Guinness Pro 12: Squad Profiles (Ireland)

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Intriguing squad changes in Ireland

It is the end of July. Guinness Pro 12 teams are well into their preseason preparations ahead of the new season which should contain more excitement with the introduction of South African teams: The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings. In a four part series, Hawkeye Sidekick first looks at the Ireland provinces and sees how they are set for the new season.

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A new era at the Sportsgrounds with the arrival of New Zealander Kieran Keane who replaces Bristol bound Pat Lam. The euphoria of the 2015/16 season Pro 12 triumph is a long distant memory as the team struggled to get into the playoff mix last season with early result reversals and then news of Lam’s departure midway through the season.

The province need a new face to come into the setup and shake things up. Keane glancing at his resume looks like he will fit well with the province with expansive style of play coaching in his forte. Players will need to prove themselves again and the battle for squad berths should be interesting in the coming weeks.

Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:

The Connacht Academy has provided several keynote players in recent years so it is no surprise that three additional academy players get their chance with professional contracts. Brennan, McKeon and O’Toole will bring enthusiasm to the squad but they will be a work  in progress this season. The key acquistions are Gavin Thornbury from Wanganui and Jarrad Butler from the Brumbies who can play multiple positions in the pack.

The Connacht squad said goodbye to a number of long serving players who have being loyal to the province through thick and thin. Ronan Loughney, Danie Poolman were released along with Shane O’Leary, Rory Parata, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Ivan Soroka and Rory Moloney. Player departures within provinces saw John Cooney move to Ulster; prompted by the move of Pienaar to France. Ben Marshall, an exciting prospect was forced to retire while Danny Qualter moved to Nottingham in a bid to get game minutes. Lewis Stevenson made the move up north joining up Bangor in a coaching role while Josh Rowland was signed to the Ireland Sevens side.

Verdict:

The side looks still weak  in the half-back options. Bosch was injury plagued. Cooney is gone to Ulster. Minimal options for Keane in the scrum-half and fly-half positions so would expect more SH moves towards the end of the year. The pack looks decent with the likes of Bealham, Dillane, Muldoon in the ranks. The back line has genuine pace but Aki needs to stay at the club and also stay match fit to establish an attacking platform.

Connacht’s squad depth may be tested if there is a repeat in the injury toll like last season. The academy player pool will then need to fill the void left and this is an arduous task for any youngster. Connacht for me will be a work in progress next season. Top six is optimistic; top eight potentially the aim truth be told.

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A season which was going so well for Leinster last season fizzled out in the last five weeks of the season. The defeat to Clermont was a devastating blow; a game which Leinster will still rue as they contributed to their demise. This loss perhaps was a factor in their dip in performance levels in the Pro 12. A loss to Ulster in the final regular season fixture resulted in a semi-final tussle with an in-form Scarlets who won with plenty to spare despite playing with fourteen players for three quarters of the contest.

The end of season dip will something that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will look  to address this season. The season was pretty positive with the emergence of several young players such as Eric and Adam Byrne and Dan Leavy, The team played with purpose and intent throughout early and mid-season with a comprehensive win over Munster at the Aviva and then a 100% record during the RBS 6 Nations phase of the tournament.

 Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:

Indigenous academy players form the majority of new signings as Andrew Porter, Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery, Nick McCarthy, Rory O’Loughlin, Peader Timmins and James Ryan securing their first professional contracts. Carbery is such a talent; versatile in playing fly-half, three quarters and full back. His game management is a work in progress but the talent is there; exciting times for the province and national side with this player.

The key acquisitions come from Australia with Scott Fardy and James Lowe joining the team. Fardy’s inclusion will be intriguing to see how the player fits in given the strength in depth in the back row positions. Fardy conceivably could be a second row option so it will be interesting to see how that goes. Lowe is an accomplished player, should fit well in the Leinster system. Nice signings particularly when the Leinster players go away on international duty.

There has being experience lost in the dressing room. Zane Kirchner departs for the Dragons. Mike Ross owes nothing to the Leinster jersey and retires with his reputation as a solid, reliable prop assured. Hayden Triggs retired; a player whose candid interviews made him a firm Leinster fan favourite along with Mike McCarthy whose work  rate and abrasive second row play will be missed.

Dominic Ryan’s decision to move to Leicester Tigers is a good move for the player, gets to play for ex-Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor. A player who will revel in England but Leinster have sufficient coverage in the back row options to negate the loss. Best of luck to Ryan on the move!

Verdict:

Leinster’s squad depth is the best in the league (among the Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams). Leinster will look to continue their form from last season but game management tweaks may be required this season as opposition started to read their attacking lines with more conviction at the business end of the season.

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How best to describe the off-season for the men in red? Chaotic would be kind as the swirl in speculation and then confirmation of the departures of Nienaber and Erasmus back to South Africa at the end of the year was confirmed. Felix Jones looks primed to take on the head coaching duties in 2018 and it will be interesting to see how results go at the start of the season. A good start to the season and Munster can allow Jones to settle into the role. Otherwise, pressure for results will be instant and a struggle to reach the top six may ensue. Munster have a challenging season ahead of them given these circumstances.

Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:

Like Leinster and Connacht, indigenous academy players form the majority of senior squad additions. Most players have featured for the first team last season with Oliver, Scott, Johnston, Goggin and Fitzgerald all involved in match-day squads. Oliver was a standout last season along with Goggin. Oliver back row play, his speed at the breakdown and pace with ball in hand were major assets to the club last season. Goggin at three quarters is an exciting prospect; his ability to pick a gap and his game management decision making is sharp given his lack of senior squad experience.

The key acquisitions arriving to Munster are Chris Farrell, an imposing three quarter who played with Grenoble last season. JJ Hanrahan comes back to the province after a hit and miss period with Northampton and then Cloete and Grobler arrive to Munster with excellent resumes. Erasmus probably had a key hand in the capture of Cleote and Grobler whose cameos on video look impressive.

The departures were significant to the squad. Donnacha Ryan leaves for Racing 92 and is reunited with Ronan O’Gara in the coaching staff. Francis Saili, a popular figure in the Munster squad departs for Harlequins. His loss is offset by the emergence of Farrell and Goggins with Taute retained this season. Mark Chisholm and Cian Bohane were forced to retire; a terrible blow for both players. McCabe leaves for Connacht hoping for game time minutes. Rory Burke leaves for Nottingham. Dave Foley departs Munster after a frustrating last two seasons, plagued with injuries and moves of Pau reuniting with Simon Mannix and Paudie Butler.

Verdict:

The emotions of last season and the death of Anthony Foley was keynote; drove the team on and the league and European Cup progression were not expected given the struggles in 2015 / 16 season. This season potentially is an arduous task; the management departures midway through the season. A top four spot is the objective; should be achieved with the squad depth in place. The concern is the management direction in 2018 and when results do not go according to plan. An intriguing season awaits and probably the province where most eyes will be focused on.

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The arrival of Gibbes to the coaching ticket will bring new energy and focus to a squad who quite frankly underperformed last season. The squad depth is strong; skill set is excellent but performance inconsistency in different parts of the season proved fatal to Ulster’s chances of Pro 12 / European Cup progression.

Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:

The key departure is the scrum-half talisman for Ulster: Ruan Pienaar. The South African did not want to leave the province; his BBC NI documentary showed how much the player and his family loved life in Belfast. IRFU were wrong in this player personnel issue; the player still had plenty to offer in the province and with no discernible scrum-half talent coming through, the decision to move on the player was wrong.

Pienaar’s poise, game management and kicking off the tee / with hand was immense. He helped Paddy Jackson no end in games with composure. A player who leaves a massive void. John Cooney arrives to Ulster but the talent comparison between those two players is unfair on Cooney. Pienaar is world class.

Add Pienaar departure with the decision of van der Merwe moving onto Cardiff Blues means that there is a loss in leadership in the squad. Van der Merwe was the pack leader last season; orchestrated the set piece with Rory Best  and led by example. Henderson will now take on the mantle but the squad depth  issues in the second row could be exposed in international fixture periods of the season.

Roger Wilson is also a major player loss to the squad. Wilson owes nothing to the Ulster jersey and retires with his reputation as being a superb, athletic and ball carrying eight assured. Three key departures from the playing panel; interesting to see how the rest of the squad respond to the leadership loss.

Several fringe players depart the Kingspan Stadium. Conor Joyce and Mark Best leave for Jersey. Jonny Murphy to Rotherham. Donnan, Dow, Lutton and Mulholland were released from their contracts. Ten players leaving the squad.

The arrivals in comparison are understated. Cooney will add scrum-half depth but is not in the same level as Ruan Pienaar. Schalk van der Merwe comes to Ulster with a good reputation and Jean Deysel showed in his Munster stint of his power and abrasive forward play in second row / back row exchanges. Several academy players climb to the professional contract ranks; Busby, Cairns, Kane, Lytlle, O’Hagan and Owens.

