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.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 7 Fixtures (Friday)

Squad depth the key this weekend

After the excitement of European Cup action, it is back to the Guinness Pro 14 league action. This period will see squad depth charts tested to the maximum as the November test match series looms large. This weekend will see depleted first team lineups for the Welsh and Scottish sides in particular. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Friday night fixtures. 

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Scarlets 

A depleted Scarlets squad travel to South Africa to face the Southern Kings who after two weeks without match action will be eager to get off the blocks quickly. The side selected by Scarlets is good but there is potential for the Kings to expose their visitors particularly in the front five. The hosts name an unchanged line from round six, continuity retained and it is a fixture which the South African side could pull a surprising win here. Kings by less than seven points provided that their basic fundamentals are on point.

Ulster Rugby vs. Dragons 

A strong Ulster Rugby lineup has being announced for this league fixture. Dragons have no less than ten changes to the side that played in round six. The quality of the Ulster Rugby back line has the potential to cause absolute havoc for Dragons. Speight returns with Addison and McCloskey also featuring. A big day for Robert Baloucoune who makes his debut, the winger is an absolute speed merchant and could be in line for a couple of try scoring opportunities. I am fearing for Dragons here. Ulster Rugby look well placed to secure a bonus point try win ahead of the November test series. 

Zebre Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby 

Intriguing fixture awaits here. Edinburgh Rugby fresh from their comprehensive beat down of Toulon last weekend in Europe must refocus and get their away form sorted in the Guinness Pro 14. Zebre Rugby have had a good of their own; beating Bristol Bears at home last weekend. Squad depth in the closing quarter will be key and I think the visitors have the edge. Edinburgh Rugby to shade this by less than seven points. Mata is the key player for Edinburgh; his ball carrying providing the required platform. 

Ospreys vs. Connacht Rugby 

This is a key fixture for Connacht Rugby this season in the context of the Guinness Pro 14 season. The side selected by Andy Friend is strong with Aki, Marmion and Roux in the starting lineup. Ospreys are without numerous Welsh internationals and the squad depth will be tested in this fixture. The starting lineups would favor the visitors but their road trip form despite the Ulster Rugby win last time round have being a mixed bag. A difficult game to call. Connacht Rugby have had a wretched time at the Liberty Stadium but given the side named, pressure aplenty to get a result here. Connacht Rugby to secure a rare win in Swansea. If not, then questions will be asked of the side and the progress made this season. 

Guinness Pro 14: Mid-Term Review

Pro 14 hiatus gives team food for thought

Eight rounds in the book. A three week tournament hiatus starts with teams reflecting on the season so far. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Conference A standings so far.

 

Eights win from eight. Six points coming from bonus points. Glasgow Warriors have being the form team of the tournament. Dave Rennie and management have continued the good work of previous head coach Gregor Townsend enhancing the expansive style of play.

Their performance last weekend in the opening round was sublime; incredible line breaks and you will do well to beat the try setup by Matawalu, what a break and then unselfishly offloaded to Grigg for the try of the evening. Leinster Rugby did have several greenhorns on duty but the high standards of execution with ball in hand by Glasgow Warriors in their 31-21 win has being a trend this season.

All looks rosy but the ERC campaign has being a disappointment. A huge letdown for the club after such an emphatic Pro 14 season start. The issues lie in the pack with a scrum which has being exposed in recent weeks. If the front five can improve and gain parity in the scrum, then this team could be the class act of this competition but as long as the scrum is an Achilles heel, then there is hope for opposition. Grade: A (Pack Improvement Required) 

A mixed bag for Munster Rugby this season with the departure of Rassie Erasmus back to South Africa after the Dragons win last Friday night. Pro 14 action saw a couple of early confidence booster victories and a road trip win to Ospreys was seen at the time as a key victory but given the performances and results of Ospreys, that result has diminished.

Glasgow Warriors, Leinster Rugby and Connacht Rugby have claimed victories over the Southern province and raised questions on both sides of the ball in the process. Glasgow’s expansive style of play demolished Munster at Scotstoun, looked like a replay of Scarlets rout over Munster i the Pro 12 final.

Leinster Rugby at the Aviva Stadium had too much street smarts and Munster Rugby’s attacking threat was one dimensional at times. Connacht Rugby claimed local derby bragging rights with a hard earned victory, a win which saw Munster reduced to crash ball and a reliance to drubber kick in the red zone. Game management issues surfaced in those losses.

Munster’s new head coach has questions to answer at half-back. The ten jersey is very much up for grabs and it will be interesting who impresses in recent weeks to win the battle to start against Zebre Rugby. All incumbents to the jersey have had their moments this season. Interesting to see who wins this battle.

The three quarters is another area where improvement is required. Chris Farrell is a work in progress; his attributes and skill set look the part but needs to be involved more in ball carries, hitting the inside line. His sweeping passes out wide are not a surprise to opposition teams anymore.

The second row injury crisis is also a source of concern. Jean Kleyn’s fitness is paramount to partner Billy Holland. Tadhg Beirne’s arrival next season will see excellent upside but for now, the second row options are a little limited and O’Shea and Flanagan need to take their opportunity now. Grade B-


The success story of the South African expansion to the league. The late inclusion did little for the Toyota Cheetahs to assemble a squad early doors and a couple of heavy losses ensued on their opening Ireland road trip. The Munster Rugby game saw flashes of the home form which was to the fore in this section of the competition. Their tempo, speed of pass and line running saw keynote victories over Leinster Rugby and Zebre Club Rugby. Glasgow Warriors won but it was a close affair.

