With European Cup action taking center stage for the next two weekends, it is time to review where we are in the Guinness Pro14 conferences and what we should expect when the league resumes at the end of this month. Hawkeye Sidekick takes on the story from here starting with Conference A.
Conference A Standings:
What to look out for?
Munster Rugby are top of the conference after last weekend’s set of results. The side produced their best attacking performance of the season in their BP win over Connacht Rugby on the road in round thirteen.
Key European Cup fixtures beckon and the side will need to continue to evolve and improve on both sides of the ball to be a realistic Guinness Pro14 contender. The road trip fixture to Ospreys looks key in determining whether the side will be vying for a top spot playoff berth.
Glasgow Warriors have hit a complete slump. Three consecutive league losses has opened the conference wide open. Warriors are a quality outfit but the European Cup pool finale could potentially shape how they perform upon the resumption of the league. I still think that they are the team to beat in this conference but the pack issues exposed in recent weeks and lack of cohesion in attacking play which surface against Edinburgh Rugby needs to be addressed in a hurry.
Ospreys are currently in third position in the league; their form has being mixed in recent weeks. Good wins over Cardiff Blues and Scarlets but then a road trip loss to the Dragons. George North continues to impress with ball in hand. The big question for me on the Ospreys is when their key marquee players are away on international duty, how will the side perform? November saw some wretched performances on the road when their squad was stretched. This cannot be repeated coming down the homestretch.
Connacht Rugby have shown massive upside this season. A new coach and revitalized mindset has seen the side play highly entertaining rugby this season. Their performance against Munster Rugby last weekend at times was sublime; quick ruck pass unleashing Tom Farrell and Cian Kelleher to create havoc in the Munster Rugby defensive ranks.
When you consider that Aki, Buckley and O’Brien were out of the side against pretty much first team Munster Rugby outfit, it is where Connacht Rugby’s head space is at when they are disappointed by not winning the contest. A key home fixture against Ospreys could make or break the side’s season in a couple of weeks.
Cardiff Blues have being frustrating to watch this season. When they click into gear, the side are loaded with threats from multiple areas. When they are not, they are mediocre. The key will be to figure out the consistency issues in the side. Blues have a couple of keynote fixtures against Conference A opposition upon league resumption; their road form has to improve for the side to be a serious playoff contender.
Cheetahs. After a very slow start to the season, the side are starting to gain momentum. They were very impressive in their first run out of the year on the road to Zebre Rugby last weekend. Their expansive style of play will cause teams no end of issues. Two games in hand over everyone else in the conference, Cheetahs should account for the Southern Kings in the next few weeks. A potential ten points haul and they are back into playoff picture contention. For the league, Toyota Cheetahs need to be in the playoff mix.
Zebre Rugby are cast adrift at the bottom of the conference. After early promise, squad depth issues have being ruthlessly exposed so the objective for Michael Bradley’s charges will be to aim for European Challenge Cup playoff contention.
Munster Rugby secured a vital Guinness Pro14 campaign victory over Glasgow Warriors at a cold Thomond Park, but there was nothing cold about the exchanges throughout as these two sides’ rivalry came to the surface in a feisty affair. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.
From the first whistle, this fixture exploded into life. There was not even a minute on the clock when there were handbags in the middle of the pitch. Peter O’Mahony as you would suspect was close to the action and this close combative exchange style was the key theme.
Both packs did not give an inch in this encounter, each unit celebrating a penalty win like it was a cup final win. The tackling and clear out work was incredibly physical and for the pundits who reckon that rugby has gone soft, a video reel footage viewing of this action should be watched in pronto time. An excellent pack tussle which showcased the league in a positive manner.
Munster Rugby score first
The hosts scored first via James Cronin. The try was preceded by a superb running line game play from JJ Hanrahan who identified Keith Earls’ run to perfection. The Moyross native stripping Glasgow Warrior’s first line of defense with devastating pace. The forwards then took on the mantle and Cronin crashed over with the assistance of John Ryan.
Munster Rugby then threatened to score another try soon after. Horne tackled in his goal area; the five meter scrum that ensued lacked composure and Glasgow Warriors alleviated the pressure. More Munster Rugby pressure then saw Glasgow Warriors dramatically score their first try of the evening.
Glasgow Warriors hit back
There appeared little danger from a Munster Rugby perspective when Alby Mathewson decided to kick the ball down the tramp lines deep into Glasgow territory but the one thing you do not do against Glasgow Warriors is drop your defense guard and it proved fatal as Rory Hughes launched the attack with a sweeping pass out wide realizing that the Munster Rugby back three cover was exposed. George Horne with superb supporting running to score a quality score.
