Ulster Rugby are 2/2 from their opening two league fixtures. Both games were proverbial cliffhangers where the side had to show resiliency and skill to win late against Scarlets and Edinburgh Rugby. John Cooney was the hero with his game winning penalties in recent weekends but the statistics show the good start made by the side with the new arrivals particularly shining.
The one thing that leaps out on the meters gained statistics is how potent the Ulster Rugby back line has being early doors this season. There was fear given the retirements (Bowe, Trimble, Payne) and departures (Piatau) that there would be a massive void in the attacking side of the team. Think again, as the likes of Craig Gilroy have made serious statements of intent early doors. Gilroy’s ability to create with ball in hand seen in his statistics; averaging 9.06 meters per carry last weekend alone. Speight and Addison look astute signings early doors and their numbers are incredibly strong. John Cooney’s ability to support the ball carrier seen with his excellent numbers; the form nine in Ireland at this time.
The tackle count statistics will be music to the ears of national team coach Joe Schmidt as Ireland internationals Iain Henderson and Rob Herring were sensational in this aspect of play last weekend. Eighteen tackles is exceptional from Henderson along with Herring’s performance last weekend with sixteen tackles (considering it was his seasonal debut).
Kudos also to Nick Timoney as well; the back row even at this early stage of the season has elevated his game to another level this term with some key contributions. His tackle count here is excellent along with Cave and McCloskey.
The game plan from Ulster Rugby is clear to see from this statistic; expansive style, look to pass / offload at every given opportunity. Cooney’s numbers are sensational and his quick passing has provided Burns with the time to launch his three quarters who have also looked to keep the ball alive with offloads.
Will Addison’s passing stats are particularly noteworthy, looking to bring players into the play with swift offloads. The half back numbers are well and shoulders above the other Irish provinces and if Ulster Rugby can continue to develop their defense structures and squad depth throughout the year, they could be a dark horse to make a serious push for the playoffs.
Three tries scored and conceded in the first two rounds of the league, all scored against Edinburgh Rugby in the second half from the starting lineup. Scarlets game was a tight affair with defenses on top. John Cooney’s form in open play and kicking has being sensational and if / when he is called up by Ireland in November, it will be interesting to see who from the squad will fill the void. Squad depth is the concern right now for Ulster Rugby because the starting lineup at the moment are playing with determination, hunger and skill.
The wait is finally over. The eve of the second Guinness Pro 14 tournament is upon us; an intriguing off season with several clubs acquiring potentially astute signings. The season kicks off on Friday night with three fixtures up for decision. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict the opening night winners and losers.
Can Cardiff Blues upset Leinster Rugby?
A tricky opening night road trip fixture for Leinster Rugby to negotiate. The reigning Guinness Pro 14 champions will be without numerous first team starters who played for Ireland in the Australian summer tour. It is an opportunity yet again for the squad to impress.
Leinster Rugby’s team sheet sees a debut for the physically imposing Joe Tomane in the three quarters where he will be partnered by Rory O’Loughlin who will look to kick on after an excellent season with the Irish province last term.
Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have named the promising Caelan Doris at eight. It will be interesting to see how the Ireland U20 star fares in this opening fixture with the likes of Max Deegan eager to get back into the first team fold.
Huge onus will be on Scott Fardy to provide the experience and leadership in a front five which will sees Tracy, Bent, Molony in the ranks. Rhys Ruddock captains the side in Johnny Sexton’s absence. The back three have a point to prove and Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne and leading try scorer in the league last season Barry Daly will look to get their season off to a solid start.
Cardiff Blues will look to kick on after an incredibly positive second half of last season culminating in the European Challenge Cup final win. This final win should increase confidence within the camp and head coach John Mulvihill will look for the likes of Ellis Jenkins to provide key leadership this season with the shock retirement of Sam Warburton.
The hosts name a solid side for this opening fixture. Arhip and Thornton with debuts for the club after their moves from rivals Ospreys. Arhip in particular looks a shrewd signing; the Moldovan is an efficient scrum operator. The workhorse Nick Williams will be asked to setup primary platform ball, looking to smash Ross Byrne in the ten channel.
Cardiff Blues half back pairing looks quality. Williams and Evans forged a successful partnership last season and if they can establish quick ruck ball, their back line has the ability to put Leinster Rugby under massive pressure. Halaholo and Lee-Lo have the perfect mix of creativity and physicality and this can only be good news for Harries (on debut), Lane and Morgan to impress with ball in hand.
