Guinness Pro14: Round Eighteen Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)


Playoff implications aplenty!

The business end of the Guinness Pro14 campaign is beyond us and there is no margin for error for a host of teams looking to secure postseason action. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the Friday night action where all three fixtures have massive playoff implications in both conferences.

Edinburgh Rugby look to build momentum

It is not too dramatic to say that this is a must win game for Edinburgh Rugby tonight. A mixed set of results before the three break has left Richard Cockerill’s men currently in fifth spot in Conference B, seven points behind Ulster Rugby for the last playoff berth.

The significance of the fixture against Leinster Rugby as well as looking to build cohesion and momentum ahead of that colossal European Cup fixture against Munster Rugby means that Edinburgh Rugby name a strong lineup buoyed by the return of John Barclay in the back row to complement the power and physicality of Watson and Mata.

The pack is pretty much first choice except for the absence of Magnus Bradbury who is on the bench. The back line is loaded with creativity and pace with Graham and van der Merwe poised to create if given sufficient quick ball.

Leinster Rugby have already qualified for the postseason and their team selection is a mix of youth and experience. A late scratch to Ross Byrne sees personnel changes at ten where Ciaran Frawley slots in and Jimmy O’Brien gets game time from full back. Joe Tomane returns to the starting lineup after a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

The Leinster Rugby pack is minus the majority of Irish international as well as the reliably brilliant Scott Fardy. The pack has potential but the second row combination is a concern in terms of physicality and maul management. A team selection which has the potential to go either way.

Edinburgh Rugby need a complete performance ahead of next weekend’s huge fixture with Munster Rugby. Anything short of a win here against a depleted Leinster Rugby side would be a big disappointment. Edinburgh Rugby’s push for end of season honors starts tonight and I suspect that they will win to provide confidence ahead of European Cup action.

Connacht Rugby team selection gives Benetton a chance?

This is a crucial fixture for both sides. Both are in the playoff mix. The team selection from the hosts is intriguing as Andy Friend resists the urge to recall Marmion and Carty to the starting lineup and plumbs for Blade and Godwin in the half back slots.

Benetton Rugby on the other hand name a near full strength side. It will be interesting to see how Ian McKinley controls the game for the Italians at ten. McKinley has played well for Benetton Rugby in recent rounds and you sense that this is a big opportunity for the Irish born player to consolidate the side’s position near the summit of Conference B.

The back three threat from Benetton Rugby is significant with Ioane and Tavuyara wrecking havoc on sides this season. A tough defensive examination beckons for the likes of Leader and Healy from this threat. No Aki either for Connacht in midfield and the lack of internationals in the Connacht Rugby side opens the door ajar for Benetton Rugby to secure a road trip win.

The weather conditions are improving in Galway as I type this blog which is good news for Andy Friend’s charges whose offload game has caught the eye. Connacht Rugby need to win this fixture; failure to do so and it places even more pressure on their home fixture against Cardiff Blues.

Benetton Rugby are the most progressive side in the tournament this season; their style of rugby has evolved and there is a grit and resiliency in the pack not seen in previous seasons. I think Benetton Rugby have a serious chance of securing at minimum a loser bonus point this evening and perhaps a win. If they were to win this fixture, they will potentially have one foot in the postseason.

There is something about this fixture that is making me incredibly nervous for Connacht Rugby. The personnel selections here are risky to me personally but Andy Friend’s mantra of everyone playing their part will be key. A slight nervous nod to the hosts with the back row unit of McKeon, Fainga’a and Butler to be the key difference at the death.

Welsh derby in Cardiff – stakes are high

A huge fixture for both Cardiff Blues and Scarlets. Both sit just off the playoffs but results elsewhere coupled with a win here could catapult them into the playoff spots. A massive fixture and should see a huge crowd in attendance.