Verdict:

Given the on-going PSNI investigation of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, the two players are now in sabbatical mode. Two major losses to compound the loss of Pienaar so it will be interesting how Ulster counteract these losses in the early season fixtures. A good season star t is pivotal and a lot will hinge on Best, Henderson, Payne and Bowe for leadership. Gibbes and the pack will be a work  in progress; expect Ulster to come on strong in the second half of the season but how much ground they lose in the early season will determine how well they fare this season.

Guinness Pro 12 Final: Scarlets 46 – 22 Munster

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Pro 12 Final Rout

The Scarlets rode into Dublin for a second consecutive weekend and smashed the hopes of another Irish province to ride off with a thoroughly deserved Guinness Pro 12 final win. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

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Why is James Davies not in the Welsh squad? 

Munster have no complaints on this result. Games are won in the early days of match week with video analysis and preparation paramount and the Welsh region identified the mismatches (that there was many) and executed with accuracy; something that Munster could not achieve in front of a predominant Munster crowd who started with great optimism descended into stunned silence and unfortunately saw quite a few fans walk for the exits well before Scarlets got their hands on the league trophy. Disappointing.

The Irish province started the contest with gusto; forward pack exchanges looked promising as Tyler Bleyendaal slotted over an early penalty. However, this was as good as it got for Munster as Scarlets started to impose their expansive running game and breakdown dominance culminating in the opening try.

Munster were extremely slow off the blocks in their semi-final win but the Ospreys failed to put points on the board. Scarlets identified Munster’s narrow defensive shape and exploited gaps out wide at will.

It was a stunning opening try. Patchell in the pocket producing a deft diagonal kick resulting in Liam Williams to easily outstrip Keith Earls for pace and the first try. The conversion was missed but the alarm bells were ringing for Munster.

Finals are decided by the team who are more precise and do not cough up ball in their own half. Munster were guilty on both charges. The three quarter channel was a constant thorn in Munster’s side all day and the decision of Francis Saili to chase out of the line had devastating effects; did nothing out of the line culminating in Stef Evans striding after impressive offloading by Jonathan Davies. It was a superb line break, a quick fire second try and Munster were collapsing at a rate of knots.

The third try was the end product of a shell-shocked Munster making several defensive misreads. Yes, Scarlets players were perhaps borderline infringing but Munster were buying the dummy runner at every turn. The ball went to Gareth Davies (50/50 forward pass) but the missed tackle from Munster before Davies went over summed everything up in the final; second best.

Tadhg Beirne had a sensational display. The former Leinster second row produced an all action display which must raise questions why Beirne is not even being considered for national selection. Beirne’s try was full of rigor and spoke volumes about the Scarlets performances; they were walking all over Munster as Beirne went through several abject tackles from close range to score.

All over before the interval and despite Bleyendaal’s late try before the break, the Aviva Stadium knew the writing was on the wall. 29-10. A performance full of expansive style and poise from the Welsh region. Munster were a well beaten unit.

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Final to forget for Erasmus; system breakdowns a plenty

Munster will be devastated on the performance produced. The side froze badly on the big stage again. The Aviva jinx continues (four losses in a row) and it was a mirror image of their heavy loss to Glasgow Warriors at this stage of the competition a couple of years ago. Defensively loose. Set piece and general skill set were well below par.

Munster leaders were struggling to gain parity, the breakdown area was a no contest as James Davies controlled but the kicking game of Munster was abject. Ponderous kicking, poor exit strategy giving Scarlets excellent ball to launch attacking threats from deep. Even the presence of Niebaner in the opening period (water boy duties) to try and calm the situation did not work. Munster players heads were gone. No composure, zero poise. Video analysis nightmares 101 this week to sign off on the season.

Neutrals would have liked to see Munster score again early in the second half but Scarlets responded emphatically with a well worked try once more, exposing massive defensive gaps in the three quarter channel. DTH strode for a try with several line runners around the Canadian. Munster defense would be kind.

Yes, Munster fought til the end with tries from Conway and an intercept try from Earls but Scarlets were scoring at will and finished the scoring with James Davies, a dominant player in the breakdown and open exchanges capitalizing on indecisive play from Keatley (drubber kick blocked) and outpacing Munster defensive attempts for the try. 46-22 score was an accurate reflection on the proceedings.

Scarlets continue the vain of Pro 12 Champions who have deployed an excellent brand of rugby; superb offloading, line running and uncompromising defensoe. Their victory in Thomond Park last March was the warning shot for the rest of the league; Scarlets never looked back after this display. Superb performances all over the park. The pack was efficient and compensated superbly without Owens and Ball. Lee, Evans and Beirne immaculate. The back row was supreme; exposing Munster’s back row pace issues and dominating the breakdown area. O’Donnell had not a prayer. Stander and O’Mahoney were nullified.

The half-back partnership of Davies and Patchell has grown in recent months. Their game management and exit strategy was on point and they were identifying the right mismatches throughout. The Scarlets back line had the proverbial field day; an imploding Munster defense and breakdown in communication was creating endless scoring opportunities which were clinically taken. All the back line, take a bow. A superb masterclass in identifying space and execution. Worthy champions. Well done Scarlets!

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Munster need to bottle up this moment for next season

Munster have learned the hard way that there is still plenty of work required to scale to the summit. Saracens (defensive nous) and now Scarlets (attacking precision) have exposed limited game plans and the lack of defensive shape and communication was most unexpected yesterday.

Was Rory Scannell fit? He looked to be limping early doors and was not sharp in defensive work. Saili with his colleague struggling was trying to force defensive turnovers but it only caused more problems for Munster.

As mentioned earlier, Ospreys failed to punish Munster on the scoreboard last weekend particularly in that opening half. Scarlets, a team full of confidence and gusto did. A summer of reflection for Munster management; a season of progress but weak points and composure at the business end of the season was ruthlessly exposed by better opposition. A draining season for Munster perhaps caught up with some players but it looked like the final occasion overtook a couple of players on show. Disappointing finish but the better side prevailed. Well done Scarlets! Roll on 2017-18 Pro 12 season.

Guinness Pro 12 Final: Preview

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Guiness Pro 12 Final

After a weekend of exciting action, we now know the Guinness Pro 12 final pairing. Leinster are eliminated by what a particular Irish pundit described as the ‘West Ham of Rugby’ and Munster after a slow first half took control of their tie to the Ospreys at Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the final.

Munster enter the final in confident mood

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Erasmus one game ahead from Pro 12 success

23-3 win over Ospreys is a victory which Munster management team will privately be happy that the side showed cohesion when required in the second half to close out a contest which saw the Welsh side control the opening quarter exchanges. It is food for thought for Munster management and players that their opening quarter tempo and display needs to be more precise and effective than what was produced last weekend.

Credit the Ospreys for making life incredibly difficult for Munster in that opening half. The breakdown was an area where Munster initially failed to assert any presence. Ball was untidy for Murray to work with. For all of Ospreys positive introduction, Dan Biggar’s early penalty was only the reward and when Zebo finished off a sweeping Munster move for the first try of the contest, the work rate and heads started to wane with the visitors.

Munster’s scrum was solid. Kilcoyne was a man possessed on the night. Ball carrying was abrasive as always and his scrummaging set a solid platform to launch home attacks and put Ospreys under increasing pressure. The line-out was decent. Ryan and Holland in open play were hungry for ball carries and making tackles without the ball. The back row after a slow start asserted dominance against an extremely talented Welsh back row division containing Tipuric.

Earls was the standout back for me during this contest. His cameo was full of invention and always probing Ospreys defensively, asking question of their defense. Saili’s selection was on point and the New Zealander produced a typical abrasive performance. His offload in the lead-up to the Zebo try was super. His defensive work which at times has being little off was excellent. Scannell at twelve was quietly effective at the twelve channel. His kicking is such an asset to this side. Conway and Zebo were excellent with ball in hand. Zebo’s supporting running and ability to evade first time tackles must have sent a clear message to the Lions management of his skill-set.

With the likes of James Cronin likely to fully train with the squad this week, no new injury concerns for Rassie Erasmus and management to contend with. The manner of the performance this weekend provides management ammunition to challenge the team to improve. Murray’s cameo spoke volumes; the late scratch of Rhys Webb was massive for the Ospreys. Murray controlled the nine exchanges and his kick game was so missed against Saracens. Mission accomplished but the Irish province have being warned about the live threat from Scarlets.

Scarlets highly impressive in Leinster win

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James Davies – a pivotal figure in this final

Leinster were a well beaten side with ten minutes to go. At times in the second half, you had to remind yourself that Leinster had a player advantage for the entire half but only for a close range Jack Conan try (after a Scarlets lineout overthrow five meters from their own line) was the only time that Scarlets were in any serious defensive distress.