Verdict: Cardiff Blues
Tough encounter beckons, expect tries from both sides given the personnel in the ranks but Cardiff Blues know that they need to start this season much better than last year and I edge this encounter to the hosts as Leinster Rugby cohesion issues will surface in the back and pack units. Leinster Rugby to secure at least a loser bonus point. Pressure is on Cardiff Blues to win this fixture.
Quality match-up at the Liberty
A potential standout fixture with several standout players on both team sheets and the victor tomorrow night will look with confidence going into the early season fixture list.
Ospreys’ were made to pay for a poor start to last season; the departure of Steve Tandy who was replaced by Allen Clarke sparked a revival in the second half of the season but defeat to Ulster Rugby in the end of season playoff means European Challenge Cup this season.
Ospreys have made several astute signings. The key marquee signings were Scott Williams (Scarlets), George North (Northampton Saints) and Aled Davies (Scarlets). Tom Botha (Cheetahs) has the potential to be a dark horse signing this season. All players make their debut for the club.
The hosts have named a strong pack. Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies provide experience, leadership and set piece efficiency. The back row is stacked with talent as Tipuric, King and Lydiate will look to disrupt Edinburgh Rugby quick ruck ball.
The key area of interest is the half-back partnership for the Ospreys. Webb and Biggar have departed. Aled Davies and Luke Price start the post Webb / Biggar era and it will be interesting to see how the new half back partnership fare. Sam Davies on the bench will look to make an impact if this unit does not fire early doors.
Edinburgh Rugby were the most progressive side of the tournament last season (close call with the Cheetahs). Richard Cockerill and backroom staff have really impressed; there is a winning culture at the club and they have not being afraid of cutting players who fell below the standards expected of a professional rugby player, not looking at anyone in particular John Hardie.
The Scottish side name a strong side for this opener as well which makes this fixture so mouthwatering. Debut cameos for Scott, Hickey, Pygros, Schoeman and Luke Hamilton. Hickey in particular has the potential to provide that extra creativity required to get Edinburgh over the line in key playoff fixtures. Duhan van der Merwe will look to push on after a superb debut season in the league.
The pack looks experience with quality performers throughout. McInally, Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist and Mata will be tested to the maximum by the Ospreys pack unit; the breakdown battle has all the ingredients to be explosive. Luke Hamilton will be a player to watch this season for Edinburgh; abrasive work rate and ability around the fringes.
A very close fixture to call. There are going to be some exceptional back and pack battles on show. The key duel is the half back contest and siding with the experienced Edinburgh combination. Cohesion issues will be apparent early but there should be some excellent passages of play. Both teams have the ability to secure bonus point tries such is their threat out wide. Nip and tuck but Hickey looks the key man here for the visitors.
Zebre Rugby look a solid bet
The transfer in and outs for each side is usually not that remarkable in the Guinness Pro 14 league typically but the rate of turnover in the Cheetahs and Southern Kings is astounding. Just the twenty-two departures for the Southern Kings who floundered badly in their debut season last year.
I am looking at the starting lineup and the word cohesion and game time leaps out. Thirteen new faces in the squad and six of those will be in the squad with full-back Michael Botha, lock Schalk Oelofse and flanker Henry Brown in the starting XV as JC Astle, Ulrich Beyers and Luphumlo Mguca are named amongst the replacements.
Zebre Rugby have invested in their squad for the new season. Eleven signings to the squad and four of those look to make an impact off the bench. Francois Brummer, Massimo Ceciliani, Giosue Zilocchi and Apisai Tauyavuca are all primed to make their debuts in a Zebre jersey.
Michael Bradley given the circumstances last season has done an excellent job as head coach; last season was to provide structures and foundations to build on this season. The hope is that Zebre Rugby can compete well in the majority of the league fixtures but easier said than done!
Verdict: Zebre Rugby
This is a game where Isuzu Southern Kings personnel changes and lack of playing time together will be exposed. Zebre Rugby have a more solid squad and starting lineup and I expect Canna at ten to control tempo and game management to allow their back line to secure a bonus point win. Kings hopefully compete here but the signs look grave even at this early stage.
A pivotal weekend of action awaits several teams this weekend. In Conference A, Glasgow Warriors have an opportunity to secure playoff home field advantage with a win over a misfiring Connacht Rugby outfit. Munster Rugby travel to the Bloemfontein to face a Toyota Cheetahs who know that a win will close the gap considerably on the Irish province setting up a fascinating last round of games in the regular season.
In Conference B, Leinster Rugby can pretty much stamp their home field playoff berth with a win at home to improving Benetton Rugby while Scarlets travel to Edinburgh looking to get pace. Ulster Rugby still harboring ambitions of playoff rugby realize that nothing short of a bonus point try win will suffice against a progressively improving Ospreys side. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
A key fixture for the hosts at fortress Scotstoun on Friday night. The mission is pretty straightforward; a victory over a Connacht Rugby side who are out of playoff contention means securing a home field semi-final in the playoffs.
