Guinness Pro14: Round 16 Reflections

Playoff picture becomes somewhat clearer

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

Conference A: Top two stride further ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference B: Landslide results

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 (Friday Night Fixtures)

Intriguing fixtures on tap

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

Glasgow Warriors looking for improvement 

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

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

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

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

Leinster Rugby should have an easy night 

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

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

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

Ospreys in must win territory 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Munster 43 – 0 Isuzu Southern Kings

Munster Rugby secure bonus point try victory

Munster Rugby remain top of Conference A after an emphatic bonus point try victory over a Isuzu Southern Kings who after a strong opening quarter were exposed in set piece and discipline. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Wet conditions poses early issues 

The conditions at Irish Independent Park were challenging to say the least. The incessant blustery rainy conditions causing issues for both sides in the opening period. Munster Rugby had the elements at their backs in the first half but it was the Isuzu Southern Kings who started the better, ball carries on point and making good progress deep into Munster Rugby territory.

Munster Rugby though defensively were well organized and forced turnover ball at regular intervals which setup good territorial gains with the boot of Bleyendaal and Scannell. The opening try came on fourteen minutes, good phase play from Holland and Farrell setting the platform for Neil Cronin to crash over from close range.

Chris Farrell worryingly went down for medical treatment after the try and albeit the medics tried to strap up the thigh and knee areas, the decision was made to call the center ashore for an early bath. A big concern for province and national team ahead of some crucial games for both sides in the coming weeks. Johann van Graan stated that Farrell experienced pain to the inside of his knee; more to follow in the coming days.

Munster Rugby were struggling to quell the aggressive Kings defensive line speed and abrasive breakdown work in that opening period. Kings enjoying a couple of excellent moments dispossessing Munster players with the ball but the approach was borderline and after a number of infringements, Lerm was sin binned for a no arm tackle at the breakdown. It was a key call as Munster Rugby used the man advantage to build pressure and more points.

The breakdown work from the hosts improved in the closing stages of the half with Lerm in the bin and better recycling ball from the hosts saw Bleyendaal deliver a superb pass to Andrew Conway whose running line exposed the cover defense of the Kings. 12-0 at the break. Kings still in the contest but disciplinary issues were rearing their head with the visitors.

One way traffic in second half 

The second half should have seen the Isuzu Southern Kings look to create with the elements at their back but Munster Rugby tightened up their breakdown and attacking play in the third quarter and put this fixture to bed.

The third try arrived on fifty-nine minutes. Conway was the class act in the back line exchanges tonight and his deft chip in behind caused massive Kings’ defensive issues. Mathewson was taken out but Sweetnam was supporting to touchdown. It signaled the end of the contest.

The bonus point try was not long in coming as Kings’ defensive line speed started to wane at an alarming rate of knots. Mathewson with his speed of pass from the ruck allowing Bleyendaal the time and space to unleash his runners. Scannell at center produced a key gain line break with additional ball carries from the Munster Rugby pack to setup Billy Holland to score.

All goes a bit Pete Tong for the Kings 

With this score, the Kings discipline completely went out the window. Late hits and dangerous tackles the order of the day. The fifth try arriving on 67 minutes where more penalty concessions leading to the five meter scrum. Munster Rugby pack did the rest with the line out and maul.

The rest of the game was pretty exhibition stuff. Kings were restricted in their attacking play and they switched off in their defensive duties. Jean Kleyn scoring as Kings switched off at a line out. Rory Scannell completed the rout with a smart drive. 43-0.

Reflections 

The positives for Munster Rugby were the performance of the back three. Mike Haley at full back reveled with ball in hand from deep; made endless yards for the side and his cohesion with colleagues around him was much better. Andrew Conway’s ability to create and dominate in the air was to the fore. Darren Sweetnam was sharp in his defensive duties and provided an attacking outlet out wide. A good cameo for all three players.

