Guinness Pro 14: Cardiff Blues 37 – 13 Munster Rugby

Cardiff Blues crush Munster Rugby

Prelude:

On my preview of this fixture this week,  (http://hawkeyesidekick.com/2018/09/guinness-pro-14-round-four-friday-night-fixtures) I had commented that Cardiff Blues were not a 0/3 team heading into the fixture. They would have felt that all three games slipped away due to discipline and defensive lapses. Cardiff Blues were in a back against the wall scenario; a loss here and the Guinness Pro 14 playoff ambitions would be seriously undermined. Munster Rugby were warned but quite frankly were blown away a side whose work rate at the breakdown, sparkling running game were to the fore.

Dominant Cardiff Blues

The scoreline rather flatters Munster Rugby if truth be told. Cardiff Blues winger Lane thought he was over in the opening period only to be pinged back for a block leading up to the score, a tough harsh.

The hosts were the dominant side in the set piece; the line out was an unmitigated nightmare for Munster Rugby; over throws, throws not straight, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong which then saw issues at scrum time as Arhip started to impose his presence on proceedings. 

The breakdown was crisp in its execution from Cardiff Blues; quick ruck ball to allow the half backs to launch their exciting back line. Munster Rugby tried to stem the quick ball but it was a forlorn effort as the likes of Turnbull, Williams and Navidi had the edge all night. 

Munster Rugby had moments of brilliance from Carbery and Conway to score two quality team tries in the opening period to keep the Irish province in touch but the second half was a no contest as Cardiff Blues exposed more defensive decision making and yet more unforced errors in set piece and open play. 

Munster Rugby – Skill Set Issue?

The result is concerning for Munster Rugby but what is of more concern is that the skill set across the side looks well short when faced against a decent starting lineup. Let us forget the Toyota Cheetahs and Ospreys (B team selection), two non-event fixtures. When it has being put up to Munster Rugby against Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues on the road, the side have being lacking in execution, creating a pack platform and general one dimensional attacking play. 

Try Analysis 

The Cardiff Blues tries will be horror viewing for Munster Rugby; too many easy meters gained on first phase possession. Halaholo will rarely have a better night all season; his statistics when published are going to be huge. Mike Sherry struggled all night long as he was grasping into thin air on  Halaholo in midfield which led to an easy forty meter gain. The quick ball that followed saw Nick Williams crash over, exposing Sherry in the defensive line to score the opening try. 

Munster Rugby did respond with two standout moments. Cloete steal in the breakdown on the touch line allowing Conway to advance with ball in hand, a deft kick in behind to negate Anscombe saw the Irish winger score in the corner.

Carbery was integral to the second try; a good aerial take and the fly-half was off on an excellent run. Tadhg Beirne’s role in the try cannot be underestimated; his effort to get in with play key when the ball was held short of Cardiff Blues’ line. The ball finally got back to Carbery and good work from Cloete to create a defensive misread inside for Conway to score in the corner again. Two tricky conversions missed but Munster Rugby were showing intent at last.

Halaholo right foot step again exposing Munster defensively (where was the tactical preparation on the player) to provide more easy gain line meters three minutes. Halaholo’s awareness to see the ever alert Tomos Williams to score with ease; great support running from the scrum half who with a dominant pack was the superior nine on the night.

The second half presumably would have seen Munster Rugby making the necessary adjustments but a key stop by the hosts in the third quarter on their line signaled the end of the Munster Rugby fightback.  Halaholo scoring a well deserved try; lead up to the try saw Jaco Taute caught defensively outside and with non-existent Munster Rugby defensive support out wide, the try was a procession. 

Munster Rugby huffed and puffed but it was getting all very one dimensional; one out ball carries and then forcing passes which went forward more times than not. The composure from Munster Rugby was surprisingly lacking considering the personnel on show; a reality check for all concerned. 

Cardiff Blues deserved their bonus point and it came at the death with Tomos Williams benefiting from more good work from the hosts pack, making easy yards down the middle. The quick ruck ball exposing Munster Rugby defensively and Williams crashed over. Cue the home celebrations!

Munster Rugby Not In Crisis Yet

Munster Rugby crisis, probably not yet but the warning signs from yet another below par road trip performance has to be a concern for Munster Rugby management.

The set piece will be pinpointed by opposition in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, Mike Sherry is going to have to front up on the video analysis on Monday; a game to forget and with Rhys Marshall and Niall Scannell chipping at the bit to get game time, game time for Sherry looks quite limited.

The lack of skill set and unforced errors across the side will be horrific viewing; hopefully this performance will be a watershed for Munster Rugby, otherwise with two Irish provincial derbies coming up, morale may take a pounding ahead of the Heineken Cup competition next month. 

Well done Cardiff Blues; thoroughly deserved victory and this is the platform hopefully for them to launch their season back on track. Turnbull was outstanding throughout and with an exciting back line (Harries impressive), a lot to be positive about if you are a Cardiff Blues fan today!

Guinness Pro 14: Round Four (Friday Night Fixtures)

Road trips beckon for Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby

Round four of the Guinness Pro 14 has two Friday night fixtures on the books. Ulster Rugby conclude their South African tour with a fixture against the Toyota Cheetahs while Munster Rugby must negotiate a tricky banana skin road trip fixture at Cardiff Blues. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on both games. 

Ulster Rugby look to continue their winning ways

Ulster Rugby primed for another win

Ulster Rugby will look to build on the good second half performance against Isuzu Southern Kings and secure another win in the competition. They face a Toyota Cheetahs side devastated by key personnel departures in the off-season as well as key injuries to the current squad.  Mohoje long term knee injury is a massive loss and the hosts here look incredibly vulnerable. 

Yet another crushing defeat for the Toyota Cheetahs last weekend as Glasgow Warriors skill set and attacking lines were too much for the hosts who have now leaked a worrying 136 points from three games. One could argue that Munster Rugby, Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors are going to be at the business end of the season but defensive gaps and lapses have being alarming so far particularly in the third and fourth quarter of games so far; no quick fix.  

Ulster Rugby have made a couple of personnel changes for this fixture. Shanahan gets a chance to impress at scrum-half due to the absence of John Cooney. Will Addison returns to the full back slot. Herbst, O’Sullivan, Rea and Kernohan all get valuable game time. 

The key battle in this contest will be the front five battle. Can Toyota Cheetahs bully Ulster Rugby in the set piece? If they can, the hosts could have a chance but Ulster Rugby should win provided that they remain patient in their execution and phases with an exciting back line on hand to expose a fragile Cheetahs defensive confidence. 

Verdict: Ulster Rugby

After a competitive opening half, expect Ulster Rugby to stride out to another win. The altitude factor will mean that Ulster Rugby win but without the bonus point try but if they can win at Bloemfontein, a minimum eight points return from their South African tour will be a fantastic return and start to the season. Addison to have a proverbial day.

Cardiff Blues in must win territory

Cardiff Blues under pressure to win

It has being one strange start to the season for Cardiff Blues; three opening games where Cardiff Blues had the game in their grasp only to surrender the result in the closing exchanges as Leinster Rugby, Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby have all prospered from Cardiff Blues discipline and defensive lapses. 

This is a side which are better than the 0/3 start to the season; several standout players in the ranks. The back line is stacked with physicality, pace and try scoring prowess. Anscombe slots into the full back spot, will look to use his kicking game to setup a platform. 

Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo are an explosive three quarter combination. Scully and Harries provide the after burners and Harries try count has being a standout positive for the side this season so far.

The pack is stacked with talent with the likes of Arhip, Dacey, Turnbull, Navidi, Williams all featuring; a side well capable of turning a miserable start of the season around.

Munster Rugby come into this contest after an emphatic win over a massively under-strength Ospreys last week. A game which saw the talent of Carbery and Beirne to the maximum but both players will realize that a road trip assignment to Cardiff Blues is a different proposition entirely. 

