Guinness Pro14: Round 16 Reflections

Playoff picture becomes somewhat clearer

On a weekend where the Guinness Six Nations took the spotlight, key results in the Guinness Pro14 round sixteen fixture list has seen gaps form in the standings and for some, it is now must win territory to even get back into the playoff race. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Conference A: Top two stride further ahead

Contrasting fixtures for Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors in round sixteen. While Glasgow Warriors were putting Connacht Rugby (43-17) to the sword with a sparkling display of running rugby, Munster Rugby were in the trenches securing a victory at the Liberty Stadium thanks in no small part to the performance of Tadhg Beirne who was outstanding.

Mike Haley was the hero for Munster Rugby as thirty plus phase effort saw the impressive full back cross over for the game winning touchdown. Ospreys had a chance to win late but that man Beirne was on hand to secure a vital breakdown win. A key victory for Munster Rugby.

With the top two extending the gap from their conference foes, it was an opportunity for Cardiff Blues to close right up and slot into third place with a final quarter surge to beat Edinburgh 17-19 on the road. The result looked beyond the Welsh side heading into the third quarter as Edinburgh were ten points up heading into the final quarter but Jason Harries played inspired and setup the victory. Cardiff Blues back in the playoff hunt and with a home against beleaguered Isuzu Southern Kings next, they could potentially consolidate their playoff position.

A week to forget for Toyota Cheetahs. Nico Lee’s grovelling apology for ‘Snotgate’ was bad for PR but then there was a potentially devastating loss on the road to Scarlets today. Scarlets reveled in the dry track conditions and Toyota Cheetahs were down and out by the end of the opening quarter. Cheetahs need results to go for them in the next couple of rounds to get into this playoff race. It looks unlikely right now and this road trip could be the beginning of the end for their season.

Zebre Rugby. The squad depth issues were wholly exposed at Kingspan Stadium as predicted here in the preview round sixteen blog. Ulster Rugby ran riot and a fifty points plus scoreline was indicative of how easy the fixture was for the Irish province. Zebre Rugby unfortunately have rampaging Glasgow Warriors next at home; best of luck there!

If you are looking for the marquee fixture next weekend, then Connacht Rugby vs. Ospreys is it. Two sides who need the win for their playoff ambitions. Ospreys’ run of form has been poor but they showed signs with Keelan Giles that their attacking play is improving. Connacht Rugby need to regroup after that trouncing in Glasgow. The vanquished could be facing post season playoff anguish.

Conference B: Landslide results

The Conference B playoff contenders all won except for Edinburgh Rugby. Leinster Rugby flirted with Isuzu Southern Kings in the opening quarter but then put on the after burners in the second and third quarters to cut loose and inflict another forty point loss on the South Africans. A miserable Irish leg for the Kings.

Benetton Rugby were the standout performer on this round. A game which looked like a banana skin was put to be bed early and to score fifty-seven points to a Dragons side who do not know where the abyss is was a true standout. Benetton Rugby will refocus and prepare for a crunch clash against Edinburgh Rugby next weekend; this looks a standout Conference B clash. It is great to see Benetton Rugby so competitive this season and the confidence in the club is starting to be seen in the national side.

Ulster Rugby as mentioned above were easy winners against Zebre Rugby. A road trip to Rodney Parade and Dragons is next for the Irish province. Will Dragons react after their miserable outing against Benetton Rugby? Ulster Rugby will need to be on their guard but it is hard to see how Dragons bounce back next weekend. Bernard Jackman was axed but no bounce in results. The club are lacking direction and leadership on and off the park, worrying times.

Isuzu Southern Kings are done and dusted this season, the side never got going in truth. Cardiff Blues fresh from their Edinburgh Rugby road trip win will be in full confidence and attacking flow next weekend. The pain does not stop for the Kings!

Scarlets were very impressive against Toyota Cheetahs today; a superb response after the road trip loss to Benetton Rugby last weekend. The free flowing running lines were in full view in that opening period. A key fixture at home to Munster Rugby next weekend could be decisive for their Guinness Pro14 playoff hopes.

