RWC 2019: Pool C Preview

Pool C: Pool of Death

In the third part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool C. It is a pool which looks on paper to be effectively a shootout between England, Argentina and France for the two quarter final berths. 

Pool C

An intriguing pool with three marquee teams pitted together. USA and Tonga complete the pool lineup; two sides who will provide energy and passion but a distinct lack of quality when compared with the other three teams will be decisive.

England: The Eddie Jones England era hinges on this tournament

It has always been about this Japan Rugby World Cup 2019 for England and particularly Eddie Jones. The World Cup cycle has seen Eddie Jones arrive and run the rule over the best talent English rugby union has to offer; there were those infamous training camps in Brighton which caused some consternation among the clubs. There were also those heated scrummaging practice games against the Georgians. Eddie Jones has left no stone unturned for this World Cup and he will be on the front foot with his press conferences and the sound bites.

England in the last eighteen months has seen a progressive upward curve. They have demolished Ireland in 6 Nations and preseason friendly test matches. Their pack looks traditionally strong. Jamie George provides mobility, discipline and set piece line out accuracy in the absence of Dylan Hartley. The pack is at a nice age demographic. The sight of Genge, Itoje, Kruis, Curry in the pack provides energy and overall quality in all facets of pack play.

Ford and Farrell versatility to play the ten channel will be key to England progression. Youngs and Heinz if provided quick ruck ball have the ability to create havoc in the back field. I am expecting Manu Tuilagi to be a key fulcrum for England much like the Vunipola’s in the pack. Their dynamism and physicality with ball in hand is going to cause opposition untold damage.

Where are the weak points? The key question for England is can they produce a full eighty minute performance. The preseason games have seen massively impressive periods of play but there have been lulls in quality – look at the opening half performances against Ireland and Italy during preseason. England have the ability to blow away teams with their quality but the consistency of their play for an entire game remains a question mark.

The discipline question surrounding England is never too far away. England is skirting a fine line on their defensive line speed and offside at ruck time. Officiating decision making early in this tourney will determine whether these areas are a concern for Eddie Jones; if they are heavily pinged early, expect Jones to be frank in press conference settings.

On paper, this side will look incredibly far in the tournament. They are stacked with talent and provided that discipline does not become a big issue in the group games, I expect them to advance from this pool and into a semi-final match. After that, all bets are off.

Argentina: In Jaguares, we trust

One look at this squad and you see why Argentina will be an extremely tough pool opponent. Their continuity is obvious with the majority of players coming from Super Rugby finalists Jaguares. The familiarity and cohesion of the team should be on point from the opening minute of this tournament. You then throw in the players who are playing in England and France; quality operators in Figallo, Sanchez and Urdapilleta.

The Argentina defensive shape and structure has steadily improved in this year’s Rugby Championship. This was seen to good effect in their performance against New Zealand; disciplined defensive display and when provided with the opportunities were competitive at the breakdown. The line out has been solid; Creevy is a talisman hooker and his relationship with Lavanini and Alemanno will be seen to good effect in this tournament.

The back line play has evolved too. Jaguares in particular provided explosive attacking plays in their run to the Super Rugby final. Delguy is going to be a star at this tournament; outstanding back three player whose ability to snip and create from open play will be standout. The Argentinian style of pack orientated play and kick game is now complemented with the ability to offload in the tackle, set the tempo high and look for opportunities to exploit on the outside.

The issue is with the scrum. Ireland in the November series took advantage of uncharacteristic erratic Argentinian scrummaging. The pen count was high and setup huge pressure for Argentina from a defensive perspective. If Argentina can address those scrum set piece concerns (they need to France and England in this area of play), then this is a side that will advance to yet another quarter final appearance. Their kicking game is unparalleled; superb footballers who will win any kicking exchange contest.

France: Enigma

France come into this tournament on the back of an encouraging preseason win over Scotland (32-3) but this is when France were in the mood, lovely French summer sunshine at their backs to express themselves. You cannot guarantee that France will do the same when in Japan.

The lead up to this tournament has been a shambles; squad selection has been erratic at best. Brunel does not know his best squad, has decided to ditch Lopez and Parra looks hasty at best. No general shape to the pack and the front five that will lineup in the pool stage could be significantly different to the one that played in the 6 Nations this year.

What is the ethos of this side? Is it pack orientated or is it attacking / offload game? I am not sure and I do not think the French public knows either. The best thing for France is for Brunel to step aside at the end of this tournament and start afresh.

The hope is that the young guns which Brunel has vouched for deliver on the big stage. Dumbo Bamba in the front row could be a standout in the tournament; mobility and scrummaging to boot. Dupont and Ntamack tandem at half-back is potentially very good on paper. Penaud has the attacking skill but defensively is he solid enough?

This is a tournament where France have thrown the dice on squad selection. The likes of Bastareaud are removed from the squad; leaders need to step forward. Picamoles needs to be a leader in this pack but has failed to deliver in recent seasons. There are too many questions on this French side for me so I suspect pool elimination is the smart bet.

