Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference A?

Exciting final block of games beckon!

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

Conference A Standings:

What to look out for?

Munster Rugby

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

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

Glasgow Warriors

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

Ospreys well placed

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

Connacht Rugby progressing nicely

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

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

Blues need to fix consistency issues

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

Cheetahs should make late playoff charge

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

Zebre Rugby cast adrift

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

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

Last round of Irish Provincial derbies up for decision

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

All points to a Leinster Rugby bonus point win 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Leinster Rugby (BP Win)

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

Munster Rugby looking for attacking display 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Munster Rugby (close win)

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

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

Guinness Pro 14: Round 12 Preview (Irish Provinces)

Local derby bragging rights on the line

The first blog posting after Christmas, hoping one and all had a good festive period and ate all round you. Best wishes for 2019! The Irish provinces cheer will be in short supply over the next couple of days as Connacht Rugby entertain Ulster Rugby at Sportsground. Munster Rugby who are under pressure to produce a vastly improved performance with ball in hand face down the current standard bearer Leinster Rugby. Expect fireworks!

What impact has the Leinster Rugby loss had on Connacht Rugby?

The key question going into this fixture. After such an excellent performance for three quarters in the RDS last weekend, it was a devastating last ten minutes for Connacht Rugby. Their much coveted victory in the RDS evaporated as Leinster Rugby’s attacking play coupled with passive game management and kicking from Connacht Rugby saw the game turn on its head.

The morale of the Connacht Rugby squad has to have taken a hit. The manner of the result was a bitter pill to swallow so Andy Friend and management team will have had their work cut out to get the side in the right mindset to win this contest.

Connacht Rugby named yet another strong team selection for this derby fixture. Four personnel changes sees Conor Carey and Shane Delahunt come into the front row. Quinn Roux partners the impressive Gavin Thornbury in the second row. Sean O’Brien comes into the back row.

The subs bench looks strong and with the Stephen Fitzgerald (on loan from Munster Rugby) expected to make a debut from the bench, there are options for Andy Friend to call upon if the need arises.

Ulster Rugby are coming to the Sportsground with revenge on their mind. It is an opportunity to right the wrongs after a disappointing home performance to the same opposition earlier in the season. Connacht Rugby dominated all facets of play and only for a Nick Timoney try at the death to make the 22-15 look closer than it was.

Dan McFarland comes back to his former club and names a good squad for the fixture. Alternations in the back line as Robert Baloucoune is suspended which means that McPhilips, Cave and Kernohan come in to freshen the side up. Timoney comes into an abrasive back row containing Coetzee and Murphy.

Verdict: Connacht Rugby

The Ulster Rugby starting lineup looks strong but question marks on the bench impact is prevalent here. Connacht Rugby’s performance depends on their mindset after that traumatic Leinster Rugby loss. If they are on point, expecting a good performance with Blade and Carty at half-back and with a strong bench should go home.

Ulster Rugby’s performance against an under-strength Munster Rugby last time out produced good moments with ball in hand but still were unable to pull clear. Addison vs. Aki looks the individual match-up to look out for; a national team trial selection.

Munster Rugby: Backs against the wall

The last few weeks have been a mixed bag for all associated with Munster Rugby. After the battle of Castres and then a loser point against Ulster Rugby, it has exposed massive issues with ball in hand. It is time to find form and confidence ahead of key European Cup action but with Leinster Rugby coming to Limerick, it will be difficult.

It will be interesting to see how Munster Rugby’s game plan with ball in hand evolves for this fixture. If Munster Rugby execute at the levels they have been in recent weeks, this could be a humiliation. There needs to be more variety in attacking lines. Ball carrier needs support runner options, something absent in recent weeks. Game management needs to improve; better kicking game required this week.

Munster Rugby make several changes to the side who lost to Ulster Rugby last time out. The cavalry is called upon as Stander, Murray, Beirne, Conway and Earls come into the ranks. Goggin and Scannell form yet another three quarter partnership; a troublesome area for the side given the state of flux. No Peter O’Mahony so Fineen Wycherley continues in the back row.

Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster wield the changes too. Key marquee names get game time in this local derby. Healy, Ryan, Furlong, Conan, van der Flier, Sexton, McGrath, Lowe, Ringrose, Larmour will look to impress. Larmour from full back could have a proverbial field day if Munster Rugby defensively are not at from minute one. Larmour was the marquee performer in this corresponding fixture last season.

I am struggling on how Munster Rugby can win this encounter. The defensive line speed and tackling have been solid but line out and attacking play has been inconsistent, two facets of play which Leinster Rugby excel in and with a quality back row, quick ruck ball from the hosts will be difficult to acheive.

A big game for Joey Carbery who needs to produce a measured performance. These are the games which Carbery was brought into the side for and after an indifferent performance against Castres on the road, he needs to stand up and deliver here.

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Folks will argue that Munster Rugby have been on the end of some poor officiating crew decisions but the general game plan and execution in the side have been poor as well. Munster Rugby need to show a measured improvement and they will but Leinster Rugby hold all the aces here. Strong throughout the pitch and with impact from the bench with ball in hand, they will secure another victory on the road.

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Reflections (Irish Interpros)

Drama and excitement aplenty

The eleventh round of the Guinness Pro 14 saw closely fought contests throughout the fixture list. Cardiff Blues edged an unlucky Dragons outfit. Ospreys beat Scarlets at home to provide a timely morale boost. Edinburgh Rugby’s pack set the platform for a rousing victory over Glasgow Warriors while Benetton Rugby edged past Zebre Rugby today. This blog posting will focus on the Irish inter-provincials where excitement was reserved for the RDS.

Leinster Rugby show why they are champions 

Seventeen points down with seventeen minutes to go. A fixture which Connacht Rugby provided several superb attacking moves with Jack Carty the conductor of all that he surveyed. Any other side would have been resigned to their fate but this Leinster Rugby showed massive fortitude, attitude, determination and skill to pull this game out of the fire.

What sets this side apart is how Leinster Rugby refused to panic, kept believing in their systems knowing that they should get their just rewards. Connacht Rugby visibly tired with each passing phase in that last ten minutes and from been in a position of strength, they were akin to a boxer on the ropes waiting to be put out of their misery.

Connacht Rugby game management in that final ten minutes was also quite key; a couple of occasions where the side had chances to slow the tempo and with more assured kicking from hand into touch could have still secured the win but Leinster Rugby were given the field position required and they made Connacht Rugby pay.

The cameo of Ross Byrne in the closing minutes were nothing short of sensational. His game management to keep Connacht Rugby off balance defensively to the core and with the ever willing support running of Adam Byrne (148 meters off 18 carries), it was decisive. When you add his unerring conversions at the death, it was a display which showed composure in abundance.

Leinster Rugby management will be keen to run the rule over the video analysis as Connacht Rugby exposed big gaps defensively in their cover defense throughout. Carty for sixty minutes was outstanding; constantly testing the host defensive line, his deft kicks in behind working a treat.

Blade at scrum half varied his game superbly and chipped in with a try. Squad depth in the front row was a decisive blow and it came back to haunt Connacht Rugby in the last quarter as scrum after scrum went against them and allowing Leinster Rugby to setup field position and pressure. Yet another tough road loss in the RDS for Connacht Rugby who must ensure that this loss does not spiral their season out of control.

A sensational contest. A sensational advert for the league. Leinster Rugby management will have learned plenty about their up and coming talent. Munster Rugby beware; the defensive lapses from Leinster Rugby should not be seen in Thomond Park on December 29th.