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 (Friday Night Fixtures)

Intriguing fixtures on tap

A weekend where the Guinness Six Nations resumes, there is the matter of round sixteen in the Guinness Pro14. The Friday night fixtures look very interesting with Glasgow Warriors entertaining Connacht Rugby, Leinster Rugby looking to inflict further road trip woe on the Isuzu Southern Kings and Ospreys effectively in a must win home game fixture over Munster Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Glasgow Warriors looking for improvement 

The victory last weekend against Cardiff Blues on the road was mission accomplished for Glasgow Warriors looking as a neutral; bonus point try win but there were massive defensive lapses during the contest which on another hand could have cost the Scottish side dear.

This time of the season sees Guinness Pro14 sides look deep into their squad depth no more so than Glasgow Warriors who have umpteen players away on international duty or injury so is there an opportunity for Connacht Rugby to perhaps create an upset on the road?

Connacht Rugby beat Toyota Cheetahs with a determined final quarter push last weekend. Jack Carty provided the leadership and game management to steer the side through a tricky third quarter spell where Connacht Rugby play was far too open against a team who revel in unstructured play.

The squad selections will be interesting. Connacht Rugby have a poor record at Scotstoun. The edge here goes to Glasgow Warriors but Connacht Rugby should be good enough to secure a loser bonus point at least. Glasgow Warriors for their defensive lapses last weekend were sensational with ball in hand particularly in that opening period and for that, they get my vote.

Leinster Rugby should have an easy night 

I am sorry if you are an Isuzu Southern Kings fan but this could be the low point of low points for the franchise in this tournament and could call into question their participation in this tournament going forward. Their performance (take out the opening quarter) was pretty poor and against a well drilled Leinster Rugby outfit, this looks like a horrendous task for the South Africans.

To make matters worse for the Isuzu Southern Kings, Leinster Rugby’s performance against Zebre Rugby may have yielded forty points scored but there were significant defensive meltdowns during the contest, a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

Leinster Rugby should provide a better cohesive defensive display this weekend in front of their home fans and with a vulnerable opposition whose defensive line disintegrated in the second half along with their discipline, this looks like a massacre. This looks like a cricket score.

Ospreys in must win territory 

It is fair to say that the start of 2019 has been a disappointment for Ospreys. A poor end to their European campaign as well as inconsistent results in the Guinness Pro14 mean that the Ospreys are backed into a corner; they need to respond and Munster Rugby coming to the Liberty Stadium, it is a perfect opportunity to right a few wrongs.

This fixture personally is one to whet the appetite always; no inch given when these two sides meet. The fixture earlier in the season was misleading to say the least; Ospreys’ decision to leave all their marquee players saw a facile home victory for Munster Rugby. This fixture sees key personnel missing from both sides but the fixture to me looks evenly poised.

Ospreys work rate was not in question last weekend but what was in their shutout loss to Ulster Rugby at home was their blunt attacking play. Gain line running lines were minimal, poor passing at vital phases did not help matters. The fact that the side did not even get a losing bonus point will have hurt this week in the lead up to this fixture. There has to be a reaction.

Munster Rugby are currently top of Conference A. Their form is solid. You could not read much into their display last weekend as they made the necessary adjustments at the break to smash the contest wide open in a 43-0 win over a hapless Isuzu Southern Kings.

For me, there is still cohesion issues in attack for the Irish province. Lack of composure in the red zone at times was seen last weekend early and if Ospreys can apply defensive line speed pressure on Munster Rugby, it will be interesting to see if Munster Rugby have an alternative backup plan to counteract this.

50/50 fixture beckons here and is the closest one to call on the fixtures scheduled for Friday evening. Ospreys effectively are in must win home game territory in this round. A loss here and it will be a devastating blow for the side’s ability to secure a top three berth. I sense Ospreys with the frustration of last week fresh in their heads will win this encounter. Munster Rugby should secure a loser bonus point.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Saturday Fixtures)

Road trip wins could be the order of the day

After Edinburgh Rugby, Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby secured victories last night, focus switches to fixtures on tap today with a couple of teams in must win territory to keep their playoff hopes alive. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Stong Leinster Rugby side face Zebre Rugby on road 

Such is the talent and squad depth currently at Leinster Rugby that the first fifteen on duty today looks incredibly strong and powerful. Andrew Porter gets game time in the front row ahead of a potential test match cameo against Italy.

This lineup is a testament on the magnificent work done at the Leinster Rugby academy, looking forward to seeing the cameos from Murphy, Doris and Deegan in the back row. Jack Dunne is primed for his Leinster Rugby debut off the bench, yet another exciting prospect.