Tonga: Passion but vulnerability aplenty

The key question you have to ask yourself is how do Tonga bounce back from that absolute pasting at the hands of New Zealand last weekend? 90+ points is an embarrassing score concession and the lack of structure, conditioning and general cohesion from Tonga was a massive wakeup call.

The squad composition is varied with players based in England, France, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. The lack of quality test match competition is undermining Tonga like the other Pacific Island nations; the club vs. country issue with player release is a continually recurring theme.

What to expect from Tonga? Expect passion, physicality in ball carrying and offloading when possible but not far behind will be disciplinary issues particularly when we get into the second half of games. The lack of cohesion is an issue for this squad. New Zealand match created massive gaps in quality on both sides of the ball.

Their key fixture looks to be against USA to secure a win and to be honest, it is going to be a struggle to see them win that encounter. Bottom place in the pool potentially beckons despite the best efforts of Piutau and Mafi.

USA: Work in progress

There is a lot to be hopeful for the long term development of USA Rugby. The establishment of their domestic league will only increase the quality of players in the country and the fact that players can play in their own country means more national training camps and more cohesion. Has this tournament come too soon?

The squad on paper has a lot to like about it when you consider the likes of Taufete’e and Lamsitele in the front row. Peterson at lock is a solid lineout operator and Tony Lamborn plays in Melbourne. AJ McGinty at ten will need to provide game management to allow USA to secure a pack platform.

The concern is the lack of squad depth in the back line to complement the performances of Cam Dolan in the back row. The Ireland November series test match showed the good, the bad and the ugly part to the USA play and the outside defense shape was at times hugely lacking.

The side will fight to the bitter end but when you compare the side with England, France and Argentina; it is a step too far. Their fixture against Tonga has cup final written all over it. A win there and some competitive outings in the pool is the goal.

Verdict:

Three teams vying for two quarter final berths. England is the standout side for me in this pool; they have the ability to beat their pool foes either in the pack or out wide. Argentina for me with their cohesion and game management will pip France to the second berth.

RWC 2019: Pool B Preview

Pool B: Clash of the Titans

In the second part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool B. It is a pool where two of the tournament favorites New Zealand (reigning champions) and South Africa are pitted against each other and their clash on the 21st September will go a long way in determining the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup this year.

Pool B

You have to feel for Italy, Namibia and Canada. They have got the proverbial stinker of a pool.

The press media duties from these sides will be ‘look forward’, ‘pitting our wits against the best’ but in all honesty, the morale of these squads must be a mix of trepidation and nervousness ahead of this tournament kickoff.

The pool teams to advance from this pool before a ball is kicked will be New Zealand and South Africa. The only question is who will top the pool?

New Zealand: Confidence and form on the rise ominously

If there was any hint of overconfidence in the New Zealand prior to the World Cup, it was well and truly smashed in the performances against South Africa (home) and Australia (away) in the Rugby Championship.

Two subdued performances, two inaccurate performances where discipline reared its head against Australia away with the opening period red card. Some respected figures in the sport were beginning to question New Zealand? They should have known better.

The performances since then have been on point. The shutout victory against Australia at home issued a fiercely defiant statement of intent from Steve Hansen’s side.

Their defensive shape and structure was sublime; they never gave Australia a sniff. Their line speed with / without the ball was vastly improved.

Their complete demolition of poor Tonga last weekend in Hamilton with a second string team lineup further evidence of their upturn in form. Their skill set and line speed were devastating to watch. Tonga never stood a chance.

There are so many strong points to this New Zealand squad; their coaching and playing staff experience to win this competition is huge. Their skill set and ability to create from any facet of play is outstanding.

Steve Hansen has not been afraid to drop loyal test match performers of the past; evident in the omission of Owen Franks in the pack. Their all round game is so solid and with the likes of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga orchestrating behind the scrum, good things should happen for New Zealand.

The potential question ahead of this tournament is selection consistency. Who plays at ten? Barrett or Mo’unga are vying for that jersey. Barrett has switched to full back in recent test games with mixed results.

Ben Smith (personally) is an incredible full back option still and it will be interesting who Steve Hansen and management deem to be the better ten option for the side.

The scrum potentially may be an area to watch for New Zealand. The pool opponents apart from South Africa are realistically not going to threaten or identify many issues.

The key opening fixture against South Africa will provide potential New Zealand foes will plenty to scrutinize in the pack exchanges; the scrum can at times be exposed and the absence of the likes of Franks may be felt.

South Africa: On the rise under Erasmus

The fact that we are talking about South Africa as a genuine World Cup 2019 contender is a testament to the work and transformation undertaken by Rassie Erasmus and coaching staff.

Reverse the tape back to the start of this world cup cycle, the team were in complete chaos with little direction or game plan. Painful defeats to New Zealand and then a humiliating Northern Hemisphere tour in 2017 where Ireland in particular had a record win over the South Africans signaled that changes were required.