The adjustments from Munster Rugby in the second half saw very eye catching. They negated the Kings’ threat in the breakdown, quickened ruck ball with the introduction of Mathewson. Cloete was industrious as well and got his trademark breakdown steal. Wycherley is such a prospect; thunderous display from the West Cork native. Botha’s work rate was infectious.

The set piece dominated Kings pack. The scrum was a destructive means of creating field position. John Ryan is scrummaging superbly well this year and his domination tonight should provide more food for thought for Joe Schmidt and the national team. The line out at times misfired (understandable given the weather conditions) but when required, the usual suspects delivered.

Kings continue to struggle on the road. Their back three have serious potential but they are let down massively by their discipline. The penalty count was off the charts tonight and setup easy attacking opportunities for Munster Rugby. The opening quarter was decent but it means nothing if the side cannot be consistent for the entire game. Kings need to step up in this tournament; their second half performance was rubbish and not one for the league organizers to watch. Kings need to increase their squad depth and talent, otherwise the Port Elizabeth side are wasting their time in this competition.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Friday Night Preview)

Guinness Pro14 – How I have missed you so?

After a couple of weeks to rest battered bodies, the Guinness Pro14 league resumes with some key fixtures which could go a long way in determining who makes the playoffs or not. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action on tap for Friday night.

Edinburgh Rugby hold all the aces against Dragons

Murrayfield. Fortress Edinburgh Rugby. This stage of the season is where Edinburgh Rugby need to create momentum ahead of their crunch European Cup quarter final against Munster Rugby on March 30th. If you wanted a fixture to set the springboard for resurgence, the Dragons as opposition would probably fit the bill.

Dragons come into this contest on the back of a narrow home loss to Munster Rugby. The weather conditions made the fixture into a non-spectacle and with a little more composure, Dragons could have and perhaps should have secured the win. The discipline issues which has been a sore point this season reared its head yet again during this loss.

Their team selection sees Jarryd Sage (centre) and James Benjamin (Eight) get first team call ups. Ollie Griffiths moves to the seven jersey to accommodate the arrival of Benjamin to the back row. Gavin Henson is named on the replacements as the Dragons must make do without six players who are away on international duty.

Edinburgh Rugby team news sees the timely return of Magnus Bradbury back from a four month injury spell on the sidelines. Richard Cockerill can also welcome back Scottish squad players Ben Toolis, Darcy Graham, Chris Dean and Luke Crosbie for this encounter. Try scoring machine Duhan van der Merwe also returns to the back three.

The odds are stacked for Dragons with a strong Edinburgh Rugby side named. Can the front five gain parity? I have seriously doubts and with Mata marauding with ball in hand setting up endless excellent attacking platform, it is not conceivable to think that Edinburgh Rugby could win this with a bonus point for good measure.

Munster Rugby face Southern Kings challenge 

A debut visit for the Isuzu Southern Kings to Munster Rugby and the surroundings of Irish Independent Park, Cork. A fixture if dry should produce some excellent try scoring opportunities.

The Munster Rugby team news sees a number of Irish international squad players rejoin for this fixture. Chris Farrell, Dave Kilcoyne, Billy Holland, Andrew Conway, John Ryan, Niall Scannell all get valuable game time tonight with Tyler Bleyendaal and Neil Cronin forming the half back pairing.

The Isuzu Southern Kings buoyed by their recent fixture home win to Edinburgh Rugby give a start to out-half Bader Pretorius while Berton Klaasen (centre) and loose-forward Stephan de Wit come into the starting lineup.

The Isuzu Southern Kings have had an indifferent fixture series with two losses to to the Toyota Cheetahs on the form guide prior to the Edinburgh Rugby win.

This is an interesting fixture. The hope is that the Isuzu Southern Kings will look to run the ball from all angles, pose questions of Munster Rugby defensively. The expectation is that Munster Rugby’s front five should be sufficiently cohesive to create try scoring opportunities. Munster Rugby to prey on the South Africans poor away form to win this fixture with a potential bonus point opportunity late on.