The Scottish side were not finished and more incisive attacking play saw the impressive Nick Grigg stride clear with ball in hand; another massive line break and with Munster Rugby’s inside defense stretched to breaking point due to the decision of Sam Arnold to come out of the line with disastrous results. George Horne again was on hand to receive the offload from the impressive Grigg who tallied 109 meters in just nine carries.
Munster Rugby suddenly were like a boxer who had suffered a crunching body blow, they were on the ropes and looking shaky in their defense shape. Glasgow’s quick clear out work providing the perfect platform for the Horne brothers to terrorize the Munster Rugby defense. The Scottish side secured their third try when Fagerson crashed over after sustained pressure on the Munster Rugby. The try scored immediately after Chris Cloete was sin binned for taking out a Glasgow Warriors supporting player after Ruaidhri Jackson was adjudged not to have grounded the ball.
The bonus point try was secured for Glasgow Warriors in superb fashion. As Munster Rugby tolled, the penalty count suddenly came an issue. After more concerted pressure on the Munster Rugby line, a deft kick from George Horne found his brother Peter Horne to collect and touchdown. The celebrations from the Glasgow Warriors spoke volumes; BP secured at Thomond Park and surely a long overdue road trip win over Munster Rugby.
Munster Rugby Respond
Prior to the Glasgow Warriors fourth try, there were some signs of life within the Munster Rugby camp. The second and third periods saw Munster Rugby not create significant line breaks in phase play. It was down to JJ Hanrahan to create a line break himself, spotting the gap and striding thirty meters to the try line. No Munster Rugby supporting line runners so JJ was held up short. Penalty was the end result from the play.
Munster Rugby threw the bench on in the last quarter hoping to change the direction of the game. Arno Botha provided a key boost for the side and home support with a lung bursting forty meter gain line break. This got the home crowd back into the contest and not all after Alex Wootton was crossing over after resilient play from the Munster Rugby pack building phase after phase, one out runners used to try to breakdown a resolute Glasgow defense. Numbers game saw Wootton get over. Keatley who had replaced JJ Hanrahan missed a difficult conversion but Munster Rugby were back in the contest.
Dramatic final minutes
15-24 with ten minutes to go but Munster Rugby had the bit between their teeth and more pack power saw the hosts deep in Glasgow Warriors’ territory. The decision was to keep it tight, keep working the tackle count of the Warriors, keep probing for defensive gaps.
The pack set the platform and after several impressive carries from the front five, Alby Mathewson spotted a gap and touched down. Keatley converted the extras and a fixture which looked forlorn for Munster Rugby suddenly was back in the melting point. 22-24. Seven minutes left.
Credit to Glasgow Warriors for the next five minutes. They worked the phase count and took advantage of indiscipline in the Munster Rugby ranks. Niall Scannell high hit looked a decisive moment as Glasgow’s pack looked to run the clock down but when a Glasgow player was exposed on the ground, Peter O’Mahony like an eagle swooped in to win his side a penalty just inside Glasgow’s half. What would Munster Rugby do? Call out for the kicking tee. Rory Scannell would have a pop. Final play of the game.
The center has had a mixed week; surplus to requirements from the national team squad roster. The versatility of the player is incredible; his kicking game is on a par with any twelve in the country. The breeze was blowing across the field, a difficult long range effort but the Cork native kicked the ball with conviction and it cut through the posts. 25-24. Eighty minutes. Munster Rugby somehow had won this contest.
A win created by sheer determination and fight to not surrender the result, play until the final whistle. Munster Rugby can never be accused of those traits and the win is a decisive one in the context of the league. Glasgow may have secured two points tonight but Munster’s late kick gives them breathing space from Connacht Rugby and Cardiff Blues.
The Munster Rugby performance was a mixed bag like last weekend. The kicking game was average at best; some aimless kicking which gave superb field position and attacking opportunity to Glasgow Warriors to impress. The defensive shape at times was ragged; the second quarter performance lacked organization defensively and video analysis for Sam Arnold on the second Glasgow Warriors try will be tough viewing.
Attacking game plan is a work in progress; one out ball carrying was the order of the day with little support running options for the ball carrier. The static running lines of last weekend were improved this weekend but there are definite areas of improvement for van Graan and management to address.
