Guinness Pro14: Round 8 Reflections (Irish Provinces)

Glasgow and Leinster had good weekends

A weekend where the November test match series kicked into action with several sides looking at their squad depth to ensure vital victories. It was a weekend where Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby extended their leads in both Conference A and B respectively. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Irish provincial success in South Africa 

The Twitter reaction to the Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby road trip successes in South Africa has me cracking up this evening while writing this blog article. Look at the sides named by both Irish provinces today, the potential in the side undoubted but there was always going to be passages of play when the cohesion with or without the ball was missing. Cue fan reactions (knickers in the proverbial figure eight). Bonus point try wins secured. Mission accomplished. 

Leinster Rugby accuracy may not have being to the armchair fan’s liking  but the 31-38 road trip win provides the Irish province with such a healthy lead at the top of Conference B. Nine points clear of Ulster Rugby and ten points clear of Scarlets in third with both sides facing the daunting task of having to secure results at fortress RDS. It is a time position to be in at this early stage of the season. The squad depth of the province shown when you see the likes of James Tracy, Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy on the pitch. They are the form side of the league at this moment in time. 

Munster Rugby secured their first road win of the league with a hard earned 26-30 road trip win to the Cheetahs. The good and the bad seen to full effect as Munster Rugby secured a bonus point try win; some great attacking play and the cameos of the back three was a real positive. The bad was the defensive meltdown in the third quarter where Cheetahs exploited big defensive gaps. The altitude was a factor but the parting of the Munster Rugby defense was seen in the previous round at home to Glasgow Warriors so something for management to look at in the coming weeks. 

Kevin O’Byrne was a standout today, put the hand up for more game time with an all action performance. The youngsters in the side did not let the side down and was delighted to see Liam Coombes cross over for a well earned try.

Mike Haley continues to settle nicely in the full back position and his running line for the game winning try was well executed. Munster Rugby secure a vital win on the road; move up to second place in the Conference A where Glasgow Warriors are well out in front and debatable whether they can be caught at this stage. Their demolition of Ospreys (albeit understrength) was a Matawalu showcase of skill and pace to score a hat-trick of tries. 

Bernard Jackman is a man under pressure

After a red eye flight back from Boston in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I headed to the Sportsgrounds in the hope of a thrilling encounter. This was an encounter which Connacht Rugby needed to come out fighting after a horrendous road trip performances to an Ospreys selection missing numerous first team stars at Bridgend last time out. The fixture was competitive for the first quarter but as soon as Connacht Rugby hit the front, Dragons’ heads dropped and a 26-0 lead at half-time to the hosts spelled the end of the contest. 

Connacht Rugby admittedly increased the tempo in that second quarter, better clear out work in the ruck exchanges with Marmion and Horowitz starting to create more line breaks as the game wore on. Horowitz produced an interesting cameo; he plays off the cuff evident in the Colby Fainga’a’s try where the Australian ten spotted a gap and created the line break opportunity. His kicking to the corners impressed me and thankfully for Connacht Rugby, there is a player who can push Jack Carty to the next level. 

Bernard Jackman stated post-game that he can see progress and improvement from his charges but the performance after the first quarter was a horror show; three deplorably blotched line breaks in the opening period which exhibited a distinct of composure on the final pass or handling is a coaching issue.

The number of tries conceded this season is sky rocketing out of control (33) and unless Dragons can secure a much needed morale boosting win next time out, there will be questions on his tenure. Dragons progression this season was expected given the high profile Hibbert and Moriarty signings but it has being anything but. Hope Jackman pulls the situation around but the skill set in his side on this weekend’s showing lacks the quality required to unlock opposition defenses at regular intervals.

Connacht Rugby win but they will rarely have an easier home contest all season. The back three looked a threat all game and the pack carries exposed massive defensive holes in the Dragons’ first line of defense. Buckley and Dillane for me stood out in the ball carrying stakes. Colby Fainga’a along with Jarrod Butler provided mobility and pace off the back of the scrum.

Horowitz has being duly mentioned and Godwin provided a timely reminder of his potency with ball in hand from three quarters. Connacht Rugby need to kick on now until the festive period; key games to get well and truly into the playoff mix now as it looks like a four way battle for the second and third spot in Conference A.

Ulster secured road trip win to Benetton Rugby

A significant result for Ulster Rugby on the road. Benetton Rugby have being progressing nicely this season and leading 7-0 at the break, the Italians would have fancied finishing off the job in the second half due to Ulster Rugby’s recent road trip woes. 