Hopefully the weather conditions are suited to an attacking game as both sides back line options are loaded with talent. Cardiff Blues have upgraded hugely in their back three options next terms with the acquisitions of Hallam Amos and Josh Adams so it is a chance for Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill to send out statements that they are not still viable options at the club.

Scarlets back line contains the likes of Halfpenny, McNicholl and Fonotia so expect explosive gain line breaks and offloading from the visitors. The fixture ultimately could be decided in the pack and Cardiff Blues on paper look to have an edge early with the likes of Ken Owens (on the bench) and explosive second row Jake Ball not in the match day squad.

The back row battle looks epic. Navidi vs. Cassiem will be worth the gate admission alone. The half back battle will be interesting as Evans is up against Patchell who will look to impress as Gareth Anscombe slots into the full back role tonight.

50/50 game for me. Slight edge for Scarlets on this fixture. Their performance against Munster Rugby impressed me no end; their conditioning and defensive work was excellent. This game will be in the melting pot until the final quarter and will be decided off the bench and Scarlets appear to have the stronger hand.

Guinness Pro14: Scarlets 10 – 6 Munster Rugby

Arm wrestle won by Scarlets

Scarlets revived their Conference B playoff hopes with a superb defensive stand to thwart Munster Rugby by four points. The result sees Glasgow Warriors move to the top of the Conference A standings as Munster Rugby were left to rue several try scoring opportunities squandered during the eighty minutes. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Ground Control – We have a problem

This was a fixture that deserved better weather conditions than the swirling wind and rain in Llanelli. The opening exchanges saw Munster Rugby impose their territorial dominance on the contest and an early Bill Johnston penalty gave the visitors an early 0-3 lead, then cue the television feed went down.

As Eir Sports and other providers scrambled to restore coverage, the worse case scenario took place, the only try of the contest was scored while the coverage was down but was reliably informed that good pack play from Scarlets saw the ball spin out to Ioan Nicholas with space to score. Halfpenny slotted the extras and the hosts led 7-3 as the television feed was restored.

Munster Rugby dominance not reflected on scoreboard

The remainder of the opening half was spent by and large in the Scarlets half as Munster Rugby built the phases and the tackle count on their hosts. Several incursions deep into Scarlets territory failed to yield any scores albeit the penalty count for Scarlets was increasing at a rate of knots, something that Mike Adamson did not want any part of.

The key attacking miss from Munster Rugby in that opening period was the line break from full back Mike Haley. An excellent run and with runners to his outside chose to go inside where Scarlets defensive cover was present. A spurned opportunity. The pass out wide would have yielded a try and something that was picked up upon by Shane Williams on the punditry duties.

All the pressure built up by Munster Rugby had a familiar theme. Munster Rugby pack looking to ram their way over from short distance but were met with a wall of Scarlets defensive resistance. With the ball treacherously slippy, any attempt to go expansive ended in knock on’s and surrendering possession.

The half did end with Munster Rugby securing a penalty just on the break. Bill Johnston unerring in his accuracy off the tee amid tricky weather conditions. 7-6 at the break. Munster Rugby doing all the attacking but showing little in terms of the scoreboard. Scarlets sprinted into the dressing rooms with a pep in their step after an excellent defensive display.

Decisive opening ten minutes of second half

Scarlets regrouped at the resumption of the second half and started to pepper Munster Rugby in defense with some astute line running, creating gain line breaks in the process.

A concerted spell of phases saw Scarlets near the Munster Rugby posts which forced the visitors to concede the penalty. The penalty call was to go for the posts, a smart move considering the conditions. Halfpenny slotted home the penalty to make it 10-6.

The rest of the contest was abrasive, an arm wrestle in truth with Munster Rugby looking to hit back with a try. They thought that they scored when Jean Kleyn saw amble space in front of him and crashed over. It looked too good to be true and it was as Rhys Marshall obstructed Hardy in front of Kleyn. The try chalked off by the TMO. It summed up the night perfectly for Munster Rugby. The work rate not in question but the level of precision and composure required to unlock the Scarlets defense was lacking in crucial moments.

