European Cup: Irish Provinces Round Two Preview

Tough road trips the order of the day

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

Leinster Rugby good form to continue?

Sexton on fire

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Munster Rugby look to kick on 

Grobler on the bench for Gloucester Rugby

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Munster Rugby (BP Win)

Ulster Rugby face daunting challenge 

Daunting road trip

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Racing 92 (potential BP win)

Youth and Experience from Connacht Rugby

Interesting team lineup from Andy Friend

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Sale Sharks 

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 4

Pool of Death

Pool 4 is loaded with talent and formidable home fortresses. Welford Road, Kingspan Stadium, Parc y Scarlets and Paris La Defense Arena. A pool which has different dynamics since the start of this season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects. 

Scarlets must strike early

The opening home fixture for Scarlets conceivably could determine how the Welsh region will fare in this competition. Racing 92 are the visitors and this has the potential to be an epic encounter. Scarlets still are a formidable side but when you consider the likes of John Barclay, Scott Williams and Tadhg Beirne are no longer at the club and the loss to injury of Cubby Davies, it is an arduous task this weekend. 

Racing 92 come into this fixture loaded with squad talent. No doubt, Donnacha Ryan will be thrust into competition to disrupt Scarlets set piece. Finn Russell, Simon Zebo will look to continue their good starts with the Parisian club. This pool battle looks likely to go down to the final game of the pool in January. 

Leicester Tigers. A club in crisis after sacking Matt O’Connor after one game this season (yes, it was mauling against Exeter Chiefs) but surely insufficient time to pull the trigger. Geordan Murphy has taken on the interim role with mixed results. A couple of keynote wins in recent weeks has also seen reversals to Worcester (H) and Wasps (A). The style of rugby is every much a work in progress with Tuilagi and May the main threats out wide provided an over worked pack provide a platform. 

Ulster Rugby come into this competition with a lengthy injury list and a sudden reversal of form. Interpro losses to Munster Rugby (A) and Connacht Rugby (H) has checked early season optimism where front row issues have surfaced and the squad depth looking stretched to breaking point. Rory Best and Iain Henderson in the pack will need to lead by example and hope that Cooney and Burns get sufficient ball to launch McCloskey in open exchanges. Cooney’s performances will also be key. 

Verdict: 

This is a pool which looks like a two horse race unless Leicester Tigers or Ulster Rugby can upset the other two teams early doors. Round two fixtures will be noteworthy. Ulster travel to Scarlets while Racing 92 entertain Leicester Tigers (familiarity breeding contempt) and a true pattern could emerge after this round. Racing 92 squad depth means that they should top this pool with Scarlets securing a runners up berth. 

European Rugby Champions Cup Final Preview

The largest city in the province of Biscay and in the Basque Country as a whole plays host to the most prestigious weekend of the European professional club calendar year. Leinster Rugby and Racing 92 are eighty minutes away from being crowned king pins of Europe. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pregame notes coming into this contest.

How fit is Luke McGrath?

This is the key question that every Leinster Rugby fan is asking this week ahead of this cup final. McGrath was missing for the comprehensive victory over Scarlets in the semi-final due to an ankle injury. Jamison Gibson-Park ably deputized in the fixture which was aided in no small measure by an utterly dominant Leinster Rugby pack on the day. The fitness of Luke McGrath will determine the makeup of the Leinster Rugby twenty-three man squad.

If McGrath is fully fit to start, then James Lowe comes into the equation to fill the void in the back line left due to the hamstring injury sustained by Fergus McFadden in the Scarlets semi-final win. Otherwise, it makes for an intriguing selection poser. Lowe potentially may miss out and Jordan Larmour may come into the back three with Gibson-Park coming in as scrum half.  McGrath has to be 100% fit to feature in this fixture but there are question marks over his fitness and will the lack of game time in recent weeks have an impact in performance?

Machenaud Absence

There are scrum half issues for Racing 92 as well in the lead up to this final. The influential, inspirational Maxime Machenaud is ruled out of the showpiece event due to a season ending knee injury. Machenaud provides leadership, excellent kicking game and game management; he showed his qualities to full effect against Munster Rugby in their semi-final win. Machenaud was unerring in his kicking off the tee and his support running saw him touchdown for Racing 92’s third try of the afternoon. Teddy Iribaren will be asked to provide the necessary game management but more pressure potentially to be placed on Patrick Lambie to make things happen with ball in hand. Given the occasion, the lack of half back cohesion could be a seriously detrimental factor in the outcome of this final.