Ulster Rugby victorious

Seven point win for Ulster Rugby at Kingspan against a Munster Rugby side who will feel that officiating decisions went against them. Robert Baloucoune looking to impress should have seen red for his hit on Darren Sweetnam after eleven seconds. The yellow card was a joke call and Ulster Rugby after easily absorbing Munster Rugby attacking advances for the opening ten minutes set about winning this contest. They did so aided by executing a cohesive attacking game plan.

Munster Rugby fans will be worried heading into the Leinster Rugby contest next weekend. Defensively and tackling is on point, line speed was good from the players on duty but the distinct lack of attacking nous with ball in hand is a massive issue. A third consecutive week where Munster Rugby have struggled to make any significant gain line breaks, a third consecutive week where support runners were non-existent. 140 meters in this fixture falls well short of what is required to win a fixture. The botched try opportunity in the second half summed up the clueless decision making at the moment in the side with ball in hand. Felix Jones has work to do.

Ulster Rugby provided more evidence of their potency with ball in hand. Addison continues to be the find of the season. His running lines and passing from thirteen caused Munster Rugby endless issues. Rory Best impact off the bench was superb; his offload in the second half setting up an Ulster Rugby try. Baloucoune after his reprieve scored a smart try along with David Shanahan who was sharp around the fringes. Herring was pumped with his effort. Ulster Rugby perhaps disappointed that they did not secure a bonus point try win.

The game saw Henry Speight play his game for the Ulster Rugby side. An excellent signing this season, his presence and experience will be missed heading into the finale of the European Cup pool phases. Dan McFarland is building a nice side. Their attacking play is a joy to watch at times; how Munster Rugby fans would love the invention and creativity injected into their side?

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)

Festive derbies the order of the day

December 21st. Christmas is fast approaching and that means that it is the matter of local bragging rights as local rivals do battle. Friday night sees Ulster Rugby entertain a much changed Munster Rugby outfit at the Kingspan Stadium while Cardiff Blues will look to pile on the misery against Dragons. Hawkeye Sidekick predicts the likely outcomes.

Ulster Rugby bench impact to settle local derby 

The two team selections announced today were quite contrasting. Ulster Rugby have made just the three changes from the side that beat Scarlets last weekend in European action.

With Iain Henderson out for an extended period, it presents a massive opportunity for Ian Nagle to stake a claim for first team inclusion. Rob Herring deputizes at hooker for Rory Best who is on the bench while the exciting winger Robert Baloucoune slots into the back three for the try scoring Jacob Stockdale.

Munster Rugby have named thirteen changes from the side which narrowly lost in the Battle of Castres last weekend. The most significant team news is the return of Jean Kleyn in the second row, a player whose power and physicality would have been ideal for the uncompromising Castres pack last week.

Sammy Arnold gets another opportunity to impress his home province; hoping to right a few wrongs from last year’s corresponding fixture when the center was given a red card in the fixture. JJ Hanrahan takes over at ten and will look to impress further management.

The exchanges here will be abrasive and feisty but Ulster Rugby have the edge in the scrum this week. Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore should have the measure of Stephen Archer and Jeremy Loughman. The depth chart off the bench looks to favor the home side as well given that Rory Best will make a cameo in the third quarter.

Munster Rugby will look to stay in this contest for as long as possible, look to Hanrahan to provide field position in order for the line out to establish a platform, something not achieved in previous European Cup weekends.

Verdict: Ulster Rugby

Ulster Rugby to prevail with Will Addison and Henry Speight key with ball in hand. Munster Rugby will do well to get a loser bonus point from this contest; the side travels to Ulster more in hope than expectation as van Graan looks to target the crunch Leinster Rugby clash at Thomond Park on December 29th.

Cardiff Blues to inflict further misery on Dragons 

It has been an extremely turbulent season at the Dragons. The season has taken more dives than Tom Daley on a springboard. Bernard Jackman has come and gone as the side travels to Cardiff Blues who will look to regain confidence after two morale sapping losses to Saracens which have eliminated them from European Cup Rugby this season.