Credit though to Ulster Rugby, thought it was a very professional and efficient display in the second half. Speight’s creativity to the fore with ball in hand and the pack finally created a platform for Shanahan and Burns to launch their runners in the third quarter with tries from the impressive Reidy and Herring.  

The result was key here; the situation that Ulster Rugby found themselves in and the resiliency to get a result on the road in Italy has to be applauded. The fans made have a different perspective but this could be a key result for Ulster Rugby in the context of the playoff picture come next April. 

Guinness Pro14: Munster Rugby 25 – 24 Glasgow Warriors

Thriller at Thomond Park

Munster Rugby secured a vital Guinness Pro14 campaign victory over Glasgow Warriors at a cold Thomond Park, but there was nothing cold about the exchanges throughout as these two sides’ rivalry came to the surface in a feisty affair. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Crunching Physicality 

From the first whistle, this fixture exploded into life. There was not even a minute on the clock when there were handbags in the middle of the pitch. Peter O’Mahony as you would suspect was close to the action and this close combative exchange style was the key theme. 

Both packs did not give an inch in this encounter, each unit celebrating a penalty win like it was a cup final win. The tackling and clear out work was incredibly physical and for the pundits who reckon that rugby has gone soft, a video reel footage viewing of this action should be watched in pronto time. An excellent pack tussle which showcased the league in a positive manner. 

Munster Rugby score first

The hosts scored first via James Cronin. The try was preceded by a superb running line game play from JJ Hanrahan who identified Keith Earls’ run to perfection. The Moyross native stripping Glasgow Warrior’s first line of defense with devastating pace. The forwards then took on the mantle and Cronin crashed over with the assistance of John Ryan. 

Munster Rugby then threatened to score another try soon after. Horne tackled in his goal area; the five meter scrum that ensued lacked composure and Glasgow Warriors alleviated the pressure. More Munster Rugby pressure then saw Glasgow Warriors dramatically score their first try of the evening. 

Glasgow Warriors hit back 

There appeared little danger from a Munster Rugby perspective when Alby Mathewson decided to kick the ball down the tramp lines deep into Glasgow territory but the one thing you do not do against Glasgow Warriors is drop your defense guard and it proved fatal as Rory Hughes launched the attack with a sweeping pass out wide realizing that the Munster Rugby back three cover was exposed. George Horne with superb supporting running to score a quality score. 

The Scottish side were not finished and more incisive attacking play saw the impressive Nick Grigg stride clear with ball in hand; another massive line break and with Munster Rugby’s inside defense stretched to breaking point due to the decision of Sam Arnold to come out of the line with disastrous results. George Horne again was on hand to receive the offload from the impressive Grigg who tallied 109 meters in just nine carries. 

Munster Rugby suddenly were like a boxer who had suffered a crunching body blow, they were on the ropes and looking shaky in their defense shape. Glasgow’s quick clear out work providing the perfect platform for the Horne brothers to terrorize the Munster Rugby defense. The Scottish side secured their third try when Fagerson crashed over after sustained pressure on the Munster Rugby. The try scored immediately after Chris Cloete was sin binned for taking out a Glasgow Warriors supporting player after Ruaidhri Jackson was adjudged not to have grounded the ball. 

The bonus point try was secured for Glasgow Warriors in superb fashion. As Munster Rugby tolled, the penalty count suddenly came an issue. After more concerted pressure on the Munster Rugby line, a deft kick from George Horne found his brother Peter Horne to collect and touchdown. The celebrations from the Glasgow Warriors spoke volumes; BP secured at Thomond Park and surely a long overdue road trip win over Munster Rugby. 

Munster Rugby Respond

Prior to the Glasgow Warriors fourth try, there were some signs of life within the Munster Rugby camp. The second and third periods saw Munster Rugby not create significant line breaks in phase play. It was down to JJ Hanrahan to create a line break himself, spotting the gap and striding thirty meters to the try line. No Munster Rugby supporting line runners so JJ was held up short. Penalty was the end result from the play. 

Munster Rugby threw the bench on in the last quarter hoping to change the direction of the game. Arno Botha provided a key boost for the side and home support with a lung bursting forty meter gain line break. This got the home crowd back into the contest and not all after Alex Wootton was crossing over after resilient play from the Munster Rugby pack building phase after phase, one out runners used to try to breakdown a resolute Glasgow defense. Numbers game saw Wootton get over. Keatley who had replaced JJ Hanrahan missed a difficult conversion but Munster Rugby were back in the contest. 

