Munster Rugby: 2018 / 19 Season Review

Thomond Park: Munster unbeaten at home but issues to address

It is a couple of days since Munster Rugby bowed out of the Guinness Pro14, a semi-final playoff loss to Leinster Rugby, a loss where the attacking side of the ball saw only one line break, a loss where Leinster Rugby’s front row engineered an opening try that settled the contest. It has been a tough end to the season for the men in red. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the season and ponders how the side can improve and progress next season.

The Good:

Folks have dwelt enough on the doom and gloom at the province but let us review the season as a whole. Munster Rugby were yet again at the business end of European and Domestic competition.

The European Cup pool was a tricky one to negotiate for various reasons. Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester Rugby provided physicality and skill set while Castres were uncompromisingly cynical in their approach against the Irish province.

There are sides in the off season right now who would love to be in Munster Rugby’s position. It is the sheer high expectations at the club that there is a sense of disappointment in the semi-final playoff losses. A good place to be, everyone looking to improve and get to the next level which is win silverware.

Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park were fortresses this season. Munster Rugby went unbeaten in both venues; the atmosphere in the Cork venue was exhilarating on those Friday night games. Thomond Park came alive at crucial stages; think back to the Glasgow Warriors home fixture where it looked like Munster Rugby were on the ropes only for Rory Scannell to rescue the fixture with that superb long range penalty.

The Munster Rugby side saw several promising youth prospects get their opportunity to impress. It was great to see the likes of Calvin Nash, Dan Goggins and Fineen Wycherley get their opportunities. Several other underage players impressed on the road trip to Benetton Rugby at the back end of the regular season; the underage talent pool in the province is producing talent and it will be interesting to see how these players coupled with the emergence of players such as Craig Casey fare next season.

The scrum and defensive structures were plus points personally this season. The scrummaging more often than not provided a good platform for the team to attack opposition. The defensive line speed and structure was quite impressive this season for long periods and the ability to not concede penalties at the death against Edinburgh Rugby and Benetton Rugby was commendable.

The Bad:

The business end of the season. The playoffs continues to be a source of great frustration and concern for management, players and supporters. The playoffs this season in both European Cup and Guinness Pro14 action saw prevailing themes.

The line out was exposed at key intervals by Saracens and Leinster Rugby. The consistency of the set piece is a key improvement area for the side; surprising given the line out options in the side with the likes of Kleyn, Beirne, Holland, O’Mahony.

The side struggled in these playoffs to bring a clear attacking game plan to the table. One out runners was the predominant attacking methodology, look to smash their way through opposition but minimal momentum generated in ruck ball distribution and ball carrier line speed, this threat was quickly gobbled up by opposition.

The lack of game time collectively this season for Murray and Carbery. Both players had injury plagued seasons and unfortunately when it came to the business end of the season, the lack of game time was exposed. The kicking game was nullified by opposition and it was used against Munster Rugby particularly against Saracens.

Murray and Carbery if fully fit next season will provide more continuity in attacking play for the province but for this to succeed, the side need to review their ruck ball delivery and clear out work as at times, opposition were able to quickly stifle any momentum that Munster Rugby tried to build in the attacking sense from the breakdown area.

When you consider the back line unit throughout the season, the word that comes to mind is ‘change’, change in terms of personnel changes either in the three quarters or back three. You can get away with it for so long until you face an opponent who are so well drilled (Saracens / Glasgow / Leinster) that the level of cohesion and continuity is exposed.

Wondering also about whether the team peaked too soon again this season? Their best rugby in past seasons has been left in the start of the calendar year and the side have looked to be out of ideas and legs for the playoff push. I am not sure how this can be addressed; the side looked jaded particularly in those playoff games against Saracens, Benetton Rugby and Leinster Rugby down the stretch.

It is not like management have not used squad rotation this side but the side’s attacking lines lacked any significant bite down the stretch; the running lines and distinct lack of ball carrying support runners were standout moments from this year’s playoff run. Players’ confidence was dented on the attacking side of the ball.

Going Forward:

The media hounds have seen the failure of Munster Rugby not to reach the summit this season and they have been unapologetic in their assessment. The coaching departures of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones represents a chance for Munster Rugby to evaluate what their game plan will be next season. Great players and coaching tenures from both men.