This was as impressive a performance seen all season. Scarlets executed brilliantly on both facets of play. They identified Adam Byrne as a potential avenue of opportunity and so it proved with an opening try which sucked Byrne in to make a defensive misread allowing Barclay the space and time to wait for the advancing Evans to cross. The second and third tries exposed Leinster’s inside defense with Shingler and Davies at nine taking advantage. Whether Munster would be as charitable in the second try is questionable.

The back row performance of Shingler. Davies and Barclay was immense. They set the tone and create havoc in breakdown and open play. Scarlets will look to repeat the trick against Munster; put pressure on Bleyendaal in open play with the onrushing Shingler and Davies. Barclay’s experience to slow down opposition complementing Davies’ ability to create turnovers will pose issues for Munster.

Leinster who are usually so efficient in their turnover count leaked twenty-nine turnovers during the course of their semi-final loss. Many of these turnovers coming from the pressure created by Scarlets. Munster will need to be on point in this facet of play to have any chance of victory.

The attacking side of play was superb from the Scarlets. Their back line options are immense. Williams and Davies were excellent last weekend. Williams is such a perfect foil for Jonathan Davies; his work rate is supreme and his ability to make the hard yards sets the platform for Jonathan Davies to game manage. His skill set is impeccable. His ability to quickly read a situation and make the right decision was seen last weekend.

Stef Evans was having a man of the match performance until his red card, hope that he features for the final. Liam Williams leadership was to the fore when taking on the kicking responsibility to secure the win; his ability with ball in hand is known. Johnny McNicholl at full back was on point coming into the line and was defensive sound in the second half.

The defensive performance of the Scarlets last weekend in the second half was noteworthy. Evans’ red card could have spelled the end of the Scarlets but the side’s resolve to overcome adversity and to support each other defensively was a joy to watch. Their decision making at the breakdown on when to compete was superb. Testament to Pivac and management coaching that the side were so disciplined during this half winning it 6-5 in the process.

The front five’s performance also caught the eye. The scrum was solid with Lee and Evans providing a secure platform. The line-out was on point with Tadhg Beirne outstanding in the set piece and open exchanges. Leinster’s decision to drop Devin Toner from proceedings came back to bite in this facet of play. When you consider that Ken Owens and Jake Ball were unavailable for selection, kudos must go to the front five on duty. They provided their half-backs with quality ball and will be a test for Munster.

Verdict

This is such a compelling finale to the Guinness Pro 12. The romantics will probably point to a Munster victory; a tribute to Axel Foley, a tribute for the fortitude and commitment shown by the province this season since his departure. For Scarlets, it will be an incredible victory; silverware secured and a perfect send off for Saracens bound Liam Williams.

Munster will look to write the wrongs of recent trips to the Aviva Stadium this season. A resounding thumping at the hands of Leinster and a loss to Saracens which exposed limitations in game plan and execution. Are there mental scars from these losses? Can Scarlets take advantage of this and impose their will on proceedings early?

If Munster are to win this contest, the pack will need to assert dominance. The set piece will be an area where Munster will probably target. The scrum looks 50/50 but the line-out options at Munster’s disposal means that Scarlets will be put under incredibly pressure. Holland, Ryan, O’Mahoney and Stander can provide options. O’Mahoney will look to disrupt throughout and the line-out is an area where he excels. Beirne and Ball (if fit) will need to be on point with their calls. Will Owens be fit? For Scarlets to win, he needs to be available.

Murray at nine against Davies is an intriguing contest. Both players possess key traits. Excellent kicking game, ability to snip from the fringes of the ruck. Bleyendaal and Patchell will also be interesting. Who gets more space to assert their influence on the game?

For Scarlets to win this contest, the breakdown area conceivably is the platform for victory. Munster ball carrying options are endless from the back row but it will be interesting to see how they counteract Davies whose omission from the Welsh Summer squad is baffling. O’Donnell conceivably will be asked to nullify this threat but Davies’ talent at creating turnovers will mean an area where the Scarlets can benefit and launch an expansive back line.

An open, loose game favors Scarlets more than Munster. Munster to win will need to pick their moments to open the game up, otherwise the likes of Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies will revel in the surroundings. McNicholl from full back will also pose an issue for Munster. His elusive running when hitting the line was seen to full effect at Thomond Park earlier in the season.

This is a 50/50 contest. Munster may have the majority of support in the Aviva Stadium but this can also play out as a disadvantage. If Scarlets can establish a foothold in the game, it will be interesting to see how the atmosphere in the stadium changes from enthusiasm to silence if this scenario plays out.

This is too close to call. A lot will depend on whether Ball or Owens feature. Both are incredible leaders in the pack. If either do not feature, Munster may have the edge in the front five battle. Beirne was immense in the Leinster win but could be up against it with Ryan and Holland in opposition.

How much did last weekend’s win against Leinster take out of Scarlets? Forty-five minutes playing with fourteen men. The final quarter of this final could prove crucial. I sense Munster may be the fresher team. Slight edge to Munster but Scarlets are a serious live threat here and the West Ham of Rugby (grossly unfair tag to the Scarlets) could easily take the Pro 12 crown. Roll on the weekend to find out the victor!

 

Guinness Pro 12 Playoff: Leinster 15 – 27 Scarlets

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Playoff away jinx was smashed in the RDS

The sight of Leinster Rugby fans streaming out of the RDS with ten minutes remaining said it all; the home team were a well beaten outfit against a Scarlets side who showed different facets with a superb road trip performance.

Leinster entered this fixture having to a make a late change in their starting squad. Sean O’Brien’s injury hit season continues as he was forced to pull out with a tight calf. The Lions tour management will be keen to test O’Brien early next week to ascertain the extent of the injury.

The team selection from Leinster personally raised alarm bells. The absence of Devin Toner in the second row meant that Twigg and Molony were entrusted to call the lineout set piece. Scarlets must have perked up no end by that decision, a set piece that Leinster have struggled with in recent weeks.

Scarlets as mentioned on my blog preview earlier this week stated that they were a seriously live threat. Irish pundits had disregarded the threat posed by the Welsh region and the opening half performance oozed class in all facets of play.

Leinster enjoyed dominance in the early exchanges but they were met by excellent defensive line speed from Scarlets. Shingler and Davies were to the fore with their breakdown work but more significantly put massive pressure on Sexton whenever the fly half had ball in hand.

Sexton could not rest as Scarlets line speed did not abate during the opening period. His distribution and influence were minimal and his kicking from hand was average. If Owen Farrell was worrying about the Lions ten jersey, he can rest easy as the jersey is now a lock for the England / Saracens star. Sexton’s form was inconsistent at best and his frustration was evident in that he got involved in several flashpoints, something you seldom see. Sexton was rattled and his team mates were not far behind them given the start made by Scarlets.

Scarlets soaked up the pressure and were forcing Leinster into several unforced turnovers. The early exchanges saw the withdrawal of Jack McGrath with a shoulder injury and the Welsh side came to the fore as the half progressed.

Adam Byrne has had a superb debut season for Leinster but the wing’s defensive misread caused the man overlap for the opening try. Barclay’s patient waiting for Evans on his shoulder was superb. Steff Evans pace was too much and he crossed with gusto.

Leinster were asked for a response and they produced an excellent try scored by Ringrose. Henshaw’s line break forced Scarlets to commit too many players to the breakdown area and the subsequent phase of play resulted Jack Conan offloading to Ringrose who made no mistake like Nacewa in the added extras. 10-7 Leinster and some would have expected Leinster to drive on.

However, it never happened. Leinster’s fringe defense was hit and miss all njght and another breakdown defensively in the home defense resulted in Shingler receiving the ball ten meters from the line with Gibson Park for company who was on for the unlucky Luke McGrath forced off due to a head injury.

The attempt from Gibson Park to stop Shingler was quite frankly embarrassing. A meek hand on Shingler who swatted him away with contempt and strode unopposed to score Scarlets’ second try. This try will haunt Gibson-Park for quite a while. Patchell added the conversion and Scarlets were back in front 14-12.

Leinster were now rattled and it was no surprise that Scarlets went over for another try soon after with more incisive passing, probing for defensive gaps and Davies’ line running and support was to the fore collecting the ball and going over for the try.  The hosts defensive line speed and structure were all over the place. 21-12 and Leinster needed something to get them back into the contest.

Cue the key talking point of the game. Steff Evans was having a man of the match display; his speed and attacking threat to the fore. His defensive duties were on point until he tackled Gary Ringrose by the legs but as Ringrose spiralled to the ground, Evans did not support the player on the way down; the replays saw Ringrose in a vertical position. Red card but the contribution of Samson Lee in the play was not looked at. Leinster had a lifeline in the tie.