Additional Munster Rugby pressure ensued and Arno Botha was held up just short of the line. The red line fever took over Botha who instead of presenting the ball back to colleagues to build more pressure stretched for the line only for the ball to be ripped away.

It effectively spelled the end of the Munster Rugby attacking threat as Rhys Patchell’s introduction saw a more polished kicking game from the Scarlets in comparison to Munster Rugby whose kicking lacked any cohesion or posed any serious questions of the Scarlets back three.

Kevin O’Byrne was introduced and produced a brilliant turnover for Munster Rugby to setup a grand finale but more inaccuracy in possession saw possession spilled. Scarlets ran down the clock and with the likes of Uzair Cassiem absolutely standout with twenty-seven tackles, the hosts won the contest. They deserved the victory based on their determined defensive display throughout and played Mike Adamson superbly at ruck time and the offside line which was not officiated throughout.

Munster Rugby will need to reflect on this performance in relation to the attacking decision making. The blunt pack orientated drive it approach was easily covered by Scarlets throughout and it was only when Haley and Sweetnam had line breaks that their defensive cover was anyway stretched. Edinburgh Rugby will look at how Scarlets’ low tackling style stopped Munster Rugby go forward at source and as a result prevented Mathewson and Johnston half backs from creating any noteworthy breaks.

A couple of weeks to regroup for Munster Rugby. A couple of weeks to remedy the attacking shape error count from this fixture but it has being indicative in recent trips to Wales. A loss will focus the management and squad for the run in; a home game to Zebre Rugby should secure playoff qualification but a top spot in the conference needs to be the target but they have given Glasgow Warriors the opportunity tonight to reclaim.

Scarlets will be hugely buoyed after this win. Their defensive display was on point throughout and when Munster Rugby threatened their try line, they closed ranks and created turnover ball again and again. Scarlets will look to get injured bodies back for the run in and do not discount this side in not making the playoffs. They are the sleeper team in this competition particularly when the pitches start to firm up. A morale boosting victory.

Guinness Pro14: Regular Season Run In

Exciting end to the regular season run in!

We are down to the business end of the Guinness Pro14 regular season. A loss now could have disastrous consequences for a side’s playoff ambitions. In this blog posting, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the playoff picture in both conferences and pinpoints a couple of key fixtures down the stretch.

Given that Zebre Rugby in Conference A and Dragons / Isuzu Southern Kings in Conference B are out of the playoff picture, they have been excluded in this fixture schedule illustration. Hopefully, these sides can use it as motivation for next season!

Conference A: One playoff berth up for grabs

Conference A: Regular Season Run In

It is fair to say that Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors have secured the first two playoff berths in the conference. One more win for either will officially lock them into the post season which means that one from four sides will secure the third playoff berth.

The key question is who will top the conference and significantly secure a home field semi-final playoff fixture. Munster Rugby currently on top right now but they face a very tricky away assignment to Scarlets this evening. If Munster Rugby secured a win here, it would be massive given that Glasgow Warriors have a tricky last three league fixture run with Ulster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and a local derby against Edinburgh Rugby to finish off the season. All to play for in the top spot battle and bonus point try points could be decisive.

The other question is who will join Glasgow Warriors and Munster Rugby in the playoff postseason. Cardiff Blues currently hold sway but a tricky fixture run in beckons with fixtures against playoff rivals in the run in. It could be an extremely nervy run in for the Blues given their inconsistent performances this season.

A key indicator on the Conference A playoff battle could be revealed in Galway later today. Connacht Rugby and Ospreys lock horns in a must win fixture for both sides. Momentum for the victor while the loser will be facing an uphill battle to get back in the playoff race. An intriguing fixture beckons.