Does this team go back to a Rob Penney style of rugby (people have short memories on how the Rob Penney era ended?). Does the team look to make subtle changes to the attacking and defensive setups to get to the next level? The coaching selections that Munster Rugby and Johann van Graan are faced with are critical. I detect that it could be the latter.

The rumors of Graham Rowntree as a potential defensive coach is positive news; his experience with club, county and British & Irish Lions is vast and his set piece knowledge could prove an invaluable tool for the side long term if appointed.

The backs coach is an intriguing appointment. Does van Graan look to his native country to recruit or does the IRFU / Munster Rugby have someone in mind?

Mike Ruddock personally is a guy that should be getting an interview at least. A vastly experienced, well respected head coach. His ethos on the attacking side of the ball seen with Lansdowne in recent seasons; they have been a joy to watch with their endless ball carrying support lines along with excellent ball carrier line speed and quick ruck ball distribution.

The appointments have to be considered; the quick buck option will not do. The frustration is building among the squad members who have been with the club for a long period. They see their window of opportunity to win silverware slowly disappear and the sights of Saracens and Leinster Rugby winning with a bit to spare makes these coaching appointments all the more significant.

The supporters will look on with interest; the supporters will always support the side. Munster Rugby yet again delivered quality standout moments throughout the season but the failures in the post season this year has to be the catalyst for the province to reflect and make the prudent steps to improve the side and organization to get to the next level.

Guinness Pro14: Munster Rugby 15 – 13 Benetton Rugby

Munster Rugby escape with victory

May Bank Holiday weekend and Limerick is in festival mode. The annual Riverfest is on and the city center is a hive of activity, people enjoying the weather, the music, the food, the hospitality.

The same vibe was in short supply for the locals who attended this playoff fixture against Benetton Rugby at Thomond Park.

A game where Munster Rugby were exposed for long periods but persevered to secure a hard fought if fortunate result. Hawkeye Sidekick was in attendance and reflects on the action.

Possession but no end product

Munster Rugby started with typical work rate and determination. Possession was secured and forced Benetton Rugby into the tackle count early in the opening quarter. However, accuracy issues in attacking running lines were exposed as ball was conceded to the Italians at a frequent rate.

The best opportunity from Munster Rugby to score the opening try in the opening period was when Tadhg Beirne barreled over from close range only to knock the ball on. It typified the performance from the hosts and the Benetton Rugby side grew in confidence as the game’s opening quarter concluded. Darren Sweetnam had another opportunity but a fumble also put paid to putting points on the board.

Even though Munster Rugby would take the lead from Tyler Bleyendaal, the deficit was quickly erased as Nigel Owens pinged Peter O’Mahony at ruck time to present an easy three points for Tommaso Allan to level the scores. After the sustained period of pressure from Munster Rugby to start the contest, Benetton Rugby would have been delighted with the start.

Benetton Rugby hit the front

Allan from the ten jersey than started to exert his influence on the game. His game management in the second quarter on point and his execution of deft kicks in behind the Munster Rugby defensive line coupled with quality passing to his three quarters suddenly had the hosts on the back foot. Ratuva Tavuyara dived over in the corner for a try, which was converted by Allan and the visitors had a 10-3 lead.  Munster Rugby were behind and needed to regroup in a hurry at the break.

Benetton Rugby squander game winning position

The words in the Munster Rugby dressing room had the desired effect as good phase play setup a penalty for Bleyendaal to cut the arrears to four points but Benetton Rugby were a constant threat in their ball carrying and offloading game.

Two big opportunities were spurned by the Italians in a vital third quarter period. Steyn knocked on when presented with a glorious opportunity to score under the posts.

The move preceding to the knock on saw Benetton Rugby expose Munster Rugby’s outside defense and the supporting running lines from the Italians had Munster Rugby’s cover defense in all sorts of trouble. Soon after, yet another spill from Benetton in a promising position was to take place. Huge moments in the context of the result.

Munster Rugby respond

The response from Munster Rugby from these near misses were admirable considering the circumstances. The side were extremely flat throughout, their attacking play was non-existent, one off runners throughout and there was a distinct nervy look to any attack games past the ten channel. The confidence to provide support lines for ball carriers was a mixed bag.

The usual suspects stepped up for Munster Rugby. The back row in particular were industrious in the breakdown exchanges. Cloete had prominent steals. O’Mahony work rate was infectious and Stander became a huge influence in the breakdown, winning a couple of key turnovers in the final quarter.