Scarlets showed their expansive side of the game in the opening period but the second half showed how improved they are defensively. The defensive organization, the decision making to compete in the breakdown vs. defend the fringes and the team work to support colleagues was to the fore. Leinster struggled to establish a foothold in the early second half exchanges. Gibson-Park showed the panic in the ranks by kicking out in the full early doors when patience and building the phases was the right call.

Leinster manage,ment will be more disappointed that no-one on the pitch took over the leadership mantle. The usual suspects were strangely quiet for Leinster and the decision to omit Toner was seriously backfiring as once Leinster player Tadhg Beirne had a superb performance in the second row. work rate and lineout throw steals in an all action display.  The line-out options for Leinster were extremely one dimensional; first option with little prospect of hitting deep in the line.

Jack Conan was probably the player of the game for Leinster. His work rate and effort were rewarded with a try which looked to be a pivotal score midway through the second half. Scarlets were their own worse enemy in the leadup for the score. A sloppy kick from McNicholl and then a Scarlets lineout over throw five meters out from their own line resulted in Leinster gaining possession deep which Conan score. Nacewa unbelievably missed the conversion and it was a decisive miss. 15-19 to Scarlets. The Welsh region had to respond.

Scarlets knew that they needed to gain territorial parity to get some much needed space to recuperate from a prolonged defensive stint. Cian Healy was pinged for bringing the scrum down and Liam Wiliams stood up to the pressure to dispatch the long range penalty over. 15-24 and Leinster were on the brink and leaders again were required. However, they failed to appear as Scarlets were keeping their defensive composure and another penalty award saw the opportunity clinically put away by Williams. Game over.

The Pro 12 away playoff jinx is now consigned to the history books. Scarlets were by far the superior side on the night. If Evans had not being sent off, one wonders what the scoreline and margin of victory could have being. Scarlets beat Leinster 6-5 in the second half, playing with fourteen men. Leinster can have no complaints; they were second best in the pack exchanges albeit Furlong tried to win the game on his own with his trademark physical line running. Beirne was the dominant figure in the set-piece and the fact that Twigg was withdrawn in the opening second half exchanges spoke volumes. The back row breakdown contest was a no contest. Davies, Shingler and Barclay dominated the breakdown area. Davies is such a talent; his mobility and ability to pinch opposition ball should warrant a Welsh call-up.

The half-back battle was won by Scarlets. Luke McGrath’s withdrawal was a decisive moment as Gibson-Park lack of confidence and poise in decision making make his colleagues nervous around him. Patchell varied the game well during his cameo and his kicking off the tee was on point. Davies at nine was snipping throughout; his line running and support to colleagues was excellent. Sexton endured a miserable evening; no opportunity to settle into the contest.

The back line units was again Scarlets. Defensively solid while Leinster tolled. Byrne on the wing learned more in this contest than he has all season. Scarlets clearly targeted the rookie and gain line breaks were established. Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams partnership is superb; Williams is so solid, he possess good pace and line break ability plus his defensive nous is key. Davies is an excellent footballer; his game management was to the fore in one game moment in the second half. Davies received a nothing ball and his decision was swift; drubber kick the ball into touch as nothing was on. It was this cool, collective decision making which set Scarlets out apart.

Scarlets have being the form side of this tournament this year. They will not fear whoever is coming from the other side of the draw. If it is Munster, the pressure will be on the Irish province. Ospreys — they have an edge given their recent win over their rivals. Scarlets will hope to overturn Evans ban to allow him to play in the showpiece event.

For Leinster, it has a devastating end to the season and plenty of soul searching among team management and squad during the summer. For all the talent in the squad, both the Clermont and Scarlets semi-final losses saw indifferent performances from the side. A lack of work rate in the opening periods of these games to establish a platform was pivotal. The lack of attacking precision was criticized by Leinster fans last season; a repeat could be leveled at the side after last night. Cullen as head coach will need to evolve; there was no plan B when Scarlets counter attacked the attacking threats of Sexton and Ringrose.

A note for the Leinster fans who decided to leave early last night. You support a team through thick and thin. It is pretty pathetic for supporters to turn their back on a side considering the game was still in the melting pot with ten minutes left. It happened with some so called Munster fans in the Aviva in April as well. Leinster players paraded around the RDS to near virtual empty stands; supporters need to show appreciation for the team’s efforts. Sad indictment. Leinster will be back but whether those fans will be is an entirely different story. Scarlets advance and they cannot wait for the final!

Pro 12: Munster vs. Ospreys Playoff Preview

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Rivalry and physicality to the fore

The second Guinness Pro 12 playoff will be in Thomond Park where Munster will look to provide further evidence of their progression with a final appearance at the Aviva Stadium. Standing in their way is the Ospreys, a team whose season has faltered but have a superb opportunity to correct the regular league reversals this season.

Can Munster learn from ERC semi-final loss failings?

I think this is the key point that Munster fans will look to this weekend. Munster have secured the top spot in the league with an emphatic win over Connacht in the final day of the regular season and Ulster beating Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium. A potential fixture against Scarlets predicted weeks ago is now the Ospreys and with no love lost between both sides, this will be a brutally physical encounter.

Whatever happens now this season, this is a year which will be remembered for profound loss with the untimely passing of Anthony Foley and the emergence from the grieve and loss to produce game winning performances since then. Foley shouldered most of the responsibility for the side’s decline last season; protecting young players in the squad from media criticism. You must remember where Munster were this time last season; incredibly fortunate to qualify for the ERC with some nervy end of season wins.

Munster management and squad have stepped up massively. The return of Peter O’Mahoney from injury was almost like a new signing. His leadership, work rate at the breakdown and causing havoc to opposition in set piece was to the fore. The front five has improved significantly this season. Ryan / Archer, Scannell / Marshall, Kilcoyne / Cronin have provided a steady set piece. The second row has excelled this season. Ryan and assured Holland have provided quality line out possession and assisted by the likes of O’Mahoney, Kleyn, O’Shea, Deysel at various points of the season. The back row options speak for themselves. Stander has had an epic season; multiple accolades for the Castleconnell resident and with the emergence of O’Donnell, O’Donoghue, Oliver with the experience of Deysel and O’Mahoney — the back row has possessed mobility but also physicality.

The half-back situation last season was a difficult one for Munster in particular the ten jersey. Keatley endured a season to forget, confidence sapping as no other viable options were available to rescue Keatley. Holland came and then unfortunately had to retire. The position lacked competition but thankfully Tyler Bleyendaal returned to the squad and has cemented his position at fly-half. The New Zealander has consistently mentioned his gratitude to Anthony Foley for persevering with him after an injury plagued start to his provincial careers. Some pundits and fans were questioning the need to keep him on the books but Foley stood firm and Bleyendaal has emerged with a strong season. His game management has improved as the season has progressed. His ability to launch line runners is his greatest strength.

It will be interesting to see if Rassie Erasmus starts Conor Murray at scrum-half. The player is superb but his shoulder injury sustained on international duty during the RBS 6 Nations tournament ruined his club campaign; his presence was missed against Saracens in the ERC semi-final but has made a cameo appearance against Connacht to try and prove his match fitness. This weekend will indicate how fit Murray is and Warren Gatland and Lions management will be very interested spectators.

The most significant loan signing this season for Munster was the arrival of unheralded South African Jaco Taute; a player with experience and cover for the injured Francis Saili. Taute has taken his opportunity superbly with several eye-catching performances. Taute is a Munster fans favorite and his loan extension was gratefully received. How Ulster fans would have reacted after that news considering Ruan Pienaars’ departure would be interesting? Taute has provided leadership, defensive structures and Scannell has grown into the twelve position as a result.

The wings have seen the emergence of several ex-Munster academy players this season. Alex Wooton, Ronan O’Mahony and Darren Sweetnam have stepped up to the mark. Sweetnam is a player of great potential; his all round game and skills were evident throughout his rookie season. His ability to create a try from nothing to the fore. O’Mahony (out of the fixture due to injury) led the side in tries. Wooton’s explosive pace has created numerous line breaks in recent games. Great talent to complement established players such as Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo. Ian Keatley has contributed and produced a good season with several keynote performances this season.

The team and fans are again a cohesive unit in unison; something you could not say last season. With far improved attendances at Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park, Munster gate revenues have increased. Game day atmosphere has stepped up in intensity. Debt remains an issue but this season has being a marked up improvement for the province.

Ospreys will look at the ERC semi-final loss to Saracens as a source of optimism. Munster failed to perform on the day. Their limited game plan was easily counteracted by a Saracens who exposed game management issues to put the tie out of sight ten minutes into the second half. Saracens absorbed Munster’s early punches and ran out convincing winners. Munster were reduced to one out ball carries, mediocre kicking game as a result of Saracens defensive line speed and breakdown work. The ability to control emotions was not evident in certain quarters; the game plan needs to be more varied particularly when facing excellent opposition like this weekend.