The key for the Cheetahs is how to adapt to NH winter conditions which was key in their loss to Connacht Rugby last weekend. A slow opening half was pounced upon by Connacht who used the elements to assert dominance. Wintry conditions nullified the Cheetahs threat with ball in hand and their kicking from hand needs to improve on road trips. Three week hiatus, a chance to review the squad and perhaps identify Currie Cup players who could make the step up. An excellent inclusion to the league. Cheetahs’ home fixtures will be daunting for Conference rivals and will see them compete for a playoff berth come next April. Grade C+ (Road Trip Improvement Required) 

Prior to the Munster Rugby contest, things were looking incredibly bleak for new head coach Kieran Keane and squad. Press clips were that the squad were learning the ropes with a new supremo at the helm, good periods of play ruined by unforced errors and lapses in the opening rounds. The inability to deal with restarts after scoring were a peeve of Keane and this aspect of play has improved.

The last couple of weeks have seen much needed wins and confidence. Aki has being a prominent figure with his ball carrying and defensive work rate. European Challenge Cup round wins have set the platform for the victories over Munster Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs. Key wins to propel Connacht Rugby up the table.

The key is to get the injury list down; pretty sizable list at the moment and if Connacht Rugby want to compete for the playoffs, then the pack squad depth at Kieran Keane’s disposal needs to improve. The half-back squad depth is a concern. Ten competition is limited at best with Carty the leading contender. Marmion at nine is a lock but what happens when he is summoned on international duty.

A crucial set of fixtures beckon after the tournament hiatus. Cardiff Blues and Zebre road trips are must wins to put pressure on the second and third teams in the league. Glasgow Warriors are out of sight so it is now two from realistically four teams. Grade C+ (Form Progressing Well) 

Early season gloom and doom has being replaced with optimism given a couple of morale boosting victories. The European Challenge Cup victory over Toulouse Rugby was a key turning point and the side have taken this confidence booster to produce better performances. A home win over Zebre Rugby last weekend will see Cardiff Blues look with confidence with the resumption of the league. Five tries to boot. A key fixture against Connacht Rugby beckons and if a win will see the side climb up the conference standings. The lack of investment in the squad personnel has being well documented. The van der Merwe summer saga was very sad to see. Halaholo’s recent form is going to be crucial for the side for the remainder of the year. Tom James continues to produce excellent stats in meters gained and tries scored. Grade C++ (Progressing Well)

A testing season for Michael Bradley and the Zebre Club Rugby. The uncertainty whether Zebre would compete in the league has not helped early season results but their victory over Ulster Rugby was a significant boost. Zebre Rugby have being organized and have not capitulated to the extent of recent seasons. The side is essentially a developmental squad and the players on duty have put their bodies on the line for the cause. The traumatic losses to Pau and Cheetahs in recent weeks has dented confidence and their 37-8 drubbing at Cardiff hopefully does not signal a spiral in their form. It cannot happen with a fixture against Munster Rugby next; a fixture where Munster Rugby will play their first game under the guidance of Johan van Graan. Bradley will look to identify players as the season progresses and hope next season to be in a position with some outside signings to become a more competitive side. This will be a season of trails and tribulations. Grade D-

The downturn in Ospreys form has being one of the major talking points of this conference. Steve Tandy is increasingly under pressure and scrutiny from the locals with a well assembled squad at his disposal. Ospreys have had their moments in all games but the clinical edge in attack has being lacking. An over-reliance to kick possession away has done little as well. The news that Rhys Webb is leaving at the end of the season is a blow; a superb nine and someone that I thought the Welsh region would build the franchise around. The loss to Edinburgh last weekend surely is a turning point for the club; bottom of the table, the club has to react in a positive fashion. An opponent is going to feel the wrath upon league resumption. This side is too good to be in this predicament. Where now? Top three looks remote so is their a decision to evaluate young and fringe talent and make decisions, all depends on Tandy and whether the Ospreys powers that be look for a change. Interesting times ahead at the Liberty Stadium. Grade D-

Guinness Pro 14: Round 8 Preview

The standout fixture of the round. Glasgow Warriors will look for revenge after a devastating ERC home loss to Leinster Rugby at Scotstoun two weeks ago. The manner of the performance will have irked Dave Rennie and coaching staff as Leinster Rugby’s pack dominated proceedings.

Cian Healy was immense, scoring two tries in the bonus point win. I fear for Glasgow Warriors again this weekend, the front five will put to the pin of their collar and sense Leinster Rugby could be in line for another positive evening. Leo Cullen’s charges had an excellent road trip win over Ulster Rugby last weekend, pulled away in the final quarter and prevented Ulster Rugby from even getting a losing point which could be key come the end of the season in the playoff shakeup.

Glasgow Warriors cannot evaluate their performance given the opposition on offer last weekend. A 43-13 win over the hapless Southern Kings will do little to prepare for this crunch fixture. A distinct nod to Leinster Rugby whose pack is stronger. A loss for Glasgow Warriors here and teams will systematically start to target the front five for the rest of the season. Plenty on the line for the Warriors.

A chance for Munster Rugby to regroup after a local derby reversal to Connacht Rugby. The performance last weekend was not good enough in all facets of play. Aimless kicking particular drubber kicks when moving the ball with fast hands was the option. The pack after a strong start were then put under pressure in the second half and the threat of the Munster Rugby’s three quarters was nullified where Aki rose above all others.

Munster Rugby looked ponderous, lacking creativity and one dimensional. The hope is that this weekend, the side can regain confidence and make significant line breaks; inside running lines required. Dragons come into this fixture on the back of a 28-14 reversal to the Ospreys.

A disappointing reversal and if Munster Rugby start well, then it could be an arduous afternoon for Bernard Jackman’s young team. Munster Rugby to get the win with a potential bonus point to boot. The focus on the Munster Rugby ten jersey will be interesting with JJ Hanrahan looking for more game to impress after that missed tackle last weekend resulted in Connacht’s game winning try.

A fixture which Scarlets will treat with the utmost respect. Benetton Rugby have shown in recent weeks that their performances on the road have being of sufficient quality. 21 points scored against Glasgow Warriors is due warning. However, Scarlets need to build confidence ahead this month after a disappointing ERC salvo last month.