The team news is interesting. Cardiff Blues make three personnel changes for the visit of the Dragons. Two pack changes as Olly Robinson and Dillon Lewis come in. The third change is the welcome return of Tomos Williams at scrum-half. With Ellis Jenkins sidelines, Kristian Dacey resumes team captaincy duties until the end of the season.

Dragons makes five changes from the side which lost to ASM Clermont Auvergne last weekend. Ross Moriarty significantly misses the game due to injury so more onus on Cory Hill to set the tone for the pack. Keddie and Fairbrother come into the pack while there is further changes to a back line row who have struggled for cohesion on both sides of the ball all season.

Rosser and Sage come into the back line while Rhodri Williams secures the nine berth for the local derby fixture. The side still has experienced with Hill, Kirchner, Dee in the ranks but the team still looks well exposed in the back line unit where Cardiff Blues with Scully in the ranks could have proverbial field days.

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

Dragons are saying the right things ahead of this derby fixture but cannot help but feel that cohesion issues will plight this performance. Cardiff Blues on their fast surface will look to Anscombe and Williams to provide quick ball for the likes of Halaholo to launch a pacy back three. Only one result coming here. Blues with a bonus point try win. Dragons need to stand up here but given their defensive record, it is hard to state a case for them.

Battle of Castres Reflections

Lack of composure the prevailing theme 

Castres inflicted a first loss to Munster Rugby in Europe this season. A solitary point (13-12) between the two sides after an extremely physical, feisty and at times cynical contest. The prevailing word after watching the rerun of this contest was ‘composure’ or more to the point lack of for the two sides and officiating crew on duty. 

Munster Rugby weak points utterly exposed 

The pregame notes from Munster Rugby before this round four fixture was that the team would improve their attacking precision and accuracy in the set piece. This optimism was unfortunately misplaced as Munster Rugby produced another inconsistent performance with the ball while the line out continued to struggle all ends up. 

Emotions run high as accuracy suffers

An occasion which was guaranteed to be feisty given the round three contest six days prior, Munster Rugby fell into the trap of engaging with a side who were content in stifling by any means possible. The physical confrontation saw Munster Rugby composure ditched at the team hotel and an arm wrestle ensued. Given the experience in the starting lineup, it was a surprise to see the team struggle in this facet of play. 

The emotional dimension to the contest saw Munster Rugby indiscipline surface at regular times. The lead up to the opening Castres penalty score was a coaching killer. Niall Scannell pinged for a late hit on Urdapilleta. It set the tone for the rest of the contest as the visitors continued to flounder with ball in hand. 

Team Selection causing squad morale issues? 

Team selection in Munster Rugby once upon a time was based on player form and the mantra that a player had to earn his starting berth. What JJ Hanrahan must have thought at the start of last week when told that despite his man of the match performance in round three, that he would have to make do with a place on the subs bench? It would make you think of what other fringe players in the squad are thinking going forward and has the recipe to unsettle the first team squad as the season progresses. 

Kicking off the tee woes continue

Joey Carbery had an indifferent game, not helped by a distinct lack of game time with the province in recent weeks. A solid opening penalty kick suggested that the number ten would have a standout game but unfortunately for Munster Rugby, his kicking thereafter from the tee was hit and miss. Carbery was subject to a heavy hit early in the contest, just wondering if there was any after effects thereafter? Murray was also off target with a long distance penalty in the second half. The kicking off the tee statistics this season has been poor and continues the trend from last season where Munster Rugby were bottom in Pro 14 successful kick conversion rate. 

Munster Rugby Attacking Game Plan?

The attacking game plan under van Graan has been quite difficult to understand this season. Is the game plan pack orientated or not? The sight of Chris Cloete as first receiver and play maker last weekend did nothing to unsettle Castres.

It was again left to Conor Murray to force the attacking play as Carbery’s involvement in attacking move was stifled. The threat from the three quarters was frustrating minimal; not helped by stifling slow ruck ball and incisive passing. It meant that the likes of Conway and Earls were starved of quality possession to impress.