Toyota Cheetahs are currently looking from the outside at present after another road trip loss in Ireland. A home stand at the end of the regular season may be too little too late so the South Africans are looking for results to go for them to get in the race.

Conference B: Leinster Rugby in the big dance

Conference B Run In

The Conference B top spot race was officially wrapped up for Leinster Rugby last night during their 19-7 win over Toyota Cheetahs. In truth, this was a done deal since before Christmas such has been the dominance of the side in Conference B fixture play. It will be intriguing to see how Leinster Rugby management play the remainder of the regular season as they face Conference B sides who are vying for playoff berths. Do we look to give game time to squad players or integrate international players into these fixtures at various stages? Selection could be decisive in the fortunes of the sides below them.

Benetton Rugby are currently in second place of the conference. For me, they have been the story of the Guinness Pro14. Their progression started at the end of last season with a good unbeaten run and they have continued that form into this season. A run in which sees the Italians face Edinburgh Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby looks tough but it would be great for the tournament organizers to get Benetton Rugby into the big dance. This afternoon’s fixture against Edinburgh Rugby is pivotal, a win at home to Richard Cockerill’s gives them control of their own destiny given their tough fixture run in.

Ulster Rugby have progressively improved since a sticky spell of results just before Christmas. The emergence of Eric O’Sullivan and timely return to form of Marty Moore in the front row providing pack platform in which the back line have flourished. The run in looks really exciting but tough. Any road trip to Scotstoun is a daunting task. The home finale against Leinster Rugby could make or break Ulster Rugby’s season at this point.

Edinburgh Rugby out of the Conference B playoff contenders have the trickiest run in. Fixtures against all their main conference playoff protagonists feature and then there could potential distractions with the Heineken European Cup campaign. The side are loaded with attacking and pack unit threats but this fixture list looks quite daunting and a loss away to Benetton Rugby today could the beginning of the end of their playoff ambitions.

Scarlets are the team lurking in the long grass. Injuries, club departures have exposed the club this season. A key fixture against Munster Rugby beckons today, a win here and they are back in the playoff hunt. The last two fixtures potentially are ten point hauls with Zebre and Dragons on the fixture list. Scarlets have the ability to secure a playoff berth but the fixture today cannot be understated. A loss to Munster Rugby and their playoff hopes are in dire straits.

Predictions:

Conference A:

  1. Munster Rugby (mixed results but should just do enough)
  2. Glasgow Warriors (tough run in decisive in top spot battle)
  3. Connacht Rugby (close with Cardiff Blues; Ospreys fixture key)

Conference B:

  1. Leinster Rugby
  2. Ulster Rugby
  3. Scarlets (to break Benetton Rugby hearts on the last day)

Guinness Pro14: Round 17 Predictions

Key fixtures lined up this weekend

After Leinster Rugby secured their home Guinness Pro14 semi-final playoff berth tonight, the stage is set for several fixtures which could prove decisive in who else joins the Irish province in the post-season. A pivotal day for the likes of Connacht Rugby, Scarlets and Benetton Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the fixtures and tries to predict the winners.

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 Reflections

Playoff picture becomes somewhat clearer

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

Conference A: Top two stride further ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference B: Landslide results

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro14: Round Sixteen (Saturday Fixtures)

Three home wins looks the solid bet

The Guinness Pro14 fixtures set for Saturday are interesting in terms of the playoff ramifications come the end of the season. The hosts of these fixtures look solid favorites but for Cardiff Blues in particular, it is a game where a win is paramount. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the form guide.

Benetton Rugby need to keep momentum going 

A defining round fifteen victory for Benetton Rugby in their victory over Scarlets at home. The result was impressive for a number of reasons. The ability of Benetton Rugby to get off the canvas multiple times to keep to the game plan was admirable; the ability of Ian McKinley to link attacking play was impressive and the ability of the pack to stave off Scarlets advances late incredible.