Scarlets have attacking threats all over the pitch and for Benetton Rugby to have any chance, their pack has being on top form, attempt to keep the game tight and look for weakness in the front five exchanges. If this game becomes expansive in nature, there is only one winner.

Benetton Rugby to show well for three quarters but this has bonus point win written all over for Scarlets who could potentially extend their lead in Conference B standings if Leinster Rugby were to slip up away to Glasgow Warriors.

If Les Kiss wanted to play one team to restore much needed confidence for his Ulster Rugby charges, Southern Kings would tick all the boxes. Let us be frank, the Southern Kings have being abysmal in the tournament so far. They have not threatened to win a fixture in the Pro 14 and their thirty point loss to Glasgow Warriors last weekend was more of the same; numerous unforced errors, defensive gaps at regular intervals and minimal threat will ball in hand.

Ulster Rugby have had a miserable two weeks; decisive defeats to La Rochelle and Leinster Rugby have provided Ulster management, squad and fans with food for thought. A bonus point win surely is on the cards here at Port Elizabeth but tougher tests lie ahead. Pro 14 organizers need a rethink on the participation of Southern Kings and ask the South African RFU to improve the squad next season.

Must win territory for both sides. Edinburgh and Ospreys won last weekend and the vanquished this weekend surely will be looking at an extremely bleak 2018 in the league such is the gap to the top three of both conferences currently. Edinburgh Rugby responded superbly after a turbulent week off the pitch; captaincy stripped and then the reports of a failed Hardie drug test.

The road win to Benetton Rugby was excellent, full of work rate and commitment in a second half which saw Dougie Fife cross over twice. Hidalgo-Clyne at nine is starting to produce excellent form again and his try was superbly executed early doors, more of the same required this weekend.

Ospreys win last weekend was the prerequisite required. The second half performance was decisive to see off a determined Dragons outfit and a bonus point to boot will do nicely. Both sides have areas of improvement on both sides of the ball. Close contest expected and with Tovey and Biggar kicking off the tee well, not much will separate these sides. Edge to Edinburgh Rugby due to home field advantage.

A game for two sides who are looking to rebuild and gain momentum into 2018. Cardiff Blues should be well set to win this contest given the confidence boost of beating Toulouse on the road two weeks ago and how they competed for good stretches of their road loss to Scarlets last weekend.

Zebre after some promising results have slipped back in quality. Their ERC collapse to Pau at home was a devastating loss. 30-3 up and to loss that lead and the contest will require much soul searching in the Italian camp and this haunted them in not closing out the contest last weekend as Cheetahs struck late to win 23-24.

Cardiff Blues need to provide confidence and impetus ahead of European Challenge Cup and I sense a bonus point try win could be on the cards as Zebre’s confidence is surely on the slide after those recent devastating losses.

An intriguing game in prospect at the Sportsgrounds. After an excellent local derby win over Munster Rugby, confidence should be high for Kieran Keane’s charges. Their performance last weekend was full of commitment, defensive organization and creativity with ball in hand. The kicking game was ponderous like Munster Rugby and will need to improve as Cheetahs love to attack from deep with multiple supporting runners.

Cheetahs will be thankful to come away from Zebre with a win; the performance was patchy at times but management will point to the resiliency to get the result in the final quarter. Connacht will look to their front five again to build a platform. Buckley and Dillane had excellent outings last weekend and Aki again played like a man who wanted to prove a point last weekend.

Weather conditions will be key. Windy and scattered showers so slight advantage to Connacht who are familiar to getting into the trenches when the wind whips in from Lough Atalia.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 6 Preview

Local Ireland derbies. Glasgow enter the Cheetahs Den.

The sixth round of the league sees plenty local bragging rights up for grabs with a couple of derby games in Ireland and Wales. Glasgow Warriors head into the Cheetahs den while Ospreys and Edinburgh are faced with must win fixtures in the league even before European action has started. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

This fixture has lost something, remember when I was a grasshopper that this tie would see full houses, two full strength teams going at it hammer and thongs for the full eighty minutes. The game this weekend has being viewed as a ‘training game’ by Erasmus, a bit harsh but European action is looming on the horizon and both sides want a good workout, injury free and prepped for the challenge which awaits in ERC action. Leinster ominously for Munster underwhelmed last weekend and expect a much more cohesive performance against a Munster side whose opening period against the Blues was loose at best. The second half performance at Thomond Park was vastly improved but there are question marks on the defensive line speed and it will be interesting who Munster name at fly-half with Bleyendaal, Keatley and Hanrahan all in selection plans. Both sides will go at this fixture for the opening period but expect massive personnel changes in the second half. Leinster have an excellent home record against Munster in recent years and it will be the same again, think the squad depth is superior than Munster who could struggle in the lineout again. Leinster by seven points for me.

This is probably the fixture of the Pro 14 weekend. Two in form teams of recent weeks lock horns in the altitude of Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs look a far different proposition to Pro 14 teams in South Africa, Their points haul in the last two fixtures has being outstanding. Zebre Rugby and Leinster Rugby have felt the attacking threat and offloading speed from the Cheetahs. Glasgow Warriors come into this game with a 100% record. Their demolition of Munster in round four was a standout performance but their performance against Benetton Rugby was a timely reminder to all concerned with the Scotstoun based outfit that consistency in performance is still a work in progress. A good acid test for Glasgow Warriors and if they can come out of this fixture still unbeaten, then it will be a massive momentum lift ahead of ERC action. The Cheetahs do not fear anyone at home and the altitude factor means that I am siding with the South African side. A win for the Cheetahs by seven points plus which will bring the South African outfit further into the Conference A mix. I cannot wait for this fixture.