Weather Watch

Munster Rugby struggled all ends up with the heat and humidity of Bordeaux and no doubt Leinster Rugby were plotting contingency plans on how to game manage in the intense heat. However, the weather gods look to have thrown a curve ball. Rain and a relatively cool twelve degrees Celsius is the forecast right now, weather typically seen in Ireland and not in Spain. A nice boost for Leinster Rugby and one less thing to contend with as Racing 92’s experience in playing in the heat was seen to full effect in the Munster Rugby semi-final win. They picked their moments perfectly to impose their will on the game and put points on the board. This tactic will need to be tweaked now.

Pack Battle

Two incredibly abrasive packs in opposition this weekend. Given the weather conditions, the front five battle looks even more pivotal. Leinster Rugby’s Ireland international stars will look to put massive pressure on Racing 92 in the set piece where Munster Rugby enjoyed good moments in the scrum exchanges. Furlong and Healy will relish the scrum battle against the likes of Arous, Johnston and Tameifuna.

Cronin and Chat will look to secure solid line out platform and both sides have several options. Donnacha Ryan will look to cause havoc in the Leinster Rugby ranks much like he did against Munster Rugby last time out. James Ryan, Devin Toner will look to negate this threat by posing early line out woe for Racing 92 too.

The breakdown battle will be eagerly anticipated. Leinster Rugby’s demolition of Scarlets in this facet of play in the semi-final will have being duly noted by Racing 92. Leinster Rugby’s physicality to clear out opposition from the ruck area allowed Gibson-Park to launch Sexton and his three quarters in double quick time.

Fardy, Leavy and Murphy provide a solid back row selection; Leavy’s prominence in the back row exchanges will indicate how Leinster Rugby will fare. Leavy has the potential to win this game on his own given his commanding presence at ruck time. Racing 92 will need stellar performances from Lauret and Nyanga in this area of the park but it looks like Leiinster Rugby hold all the aces in this vital department. Breakdown area dominance will slow Racing 92 to a crawl and issues will abound for Racing 92 having to force the game.

Three Quarters Battle

Two excellent units on show this Saturday. Virimi Vakatawa and Henry Chavancy produced keynote displays against Munster Rugby. Vakatawa was destructive with his ball carries causing Munster Rugby serious issues; setup Thomas’ second try with a blistering turn of foot. Chavancy produced a defensive masterclass; his tackle count and ability to chop Munster Rugby’s carriers was on point and allowed Racing 92 to setup defensively with ease, causing panic in the Munster Rugby ranks.

Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw provide the Racing 92 three quarters with arguably their toughest challenge of the season. Ringrose and Henshaw’s styles complement each other so well. Henshaw’s defensive nous and power running with ball in hand were seen to full effect against Scarlets last time out allowing Ringrose to find the soft shoulder to create significant gain line breaks throughout the contest. Can Vakatawa be disciplined enough to be defensively on point for the whole game? I have my doubts and expect Leinster Rugby to target the thirteen at regular intervals defensively.

Ten Battle

Will Sexton be targeted by Racing 92 in the opening exchanges? For Racing 92 to have a chance of winning this contest, they need to stifle the influence of Sexton from the ten channel. I would expect the likes of Nyanga and Vakatawa to rampage down the Leinster ten channel to unsettle Sexton early doors but the Irish international will be prepared for the onslaught but it is something to watch out in the opening exchanges. Sexton’s understanding with his three quarters has being on point in this competition all year and if Sexton can receive quick ruck ball, Racing 92 are in for a torrid afternoon.

Racing 92 have weapons at ten to attack Leinster Rugby too. Patrick Lambie’s kicking game has the potential to keep Leinster Rugby off balance in this encounter but for this to happen, the Racing 92 back row will need to provide excellent clear out work to allow for quick ruck ball distribution. Lambie will be asked to force the issue a bit more with the absence of Machenaud from the final. Leinster Rugby’s defensive line speed should be on point and Lambie could well struggle to create an early territorial platform for his French side.