Zebre Rugby are threading water until the end of the season. After an encouraging start to the season, injuries and squad depth weaknesses have taken their toll. Michael Bradley has done as good a job as anyone could given the circumstances.

This fixture looks absolutely daunting for Zebre Rugby as Italian international players Castello, Lovotti, Padovani, Palazzani and Sisi are away with their national team squad. When you add injuries to Bellini and Meyer, you see the task in front of the Italian side.

The only saving grace for Zebre Rugby is that this is the first in the next block of fixtures. Early cohesion issues should be seen and this should hopefully allow Zebre Rugby to get a foothold in the game. However, the strength of Leinster Rugby should be seen in the third quarter to secure a bonus point try win to widen the gap to the rest of the Conference B pack.

Connacht Rugby must be wary of Toyota Cheetahs threat 

This is an intriguing fixture. Connacht Rugby have earned plaudits aplenty after their encouraging start of the season under the management of Andy Friend but we are now at the business end of the season. It is time for the side to deliver accurate, solid game managed performances. It starts today.

Connacht Rugby play host to a Toyota Cheetahs side who have shown good form leading into this fixture with tries scored at regular intervals over Zebre Rugby and Isuzu Southern Kings (home and away). Cheetahs will look to play an unstructured game; look to attack from all angles. Connacht Rugby must pick their moments to go wide and when they do, they must be clinical in execution.

Connacht Rugby are boosted with the return of Irish international contingent Ultan Dillane, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell. Kieran Marmion makes a timely return to the side on the bench.

Marnus van der Merwe and Dries Swanepoel make their debut starts for the Cheetahs, Louis Fouche comes into the side at fullback. Ox Nche and Henco Venter return to the starting lineup as well. If the weather is decent, expect Toyota Cheetahs to deliver a performance with ball in hand.

This is a 50/50 fixture, a fixture in the past that Connacht Rugby have expected to win but got turned over, thinking of the Zebre Rugby home game last season. Accuracy and game management are keywords for Connacht Rugby and I think they will just do enough. Anything less and Toyota Cheetahs and inflict a big playoff dent to Connacht Rugby’s ambitions.

Opportunity knocks for Benetton Rugby

Despite international duty call ups, this is the key Conference B fixture on tap this weekend. Benetton Rugby must prove to league observers that they are a genuine playoff threat and a home game against an inconsistent Scarlets side, there is an opportunity to deliver a marquee statement.

The team news for the Italians is mixed. A couple of Italian internationals unavailable but Benetton Rugby can call on the services of Ian McKinley and Federico Ruzza. Their back three threat is excellent with Ioane in the ranks.

Scarlets also welcome back Rhys Patchell and Steff Evans to the match day squad. Leigh Halfpenny continues to be a marquee absentee for club and country. Jones and Hardy form an exciting half back partnership.

For the league to improve and prosper, it needs a strong Italian club representation come the playoffs. Benetton Rugby for me need the victory more. This will be a tight encounter but expect a progressively improving Benetton Rugby to shade this. Scarlets are threading water until Pivac and Jones depart the club.

Crunch Conference A contest in Cardiff 

This is a fixture which could have massive implications for either Glasgow Warriors or Cardiff Blues. The hosts need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive while Glasgow Warriors need to win to keep tabs on Conference A kingpins Munster Rugby.

The team news for both sides see squad personnel changes aplenty. International duty deprives both sides of marquee first team starter. Cardiff Blues can call on the services of Turnbull, Evans and Davies while Glasgow Warriors do not have the same luxury.

Cardiff Blues have been inconsistent this season. When they are on, they are devastatingly good, quick ruck ball and attacking platform from the likes of Nick Williams and Rey Lee-Lo. When they are off, they are poor at best.

Glasgow Warriors have arrested the league slide somewhat but this is a tough road trip assignment. If they can negate the opening quarter, no reason why Dave Rennie’s charges cannot get a win out of this but the victory need is more for the hosts. Cardiff Blues loss and their playoff ambitions will be massively dented, must win territory required from here on out. Blues to win but Glasgow Warriors should earn a loser point at least.

Guinness Pro14: Round 14 Preview

Tournament resumes with renewed swag!