Ospreys will not fear Munster

Munster hold no fear for Ospreys. The regular season games were two completely different games. Munster were dominant in their home fixture but Ospreys will rue not putting Munster to the sword in the opening period of their home loss. Yes, Munster did win both fixtures but the last fixture showed Ospreys how to expose Munster.

Ospreys started the game with superb tempo and line speed. Their clear out work in the first quarter of this contest was excellent and Munster were pinned back. This physicality and dominance subsided as the half wore on and Munster were clinical in their possession keeping themselves in touch and stealing a victory.

Ospreys under Steve Tandy started the season with extreme promise and all was going well for the side until the ERC Challenge Cup quarter final to Stade Francais. The loss seem to deflate the squad and some performances were below par. The loss in Italy to Treviso was a low point but Ospreys did arrest the slide with a convincing win over Ulster until they faced Scarlets and were comprehensively beaten. Two weeks to reflect and review to produce a performance at Thomond Park.

What did go so horribly wrong for Ospreys? Discipline was a key issue during the game. Webb’s yellow card allowed Scarlets the platform to lead and once done produce a very expansive display exposing Ospreys on the fringes and defensive breakdowns resulting in try concessions.

Playoffs. It is a clean slate for the side and there should not be pressure for the Welsh region. Pundits will write off the Ospreys at their peril but there will be notes ahead of this fixture stating as much (certain Irish Indo journos). Will Alyn Wyn Jones feature during this contest? It is a massive boost for the side if he even featured on the bench. Leadership, work rate and line-out efficiency.

The Ospreys pack this season is young, energetic and extremely mobile. Baldwin, Ardron, Underhill and Baker have provided consistent performance along with the mercurial talent of Tipuric wrecking havoc at the breakdown.

Webb and Biggar at half-back will provide Ospreys with assured game management. Webb at nine is an exceptional talent. His ability to find space in the fringes to the fore. Biggar’s penalty kicking and ability to suck defenses out of position to launch the likes of Beck, Matavesi again eye catching. Sam Davies / Dan Evan provide kicking ability from deep but also excellent line break capability from full back where the elusive Giles has provided several keynote game changing moments on the wing.

If Ospreys can get a foothold in this contest, then they will feel that they have the sufficient quality out wide to threaten a Munster defense whose structures have vastly improved this term. The key decision is on Jones in the lock position. Bradley Davies and Scott Ardron are a good partnership but Jones is leader central. Interesting lineup beckons.

Verdict:

I think Ospreys have a serious chance to upset Munster this weekend. A team with nothing to lose, the pressure should be firmly on the hosts to produce a performance. There are fitness question marks over Munster’s first choice half-back partnership. Williams at scrum-half has provided solid support but Webb will fancy his chances to assert a game changing / match winning performance from nine. The battle in the pack is where Ospreys need to front up. If they can quell the hosts early salvos, Munster may become extremely one dimensional. The learnings of the ERC semi-final or not will then be answered in quick fashion. Ospreys were a disallowed injury time try away from beating Munster in the playoffs two seasons ago. Munster have being warned. Playoff rugby. Anything can happen. The Thomond Park venue will provide solace for Munster but it has to happen on the pitch. If Murray plays from the start, advantage Munster but if not then Ospreys have more than enough to secure the road trip. A game which will be brutal and physical; would not be surprised if a Lions bound player is struck down with a season-ending injury here. Tempo and platform will be key early doors.

 

Pro 12: Leinster vs. Scarlets Playoff Preview

 

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Playoff Rugby on May 19th / 20th

The Guinness Pro 12 regular season is in the books. For eight teams, it is time to shut it down for the off season and hit the beach. For Leinster and Scarlets, playoff rugby looms large in the horizon with a final at the Aviva Stadium the prize. This article previews the opening playoff fixture in the RDS.

Leinster wary of Scarlets challenge

The playoffs kick off with a potentially mouthwatering fixture between Leinster who for a last day loss to Ulster was top of the league for a large part of the season against a Scarlets team who have hit optimum form at the right time of the season.

Leinster have made RDS a fortress in the Pro 12 league. Their squad depth has absorbed the international fixtures throughout the season. The fact that they went through the RBS 6 Nations phase of the league unbeaten is a testament to a squad who are performing efficiently in defense and with ball in hand.

The arrival of Graham Henry during the off-season to advise Leo Cullen on all things coaching and management was a superb move but even more so was the decision to hire Stuart Lancaster to the coaching ticket. Lancaster hallmarks on Leinster this season were obvious; improved line speed both defensive and attacking lines were more precise. This relieved the pressure on Cullen in his second season as head coach.

Leinster have injury concerns over Cronin and Henshaw but would expect at least one of the players to line up for this fixture. Leinster do not have a weak point in their lineup; their front five is abrasive and the scrum set piece with McGrath and Furlong in superb form creating the platform to create scoring opportunities.

The second row has being an area where Leinster have switched and changed during various parts of the season. Toner is the first choice in this unit but his partner has being less than clear cut. Twigg will probably line up with the Irish international but Molony and Kearney have stepped in at times; the line out has being overall good but has had lapses most notably in the ERC semi-final where this set piece component was below the standard required.

The back row options for Leinster are endless. Heaslip, O’Brien, van der Flier, Conan, Ryan, Ruddock and Leavy all come into the mix for selection. The competition for even a matchday squad berth is incredible within this unit and must be difficult for management ahead of key fixtures to pick. Mobility will be key against Scarlets and the role of van der Flier in this fixture for Leinster cannot be underestimated.

James Davies has being sublime this season for the Scarlets again; his breakdown work has caught the eye and resulted in numerous turnovers for the Welsh region. Leinster need to nullify the threat of Davies, otherwise Scarlets will have an superb chance to secure a road trip win.

The half-back combination for Leinster are excellent. Luke McGrath has grown into the team and nine role this season; his game management and speed of distribution from the ruck has allowed Sexton / Byrne or Carbery the time to launch their runners. Sexton will look to set down a marker for the Lions management with a superb performance this weekend.

Sexton at ten has all the tools of the trade. His game management and ability to vary play leaves opposition off balance. It is imperative for Scarlets to slow down Leinster ball at ruck time and line speed on point defensively to force Sexton to rethink his game plan. A tall order but it is what is required.

The three quarter combination should be Henshaw and Ringrose; a massive tussle beckons against a Scarlets side containing Lions player Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams whose creativity, line breaking ability and offload play will take stopping. Ringrose at thirteen has evolved this season.

His attacking play was clear for rugby fans to see this season, his pace and ability to expose defensive mismatches has resulted in several tries. However, his defensive side has improved as the season has progressed. It will need to be on par with the opposition arriving to the RDS this weekend. Henshaw is a superb ball player, can provide the hard yards but also has a superb kicking game which at times has allowed Leinster to exert pressure on opposition. A superb match up beckons.

Isa Nacewa has being a standout leader for Leinster this season. He has mentored the likes of Adam Byrne, Eric Byrne during the season for the betterment of the side. Nacewa has chipped in with numerous key game contributions whether it was scoring tries, kicking penalties or denying opposition a certain try due to a superb last ditch tackle. Nacewa is an inspirational figure in the province, a potential head coach in the making. The team is stacked with leadership and quality but they face a Scarlets side who are eager to continue their impressive recent league form.

Scarlets mobility and offload game can cause Leinster problems

Leinster have being due warned on the threat posed by their visitors this weekend. A resounding win on the road to current league champions Connacht was extremely impressive but then how they took the Ospreys to task in their final league game of the season set a marker for the playoffs.

Scarlets may have started the season slowly but their end of the season has being like a steam train. This is a side whose ERC record was excellent beating Toulon at home and being denied a win by Saracens. When you add the emphatic demolition of Munster at Thomond Park, you are starting to see the momentum that has being built in recent months.

The Welsh region oozes class. Evans, Owens and Lee are established Welsh front row internationals. Owens has being sublime this season on set piece and has rightfully earned a Lions call. Owens for me is the first choice hooker on this tour. His captaincy and leadership this season has inspired those around him. The second row is all about Jake Ball; an extremely combative player whose reliable line-out option provides Scarlets with a good platform to launch their back line. Tadhg Beirne has provided additional support for Owens on the line-out. The back row is mobile and aggressive. We have already mentioned Davies tormenting opposition at the breakdown but he is ably assisted by the likes of Shingler and Boyde who are dynamic ball carriers and excellent work rate and tackle counts.

The half-back partnership is young and exciting. Patchell at ten has arrived from the Blues and has grown into the ten jersey. He will be put under pressure by Leinster this weekend. How does Patchell vary the game plan to keep Leinster the fast defensive line speed off balance? Davies at nine will snip throughout. His cameo against Ospreys last time out was evidence of this creating tries and his box kicking is on point.