Dramatic final minutes

15-24 with ten minutes to go but Munster Rugby had the bit between their teeth and more pack power saw the hosts deep in Glasgow Warriors’ territory. The decision was to keep it tight, keep working the tackle count of the Warriors, keep probing for defensive gaps.

The pack set the platform and after several impressive carries from the front five, Alby Mathewson spotted a gap and touched down. Keatley converted the extras and a fixture which looked forlorn for Munster Rugby suddenly was back in the melting point. 22-24. Seven minutes left. 

Credit to Glasgow Warriors for the next five minutes. They worked the phase count and took advantage of indiscipline in the Munster Rugby ranks. Niall Scannell high hit looked a decisive moment as Glasgow’s pack looked to run the clock down but when a Glasgow player was exposed on the ground, Peter O’Mahony like an eagle swooped in to win his side a penalty just inside Glasgow’s half. What would Munster Rugby do? Call out for the kicking tee. Rory Scannell would have a pop. Final play of the game. 

The center has had a mixed week; surplus to requirements from the national team squad roster. The versatility of the player is incredible; his kicking game is on a par with any twelve in the country. The breeze was blowing across the field, a difficult long range effort but the Cork native kicked the ball with conviction and it cut through the posts. 25-24. Eighty minutes. Munster Rugby somehow had won this contest. 

Reflections

A win created by sheer determination and fight to not surrender the result, play until the final whistle. Munster Rugby can never be accused of those traits and the win is a decisive one in the context of the league. Glasgow may have secured two points tonight but Munster’s late kick gives them breathing space from Connacht Rugby and Cardiff Blues. 

The Munster Rugby performance was a mixed bag like last weekend. The kicking game was average at best; some aimless kicking which gave superb field position and attacking opportunity to Glasgow Warriors to impress. The defensive shape at times was ragged; the second quarter performance lacked organization defensively and video analysis for Sam Arnold on the second Glasgow Warriors try will be tough viewing. 

Attacking game plan is a work in progress; one out ball carrying was the order of the day with little support running options for the ball carrier. The static running lines of last weekend were improved this weekend but there are definite areas of improvement for van Graan and management to address. 

Glasgow Warriors showed why they are top of the conference. Despite missing several first team players, the squad’s ability and skill set is so high. Their ability to offload, creating gain line breaks with astute passing and running lines was in pale comparison to Munster’s blunt pack orientated ball carrying approach. Dave Rennie will be pleased with the bonus try performance but disappointed that they could not hold out for the win. 

The Glasgow Warriors pack performance tonight was feisty, physical and abrasive. This is the blueprint for the rest of the season from this unit for the rest of the season if Glasgow look to harbor ambitions of winning any silverware. This particular rivalry has gone up a further notch after tonight; no Christmas cards will be exchanged by these sides but it is a rivalry which the league must now embrace and showcase to the full.

Heineken Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 36 – 22 Gloucester Rugby

Munster secure bonus point win

Munster Rugby secured their first pool win in this European Cup campaign with a bonus point try victory over a determined and resilient Gloucester Rugby outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action at the Limerick venue. 

Munster team cohesion still lacking

The opening period exchanges were keenly contested. Gloucester Rugby you would have to say were on the front foot as they took advantage of a sloppy start from the hosts. This was evident in the opening kick off, the kick was let bounce by the Munster Rugby players, allowing Gloucester Rugby to easily win possession. 

Further sloppy issues in the basic fundamentals surfaced for Munster Rugby in the line out. Were Munster Rugby spooked by the fact that former Munster Rugby player Gerbrandt Grobler was in the Gloucester Rugby ranks because the line out execution was poor, indecisive calls and execution. The video analysis on the line out set piece will need to be scrutinized on Monday morning for sure. 

Gloucester for their promising start were not hurting Munster Rugby. Running lines were static, passing back and forth through the attacking line with little success. Munster Rugby were able to finally able to secure a platform after Tom Savage was given a yellow card for a shoulder charge on Dan Goggin at the breakdown, an initial key moment in this contest. 

The ten minutes of the sin yielded a 5-3 score for Munster Rugby. The hosts opening their account as a solid line out was then moved down the line through Carbery, Conway for the full back Mike Haley to cross in the corner. O’Mahony from the restart was pinged on the ground and Danny Ciprani slotted home an excellent long range penalty. Cue the key event of the fixture. 