End of January. It is the end of the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup pool phase campaigns which means that the Guinness 6 Nations tournament is not far off. It also means that the Guinness Pro14 sides will need to look long and hard at their depth chart to tackle this latest block of fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixtures scheduled for round fourteen.

Glasgow Warriors should secure home victory 

Ospreys travel to Glasgow Warriors on the back of a couple indifferent European Challenge Cup losses. The focus is now to secure playoff rugby but the injuries, international call ups mean that squad depth for the Welsh region looks vulnerable. Glasgow Warriors have stuttered in recent Guinness Pro14 fixtures but this is a glorious opportunity for Dave Rennie’s charges to get back on the win column. Glasgow Warriors look primed for a bonus point try. Ospreys worrying form of late is set to continue.

Leinster fringe players to flex their muscles 

Scarlets injury list is slowly improving but they were no match for Racing 92 last weekend. Their marquee players are summons for Welsh test match rugby and the depth chart in the back row will be duly observed. Leinster Rugby have had an excellent couple of weeks since their loss at Thomond Park. The squad depth is awesome and expecting the likes of Doris, Deegan, O’Brien to impress here. Unless Scarlets pack can set a platform, this looks like a routine home win for the hosts with a late bonus point try in the offing. Scarlets are in limbo until Pivac and Jones depart for Wales at the end of the current season.

Benetton Rugby look for road win at Ulster Rugby

This is one of the intriguing fixtures this weekend. In any other season, you would easily dismiss this fixture and call it a home win but Benetton Rugby have progressively improved this season. They are currently third in Conference B. Ulster Rugby are under pressure to win this fixture but given the injury list and international call ups, this fixture suddenly looks like a complete and utter banana skin. Benetton Rugby will be missing numerous Italian squad members for this clash but the system deployed this season will mean that they will be competitive until the final quarter. Tight encounter beckons with the hosts just edging this. A loss for Ulster Rugby and it could be a nervy end of the season run in to clinch a playoff berth.

Dragons entertain Munster Rugby 

Dragons squad impact due to the international call ups is minimal. Munster Rugby on the other hand are missing numerous first line players but it provides an opportunity for young players Daly, O’Connor to impress. Dragons exited the European Challenge Cup with a chastening home loss to ASM Clermont. Munster Rugby cohesion issues early mean that this fixture is in the melting pot. Inclement weather adds further intrigue. Slight vote to Munster Rugby but this is going to be closer than many expect. Dragons will react to the heavy home loss from last weekend.

Cheetahs primed for Zebre Rugby

Toyota Cheetahs are on a two game winning streak. Zebre Rugby will be missing some key players such as Cana for the fixture which is decisive. I fear for Zebre Rugby in this fixture; the squad depth has been exposed in recent weeks and with the altitude of Bloemfontein, the team selected could flag in the second half. Cheetahs expansive style of game with this current squad is slowly gelling together and there is a bonus point try here for the South Africans.

Cardiff Blues look to rebound against Connacht Rugby 

A potentially exciting contest may be tempered by the wet weather promised for Saturday. Let us hope that the rain promised clears for this fixture as both sides will look to throw the ball around. Cardiff Blues need is more in this fixture; five points behind fourth placed Connacht Rugby ahead of this tussle. A win is required. A loss will mean an uphill task to get back into the playoff race. Connacht Rugby have had an indifferent record here and suspect that this will continue due to key personnel absentees. Cardiff Blues if on form should win this encounter, expecting the New Zealand contingent in the side to setup the platform for victory. Close encounter. Connacht Rugby to come away with a loser point.

Edinburgh travel to Southern Kings 

A nice reward for Richard Cockerill’s side after a very pleasing European Cup campaign. Nice weather in South Africa to recharge battered bodies and a chance for fringe squad players to impress. Kings have been indifferent again in recent weeks and if Edinburgh Rugby can establish continuity and cohesion sufficiently should win this fixture in the fourth quarter. Kings will have their moments but the player pool in the side still is not at the level required for this competition. Private investment is secured for the side going forward and it needs to be used to identify talent within the Super Rugby club fraternity looking for game time to make an impact for this club. Edinburgh Rugby win.

Heineken Champions Cup: Pool Phase Review

The cream has come to the top!

So that is the end of the pool phase of the Heineken Champions Cup for another year. A competition phase which on the final weekend did not create that excitement that we typically expect. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool phases and casts his eye further down the track (foolish or not) to end of March and the quarter final pairings.