During this period, Munster Rugby had cleared the bench and all players contributed massively. Botha’s ball carries and tackle count was excellent. JJ Hanrahan and Alby Mathewson looking to create and game manage. The Munster Rugby pack phase work started to improve, tempo and quicker ruck ball resulting in a couple of penalty opportunities which Hanrahan slotted over.

Frantic final ten minutes

Playoffs. Tiny margins affect the outcome of results and indiscipline from Benetton Rugby player Dewaldt Duvenage kicking the ball away in frustration, which brought a penalty up to the halfway line was pivotal. Credit to JJ Hanrahan. It was a kick right on his distance capability. The kick was superbly struck and somehow Munster Rugby were ahead.

Benetton Rugby will point to a couple of officiating calls even before this. Stander’s breakdown work and whether he was supporting himself perhaps questionable. The clear out of the ruck from John Ryan which saw Benetton Rugby lose ball only two meters from the Munster Rugby saw Benetton Rugby question Nigel Owens who looked to be running out of his patience with the Italian’s side exuberance in celebrating every decision that went their way.

Benetton Rugby have been the most progressive side in the Guinness Pro14 tournament this season and their pack’s ability to engineer two drop goal opportunities in the dying minutes of the game was evidence of their composure and ability to execute the game management. The two drop goals were poor executed, the first drop goal was ideally setup. Small margins and Benetton Rugby will know that this game was theirs.

Munster Rugby must regroup fast

The performance in yet another playoff game was a disappointment. The platform was secured in that opening period but no bite or guile in attacking play given the enormous territorial advantage was abject. The coaching game plan was unclear today. The players looked like a group who produced their best work on the training paddock during the week; over trained perhaps as there was zero zip in the Munster Rugby play today.

The defensive line was at times caught repeatedly. The ten and twelve channel was a source of quality gain line breaks for Benetton Rugby. The pack at times were loose in their set piece execution. Plenty to ponder and address ahead of a now daunting trip to Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. A week to recuperate, the bodies looked exhausted on full time.

The Thomond Park faithful breathed a huge sigh of relief on full time but no one is kidding themselves after this performance; a similar cameo in two weeks time and it will be a humiliation and question marks will be cast over the coaching and playing staff. Critical times for all concerned with Munster Rugby; playoff rugby and the side have struggled yet again. There needs to be a response in two weeks time.

Munster Rugby moment of truth has arrived

Can Munster Rugby get over the European Cup semi-final hurdle of recent past?

The scene is set. Spectacular Easter weekend weather and hopefully rugby to match starting with the clash of Munster Rugby and Saracens at the Ricoh Arena. Can Munster Rugby exercise the ghosts of recent European Cup semi-final defeats to defeat an outstanding Saracens outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key areas which Munster Rugby must look to exploit.

Mental Approach

The last two seasons has seen Munster Rugby enter into the semi-final with initial hope only to be dashed quite early in the contest. Two conflicting losses as Saracens pack platform and Racing 92’s back line play exposed massive chinks in the Munster Rugby armory.

These losses came about due to extremely nervy, lethargic Munster Rugby opening cameos as they looked for opposition mistakes rather than look to create a platform of their own to win the contest. Munster Rugby to win tomorrow must be brave, brave in their ability to take setbacks, brave in their ability to believe in the game plan, brave in their ability to make things happen at any stage during the contest.

These losses should be a motivational and not mental impediment to Munster Rugby. This group of players and management need to deliver a big performance at the business end of the season and this is the perfect platform and audience to do just that. Another loss without a punch being seriously landed will have devastating effects on the side long term. 

Pack Platform

A generalized word but the Munster Rugby pack to a man have to provide early tempo and momentum tomorrow. Saracens have a superb set piece and Munster Rugby will need to be clever when they attempt to pinch ball in line out as Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje will look to execute quick line out to potentially unsettle Tyler Bleyendaal in the ten channel.

The areas where Munster Rugby must focus in on the scrum and breakdown. The scrum this season has seen progressively improvement but tomorrow is an ultimate test facing up against the likes of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Titi Lamositele who have looked awesome in this competition this season. John Ryan personally has a huge role to play and his scrummaging performance will be an indicator as to how Munster Rugby do in the contest.