Dave Rennie has named a strong side for the fixture. Finn Russell must make do with a place on the bench as Peter Horne will be the out-half for the evening. The pack looks strong and abrasive with Brown, Gray and Fagerson featuring.
Connacht Rugby are buoyed by the news that Tiernan O’Halloran is free to play after his disciplinary case was dropped today. Kieran Keane has named a reasonably strong outfit with Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney included. The pack looks pretty much first choice as John Muldoon is kept in reserve for a third quarter onslaught.
Given the motivation of both sides, the verdict goes to the Glasgow Warriors who have the potential to create massive defensive holes in a Connacht defense which has shipped 30+ points in their last two outings. Line break defensive lapses all too common.
Connacht Rugby will hope that their pack can provide a platform and allow the likes of Aki, McKeon, Robb to create the line breaks to allow the likes of Matt Healy the opportunity to impress. This game is primed to be an open contest (weather permitting) and Glasgow Warriors have enough depth on the bench to provide fresh impetus with a bonus point try win and home field playoff advantage secured.
This is the key fixture of Conference A this weekend. A win for either side will have massive repercussions in the race for the other playoff berths in the conference. A Toyota Cheetahs win will mean that Cardiff Blues will no longer be able to secure the third playoff place and as a result close the gap considerably on Munster Rugby who know victory themselves will secure the second playoff spot and a home quarter final playoff fixture. A Munster Rugby win will give fresh hope to Cardiff Blues to secure that elusive last playoff spot as well.
The team selections are indicative of where both teams are at in this juncture of the season. Johann van Graan has omitted several big star names with Racing 92 and that European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final looming large in the horizon. This has given an opportunity for the likes of Scott, Grobler and JJ Hanrahan to secure game time and perhaps give management food for thought when announcing their squad for next weekend in Bordeaux.
The hosts have surprised many with the announcement of Johan Goosen at fly-half. This is effectively his first game of the season. The player left Racing 92 under a cloud of controversy and it will be interesting to see the player in action tomorrow night. A player with all the attributes; solid game management, good kicking game and ability to pass with efficiency. This is a nice squad addition for the Toyota Cheetahs ahead of the playoff push. Niel Marais moves from ten to twelve and provides a nice balance with Venter in midfield. Marais’ kicking game will complement the hard running style of Venter.
The weather conditions will play a factor in the outcome of this contest (apparently rain in the forecast). Munster Rugby will look to play a structured game and with the inclement weather conditions, the offloading game may be risky to execute from the hosts.
However, the altitude factor will kick in the second half and Toyota Cheetahs for me have the edge. Their ability to win games late in recent rounds at home will continue as they narrowly beat a gallant Munster Rugby effort. No bonus point try given the weather conditions. The kicking game will be interesting to watch! It will go for miles and bounce of the ball could be factor. Excited to watch this one!
This is a golden opportunity for Ulster Rugby to push massive pressure on Edinburgh Rugby who play Scarlets on Saturday afternoon. A game where Ulster Rugby and home faithful will surely unite and produce a stirring performance and atmosphere respectively.
There is a lot to like about side’s performances last weekend. Ulster Rugby went on the road and were given zero chance of beating Edinburgh but they won emphatically securing the bonus try bonus point. Ospreys continued their good run of form at home with a comprehensive beat down of Connacht Rugby in round nineteen. Their attacking play exposing Connacht Rugby at regular intervals where Hassler wrecked havoc.
Can Ulster Rugby produce another solid consistent performance? Their pack was on point last weekend and more of the same is required against an Ospreys pack unit who have progressed well in recent game with their set piece and open play. Best, Henderson and Deysel need to provide the platform early; otherwise Ospreys will feel confident of doing the league double on the Irish province.
This is a huge game for Ulster Rugby. Given the negativity surrounding the club in recent months, it is now time to produce a performance to lift the gloom over the Kingspan Stadium. The back line selected looks fast and dynamic if given quality ball. Interesting to see how McPhilips and Cooney counteract Habberfield and Biggar who have being excellent in recent games.
A huge game for Ospreys too who harbor ambitions of European Rugby Champions Cup action next season. Eight points behind Cardiff Blues with a game in hand. A win here would put pressure on the Blues who play Southern Kings away on Saturday.
50/50 game here. If Ospreys can quell the early Ulster onslaught, think the half-back of Habberfield and Biggar may have the edge on the hosts half back pairing to edge this game for the Ospreys. If the predictions come off, then it will be curtains for Ulster’s chances of securing playoff rugby and a season in European Rugby Challenge Cup beckons. A disaster considering their attempts to recruit a head coach at this time!