If Lambie option does not work out, Dan Carter will come into the fold. Carter’s mercurial game management may be pivotal if Racing 92 can secure a lead going into the final quarter. Carter will play percentage rugby and expect some deft passes to Chavancy during his cameo. Carbery’s cameo may be required as well for Leinster Rugby; have my concerns that Sexton will not last the entire final and the youngster will look to provide game management to close out this contest.

Back Three Battle

Leinster Rugby’s back three will become a lot more clearer once the full fitness of Luke McGrath is revealed. Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa will definitely start, solid operators whose game management experience on occasions like this is a rare commodity. Larmour or Lowe have the potential to produce massive gain line statistics at the weekend.

Racing 92 have selection posers themselves ahead of the final. Imhoff is chasing Andreu hard for a back three spot. Munster Rugby utterly failed to expose Racing 92 back three in the aerial exchanges but would expect Sexton to do just that in the opening quarter. Teddy Thomas is the key threat for Racing 92 out wide; his pace and ability to find the soft shoulder to the fore against Munster Rugby as Alex Wootton’s inexperience out wide was ruthlessly exposed with a brace of tries. Evenly matched units.

Verdict

Racing 92 to win this encounter need to utterly dominate the pack exchanges and set piece as the absence of Machenaud looks a massive loss before this contest. Leinster Rugby will have learned the lessons of Munster Rugby; defensive line speed and organization will be on point and with aces in the back row (Fardy and Leavy), ruck ball will be readily available for Leinster’s half backs to expose Racing 92 defensively out wide. Provided the wet conditions are not torrential, Leinster Rugby are firm favorites to win this encounter. Racing 92 will provide different looks to Leinster Rugby but this game will be won in the back row and half back areas; both favor Leinster Rugby right now. Leinster Rugby to win by ten points.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Racing 92 27 – 22 Munster Rugby

The dreams of an All Ireland European Rugby Champions Cup final never materialized. They were dashed within the first quarter of this contest as Racing 92 emphatically stamped their ticket to the big dance and a date with Leinster Rugby in Bilbao next month. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Emphatic Racing 92 Opening Quarter

Racing 92 utterly dominated the first quarter of this contest. Munster Rugby were immediately on the back foot as soon as Racing 92 decided after only three minutes to hit long down the line. Patrick Lambie who had a stellar game at out-half spiraled the kick deep into Munster’s territory. Cue the Racing 92 pack to build the phases, suck in Munster Rugby defenders and identify a clear mismatch on the outside channel as Teddy Thomas’ pace was too much for Alex Wootton to score with ease after four minutes.

More abrasive physical ball carrying followed from Racing 92. Munster Rugby struggling to slow the ball down at the breakdown; quick ruck ball for Machenaud and Lambie to unleash their back line. Vakatawa who had a standout game at thirteen highlighting his quick feet to evade Murray and Kleyn before passing to Thomas who had already sped past Wootton to finish a regulation score. Munster Rugby were rattled and soon a third try came; more decisive clear out work at the breakdown creating quick attacking ball.

Munster Rugby unable to stem the tide were narrow defensively and again Alex Wootton was faced with a 2:1 defensive scenario. The youngster went to his outside. Thomas evaded with ease and went on the inside, no backup Munster cover as Thomas strode for the try; a cheeky pass to Machenaud to score. 21-3 after twenty-two minutes. Pivotal opening period. The contest was as good as over in the heat of Bordeaux. Racing 92 were clinical.

Nervy Munster Rugby

This result will irk Munster Rugby management and players for weeks to come. Both sides came into this contest pretty much evenly matched; not much between the sides this season in the pool phase but Munster Rugby were nervy and tentative throughout. The defensive line speed and first time tackles were not at the levels required. 66% tackle completion in the first half told its own story. Munster Rugby were struggling at the breakdown as Racing 92 were utterly dominant.

CJ Stander did win an excellent turnover ball but the subsequent kick from Ian Keatley was inaccurate; failed to find touch and then Lambie kicked the ball back forty meters to force the Munster Rugby pack pretty much where CJ Stander had won the original penalty. Momentum for Munster Rugby was in short supply; the line out was an area of huge concern. Niall Scannell and pack missing four line out calls in the second quarter; two of which were extremely close to the Racing 92 line.