Local Welsh derby bragging rights but not much else for either side to shout about. Cardiff Blues have endured a poor start to the season both on and off the pitch. Dragons have won two games so far but they have also received some bruising hammerings as well. Whoever loses this fixture can probably accept that playoff rugby will be over before the race has started. Blues need this win desperately. A spirited performance at Thomond Park until the sin bin and the side folded in quick time with Munster securing the bonus point try just before the final quarter. Blues have the more experienced pack and Tom James on the wing is producing stellar numbers in meters gained. Dragons youthful squad is a work in progress. Jackman will look for further improvement but Blues with the home advantage just about will get the nod here by three points. The hope is that both sides improve as the season progresses as both look like not featuring in the playoff picture even this start in the season.

Richard Cockerill has called this fixture as a must win fixture for Edinburgh if they harbor any ambitions of being in the conference playoff picture. Zebre Rugby come into this fixture as a dangerous opponent. Their win against Ulster was fully merited; they outworked and were more clinical than the Irish province last weekend. Michael Bradley and coaching staff must be thrilled with the early season successes. Edinburgh stayed close against Leinster Rugby last weekend and perhaps were unlucky not to win the game. The lack of attacking threat has being their issue and Tovey needs to launch his outside backs with more regularity. Intensity needs to be on point as well and suspect with the words of Cockerill ringing in their ears this week, the hosts will win with a bonus point. Edinburgh by ten. Zebre Rugby exertions against Ulster key in the final quarter.

Ospreys are in must win Pro 14 fixture territory. Licking their wounds from a mauling both on and off the pitch in Bloemfontein, Steve Tandy and team need to produce a performance against the reigning league champions who have impressed massively this season. The news that Rhys Webb is off to France will only add to the gloom factor around the Liberty Stadium but surely there is fight in the Ospreys. A local derby game, memories of last season when Scarlets trounced Ospreys in the regular league season finale. Ospreys need to kick start their season and have more reasons to win this encounter. Scarlets will look to attack Ospreys out wide at every opportunity. The hosts will need to pick their spots to attack Scarlets but the front five need to impose their will on the game. Ospreys to win, inspired by performances from Tipuric and Jones. Davies’ absence at the breakdown a key factor to why I am siding with the hosts. A tight affair but Ospreys need this win, otherwise the season will hit new lows and more calls for Tandy to go.

Benetton Rugby have a glorious opportunity to steady the ship after an encouraging performance against Glasgow Warriors last weekend. Three tries at Scotstoun was an excellent effort and despite falling off in the last quarter, positive signs are there for the league, the club and more importantly the national team. Benetton Rugby’s work rate, defensive organization and attacking ability should be too much for a Southern Kings side who quite frankly have being a massive disappointment. Their squad looks ill-equipped to compete in this league. The early signs and defensive displays have not being to the standard required. Benetton Rugby should win and secure the bonus point try. Benetton Rugby should have their third win of the season this weekend. Encouraging signs and a side who will be a test for any opponents in the months to come.

Two sides who have points to prove. Ulster were looking like a side who had turned the corner from an inconsistent league campaign last season. 4/4 and all looked pretty heading into a game against Zebre Rugby which looked like a regulation win but the form book was turned upside down thanks to serious under-performance, inferior work rate and lack of precision in attacking play. This weekend is a chance to right the wrongs of last weekend but the jury is now out on the side with stern tests awaiting in ERC and Pro 14 in the weeks to come. Connacht are a team in transition. The noises coming from the Sportsgrounds is that they are looking for improvement with each passing week. Their performances have being inconsistent at best, big lapses in concentration has costed the Westerners at least two wins so far this season. Kieran Keane knows the magnitude of the job after five games and will be looking for more defensive improvements to complement the attacking style of play on show last weekend against the Scarlets. Connacht’s record at Kingspan Stadium is abysmal and the inconsistencies in defense and attack are too much here to bridge. It is a win for Ulster by ten points.

 

Guinness Pro 14: Conference B Reflections

In this article, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Conference B standings so far which has seen the usual suspects well positioned for the rest of the season and encouraging signs for Benetton Rugby in recent weeks.

100% record for Ulster. Perfect start to the season and the side have shown massive potential in their expansive play in these early rounds. The appointment of Jono Gibbes to the backroom staff has had an impact; the pack are a more cohesive unit setting the platform for the half-backs and back line to create havoc for opposition. 140 points. 19 tries scored. Those two statistics speak volumes. Pienaar may have reluctantly left Belfast but Christian Leali’ifano has being on point early doors, given an early opportunity to impress due to Paddy Jackson’s on-going court case. A criticism leveled from this blog was the lack of consistency from the side last season considering the squad depth assembled. The lapses of concentration have being few and far between and the gritty win over the Scarlets in round three showed the potential in the ranks. Jean Deysel acquisition will be priceless for Ulster as the season progresses with the likes of Rory Best, Iain Henderson in international duty. Deysel is abrasive, human wrecking ball who can fulfill multiple back row and second row positions. The next couple of fixtures are key for the Kingspan Stadium outfit. The next four fixtures are Zebre Rugby (A), Connacht Rugby (H), Leinster Rugby (H) and Southern Kings (A); potentially three wins at least from this fixture listing and that would setup the Irish province with an immense platform to secure a top three playoff berth. Good times ahead for Ulster.

The reigning league champions have started this campaign in relatively confident mood. 19 tries and 146 points scored. The campaign started with emphatic victories over Southern Kings and Zebre Rugby but a 27-20 loss away to Ulster Rugby has focused minds. The contest was probably the best game so far in the tournament. The game ebbed and flowed. Leigh Halfpenny has seamlessly integrated into the side with minimum fuss; the departure of Liam Williams to Saracens offset by this sensational capture. No radical overhaul of the squad last season; continuity the key. James Davies started the season well until injury struck, will be interesting to see how the side copes without the talisman seven who was a key factor in Scarlets’ late surge to the league crown last season. His breakdown work was sublime and his support running for the ball carrier was exemplary. Scarlets next four fixtures are Connacht Rugby (H), Ospreys (A), Cardiff Blues (H) and Benetton Rugby (H). Intriguing local derby fixtures in the middle of this four game set as Ospreys and Cardiff Blues are in must win territory already. Expansive style of play will create bonus point try performances; the key will be consistency with Scarlets in the pack to create the platform. Solid team, expect Scarlets to be in the top two of the conference come the end of the regular season and will improve as the weather improves next March and April.