The Munster Rugby side has an exciting feel; an opening look at CJ Stander who slots into the eight channel. He links up with Cleote and O’Mahony in the back row which should see some keynote exchanges with Navidi, Jenkins and the marauding Nick Williams.

The half back partnership will be interesting to see. Evans at ten is a standout; great ball player whose ability to create with ball in hand and solid kick game makes him a standout threat for the Irish province. Duncan Williams needs to speed up his distribution from set piece and ruck ball to allow Joey Carbery to shine with ball in hand.

Pleasing to see Jaco Taute back in the three quarters; an intense welcome from Lee-Lo beckons and JJ Hanrahan comes into the full back position looking to prove a point after a miserable Glasgow Warriors outing in round two. The wing play of Sweetnam and Conway should be prominent provided Munster Rugby pack enjoy good periods of dominance. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby

Like the look of this Munster Rugby side and this will be a serious test against a Cardiff Blues side who will provide seriously tricky moments. Cardiff Blues performance lapse deep into games could be exposed yet again in this round and I think Munster Rugby have the sufficient talent to get over the line by three points. Cardiff Blues left to rue more good moments in a game with minimal return. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 3 Reflections (Irish Provinces)

Connacht lose on the road as other Irish provinces win

A weekend fixture round which will be quickly forgotten about. Round 3 saw several keynote one sided victories for Glasgow Warriors, Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Ulster Rugby. This posting is going to be focused on the Irish provinces; three wins and one loss from the weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Promise shown in one sided rout

The official opening of Irish Independent Park (still refer to it as Musgrave Park for the record). An occasion which before team news looked destined to be a fitting occasion to christen the 3G pitch. Ospreys’ team selection put pay to that as Munster Rugby strolled to an emphatic 49-13 win. 

There is precious little to conclude from the Munster Rugby performance only that the key marquee signings if they remain fit will play an integral role to the team’s success this season. Carbery showed sublime skill set but also inconsistent game management decisions. His debut try was classic Carbery; playing what was in front of him and the finish was superb. 

Tadhg Beirne bullied Ospreys’ front five throughout. His steal from Ospreys line out ball in the opening period summed up the contest. Munster Rugby’s pack completely bossed their opponent missing several keynote starters. His mobility and physicality was shown to all in attendance and a second row slot looks nailed on even at this early stage. 

Arno Botha is a cult hero already with the Munster Rugby faithful and it is throwing an intriguing selection scenario for van Graan and Munster Rugby management. Botha’s numbers again on Friday night were sensational; eleven carries for thirty-nine meters gained and then nine tackles to boot. Botha is providing stiff competition in the back row unit. CJ Stander will relish the competition and it can only improve the side. 

The only negative was a couple of late injuries. John Ryan limped off; had the protective boot on post game so it will be interesting to see how long he is sidelined for. Archer as well went down late and another prop injury is not what van Graan requires with Cardiff Blues next. 

Darren Sweetnam was again at sensational. The opposition and personnel on show is one thing but his meters gained oozed class, another one hundred meters gained game and another try to seal the performance. Much tougher games will be presented to Munster Rugby this season but this fixture was about restoring confidence and giving key personnel game minutes; mission accomplished. 

Pack endured tough night in Edinburgh

First road trip of the season. A free hit for Connacht Rugby against a side with massive pressure to get their first win. The performance produced was defiant but the pack unit were dominated for long stretches by Edinburgh Rugby who got their first win of the Guinness Pro 14 season. 

Jaco  van der Walt impressed on his seasonal bow. The South African fly-half who slotted in as a late replacement for Simon Hickey impressed with his fluid passing and game management. His performance was helped in no small measure by the Edinburgh Rugby pack who bullied Connacht Rugby upfront; they set a terrific platform for the side to launch attacks deep in Connacht territory. 80% territory in the opening quarter. The set piece exchanges were won by a more abrasive Edinburgh where Toolis and Gilchrist shone. 

Credit to Connacht Rugby, their defense (much maligned) last season stood to attack after attack in that opening period. The fact that they only leaked a Duhan van der Merwe opening period half was testament to the Connacht Rugby defensive structure progression. It could also be said that Edinburgh Rugby left scores behind them and Duhan van der Merwe somehow botched a try from close range; video analysis room 101 moment tomorrow. 

In the podcast last Friday prior to the contest: https://www.mixcloud.com/clanterraceview/2018-19-pro14-round-2-review/ – my sense was that if Connacht Rugby could ride out the storm, they could come on strong in the last quarter and so it proved.

The pack started to finally make gain line yards and Carty started to orchestrate good attacking moves. His looping pass finding Niki Adeolokun to score a try. Carty then slotted a penalty to close the margin to seven points and try as they might, Edinburgh Rugby defense held out for a win which prompted Richard Cockerill to have a dig at the Guinness Pro 14 officiating standard calling out the number of pens between the two sides on show and only one yellow card for the visitors.

Nothing new there Richard but the officiating crews have the tendency to strike karma against their detractors in subtle fashion at key stages. Connacht Rugby with a loser point, pack improvements required ahead of a crucial home game stand against Scarlets and Leinster Rugby.

Training ground exercise for Leinster Rugby

A perfect strike out for a first home game of the season. Yes, there were cohesion issues in attack in the opening period but the 52-10 demolition of a woefully outclassed Dragons has issued a serious statement of intent to all challengers to Leinster Rugby’s crown this year. 

A bit like Munster Rugby, the opposition was not up to much. Bernard Jackman has a serious challenge to increase his side’s performance levels to compete this season on the back of this showing. You would fear for his role with the Dragons come the end of the season. 

The good news for Leinster Rugby is that the players starting their first games of the season were on point. Sean Cronin was his marauding best with ball in hand. Robbie Henshaw likewise and his ability to break Dragons first up tackles setup consistent good attacking platform. Sexton was proficient in his game management; composure seen with a couple of late hits. 

The squad depth for Leinster Rugby was scarily seen when Andrew Porter who had a decent game was replaced by no other than Tadhg Furlong, felt for the Dragons front row when that switch took place. Jamison Gibson-Park this season has looked really sharp and his two tries were just reward for a dynamic display at half-back. His kick in behind for Larmour’s try was a video reel highlight. Luke McGrath has serious competition for the nine jersey! 

Kudos to Dragons full back Jordan Williams with an early contender for try of the season. An incredible run from deep in his own half, superb change of running lines and instinct to score a sensational try. Dragons have some genuinely excellent young talent but it is a school of hard knocks at present, the pack got beat up in the individual exchanges and the set piece started to falter after an encouraging opening period. A promising back line unit but the cohesion levels are not at the level required at present; a tough season beckons for the Welsh region on the back of the last two league fixtures. 

Key final quarter secures victory

Three league wins from three. A 28-7 win over a resilient if limited Isuzu Southern Kings starts the South African road trip for Ulster Rugby in good fashion. The positives was the composure shown by the side when the Kings secured their try just after half-time. 

Kings were growing into the contest and Ulster Rugby defensively needed to be strong to quell and kill off the home side enthusiasm. Mission accomplished and the final quarter saw Ulster Rugby break out with three well worked tries. 

The Ulster Rugby pack on the scrum was dominant throughout and the set piece platform was pivotal in Marcel Coetzee going over. Further late tries from Kernohan and Curtis cemented the win; no bonus point try but the manner in which Ulster Rugby finished the game emphasized the conditioning of the team. 

The negatives were the head injury sustained to John Cooney, the scrum-half has being sensational for the team this season with his kicking, game management and try scoring exploits. Shanahan ably deputized today but tougher tests lie ahead and the nine channel depth chart looks vulnerable if Cooney is absent for any significant time. 