Mike Haley has been solid at full back but there are clear cohesion issues when he hits the line. Haley looking for offloading options but lack of support runners when the full back has the ball has been noticeable in recent weeks. What is the attacking game plan and identity of this Munster Rugby side? It appears to be inconclusive this season.

Line out issues hurting Munster platform creation

Line out woes continued this weekend. For the number of options at Munster Rugby’s disposal, the set piece misfired at an alarming rate of knots. Under throws, indecisive line out starting positions were the flavor of the day from Munster Rugby who were unable to successfully setup the platform from this set piece. The Castres line out was by and large dominant and their maul came to the fore in the third quarter resulting in the Niall Scannell yellow card. 

Scrum is a crumb of comfort

The scrum was fascinating to watch. Munster Rugby on reflection will be happy with this facet of play from their starting lineup. John Ryan continues to impress; his scrummaging was superb. Dave Kilcoyne also had good moments in the scrum as well as abrasive ball carries. The squad depth was exposed though as Loughman went backwards on the final scrum. 

Castres – Limited game plan works 

The French side were up for this contest. The feisty exchanges at Thomond Park last weekend set the backdrop and yesterday’s fixture continued in the same vain. It was a limited game plan executed by Castres but they fed off Munster Rugby inaccuracy throughout. With each passing visitor knock on or penalty win, you could see the belief in the Castres team soar. 

The tactics also were quite cynical at times. The eye gouging incident on Cloete was dangerous in the opening period. There was a couple of off the ball incidents as well and the incident where Peter O’Mahony was launched into the air before Andrew Conway’s try scoring opportunity should have merited more action from Wayne Barnes. There was an edge to the encounter and the officiating crew on both match days failed to command the contest. 

Officiating Crew Struggle

The officiating crew assessor report on this fixture will be interesting reading. The TMO performance fell well short of what is expected in this competition. Wayne Barnes’ direct communication to Rowan Kitt for the Castres try exposed a shaky response from the official upstairs.

The TV angles for the try looked inconclusive but Kitt forced to give an answer from a clearly impatient Barnes awarded the try. When Peter O’Mahony reported the eye gouging incident, the officiating crew seemed indifferent to the accusation. The subsequent replays do not look good for Rory Kockott and one would wonder what the TMO was looking at. 

The touch judges on duty did not want to get involved in calling key off the ball incidents. Wayne Barnes was exposed by his officiating crew and at times, Barnes needed eyes at the back of his head to figure out what was going on. Paul Dix literally was a foot away from a Castres player who decided to kick Sam Arnold on the touchline; no action. 

The officiating standard in these Munster Rugby December fixtures have left plenty to be desired. The lack of offside calls, the breakdown mess all added to a disorganized fixture. The sheer lack of consistency by different officiating crews from different countries in rounds three and four of this competition is a serious issue for the EPCR to address going forward. 

Heineken Champions Cup – Round 4 Predictions

Round 4 – Playoff dreams will be made or shattered this weekend

The decisive round four of the Heineken Champions Cup; a round where several teams will fall by the wayside with a key loss. Other sides will take advantage of sides who are already out the back door due to results last weekend.

The wannabes will be whittled down by the end of this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick provides his verdict on the fixtures scheduled. Gloucester Rugby and a bonus point try win (15 point spread) against a massively under-strength Exeter Chiefs outfit looks to too good to refuse. 

Irish Rugby Grassroots Blog Series

A blog series on the Irish schools and local rugby grass root clubs which are nurturing and developing the current provincial academy and senior squad members. The numbers produced were based on current academy and senior squad players who have gone through the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland educational systems. The statistics generated may surprise some. This blog post collates the articles which focused on this topic: 

Munster Rugby: What Second Level Schools and local grassroots rugby clubs are developing the homegrown talent for the provincial setup?