Leinster Rugby have started the season with confidence. If I wrote this blog this time last week, 100% record would have being duly noted. The 38-19 reversal to the Cheetahs last weekend is a timely reality check for the squad as Cheetahs picked their moments to unlock Leinster defensively in the high altitude of Bloemfontein. The squad depth that Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster is superb. Daly has being in superb form for Leinster; a hat-trick last weekend, a player of note for the upcoming season. When you consider that the majority of the Lions contingent have yet to feature so far, the side will continue to improve in cohesion, set piece and attacking play. The opening three fixtures highlighted Leinster’s attacking play with emphatic victories over Dragons and Southern Kings away from the RDS. Cardiff Blues provided resistance in round two but Leinster turned the screw in the final quarter to secure the BP win. Squad depth is no issue and the next four fixtures look likely to set the Leinster province up well for the rest of the season. Home games against an inconsistent Edinburgh Rugby and a Munster Rugby outfit who have not fared well in Dublin. The road trips see Leinster travel to conference rival Ulster Rugby and also a key contest away to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun, superb fixtures loom large. Top three is a certainty; intriguing three way fight between Ulster and Scarlets to secure top spot. Can Leinster’s second row provide the physicality and set piece execution required in the line-out come the business end of the season to elevate the team for honors? The second rows were exposed in the playoffs last season; acquisitions secured so it will be interesting to see how this unit fares.

New head coach Richard Cockerill has learned plenty about his charges in the past four fixtures. A promising start has evaporated in recent weeks with reversals to Benetton Rugby at home and an emphatic loss away to Scarlets. Performance consistency was highlighted in round three; a fixture which many felt was a home win all day long but Benetton Rugby were superior in all facets of play. Nine tries so far scored this season and the majority scored in the first two fixtures. The back line have struggled to receive quick ruck ball given the struggles of the pack. Edinburgh’s next four fixtures will make or break their league season; they face a daunting trip to the RDS to face a Leinster who will be keen to produce a good performance ahead of their local derby game against Munster the following week. Two Italian fixtures then beckon and Benetton (A) looks banana skin written all over it. The home fixture to the Ospreys could be a key result for either side. A defeat here and the gap to the top three could have opened up to such an extent that the top three could be out of sight. The usual squad leaders will need to come to the fore. Bradbury, Hidalgo-Clyne, Ford, Tovey, Toolis and Hardie will look to create the platform to win upcoming fixtures. Top three looks beyond them at this stage but Cockerill will look for his side to play with physicality and competitiveness. An interesting side to monitor as the season progresses.

Encouraging signs from Benetton Rugby in recent games. Round three and four wins over Edinburgh on the road and a fantastic victory over Ospreys at home bodes well for the side. The league needs Benetton Rugby to flourish and provide the Italian fans with something to shout about. The last two fixtures have seen solid defensive performances, minimal missed first time tackles which plighted their performance against Munster. The Ulster loss was a good performance and showed the signs seen in round three and four. Banks and McKinley have the kicking game to provide territorial platform supremacy. Sperandio has being sublime in recent weeks; great solo effort to setup Minto against Ospreys. The next four fixtures will be crucial indicators on whether the Italians upsurge in form will remain or is just a flash in the pan. Confidence may be high but Glasgow buoyed by their demolition of Munster Rugby will look to secure a bonus point try win. The middle fixtures in this four game stretch could be where further wins are possible. Southern Kings (H) and Edinburgh (H) are winnable fixtures and to conclude a tricky tie to Scarlets on the road. Two wins from these four fixtures would be considered progress. A season where the league organizers will look for Benetton Rugby to improve; Italian Rugby Union are looking to Benetton Rugby to provide professional club success with the decision to use Zebre Rugby as a developmental side. Top three is out of reach but the key theme is to produce consistent performances and secure wins at regular intervals where possible.

Bernard Jackman now knows the magnitude of the task that faces him at Rodney Parade. The re-branded Welsh region have enjoyed one win so far this season, a round three victory over Connacht Rugby where they dominated for long periods; the bonus point eluded them. The other three fixtures have being chastening experiences for a young squad. Leinster’s emphatic opening day victory exposed Dragons’ inexperience in key positions. The road trip to Edinburgh was a mixed bag; poor officiating did little for Dragons’ cause and were in it until the last quarter. Ulster’s expansive rugby play was too much for the Dragons last week. Tough start to the season for the Dragons with Ulster and Leinster early doors, the hope is that confidence and form can improve in the next four fixtures. Southern Kings arrive to Rodney Parade this week. Two Welsh derbies then beckon and conclude with a trip to Cork to face Munster Rugby. This weekend is a key fixture; they need to beat Southern Kings, otherwise confidence will dip. A season in transition for Jackman; key is for the young squad members to get game time and improve per each passing game. Jackman will also look for Gavin Henson to provide experience and leadership if the side are in position to close out games. Top three unlikely even at this early stage.

Massive disappointment to the league. Southern Kings’ squad look ill-equipped in the opening four fixtures of the league. They will try to execute a fast tempo game but the skill set does not seem to be at this level; unforced error count, set piece woes and defensive gaps have being hallmarks of the season so far. Not much to shout about. The home attendance for the Leinster game was embarrassing to the side, players, management and the league. Whipping boys. I do not see how this side can improve to the extent where they are in top three contention this season. Dragons fixture this weekend and perhaps the road trip to Benetton Rugby offer the side with an opportunity to get in the winners circle but a road trip to the Glasgow Warriors is a damage limitation exercise while the visit of Ulster Rugby who are playing with confidence is another daunting task. Let us hope that the South African powers that be strengthen this outfit for the league come the turn of 2018. The league needs Southern Kings to turn up; it is not happening at the moment.