Inaccuracy central for Munster Rugby and even the cool Conor Murray was rushing passes from the ruck. Errand passing out wide despite no platform being built by the pack. The scrum set piece at least was a good point for Munster Rugby but it was few and far between in an utterly wretched opening period. The last ten minutes exposed massive failings in Munster Rugby’s attacking game plan.

Racing 92 using the chop tackle to good effect negating the likes of Stander, Kleyn, O’Mahony. One out ball carrying was the order of day as Racing 92 absorbed wave after wave of attack. Arnold was unlucky with his close range effort but the panic had kicked in within the Munster Rugby ranks. Keatley working hard but game management was deserting him; a questionable drop goal decision in the opening period then followed by Rory Scannell indicative of Munster’s spooked demeanor in the opening quarter. Composure in short supply.

Racing 92 up the ante early in the second half

The early exchanges of the second half again exposed the composure and demeanor of both sides. Racing 92 recycling, attempting to offload at every given opportunity. Once the move broke down, Andreu and Murray then had a wrestle; red mist descended as Murray then pushed Vakatawa with his hand; Vakatawa claiming contact to his eyes (nothing in it).

After consultation with the TMO, Doyle awarded the penalty and the ever reliable Machenaud slotted over to give the Parisian club a 27-3 advantage. Cue a flurry of substitutes from both sides as the heat was taking its toll on the starting lineups. The game was over.

Munster Rugby refuse to give up

The Irish province at this stage cleared the bench and credit the replacements for making an excellent impact albeit too little too late. Rhys Marshall provided stability in the line out and was dangerous with ball in hand, unlucky not to get a try in the third quarter only for JP Doyle to be in the way of a Racing 92 defender. Marshall did get his reward with a smart finish on 76th minute. Munster Rugby management hoped that Marshall would come with the game in the melting pot; unfortunately the game had gone from Munster Rugby long before.

Robin Copeland provided sharp running lines and on another day, his ability to evade Racing 92 defensive tackles were to the fore in the final quarter and created good field position. Simon Zebo brought flair and much needed creativity to proceedings; his ability to spot space inside Racing 92 defense was seen for Conway’s try. Zebo did not look to be hindered by his hip injury; ran with gusto throughout his cameo. Grobler was abrasive and physical in the tight exchanges along with Ryan and Cronin. JJ Hanrahan provided good moments from half-back but the damage was done as Racing 92’s intensity levels dropped in the last ten minutes safe in the knowledge that the game was in the books.

Racing 92: Bilbao Bound

A comprehensive opening period. Racing 92 had a game plan and executed it in the first thirty minutes with physicality and work rate. Munster Rugby’s slow start to the game was punished; 21-3 after twenty-two minutes was just desserts for a dominant period of play. Donnacha Ryan and his front five colleagues ball carried with intensity and quick offloading game and ruck clear out gave Munster Rugby little opportunity to regroup defensively. They spotted the inexperienced Wootton as a potential avenue of opportunity and Teddy Thomas given time and space to roam executed magnificently.

Lambie and Machenaud controlled the half-back for long periods as Murray was looking forlorn with a pack going backwards. Keatley was under the cosh from minute one, his kicking game was off and no variation to negate Racing 92 high defensive line speed. This was as good a performance from Racing 92 seen in Europe this season; the first fifty minutes were superb; the intensity levels did drop thereafter and is something that Leinster Rugby will take note with interest. Whether Racing 92 can sustain the level of effort for a longer period against Leinster Rugby is a difficult question? However, given their squad depth with the likes of Claasen, Rokocoko and Carter in tow; they are a live threat for Bilbao.

Munster Rugby: Reflections

Playoff rugby games require a side to be on point from minute one. The flat opening quarter performance from Munster Rugby will have management, backroom staff and players looking for answers. Did the South African tour take more out of the playing group than first anticipated? The effects of playing in altitude last week perhaps a factor? Either way, Racing 92 bossed territory, ball carrying in the first thirty minutes. The platform was built and the result was stamped before Munster Rugby could hit a decisive blow.