After such an euphoric victory last weekend, it will mean nothing if they cannot back up this performance and beat a Dragons side who are out of playoff contention with little to play for. This is a potential banana skin fixture for the progressive Italian club if they do not execute to the levels required.

The team selections have yet to be announced but suffice to say that Benetton Rugby will be missing a couple of marquee players from last weekend. Ian McKinley will miss out as he is on Italian national team duty on Sunday but the side has sufficient talent in the pack to set the platform to win this contest.

Dragons will be without the likes of Dee and Wainwright for this fixture. They showed good attacking play last weekend against Edinburgh but their defensive line speed and first time tackling were at times a shambles. Their last quarter display was poor and the failure of the side to produce a cohesive eighty minute performance this season is mystifying considering the experience of Hibbard and Henson in the ranks.

This is a fixture where Dragons’ pack could struggle as Benetton Rugby impressed in the set piece exchanges. Benetton Rugby are aware of the mission this weekend; a victory is paramount and if they can achieve a bonus point try then great but this is a fixture that could be a struggle for the Italians more than pundits would expect. Benetton to win but no bonus point as Dragons will look to hang on as much as they can in this contest.

Edinburgh Rugby building momentum 

This is probably the marquee Guinness Pro14 game on Saturday. Edinburgh Rugby showed the good and the bad in their bonus point try victory over Dragons. The good was undoubtedly their tries scored; some inventive running plays with Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe prominent. The bad was the defensive lapses particularly in the opening period, massive gaps that Dragons exploited to score tries.

Cardiff Blues come into this game desperately looking for a victory to keep in the Conference A playoff race. A home loss last time out against Glasgow Warriors; a mixed bag like their hosts last weekend with a poor opening period ultimately undoing all the good work of the Blues late. Their ball carrying and attacking threat is up there with the best in the league but their defensive side of play can be inconsistent and teams have exposed this in recent rounds.

The smart money would be on an Edinburgh Rugby win but if Cardiff Blues can compete and stay in touch until the third quarter, they have a serious chance of securing that coveted road trip win that could transform their Guinness Pro14 season. However, I have question marks on how they counteract the threats of Edinburgh Rugby out wide. Duhan van der Merwe is playing at a higher level to last season; looks the key man for Edinburgh Rugby to secure a win.

Ulster Rugby should have too much for Zebre Rugby

The Ulster Rugby Guinness Pro14 campaign has reached a pivotal point. After a morale boosting shutout win over Ospreys last weekend, it is now time to consolidate their playoff position in Conference B with Scarlets potentially facing a stiff challenge to the Toyota Cheetahs on Sunday.

Zebre Rugby arrive at Kingspan Stadium after a home loss to Leinster Rugby. The resiliency was to the fore as they battled gamely after going 0-21 down early to Leinster Rugby as they fought back to make it a 19-21 score at the break. Shrewd game management to take points instead of going for the line in the third quarter proved costly as Leinster Rugby regained composure to take the game away from the Italians.

This weekend will see both sides undermanned due to Guinness Six Nations commitments. Ulster Rugby for me look the solid bet to claim a bonus point try. O’Sullivan, Moore and Balacoune look the key players for Ulster Rugby provided that McPhilips / Burns can execute the attacking game plan to a high level.

Zebre Rugby will look to compete but in effect, they are out of playoff contention. It is a time to evaluate the squad depth for Michael Bradley and I think they will look to prove a point after a traumatic South African road trip recently. They do not want an embarrassing scoreline inflicted again. Ulster Rugby to win with a bonus point try though as squad depth issues on the Zebre Rugby will rear their head in the third quarter off the bench.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 Review

Excitement in plentiful supply in this round

A weekend where the playoff picture became a little bit easier for some, a little bit complicated for others while for the likes of Zebre Rugby, Dragons and Isuzu Southern Kings, it is time to evaluate squad depth and make the necessary calls to improve their sides before the off season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Conference A: Top two continue to win

Munster continue to lead this conference after an emphatic 43-0 shut out win over an Isuzu Southern Kings who after a bright opening quarter lost composure, discipline and line speed. The hosts made the necessary adjustments at half-time to negate the Kings breakdown threat and the result thereafter was never in doubt. A road trip test to Ospreys next weekend will be a true indicator on whether the Irish province have the quality in squad depth to secure a top spot berth in this conference.