50/50 contest at Liberty Stadium 

This is the standout fixture of the round potentially. Both sides have slipped off the playoff race pace in recent rounds and a victory for either would be potentially huge in the context of the playoff picture come the end of the regular season.

Ospreys are impacted massively for this fixture as they are missing at least seven first team marquee players due to international duty. Jordan Lay, a recent acquisition comes into the front row.

Ulster Rugby are boosted by the return of Iain Henderson to the pack, good news for both province and Ireland ahead of the remaining Guinness Six Nation fixtures. Ireland squad players John Cooney and Jordi Murphy also feature to get valuable game time.

A massive fixture for both sides. Playoff momentum is the buzz keywords for the victor. A cagey contest beckons here, potential edge to Ulster Rugby given the players back into the starting lineup but it is a very close fixture to call.

Guinness Pro14: Round 14 Preview

Tournament resumes with renewed swag!

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

Glasgow Warriors should secure home victory 

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

Leinster fringe players to flex their muscles 

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

Benetton Rugby look for road win at Ulster Rugby

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

Dragons entertain Munster Rugby 

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

Cheetahs primed for Zebre Rugby

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

Cardiff Blues look to rebound against Connacht Rugby 

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

Edinburgh travel to Southern Kings 

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

Heineken Champions Cup: Pool Phase Review

The cream has come to the top!

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

Who impressed?

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

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

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

Progressing Nicely

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

Scope for improvement:

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

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

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

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

Disappointments of the competition:

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

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

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

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

Heineken Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 9 – 7 Exeter Chiefs

Heineken Champions Cup Drama at Thomond Park

Munster Rugby secured top spot in Pool 2 with a nerve jangling, tension filled 9-7 victory over Exeter Chiefs at a sold out Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick was in attendance and reflects on the fixture twenty-four hours on from the result.

There was a sense of expectancy in the air around Thomond Park pregame as supporters of both Munster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs mingled in the fan zone and club houses adjoining to the hallowed venue. The warm up sessions from both sides was an indication of how the contest would go; both pack units executing set piece drills with increasing velocity.

Stand Up and Fight sung by Jean Wallace lifted the roof off the West Stand as the atmosphere cranked up to the maximum. The scene was set for the pool 2 decider and the early exchanges were brutally physical and abrasive. Both sides looking for potential weaknesses with early attacking phase play but line breaks were at a premium.

Strong Munster Rugby start

Munster Rugby opened the scoring on six minutes with a Joey Carbery penalty straight in front of the posts after good work from the Munster Rugby pack. Stander ripping the jersey from an Exeter Chiefs second row to highlight an offside indiscretion as the maul progressed with interest. The end of this play saw Conor Murray go down with an apparent shoulder injury but the scrum half continued in the contest.

Exeter Chiefs response immediate

If the home supporters thought that this would be another cakewalk end of pool home game fixture, they were duly put on notice as Exeter Chiefs response to the opening score was emphatic on thirteen minutes.

A crunching hit on Peter O’Mahony causing a turnover and after Niall Scannell was pinged at the breakdown, Exeter Chiefs had no hesitation to go for the corner. Simmonds’ kick was on the money and it was maul time for the English side.

The maul was brought down just on the Munster Rugby line; with a penalty already secured from that collapse, Don Armand crashed over after good recycling and phase play. TMO was called to confirm and the try was given. The conversion was emphatically kicked over by Simmonds and Munster Rugby were behind.

Kicking Game Advances 

The remainder of the half saw a cat and mouse battle ensue. Exeter Chiefs making sure that their exit strategy was clinically executed. Nick White must be applauded for his kick game as time after time, his kicks gave his colleagues maximum time to chase and close down the Munster Rugby ball receiver. The breakdown battle was chaotic. Exeter Chiefs disrupting Munster Rugby ruck ball.