The inaccuracies and nervy game management which ensued will pose questions of the playing and management group to evolve further. Munster Rugby are a good side but at the business end of the season, they have being exposed. Time to reflect and see where adjustments can be made. The players on duty could not do anymore, but the classy moments of the game came from Racing 92. Younger players in the squad need to learn and evolve from this experience. For Simon Zebo, the Munster European odyssey is over. For Murray, Stander and O’Mahony, another year to see if they can get over the line and secure an European Cup final appearance.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Racing 92 vs. Munster Rugby Preview

It is decision day for Racing 92 and Munster Rugby in the warm confines of Bordeaux on Sunday afternoon. For the winner, eighty minutes away from winning an European Cup. For the loser, it will be a case of what might have being and a summer of analyzing where things went wrong. In this article, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key match-ups in this encounter where minute margins could decide this encounter.

Squad Depth

Given the weather forecast in Bordeaux this weekend (sunny – 28 degrees Celsius), the twenty three man squads on show will be utilized to the maximum. The last quarter of this contest could be absolutely massive as starting players begin to tire, defensive line speed and organization is not as precise. Cue the replacements to make a decisive line break or set piece win to edge the contest.

Munster Rugby’s squad depth has improved since last season. The front row replacements are strong and solid, evident in their cameos against Toulon. Niall Scannell has edged selection over Rhys Marshall but is this a ploy from the Munster Rugby management to unleash the dynamic ball carrying ability of the New Zealander hooker in the second half? Ryan and Cronin are superb scrum operators and their work in open exchanges is on point.

The inclusion of Simon Zebo on the substitutes bench is another selection which suggests fitness concerns on the player. Conway slots in at full back, dependable alternative but Zebo if fully fit surely would have got the nod here. Has Munster Rugby management decided that Zebo is better suited off the bench given that he will be playing for the Parisian’s next season?

The back row options for Munster Rugby off the bench will be primarily Robin Copeland and Gerbrandt Grobler. Copeland has the potential to be a pivotal player in the closing stages of this contest. Copeland is more than capable of producing a superb gain line break. Grobler’s physicality and mobility comes into the equation as well. The South African can play either second row or back row.

Racing 92 like Munster Rugby have gone 5:3 forward split. The French club have the luxury of Dan Carter to come off the bench to produce a world class attacking moment for Patrick Lambie. Carter’s game management and vision could be pivotal to close out this contest if Racing 92 are in front going into the final quarter. The pack options are solid and abrasive. Szarzewski, Afatia and Claassen will look to provide leadership and go forward ball upon their introduction.

Line-out Battle

This result could be summarized by the performance of Racing 92’s second row Donnacha Ryan. If Ryan has had an excellent game, Racing 92 have won this game. Ryan and his line-out calling will be of huge consequence to the outcome of this encounter. Ryan called an astute line out game in the round five pool fixture between the two sides. Munster Rugby struggled on their own ball and had precious little joy attacking the Racing 92 set piece.

Munster Rugby management and players though should provide more questions to Ryan and Chat this time. Expect Peter O’Mahony to look to disrupt at every given opportunity. Kleyn and Holland need to be on point with their calls to Niall Scannell particularly in the opening quarter. No over throws, keep things simple early doors.

The Irish province were under pressure for long periods against Toulon in their epic quarter final win but the one facet of play which did go well on the day was the line out. They forced line out steals with O’Mahony to the fore, his menace factor at record levels. Marshall and Scannell were incredibly accurate with their throws. For Munster Rugby to win, this facet of set piece play needs to be advantage red.

Half-Back Battle

An intriguing half-back battle beckons on Sunday. Machenaud and Lambie face up against Murray and Keatley. Conor Murray on current form is the player in this area of the pitch who looks like a game changer. I am expecting Munster Rugby to vary their play at decisive moments. The kick game will be executed but it will be done with a purpose to put pressure on the Racing 92 back three. Ian Keatley and Rory Scannell can also provide effective kicking game to create territorial gains.

Machenaud has had a stellar season. His kick game is solid and kicking off the tee has being on point. Will he try to vary his game, looking to snip around the fringes? Lambie is a superb footballer, he will look to launch his three quarters consistently. It is up to Munster Rugby to have an excellent defensive line speed from minute one to not let Lambie get into rhythm. A fascinating contest beckons. Will Racing 92 have plans for Conor Murray?

