournament to rebuild after a traumatic season last year domestically. Europe was a little better but were ultimately humbled by Munster in the last eight of the competition exposing conditioning issues in the pack allied with weak outside defense. Toulouse are a side who will take this competition seriously; their European record is beyond reproach and with a quality pool, management will look to remain focus with a mix of experience and youth.

Cardiff Blues have endured a miserable season on and off the pitch. The lack of financial backing leading to van der Merwe being dealt away from the club before he played a fixture with the side during the summer spoke volumes. The form on the pitch has being disappointing but a couple of bright spots in the one point loss to Warriors at home and a comeback win against Dragons were performances full of endeavor and spark. Tom James continues to excel out wide. Josh Navidi continues to be a leader in the pack whilst Sam Warburton recuperates from injury. A pool which Cardiff Blues will relish; expect them to be competitive at home and in the shakeup come the later rounds but the distinct lack of squad depth is an question mark for the side. Wait and see approach.

Lyon are the standout side of this pool but question marks remain on where this competition falls in their priority list. The squad is stacked with the likes of Michalak, Wulf, Fourie, Armitage. If they decide to take this competition seriously, then they qualify as pool winners no question but if they decide to blood academy and fringe players, then they will be out before December. A road trip to Cardiff Blues to start will answer plenty of questions on their motives in this competition.

Sale Sharks have endured a mixed set of results domestically. Steve Diamond can call upon the quality of Josh Strauss, Faf de Klerk and Josh Charnley (rugby league convert). The local indigenous talent in the squad is a work in progress and the pack potentially may be exposed on set piece to prevent a serious play for qualification. Pool opponents will not relish a fixture to Sale but the squad depth of Toulouse and Lyon would suggest that the Aviva Premiership side are up against it.

Verdict:

A pool which will be worth watching particularly the fixtures between Lyon and Toulouse. They are the top sides of the pool and expect them to advance to the last eight of the competition despite good efforts from Cardiff Blues and Sale Sharks. It all depends on squad selection from the French sides. If they commit to the competition, then it is an open / shut case.

Pool 3: Agen, Gloucester, Pau, Zebre Rugby

An interesting pool but one that Gloucester Rugby should be confident of progression. The West Country outfit have loved this competition in recent seasons. This competition should provide welcome relief from domestic action where it has being a struggle. A badly needed win against Saints last time out was required to stave off immediate relegation concerns. The squad has raw potential, should advance to the knockout rounds but the squad depth will then be tested.

Zebre Rugby have being a positive story for the Guinness Pro 14 season. They were expected to struggle massively this season due to their late preseason, squad personnel (developmental) but their results have being decent. The home win against Ulster Rugby two weeks ago was a highlight. Michael Bradley will realize that the squad depth is an issue but will look to see how his charges compete against the likes of Gloucester Rugby in this competiton. Expect the Italians to upset one of the French teams at home but ultimately the road form will be their undoing.

Agen and Pau are teams which could have little interest in the competition. Hard to argue a case for either side to progress. Pau out of the two might have more appetite given the squad profile with a couple of ex-Munster players in the squad to reignite European Cup passion but these sides have shown in the past that this competition is well down the priority list. Pro 14 survival is paramount. Expect a couple of wins from both at home but their squads away from home will leave the tournament organizers with headaches.

Verdict: 

Gloucester Rugby to advance. Zebre to upset the odds with a couple of wins. The French sides will fulfill the fixtures. One coming out of this pool.

Pool 4: Edinburgh, Krasny Yar, London Irish, Stade Francais

The second high quality pool of the tournament. Krasny Yar are going to be given a torrid time in European action, little is known about this outfit but suffice to say that the other sides in the pool will target ten points from their two games against the Russians. Whipping boys.

The other three teams have historically taken the competition seriously and expect several superb fixtures this season. Edinburgh Rugby under RIchard Cockerill will look to build momentum into the Pro 14 campaign, look for his side to create and score tries, a facet of play which has being inconsistent domestically. Hidalgo-Clyne, Tovey are quality half-back operators and expect the side to build the sufficient platform to put points on the board.