Ciprani sees red 

The key event of this contest. Rory Scannell collected a pass on the halfway and aimed for Ciprani whose shoulder was extremely high. The initial reaction was that it warranted a card but what color would it be? TMO and match officials reviewed it and a red card was issued. A devastating blow for Gloucester and ultimately the contest. Munster Rugby were now in the ascendancy. The directive is now clear, anything high is going to penalized with a card but the officiating consistency issue reared its head soon after as Billy Twelvetrees high tackle was only a penalty. 

Munster turn the screw

Immediately after Twelvestree’s penalty concession, Munster Rugby bagged their second try of the afternoon. A solid line out resulting in a compact maul which Gloucester Rugby could not stop. Rhys Marshall on hand to crash over. The fact that the line out went to Peter O’Mahony spoke volumes on the issues experienced by the hosts in the set piece. Possession guaranteed with the back row player and the score was required. 15-3. 

Dominant Munster Rugby third quarter

Two tries in the bag and Munster Rugby looked to secure the bonus point in double quick time. The scrum was a source of comfort for the hosts throughout and after two dominant scrums, Carbery received the ball and with options out wide decided to cross himself. 22-3. 

The bonus point try point was secured soon after and it was a highlight reel moment with Carbery’s pass to Sweetnam. The ball was quickly distributed from the ruck and credit Sammy Arnold for a superbly timed running line to score the fourth try. 29-3. 

Despite a Gloucester Rugby try from Grobler,  Munster Rugby promptly scored a fifth try from Andrew Conway with a sharp running line after a deft Carbery pass. 35-10. 

Gloucester fight hard in final quarter

You have to credit the work rate and fight of Gloucester Rugby today. Plenty of sides faced with the prospect of playing with fourteen players for fifty minutes would have given up the ghost but the side fought hard until the final whistle and deservedly score two further tries from Matt Banahan and Ben Morgan. Both tries setup by good pack work and an ever increasing penalty count from the hosts. Gloucester Rugby will be disappointed with the loss but the fight and spirit means that Ackermann and coaching staff can take solace from the fixture. 

Munster Indiscipline

The last quarter was blighted by Munster Rugby indiscipline. The Stephen Archer and Sammy Arnold incidents highlighted this; lack of composure in the ranks defensively were exposed. Archer was lucky not to receive a red card, the tackle was high on Ben Morgan. Plenty of scope to improve for Munster Rugby but perhaps the fixture last weekend at Sandy Park was a contributory factor. In any case, the discipline and penalty count in the second half needs to be looked at. 

Injury Front

A mixed bag for Munster Rugby performance wise and the injury count increased with the ankle injury sustained by Tommy O’Donnell and a serious looking knee injury to Dan Goggin at the death. Rhys Marshall also sustained a knock which saw Kevin O’Byrne enter the fray. Tommy O’Donnell injury nightmare continues. 

Munster Performance 

Mixed bag. There is a definite disconnect in the game plan execution at present. The 1-10 cohesion looks strong but the game plan ethos to the back line is a work in progress. The basic skill set of this side needs to be upgraded in a hurry and the three quarter threat with ball in hand looks sporadic at best. Mike Haley potentially is a quality full back with ball in hand but no supporting runners were available for offloads. Mathewson’s ability to distribute at ruck time saw some good improvement but there was too much stationary ball carriers during the eighty minutes; a sign that players are unsure of the game plan and line calls. Crowd was not energized and the performance on the pitch dictated as much. Munster Rugby are top of the pool but they will know that significant improvement is required for the December series of games in this competition against Castres who beat Exeter Chiefs today. 

Man Of The Match

Munster Rugby’s performance was a mixed bag but the display from Mike Haley was a standout. The full back was solid in the aerial exchanges and his ability with ball in hand provided bright moments for the side. Haley scored Munster Rugby’s opening try which was a decisive try. Carbery was a close second. 

European Cup: Irish Provinces Round Two Preview

Tough road trips the order of the day

After a superb opening weekend for the Irish provinces last week (three wins and one draw), things went tougher in round two where all teams except for Munster Rugby are on their opening European Cup road trip. A weekend which should indicate plenty on how the season in Europe should pan out. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action. 

Leinster Rugby good form to continue?

Sexton on fire

No disrespect to Wasps but Leinster Rugby’s first real test in Europe will be this weekend. A trip to Toulouse is always a challenge but given how Leinster Rugby are playing currently, it is a trip which the Irish province will look with confidence. 

Leinster Rugby team news is minimal to say the least. Rob Kearney misses out due to injury so Joe Tomane slots onto the wing while Jordan Larmour if provided sufficient time and space could destroy Toulouse from full back. It is as you were for the rest of the side which comprehensively routed Wasps 52-3 last weekend. 