Who impressed?

You cannot look past the top three seeds in the quarter finals. I thought they were the standout teams. Saracens look in the mood to go deep in this tourney and their performance last weekend minus Owen Farrell was a timely reminder to all opposition of their potency and squad depth. The pack is formidable. Itoje is running the show in the second row and his discipline is vastly improved in this campaign. They have put Glasgow Warriors to the sword twice in the pool and with another meeting at the end of March; the smart money is for a Saracens home win. Their balance and game management has been on point this season.

Racing 92 has been throwing the ball a bit this season? Their home form performance have been nothing short of sensational. Their ability to create such a high tempo game has exposed their pool opposition so far. Scarlets last weekend tried to stand toe to toe but were destroyed in a rampant third quarter cameo. Simon Zebo, Finn Russell have settled so well into the club and with a hardworking pack at the core; their fixture against Toulouse has fireworks writing all over it.

Leinster Rugby continue to rumble on in this tournament. Their opening night demolition of Wasps was incredible; their supporting running, offloading and set piece prowess with James Ryan at the heart of everything good in the engine room was the platform for what that has followed. Yes, there has been a loss on the road to Toulouse but that was an incredible contest. Leinster Rugby entertaining Ulster Rugby in the last eight of the competition. Player injuries coming out of the RBS 6 Nations could be a key factor here. Their squad depth was flexed in the last two rounds. Ross Byrne seamlessly stepped into fill Johnny Sexton’s shoes. Adam Byrne has been a revelation in the back three this season. Sean Cronin has become a marauding try scoring machine, equal on tries with Jacob Stockdale! The champions are not going away you know!

Progressing Nicely

I have to say that the progression in Edinburgh Rugby these last two seasons has been nothing short of superb. The job that Richard Cockerill and management have done with this team has been sensational. The manner in which Hardie was given his marching orders last season was a serious statement on how the management wanted their players to represent themselves and the club. There is a performance etiquette that needs to be delivered by the players who put on the jersey week in week out. Their pool performances looked on the outside to be daunting but they handled the threat posed by the juggernaut Montpellier and RC Toulon with ease. The front row performance last weekend in particular was excellent. Nel played with a freedom that I have not seen in the player before. His behind the legs past to Mata indicative of the confident that the prop is playing with at the moment. His front row colleagues destroyed Montpellier. Pierre Schoeman is a man mountain wrecking ball at scrum time. Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham coupled with the continued emergence of Blair Longhorn means that this is a side which deserves respect and have an excellent chance of semi-final progression.

Scope for improvement:

For Edinburgh Rugby to make to the last four, they will need to get past a Munster Rugby side who gutted their way through to the last eight of the competition yet again. An extremely tough pool for Munster Rugby starting from day one on that hurricane style day at Sandy Park. Munster Rugby critically took care of Gloucester Rugby and then had to deal with officiating incompetence in Castres. The team are battle hardened. The desire and determination to win is beyond reproach. The attacking side of the game continues to be inconsistent and exposed when teams pressure the side with their defensive line speed and flooding the breakdown area. The good news for Munster Rugby has been the performances of Joey Carbery who has bounced back well from that Castres road trip display. Tadhg Beirne continues to be a beast in the open and breakdown exchanges. Mike Haley solid under the high ball and Chris Farrell provided he remains injury free can provide go forward ball at the end of March. 50/50 game with Edinburgh. The scrum battle even right now looks a key battle and the battle of Mata vs. Stander will be worth the gate admission fee. A team who have scope to improve which is always good this time of the year.

Ulster Rugby must be applauded for the manner in which they came back to win at Welford Road last weekend. They were under the cosh for long periods of the contest but they hung in and with excellent back line talent in Baloucoune, Stockdale and Addison they got back into the game and never looked back. The pool phase was a good learning curve for Dan McFarland; his charges had to show resiliency after a heavy loss to Racing 92 but their reaction to beat Scarlets (home and away) was emphatic. A road trip to Dublin beckons but the attitude should be clear for Ulster Rugby. They should enter the fixture with minimal pressure; pundits will write them off and the side are well capable with their back line to pose Leinster Rugby issues. The forward pack will need to step up to a different level and the news of the injury to Iain Henderson is a worry. The emergence of Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore is a welcome boost for a side which struggled in the front row unit exchanges last season.