Glasgow Warriors showed why they are top of the conference. Despite missing several first team players, the squad’s ability and skill set is so high. Their ability to offload, creating gain line breaks with astute passing and running lines was in pale comparison to Munster’s blunt pack orientated ball carrying approach. Dave Rennie will be pleased with the bonus try performance but disappointed that they could not hold out for the win.
The Glasgow Warriors pack performance tonight was feisty, physical and abrasive. This is the blueprint for the rest of the season from this unit for the rest of the season if Glasgow look to harbor ambitions of winning any silverware. This particular rivalry has gone up a further notch after tonight; no Christmas cards will be exchanged by these sides but it is a rivalry which the league must now embrace and showcase to the full.
This has the potential to be a superb pool full of inventive play and bonus point try performances. A pool where Saracens line up against reigning European Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues, Lyon and a Glasgow Warriors who this season need to stand up and deliver in this competition. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool.
Saracens looking to make amends
Lions tour. Injuries. Lack of form all contributed to Saracens only barely getting to the last eight of the competition last season. They were a team condemned heading to the Aviva Stadium to face a relentless Leinster Rugby and lessons from last season have being learned.
Saracens in this pool looked a prime competition contender. Minimal weak points from the pack, half-backs into the back line. I am looking forward to see how Jamie George evolves in the competition this season; his set piece and mobility will be to the fore. Maro Itoje in the lock position is a supreme athlete, interesting to see how his discipline has evolved since last season where he was feeling the wrath of match officials more times than not.
Wigglesworth and Farrell form a formidable half-back partnership and then you add the promising Lozsowski in the mix, competition is strong in this area of the park. The back line contains the experience Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch who will look to unleash the likes of Alex Goode and Liam Williams into the line at a regular rate.
Saracens start their European crusade this season with a tricky road trip to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun. Can Glasgow Warriors prove themselves in European Cup action? A terribly disappointing effort last season and Dave Rennie will need to call on Adam Hastings to be the x-factor for his side as Finn Russell has departed for life at Racing 92.
Glasgow Warriors will provide expansive passage of play from deep but question marks abound on the front five when facing slick, efficient counterparts. They were found wanting last season against the likes of Exeter Chiefs, Leinster Rugby and Montpellier and I am not sure if it has improved to the extent required to compete with the likes of Saracens.
The side are a superb Guinness Pro 14 outfit but there are lingering questions on when this side will evolve and be considered as a contender in European Cup competition. The opening fixture to Saracens will answer those questions quickly.
Cardiff Blues come into the competition on the back of progressive form in Guinness Pro 14 action. A home win against Munster Rugby has set morale soaring. Evans, Anscombe can control games and with the likes of Halaholo, Lane, Harries out wide to score tries; it is a real potent attacking edge. Furthermore, an abrasive pack led by the likes of Turnbull, Navidi, Nick Williams will mean that no pool opponent will get an easy game from the Welsh side.
Lyon. The debutantes in this competition are stacked with squad talent but whether European fare is their priority (skeptical) remains up in the air. Doussain and Beauxis provide a formidable experience half back experience and with a solid pack and back line, the side at home will be a match for anyone but as European Challenge Cup experience has shown, the side’s mindset when in Europe can be questionable.
Saracens are the form side in this pool; their domestic form is 6/6 and their toughest conceivable game could this weekend in Glasgow. If they safely negotiate this fixture, Saracens could run the rule over all other pool opponents before Christmas and safely secure a pool winner berth.
Question marks on the other sides in this pool. The mini-league between these sides could see teams potentially cancelling each other with home wins. Glasgow Warriors could nick a playoff best runner up but I need convincing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No genuine drama from the last round of league fixtures. After Ulster Rugby failed to beat Munster Rugby at Thomond Park, Edinburgh’s ticket to the playoffs was confirmed. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action in Wales, Scotland and South Africa.
Congratulations to the Toyota Cheetahs on securing their playoff spot with a 20-29 road trip win over Southern Kings who scored early with a Dukisa try. Banda then increased the lead for the hosts with two penalties until the Toyota Cheetahs hit a quick three try salvo in the second quarter. Marais , Schoeman and Cassiem all crossed over with excellent offloading and support running which the Southern Kings struggled to stifle. The game was well and truly up despite the Klaasen try straight after the break. Cheetahs were able to control the game in the final quarter to close out with comfort.