With Garces content to let the breakdown battle turn into a free for all, Munster Rugby were increasingly getting isolated in their ball presentation and Conor Murray needed to box kick more frequently that anticipated with mixed results. Exeter Chiefs were rattling Munster Rugby in their line speed, breakdown work and kicking game.

Jittery Munster Rugby attacking play

This fixture was now a test of Munster Rugby’s ability to execute their attacking game plan. The pack ball carries were struggling to create holes in the Chiefs defense and as a result, there was an air of panic at times with some of the attacking plays run by Munster Rugby. It resembled at times their performance against Racing 92 in Bordeaux last season.

With Munster Rugby not getting any joy in the way of attacking gain line breaks, it came as a relief that the home side front row won a penalty for an emphatic scrum drive on twenty minutes. Joey Carbery’s kick was unerringly accurate and the gap was now down to a point. 6-7.

Exeter Chiefs continued to probe with mixed results. Jack Nowell at full back looking most likely to create attacking opportunities from his full back position. Their persistence to kick deep into Munster Rugby territory was having good rewards and more indecisive Munster Rugby game management with ball in hand saw the English side in prime position to score more point on forty minutes only for quality breakdown work allowing Stander to run the ball out into touch.

There was an increasingly air of the nervousness in the stands at half-time. Munster Rugby’s pack platform had not materialized. As a result, the attacking game plan was neutralized by Exeter Chiefs. The kicking game was been won by Exeter Chiefs; adjustments were required from the hosts.

Precious scoring opportunities

The second half saw both sides have potentially promising moments. The game was preciously offering little in terms of expansive play. This was a proper arm wrestle; a game of attrition, a game of sheer physicality as both sides battered the other with minimum creativity. Brawn was the order of the day.

Munster Rugby on video analysis will look to key contributions of a number of personnel in the pack. Tadhg Beirne in the third quarter was outstanding, his jackal positioning over the breakdown winning three penalties to launch attacking platforms. CJ Stander ball carrying and tackle count setting the tone.

Exeter Chiefs continued to threaten with their attacking maul a key threat. More points were turned down by the visitors heading into the fourth quarter as they looked to turn the screw to secure a decisive second try. The game was becoming more and more frayed for the hosts as Murray and Conway had good opportunities denied by superb last ditch defending.

Line out steal from Holland key

Cue the key moment of the contest. Tadhg Beirne departed the pitch and was replaced by the ever reliable Billy Holland. A line out five meters out from the Munster Rugby line. The defensive line out was ditched and the decision was to contest the line out. The risk was clear; lose the line out and the try was almost certainly conceded. The lift from Loughman and Stander for Holland was outstanding; the steal sublime and the energy in the crowd was reinvigorated as the home supporters rose in unison to applaud the play.

The line out steal was a key moment as Exeter Chiefs were now losing the gain line battle to Munster Rugby. Phase play was more direct from the hosts and there was more urgency in ball presentation and quicker ruck ball from Mathewson upon his introduction. Dan Goggin and Arno Botha starting to see more ball carries and creating more gain line breaks.

It set the platform for the key penalty award on seventy minutes. Exeter Chiefs pinged in the line out and there was no hesitation from Carbery to go for the posts. His kicking was emphatic and the Thomond Park faithful roared the kick over. 9-7 and suddenly Exeter Chiefs need to change their game plan to get back into the contest.

However, Munster Rugby defensively have to be applauded for a disciplined performance in those closing stages. Their line speed was on point and their decision to commit to the breakdown was superb. Rhys Marshall was a key cog in several defensive plays. The New Zealand stalking the ball carrier and making several key hits resulting in lost gain line yards for Exeter Chiefs.

Exeter Chiefs from been just outside the Munster 22 were now back on the Munster Rugby 10 meter line. Their attacking passing moves were rather static and moving ponderously from side to side culminating in Munster Rugby exposing an Exeter Chiefs player and putting him into touch. Garces blew the final whistle. Palpable relief.