The discipline issue perhaps needs to be reviewed. Alan O’Connor clear out in the first half saw yellow and then Rob Herring saw another yellow card on forty minutes. The yellow card of Herring in particular gave the Southern Kings a way into the contest. Last season saw several disciplinary lapses so it is time for Ulster Rugby management to address now. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 (Friday Night Fixture Review)

Two contrasting fixtures last night. Glasgow Warriors continued their good start to the season with a comfortable 25-10 over Munster Rugby while John Cooney was again the hero for Ulster Rugby as they defeated Edinburgh with a late gasp penalty for a 30-29 win. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Glasgow punish sloppy Munster

I feared for Munster Rugby ahead of this fixture, not because of the personnel on show but because of distinct lack of competitive hit out in the opening round fixture against a massively poor Cheetahs outfit. The lack of intensity in those exchanges was going to do Munster Rugby little favors ahead of this opening road trip to Scotstoun, a ground where Munster Rugby were battered last season.

Glasgow Warriors were the sharper team from minute one in this contest. They preyed on Munster Rugby indiscipline and accuracy in the opening period to build a 22-0 lead at the interval with the aid of a strong breeze. The half saw one side dominate all facets of play with the hosts dominating the breakdown exchanges (some borderline clear outs) allowing Horne and Hastings at half-back the time and space to launch their back line out wide. 

Hastings loop pass for the opening try was a thing of beauty setting up Gibbins for a simple score on the sideline. This was the sign of things to come for Munster Rugby; more tackle reps and more gain line exchanges lost. Two additional tries were leaked before the interval. Hogg scoring after a deft drubber kick and then Ashe reacted to a JJ Hanrahan lapse in concentration to score which signaled the end of the contest. 

Munster Rugby were made to pay for a slow start and then were unable to establish any platform. The opening period could not get any worse as Neil Cronin and Billy Holland departed the scene in this period. Carbery, Marshall, Beirne and the rest of the bench were summoned well before the end of the third period, an indication of the woes experienced by the visitors.

Glasgow Warriors defended with depth and physicality in the second half as Munster Rugby to their credit improved significantly but the scoreboard gap was never going to be pulled back. Several line breaks from Munster Rugby courtesy of Carbery playmaking and Beirne’s direct running but skill set issues surfaced in decision making and offloading on the final pass. 

The five meter line-out towards the end of the contest summed up Munster’s evening. A miserable set piece execution mopped up by the hosts and the hosts looked for the bonus point try that they deserved, nothing doing and a four point vs. zero point outcome was written in the stars.

Glasgow Warriors look the part at the moment but we have said that before last season; the acid test for this side is in European Cup action. The side’s inability to mix in the pool stages last season was the disappointment of the European Champions Cup last term, time to address and hit out in this competition. An exciting back line and with a flourishing half back partnership in Horne and Hastings, the pack need to make additional improvements to give the side that extra edge to win silverware this season. 

Munster Rugby fans went into a frenzy last night but the warning signs were there ahead of this result. The lack of quality opposition last weekend did little to battle harden the side for a tussle like this. As a result, the physicality and sharpness required to set the platform was not at the standard required. 

What is of most concern is the skill set progression. Glasgow Warriors creativity, offloading and basic skill set execution were so superior to Munster’s and the Irish province need to take a long hard look at their basic skill set in the weeks to come to be a viable contender in all fronts. Munster fringe squad members did themselves little favors last night and expect the front line brigade to be summoned in the coming weeks. 

Ulster home game, yet another John Cooney party piece to win another close contest down the stretch. I plumbed for Edinburgh Rugby on the fixture (Ulster fans should want me to predict against them for the rest of the year). 

A couple of pleasing aspects to the Ulster Rugby performance. The resiliency of the side to come back from a difficult opening period where Edinburgh Rugby went 0-13 down. Hickey looked the part for the visitors, orchestrating attacking moves on the back of a dominant pack. 

Ulster Rugby regrouped superbly though and with John Cooney and Billy Burns at half-back, there is outstanding potential for creating line breaks. The gap was seventeen points going into the early exchanges of the second half when the comeback started. 

Addison went over for his first Ulster try, with Cooney slotting the conversion but another Hickey penalty gave Edinburgh more of a cushion at 26-13.

Addison made a half-break before laying off a perfect pass to Cooney, who went in under the posts and converted his own try to narrow the deficit to six points.

Cue the try of the night. Ulster stole Edinburgh ball deep in their own half and  Henry Speight offloaded to Cooney, who released the Gilroy to run in a fabulous try from 60 meters out. Cooney hit the extras to make it 27-26 but Hickey looked to secure the win for Edinburgh with a superb kick just before the eighty minutes. 

Ulster Rugby though refused to drop the heads; a great restart steal setting up multiple phases. The penalty award will be hotly contested; 50/50 call but Ulster Rugby got it and Cooney slotted over from 40 meters, amazing scenes at full time. Ulster Rugby are 2/2; set the platform for the rest of the season and defeating a playoff contender to boot in Edinburgh who are under pressure to win next weekend. 

Ulster Rugby’s attacking play is a joy to watch at the moment; creativity from Burns launching McCloskey and Cave. Speight, Gilroy and Addison are potent runners; the concern is the squad depth if injuries surface. A solid start for McFarland’s men but improvement is required in the defensive side of the ball. Edinburgh Rugby had opportunities to put this game to bed, other teams will not be as charitable. 

Guinness Pro 14 Round 1 Irish Provincial Reflections

An interesting opening round of the Guinness Pro 14 competition for the Irish provinces who had three wins and one loss, a loss which will hurt the Connacht Rugby management and playing staff. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects. 

Munster win in a canter

38-0. Munster opened their account with an emphatic victory over a Cheetahs side who looked like a side which had their playing squad ripped away in the off-season. 

Twenty players left the Cheetahs since their playoff loss to the Scarlets with numerous key players from last season leading the exodus. Venter, Marais, Cassiem and Blommetjies have gone to pastures new this season and unfortunately you cannot replace players of this caliber overnight. Cheetahs were primed for the taking and Munster Rugby were not going to be asked twice.

The game was a preseason friendly for all intensive purposes. Munster Rugby having to defend their line on a couple of occasions but it was an exercise for the side in ball handling, line break creation and getting minutes in the legs of the players. Mission accomplished.

The Munster Rugby player to the fore this preseason has being Darren Sweetnam. The Cork native produced more quality numbers during this contest. Eight carries for 134 meters gained; his line break for Rory Scannell’s try was excellent as he identified the defensive misread from the Cheetahs; his burst of pace was devastating and his offload to Scannell on point. 

The good news for Munster Rugby was that no injuries were sustained and newcomers to the squad this season showed well. Haley from full back showed his ability hitting the line albeit his passing will need to sharpen up. Neil Cronin provided an excellent cameo from nine; quick distribution to Hanrahan who also had a keynote performance with seventy-seven meters gained.

Joey Carbery even got his debut and the potential from his second half cameo from ten was there for all to see; quick decision making, looking to orchestrate and launch runners with fast distribution. His game management and line break creation will be a key asset for Munster this season. 

Arno Botha has already become a cult hero with the Thomond Park faithful. Physicality with and without the ball. His sixteen tackles and ninety-three meters gained from fifteen carries was an excellent cameo and provided Botha remains fit will be an invaluable asset to the province during the international breaks. 

A solid win. Yes, there were blotched passes to hand, blotched try scoring opportunities but the expectation is that the skill set will improve with each passing week. The game in effect was a free hit; the season starts this weekend with a trip to the Glasgow Warriors where a stern test awaits. 

I feel like a broken record with regards to Connacht Rugby. I have read many respected fans blogs on the narrow 27-26 loss to Glasgow Warriors; positive sentiments on the attacking side of the ball but the Achilles heel from last season made its trademark arrival. 

Disastrous start to the contest with an early try concession to the dangerous Tommy Seymour, Connacht Rugby climbed off the floor to launch their response; a ten point salvo showcasing fast uptempo possession, excellent game management from Carty to setup Kelleher’s try.