All the euphoria of Ireland’s Natwest 6 Nations success last weekend is done and dusted, it is time for the Guinness Pro 14 to take center stage. A critical round for the teams who will be involved in European Champions and Challenge Cup competitions next weekend; a last opportunity for those teams to create momentum ahead of those fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
Connacht in must win territory
A critical fixture for Connacht Rugby. A loss at home at the hands of a resurgent Edinburgh Rugby side will condemn the side to looking at the playoff race unfold from the outside. Kieran Keane has decided to rest his international players apart from Quinn Roux for this fixture. Apart from that, the side is pretty much full strength.
Edinburgh make five changes from the side which accounted for Munster Rugby last weekend in a scrappy encounter. Kinghorn returns to the full back role. Marfo returns to the front row. Berghan and Gilchrist come into a strong looking pack.
50/50 contest here. Connacht Rugby need a strong performance before their Challenge Cup encounter against Gloucester Rugby. However, performance consistency has being a problem in recent rounds. Edinburgh will look to quell the hosts advances in the opening period and win this contest in the second half based on a solid pack platform. Edinburgh’s form and winning habit to get them over the line here in a close contest.
Can the Dragons roar past the Cheetahs?
This looks like an arduous task for Bernard Jackman’s charges. After a deflating beat down on the road to the Southern Kings, morale in the camp must be low. It is a blessing that the international contingent are available for selection to hopefully arrest the team performance slide.
Cory Hill, Elliot Dee and Hallam Amos all come into the start lineup. The three quarters partnership is an unknown quantity as Edwards and Beard are named. Kirchner plays from full back, interesting to see if the South African international can join the attacking line and contribute. Aaron Wainwright and Lewis Evans come into the back row and tight-head prop Lloyd Fairbrother lines up in the front row.
Cheetahs name a couple of changes to their starting lineup. Marais moves to inside centre to compensate for an injury to Nico Lee, meaning Fred Zeilinga comes in at fly-half. William Small-Smith returns to the side from injury on the right wing and Rabz Maxwano starts on the other wing. Oupa Mohoje comes into the back row.
The track conditions are vital in this fixture as the Cheetahs will look to create an expansive game from the first whistle. Can the Dragons pack stifle the Cheetahs at the breakdown? Dragons attacking options in Hewitt and Amos potentially will provide pace and creativity.
Dragons kicking game needs to be on point throughout; there will be occasions where loose kicking and game management will happen and the Cheetahs will flourish. Cheetahs to put pressure on Munster Rugby with a road trip win, no bonus point try.
Glasgow Warriors to dominate Zebre Rugby
It is top versus bottom in Conference A. Zebre Rugby’s focus this weekend is to be competitive. The pack needs to be on point in their ability to disrupt Warriors ball and provide a solid set piece platform for Canna to attempt to create line break opportunities.
It is going to be a tall order. Glasgow Warriors have named a strong squad for this fixture. Dave Rennie will be keen to start this tranche of games in the competition will renewed vigor on both sides of the ball. The pack looks strong with the likes of Fagerson and Harley in the unit. Hastings gets game time at ten. Jackson, Grigg, Van der Merwe feature in an exciting back line.
Zebre Rugby recall their Italian internationals for this contest; their road trip win in Galway was a high point and more of the same organized defensive setup with fluidity in their attacking play is required. The question for Zebre Rugby is how expansive do they become as their hosts will relish an open field battle.
Expect tries galore in this encounter. Glasgow Warriors to pull away in this fixture in the third quarter as Zebre’s pack is put on the back foot. Hoping Michael Bradley’s side produce a defiant performance but this Warriors side at home are an incredibly hard outfit to breakdown and their ability to launch defense into attack will be too much at times. Bonus point try win for Glasgow.
In this second part, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on Conference B standings which has seen some notable performances from the chief protagonists as well as expected indifferent form of others.