Munster Rugby Learnings

What did we learn last night? The determination, grit, hunger and sheer desire to win this contest from Munster Rugby was to the fore. They lost the territory and possession battle. They lost the open kicking game but Munster Rugby refused to wilt and Exeter Chiefs like so many other teams who come to Thomond Park were caught at the death and lost the contest.

The breakdown was a mess. Garces and officiating crew should have handled this area of play better but it clearly rattled Munster Rugby in their ability to launch attacks. The attacking game plan was frantic at times; rushed game management decisions with ball in hand all too common. The ferocity of the breakdown will continue to be like this in the quarter final; coaching and player review of this area is required.

The Munster Rugby scrum did go well last night and should have yielded more reward. There was at least three scrums where Munster Rugby were unlucky not to win penalties. Kilcoyne, Scannell and Ryan provided a solid set piece throughout. The maul defense improved massively after Armand’s try.

Exeter Chiefs kicking game plan caused Munster Rugby massive issues. Haley was assured under the high ball but there were clear cohesion issues in how Munster Rugby players were slow to support their full back for a possible offload. This needs to improve as the business end of the season fast approaches.

A hard fought win, a gritty performance but Munster Rugby management will realize that the level of accuracy with ball in hand has to improve dramatically by the time the side travel to Murrayfield at the end of March to face Edinburgh Rugby side.

Irish Provincial Rugby Player Updates – Jan 8th

Ian Keatley looks likely to move to Benetton Rugby next season

A couple of interesting sound bites from the Irish provinces with players in their final year of their contracts mulling over their options. Hawkeye Sidekick picks apart the key points from start of this week press releases and pays tribute to Ian Keatley, a player who has given total commitment to the Munster Rugby jersey despite some supporters protestations.

The news in Munster Rugby is that Ian Keatley looks primed to move to Benetton Rugby next season. This has to be confirmed officially by both parties and of course the player but the media sources look on point here.

It is a decision if confirmed although sad to see was inevitable given the surplus of fly-halves at the club as well as the decision to acquire Joey Carbery in the off-season. Munster Rugby’s intentions were clear; they were going in a different direction from a ten jersey perspective.

What will Ian Keatley’s legacy be at Munster Rugby? The guy has to be applauded for his grit, determination and resilience during his time. He was in the unenviable position of replacing the mercurial Ronan O’Gara and arrived in 2011 just as the core group of players who won Heineken Cups were departing the club.

The transitional phase at the club during these next few years were a mess and unfortunately for Keatley, certain sections of the Munster Rugby home supporter bayed for his head, looking for the fall guy after a shaky period of performances in the 2015 / 16 season.

It was brutal viewing. Your own fans turning on you in that way, have never seen it happen to another player in Thomond Park before or since. Munster Rugby management perhaps could have taken the player out of the firing line but they did not and what unfolded was deplorable treatment of a player from a mental standpoint.

Most players would have caved in, thrown in the towel and looked for pastures new but Keatley remain staunchly committed to the club. His performances for the club post Axel Foley’s death were on point; the supporter base fully galvanized behind the Belvedre College product last season as the side advanced to the last four of the European Champions Cup.

His performance against Leicester Tigers at home last season was ironic; he left the pitch to a chorus of applause and gratitude in stark contrast to December 2015 when he was heckled and harangued on his replacement. Sport can be quite unbelievably fickle?

No game time this season for Keatley but Benetton Rugby if confirmed have secured a quality professional, a player who can fill multiple positions. Keatley is an accomplished full back as well as twelve along with his fly-half duties.

Benetton Rugby have recruited well here; the potential gap in fly-half options at the start of next season has been mitigated by this move if it materializes.