10-5 in front, time to consolidate but the side’s sheer inability to execute their restarts saw a second Glasgow try conceded soon after. The try from Turner was a defensive coaches nightmare, misreads aplenty as Turner ran untouched.

This game was in Connacht’s hands in the third quarter but when they had Glasgow Warriors by the throat, they lacked the clinical conviction to get the job. The period when Adam Hastings was sin binned was the opportunity to close the fixture out but instead Connacht Rugby surrendered territory and allowed their visitors to score a bonus point fourth try.

For Connacht Rugby to be considered a serious Pro 14 contender again, the game management and leadership on the pitch during these key game moment situations has to improve. Blade was energetic but at times played his side into trouble with quick tap and goes once too often. Carty was on point with the tee but faded in the third quarter to be replaced by Ronaldson who despite being solid was on the max of his skill set limits when he attempted the last minute conversion. Horowitz is required to step up the competition at ten pronto. 

The preceding drop goal attempt as well from Connacht Rugby was ambitious at best. Andy Friend has learned more in this eighty minutes than the whole preseason fixture schedule. The old failings of last season were in full effect and need to be addressed as soon as possible but with home games against Scarlets and Leinster Rugby, there is a fear of Connacht Rugby being cast adrift early doors in conference play.

I still remain hopeful for Connacht Rugby this season. Andy Friend is an ambitious head coach, his playing ethos fits well with the side and with the likes of Kelleher continuing to produce big numbers (one try, 131 meters from thirteen carries), the attacking side of the ball is going to take care of itself. The defensive and restart sides of the game are a different story.

I feared for Ulster Rugby ahead of this fixture but the side and the fan base produced a stirring performance to defeat Guinness Pro 14 finalists Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium. 

The work rate, the application, the ability to absorb Scarlets attacking threat was exceptional from Ulster Rugby. Nick Timoney’s tackle count emphasized this point; thirteen tackles throughout the eighty minutes, one of which was a timely contribution at the death when Scarlets looked destined to score.

The half back partnership of Cooney and Burns has the potential to gel into an effective duo. Burns looking to play off the cuff and the unit’s kicking game was on point. Cooney has continued from last season, his leadership in the final quarter when the game was in the balance was superb and has to be a serious contender for November series game time for Ireland. McPhilips is also a viable option, good headache for McFarland to have!

The back line looked exciting. Speight’s movement and ability to win the gain line battle was on point. Craig Gilroy’s stealth and speed was to the fore in an eyecatching performance with a 100+ meters gained performance. Will Addison’s cameo at full back suggests a nice option for Ulster Rugby hitting the line. 

After the nightmare of last season, Ulster Rugby needed to start the league in positive fashion. This result will work wonders for the morale of the squad and fan base ahead of another home fixture to Edinburgh Rugby, a key fixture in the context of conference play already. 

I questioned Leinster’s leadership and nous during a recent podcast. I got my answer last Friday with a superb come from behind victory over a Cardiff Blues side who will be struggling to come up with an explanation as to how they blew a fifteen point lead. 

This was a rip roaring contest from minute one and Cardiff Blues’ performance is a warning for league opponents of their potency with ball in hand. Evans at ten is such a talent and with an exceptionally pacy back three, opposition will struggle to contain the threat. Harries in particular caught the eye on his league debut for Cardiff Blues. 

What makes this Leinster Rugby side so special? Their ability to develop players, constantly improving their basic skill set fundamentals coupled with exceptional endurance levels. This game got away from Cardiff Blues in the last quarter when fitness started to come to the fore.

Leinster Rugby’s bench made a massive impact to the outcome of this game. The front row replacements were excellent. Andrew Porters started to torment in the set piece and Byran Byrne / Ed Byrne provided work rate and try scoring prowess to proceedings. Gibson-Park at nine provided fresh impetus with good distribution. Ross Byrne’s conversion at death was ice cool clinical. 

Leinster Rugby are well primed for another successful season; Nacewa / Heaslip / Murphy and Strauss et al. may have departed but the new kids in the squad are ready to step up, provide leadership. Exciting times for the reigning European Champions Cup kingpins!

Guinness Pro 14: Irish Province Squad Preseason Review

The preseason drills have started weeks ago and playing squads (for the most part) are thick in the middle of preseason preparations. For Connacht and Ulster, it is an opportunity for players to impress new head coaching appointments to secure sufficient game time this season. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on the squads.

Irish Province Squad Transfers: 

Guinness Pro 14: Ireland Provinces Transfers (2018 – 2019)

The standard bearers last season in European Club Rugby have lost several legendary players in the off-season. Given the talent in the academy ranks which have graduated to the senior contract ranks, it would be remiss to say that the side will not miss the presence and stature of players such as Jamie Heaslip, Richardt Strauss and the legend that is Isa Nacewa.

Nacewa’s leadership at the business end of the season was incredible; he took over the kicking tee responsibility in the European Rugby Champions Cup final. Three guys whose presence, work ethos and professionalism is beyond reproach.

The other transfer departures saw notable exits for Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery to Ulster and Munster respectively; with a RWC 2019 fast approaching, players will need sufficient game time and this was a key factor for their departures from the club. Yet again, two players whose talent will be missed in the squad depth of the side which will be tested again given the international contingent at the club.

It is not all doom and gloom from a Leinster Rugby perspective. The academy talent has being immense and it is rewarded with several keynote contracts to the senior team. Jordan Larmour had a superb debut season in the first team; capped at international level and his try scoring exploits had rugby writers in euphoric tone.

Doris and Murphy signings are incredibly exciting for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster; two players who will play senior international test matches soon and when you consider the likes of Max Deegan with another preseason under his belt, the talent pool still remains strong.

Joe Tomane is the marquee signing for the province; a powerhouse back line option to have. If Tomane is half as good as Nacewa, Leinster Rugby are in a good place. Interesting start to the season given the international players unavailability at different parts of next season but if Leinster Rugby can negotiate the opening Welsh road trip fixtures, they are well set for another good season.

A coaching era has arrived in Galway. Andy Friend has being appointed the new head coach of Connacht Rugby, a coach with an excellent resume, experience aplenty in SH / NH rugby as well as spending times in the Sevens game. His mantra will be for the players to express themselves with ball in hand, promote creativity while providing teamwork and defensive organization without the ball.

Andy Friend replaces Kieran Keane who was dismissed after only a season in June; seven Pro 14 wins from twenty-one fixtures last season is the baseline for Friend to surpass for the upcoming season and the personnel brought into the club should help get past this miserable mark given the existing talent pool in the squad.

The recruitment had already commenced by the time Kieran Keane walked the Lough Atalia plank. Connacht Rugby had already secured the services of versatile centre Godwin and a potential astute move for Horowitz from Australian rugby.

The back line has being boosted by the signing of Reece who is a speed merchant with ball in hand. Robin Copeland comes from Munster looking to prove a point; personally thought that Munster Rugby did not see the most of the player. Copeland was versatile in filling second row and back row positions but it is at eight where the player excels; look at his performances when with Cardiff Blues is enough.

The academy continues to deliver aplenty and no surprise that a couple of players move to the senior contract ranks. Claffey if he continues his progression looks an excellent lock in the making. Gallagher and O’Donnell will need to mature and work hard this season to secure any significant game minutes.

The side saw numerous departures with several players released from their contracts while also paying an emotional farewell to Galway native John Muldoon who retired from the game to join Pat Lam at Bristol Bears as a coach. Huge void left in the dressing room but it is up to the senior players and Copeland to provide the experience and leadership in the ranks.

The fixture sees a colossal opening five game stand; four of which are at home. Connacht Rugby will need to be on point for the visits of Leinster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors. If they can secure a couple of early home wins, confidence should soar and the Connacht fan base will look forward to the season; otherwise, it may be a season of attrition with European Challenge Cup Pool of Death to look forward to. Friend will demand high standards from minute one this season, an interesting team to watch this season given the dynamic style of play that the Westerners execute.