This is an superb achievement for the Toyota Cheetahs and great news for this tournament. The Cheetahs were off the pace in the first few weeks of the season but they have built a formidable fortress in Bloemfontein and their expansive brand of rugby has won many admirers this season. With fast track conditions, they will travel to Scarlets in confident form. The missed tackle count will have to improve (23) but they will relish the dry conditions and Scarlets need to be careful on how expansive they go against a team who have the skill set to beat you from anywhere on the pitch. Superb coaching work from Rory Duncan and staff!
The 1872 Cup was won by Edinburgh Rugby on a special night for anyone associated with the club. The night where they were confirmed as the third team in Conference B to participate in the playoffs, confirmation of their participation in the European Rugby Champions Cup next season. A magnificent coaching performance from Richard Cockerill and coaching staff to turn the fortunes of the side. Edinburgh Rugby have always had the talent and potential but consistency was a core issue. The side have produced consistently high performances this season to deservedly clinch their place in the playoffs.
This local derby was abrasive and physical with several eye catching moments. Edinburgh’s composure was tested early with the early Glasgow Warriors try from DTH van der Merwe but their response was emphatic as Johnstone crashed over evading two Glasgow Warrior players enroute. Further questions were asked when Gibbins crossed over but again the hosts leveled with a robust Lay finish from close range and then not to be out done Duhan van der Merwe powerfully scored on the stroke of half-time to give the side 21-14.
Glasgow Warriors did look to get back into this encounter with another DTH van der Merwe effort on the sideline and Edinburgh Rugby were forced to defend for long periods in the last ten minutes. Each player to a man tackling on point and disrupting Glasgow ball from the ruck. Several key breakdown wins in the last five wins sealed victory. A huge morale booster for the side and the fact that they reclaimed the 1872 Cup is a perfect tonic heading into the playoffs. The most improved side of the league this season come to Thomond Park next weekend with no fears and will look to prey on Munster Rugby’s playoff failures.
A late gasp drop goal from Dan Biggar secured victory for the ever improving Ospreys side against Cardiff Blues. A game which ebbed and flowed throughout; several standout moments of creativity. Jones’ try was a perfect case study of this point with an excellent line break from Jeff Hassler before the ball made its way to Alun Wyn Jones who touched down out wide.
Cardiff Blues produced a stunning response when Anscombe scored the try of the day. His ability to evade Ospreys defenders sublime as he ran from halfway to score a sensational score. The Blues then suddenly had their second try as Smith collecting a good grubber kick from Steve Shingler to dive over.
Ospreys determination to get back into the game was seen in the second half. Biggar scored a superb effort; quality finish from close range when Cardiff Blues defensively looked to have the situation well in hand. Biggar added the conversion to make it 20-20 to setup an exciting finish.
It suddenly was becoming the battle of the tens from the kicking tee. Anscombe slotted over a tricky penalty to gave Cardiff Blues the lead again only for Biggar to level again with another penalty. Cue the end of the game, good composure from Ospreys to create the phases to put Biggar into position and the drop goal was on point. Ospreys held out for another morale boosting win.
Cardiff Blues enter European Rugby Champions Cup next season but no playoff rugby this season. Their focus turns to the European Challenge Cup final against Gloucester Rugby in Bilbao. Ospreys’ form in the second half of the season has being excellent; they will enter their key playoff tussle with Ulster Rugby with confidence. A place in the European Rugby Champions Cup is on offer. Massive reward if victory is earned!
Scarlets shook off the European Cup blues with an emphatic bonus point win against Dragons who were out gunned in all facets of play. As soon as Elias emerged with the ball for the opening try, things looked ominous for Bernard Jackman’s charges but the Dragons stayed in touch until half-time. The second half was a different story entirely.
A penalty try was awarded to the Scarlets as Dragons scrum was struggling; several scrum resets eventually causing the match official to lose patience with the Dragons. A quick brace of tries from the marauding Tadhg Beirne spelled the end of the contest and the bonus point try. Evans put further gloss on the scoreboard with a late try.
Scarlets enter the playoffs next weekend and face a dangerous home fixture against Toyota Cheetahs. Dragons’ season is now over. A season of transition and the second half of the season had plenty of setbacks. Recruiting needs to continue to supplement the talent at the club. Dee, Landman, Wainwright, Amos, Hewitt and Kirchner.
However, the discipline and defensive lapses have plighted their season. Missed tackle count was high (24) and this has being a really sore statistic this season. The pack have had positive moments but this reward was not seen on the scoreboard, allowing opposition to get back into contests.