Toulouse won at Bath Rugby last weekend on the road. Yes, they were let off the hook by Freddy Burns’ late horror show and Toulouse will be the first to admit that they got out of jail. The weather in the South-West of France in recent weeks has being horrendous; rain aplenty which should slow the pitch down significantly.

The pack platform is going to be vital and Toulouse’s disciplinary issues after last weekend could come back to haunt them. Kaino is such a big loss, imposing back row whose tackle count and ball carrying are sensational. If Leinster Rugby are patient here, they will see joy in the third quarter particularly as Toulouse start to tire and give away penalties. 

Leinster Rugby will be asked questions out wide with the likes of Medard in the ranks but Leinster Rugby have the ability to beat you in the loose, set piece or out wide. Leinster Rugby to go away here by ten points after an opening period arm wrestle. 

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Munster Rugby look to kick on 

Grobler on the bench for Gloucester Rugby

Saturday lunchtime kickoff at Thomond Park. An opening European Cup rugby home fixture in Limerick and the venue will be buzzing. After a good draw on the road to Exeter Chiefs last weekend in stormy Sandy Park, Munster Rugby need to kick on and get their campaign fully up and running with a full eighty minute performance against Gloucester Rugby. 

The team news is interesting. Munster Rugby have made four personnel changes for the clash. A brand new front row is a shrewd move and reward for the likes of James Cronin and John Ryan on their cameos last week. Tommy O’Donnell as well gets the nod in the back row, his ball carrying was on point last week and setup Stander’s try. 

Gloucester Rugby make two changes to the side that beat Castres at home last weekend. Grobler must make do with a place on the bench and is replaced by Ed Slater. Matt Banahan replaces Charlie Sharples. The side showed good attacking cameos last weekend with Tom Marshall prominent. 

The key point here is the pack and who creates the platform. Munster Rugby have to start at a high tempo to allow Carbery to orchestrate his three quarters. A big game is required from Dan Goggin who needs to unleash his wide men at regular intervals. Gloucester Rugby were vulnerable on the flanks defensively against Castres last weekend at times. 

A fixture which Munster Rugby know that a win is required; a bonus point is attainable provided that the home side’s basic skill set is up to standard. Gloucester Rugby will look to bed in and try to stay in the contest until the third quarter; hoping that Danny Ciprani produces moments of brilliance. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby (BP Win)

Ulster Rugby face daunting challenge 

Daunting road trip

A trip to Racing 92 and the Arena beckons for Ulster Rugby this weekend. It was a good morale boosting win over Leicester Tigers last weekend but the level of competition this weekend is a significant upgrade. 

Racing 92 will look to impose their will on Ulster Rugby in the pack battle; the set piece battle has prompted Marty Moore’s introduction to the side. Kieran Treadwell comes into the lineup at the expense of Alan O’Connor. 

The worry is the absence of John Cooney at nine. The scrum-half has being outstanding again this season. No disrespect to David Shanahan but he will put under the cosh from the first whistle, struggling to see where Ulster Rugby create in the half-back channels and Racing 92 will look to create gain line breaks at will too. 

Racing 92 back line arsenal is vast. Finn Russell should see game time and then you have the likes of Simon Zebo lurking with intent. Ulster Rugby have to be completely switched on here from minute one; tempo will be sky high and the game will be uptempo given the closed roof and pitch. 

The Parisian side for me are one of the sides which could seriously put it up to Leinster Rugby this season in Europe. A statement of intent unfortunately may be issued at home and Ulster Rugby could feel the full force despite a positive opening period. Squad depth issues will be exposed for the Irish province.  

Verdict: Racing 92 (potential BP win)

Youth and Experience from Connacht Rugby

Interesting team lineup from Andy Friend

An interesting team lineup from Connacht Rugby. The term ‘youth and experience’ abound from this team sheet. A momentous day for Fitzgerald (ten) and De Buitlear (wing) who make their starting debuts for the province. Buckley, O’Halloran and Farrell return to the side to provide experience as well. 

This is such a key fixture in the context of Sale and Connacht’s aspirations for European Challenge Cup glory. With the French sides in this pool not genuinely interested in the competition, it is a two horse race to secure top spot in the pool. 

Sale Sharks have shown their intention loud and clear with a very strong team selection. McGuigan, O’Connor, Ashton and De Klerk will provide massive attacking threat. Rob Webber and Josh Beaumont will lead by example in the pack. 