After a season of near misses at the business end of the season, it is fair to say that Munster Rugby are a side that need to get over the hump and win a competition. The squad personnel has seen several keynote departures and arrivals.

The arrivals are spearheaded by the acquisition of Joey Carbery for this season; a player who has the potential but needs the game time to develop at the ten channel. The prospect of Carbery and Murray in the half back pairing is something to whet the appetite at Munster. Carbery is not a lock for ten though as the likes of Keatley, Bleyendaal and Hanrahan will look to impress Johann van Graan in early preseason to secure vital preseason friendly game minutes.

The scrum-half position has being bolstered by the signing of Neil Cronin. Cronin was an UBL standout in recent seasons with Garryowen and the Limerick native gets another opportunity to stake a claim at the professional ranks. Cronin has an excellent all round game, excellent pass, good kicking game as well and should complement the competition in the squad depth charts. Murray is number one but the battle for the backup will intensify with Hart, Williams and now Cronin vying for this spot. Training ground competition should see improvement off the bench in this position on game day.

Mike Haley comes to Munster Rugby with an excellent reputation from Sale Sharks; versatile player whose line break skills are a key facet will be a good replacement for the departed Simon Zebo who moves to Racing 92. Zebo’s talent cannot be replicated but what Haley will bring is an overall solid game who will contribute to attack when hitting the line. Stephen Fitzgerald and Andrew Conway look like viable full back options too so the depth chart yet again is bolstered in this position.

Arno Botha for me is the dark horse signing for Munster this season. The player is a specimen; his mobility allows the player to play in either second row or back row. Botha will be required particularly when the likes of O’Mahony and Stander are away on international duty. Botha’s ball carrying is abrasive and I think the Munster Rugby fan base will love his style of play. His discipline though at times can be an issue but something to watch out for.

Academy players such as Calvin Nash and Liam O’Connor are rewarded with encouraging cameos last season with senior contracts. O’Connor if he is fully recovered from injury is a key prop asset. Nash is a player with tremendous upside; pace, power and ability to spot a line break. Two exciting homegrown talents for Munster Rugby to nurture further this season along with Fineen Wycherley, a player who has being part of the senior squad for a couple of seasons now, amazing that he is now only getting a senior contract!

A season of expectation but the keyword will be patience for the Munster Rugby fans. The new signings will take time to bed in but when they do, it will be an interesting season. The business end of the season is where Munster need to prove themselves so judgement on the squad will ultimately take place there.

If any side were happy to see the back of 2017-2018 season, it was Ulster Rugby. Turmoil off the pitch with legal proceedings of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, a head coach who jumped ship midway through the season and incumbent who did not want to take on the position long term. Turmoil on the playing side with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have to move to France to resurrect their careers and then a plethora of retirements. The names who bide farewell to Kingspan Stadium are massive; Bowe, Payne, Trimble and then you throw other players who departed like Piatau, Diack and Black and it has being a tough off season of departures.

Hope springs eternal. Dan McFarland takes over the head coaching role and several signings look interesting early doors. Jordi Murphy’s arrival will boost the physicality and work rate of the back row. Murphy was an unsung hero for Leinster Rugby and Ireland last season; his tackle count was high consistently and his breakdown support work while continuing to be a threat with ball in hand set the foundation for all that was good in both sides Murphy represented last season.

Marty Moore arrives back to Ireland with a point to prove after an indifferent playing spell with Wasps; some good cameos but some frustrating times sidelined with injury. Moore if on form should get game minutes to increase his profile back with Joe Schmidt and the national side. A nice signing for Ulster if the coaching team can get the best out of Moore.

Billy Burns is an interesting fly-half signing. The Gloucester Rugby arrival is a player with plenty of skill set to offer the side; good kicking game, astute game management to launch his runners. The key issue with Burns is performance consistency at times. The ten jersey needed competition given the departure of Jackson and with McPhilips starting to emerge late last season, the battle for the ten jersey can only benefit the side long term.

Several academy players make the jump to the senior contract ranks. The key guy to look out for if given game time is Johnny Stewart. The scrum-half is being tipped even at this early stage as a player of promise, words comparing the player to Ruan Pienaar have being bandied around. It will remain to be seen how the player will evolve this season with Cooney the incumbent first choice at the position. If Stewart were to impress, could Cooney’s versatility see a switch to ten?

A season which Ulster Rugby will need everyone rowing in the same direction. Last season was a disaster for the club both on and off the pitch, this season has to be the platform for better things to come. The back line and half back options have being depleted but it is down to the senior players in the squad to lead by example. The core talent in the squad and academy is impressive; the question is whether the pack and half back recruits can provide the extra impetus to get the team over the line in key match-ups this season. A question to be answered in due course.

End of Season Term Report: Irish Provinces

Grade: A+

High Point:

Quite obvious really with winning both the European Rugby Champions Cup and Guinness Pro 14 crowns this month. The triumphs are just rewards for a side whose squad depth and game management were to the fore this season. The European Cup triumph emphasized why Leinster Rugby are the kingpins of European Club rugby.

Racing 92 tried to win this encounter with their pack; close exchanges with precious little opportunity for back lines to shine. Leinster Rugby’s composure to adapt their game plan and keep their nerve in the last quarter was to the fore while Racing 92 lose theirs. A true hallmark of an exceptional side is their ability to win matches in different ways. Leinster Rugby ticked all the boxes in this regard.

Low Point:

Nothing significant of note on the pitch. If you want to be critical, then the Guinness Pro 14 end of regular season run-in which saw a couple of noteworthy losses to Ospreys (A), Benetton Rugby (H) and Connacht Rugby (A) to conclude the regular season was disappointing.

The fringe squad members who performed so well struggled for form and cohesion in those encounters and there was a hint of end of season exertions in those performances. These squad players played significant minutes in the league while their first team colleagues were on international duty, understandable that performances waned at the end of the regular season.

The other low point was the injury problems experienced by Sean O’Brien this season. The Carlow native endured a frustrating season with shoulder and leg injuries to the fore. It is hoped that O’Brien is fit and raring to go for preseason in order to provide both province and national team with more squad depth options in the back row next season.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

With the departures of legendary Isa Nacewa and Richard Strauss from the playing setup as well as the departure of the excellent Jordi Murphy to Ulster Rugby next term, Leinster Rugby have a couple of personnel issues to contend with this close season. Nacewa’s departure cannot be underestimated.

The New Zealander was an inspirational leader in the playing group, he set the tone and work ethic for which other followed and evaluated their game as a result. No doubt, Leinster Rugby will already have identified their replacement to fill the big shoes of Nacewa but his presence and high level of performance will be missed.

Strauss was a player whose ability to create gain line breaks, his assured set piece execution was to the fore. Jordi Murphy will be a big loss to the group as well. His performances this season for province and country have being excellent. The Murphy departure is a loss but look at the back row options in the Leinster Rugby squad. O’Brien,  Josh van der Flier, Max Deegan chomping at the bit to make an impact.

The drama of where Joey Carbery will be plying his trade next season has loomed large in recent weeks. Carbery is a tricky situation. Leinster Rugby is an exceptional club and will get the opportunity to secure silverware. However, his game time at ten has being low given the cameos of Ross Byrne as well as Johnny Sexton. Does Carbery take the decision to move away from the RDS to improve his RWC 2019 chances or does he stay patient and hope to make a move up the depth chart at Leinster? Intriguing subplot.

Player of the Season:

Several standout candidates come to mind. Furlong was immense this season for province and national side. His scrummaging and work rate with / without ball was outstanding. Sean Cronin had an excellent season, rid of injury and his performances provided stability in set piece. Healy was his abrasive best in all areas of play. James Ryan was incredible and his game evaluated Devin Toner to new performance levels.

The back line unit had massive cameo moments as well with Lowe, Ringrose, Henshaw and Kearney having keynote seasons. Joint award winners for me. Dan Leavy and Scott Fardy were simply sensational this season. Leavy’s ability to control the breakdown area, his ability with ball in hand was outstanding all year, the proverbial tackling machine.