Zebre Rugby have earned Italian derby bragging rights with a deserved road trip win over Benetton Rugby. A closely fought encounter as Benetton Rugby scored first with a good cohesive move involving Tebaldi and Allan to unleash Sgarbi to score.
Zebre Rugby absorbed the pressure from the hosts and then built their attacking platform in the second quarter. Violi (34) slotted over a penalty after concerted attacking phases and then Zebre Rugby went into the dressing rooms ahead with Sisi crashing with the pack once again prominent in the maul.
A quick try after the break from the impressive Canna (44) was a well worked score. Zebre Rugby sucking in Benetton Rugby defenders to allow space to be created for Canna out on the sideline. The pivotal score of the game as Benetton Rugby were now forced to chase the game; credit to the hosts after Sgarbi scored another well worked try and Allan slotted over.
However, Zebre Rugby were not to be denied. A composed pack performance from Michael Bradley’s side setting up several penalty opportunities. Violi slotting over three penalties to make the game safe. A quality win from Zebre Rugby and one that should be a blueprint to winning further games in the league next season. A season of transition; a season where Zebre Rugby have provided good moments and identified players capable of representing the Italian team. Biagi, Bellini to name but a few.
Eighteenth league win for an Italian side in the tournament is a new record. Additional progress and improvement is required from both Italian teams and hope springs eternal here. Good fundamental structures are being built in Italy via underage and at professional club rugby structures. Whether Michael Bradley is around to see the progress next season is another story; a man who may be subject to speculation on a couple of head coaching roles over to Ireland. Time will tell!
Friday night drama a plenty. Congratulations to Glasgow Warriors who efficiently cast aside Connacht Rugby 35-22 to secure top spot in Conference A. Munster Rugby finish their SA tour with a morale boosting 17-19 win over a Toyota Cheetahs outfit while Ulster Rugby huffed and puffed and had to wait until the final minute to secure a 8-0 win over a gutsy Ospreys side. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.
Glasgow Warriors emphatically secured top spot in Conference A with an opening period trouncing of a Connacht Rugby side who have a look of a side who cannot wait for the season to end. Glasgow responded to an early set concession to score three tries in the opening period. A quick try response from Hogg on three minutes opened the floodgates and Connacht Rugby defensive line as Alex Dunbar scored on twenty-six minutes and the industrious Fraser Brown crashed over after sustained pressure on the Connacht Rugby try line. Pyrgos secured the bonus point try immediately after the break. Defensive resistance non-existent. Gain line yards easily made by the hosts.
Mission accomplished. Glasgow Warriors took the foot off the gas and Connacht Rugby responded with a late Blade try but the damage was done. Glasgow Warriors were so accurate with ball in hand, great running lines for the ball carrier. In contrast, Connacht Rugby were reduced to one out ball carrying attacks and when they tried to create out wide, it was ponderous, no-one committing Glasgow defenders to tackle, all very predictable. Connacht Rugby’s twenty-one missed tackles way too high. Glasgow proceed with confidence to the playoffs. Connacht Rugby are devoid of any confidence heading into the final stretch and with a home tie against Leinster Rugby, it is a daunting finish to the season. Kieran Keane and management have issues to address!
An efficient second half display where the pack asserted a platform in the set piece combined with excellent penalty kicking secured a 17-19 win over the Toyota Cheetahs. The hosts started so well and exposed Munster Rugby in the opening period with excellent offloading. Blommetjies scoring an excellent team try on eleven minutes; good lineout possession and quick hands from Venter at thirteen to allow Blommetjies to cross over. The try scorer leaves Toyota Cheetahs for Scarlets next season; a shrewd piece of business from the Welsh region. Tian Meyer crossed over in the second quarter; quick hands creating the player overlap and Meyer had the simplest of tasks.
James Hart was injured in the lead-up to the Meyer try and enter the game changer, Conor Murray. The scrum-half was the class act of the fixture. He made his presence felt immediately with a sharp close range finish. JJ Hanrahan who had an excellent game kicked the conversion to make it 14-7 but then Munster Rugby gave three points straight back with a needless penalty. Goosen at ten slotting over, an impressive opening game for the ex-Racing 92 player. 17-7 at the break. The task for Munster Rugby looked daunting.
However, the visitors pack regrouped at the break and started to assert dominance in the set piece and open exchanges. Penalties were being leaked by Toyota Cheetahs at a rate of knots and JJ Hanrahan slotted over a couple of regulation penalties to make it a 17-16 game. Cue the monster penalty kick from Murray. The ball is still travelling in orbit such was the distance of the kick. World class strike and Munster Rugby defensively and disciplinary wise remained on point to win; a potential let off on the second scrum at the death but a win was secured.