The back line is where this side oozes class. The conditions this time of year are primed for Scarlets to let loose. The three quarter partnership will provide gain line breaks in abundance. Jonathan Davies at thirteen is a sublime footballer; his ability to read defensive setups and make the right decision is to the fore. Williams alongside will provide excellent defensive cover but can also spot a defensive gap. Henshaw and Ringrose will have their work cut out if Scarlets can get over the game line with quick ruck ball for Davies to distribute.

Liam Williams will leave Scarlets for Saracens at the end of this season but his mission is to win silverware for the Scarlets before making the move to London. His all round game and physicality are to the fore. His recent performances have exhibited these qualities. Leinster’s kicking game will need to be on point this weekend, otherwise Williams will run riot. He is ably assisted by full back McNicholl, a player under the radar personally until I saw him at Thomond Park at the start of the year. Superbly adept player when joining the line. Solid defensively. Evans as well on the other wing is a speed merchant and his try scoring prowess in recent rounds means a dangerous threat awaits Leinster.

Verdict

This is the standout Pro 12 playoff fixture this weekend. Scarlets come into this game with massive confidence and form. Their try scoring ability from all areas of the park represents a live opponent for Leinster this weekend. The key battles will be the front five which is 50/50 personally particularly if Cronin misses out. The other key battleground is the ten position. Patchell will need to have an excellent game for Scarlets to secure this road win. Leinster will throw different looks at the player and Patchell will need to keep it simple initially but then need to become more expansive as the game progresses to launch his impressive back line runners. Can Patchell provide the confidence and leadership for Scarlets? All should point to a Leinster victory considering their unerring home form this season but there is something about this Scarlets’ outfit which is making me think that a road trip win is not beyond the realms of possibility. If Scarlets can stand up to the Leinster set piece, they have a superb chance. Slight edge to Leinster but do not be surprised if Scarlets win this. I cannot wait for the fixture to arrive on Friday.

 

 

 

 

Guinness Pro 12: Munster 50 – 14 Connacht

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Munster stroll to seven try romp

The scoreline says everything about this game. Munster romped to an easy seven try rout of a Connacht side who look to have booked their summer holidays. The video footage of the Munster seven tries is enclosed below.

Team Selection

On paper, it genuinely looked that Connacht would produce a performance at Thomond Park. A side containing the likes of Muldoon, Carty, Ronaldson, O’Halloran. Yes, the Westerners had to contend with numerous injuries in both the pack and back line but compared to the patched up side that was destroyed by the Scarlets in the previous round, it looked like Pat Lam and management were targeting the game to build morale and confidence ahead of the ERC playoffs.

Munster team selection was around familiar lines. Erasmus fielded a side with a mix of youth and experience. The front five included O’Shea in the second row but also complemented by the massive experience of Holland, Cronin, Marshall and Archer in the unit. The back row was young and exciting. Deysel at six explosive to complement Conor Oliver and Jack O’Donoghue at eight.

The half-backs was an intriguing combination with Angus Lloyd and Ian Keatley. The three quarters again was a mix of youth and experience with highly rated Dan Goggins pairing up with Jaco Taute. Keith Earls and Alex Wooton again continued the mixed team selection with the marauding Andrew Conway at full back.

Early Exchanges Decisive

Connacht started the first three minutes of the game with intent; creating several phases of play in the Munster 22 but the hosts defensively were on point and Deysel at the breakdown was proving to be an absolute beast stealing Connacht possession. The brief onslaught from Connacht was lifted and from there on in, it was plain sailing for Munster. Marshall was excelling with ball in hand; creating numerous line breaks and setting up the platform for Lloyd to quickly distribute from the ruck.

The first try of the afternoon was scored by Keith Earls; a routine straight from the training ground. Solid lineout execution led to a swift pass from Lloyd to Keatley who identifying a defensive misread in the Connacht defense set Dan Goggins free. Ronaldson will not be pleased with his defensive positioning as Goggins strode easily into space where the ever alert Earls was on hand to receive the pass from the youngster and over straight under the posts. The nightmare had only started for Connacht as defensive frailties were starting to surface all over the park, a repeat of their performance against Scarlets.

Munster did not have to wait long for the second try of the evening. More good work from the pack setting the platform. Swift ruck clearance allowing Lloyd to distribute to his colleagues out wide where the ball eventually arrived to Jack O’Donoghue who strode over.

The first quarter particularly saw an impressive cameo from the half-backs. Lloyd at nine was producing an extremely efficient performance. Good kick game with quick passing was catching the eye and Connacht defensively off guard. Keatley was man of the match when these two sides played earlier in the season. The former Connacht man again came to the fore with an excellent display; game management was on point and his kicking off the tee was excellent. His decision making in particular was creating numerous Munster line breaks.

The speed of decision making from Keatley was decisive in the third Munster try. Keatley identifying space out wide, passing to Conway who then set Wooton free out wide. An explosive run of twenty meters had exposed Connacht again defensively and with Keatley supporting the ball carrier distributed to Conway to spectacularly touch down in the corner. A superb try, excellent offloads in contact.

The opening period also was the introduction of Deysel at the six position. The South African was a beast throughout; his physicality was on point but it was his breakdown work in the opening period which caught the eye. Three steals and forced the O’Halloran spill which led to the third Munster try. Deysel is a player of exceptional potential for the province. His versatility to play second row and back row is a real plus. A superb cameo.

Second Half – Testimonial Game

The second half really did resemble a testimonial game; both sides were trying to attack from all areas of the pitch. After a superbly execute Connacht try from Kelleher after Carty’s aerial kick to the corner, service was quickly resumed. Connacht falling asleep at the restart, losing possession deep in their own half and after Wooton nearly got over after another explosive run. The ball was distributed to James Cronin who crashed over from short distance. It encapsulated all that was wrong with Connacht; lapses in concentration, defensively at sixes and sevens, breakdown spoiling non-existent.

The fifth Munster try was not long in coming again as defensive misreads from Connacht in the three quarters was punished by a quick fire Bleyendaal and Taute passes eventually found Conway in space who strode unopposed for another score; it was ridiculously easy at this stage. The white flag should have being raised at that point.

However, Connacht stirred themselves for one final attacking spurt in the final quarter and were rewarded with a close range try. The response was emphatic as Munster ran in try number six. A huge collision in the Connacht twenty-two saw the ball spill to Francis Saili who was not going to be stopped from close range. It was another cheap score; Connacht playing in the wrong areas, a tactic which worked last season has being now counteracted by opposition this season with excellent defensive line speed to close space both inside and outside the ball carrier.

Top of the league!

The final score was a training ground routine out wide. Conor Oliver was the man to touchdown after good passing from several Munster players. The massacre was concluded and Keatley’s conversion miss was a blessing for Connacht. A seven try rout and with Ulster beating Leinster at Kingspan, Munster suddenly were top of the league and resulting in a fixture against the Ospreys on May 20th.

Excellent Season

Considering how the team was this time last season, barely scraping through to the ERC, this has being a season of immense progress. Of course, it has being shrouded with sadness. Anthony Foley will never be forgotten; he sheltered the team when the results were going in a downward spiral. The team emerged from his tragic passing with unity, team work and determination, the central ethos of the club. Kudos to the management and players for the season produced under exceptionally trying circumstances.

Murray returns unscathed

The game was noteworthy for the emergence from injury of Conor Murray. The Patrickswell native came through the game with no ill effects; was rarely pressured in the rucks but was tested with a couple of physical hits on the fringes during his thirty minute cameo. A huge plus for both province and the Lions tour particularly with the news that Ben Youngs has withdrawn from the tour due to personal reasons.

First things first, there is a Pro 12 league title to win. Ospreys in two weeks at Thomond Park should be a superb occasion. A potential trip to Dublin and the Aviva Stadium for the final is motivation enough. Roll on May 20th!

Guinness Pro 12 – Regular Season Finale

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Exciting end to the season beckons

Bless me father for I have not blogged, it has being a while since my last one chiefly due to travelling across the great country they call USA (expect a blog posting on this in the next couple of days). Plenty of talking points since my last blog posting as we head into the final round of regular league fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the weekend just past, looks forward to the regular season finale and looks ahead to the potential playoff fixtures.

Round 21:

The penultimate round of the competition had just about everything; tries galore, floodlight failures and saw realistically the final four of Leinster, Munster, Ospreys and Scarlets. Glasgow and Ulster exit the competition with regrets. Glasgow after pulling themselves off the canvas against a much changed Leinster at the RDS and taking the lead could not close out the contest and allowed their hosts to win 31-30. Any remote chances of top four were extinguished in the fading light of the RDS.