The reigning league champions are top of the conference after eight games. Five points from bonus try performances speaks volumes. Steff Evans has continued his form using his pace to score several tries and a constant source of gain line meters for the team. Tadgh Beirne’s exit at the end of the season is a loss and his turnover wins statistic is a key point. Halfpenny at full back has come into the club, his kicking off the tee solid as always. The issues have manifested themselves in ERC action. The pack has struggled to assert a platform for the back line. The Ulster loss saw issues in the set piece as well. Top of the table but with Leinster Rugby fixtures looming large, a key end of year beckons. Scarlets will be in the top two of the conference. Their skill set and expansive play will come to the fore after March. The key is for the pack to improve and gain parity. Grade A
Excitement reigned in South Africa as Ulster Rugby produced a late surge to beat the Southern Kings in a twelve try drama filled encounter. The fixture encapsulated the good and the bad of Ulster Rugby this season. The sheer lack of consistency and discipline at times in the opening period was terrible. Poor decision making with ball in hand, non-existent defensive cover for Kings kicks in behind. The front five struggled at set-piece in the opening quarter but then like the rest of the side improved. Charles Piatau is a such a key player for the team this term. His loss next season will be huge; ball carrying and offloading ability to the fore in the closing quarter. The legal issues surrounding Jackson and Olding have not helped with respect to game management and their exile has being noteworthy. There is an increasing sense of despair from the Ulster Rugby fan base; the style of play is not catching the eye and the ever recurring words like consistency, set piece issues have not being addressed. A good start has being tapered by reality check losses particularly against Leinster Rugby. Les Kiss is under pressure. Gibbes needs to work overtime to arrest the slide of a front five which despite the likes of Henderson and Best in the ranks have struggled for parity. La Rochelle loss saw serious issues defensively out wide as well with numerous missed first time tackles. Grade B- (weak and regressing)
A positive start to the season for Leinster Rugby. The loss to Glasgow Warriors had positive aspects; the fact that the debutantes manfully continued to execute the game plan. Max Deegan in the back row is a massive development for the province. The squad depth at Leinster Rugby is a source of great encouragement which are driving the established stars to high levels of performance in ERC action. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will look to nurture and improve the defensive skill set of the likes of Adam Byrne who has unquestioned talent offensively but his defensive decisions sometimes are exposed as Munster Rugby showed at the Aviva Stadium. A side who will continue to churn out the wins despite key front line players playing for the national side. Leinster Rugby realize that the Scarlets fixture is a key one to consolidate the playoff position already attained. Gary Ringrose’s fitness will be a source of concern if the star three quarter is still sidelined after this league hiatus. Leinster are progressing nicely and are ahead of Ulster Rugby in the squad depth and form rankings despite their reversal to Glasgow which was the game of the season so far. Grade B+
Kudos to Richard Cockerill and Edinburgh playing staff as a couple of weeks ago, the season looked like it was spiraling out of control. Bradbury stripped of the captaincy due to disciplinary issues and then the thunderbolt of Jon Hardie required cool heads in the Edinburgh camp. They have responded superbly and their 37-10 win over Ospreys showed improvement on both sides of the ball. Kinghorn and Tovey were to the fore in the performance, more required in the weeks to come to continue to pressurize the teams above them. Fife has being prominent too. Solid season start but player disciplinary issues need to stop now. Grade C+ (Progressive)
Benetton Rugby are no longer the soft touch that sides knew and loved from last season. Their abrasive effort in preventing Scarlets securing a bonus point last weekend was evidence of this fact. Resilience is a key word for the side this year and they have secured three deserved victories in the league thus far. Playoffs look remote at this early stage but I foresee improvement for the Italians as the season continues with some keynote performances and scalps. Italian Rugby is finally going in the right direction but plenty still depends on the likes of McKinley and Banks to provide the game management and creativity to create try scoring opportunities. Grade C-
This is a season of transition in the Gwent Region. Bernard Jackman is looking to identify the players that will lead the Welsh region for many years to come. With this process, will come the inevitable truth that certain players will not make the cut. An injury crisis saw Dragons head to Munster and the result was inevitably stark. JJ Hanrahan ran the show at ten and numerous line breaks ensued. 49-6 was a chastening result but one that Jackman will hope will be used as motivation for the squad to bounce back after the league hiatus. Numerous issues in the performance. Next season is when you can start to judge this side, the hope is that the team improve per each game and if they can get wins in the process then a bonus. Grade D (middling)
While the Toyota Cheetahs have embraced the tournament, the Southern Kings have floundered from one week to the next. Yes, there was a resurgence against Ulster Rugby but some of that can be accounted for terrible Ulster play. Five tries. Two points registered on the board but this is a contest which at times exposed Southern Kings skill set. The back line has being a mess all year; ball handling, attacking lines and game management have being in short supply. Moments of brilliance but there have being abject moments too. The pack has being the only crumb of comfort. Solid set piece and the tackle count from the unit is not for argument. South Africa RFU need to make an early call; do they recruit better players for the side or do they pull the plug on the franchise? The BBC Ulster report before last weekend’s fixture showed a community who have no affinity to the club, school kids’ ambition is not to play for the side. All worrying signs. A soft touch for opposition. Grade F