Fardy was such an astute signing from Leinster Rugby. Fardy’s versatility to fill multiple back row positions along with his ability to slot into the second row provided massive flexibility in Leinster Rugby’s squad selection. Fardy was one of the first names on the team sheet and to say that in such a star studded team speaks volumes. If you were twisting my arm, it would be Scott Fardy for the consistency in performance and appearances with the province this season.

Grade: B

High Point:

The ability of the team to continue to produce winning performances despite the departure of Erasmus, Niebaner and Aled Walters midway through the season. The Erasmus departure was poorly managed but the players and backroom staff which remained have to be applauded for keeping focused and providing van Graan with a seamless transition.

The backs to the wall performance against Toulon in Thomond Park. The French outfit dominated the ball and how Munster Rugby won this contest will be the stuff of folklore for years to come. Two superb individual efforts from Conor Murray and Andrew Conway secured the victory. Incredible performance.

The emergence of young talent in the squad to offset injuries to key personnel during the season. Sam Arnold was excellent at thirteen, a position which looked problematic when Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute had gone down with season ending injuries. Alex Wootton in the back line came to the fore; excellent try scoring and will learn massively from the season just gone.

Low Point:

Playoff woe continues for this pool of players. Another frustrating European Rugby Cup semi-final loss, a defeat to Racing 92 where Munster Rugby failed to deliver a telling blow. Racing 92 exposed a passive Munster Rugby opening quarter and three tries followed to seal the contest. Playoff mentality questions abound.

The Guinness Pro 14 semi-final playoff performance against Leinster Rugby was encouraging but when you consider the Leinster Rugby first team players who did not feature, to lose this contest was a disappointment. A slow start to the contest again punished by Leinster Rugby and when Munster Rugby did score, they let Leinster Rugby off the hook with some miserable penalty concessions.

The team has progressed from last season but the scope of improvement is there for all to see. The ability of the side to execute at the business end of the season was exposed yet again; the ability of players to execute the basics at a high level was inconsistent at the business end of the season.

Grobler saga. The media attention on the player and the decision to bring the player into the setup knowing that this was only for a season was a mistake in hindsight, surely there was a homegrown talent which could have filled the squad berth. The Erasmus saga was embarrassing. Enough said.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

A couple of positions are up for grabs. With Simon Zebo departing for Racing 92, the full back slot is up for grabs. Haley, Fitzgerald and Conway come into the equation to fill this position. Zebo’s ability to play off the cuff and create try scoring opportunities from nothing was seen to full effect in the Edinburgh Rugby playoff win.

There is speculation on the ten jersey. Bleyendaal endured another torrid season with injury and his absence provided the opportunity for Keatley to impress. Keatley was excellent until the playoffs and then his form and confidence fell apart. Hanrahan attempted to fill the jersey in the Guinness Pro 14 playoff and it was a mixed bag. Johnston needs to be given game time in the preseason to see if the undoubted potential of the player can flourish next season. Joey Carbery’s name has being bandied around in the media circles. If Carbery arrives, then it means that at least one fly-half will need to leave to make squad depth space.

The prop position as well was exposed in the last couple of weeks of the season. Archer played through the pain barrier to give valuable game time minutes down the stretch. Loughman and O’Connor should come back into the fray next season but both players still are inexperienced at this level.

Player of the Season:

Three standout performers this season. Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony. All were colossal figures in Munster’s most prominent moments this season. Murray for me was the standout player for Munster Rugby this season. His game management, defensive nous and ability to score tries from nothing were to the fore. Earls and O’Mahony provided massive leadership and inspirational moments for the side too but I cannot look past Murray this season. He was superb.

Grade: C-

High Point:

Gain line breaks aplenty for the province this season and the back line when supplied with fast ball were dangerous. Piutau was a menace with ball in hand. McCloskey and Ludik also prominent in the attacking side of the game.

The emergence of John Cooney at the nine position was the highlight; an unenviable scenario to fill the boots of Ruan Pienaar but Cooney’s performance were of high quality throughout. His kicking game to the fore and his ability to score tries impressive to earn a call up to the Ireland national side tour to Australia.

Securing European Rugby Champions Cup rugby next season. Their defeat of Ospreys with a depleted side was a standout moment. The side were vulnerable, backs against the wall but each player on duty performed excellently. There is massive potential in this Ulster Rugby club, the fan base is superb. The new head coach with a couple of shrewd signings can have an immediate positive impact.

Low Point: 

Jackson and Olding trial dominated news reels for months. The trial regardless of what was said by the province had to have had a negative morale impact. The trial verdict did not stifle opposition to the retention of Jackson and Olding and both players were forced out due to sponsors reservations. A sorry saga for everyone involved and the decision of Les Kiss to jump ship during the trial did little to stem the negative morale in the camp.

Inconsistent performances. Jekyll and Hyde cameos were the norm this season. A half of quality and then a half of poor mediocrity allowing opposition to get back into contests. The change in head coach did not stem this trend. Several fixtures stand out to me. The road trip draw to Dragons where Ulster Rugby combusted at a rate of knots. The Munster Rugby away performance where they controlled the opening period but then failed to show in the second half. Two games where wins were possible.

The retirements of Payne, Trimble and Bowe will reduce squad back line depth chart. The departure of Piutau is a blow too, it will be interesting to see how Ulster Rugby look to replace the void left by these departures from the squad. The decision on when Dan McFarland takes over at Kingspan needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

Paddy Jackson’s departure has left a void at ten. McPhilips has undoubted talent in the position but there needs to be an experienced player also in the position as well. Carbery and Byrne were touted but this link has cooled in recent weeks. Does Steenson come into the equation? Ten channel reinforcements as well as back line recruits are paramount. The pack are boosted by the signings of Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy but more front five depth is required.

Player of the Season:

Difficult season but for sheer consistency this season, it has to be John Cooney. No brainer.

Grade: D

High Point:

When Connacht Rugby produced a cohesive performance, they were a match for any side. Their derby wins against Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby in the Sportgrounds emphasized this point. Their pack was abrasive and mobile while the half-backs launched their back line with fast ball where Aki and Farrell created gain line breaks. The European Challenge Cup campaign saw Connacht Rugby top their pool, several keynote wins on the road.

The emergence of Tom Farrell to the side; the twelve was a standout. His ability to find the soft shoulder was on point, creating gain line breaks. Delahunt is a player with incredible upside; impressed me massively at the end of the season with his ball carrying and set piece execution. McKeon and Butler were standouts in the back row.

Low Point:

Inconsistency performances. The ability of Connacht Rugby to contrive to lose narrow games due to self inflicted mistakes. The restart after a Connacht Rugby score was a problematic area in the first half of the season. The defensive line and speed was at times exposed by better sides. The losses to Zebre Rugby particularly hurt in terms of the performance levels and the sheer inability of Connacht Rugby to setup a platform.

Kieran Keane’s departure was massively mismanaged. The canines around the Sportsground knew that the New Zealander was surplus to requirements before Connacht Rugby then decided to issue a press statement release. It showed the board in a poor light and raises questions on the board’s convictions in backing their own appointment. Andy Friend needs 100% support from the board.

The form of Ultan Dillane. The second row’s form dipped this season and the Kerry man needs to come back with gusto next season. Keane preferred other alternatives to Dillane and his form has resulted in missing out on Ireland national team squad selection.

The end of an era. John Muldoon exits Connacht Rugby as a player. An emotional last home game against Leinster Rugby. The Portumna native was quite simply legendary for the province. His unerring loyalty to the club in the hard times is an example to anyone. Andrew Browne also left the club, a player who contributed massively to the development of the province in recent years.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

Andy Friend’s appointment by Connacht Rugby last week is a welcome step. Friend will be present for the start of preseason, something that Keane did not have. A preseason to evaluate the players and coaching staff and look to implement his expansive game plan ethos to the club.