Glasgow Warriors had to withstand a late fightback from Cardiff Blues with a bonus point try win over a Cardiff Blues who were made pay for a slow opening half cameo which saw Glasgow Warriors score three tries. The attacking phase play was on point from Dave Rennie’s men but the management surely must be disappointed with how the game went so close late on; poor defensive line decisions. A key fixture against third placed Connacht Rugby awaits next weekend at home.

Twelve months ago, Connacht Rugby would have lost this encounter with the Toyota Cheetahs. They were asked the questions in the third quarter when Venter scored to put the South Africans ahead 15-17. It was a time for cool heads and composure from the team’s leaders and they delivered at the death. Jack Carty composure in full view in that final quarter; orchestrated the game plan superbly and provided shape to Connacht Rugby who were at times guilty of playing a little bit too open and unstructured; two facets of play that Toyota Cheetahs love to see. Ultan Dillane was immense with eighteen tackles, nine passes and four carries.

Ospreys lost further ground to their playoff rivals with a shutout loss to Ulster Rugby at home. It was a frustrating game for Ospreys whose work rate was high but lack of quality in the final pass was seen more than once. A key fixture against Munster Rugby next weekend is now a must win fixture for the Welsh region. Yet another loss could prove fatal in their hopes of securing a top three playoff berth come the end of the regular season.

Zebre Rugby video analysis will be the good, the bad and the downright ugly. The good was how the side bounced back from a horror start conceding three tries to Leinster Rugby early to then respond with their own efforts. 19-21 at the break and Zebre Rugby will rue the fact that they refused points opportunities in the third quarter. Renton was superb for Zebre Rugby but a key knock on with ten minutes left saw the cue for the Leinster Rugby juggernaut to create sufficient momentum to close out the contest. Forty points conceded was harsh on Zebre Rugby given their efforts in the contest.

Conference B: Hail Hail Benetton Rugby!

Leinster Rugby are away and out the gap in terms of Conference B. They will be the top seeds in this conference come the playoffs. Yet another bonus point try win on the road. Yes, there were issues in defensive line speed and missed first time tackles but the squad will improve from the outing.

Edinburgh Rugby secured a bonus point try on Friday night against a Dragons side who showed some attacking promise only to be let down with poor defensive line speed and first time tackling. A good performance from the likes of Darcy Graham in the opening period setup this victory for the Scottish side and then Duhan van der Merwe made sure of the win with two tries in the final quarter. A win to create momentum ahead of their clash with Munster Rugby next month in European Cup action.

Benetton Rugby took a huge step in securing playoff rugby with a 25-19 win over a Scarlets side who showed the usual attacking flair but were put the sword by a high energy pack performance from the Italians. Ian McKinley continued his good form with a standout display at ten; his diagonal kick for the decisive game leading try in the second half a highlight moment. Scarlets showed massive upside with ball in hand.

Hardy, McNicholl (2) scoring from excellent line breaks but the Welsh region were made to pay for inaccuracies. The final phase indicative of the issues experienced by Scarlets; a line out misfire gave Benetton Rugby the opportunity to steal the ball and close the game out. Scarlets five points behind the playoff spots; not a time to panic but another couple of losses in the coming weeks could be fatal in their pursuit of playoff and Heineken Cup ambitions.