The breakdown battle is an area that Munster Rugby must identify and seize upon. Several live threats for the Irish province with O’Mahony, Stander and O’Donoghue. With Jackson Wray looking to nullify O’Mahony, it could be down to the likes of Tadhg Beirne to provide the starring role in the breakdown exchanges. Early breakdown success for Munster Rugby and this result is very much on.

Prepare for abrasive opening period

There should be no surprise in that the Munster Rugby back three will subjected to physical and abrasive aerial threat in the opening quarter. I am expecting Owen Farrell to pepper the likes of Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam early with testing kicks and the back three need to be strong under the dropping ball. There could be a potential late hit for good measure just to test the resolve of the Munster Rugby side.

Keith Earls’ withdrawal is a blow but provided that colleagues support Darren Sweetnam like they did against Edinburgh Rugby, the Cork native will produce a solid performance and provide a quality attacking outlet for the Irish province if given the opportunity. Haley must be all conquering tomorrow, he needs to up his game to the next level in the aerial and ball in hand stakes.

Half Back Game Management

Saracens are a quality side but Munster Rugby’s kicking game and trying to exploit space behind Maitland in particular could reap rewards. Maitland is a player of serious pace and attacking ability but at times can be exposed in defensive areas. The kick game exchanges need to focus on Maitland and it is up to Murray and Bleyendaal to execute the game plan at the right time to potentially identify the space behind Maitland to prosper. It is going to be a tough task but the rewards are there for Munster Rugby if they trust their kicking game at different stages.

Farrell needs to get involved early

Munster Rugby need to set the tone early, look to eek out an early lead and involve Chris Farrell early. The three quarter has the potential to create gain line breaks and allow colleagues space and time to impress.
Lozowski at thirteen is a quality ball player, his kicking game and game making will pose Munster Rugby problems but defensively can Munster Rugby turn the tables on the player? Chris Farrell becomes a huge weapon for Munster Rugby tomorrow. He could potentially create the gain line breaks required to setup the platform for good things to follow.

Conclusion

It is a game where Saracens will enter the contest as warm favorites. Munster Rugby must focus on themselves, focus on their strengths and trust their defensive setup which has got them to this point in the season. The management and players are fully aware of the performance level but I sense that this group have a massive performance in them. A dry track, a chance for redemption and passage to the final. Saracens have massive weapons of their own but Munster Rugby have progressed. The elements must combine tomorrow and I expect a huge performance from the men in red. All the best Munster! Leave it out on the pitch, no regrets tomorrow, play for each other and stand up and fight!

Guinness Pro14: Conference A – Round 20 Preview

Playoff rugby for some has arrived!

April. The business end of the rugby union calendar. A time of year when teams hope that they have saved their best performances of the season to now to secure the silverware. This weekend promises to be exciting penultimate round with several playoff questions still unanswered.

In this blog post, Hawkeye Sidekick will look at Conference A and the fixtures on tap for this weekend. All eyes on the Sportsground as well as the top two fixtures in Benetton and RDS respectively.

Conference A:

Conference A Regular Season Run-In

Top Spot still up for grabs!

The Conference A top two are away from the chasing conference pack but the small matter of that playoff bye week hangs in the balance. Both Glasgow Warriors and Munster Rugby have tough road trip fixtures this weekend.

Munster Rugby potentially could build serious pressure on Glasgow Warriors if they can secure a victory to the progressive Benetton Rugby who will be buoyed by that 22-22 draw against Leinster Rugby in the RDS last weekend.

The Italian job for Munster Rugby is a tricky balancing act. What does Johann van Graan and management do? The news that several marquee players were given this week off to freshen up for next week’s bruiing encounter to Saracens in European Cup fare is a good indicator of the priority right now.

Munster Rugby’s squad will be predominantly squad players and players who need precious game time ahead of that Saracens game. It is a chance for players on the outside to stake a claim for a squad berth for the European Cup fixture so for Benetton Rugby, this fixture is tricky in terms of the unknown quantity that Munster Rugby could provide.

Glasgow Warriors head to Dublin to face Leinster Rugby whose run of form in recent weeks has been a mixed bag. The 22-22 draw against Benetton Rugby will grate management in terms of how the lead was lost so late on in the contest. Benetton’s patience to build the phases rewarded with defensive gaps finally opening in the Leinster Rugby rearguard.