Several key signings this off-season. The signing of Copeland, Horowitz and Goodwin are quality additions which will boost squad depth competition. The capture of the Fijian Sevu Reece has the ability to be one of the signings of the season provided the player can sharpen up his defensive side of play.

An off-season where everyone associated with Connacht Rugby need to knuckle down and work harder to get back to competing in Guinness Pro 14 and European Challenge Cup action.

Player of the Season:

Difficult season. Tom Farrell impressed. Bundee Aki cameos in European and Guinness Pro 14 were excellent. Tiernan O’Halloran had several eye-catching displays but I think Kieran Marmion was probably the player of the season. His game management was solid throughout the year, his ability to support the ball carrier seen with several tries at the back end of the season. A summer tour to Australia has the potential for Marmion to establish himself as the backup to Conor Murray.

Guinness Pro 14 Semi-Final Qualifier Reflections

Two contrasting home side performances this weekend as Munster Rugby and Scarlets secured their passage to the last four of the competition. For Edinburgh Rugby particularly, it was a case of what might have being. For Toyota Cheetahs, the result was emphatic and time to rebuild for next season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

An interesting match to analyze post-game. Edinburgh Rugby on the statistical numbers did everything to win this game. The visitors controlled possession (62%) and territory (62%) against their hosts but the side’s lack of playoff experience proved costly with two key lapses allowing Munster Rugby to take full advantage.

Edinburgh Rugby’s line out has being a stand out in an excellent season but a line out malfunction (over throw) from hooker McInally was gleefully accepted by the ever alert Rhys Marshall who evaded three Edinburgh Rugby tackles to crash. JJ Hanrahan confidently slotted home the extras and one would have presumed that Munster Rugby would have kicked on. Think again.

Richard Cockerill’s charges then set about creating a platform and kudos to the front five who put in a massive shift in the second quarter. Munster Rugby attempting to slow down ball but Hidalgo-Clyne was starting to increase the tempo of the game with quick passing from the ruck area. Opportunities then followed as van der Merwe and Bennett slicing through the home defense; it should have yielded a try but a knock-on five meters out from the Munster Rugby line denied the visitors a deserved five points.

Blair Kinghorn then got in on the act; finding a soft Munster defensive shoulder to make a thirty meter gain line break. Edinburgh Rugby were creating chances but a lack of composure in the red zone was costing them massively. Edinburgh Rugby did put points on the board, two penalties from Hidalgo-Clyne after James Cronin was twice pinged for offside. Cronin for his penalty concessions was prominent in work rate and created a couple of vital turnovers along with Jack O’Donoghue in that second quarter. 7-6 at the break. Munster Rugby flattered to be in front.

The second half started with Munster Rugby’s pack increasing the tempo and cohesion. Good territorial gains leading up to the move of the game. There appeared little trouble for Edinburgh Rugby as a wayward pass forced Simon Zebo to retreat to collect the ball but the full back spotted space behind the first set of defender, a deft chip collected by Zebo who then had the game management to pick out Keith Earls out wide with a wonderful skip pass. Earls still had work to do but the Irish international’s speed was too much for the defensive Edinburgh cover. JJ slotted over again and suddenly it was 14-6.

Munster Rugby continued to probe, further good pack play resulting in an Edinburgh Rugby offside. Hanrahan again slotted home the penalty. 17-6 and Edinburgh Rugby were now being asked serious questions by the hosts. Credit to the visitors though, they refused to panic and continued to build the phases. Munster Rugby pinged and Hidalgo-Clyne slotting over an excellent long range penalty to make it 17-9. Cue the scrum half substitution with Fowles replacing the assured Hidalgo-Clyne.

Fowles though brought speed around the ruck area and a good boot with some excellent touch finders. Fowles provided a lifeline for Edinburgh Rugby at the end of the third quarter following excellent ball carrying from Mata and Kinghorn. Fowles evading several Munster tackles to cross over. The conversion from van der Walt was good and we had a playoff contest again. Cue nerves among the home crowd at Thomond Park.

The next twelve minutes ebbed and flowed with Munster Rugby absorbing all that Edinburgh Rugby could throw at them. A period of concerted pressure from Munster Rugby ten minutes from time yielded another penalty opportunity and all credit to JJ Hanrahan for having the leadership to take on the kick after missing a similar kick in the opening period. This kick was more decisive and opened a four point gap. 20-16. Still time for the visitors to win this encounter but Munster Rugby defensively were on point and a line out steal at the death allowing Munster Rugby to run the ball dead to the relief of the home crowd in attendance.

Munster Rugby win but massive improvement will be required to even compete against Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. The statistics make for harsh reading. Munster Rugby lost the territorial and possession battle. Thirty missed tackles during the eighty minutes. 237 meters gained vs. 504 meters gained by Edinburgh Rugby. This game was won by two moments of individual brilliance from Marshall and Zebo.

Munster Rugby looked to evolve their game plan but t did not work; no platform created and the over indulgence in box kicks seen to full effect. The attacking cohesion was not present for Munster Rugby; lack of opportunities for Arnold and Scannell to impress. They effectively lived off scraps. Playoffs are all about the wins but the performance was negated by a determined Edinburgh Rugby side. Credit goes to the cameo of Ciaran Parker. The Shannon club man came on early for the injured Stephen Archer and did not let the side down. Simon Zebo was sublime in the dry track conditions, constantly probing. Keith Earls was lively with ball in hand.

The identify of this Munster Rugby is becoming a question personally in these last few weeks. What style of play is the side comfortable in playing? Pack orientated ruled the roost until end of March where there has being increased emphasis to launch the back line with increasing frequency. Stander earned thirty meters from eight carries, one carry putting van der Walt on his rear end. O’Mahony was targeted by Edinburgh Rugby in the breakdown contest; had two players for attention at all times. O’Donoghue work rate and breakdown work was the highlight here. Munster Rugby will be firm underdogs for this semi-final, time for team and management to regroup and come together to execute an effective game plan to beat an outstanding Leinster Rugby side.

Edinburgh Rugby left everything out on the pitch. They controlled affairs, their pack was excellent in building the platform with Gilchrist, Berghan and Toolis prominent. The lack of composure at vital moments yesterday will be duly noted and lessons learned next season. An excellent job by Cockerill and coaching staff; the side have come up leaps and bounds and with the likes of Schoemann, Barclay and Hickey; optimism is high for next season. Playoff rugby is decided on fine margins. Two lapses of concentration from Edinburgh was the difference. Harsh lesson but one this group of players will learn from. Most progressive team of the league this season.

The scoreline speaks volumes. 43-8. The game was as good as over at the break as Scarlets performed an utterly professional performance. Toyota Cheetahs were made paid for an extremely flat opening period performance as the hosts scored three tries with Steff Evans scoring a brace of tries and another from Leih Halfpenny.

Evans reveled in the open space afforded by Toyota Cheetahs whose defensive line speed at times was jaded at best. Good skill set from Evans to spot space, good grubber kick as well to create even more opportunity to roam. Toyota Cheetahs simply could not live the threat of the Welsh international winger and deservedly received the man of the match accolade.

Scarlets back line had a superb day at the office. Prydie had eighty meters from five carries. Scott Williams had sixty-one meters from five carries. Evans had seventy-two meters gained from seven carries. Hadleigh Parkes had sixty plus meters from nine carries. It tells the tale of Scarlets pack securing the platform and allowing the back line time to attack.

The second half was a procession for Scarlets in the third quarter. Toyota Cheetahs defensive line and ability to defend the hosts maul was disintegrating at a rate of knots. James Davies crashing over as Scarlets were taking out their European Cup elimination out on the South African side. Every time Scarlets went into the Toyota Cheetahs twenty-two, they looked like scoring. Three tries in the third quarter evidence of this.