Munster Rugby homegrown provincial  talent is strong

This blog series will look and recognize the secondary schools and local rugby clubs who are to the fore in underage rugby player development. They are at times the forgotten piece of the jigsaw. Without these schools and rugby clubs, there would be no talent pool outlet for the Irish provinces and national team to prosper. 

This article focuses on Munster Rugby. The statistics are based on the indigenous born players who have come through the Irish or Northern Ireland educational system. The statistics may surprise some but it is an exercise which provides key trends going forward. 

Munster Rugby Squad: Age profile 

The Irish born player age profile in the squad is around twenty-six years. The current first team squad’s eldest player is Duncan Williams (32). The playing squad has a good blend of youth and experience. The emergence of academy talent such as Bill Johnston, Gavin Coombes this season bodes well for the club long term. 

Schools Demographic:

The school county breakdown for the Munster Rugby squad is: Cork (22), Limerick (11), Tipperary (7), Dublin (6), Waterford (2), Kerry (1), Antrim (1) and Kildare (1). 

School County Breakdown

Schools Representation: 

Cork Schools grassroots prominent in the current squad

Schools Observations:

  1. The conveyor belt of talent from the Cork  school system is self evident in this squad makeup: PBC (9), CBC (7) are well represented along with several other Cork county schools. 
  2. Rockwell College continue to produce high quality talent. They currently provide four Munster Rugby squad players at present including JJ Hanrahan. 

Grass Roots Rugby Club Association: 

The local rugby club scene is well represented in the Munster Rugby squad ranks with the Cork and Limerick rugby club juggernauts all well represented.  

Grassroots Club Demographic

Heineken Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 30 – 5 Castres

Murray creativity key
Windswept Thomond Park

Munster Rugby are three points clear in Pool 2 after a three try second half performance over a hard working but limited Castres outfit at Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick was at the Limerick venue and provides his thoughts on proceedings. 

Late scratches force Munster into squad reshuffle

The day started with excitement and optimism for Munster Rugby supporters heading to Thomond Park for this European Cup fixture; a fixture to see the debut of Conor Murray and Joey Carbery half-back partnership as well as Chris Farrell who was in superb form last weekend.

As the fans started to arrive to the hallowed rugby venue, it soon emerged that Carbery would play no part in the contest (hamstring) and after a lengthy consultation with medical staff during team warm ups, Chris Farrell was also forced to sit this fixture out. 

Two key personnel withdrawals for the Irish province but in JJ Hanrahan and Sam Arnold, the side still look loaded with talent and creativity to execute an efficient attacking game plan. Tyler Bleyendaal and Jaco Taute were called into the match day squad and the training drills pregame were executed in a heavy torrential downpour, the visibility reducing with each passing minute.

Tricky weather conditions leads to unforced errors 

The windy conditions were extremely tricky for both sides. The opening exchanges typified with the visitors unable to deal with Murray’s first three box kicks given the cross field breeze at play.

Munster Rugby as well were struggling with the conditions as well as Mike Haley kicked out in the full early doors. The game looked for all intensive purposes to be a pack arm wrestle early doors. 

The pack battle was fascinating in that opening period. Munster Rugby with John Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne prominent in the scrum set piece were winning penalties and setting the attacking foundation for the side. JJ Hanrahan was presented with a regulation three pointer to open the scoring in the first ten minutes of the contest. 

Munster Rugby were looking to create a high tempo game but Castres were resolute in defensive duties and their breakdown work at times stifled the hosts ability to create quick ruck ball.

The line out exchanges ebbed and flowed in the windy conditions. Munster Rugby resorting to the long throw at the back of the line out more than once which did not have the desired effect. The line out was shaky at best for the hosts and with it squandered several opening period opportunities. 

Munster Rugby forcing the play too much

 The second quarter was all Munster Rugby; predominantly camped in the Castres 22 but there was a lack of composure in the attacking lines from the hosts; forcing passes which were not on due to the weather conditions and the back line running lines were at times ponderous and static with minimal supporting runners.