Keatley can slot in and make a genuine case to be the ten starter for the club when the Italian contingent including Ian McKinley come back from the RWC 2019. A good move for Ian Keatley and his family; nice part of the world to play your rugby. All the best Ian from Hawkeye Sidekick!

Jaco Taute – Leicester Tigers Bound?

The news also from the Munster Rugby camp is that South African three quarter powerhouse Jaco Taute looks destined to move to the Leicester Tigers next season. Taute has struggled for game time since picking up a serious knee injury last season and with the emergence of Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin and Sam Arnold, that predicament may continue.

The player galvanized the unit when he arrived in October 2016 and his attacking and defensive nous was key to Munster Rugby’s resurgence. I met the player a couple of times in Limerick and I have to say Jaco is an absolute gentleman.

Leicester Tigers is a club in transition. The long term vision of the club needs stability at the head coaching role position so hopefully Geordan Murphy gets the time to implement his ideas and recruitment strategy to the party. Taute’s physicality in ball carrying should aid the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Matt Toomua immensely next season.

Taute’s defensive skill set and organizational ability to get players around him to reset was a key facet during his time in Munster Rugby; something that the Tigers are in serious need of. A player who has provided a key contribution to the Munster Rugby jersey.

Cian Kelleher in Leinster Rugby attire again from next season

The rumors were out at the weekend outside the Sportsground about the future of Cian Kelleher and today was confirmation from a Connacht Rugby that the player is leaving the club at the end of the current season to most likely Leinster Rugby (even the club have yet to confirm the story on their end).

Kelleher was brave to leave the Leinster Rugby setup in search of first team rugby but the risk has been rewarded handsomely with standout performances this season particularly under the guidance of Andy Friend. His performances against the Irish provinces this season alone an indication of the progression in his skill set and player development.

Leinster Rugby’s squad depth means that the player is not guaranteed a back three slot but questions will abound on who from the current squad may go at the end of the season?

Some big names at the club in the back three positions currently. Kelleher will have a superb opportunity to secure invaluable game minutes early next season; he needs to take the opportunity with both hands with the Irish RWC 2019 squad contingent back for European Cup action in November.

Jack Carty commits to Connacht Rugby for two more years!

As Jack Carty stated today, it was a no brainer decision. Carty has committed his future to Connacht Rugby by signing a new two year contract. Why would Carty leave the Sportsground? His performances this season have been outstanding, his consistency in all facets of play reaching new heights under the managerial guidance of Andy Friend.

The performance levels have risen as well by genuine competition in the squad ranks for the ten jersey with the acquisition of David Horowitz and Conor Fitzgerald who have shown well this season. Good recruitment policy from the club has set the platform for Carty to be challenged and flourish.

Carty has excelled and his relationship with Marmion or Blade in the half-back unit has been key to Connacht’s resurgence this season. A contract which was very much expected to be signed, sealed and delivered any day has been confirmed. Well deserved contract extension!

Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference A?

Exciting final block of games beckon!

With European Cup action taking center stage for the next two weekends, it is time to review where we are in the Guinness Pro14 conferences and what we should expect when the league resumes at the end of this month. Hawkeye Sidekick takes on the story from here starting with Conference A.

Conference A Standings:

What to look out for?

Munster Rugby

Munster Rugby are top of the conference after last weekend’s set of results. The side produced their best attacking performance of the season in their BP win over Connacht Rugby on the road in round thirteen.

Key European Cup fixtures beckon and the side will need to continue to evolve and improve on both sides of the ball to be a realistic Guinness Pro14 contender. The road trip fixture to Ospreys looks key in determining whether the side will be vying for a top spot playoff berth.

Glasgow Warriors

Glasgow Warriors have hit a complete slump. Three consecutive league losses has opened the conference wide open. Warriors are a quality outfit but the European Cup pool finale could potentially shape how they perform upon the resumption of the league. I still think that they are the team to beat in this conference but the pack issues exposed in recent weeks and lack of cohesion in attacking play which surface against Edinburgh Rugby needs to be addressed in a hurry.