The officiating on display was at times tragic. Munster Rugby were reduced to fourteen players (Zebo sent to the bin) for an innocuous incident. Adamson refusing to ping Cheetahs players not rolling away from the ruck, increased penalty count not yielding any warning; facets of the game which will be punished next weekend in European Cup action. A superb SA tour for Munster Rugby; good PR created for the club over in South Africa.
8-0. Ulster Rugby battered Ospreys tonight but there was a distinct lack of creativity or ambition in the attacking play of the hosts. Fifty-two minutes in and Ospreys were already on 120 tackles made but still Ulster Rugby inability to execute in the opposition twenty-two was starting to rile up the local support. Shanahan at nine looked one dimensional in game management. Cooney did not provide any kicking game when switched to ten. Lateral, players receiving the ball too deep and could not break the gain line. It was a shocking attacking display. Ospreys were defensively sound but it was very predictable attacking lines.
Timoney’s disallowed try summed up the night perfectly for Ulster Rugby. A well executed kick in behind the Ospreys defense but the lack of conviction from the back rower to secure possession allowed Watkin the time to dislodge the ball and prevent the try. 3-0 heading into the 78th minutes. Ulster Rugby fans may have being fearing the worse as Ospreys started to summon a late attacking threat. However, Dan Biggar’s pass out wide was poor and the loose ball was collected by try scoring machine Jacob Stockdale to score from midfield. 8-0. Full time.
Ospreys will rue a couple of officiating decisions that went against them. The disallowed try when Kieron Fonotia charged across the Ulster line after a turnover, but the officials chalked it off for an alleged earlier infringement by Alun Wyn Jones in the opening period was a huge call. The Hassler yellow card was 50/50 for me personally. Ospreys showed amazing resiliency to continue to defend as manfully as they did. It was an incredible effort; 186 tackles made tonight.
Ulster Rugby continue to fight for their playoff lives. The emphatic performance never materialized but the key men of the side led from the front. Best, Henderson, Deysel and Piutau were immense. The distinct lack of attacking threat will be reviewed this week, perhaps it was the enormity of the fixture which stifled creativity. Cooney’s penalty in the opening period created the buffer but this result should not have being in question given the dominance enjoyed by Ulster Rugby tonight. Gibbes struck a frustrated figure. Dwayne Peel will be shaking his head in video review. To be a fly on the wall for that attacking video review.
A pivotal weekend of action awaits several teams this weekend. In Conference A, Glasgow Warriors have an opportunity to secure playoff home field advantage with a win over a misfiring Connacht Rugby outfit. Munster Rugby travel to the Bloemfontein to face a Toyota Cheetahs who know that a win will close the gap considerably on the Irish province setting up a fascinating last round of games in the regular season.
In Conference B, Leinster Rugby can pretty much stamp their home field playoff berth with a win at home to improving Benetton Rugby while Scarlets travel to Edinburgh looking to get pace. Ulster Rugby still harboring ambitions of playoff rugby realize that nothing short of a bonus point try win will suffice against a progressively improving Ospreys side. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
A key fixture for the hosts at fortress Scotstoun on Friday night. The mission is pretty straightforward; a victory over a Connacht Rugby side who are out of playoff contention means securing a home field semi-final in the playoffs.
Dave Rennie has named a strong side for the fixture. Finn Russell must make do with a place on the bench as Peter Horne will be the out-half for the evening. The pack looks strong and abrasive with Brown, Gray and Fagerson featuring.
Connacht Rugby are buoyed by the news that Tiernan O’Halloran is free to play after his disciplinary case was dropped today. Kieran Keane has named a reasonably strong outfit with Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney included. The pack looks pretty much first choice as John Muldoon is kept in reserve for a third quarter onslaught.
Given the motivation of both sides, the verdict goes to the Glasgow Warriors who have the potential to create massive defensive holes in a Connacht defense which has shipped 30+ points in their last two outings. Line break defensive lapses all too common.
Connacht Rugby will hope that their pack can provide a platform and allow the likes of Aki, McKeon, Robb to create the line breaks to allow the likes of Matt Healy the opportunity to impress. This game is primed to be an open contest (weather permitting) and Glasgow Warriors have enough depth on the bench to provide fresh impetus with a bonus point try win and home field playoff advantage secured.