Scarlets then called ashore a host of players. Emotional scenes as departing John Barclay and Scott Williams were given rapturous send offs. Two big players to lose from any dressing room. Scarlets will need to recruit well to offset this loss in the coming months along with the departure of Beirne.

Toyota Cheetahs to their credit tried to secure consolation scores and their gain line break statistics indicate as much. Clayton Blommetjies made one hundred meters gain line. Francois Venter was immense with ball in hand 109 meters from nine carries. Maxwane on another day would have scored a couple of tries in the final quarter but a lack of composure to touchdown proving fatal. 

The South African side have being a superb addition to the league this season. Their open, expansive style is immense viewing. However, several personnel departures from the club will test the club in their recruitment process. Clayton Blommetjies departs for Scarlets and showed his ability with ball in hand with the late consolation. Francois Venter departs along with Rory Duncan to Worcester Warriors. Excellent players and head coach departing the club, hard to fill the void. 

Scarlets were outstanding, took advantage of a jaded Toyota Cheetahs side. The pack were incredibly on point and dominated the set piece. The half-backs provided assured game management and launched their back line with increasingly unerring accuracy. Patchell was a standout at ten; his passing and kicking into space to the fore. Everything is set for an incredible tussle with Glasgow Warriors in two weeks time. Both titans going at it. I cannot wait!

Guinness Pro 14: Semi-Final Qualifier Preview

Enter the playoffs. Enter four teams this weekend where two will advance to face either Glasgow Warriors or Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. Two intriguing weekend fixtures beckon with Edinburgh Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs traveling on the road with no pressure; a dangerous proposition for both Munster Rugby and Scarlets. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Several subplots come to mind in this contest. The key word for both teams is recovery and how effectively both front line players have recovered from recent action. Munster Rugby first team players had a free weekend to recover mentally and physically from a traumatic loss to Racing 92 in Bordeaux. How have the players reacted to this loss will be seen to full effect this weekend? Edinburgh Rugby on the other hand had a sensational weekend to savior; a 1872 Cup win over Glasgow Warriors, playoff rugby secured and most significantly a return to the European Rugby Champions Cup competition next season. The Glasgow Warriors game was ferocious in physicality and one wonders if Edinburgh Rugby’s charges will have the same level of intensity for this playoff encounter. After such an euphoric high, can Richard Cockerill’s men produce another high octane performance?

With dry weather conditions forecast in Limerick, this contest should provide good attacking moments during the contest. Munster Rugby will look to the likes of Sam Arnold, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway to provide line break excellence out wide. Arnold was abrasive in his defensive and ball carrying duties last weekend and more of the same should provide the hosts with a good solid platform. The performance of Rory Scannell will be duly noted; his kicking game from open play has the potential to unsettle Edinburgh Rugby defensively in their line speed and ability to push up on Munster Rugby.

Edinburgh Rugby have shown a progressive upturn in their back line play this season. Several huge threats with ball in hand. Duhan van der Merwe is an excellent player and the South African showed Munster Rugby management his power and physicality touching down twice in their sole meeting this season at Murrayfield. His pace and power are on point. Blair Kinghorn’s ability to create gain line breaks has being to the fore this season; rewarded with a deserved call up to the national side. Fife is another player who has impressed with ball in hand. His 100 meters gained last weekend against Glasgow a perfect illustration of his ability. Threats which Munster Rugby must be wary of.

The half-back battle looks intriguing. How will Murray and Keatley react and bounce back from a mixed performance against Racing 92? Will Edinburgh Rugby look to put maximum pressure on Keatley early to unsettle the half back partnership? Murray vs. Hidalgo-Clyne will be interesting viewing. Hildalgo-Clyne has all the skill set to unsettle Munster Rugby around the fringes, a solid kicking game and his ability to link back with an excellent support running game to the fore. Weir or van der Walt will need to provide stability in the opening exchanges and then look to build expansively.

The pack battle will be epic here. Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill are a resolute, abrasive unit with several standout players. Nel in the front row provides experience and nous on set piece. Berghan has being hugely impressive this season in his work rate and set piece execution. Gilchrist and Toolis are a formidable second row partnership, more than capable of disrupting an opposition line out. Mata and Bradbury are abrasive ball carriers.

Munster Rugby’s pack will look to right several wrongs from their Racing 92 loss. The line out was an unmitigated disaster in the opening half of the European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final. Throws and jumping was completely off; spooked by the presence of Donnacha Ryan potentially but the manner in how set piece was lost so deep in Racing 92 territory will have irked all those involved in the fixture. The set piece surely will improve this weekend. The scrum was the facet of play which provided good front five moments for Munster Rugby and they will look to impose their will to build the platform. Several ball carrying threats in the pack. Kilcoyne and Marshall provide mobility around the fringes. Stander and O’Mahony will look to impose their presence on the play; how they do this if Edinburgh Rugby adopt the chop tackle tactic will be interesting viewing?

A 50/50 contest. The mindset of Munster Rugby this weekend will be paramount in this fixture. Are the scars of Bordeaux still raw and inhibit performances in key positions? The playoff context will be assessed by the media pack from a Munster Rugby. Can Munster Rugby deliver in a playoff setting? If Edinburgh Rugby can keep in touch going into the final quarter, nerves will creep into Thomond Park but I sense that Munster Rugby have a point or two to prove to themselves and the neutral this weekend. Edinburgh’s efforts last weekend will be exposed in the second half as a fresher Munster Rugby side will come up trumps by seven to ten points.

This is the fixture of the weekend personally. This is a fixture in which we could be talking about for years to come given the genuine expansive style of play offered by both teams. Toyota Cheetahs are coming into this fixture with little pressure on the side; a memorable debut Guinness Pro 14 season, a playoff run to boot and it is a proud achievement for everyone connected with the club. Their ability to attack from anywhere on the pitch has being seen to full effect this season; even last weekend, their dismantling of Southern Kings in the second / third quarter was impressive. Good cohesion between pack and back line. Incisive offloading and support running.

Toyota Cheetahs will relish the dry track conditions and Scarlets need to be extremely careful on how expansive they will be during this contest. Toyota Cheetahs will want a completely loose game where both sides are defensively stretched. Their back line with the likes of Small, Venter and Blommetjies who are superb ball carriers form a massive threat for the hosts. Tian Meyer is a solid operator at scrum-half and whether his half back partner is either Marais or Goosen will provide problems in their kicking game and game management to unleash an exciting back line.

Scarlets like Munster Rugby have wounds to heal both mentally and physically. Their loss to Leinster Rugby was hard to watch and the manner of the result where Leinster Rugby’s pack dismantled Scarlets in the breakdown and set piece. It must have proved tough viewing for the Welsh region in video analysis last week. Like Munster Rugby, they failed to impose themselves on the fixture, failed to deliver a punch to their opponent. There needs to be a reaction but how the side have recovered from this set back will be key to the fixture.

Scarlets are an incredible side. The pack is abrasive and mobile. Evans, Lee and Owens are quality front row operators. Beirne in the second row has provided standout performances in his open play, breakdown duties as well was popping up with several outstanding tries. The back row will look to right the wrongs of the Leinster Rugby loss; expect James Davies, John Barclay to shine in this encounter. The half-back partnership of Davies and Patchell is excellent and they will unleash their three quarters at regular intervals. Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes will relish the challenge posed by the Toyota Cheetahs and provide the platform for Evans and Halfpenny to impress in the wide channels.

For Toyota Cheetahs to win this contest, their pack has to start well from minute one. There cannot be an opening period lull or lull period at any point. Cheetahs pack when on form are a match for anyone but their indiscipline in recent rounds suggests that perhaps Scarlets can get an upper hand in this facet of play. Cheetahs to provide massive entertainment here provided George Clancy does not disrupt the flow of the game. These are two superb, expansive teams and it needs officiating to promote this, to promote the league to a wider audience. Scarlets to win a try fest in the closing quarter. As mentioned, a potential game for the ages!