Hopefully, the rookies in the Connacht Rugby side have good afternoons but this is a tough assignment given the selection of Sale Sharks. If Connacht Rugby can get a loser bonus point, then would be a good outcome. 

Verdict: Sale Sharks 

Nick McCarthy Move

Nick McCarthy moves to Munster Rugby from next season

The news had leaked out yesterday on print media but it was finally confirmed by all vested parties (IRFU, Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby) today. Nick McCarthy moves to Munster Rugby on a two year deal starting from next season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the news. 

Munster Scrum Half Depth Chart Full?

Nick McCarthy’s arrival means that there will be five scrum-halves in the Munster Rugby first team squad next season. Conor Murray will be on Ireland duty for a significant period next season so for the likes of James Hart, Neil Cronin (who signed a contract extension), Duncan Williams and now Nick McCarthy, it is an opportunity to stake the claim for the backup slot next season.

It does seem to be a bit excessive for a potential fifth scrum half in the first team squad but given the injury issues of Hart and Cronin early doors this season, McCarthy’s name presumably was mentioned given his need to play more regularly next season. 

Player Profile

The Ann Arbor, MN native comes with a solid resume. The scrum-half played his schools rugby with St.Michael’s who are a massive conveyor belt of provincial talent. McCarthy represented Ireland at U20 level in 2015 and this coincided with the player joining Leinster Rugby in 2015 playing three times for the province (cameo roles).

2016 was a similar story given the stacked squad depth at the club and another three brief cameos followed. 2017-2018 season saw the player gain more game time, starting three times during this campaign. McCarthy scored three tries and played a total of 462 minutes.

The 2018-2019 season has seen two appearances from the bench and with Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park vying for the scrum half starting berth, the decision to leave Leinster Rugby for playing reasons was an easy decision to make.

Player Skill Set 

It has being really hard to see consistent video footage of the player this season given the sufficient game minutes given (26 minutes). What we do know is that McCarthy has a solid skill set, fast distribution from the ruck a key trait. A solid kicking game to complement the passing game.

It was hard to scrutinize the player given the stop / start nature of his Leinster Rugby career. Munster Rugby have taken the punt on the player, it is up to the player to hit the ground running during preseason next summer to impress the coaches to give him the game time that he craves.

Another ex-Leinster Rugby alumni joins the rank, whether this player will make an impression is debatable given the number of first team scrum halves at the club.

The reaction of Leinster Rugby is of disappointment but the talent pool at the club is stacked and no doubt more scrum half prospects will replace McCarthy in the depth chart and look to stake their claim for action. Time will tell on how shrewd this signing will be from both the player and Munster Rugby.

Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 2

Munster under pressure

An interesting pool awaits in pool two with intense pack battles the order of the day with Munster Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester Rugby and Castres in the mix. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the pool and has genuine concerns about Munster Rugby this season. 

Munster Rugby vulnerable?

When you consider Munster Rugby’s season so far, it reads played six; won three (all at home), lost three (all away). The road trip performances have seen the Irish province leak thirty plus points and there is no quick fix in terms of the defensive issues seen so far. The scrum half injury crisis could be a decisive blow as well with star player Conor Murray not in contention to play in the competition’s first two rounds at least. The home form will need to be on point to progress but nothing will be taken for granted. 

Exeter Chiefs look best equipped to take advantage of Munster Rugby vulnerability. Their imposing pack has being their foundation and their ability to turn penalty count to tries using their marauding maul is a source of great concern for their pool opponents. Exeter Chiefs under Rob Baxter have also evolved their game plan with Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Alex Cuthbert resulting in some very impressive score tallies. The home form in Sandy Park will be strong; question mark on the road trip form which did lag last season so an interesting subplot. 

Gloucester Rugby make a welcome return to the competition; an incredible rugby town and knowledgeable rugby support. The Shed will be hopping for this tournament. Gloucester Rugby are evolving into a very competitive side; their expansive play seen to full effect last season and with their acquisition of Danny Ciprani, the attacking options are endless with an extremely pacy back three (Marshall, Trinder, Sharples). A team which has recruited well in the pack with a strong South African influence. Grobler at lock has all the attributes to be a sensational signing. A team to be feared and their home opener against Castres will gauge morale and confidence of pool progression here. 

Castres. The great enigma of European Cup competition. When they are interested (more than likely at home), they can cause massive issues for travelling teams but their policy of fielding below strength sides on the road will mean that the French Top 14 kingpins will languish in the mid-pack. An opportunity perhaps for the other pool teams to secure five points in their home games? 