This is the key fixture of Conference A this weekend. A win for either side will have massive repercussions in the race for the other playoff berths in the conference. A Toyota Cheetahs win will mean that Cardiff Blues will no longer be able to secure the third playoff place and as a result close the gap considerably on Munster Rugby who know victory themselves will secure the second playoff spot and a home quarter final playoff fixture. A Munster Rugby win will give fresh hope to Cardiff Blues to secure that elusive last playoff spot as well.
The team selections are indicative of where both teams are at in this juncture of the season. Johann van Graan has omitted several big star names with Racing 92 and that European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final looming large in the horizon. This has given an opportunity for the likes of Scott, Grobler and JJ Hanrahan to secure game time and perhaps give management food for thought when announcing their squad for next weekend in Bordeaux.
The hosts have surprised many with the announcement of Johan Goosen at fly-half. This is effectively his first game of the season. The player left Racing 92 under a cloud of controversy and it will be interesting to see the player in action tomorrow night. A player with all the attributes; solid game management, good kicking game and ability to pass with efficiency. This is a nice squad addition for the Toyota Cheetahs ahead of the playoff push. Niel Marais moves from ten to twelve and provides a nice balance with Venter in midfield. Marais’ kicking game will complement the hard running style of Venter.
The weather conditions will play a factor in the outcome of this contest (apparently rain in the forecast). Munster Rugby will look to play a structured game and with the inclement weather conditions, the offloading game may be risky to execute from the hosts.
However, the altitude factor will kick in the second half and Toyota Cheetahs for me have the edge. Their ability to win games late in recent rounds at home will continue as they narrowly beat a gallant Munster Rugby effort. No bonus point try given the weather conditions. The kicking game will be interesting to watch! It will go for miles and bounce of the ball could be factor. Excited to watch this one!
This is a golden opportunity for Ulster Rugby to push massive pressure on Edinburgh Rugby who play Scarlets on Saturday afternoon. A game where Ulster Rugby and home faithful will surely unite and produce a stirring performance and atmosphere respectively.
There is a lot to like about side’s performances last weekend. Ulster Rugby went on the road and were given zero chance of beating Edinburgh but they won emphatically securing the bonus try bonus point. Ospreys continued their good run of form at home with a comprehensive beat down of Connacht Rugby in round nineteen. Their attacking play exposing Connacht Rugby at regular intervals where Hassler wrecked havoc.
Can Ulster Rugby produce another solid consistent performance? Their pack was on point last weekend and more of the same is required against an Ospreys pack unit who have progressed well in recent game with their set piece and open play. Best, Henderson and Deysel need to provide the platform early; otherwise Ospreys will feel confident of doing the league double on the Irish province.
This is a huge game for Ulster Rugby. Given the negativity surrounding the club in recent months, it is now time to produce a performance to lift the gloom over the Kingspan Stadium. The back line selected looks fast and dynamic if given quality ball. Interesting to see how McPhilips and Cooney counteract Habberfield and Biggar who have being excellent in recent games.
A huge game for Ospreys too who harbor ambitions of European Rugby Champions Cup action next season. Eight points behind Cardiff Blues with a game in hand. A win here would put pressure on the Blues who play Southern Kings away on Saturday.
50/50 game here. If Ospreys can quell the early Ulster onslaught, think the half-back of Habberfield and Biggar may have the edge on the hosts half back pairing to edge this game for the Ospreys. If the predictions come off, then it will be curtains for Ulster’s chances of securing playoff rugby and a season in European Rugby Challenge Cup beckons. A disaster considering their attempts to recruit a head coach at this time!
As promised, the second part of the Guinness Pro 14 Round 17 review. It was a mixed bag for the Italian and South African sides while Glasgow Warriors moved one win away from securing a home playoff semi-final berth. For the Dragons, it was a case of same again with yet another loss in the league.
Glasgow Warriors were at their devastating best with a 68-7 trouncing of a shell shocked Zebre Rugby. In my blog preview of round seventeen, I was concerned for Zebre Rugby; how expansive would they go before being opened up by the Warriors.
The simple answer was that Zebre Rugby did not have to go expansive to get thumped, the hosts did the needful themselves with an excellent cohesive pack and back unit performance which left the Italians at times chasing shadows.
The scoreline speaks volumes. 40-0 up at the break only a try from Canna early in the second half prevented the whitewash. The passing game at times was sublime with DTH van der Merwe prominent throughout and a brace of tries for his efforts.