London Irish are back in the Aviva Premiership but with it, they have being exposed in back and pack play this season. An opening day win against Harlequins was the highlight but there have being drubbings in recent weeks. Leicester Tigers used their dominant pack to secure a bonus point try win. London Irish will look to compete well at home but given their position in the league, it might be a case of blooding fringe players if results go against them in the earlier fixtures. Squad depth concerns?

Stade Francais. If certain owners had their way, Stade Francais and Racing 92 would have merged into a juggernaut Parisian club. Thankfully, that has not happened and Stade Francais will look to an extended European Challenge Cup run. Stade Francais have embraced the competition and this season should be no different even though their league position is disappointing right now. Squad is talented and should be the form team of the pool provided that there is no strategy change to ditch the competition.

Verdict: 

It looks like a shootout between Stade Francais and Edinburgh Rugby. London Irish squad depth is a concern and with a debut Aviva Premiership season, is it as much a priority as it once was? Krasny Yar, thanks for coming. Top two will secure quarter final spots.

Pool 5: Brive, Connacht, Oyonnax, Worcester Warriors

Oyonnax’s decision to move their Connacht fixture to Geneva speaks volumes; boost crowd attendance for a fixture which they have little interest in. Brive could be potentially painted in the same statement given their squad selections away from home in this competition in recent years. Both teams will compete at home but away from their familiar surroundings could be another story.  This pool to me looks like a straight fight between Connacht and Worcester Warriors.

Connacht have a new head coach but the fall off of last season has continued. Lapses in concentration on restarts have killed the Westerners in recent weeks much to Kieran Keane’s frustration. Muldoon’s withdrawal against Ulster Rugby last weekend is a blow and one wonders how much the talisman will be out for. There is genuine attacking edge to this side; expansive in nature with Aki a dominant force at twelve. The issue is consistency and is something that will be built in the coming months. Bonus point wins at home are paramount for pool qualification.

Worcester Warriors are struggling for form and consistency this season domestically. Their work rate is high but their squad depth quality has being exposed in set piece and general open play. Opposition have worn the side down and created tries in the last quarter despite the experience of Stringer, O’Callaghan. League survival is the aim; this competition could potentially build confidence to compete better domestically.

Verdict:

The French sides commitment to the tournament will be exposed in their squad selection on road trips, vulnerable and will leak bonus point try points for sure. Connacht and Worcester Warriors must address consistency issues, slight edge to Connacht given their squad depth is slightly better. A race between the two teams to secure that final qualification berth given the expected points tally in other pools.

ERC Final: Saracens 28 – 17 Clermont ASM

Kudos to Saracens

I tweeted on Friday to ask whether there were any European Rugby Cup finals on such was the lack of coverage on the games (well in Ireland at any rate). I was hoping and praying that Clermont ASM would win but unfortunately, another final, another heartbreaking loss was confirmed by a superb performance from Owen Farrell and ultra efficient pack.

Clermont have now lost eight of their last nine major final appearances. This final loss can be traced back to the early exchanges where Saracens set out their stall early; set the tempo early and tested Clermont defensive structures out wide. In only the first minute, a slick Saracens move allowed Chris Ashton (love him / hate him) to create the line break early for nearly the opening try only for last ditch defending.

The onslaught was incessant and the one trait that Saracens possess is to keep the scoreboard ticking along when dominant. The deft kick through from Alex Goode was pure genius; quick visualization that Speeding was looking to assist his colleagues by coming into the line. The kick was on point and the pace of Ashton to outstrip the off balance Speeding was excellent; the try for the winger to break the ERC try record and they say Saracens do not play expansive rugby?

Owen Farrell may have missed that conversion but Saracens were dominant in the pack in the opening quarter. George Kruis was simply outstanding yesterday. A player who goes under the radar. I have always raved about Maro Itoje on this blog but Kruis is the perfect complement; his back row background means that his style and mobility matches perfectly with Itoje’s all action play. Kruis was imperious on the set piece; lineout was on point throughout and his close range running line to score Saracens second try was excellent and surely will be a pivotal figure for Gatland in the Lions tour (even more so if Jones fails to prove his fitness).