Earls Effect

Keith Earls inclusion to the starting line up is a massive boost for Munster Rugby. His cameo performance against Racing 92 at the U-Arena in January was world class, created his try from nothing and put fear into Racing 92 defensively throughout. Earls has had a good injury layoff but all reports suggest that Earls has trained extremely well in recent weeks. Given the absence of Zebo, Earls’ experience to assist Wootton will be pivotal.

Conditioning

This aspect of play will be highlighted in the final quarter if this game is on the line. Munster Rugby’s win against Toyota Cheetahs last weekend emphasized excellent conditioning to secure a win in altitude. The effects of this fixture hopefully for Munster Rugby will not have an adverse impact early doors because this side finishes games very strong.

For Racing 92 to win, they need to build a cushion in the opening period and then hope for Carter to close out the contest. Racing 92 will give this Munster Rugby side chances to win this contest. It will require Munster Rugby to have the composure, game management to execute at a high level to get over the line. A fascinating contest beckons!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Quarter Final Predictions

Easter weekend has finally arrived. The European Rugby Champions Cup quarter final action kicks off in Wales where Scarlets and La Rochelle will do battle. Easter Saturday has an intriguing battle with injury ravaged Munster Rugby facing the squad depth of Toulon. Easter Sunday has the potential to be epic with ASM Clermont hoping that home advantage will get them over the line against a rejuvenated Racing 92 while Leinster and Saracens battle it out in a heavyweight tussle at the Aviva Stadium. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict some winners from these tantalizing fixtures.

This on paper has offloading central written all over the fixture but given the inclement weather conditions forecast, the dynamics of this fixture have changed. Scarlets front five need to set the platform early; huge onus on the likes of Lee, Owens, Evans, Beirne to achieve this so as to provide quality possession for their half backs to unleash their exciting back field.

Scott Williams for me plays such a crucial role for this side. His pace and line break ability provides the nous to unlock any defense. Along with Hadleigh Parkes, the three quarter partnership is an excellent unit. Parkes provides superb defensive awareness and a good open field kicking game. Steff Evans is a try scoring machine. Potency aplenty.

La Rochelle have had a mixed couple of months; their form has dipped since the start of the year and struggled over the line to advance to the last eight of this competition after quite an assured, exciting start. Massive injury blows with La Rochelle with All Blacks flanker Victor Vito (calf) and France centre Geoffrey Doumayrou (knee) both ruled out. Another All Black, second row Jason Eaton, is also sidelined.

Scarlets are quite strong favorites to advance here given that team news but La Rochelle’s game plan may switch from expansive to hitting the trenches with the pack. The weather conditions have prompted Wayne Pivac to go for a six (forwards) / two (backs) split on the bench.

Kicking game needs to be on point from the hosts as La Rochelle do have exciting back field options themselves. Aguillon and Botia will relish open field to run into provided if Scarlets kick chase is not at the standard required.

Hopefully the weather does not play its part as this fixture has excitement written all over it. Scarlets after an even first quarter to express themselves in the second half to win by seven points. La Rochelle are a danger but the injuries to Vito and Doumayrou look fatal to their hopes.

Thomond Park sold out signs appeared on Monday; no ticket in sight for this eagerly anticipated encounter. Munster Rugby have injury concerns aplenty but the expectation is that Zebo, Conway and Rory Scannell will be fit to line out for this contest. The injuries to Keith Earls and Chris Farrell in the back field are a blow but it is an opportunity for the likes of Arnold and Wooton to take and they will not let the side down.

Toulon come into this contest high with confidence. Their 49-0 home win to ASM Clermont provided ample evidence of their capabilities. The front five never let their opposition to settle or create any platform. They mauled effectively and with the battering ram Basteraud a prominent ball carrier, tries quickly ensued. Fekitoa was immense with his ball carries.

How do Munster Rugby win this contest? Effective game management and kicking game particularly in exit strategy. Munster cannot let Toulon camp in their twenty-two for long periods so the onus is on Murray and Keatley to take charge and kick well.