Toulouse were sneaky out yesterday. They realized that another try scored against Bath Rugby would mean a return trip to Dublin. You saw the mindset of the club management and players in yesterday’s second half display to Bath Rugby. They wanted no part in a Leinster Rugby rematch. They will take their chances to beat Racing 92 on the road; not an impossible task as the style of play adopted by Racing 92 will suit Toulouse and their off the cuff attacking approach to the game. It is great to see Toulouse back to the forefront of European Club Rugby. Their performance against Leinster Rugby at home was a timely reminder of how superb they can be with ball in hand. Medard continues to inspire those around them. The Leinster Rugby road trip loss exposed pack and defensive issues; needs to improve to realistically beat Racing 92 in the quarter finals.

Glasgow Warriors. Eighth seed. They have thank Edinburgh Rugby for their place in the playoffs. The Saracens losses exposed issues yet again in the pack set piece amid the typical attacking flair out wide. Adam Hastings has developed well in the half back position but their pack problems are a huge concern and I do not see much joy for them on the road again to Saracens. A team who for me have under achieved in this competition and with the likes of Stuart Hogg gone to Exeter Chiefs next season, the window for the Warriors to get into a semi-final / final of this competition looks more remote with each passing season.

Disappointments of the competition:

RC Toulon were a massive disappointment in this tournament this season. A team with vastly acquired talent but unable to string together cohesion anywhere on the park. The team ethos was missing in this tournament as soon as Newcastle Falcons beat them in the opening round. The white flag was raised against Edinburgh Rugby. Time RC Toulon started to focus on their homegrown talent and less on glamorous import acquisitions. RC Toulon need to look long and hard on their long term plans. Legacy built with Johnny Wilkinson is been eroded at a rate of knots.

Scarlets were one game away from making the European Cup final last season but they were nowhere near it this season. Injury crisis for sure played a part but the departures of the likes of Beirne, Barclay were more massive than first anticipated. Pivac and Jones leave for Wales at the end of the season; unsure on the talent recruitment policy at the club with managerial setup in limbo. Scarlets have a lovely style of play but they were put to sword far too often this season in this competition. A year of transition next season beckons for the club. Sad to see!

Leicester Tigers are descending into absolute anarchy. Their performance against Ulster Rugby last weekend typified their predicament. Dominant for long periods, unable to put opposition away and then defensive frailties exposed in quick time in the third quarter. The club need stability; make a decision and if Geordan Murphy is their man, stand by him for the long term. Matt O’Connor dismissal after one game this season is not a move typically seen by a club like Leicester Tigers. Things are not right at the club and I am not convinced that they will be getting back into this competition next season. Rebuild is the keyword!

Officiating inconsistency. The sheer inconsistent in officiating the breakdown and incidents where players are taken out in the air was further magnified in the last couple of rounds. The Castres vs. Munster Rugby fixture was deplorable; dark arts in full view but the officiating crew failed to impose their authority or the laws of the game. Other games fell foul of inconsistent officiating also. Breakdown is a joke at the moment. Players not staying on their feet. Players coming in from the side. Players sealing off the ball. Where is the fair contest? For a player to win a turnover at the breakdown these days, you need to be hit at least five times from different angles to get anything and still stay on your feet.

Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference A?

Exciting final block of games beckon!

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

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

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 well placed

Ospreys are currently in third position in the league; their form has been 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 progressing nicely

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.

Blues need to fix consistency issues

Cardiff Blues have been 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 should make late playoff charge

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 cast adrift

Zebre Rugby are cast adrift at the bottom of the conference. After early promise, squad depth issues have been ruthlessly exposed so the objective for Michael Bradley’s charges will be to aim for European Challenge Cup playoff contention.

Guinness Pro14: Munster Rugby 25 – 24 Glasgow Warriors

Thriller at Thomond Park

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. 

Crunching Physicality 

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. 

Reflections

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.

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 3

Saracens look strong

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. 

Verdict:

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. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 4 (Saturday Fixtures Preview)

Home wins the order of the day

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Glasgow Warriors

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

Connacht Rugby vs. Scarlets

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

Dragons vs. Zebre Rugby

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

Leinster Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby

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

Ospreys vs. Benetton Rugby

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

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

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

Glasgow punish sloppy Munster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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