Verdict:

The hope is that we will see some exciting contests but who am I kidding, the arm wrestle games will be a key theme and start with the Exeter Chiefs home opener against Munster Rugby. Potentially two teams to advance from this group given that Castres may travel light on the road. Munster Rugby look vulnerable here and suspect a last round miracle may be required to advance as a pool runner up. Exeter Chiefs for me look the form side in this pool. Plenty of twists and turns in this pool. 

Guinness Pro14: Leinster Rugby vs. Munster Rugby Preview

Old rivals clash at the Aviva Stadium

Leinster rotate as Munster name strong side

O’Brien returns

It is a massive compliment to Leinster Rugby that the side they have named this weekend is so loaded with quality given the personnel changes from last weekend’s decisive win over Connacht Rugby. 

Conscious of the six day turnaround between this fixture and their European Cup fixture against Wasps next Friday night, Cullen and Lancaster have decided to rotate the squad. 

Sexton is omitted from the match day panel with Ross Byrne slotting into the fly-half position. Sean O’Brien starts his full game for Leinster Rugby this season at eight; a nice positional switch to run the rule over the Tullow native and whether he can provide depth chart support in this position. 

The pack is fundamentally altered as the front row is completely replaced. McGrath, Tracy and Bent come in and James Ryan is included in the second row. The back row sees Josh van der Flier (sub), Jack Conan (omitted from the squad) replaced by Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien. Massive squad depth in the back row unit. 

The back line is also changed with Robbie Henshaw and Rory O’Loughlin coming into the three quarters to replace Garry Ringrose and Joe Tomane. The back three sees Rob Kearney win his 200th cap for the province and will have Fergus McFadden and James Lowe on the wings. A potent outfit. 

Near Full Strength Munster need to deliver

Near full strength for Munster Rugby

Munster Rugby have had a wretched season thus far on the road. Two comprehensive losses to Glasgow Warriors (round two) and Cardiff Blues (round four) has the side on alert not to produce another dismal performance away from Thomond Park or Irish Independent Park. 

On the face of it, this is as near full strength a side that Munster could name. Murray continues to be a long term absentee (injury unknown). The pack is loaded with international talent and no doubt Peter O’Mahony will be keen to highlight the post-game comments of Reggie Corrigan last season who asked whether Munster Rugby players had given everything to the cause in this fixture last year. 

This is a fixture that Munster Rugby must turn up and deliver a performance. There are intriguing battles everywhere on the pitch; effectively a national team trial on Saturday evening. The pack battle looks tasty. A mobile and physical Leinster Rugby front five comes against a Munster Rugby pack who have the likes of Kleyn, Beirne in their ranks. 

The half-back battle also looks interesting. Ross Byrne will relish the challenge of Joey Carbery tomorrow. Carbery has provided some memorable cameos in open play but tomorrow will be about game management and decision making has to be on point tomorrow. Byrne is such a solid operator. Joe Schmidt will be keenly observing developments. 

The three quarter battle as well looks potential exciting. We all know about Henshaw and his quality but it is a good opportunity to see the other players in this position. Rory O’Loughlin is highly rated in the Leinster Rugby ranks and another chance of shine tomorrow. Munster Rugby have gone for youth and it is good to see Dan Goggin and Sammy Arnold getting a massive opportunity to impress in such a marquee fixture. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby (narrowly)

Munster Rugby need to deliver a performance and win this fixture tomorrow. Leinster Rugby with their team selection have slightly opened the door for the Southern province to come into the Aviva Stadium and win this contest but it will require Munster Rugby to be clinical in the fundamentals. A loss here and Munster Rugby’s season could be dealt a massive blow ahead of European Cup action. 

Leinster Rugby will execute to a high level; the focus is whether Munster Rugby can do that and more. Munster Rugby look to have more potent weapons to come off the bench but their record against Leinster Rugby has being wretched. I thought Leinster Rugby would win this before team selection but the team news has shifted my mind to Munster Rugby but it will be a narrow, narrow win. Carbery needs to step up to the plate. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 5 Reflections (Munster Rugby vs. Ulster Rugby)

Munster Rugby rout

If you listened to the Clan Terrace View podcast before this contest, I was concerned for Ulster Rugby. The lengthy injury list, the players not making the trip to Thomond Park and then you add Iain Henderson and John Cooney to that injury list after the first quarter of this contest, it was a case of how many Munster Rugby would win by. 