Guinness Pro 14: South African Teams Preview

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A new era for the tournament 

On the eve of the Guinness Pro 14 tournament kick off, a season which sees the introduction of South African teams to the competition. Both the Cheetahs and Southern Kings will add to the product already on show and provide the Ireland, Scotland and Welsh sides will different questions to answer during the tournament. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the squad assembled from South Africa for the tournament.

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Home field advantage huge

The arrival of the Cheetahs is a superb coup for the tournament organizers. The Bloemfontein team have had struggles in Super Rugby but they enter this competition with new enthusiasm with the hope that the home support will come out and support the team and the competition.

Free State Stadium is an intimidating venue for visiting teams. The altitude above sea level effect will be evident in the second half of fixtures as the hosts start to wear down their opposition. Ireland saw this to full effect in their summer of South Africa; altitude is a factor in games and 1,395 meters above sea level will prove telling for opposition teams which is why I think the Cheetahs will be a serious contender in the competition this season.

The NH winter conditions also throws up an interesting scenario for the South African teams. The cold, wet weather dictates a more tighter, conservative game plan. The South African teams are used to playing in the wet but the biting cold conditions faced into the latter end of the year will be keenly noted.

The Cheetahs start the campaign with two road trip fixtures. The first game is against Ulster at Kingspan Stadium. With weather set fair, this promises to be an absolute belter of a contest. Both sides like to throw the ball around but Ulster must be careful on how expansive they want to be considering the talent at the Cheetahs disposal.

Squad

Head Coach Rory Duncan has an excellent squad to chose from. The standouts straightaway being Francois Venter and Oupa Mohoje who is an absolute powerhouse in the back row with his work at the breakdown and ball carrying ability. The Ulster fixture will be a good contest to see where the Cheetahs are. Neil Jordaan leads from the front, sets the example for others to follow. de Jager and de Toit are exciting ball carrying options. This side and squad will be competitive and Guinness Pro 14 established fans will get acquainted with this team for many years to come. I am eagerly looking forward to the Thomond Park fixture next weekend when the Cheetahs face Munster; will be in attendance and it will be interesting to see the team in the flesh.

Chances of winning the competition

It is a tough ask for any new debutante team in a competition but the Cheetahs have the squad depth to seriously challenge. Yes, there will be teething problems early in the season; travel linguistics and the cold damp NH winter weather conditions but this is a group of players who are adaptable and will enhance their overall team performance as the season wears on. They will be a serious opposition for all opposition in their own backyard and I think the Cheetahs will be in the playoff shakeup. It is an exciting team; they play the right style of rugby with physicality upfront and speed and pace in breakdown and back play. They are a team who will put bums on seats this season.

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Emerging SA talent in abundance

The Port Elizabeth outfit come into the season looking for emerging indigenous underage talent to form the backbone of this side for many years to come. The Southern Kings’ playing squad has also been boosted with the signing and arrival of a number of players, who take the squad to a total of 40. These include Southern Kings’ stars during the Vodacom Super Rugby campaign – Andisa Ntsila, Luzuko Vulindlu and Alshaun Bock – as well as Guinness PRO14-experienced players Dries van Schalkwyk and Rossouw de Klerk.

There has being backroom management movement during the off-season with Chumani Booi arriving into Deon Davids’ management team. Booi takes over as back line coach t following the departure of Vuyo Zangqa, who has taken up a coaching position in Germany, at the end of the 2017 Vodacom Super Rugby competition.

A tough start to the Guinness Pro 14 awaits the Southern Kings with Scarlets and Connacht in the first two weekends of the season. The Scarlets game looks like a fixture which could potentially turn ugly if the Southern Kings are not solid in the set piece department. The Connacht fixture may be a more accurate read of the side; the youthful squad will have ups and downs but it is hoped that they will adapt and improve as the season wears on.

Players will be looking to impress so that the South African Super Rugby teams could potentially sign them; the side to me looks like a team whose purpose is to provide opportunities to underage promising talent to get game time in order to get to the next level. Hopefully, with some early success; the team can attract a skeptical home support to shout on the team and support the tournament.

This will be a fascinating element with the introduction of the South African sides. How will the South African rugby fans receive this new tournament? Will they embrace the tournament as a brave step to potentially looking for other Super Rugby South African teams to join the league long term and perhaps European Cup competition. Hopefully the rugby fans in both South African cities will embrace the competition and add a different dimension to the tournament.

 Chances of making the playoffs?

The chances of progression to the playoff rounds looks remote with the likes of Scarlets, Leinster and Ulster in the same conference. Three powerhouse teams who have solid settled squads. The aim will be to improve with each passing week with the objective of being in the shakeup come the end of the regular season. Tall order given the squad dynamics at this time; an encouraging start to Pro 14 season beckons but no playoffs.

 

 

Guinness Pro 14: Scottish Teams Preview

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Head coaching and personnel changes a plenty in Scotland ahead of Pro 14 season

Before the announcement that the Guinness Pro 12 league would expand to fourteen teams, the most off the field news in the league came from Scotland where Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors announced new head coaches and several marquee player arrivals and departures to boot. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on the goings on in Scotland ahead of the new season.

Head Coach Changes

Not one but two head coaching changes. Gregor Townsend confirmed as national head coach resulted in the Glasgow Warriors head coach vacancy. Dave Rennie’s pedigree is second to none and should enhance the structures already established at the club as the new head coach.

Rennie’s coaching at the Chiefs has being standout with a memorable 2012 / 2013 season where the Chiefs running / expansive style won the Super Rugby title in back to back seasons. Prior to this, the fifty-three year old New Zealander led the national U20 side to three consecutive world titles (2008-2010). Glasgow’s running style of play will appeal to Rennie and the club signings secured this season will make Glasgow Warriors a dangerous opponent for anyone in the league.