Clermont were like a child on recital night freezing on stage in front of their parents (fans) for the first twenty minutes. It was a chastening experience in that opening quarter. The Clermont pack was being bullied around and add to the fact that defensive misreads out wide were causing massive gain line breaks for the reigning champions. Credit where is due, they fought back with tenacity. Parra unerring with the boot and their opening try showed a willingness to take on Saracens at the set piece. Rougerie creating the initial phase off the scrum which set the platform for the try.

Saracens make you do things that are unfamiliar and stupid. Munster’s half backs endured a miserable afternoon in the semi-final as Saracens defensive line speed and pack pressure forced Munster into an one dimensional unit consistently kicking ball away having several meaningless phases of play (one out ball receivers). Clermont for a brief moment did a Saracens on Saracens with their second try of the final; the line break from Speeding bordered on madness but you have to try something different to unlock a resolute defense. The quick line breaks and speed of pass suddenly saw Ashton and Farrell faced with a Goliath on the wing and a deft offload to Nick Abendanon was just desserts for a superb try. The image of Farrell and Ashton being bounced off the tackle was astonishing.

It was a shame that Clermont had not quelled the early onslaught, the energy to get back into the contest showed in the final quarter as Saracens found another gear and more energy. The pack started to dominate again thanks in no small part to the runs of Billy Vunipola from set piece and first receiver position; a superb performance from the eight position and the reigning champions were forcing Clermont to throw extra bodies to the ruck to stop Vunipola and hence create space out wide. The line running of Saracens was precise and Clermont made defensive misread after misread hitting decoy line runners.

Goode’s try spelled the end of the contest.. Clermont were finished and Saracens pack were now dominant in the scrum, another penalty conceded which was dispatched by Farrell to give the scoreline an accurate score and feel. Finals are there to be won and Clermont played with intense fear in the opening quarter, that was their undoing. Parra and Lopez tried hard but they were stifled at the important parts of the contest. Parra was tigerish in denying Billy Vunipola in that final quarter but it only delayed the inevitable.

Saracens are the most equipped, tactically astute team again in NH rugby this season. There is no weak link in their side and any weak points (perhaps Ashton defensively is nullified by excellent team work and defensive structures).  They are the template for other clubs to aspire to and with the likes of George, Itoje, Kruis still in their youthful prime along with the ever influential Farrell at ten, this team could be winning more silverware in the years to come.

Heartbreak for Clermont. The crowd in Clermont-Ferrand was superb. Where was the corresponding crowd in Saracens / London? Allianz Arena surely could have being used. Saracens are an excellent rugby team on the pitch but there is work to do to build the brand with the London public. The die hard fans were in attendance at Murrayfield but with no video feed of their fans in London, it left questions of how popular are Saracens as a rugby club in London? An European Cup triumph (twice) surely should galvanize support in the communities around the impressive Allianz Arena. Disappointing.

Clermont — not sure where they go from here. They get so far but fall short. The historical precedence of final failures is wrecking havoc on this side. They nearly creaked against Leinster (who will be kicking themselves for getting beat in the semi-final) in that second half of the semi-final. There is always a vulnerability about Clermont away from home and so it proved in this contest. Clermont can buy all the players they want but they are destined to finish agonizingly short of the grand prize. Superb support but the chains of final failures in the past will forever haunt this club until they break the hoodoo. Mental approach has to be addressed, the ability to perform in final appearances. When that comes remains to be seen?

Saracens are now multiple ERC champions. A great accolade for Mark McCall who has provided the structure and leadership to allow the team to grow and prosper. The profile of players such as Itoje, Kruis and George and the fact that they honed their skills with the club as youngster is so rewarding. Owen Farrell at ten is a superstar, imagine how good he will be next season after a tough tour to New Zealand with the Lions tour? The first tour made him as a player, this tour will define him and his legacy to come.

The workmanlike and professional nature of this setup is there for all to see. The teamwork and work rate with and without the ball, the decision making and the constant attention to detail to expose opposition during analysis making opponents one dimensional. It is the complete package. Plenty despise this team but this team are superb champions. The fact that Chris Ashton is now the leading ERC try scorer says enough of the ability of this side to cut loose when presented with opportunities; clinical and precise — the hallmark of champions. Congratulations Saracens!