If that was not enough, Zebre Rugby gifted an intercept try as well as a penalty try as their pack were going backwards at a rate of knots. Glasgow Warriors have being the form side of the Conference A from the very first game.
Warriors thoroughly deserve their home semi-final berth which should be clinched in the coming weeks. The key will be how the side keep their performances at a high level while also looking at the playoffs and resting key personnel along the way.
Zebre Rugby were taught a massive lesson in road trip performance; they failed to deliver a performance from minute one relinquishing territory and points thereafter at a worryingly rate. Two steps back in this fixture for the side.
Zebre Rugby will know that they will not face a side like Glasgow Warriors every day of the week but given the lack of fundamentals in their play last Friday night, plenty of sides would fancy running a score against the Italians which is a shame considering the progress that Michael Bradley’s side has made. The team and squad depth looked jaded here and perhaps the fatigue element is beginning to show as we approach the final quarter of the season given the inexperience in the playing group.
Toyota Cheetahs are my guilty pleasure of this tournament. They do not deviate from their game plan; it is a fast paced, expansive contest regardless of the conditions. Their third quarter performance blew a youthful Dragons outfit out of the water inspired by Sibahle Maxwane and Fred Zeilinga who crossed over for three tries collectively in that period.
The pace, power and passing selection were all superb for these tries and it opened the contest up. A vital fourth try was scored before the end to keep the pressure on Munster Rugby as well as keeping Cardiff Blues at arms length. Conference A is a race for the the second and third spots. Glasgow Warriors are over the horizon and it is now a tossup between Munster Rugby, Cheetahs and Cardiff Blues to see who fills the other two playoff berths.
I would love to see the Cheetahs in the playoffs, their brand of rugby in drying track conditions mean that they are a serious threat for anyone in this conference come May. Blommetjies at full back is sensational joining the line; his pace was a key factor in this victory for the South Africans. An exciting playoff run in beckons with Munster Rugby yet to travel to Bleomfontein.
This was always a season of transition for Dragons. The new franchise tag. A new head coach arriving at Rodney Parade needing to run the rule over a youthful squad. The last couple of months in the league has being incredibly hard; no wins in the league in 2018. There are glimpses of potential in the side; a good opening quarter failed to put the required scores on the board. Hewitt on the wing is an emerging talent, pace and tidy finisher and was again on the scoresheet.
The issue for Dragons is when they do go under the cosh, their defensive lapses and penalty count soar due to the inexperience in the squad. Cheetahs exploited Dragons defensively with their expansive ball carrying game plan. Blommetjies in particular had a field day coming into the line. Dragons had no answer in the second half even though Dee scored with ten minutes to go to make the contest interesting at the death. Experience is key and Dragons do not have it in many areas.
The recruitment process needs to identify further experienced, solid performers in the pack, center and half-back positions. Otherwise, Bernard Jackman will be walking the tightrope this time next year. It is a key period for Dragons management right now; they need to heed the players who are not hitting the standard required. Jackman gets the pass this season but this side needs to evolve next season, otherwise the fans will make their feelings known by not attending home games at Rodney Parade. Critical preparation for next season has already begun!
This was an excellent road trip win for Benetton Rugby, a defining one in that they needed to close out a contest late and they duly did so. Marty Banks provided leadership and game management to steer the side to this win. Five tries scored in total against the Southern Kings. An excellent opening half offensively from Benetton Rugby but defensively struggled particularly in that final quarter. One point in the difference but Benetton Rugby were disciplined to win the contest.
A progressive season for the Italian side and games like this should create momentum and confidence heading into next season. The pack is progressing, still not the finished article but set the platform in this victory with the opening period try burst to start the contest. The back line assisted by Marty Banks continues to evolve with ball in hand but defensively cannot lapse as badly again particularly on the Makase line break, no try but the defensive lapse would be punished by a better side.
So close yet so far again, the Southern Kings were made paid for a slow start and it cost them this fixture. A one point loss at home hurts badly and particularly when they had a man advantage in the third quarter, they failed to put points on the board. In actual fact, Benetton Rugby scored a penalty during this period to win this ten minute period 0-3 which was vital to the final outcome.
The word consistency comes into the equation with the Southern Kings. When they are accurate with ball in hand, they are an effective side. They scored five tries during this contest but the defensive side of the ball is way off the standard required.
The lack of discipline at crucial stages in the second half evident; hopefully there will be solid recruitment in this franchise next season across all units. It is required to give Southern Kings a chance to compete in this league; otherwise would suggest to the South African RFU to disband the team immediately.