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New optimism at Edinburgh Rugby

Edinburgh Rugby also were in search of a new head coach when Alan Solomons decided to step down only four weeks into last season to move to Bristol Rugby as a coaching consultant. Solomon’s era with the club will be remembered for the European Challenge Cup final appearance in 2014-15 and winning the 1872 Cup derby over Glasgow Warriors but the Pro 12 league form was a disappointment; too many narrow losses to mention and Edinburgh Rugby languished in the bottom stretches of the league.

The appointment of Richard Cockerill for this season will spark a revival at the club. Cockerill will bring his experiences from Leicester Tigers to hopefully resonate a winning culture within the club. It will be an interesting season to see where Cockerill effects change in a rugby club who have underperformed given their talent and skill set.

Edinburgh Rugby – Ins and Outs

The academy forms the majority of the arrivals to the senior squad; a continuation of cultivating talent from within the organization. McCallum, Hunter-Hill, Miller, Fraser, Galbraith and Graham will look to impress in their debut professional seasons but as mentioned in previous blogs, these players need to be nurtured and their development allow to blossom this season.

Three significant player arrivals have though joined the club. Mark Bennett arrives from Glasgow Warrior; solid, reliable and able to create and execute try opportunities from the three quarter position. Duhan van der Merwe could be a potentially astute signing from Edinburgh Rugby this season; massive upside in the winger given his size (100 kg), height (6’4), physicality and speed. At twenty-two, he still has his best years ahead of him and will be keen to relaunch his career in Scotland after a disappointing 2016 season for Montpellier.

Robbie Fruean joins from Bath Rugby, a player whose has battled hard in the professional ranks (open-heart surgery a couple of years ago). His playing career is formidable playing with the likes of Sonny Bill Williams at Crusaders. An outside center who relishes contact and his running lines will create game line breaks. This looks on paper to be another shrewd signing from the club provided that he can remain fit. Darryl Marfo and Jason Harries join from Bath Rugby and London Scottish; unknown quantities.

There have being several player departures from the rugby club. Six players were released from contract including Rory Scholes, Kyle Whyte, Alex Northam, Will Helu, Nick Beavon and Viliami Fihaki. George Turner leaves the club for a season long loan deal to Glasgow Warriors. The abrasive, ball carrying wrecking ball that is Nasi Manu leaves for Benetton Rugby while Jack Cosgrove moves south of the border to work with new head coach Pat Lam at Bristol Rugby. Michael Allen, a superb underage talent was forced to retire. Sasa Tofilau moves to Racing Club Massy in France. A number of key departures but also a number of releases which will free up roster space and budget to acquire additional players during the season (if need be).

Verdict:

Richard Cockerill joins the club with something to prove after an unsavory end to this Leicester Tigers head coaching career and an even shorter disastrous cameo in Toulon. Edinburgh Rugby’s form at home in Myreside and Murrayfield is not an issue. The issue is their ability to perform on the road. Last season saw a couple of close defeats on the road; accuracy lapses in defense and offense crucial.

Competitive side who will look to the new signings to complement well with the likes of Ford, Gilchrist, Hardie, du Preez, Hidalgo-Clyne, Tovey or Weir at out-half. Edinburgh Rugby should improve their performance this season and think they are capable of fighting for a top three conference spot this season.

European Challenge Cup progression to the knockout rounds is pretty much assured. A team who will not fear anyone at home, who will look to make the necessary adjustments to win on the road. This is a team which rugby fans should take note of.

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New era at Scotstoun

A new era arrives in Scotstoun. Dave Rennie is the new head coach and expectations in the club and the fan base has increased with the appointment. Rennie joins a club who had a disappointing campaign last term. Munster were a thorn in Glasgow’s side in the ERC; a road trip which was a highly emotional affair after the passing of Munster head coach Anthony Foley saw Munster win with fourteen men. The return fixture was a physical affair which was decided by an excellent finish from Francis Saili late on. Glasgow to their credit advanced to the quarter finals with a comprehensive beat down of Leicester in the final pool game, but the quarter final against Saracens was too much and a heavy road trip ensued.

The international fixture schedule impacted Glasgow Warriors in the Pro 12 campaign; the squad struggled during these periods and when the RBS 6 Nations had concluded, Glasgow were in must win territory with six games to go. The squad depth issues were unfortunate and were added to by several lengthy injuries. A season which heralded the end of the Townsend era but one that will not be forgotten as Townsend has established solid foundations for Rennie to take on and move to the next level. The Pro 12 triumph in 2014 was thoroughly deserved with expansive, sublime running rugby to the fore.

Glasgow Warriors – Ins and Outs

Three signings arrive from the South African Super Rugby side Stormers. Huw Jones showed last season incredible potential and upside in the three quarters. Brandon Thomson will add fly-half squad depth to a position during the international calendar; his game management and kicking is excellent, a player with plenty to prove.

Oli Kebble comes from several seasons with the Western Province and Stormers; A player who will add depth to the front row as Gordon Reid departs from London Irish. Callum Gibbins is an astute signing from Glasgow Warriors to offset the loss of Josh Strauss. Gibbins scored three tries in twenty-five appearances for the Hurricanes.

Lelia Masaga is an explosive back arriving from the Chiefs. Vunisa is a signing which complements the signing of Gibbins. Speed, ball carrying, physicality and quality breakdown work attributes. The Fijian born Italian capped international can fill all positions across the back row. A massive asset to the club this season. Siua Halanukonuka joins from the Highlanders who will add to the front row depth chart.

Several academy players join the senior squad signing their first professional contracts. Wynne, Smith, Bhatti, Home, Kelly, Hastings and McDonald will look to impress Dave Rennie early doors and would expect a couple of the rookies to be involved particularly around the international fixture windows.

Fourteen players left the club in the off-season, a big turnover with some keynote goodbyes. Sila Puafisi leaves for Brive. Mark Bennett joins Edinburgh Rugby. Rory Clegg moves south of the border to join Ealing. Josh Strauss is a big loss to the club as he joins Sale Sharks but Glasgow hope that Vunisa and Gibbins make up for this departure. Gordon Reid moves to London Irish; a loss for the front row unit. Sean Lamont retired along with Fraser Lyle and Peter Murchie.