Ulster Rugby secured a vital win against the Ospreys. It was a dour affair but a decisive opening try from Stuart McCloskey paved the foundation for victory. Ospreys’ attacking threat was snuffed out by a disciplined Ulster Rugby defensive display and John Cooney made sure that Ospreys left the contest with nothing with a last minute penalty. A pivotal win for Ulster Rugby in the conference playoff race; keeps them in touch with Benetton and Edinburgh. A key series of league fixtures beckon now to launch the decisive playoff move.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Saturday Fixtures)

Road trip wins could be the order of the day

After Edinburgh Rugby, Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby secured victories last night, focus switches to fixtures on tap today with a couple of teams in must win territory to keep their playoff hopes alive. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Stong Leinster Rugby side face Zebre Rugby on road 

Such is the talent and squad depth currently at Leinster Rugby that the first fifteen on duty today looks incredibly strong and powerful. Andrew Porter gets game time in the front row ahead of a potential test match cameo against Italy.

This lineup is a testament on the magnificent work done at the Leinster Rugby academy, looking forward to seeing the cameos from Murphy, Doris and Deegan in the back row. Jack Dunne is primed for his Leinster Rugby debut off the bench, yet another exciting prospect.

Zebre Rugby are threading water until the end of the season. After an encouraging start to the season, injuries and squad depth weaknesses have taken their toll. Michael Bradley has done as good a job as anyone could given the circumstances.

This fixture looks absolutely daunting for Zebre Rugby as Italian international players Castello, Lovotti, Padovani, Palazzani and Sisi are away with their national team squad. When you add injuries to Bellini and Meyer, you see the task in front of the Italian side.

The only saving grace for Zebre Rugby is that this is the first in the next block of fixtures. Early cohesion issues should be seen and this should hopefully allow Zebre Rugby to get a foothold in the game. However, the strength of Leinster Rugby should be seen in the third quarter to secure a bonus point try win to widen the gap to the rest of the Conference B pack.

Connacht Rugby must be wary of Toyota Cheetahs threat 

This is an intriguing fixture. Connacht Rugby have earned plaudits aplenty after their encouraging start of the season under the management of Andy Friend but we are now at the business end of the season. It is time for the side to deliver accurate, solid game managed performances. It starts today.

Connacht Rugby play host to a Toyota Cheetahs side who have shown good form leading into this fixture with tries scored at regular intervals over Zebre Rugby and Isuzu Southern Kings (home and away). Cheetahs will look to play an unstructured game; look to attack from all angles. Connacht Rugby must pick their moments to go wide and when they do, they must be clinical in execution.

Connacht Rugby are boosted with the return of Irish international contingent Ultan Dillane, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell. Kieran Marmion makes a timely return to the side on the bench.

Marnus van der Merwe and Dries Swanepoel make their debut starts for the Cheetahs, Louis Fouche comes into the side at fullback. Ox Nche and Henco Venter return to the starting lineup as well. If the weather is decent, expect Toyota Cheetahs to deliver a performance with ball in hand.

This is a 50/50 fixture, a fixture in the past that Connacht Rugby have expected to win but got turned over, thinking of the Zebre Rugby home game last season. Accuracy and game management are keywords for Connacht Rugby and I think they will just do enough. Anything less and Toyota Cheetahs and inflict a big playoff dent to Connacht Rugby’s ambitions.

Opportunity knocks for Benetton Rugby

Despite international duty call ups, this is the key Conference B fixture on tap this weekend. Benetton Rugby must prove to league observers that they are a genuine playoff threat and a home game against an inconsistent Scarlets side, there is an opportunity to deliver a marquee statement.

The team news for the Italians is mixed. A couple of Italian internationals unavailable but Benetton Rugby can call on the services of Ian McKinley and Federico Ruzza. Their back three threat is excellent with Ioane in the ranks.

Scarlets also welcome back Rhys Patchell and Steff Evans to the match day squad. Leigh Halfpenny continues to be a marquee absentee for club and country. Jones and Hardy form an exciting half back partnership.