A game which does little for either side ahead of upcoming pressing fixtures. Munster Rugby still have yet to face an opponent at home with the strength in depth to seriously test them for the full eighty minutes. Ulster Rugby after a great start to the season lose and by a record defeat to boot. Morale took a serious knock last weekend; management and players need to regroup fast. 

What can Munster Rugby take from the game? The side played with extremely high tempo and their opening quarter salvo was too much for their visitors; O’Donnell and Goggin scored a brace of tries in that opening half with some fragile Ulster cover defense on show but both players were lively throughout. 

The scrum half position for Munster Rugby has being a problematic equation to solve in recent weeks. Cronin looked good in the opening home fixture win but then got injured. Hart out as well and suddenly without Murray, the position looked weak in the depth chart. Cue Alby Mathewson to arrive to the squad at the most opportune time. Mathewson’s cameo was refreshing; his vision and quick delivery from the ruck to Carbery gave Munster Rugby’s attack an added dimension not seen so far this year. 

Carbery at ten was given an arm chair ride throughout but his passing and kicking range was to the fore. His try showed his pace and ball handling skills superbly. The only negative was the Darren Cave try; missed the tackle on Cave for the try; his defensive cover will be fully tested with a swift return to Leinster Rugby next weekend. 

The second half performance saw Ulster Rugby had some genuinely good passing phases; they passed more (230 vs. 202), they had more turnover (18 vs. 13) and made less tackles (147 vs. 189) but Munster Rugby were clinical when given opportunities in the red zone. The missed tackle count from both sides would not be good enough to win most games (25 from Ulster, 20 from Munster). 

A win is a win for Munster Rugby but yet another daunting road trip awaits in Leinster Rugby at the Aviva Stadium. Munster Rugby need to turn up and produce a cohesive performance. If it gets the win, great but the pack and back line cohesion on both sides of the ball is what I am looking for next weekend ahead of a trek to Exeter Chiefs in Europe. 

Ulster Rugby. A side who will regroup. A key tussle against Connacht Rugby next weekend should see several first team players return but the defensive organization and question marks on the front row set piece could be exposed in the weeks to come. Ulster Rugby need to respond, otherwise the positive start to the season could quickly descend into a downward spiral. 

Munster Rugby vs. Ulster Rugby Highlights

Guinness Pro 14: Irish Provinces Round 4 Starting XV Statistics

Leinster Rugby and Connacht Rugby impressive

Round Four saw a mixed bag for the Irish provinces. Munster Rugby had another road trip from hell losing heavily to Cardiff Blues. Ulster Rugby had to score a last gasp try to secure a share of the spoils against Toyota Cheetahs. Connacht Rugby and Leinster Rugby had excellent wins and the statistics produced for the round are dominated by these two teams ahead of a mouthwatering fixture between the two Irish provinces next weekend. 

Meters Gained

Tiernan O’Halloran had a superb game against the Scarlets and this statistic shows the work rate and creativity to establish line breaks during the fixture. James Lowe and Garry Ringrose were superb for Leinster Rugby against Edinburgh. Joey Carbery’s strong numbers here came from the opening period of their loss to Cardiff Blues; his influence in the second half waned as Munster Rugby performance deteriorated rapidly. 

Meters Gained

Meters Per Carry

Darren Cave leads this statistics for the round after several keynote carries against the Toyota Cheetahs. Darren Sweetnam on limited possession against Cardiff Blues again shone with ball in hand, interesting to see how Munster Rugby address this issue in the coming weeks. 

Meters Per Carry

Passes

Luke McGrath topped the number of passes statistic for the Irish provinces in round five; his eighty-six passes beating that of Kieran Marmion who also had a strong performance. Note on Denis Buckley, the Connacht prop was prominent in several passing moves and his fifteen passes is an excellent return. 

Total Passes Attempted

Tackles Made

Leinster Rugby video analysis will not dwelling on the tackles made statistics; immense statistics from round five with the tackle machine Josh van der Flier leading the way with a whooping twenty-three tackles. Cloete, Kleyn and Sherry feature for Munster which is an indication of the struggles that the side had against a lively Cardiff Blues outfit. 

Tackles Made

Ball Carries

Tiernan O’Halloran was prominent in all good attacking things that Connacht Rugby did in their win over Scarlets. O’Halloran consistently collected Scarlets aerial exit ball and ran intelligently either into space or present the ball to team mates efficiently. James Lowe and Bundee Aki had superb cameos; their ball carry count is indicative of this. 

Ball Carries