The back row contest intrigues me. Will Munster Rugby throw a curve ball and name Conor Oliver as the seven? A superb grappler in the breakdown, Oliver’s mobility could be decisive. O’Donoghue, Copeland and O’Callaghan obviously come into the reckoning as well.

Toulon’s game plan will be interesting. I suspect that they will try to run the ball through Munster Rugby at the weekend but I think Munster Rugby’s defensive line speed, conditioning and mobility across the park may be the difference here. Toulon on the road have being a pale shadow of the team at home this season. Toulon to lose composure and the penalty battle ultimately.

The atmosphere will be electric on Saturday. Nigel Owens officiating the game adds to the occasion. Munster Rugby know their backs are against the wall and if they can expose Toulon’s back three defensively in the kicking game, there is no question that Munster Rugby can win. It is with this hope that Munster Rugby emerge victorious after a titanic struggle. Munster by three points.

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ASM Clermont look vulnerable here. A home fixture for ASM Clermont should be a nailed on win but this season has seen ASM Clermont really struggle for form and consistency. The side last weekend were an embarrassment, shut down, out fought, out thought. The tackle completion rate of 67% speaks volumes; the side were not at it last weekend.

Soul searching week in Clermont which Racing 92 will enter the game in relatively good spirits. Racing 92 have the pack to win this battle and with an exciting back field containing Teddy Thomas, all is primed for a superb performance on the road.

Clermont will surely bounce back and have a reaction from last weekend’s road trip mauling but this side are a pale shadow of the side which trounced Saracens at the back end of last year. Injuries have certainly taken their toll and has created cohesion issues in various units.

Racing 92 have the fortitude and leadership required here to absorb the home side’s early promise to win this tie going away. The half back battle will be interesting. Lopez and Parra need to dominate game management but with Machenaud and Carter potentially in opposition, cannot see that happening.

The Racing 92 pack looks abrasive and with Donnacha Ryan continuing to produce consistently high performances, there is a road trip win here for Racing 92. The prize is motivation enough; a home semi-final berth. Racing 92 to upset ASM Clermont who will need to wait yet another year for European Cup triumph. Racing 92 to win in a cagey affair; penalty kicking contest and win by six points.

This is the fixture of the weekend. The key question for me is how much do Leinster Rugby have in the tank? After a tasking international fixture window, the fringe squad players looked flat against Ospreys last weekend. It makes team selection easy for Cullen and Lancaster (not ideal) this weekend as they have to bring back all the Irish internationals. No fringe players put the hand up for selection which was disappointing.

Was the Ospreys performance last weekend a case of an off day or does it suggest fatigue in the squad? If fatigue is creeping in, it is coming at the business end of the season when you do not want it to happen. There is no better side to exploit fatigue and weakness in conditioning than Saracens.

Saracens bring a formidable side to the Aviva Stadium. Solid, abrasive pack but has the finesse out wide to finish off teams with excellent tries. Aviva Stadium is a happy hunting ground for Saracens. Last season, they did a professional job on Munster Rugby. They quietened the crowd, nullified Munster Rugby’s game plan and won with a bit to spare. The venue has good memories.

Leinster Rugby are an excellent side too. Their pack will be abrasive with the front row of Furlong, Cronin and Healy looking to probe at set piece. The second row and back options are excellent. Toner, Ryan and Fardy will provide solid line out options. The back row options of Leavy, Conan and Murphy are on point. Expect massive collisions!

The half back battle will be intriguing. McGrath / Sexton vs. Wigglesworth / Farrell. The kicking game is going to be superb viewing. Both units possess excellent kicking games and will decide which team emerges victorious. Saracens will look for Leinster indiscipline; look to work the scoreboard. 3,6,9.,12 and if that happens, Leinster Rugby are chasing the game, the perfect setup for Saracens.

The back lines possess serious threats as well. Liam Williams provides added values with ball in hand for the Saracens outfit. Garry Ringrose at thirteen is coming into this side relatively fresh, expect some serious line breaks from the player but it will be tough when facing the likes of Barritt.

50/50 game here. Leinster Rugby to summon the energy to get over the line in an epic tussle. However, if Leinster Rugby’s Irish players do not get to the pitch of the game early, this is a game that could conceivably get away from Leo Cullen’s men pretty quickly. Edge of the seat viewing. I cannot wait!