Ospreys well placed

Ospreys are currently in third position in the league; their form has been mixed in recent weeks. Good wins over Cardiff Blues and Scarlets but then a road trip loss to the Dragons. George North continues to impress with ball in hand. The big question for me on the Ospreys is when their key marquee players are away on international duty, how will the side perform? November saw some wretched performances on the road when their squad was stretched. This cannot be repeated coming down the homestretch.

Connacht Rugby progressing nicely

Connacht Rugby have shown massive upside this season. A new coach and revitalized mindset has seen the side play highly entertaining rugby this season. Their performance against Munster Rugby last weekend at times was sublime; quick ruck pass unleashing Tom Farrell and Cian Kelleher to create havoc in the Munster Rugby defensive ranks.

When you consider that Aki, Buckley and O’Brien were out of the side against pretty much first team Munster Rugby outfit, it is where Connacht Rugby’s head space is at when they are disappointed by not winning the contest. A key home fixture against Ospreys could make or break the side’s season in a couple of weeks.

Blues need to fix consistency issues

Cardiff Blues have been frustrating to watch this season. When they click into gear, the side are loaded with threats from multiple areas. When they are not, they are mediocre. The key will be to figure out the consistency issues in the side. Blues have a couple of keynote fixtures against Conference A opposition upon league resumption; their road form has to improve for the side to be a serious playoff contender.

Cheetahs should make late playoff charge

Cheetahs. After a very slow start to the season, the side are starting to gain momentum. They were very impressive in their first run out of the year on the road to Zebre Rugby last weekend. Their expansive style of play will cause teams no end of issues. Two games in hand over everyone else in the conference, Cheetahs should account for the Southern Kings in the next few weeks. A potential ten points haul and they are back into playoff picture contention. For the league, Toyota Cheetahs need to be in the playoff mix.

Zebre Rugby cast adrift

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

Guinness Pro 14: Round 13 Preview (Irish Provincial Fixtures)

Last round of Irish Provincial derbies up for decision

A hectic festive period sees teams juggle squad rotation to the max ahead of crunch European Cup fixtures next weekend. Munster Rugby travel to the Sportsground with a strong looking squad on paper against a Connacht Rugby side missing a couple of first team regulars. Leinster Rugby will be keen to get on winning ways as they entertain an Ulster Rugby side who have left off the majority of the marquee starters. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

All points to a Leinster Rugby bonus point win 

The team selections for this RDS fixture left me quite underwhelmed. Ulster Rugby have decided to rest their first team stars with a key fixture against Racing 92 looming on the horizon next weekend. Leinster Rugby have juggled the team selection after an ill-disciplined performance against Munster Rugby on the road. The fixture looks like a cohesive mess.

Ulster Rugby have looked at the fixture; weighed their options and decided that this fixture is beyond them. A bit harsh but when you decide to blood four academy players in the cauldron of the RDS after Leinster Rugby have just been beaten last time out, enough said. Lambs to the slaughter?

The youngsters in the side will try hard but there is a feeling here of their Thomond Park performance on this one. It will be important for the likes of Herbst, O’Connor, Timoney, Shanahan and McPhilips to try and set the tone early for others to follow.

The performance against Connacht Rugby last weekend was well off the standard required; pack struggled for set piece dominance and the back three defensively at times were caught more than once by Farrell, Aki and Godwin in ball carrying.

Leinster Rugby’s video analysis of their Thomond Park first half performance would have been a sight to behold. Discipline went out the window in that opening period and cost them the game. Lowe’s red card capped off a horrendous half and it could have been worse.

The only crumb of comfort for Cullen and Lancaster was the second half performance. With fourteen players, they defended with gusto and organization scoring two tries of their own. An intercept try from Earls deep in Munster Rugby territory was the only blotch to the copybook.