Ulster’s season was encapsulated perfectly during their defeat to a much improved Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium. Several good periods of play but all too often, attacking threats were undermined by basic errors and lapses in concentration. I am still baffled by the decision to field Ian Henderson at six, the player is a second row and pack leader. The set piece was a shambles; lineout misfired and the scrum was close behind. No platform for the likes of Marshall / Pienaar and Jackson to influence the game.

Ulster have had a most disappointing season; their potential and squad looks impressive with the likes of Piatau, Pienaar, Best, Henderson, Gilroy in their ranks but for whatever reason, consistency was never achieved. Gibbs’ arrival will be a blessing for a pack who were disjointed on set piece throughout this season. Physicality and execution efficiency will be increased as well. There are question marks on Les Kiss and some may look to Gibbs as a potential head coach in waiting. A pivotal close season beckons. Ulster must get better but there are issues in squad depth going into the off season.

Ospreys were dominant at the breakdown and the first quarter dominance laid the foundation for victory.  Their upturn in form is most welcome heading into the playoffs; a trip to the Scarlets will determine who they play in the semi-final. Ospreys to a man stepped up to the plate to produce an efficient performance. The key question now is the fitness of inspirational leader Alun Wyn Jones? Does he feature against Scarlets this weekend? Does he shut it down until the Lions training camp?

The Scarlets are the potential dark horse for the playoffs; their complete dominant display away to Connacht sent a massive statement to the rest of the playoff contenders. Scarlets carved open Connacht at will in the opening period and had already secured the bonus point before the interval. The key players in the side stepped up and led by example. Liam Williams was a revelation with ball in hand. Owens and the pack controlled the set piece and their tempo was on point. Connacht’s team was on paper makeshift but take nothing away from this Scarlets performance, extremely professional and they enter the final game of the season in good form and confidence starting to soar.

Munster secured their home field playoff berth with a twenty point victory over a gutsy but overwhelmed Benetton Treviso. Rassie Erasmus will be delighted that the young players on duty stepped up to the mark; seven of the B&I team made appearances. The downside was the season ending injury to Ronan O’Mahony, a cruel blow for the Munster Pro 12 try scorer. He could be followed on the treatment table by Dave O’Callaghan (scan on a knee injury) and monitoring of the likes of Donnacha Ryan (concussion), Conor Murray (shoulder / neck) and Rory Scannell. The Munster squad suddenly is being tested to its limits; not ideal entering into the business end of the season.

Sweetnam and O’Donoghue stood out for Munster. Sweetnam has had a superb rookie season; his poise and game management belies his first season in senior ranks. His try was classic Sweetnam, created the try from nothing and used his GAA ball skills to the fore with a deft kick ahead before touching down. O’Donoghue was his rampaging best with ball in hand. His pace for a back row is superb and was a constant thorn in the side of Treviso who tried to stick with Munster but with an ever increasing tackle count fell away in the second half.

Regardless of what happens now in the playoffs, this has being a most encouraging season for Munster. It has being shrouded in tragedy with the passing of Axel Foley early in the season but the team has being united throughout and the team work and work rate has being on point. Erasmus has built solid foundations this season but Munster realize that they are far from the finished product evident in their ERC exit to Saracens where squad depth and game plan limitations reared their head. Given how last season went with pretty much the same squad, it has being a surprising turnaround.

Cardiff Blues secured seventh spot in the league with an exciting win over Zebre whose loser point could be pivotal come the end of the season. 30-24; tries galore but Cardiff Blues will need to tighten up defensively ahead of the ERC playoff. Edinburgh beat Newport Gwent Dragons in a dead rubber game 24-20; both sides go into the European Challenge Cup.

Round 22 Fixtures:

The key fixture this weekend let us face it is the Ospreys’ trip to the Scarlets; the fixture which will determine third place in the league and most likely a trip to Thomond Park to face an injury hit Munster outfit. The strategy of both sides ahead of this fixture will be intriguing. Does Tandy and Pivac resist the lure of resting marquee players ahead of the playoffs? I think both head coaches will field strong sides to secure third spot this weekend.

Leinster at the RDS has being a fortress this season. The squad depth at the disposal of Cullen / Lancaster is the best in the league and I doubt if either Welsh region would fancy a trip to Dublin for the semi-final.

Munster on paper right now look vulnerable; the injury count is mounting. The absence of Conor Murray at nine despite the best efforts of Duncan Williams was exposed against Saracens and could be targeted again in the semi-final. The return to play protocols is being followed by several players; expect Munster to field a team full of fringe and B&I players for the home regular season finale against Connacht in order to rest up the front line players for the playoffs. The injury list is not ideal heading into the playoffs.

Scarlets will not fear Munster; their win at Thomond Park earlier in the season is evidence of this. Ospreys will feel that there is unfinished business with the Munster province this season; two regular season losses and the home loss to Munster is still raw. Given that there is two weeks to the semi-final playoff fixture after this weekend, both Welsh sides will leave it on the line.

I am giving the slight edge to Scarlets this weekend, impressed me with their running lines and performance in Galway last weekend. The hard ground suits this team and the likes of Liam Williams will revel in the open spaces. Ospreys need to keep it tight and test the Scarlets front five at the set piece throughout. Yes, Ospreys have options out wide but this is a game where the pack needs to assert dominance from minute one. Without Wyn Jones, it may be an arduous task. Presuming Wyn Jones will not line out and this could be decisive. It is going to be an amazing fixture; should be a full crowd at the Scarlets.

The Irish provinces face off against each other. Connacht need a win to improve morale and confidence heading into the ERC playoffs. The lengthy injury list is long and the pack has struggled to gain parity in recent weeks. Pat Lam’s regular season home finale did not go according to script; too many mistakes and Scarlets fast tempo resulted in several missed first time tackles / misreads leading to try concessions.

Thomond Park is not the place to be going to look for a much needed result but given Munster have secured home field playoff advantage, the hosts lineup could potentially aid Connacht in this respect. The performance levels need to improve; key players need to return and set the tone. It is extremely hard to see Connacht securing an ERC berth given their recent form. A trip to Saints / Quins is daunting given the injury list. I give Connacht a good chance to win at Thomond Park given the personnel that could feature for Munster at the weekend in order to save front line players for the playoffs.

Ulster’s home finale will be a subdued affair. Leinster at home should stir the local rivalry but that is about as much as it will be. Leinster will continue to give youngsters and fringe squad members game time so it will be an opportunity for Ulster to perhaps sign off with a much needed league win. Top four ambitions are over so it is a chance to showcase what might have being. Wondering if Kiss fields the likes of Best, Henderson for this fixture with the Lions tour looming?

It has being disappointing to say the least from Ulster. Pienaar’s departure is most unwelcome; great shame that a mercurial talent that wants to stay in the province cannot due to IRFU player policy. There is a lack of squad depth in the position even with the signing of McGrath. A position which could be problematic next season and even more onus on the pack to be a more cohesive unit; something they were not this season in set piece and loose exchanges.

The Italian derby will decide who gets the Italian representative ERC spot. A damning indictment of the league given their league positions. Zebre have the edge given that they are home but it will be a close affair. Treviso have showed competitiveness in recent fixtures but Munster exposed defensive gaps at will in the second half last weekend. Zebre came away from Cardiff Blues with a loser point; attacking side has improved, defensively maybe not so but I think they will edge it given home field advantage.

Glasgow and Edinburgh end the season with a local derby finale as does Cardiff Blues’ trip to Newport Gwent Dragons. Dead rubber fixtures. Cardiff Blues may rest players ahead of the ERC playoffs. Dragons cannot wait for the season to end; get the likes of Zane Kirchner into the setup come the close season. Glasgow should beat Edinburgh; again interesting team selection for the Warriors. Does Hogg play? If he does, Warriors win with a bit to spare. The regular season is then in the books. Roll on the playoffs!

 

 

Guinness Pro 12: Cardiff Blues 13 – 23 Munster

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Munster were far more cohesive on the night but they eventually broke down a hard working Cardiff Blues to secure a win that keeps the province in touch with Ospreys and Leinster at the summit of the league. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Full Game

Munster squad looking fatigued

It has being a grueling Guinness Pro 12 schedule for all teams during this RBS 6 Nations section of the competition, a period where squad’s are tested to their limits and depth issues are wholly exposed. Munster’s performances in recent weeks have lacked spark and cohesion with several crossing infringements penalized last night. The infringements mean one of two things: lack of communication in the ranks or players who are fatigued losing focus. The front five at times struggled. Kilcoyne and Marshall were their abrasive best with ball in hand but Stephen Archer really struggled on the night. The match officiating pinpointed Archer at scrum-time and when he did run with ball was easily dispossessed by the likes of Navidi who was one of Cardiff Blues best performers. The second row on duty had mixed evenings. Billy Holland was as reliable as ever; solid in the lineout and good in breakdown and open play. Darren O’Shea on the other hand had an evening to forget; minimal impact with ball carries and missed a couple of first time tackles. O’Shea will learn from this experience.