Like Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby are facing with a dilemma. They need the likes of Sean O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw to get serious game minutes under their belt before that massive European Cup fixture with Toulouse on Easter Sunday but does management risk these players against a Warriors side who will be gunning all out for a win?

I am expecting Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster to take a pragmatic approach to team selection; expect to see O’Brien and Henshaw feature in some capacity but the side will be by and large the side that featured last weekend. Glasgow Warriors record at the RDS is poor but this is a superb opportunity for them to secure a long overdue road trip here.

The results this weekend will drive the approach of both Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors for the final round of the regular season. Both have local derby games to finish out the season at home against sides who potentially will need points to secure the playoff berth.

Munster Rugby squad this weekend will do well to secure a win against Benetton Rugby who are improving with each round. Glasgow Warriors have to be mindful of the fact that Leinster Rugby’s squad is still superb and there will be a reaction to last weekend’s draw at home to Benetton Rugby. I think that both Conference A sides will lose this weekend which will setup the final round of regular games to be a fascinating watch for top spot.

The West is awake!

The third Conference A playoff spot is very much up for grabs. Ospreys are still not out of the playoff hunt but they require a big favor from Cardiff Blues at Connacht Rugby this weekend to stay in the hunt. The conference game of the round is in Galway as Connacht Rugby play host to the Cardiff Blues.

Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest several marquee players last weekend in Zebre was justified but only just. The performance with ball in hand was patchy, nervy and indecisive. The defensive line structure and organization was the highlight but Andy Friend and coaching staff will be the first to acknowledge that a repeat performance this weekend will mean a home loss.

The Irish province will bring back the big guns for this fixture. The news that Bundee Aki is back in the first team squad for the weekend is a massive boost as is the news that Tom Farrell is able to play after sustaining an eye injury in the victory over Zebre Rugby.

Cardiff Blues went toe to toe with Munster Rugby last weekend. Their performance with ball in hand was pacy, inventive and oozed class on the outside where they exposed Munster Rugby with several keynote breaks. The three try haul was not enough for victory as Munster Rugby’s big pack players made the impact in the third quarter to blow the game wide open.

The scoreline from the Irish Independent Park was very harsh on Cardiff Blues as for sixty minutes in the contest, they were in the contest. Their attacking play is a key strength and with Anscombe pulling the strings along with Williams in the half backs, creativity was in abundance.

The worry for Cardiff Blues was in the set piece; there was a couple of line out throw miscues and the scrum faltered at various times. The maul defense in the third quarter was exposed and allowed Munster Rugby easy yards and penalty opportunities. This needs to improve for Cardiff Blues this weekend.

The weather conditions in Galway right now are pleasant and sunny but the long range forecast for the region on Saturday is for a breezy, wet day which will mean that the two sides who like to create an expansive game plan are negated and forced to implement a more rigid pack platform orientated game.

The battle of the fly-halfs will be fascinating on the day. Does Jarrod Evans resume his ten duties or does Gareth Anscombe continue to impress? It is cup final footie for both sides so management need to get this decision spot on.

Jack Carty has been Connacht’s go to player this season and the same is expected this weekend. Marmion and Carty vs. Williams and Anscombe / Evans in terms of performance and game management is going to have a huge bearing on the game.

50/50 call on this fixture. Connacht Rugby have issued the rallying cry for their fans to come out and support the side this weekend. The biggest game in three years is the sales pitch; they are not far wrong as victory this weekend secures Heineken Champions Cup rugby next season.

The weather conditions are going to make this game difficult. What side uses the elements best? Cardiff Blues are extremely dangerous when given good quick ruck ball so Butler, Faing’aa and McKeon to negate this threat.

Slight edge for Connacht Rugby based on the fact that their side perhaps are a little bit fresher but in all honesty, Connacht Rugby may have to go to Thomond Park and try to get a result in Munster Rugby at the end of the month.

Ospreys hoping for one more opportunity!

Ospreys are in South Africa and face the Southern Kings in a bonus point try must win fixture. The playoff picture is out of their hands this weekend; do the business in South Africa and hope that the Cardiff Blues can produce the road trip win which would give Ospreys a chance for that playoff berth in the final round of the regular season against the Cardiff Blues.

The form of Ospreys at the start of this calendar year has placed the side in a difficult situation but their play and performances have improved in recent rounds; if they get the result required, they could be primed to launch one last salvo against Cardiff Blues at the end of the month. No pressure on them and the performance should see significant upside.

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.