The passage of play whereby Conor Murray realizing that Castres had over committed players to the left hand side switched play but there was a total breakdown in communications with Tadhg Beirne who knocked on. It summed up the host’s lack of precision with ball in hand.

Castres were happy to hit the dressing rooms at half-time only 6-0 down. JJ Hanrahan slotting over another close range penalty after good play from the Munster pack in the second quarter. All Munster Rugby dominance but the pressure built up not yielding the desired points on the board. 

Sharp start to the second half from Munster Rugby 

With management instructions ringing in their ears, Munster Rugby started the second half with renewed tempo and vigor putting pressure on Castres to force a series of scrums just on the Castres 22. Murray to the fore as his line break saw a deft offload to Rory Scannell to crash over. JJ Hanrahan slotting over the extras and the game was out to a thirteen point lead. 

Castres offered a lifeline but fail to take 

Immediately after the concession of the opening try, Castres rumbled into life and were rewarded a penalty which was missed but Murray knocked on in the dead goal area. Castres with a five meter scrum but the resultant ball carries were utterly dismissed by the hosts. Beirne prominent as Castres lost possession on the Munster Rugby 22′. The box kick clearance from Conor Murray marked the end of the contest as Castres again needed to put in the tackle count as Munster Rugby started to probe further. 

Munster Rugby start to create line breaks 

More quality work from Conor Murray setup the second Munster Rugby try of the afternoon; created space inside for CJ Stander to cross over the try line. The score settled Munster Rugby nerves to a certain extent and more good pack pressure resulting in JJ Hanrahan slotting three points to make the score 23-0. The game was over as a contest. The key question was whether Munster Rugby could score an additional two tries in the last fifteen minutes?

The third try arrived with around five minutes left in the contest and it was probably the best move Munster Rugby conjured up in the whole contest. Superb line break and offload from Arnold to Scannell, Scannell to Mathewson who then setup Hanrahan away for the third try. 30-0 as JJ Hanrahan kicked the regulation conversion.

Bonus Point is elusive 

If the Munster Rugby faithful were thinking of a late bonus point try, it was quickly snuffed out as JP Doyle was central to a baffling officiating decision. Andrew Conway was adjudged to have taken a Castres player out before receiving the ball just five meters from the Munster Rugby try line. A dead cert penalty try but Doyle botched the call and gave Castres a penalty instead. A penalty try would have seen Munster Rugby restarting and more than likely securing field position for a possible bonus point try. Oh well! 

Castres’ pack mauled the ball to within ten meters of the line and then decided to launch the ball wide and resulting in a try out in the corner despite the best efforts of JJ Hanrahan. 30-5. Full Time. The bonus point not secured and whether this proves to be a missed opportunity, we won’t know until January 19th. 

Thoughts 

The officiating at times descended into anarchy. Doyle lost control of this fixture in the opening period; no repercussions for Castres at the scrum as Munster Rugby dominated and won a series of scrum penalties. The players decided then to settle old scores and a couple of flash points ensued. The Conway decision summed up a bad day in the office for the officiating crew; it was an easy call. If Conway was getting yellow, then surely it implied preventing a certain try. Penalty try. Castres fans were scratching their heads like the home faithful. 

Munster Rugby adapted to the late personnel scratches but there was a nervousness in their attacking play. There was precious line breaks in the opening period and the line out malfunctioned at a rate of knots. Cleote acting as first receiver had mixed result; ball was potentially a little delayed and did not provide colleagues with the time and space to impress. Cleote and Beirne in breakdown work were on point. 

A reality check for Munster Rugby in their attacking play. Defense was solid if not overly stretched to breaking point such was the limited ball that Castres had in the Munster Rugby 22′. The mission is clear for Munster Rugby; a road trip series against Castres and Gloucester Rugby will determine their European Cup ambitions. Roll on next weekend!