The team selection from Leinster Rugby blends fringe players with players who need game time ahead of the crunch Toulouse fixture next weekend. Rob Kearney returns to the full back slot and his experience will be vital in organizing a talented but still raw back three. Adam Byrne and Barry Daly need game time and this will be a good hit out.

I am particularly interested in how Ciaran Frawley bounces back from last weekend. His sub cameo unfortunately saw an errand pass which Earls intercepted and scored for the game winning try. Frawley’s response this weekend will be interesting, see if the player can dust himself down and perform to the high levels that he has produced so far this season.

The pack looks abrasive despite key personnel absentees. Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter look a potent front row. Molony and Kearney are solid set piece operators and then there is massive youth, pace and power in Murphy, Penny and Deegan in the back row.

Verdict: Leinster Rugby (BP Win)

The hope here is that Ulster Rugby start well with gusto and get an early lead. Anything else and this will be a long, arduous, horrendous experience for a talented yet inexperienced Ulster Rugby outfit. Leinster Rugby’s bench looks stacked as well if required. No rest for Ulster Rugby in this fixture I fear.

Munster Rugby looking for attacking display 

The team selection from van Graan and Munster Rugby team selection speaks volumes; they have identified that the attacking side of the ball in the back line needs to tighten up and more game time this weekend ahead of a crucial European Cup fixture schedule is what is required.

The big news is the return of Chris Farrell in the three quarters. If you are to believe some fan forums, Farrell’s absence has been the key reason for a stagnant back line performance. I think there is more than one player for the struggles but the Tyrone native’s return is much welcomed given his physicality on both sides of the ball. Dan Goggin switches to twelve and needs to impress this week to realistically be a genuine starter for the rest of the season.

Conway, Earls and Wootton form the back three and it will be interesting (weather permitting) how Munster Rugby’s back line play will fare tomorrow in Galway. With Carbery and Mathewson at the half-back berths, quick ruck ball is paramount to launch the back line. The ruck ball in recent weeks has been very slow, poor setup on the ruck too (additional player or two over committing to the ruck). Interesting to see how this facet of play goes from the team in red.

A strong pack is named. Peter O’Mahony, Arno Botha and Tommy O’Donnell form an abrasive back row unit with Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn in the second row. John Ryan, Jeremy Loughman and Niall Scannell in the front row. The cohesion issues in the line out should improve from tomorrow’s outing. The scrum set piece has been good, a good opportunity to run the rule over Loughman in a starting role.

Andy Friend has wielded the changes for this encounter; an excellent home win against Ulster Rugby last weekend has seen the side infused with fresh legs. Inspirational captain Jarrad Butler misses out for the hosts due to injury but the back row is loaded mobility, pace and breakdown nous with Colby Fainga’a, Eoghan Masterson and Gorey native Paul Boyle in the ranks.

The half back partnership of Blade and Carty continues; the partnership has excelled in recent weeks and why break continuity? The big news is that Tom Daly makes his Connacht Rugby debut alongside Tom Farrell. A potential abrasive, exciting three quarter partnership and will be tested by Goggin and Farrell on the other side of the ball.

Matt Healy returns to the back three with Cian Kelleher continuing on the other wing. The lineup is complete by Darragh Leader who has looked a different player this season with his confident aerial and ball carrying ability.

Verdict: Munster Rugby (close win)

A strong Munster Rugby outfit; if the starting lineup fails to fire with ball in hand tomorrow, then massive questions in confidence will be raised in the camp ahead of a crunch European Cup pool finale. The bench looks strong with the likes of Murray, Bleyendaal and Stander in the ranks. The team need to deliver.

Connacht Rugby have greatly impressed me this season. The absence of Aki is a blow and cohesive issues with Daly / Farrell will happen. The bench impact looks strong in the pack but the back line options look stretched and because of that, it is Munster Rugby who will edge this contest. The performance of Chris Farrell will be duly observed.