For the league to improve and prosper, it needs a strong Italian club representation come the playoffs. Benetton Rugby for me need the victory more. This will be a tight encounter but expect a progressively improving Benetton Rugby to shade this. Scarlets are threading water until Pivac and Jones depart the club.

Crunch Conference A contest in Cardiff 

This is a fixture which could have massive implications for either Glasgow Warriors or Cardiff Blues. The hosts need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive while Glasgow Warriors need to win to keep tabs on Conference A kingpins Munster Rugby.

The team news for both sides see squad personnel changes aplenty. International duty deprives both sides of marquee first team starter. Cardiff Blues can call on the services of Turnbull, Evans and Davies while Glasgow Warriors do not have the same luxury.

Cardiff Blues have been inconsistent this season. When they are on, they are devastatingly good, quick ruck ball and attacking platform from the likes of Nick Williams and Rey Lee-Lo. When they are off, they are poor at best.

Glasgow Warriors have arrested the league slide somewhat but this is a tough road trip assignment. If they can negate the opening quarter, no reason why Dave Rennie’s charges cannot get a win out of this but the victory need is more for the hosts. Cardiff Blues loss and their playoff ambitions will be massively dented, must win territory required from here on out. Blues to win but Glasgow Warriors should earn a loser point at least.

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 Pro14: Round Ten Reflections

Standout and abysmal performances in equal measure

With the November international series out of the way for another year, it was back to the brass tax of Guinness Pro 14 action; a round of fixtures which exposed team priorities, squad depth issues and worrying form for teams as they face into the second tranche of European games. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Performance of the week: Glasgow Warriors

There were a couple of standout teams in this round. Munster Rugby’s opening half performance against an under strength Edinburgh Rugby caught the eye. The Leinster Rugby juggernaut containing numerous academy and fringe squad players continued their ruthless try scoring exploits on the road to the Dragons. Connacht Rugby’s road trip at Bloemfontein has to be called out too but it is Glasgow Warriors win over Scarlets that is the defining display this weekend. When the hosts were reduced to fourteen players after Alex Allan’s red card early, it looked like a long day at the office for the Warriors but instead of contain, they produced a quite scintillating second and third quarter performance with two eye catching tries. Thomson lights out with the boot against a Scarlets which was loaded with first team players. A massive statement of intent. 

Player of the week: Keith Earls / Chris Farrell

The Moyross native helped himself to a eight minute hat-trick. The opposition may not have being up to much but take nothing away from the running lines and try scoring execution on show for those tries. Earls oozed class every time he picked up the ball. Munster Rugby’s running lines and offload game was a joy to watch and this has to be the template for the side going forward. Chris Farrell was incredible with his ball carrying duties and what a boost it is for Munster Rugby to have the Tyrone native back in the squad again. 

Walking the plank this week: Bernard Jackman 

A couple of weeks, I hated to point out that Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman was under pressure after an abject road trip loss to Connacht Rugby. A timely win last time out against Edinburgh Rugby looked to have eased those concerns but the manner of their home loss to Leinster Rugby has seen massive negative reaction from Dragons supporters.

Dragons were second best on all facets of play; their defensive line speed and organization was labored and the young Leinster Rugby players on show were only too grateful to exploit the space. 50+ points again and the pressure is back on Jackman.

Dragons is a project in progress but the manner of these defeats is a massive concern. The board will need to be strong here but Jackman could be increasingly isolated from the fan base which could spell doom. 

Disappointment of the week: Team Selections 

There was big disparity in certain team selections this weekend. Leinster Rugby’s side was without numerous first team personnel but it did not matter as they trounced Dragons showing their incredible squad depth.

However, other team’s squad depth is not as strong and for Edinburgh Rugby, it was a chastening experience in Cork on Friday night. Munster Rugby were rampant throughout and the three quarter and ten channel was isolated throughout.

The tournament has seen quite a few representational team selections in preference for bigger fixtures in recent rounds. Sad to see as it devalues the league completely.