Stirring Cardiff Blues Performance

The manner on how Munster fought back from being 13-3 down has to be admired but it was a struggle for the province throughout. Cardiff Blues were well up for this contest. Nick Williams showing intent early doors with a excellent tackle on Rhys Marshall. William was typically tenacious and with the likes of Navidi producing good work in the breakdown area, the hosts will rue some gilt edged opportunities which they let slip particularly in the opening period. Duncan Williams’ last ditch tackling saving Munster on a couple of occasions. Tom James was a standout with his ball carrying in the opening period and his game line breaks which on another day could have produced more points for Cardiff Blues who to a man left everything out on the pitch. The intercept try was well taken; anticipation was on point as Scannell’s loopy pass was gratefully received by Summerhill who went over unopposed. The concession of ten points in the final ten minutes was incredibly harsh on the hosts who contributed to a good contest in difficult conditions.

Munster win despite Keatley injury

The result is all the more astonishing given the fact that Ian Keatley was forced to retire from the game in the opening period. With no backup fly-half cover, Munster management introduced Francis Saili and switched Andrew Conway to ten initially, a position that I have not seen the player occupy in his career. Scannell then took up the role in the second half with mixed results. An errand pass which led to the Cardiff Blues try but the Cork native produced when required with an excellent drop goal to give Munster the lead. It remains to be seen the extent of Keatley’s injury but any lengthy period on the sidelines will ask questions of Munster’s squad depth at the ten position. Intriguing couple of weeks beckon on the ten front.

Munster young bucks continue to impress

The young Munster charges again produced encouraging cameos. Sweetnam again provided further evidence of his potential international credentials with an accomplished performance in the air and his ability to make space and offload caught the eye. Conor Oliver is a player who has really emerged as a superb prospect. The back row player has shown versatility in recent weeks; playing at six and eight last week against the Scarlets. Oliver’s try at the death showed great awareness of Cardiff Blues defensive breakdown on the fringes to score from distance. The try encapsulated Munster’s best period of the game; O’Mahoney tackle leading to Cardiff Blues losing fifteen meters set the tone, Saili’s pressure forcing the turnover and with Cardiff Blues not setup defensively, the back row scored the try.

Taute, Saili and O’Callaghan stand up

Jaco Taute defensively stood out throughout yesterday. His tackle count, accuracy and organizational skills are assets to this side. Taute has being a standout to the province this season. Munster fans will be hoping that the South African extends his stay next season but that remains a big if. Dave O’Callaghan was also a front runner for Munster; carried endless ball and his work rate defensively stood out. Francis Saili also deserves a mention; have being a critic of the New Zealander this season as he sometimes exposes colleagues with rash game management decisions. Saili was on point upon his introduction; super try to get Munster back in the contest in the second half and his controlled defensive press on Cardiff Blues posed problems for the hosts particularly in the last quarter. It was controlled rather than the frenzied approach seen against Scarlets last weekend.

Cardiff Blues – Encouraging Signs

For Cardiff Blues, the hosts had excellent performances from Williams, Navidi and James. The team were beset with injuries and international call-ups. However, the team that was put out produced a stirring performance. I had read comments specifically around the Connacht home game loss but the lack of effort and intensity was not in view yesterday. Tackles were made and the set piece was solid throughout particularly the scrum time where Munster may have thought that they would have an edge. The line-out was again excellent (92% lineout success this season is the best in the league). Cardiff Blues had a good start to the season but squad depth appears problematic; they have beaten Munster away from home and yesterday’s performance confirms that the side have all the attributes to beat anyone in the league. Consistency of performance appears to be the core of the team’s struggles. The last eight minutes will be a big disappointment for the hosts; the drop goal from Munster to go 13-16 was a blow but Cardiff Blues unfortunately spilled ball deep in their own half immediately after the drop goal concession which setup the Oliver try. Given the intensity of this contest, both teams will be grateful of weekend off this week.

Guinness Pro 12: Ospreys 23 – 25 Munster

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Five key talking points from the top of the table tussle

Munster never say die attitude to the fore

This was a mixed performance from the men in red. Ospreys should have had this contest out of sight in the first quarter such was their dominance. Two quick fire tries superbly executed by the hosts aided by some defensive breakdowns in line speed and first time tackles had Munster on the ropes but Ospreys intense start subsided to such an extent that the visitors created a platform and scored two quality tries of their own. O’Donoghue and Sailli ball carries and running lines were sublime. 20-18 at the break, hard to believe that the Munster were still in the contest but they were.

Munster’s ability to continue to build phrases and look for space in the last ten minutes was quite admirable; several attacks had broken down due to poor ball protection and unforced errors. Kilcoyne’s try was an excellent effort; his ability to break three Osprey players to touchdown is a potential pivotal event in the Pro 12 season.

Bleyendaal’s conversion was unerring and Munster had stolen victory from the jaws of defeat. The squad is resolute. The management is resolute; united front and the pride in the Munster jersey is restored this season, something potentially may not have being the case last season after such a horrific opening first quarter.

Champions Cup vs. Challenge Cup

Ospreys’ fans were quick to point at the Beck TMO decision as the key turning point of the contest. A try then would have proved near fatal for Munster to get back into the contest but there was still well over twenty minutes plus to go. Ospreys’ attacking lines have being superb all season; they have hit heavy scores in both Pro 12 and ERC Challenge Cup but Ospreys played in spurts yesterday, great opening period but died for fifteen minutes before the interval to allow Munster to get back into the contest. The Challenge Cup, you can possibly get away with a quiet period of play but in the Champions Cup, it is punished. Ospreys should secure a top four place this season and a return to the top table of European Rugby where they will see first hand that any lull in intensity is devastatingly punished. Ospreys will go far in the ERC Challenge Cup but defensively they will need to bring their defense for the full eighty; the hosts failed in this regard and this is what cost them victory yesterday.

Mitrea

Officiating is an occupational hazard; both teams will have gripes with the officiating. As eluded to, the Welsh side will point to the Beck try and also for some high tackles not pinged by the Italian official leading to this decision (Saili cited on February 20th). Munster will point to scrum dominance and no discernible advantage from this set piece.

Mitrea frustrates me as a match official; has all the attributes to be a top class referee and then lets himself down with the question he posed to the TMO on the Bleyendaal try. The question would have indicated a try was the answer but then it was turned down for something not mentioned by the match official during the initial TMO discussion on the decision.

This was a top of the table tussle; come May, a decision like this could decide home field advantage in the playoffs. The TMO decision did not cost Munster but Ospreys will feel rather different. It is a worrying aspect for teams leading into the season run-in. Mitrea has to be better in these situatons or his credibility as a match official will wane at a rate of knots.

Munster – Sloppiness

This was far from a vintage Munster performance. The set piece was decent throughout. Marshall at two is becoming a real viable ball carrier and providing stern competition for Scannell who is on international duty. The defensive breakdowns for the two Ospreys tries were avoidable; defensive line speed was passive in that opening quarter and first time tackling was not on point.

Credit to the side, they made adjustments at the break and was improved in the second half but defensive system failures particularly in April and May will be ruthlessly punished. The lack of ball control and composure in Munster’s play at times was frustrating; the second half saw a flurry of unforced errors where Munster trying to force the issue coughed up ball.

The base of the scrum usually so solid for Munster was inconsistent at best, ball control was an issue and is something that young Jack O’Donoghue needs to improve. All other aspects of play were on point from the Waterford man but he needs to bring more dominance to the base of the scrum with his ball control.

The fortitude of the Munster players to go to the death won the day but video analysis and training paddock will be an interesting place tomorrow.

Pro 12 Weekend Fixtures – One Quality game, one close game and the rest are blowout victories for home teams

Osprey and Munster fixture was a superb advert to the league; despite the fact that both sides were missing several first team starters. The lack of cohesion in these RBS 6N calendar fixtures was non-existent in this fixture, both teams hit the ground running and served up some splendid periods of play.

Ospreys under Steve Tandy are an excellent team and they will be a force to be reckoned with in the business end of the season. If they can beat Glasgow, they take the Warriors out of the playoff picture.

Munster entertain Scarlets next Friday night, a game which has banana skin written all over it for the Irish province. Scarlets have improved immeasurably since Christmas and their performances in ERC action will have issued a massive warning for Munster this week in preparation for the fixture at a Thomond Park which should have had a decent crowd.

The other fixtures were nondescript, several blow out wins and a narrow win for Connacht over the Dragons in a dull encounter. The league needs more competitive games like what was witnessed at the Liberty Stadium. Forty point drubbings is not the order of the day! However, need to mention the Pienaar try for Ulster against Warriors (try of the tournament so far for me).