Fan favorite Simone Favaro moved to Stade Francais; a move which the player and fans were sad to see happen. Tijuee Uanivi moves to London Scottish while Hagen Schulte and Nemia Kenatale were released from their contracts. Junior Bulumakau completed the departures with a move to Doncaster.

Verdict:

New head coach at the club. New ideas and approaches to defensive and offensive sides of the rugby ball. Glasgow Warriors squad depth is strong but the ability to win games in the international fixture calendar windows will be interesting. The side struggled last season during these fixture windows; some astute signings to offset this impact this season and if the club can negate these periods, Glasgow should be well placed to secure a top three conference standing spot. Glasgow look on paper the most equipped side from Scotland to challenge for Guinness Pro 14 honors. Rennie will look to make an instant impact and to be honest, they will not far off the summit this season in the league race.

 

 

Guinness Pro 14 Preview: Italian Clubs

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Benetton Rugby ambitious; Zebre in transition

Benetton Rugby and Zebre arrive in the newly revamped Guinness Pro 14 format with questions a plenty on their competitiveness. For Zebre, a conscious decision to become a development team. For Benetton Treviso, the aim is to become more competitive and climb up the conference standings. Hawkeye Sidekick casts an eye on the off-season goings on in Italy and the short term future will be a mixed bag for club and national team.

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A team in transition would be best to describe Benetton Rugby. Luke McLean, Filo Paulo, David Odiete who were leading players for the club in recent years have left for new chapters in their rugby careers. McLean and Paulo have moved to London Irish. Odiete has moved to Rovigo. They lead the departures listing with several fringe squad players moving to Padova, Rovigo, Mogliano and Medicei Firenze.

The team though have being reinforced with some potentially astute signings. Marty Banks at fly-half comes from the Highlanders. Nasi Manu will provide abrasive ball carrying from the eight position and joins the club from Edinburgh Rugby. Whetu Douglas from the Crusaders should improve the front row depth chart. Ime Herbst joins from the Southern Kings. The 6’6 lock will provide assured set piece execution and physicality in the pack exchanges along with Federico Ruzza who joins from Zebre. Several good signings from the club; intent to compete in the league is clear.

The big issue is in terms of squad depth and the rigors of the Pro 14 fixture schedule. The hope is that the new arrivals stay injury free to provide leadership, tempo throughout to complement with what is already present in the likes of Zanni, Allan, Hayward and McKinley. The November and RBS 6 Nations schedule will definitely deplete the Treviso squad and one wonders if they will win fixtures during these spells.

McKinley at ten will be a pivotal figure for the Italian club. His road to this point is an amazing story of determination and refusal not to give up on your dreams. A serious eye injury in 2010 left his career in the balance but he gradually returned to playing and at a level which has propelled him to the professional club ranks. An astute tactician and game manager, McKinley will look to continue his prominent form of last season to propel the side to further improvement.

Verdict:

The Italian RFU have plumped for Benetton Rugby and the level of investment and caliber of player signed shows intent and increased competitiveness which was badly required. Treviso should provide more resistance to opposition this season with the likes of Banks and Herbst in the ranks. Expect a couple of wins early doors but the schedule and international fixtures will deplete the squad. If Benetton Rugby can be in the mix for the top three spots, then it will be seen as a progressive season. If not, the national team will suffer.

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The appointment of Michael Bradley as head coach is a positive sign for anyone involved in Italian Rugby. Conor O’Shea has his hands all over this appointment and it starts the plan to create the structures to allow the national side to progress long term. Bradley’s experience is vast; coaching Connacht / Edinburgh and his stint with Georgia National team. The Cork native will have good contacts in the league and expect a couple of  additional experienced signings before the end of the season to bolster the squad.

Zebre have had a topsy turvy off-season. There were rumors that the club would fold but the decision of the Italian Rugby Federation to take over is a positive move for Italian Rugby. The Parma franchise will be used essentially as a developmental ground for players to progress and if good enough get to the national team.

The player acquisition approach from the club this off-season is evidence of this. All Italian indigenous players who will look to impress. Tenga, Giammarioli, Minozzi, Luus, Panico, Azzolini, Krumov and Raffaele coming from the likes of Flamme Oro, Viadana and Calvisano. Only Dave Sisi arrives to the club from outside Italy joining from Bath Rugby.

The challenge for Zebre and Michael Bradley is to identify consistent indigenous performers in the side who can evaluate to the national team. Looking at the current squad, plenty will be expected from the overseas personnel to set the example and tone. Meyer, Koegelenberg, Baker and Italian Vendetti will be the leading players in the side but there are going to be a couple of heavy losses for Bradley and team in order to gain the cohesion, organization and game nous required to become a competitive team.

Zebre are a team who will look to build this season, build the skill set of the indigenous squad members and hope that they excel in the environment. The Italian Rugby Federation need to be patient and support O’Shea and his plans to create the grassroots and structures for the game to flourish in the country.

Italy is a fantastic venue for rugby. Rome is idyllic and is an amazing backdrop for any international games. This trait needs to also add that the national side and professional club scene are competitive and hard to beat. Yes, this will take time but I am convinced that O’Shea with the assistance of Michael Bradley can identify players to climb to the international level.

Verdict: 

It is a daunting task for Zebre this season. The squad’s preparation has being stifled by the the boardroom rumors. Michael Bradley will have his work cut out to improve Zebre sufficiently to contend for a top three conference spot. The goal this season is for different facets of play to improve as the season progresses. There will be heavy losses but the goal has to be for the indigenous players in the squad to gain experience and improve their fitness, conditioning and skill set. Hope Bradley is given the time to create the necessary club structures to allow the club and the national team to flourish. Top three is beyond them this term and probably shirting around the bottom of the conference.