Rassie Erasmus as he did in Munster Rugby came in and started to laid the foundations of success and the performances in the past eighteen months have been on the upward curve.

South Africa’s pack platform has been huge in this revival. Eben Etzebeth has led the pack from the front; his all action style accompanied by a superb set piece game has provided the side with confidence. The assured captaincy of Kolisi (albeit has been sidelined with injury for a good chunk of the preseason) has also been prominent in the pack / breakdown area.

There is a formidable half back partnership in Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard whose sniping runs and assured game management respectively have posed serious issues for opposition in recent test matches. The back three is loaded with pace and expect the likes of Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe to revel in the fast track conditions of Japan.

The key question is how they will stack up against New Zealand on September 21st at Yokohama. The pack needs to bully New Zealand who are now well warned of their threat after that draw in the Rugby Championship.

The half back depth chart is a concern. Elton Jantijes has threatened to become a superb test match operator but his lack of consistency and composure is frustrating to watch in recent seasons.

A win over New Zealand and this tournament suddenly opens up for South Africa. A loss in the opening game and there is then the prospect of a potential bruising last eight encounter with Ireland.

Italy: Best of the rest

Conor O’Shea has laid solid foundations during his tenure as Italian head coach in recent years. The emergence of Benetton Rugby last season in Guinness Pro14 action is reward for concerted effort in player recruitment and development. Zebre Rugby continues to be the key developmental squad for the national side.

Progression is now been seen in underage teams but the improvements in these areas are slow to reach the senior national team at present and this pool setup does little for their overall confidence, development and progression.

What to look out for from Italy? The hope is that Italy can execute an efficient game plan on both sides of the ball. The pack set piece has been a mixed bag in recent seasons particularly the scrum; they cannot give away the number of penalties in this area of play in this tournament.

The line out should be solid platform ball with the likes of Ghiraldini at the controls.

Tebaldi and Allan need to provide direction in their attacking play which at times has been extremely one dimensional; one out runners – no variation in attacking lines and then the back three defensively have been exposed in their shape and coverage at various points in recent seasons.

The word is progression from an Italian perspective. Unless the top two have an extreme off day (highly unlikely), they are not going to qualify from this pool. The focus is performance delivery as a springboard for the future. Campagnaro hopefully can provide attacking threat. 

Namibia: Little to suggest any upsets

The Namibian challenge is tough to assess given the lack of quality test match opposition in this World Cup cycle.

Their most illustrious opponent came in the form of Russia which is no gauge to evaluate the side. The pool of players in the county is small (90 registered players) and the cohesion issues of the side given the lack of top quality test match opposition will rear its head in this tournament.

Namibia should provide sufficient physicality in the pack but conditioning and endurance will be key issues here in the third / fourth quarter of games.

The attacking side of their game will be focused on the likes of Johan Deysel who plays with Colomiers in France. Janco Venter will be required to perform at an ultra-high level of performance at the breakdown area.

Realistically, Namibia are going to aim for a long awaited Rugby World cup win against a vulnerable looking Canadian side. If they achieve this result, then mission accomplished for Phil Davies, coaching staff and playing squad.

Canada: Vulnerable squad limitations to be ruthlessly exposed

Kingsley Jones has had an unenviable job as Canada head coach. There has been a changing of the guard in this World Cup cycle and the squad is very much in transitional mode, looking to gain experience and consistency at test match level.

From an Ireland perspective, there is plenty of interest in this squad with the inclusion of the likes of Peter Nelson (full back) and Shane O’Leary (Fly-Half) in the squad. Both are solid performers but will they get sufficient game time to impress for Canada?

The key player for Canada is the all action Tyler Ardron whose has impressed with Waikato Chiefs this season. He will look to lead from the front but question marks on the pack set piece are huge.

You can see the side being turned over by the better sides and they look particularly vulnerable against Namibia in the wooden spoon pool game.

The hope is that DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler can provide attacking threat but it is dependent on Ardron and the pack to provide good ruck ball; this is going to be a challenge.

Canada were the last team to qualify for this World Cup and I fear for them when they face the big two in the pool.

Verdict:

This will be a pool with precious few surprises. New Zealand until they are beaten for me will top the pool. South Africa will comfortably finish second while the others will hope that their dignity is intact after some awful beat downs come the end of this pool phase.

RWC 2019: Pool A Preview

Pool A: Can Japan repeat their 2015 exploits?

In this opening preview blog, Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool A. The key question is whether Japan as the host nation can emulate their standout pool performances of 2015?

Pool A

The pool team setup is intriguing. Take Russia out of the equation and we potentially are going to have some very competitive fixtures in this pool. Ireland and Scotland will be fancied but can Japan and Samoa upset the form guide?

Russia vulnerabilities to be ruthlessly exposed

Let us cut to the chase with respect to Russia. The side have shown little in preseason games to render much consideration in this pool. An abrasive pack but the discipline and back three defensive structure is pretty poor.

Connacht traveled to Moscow and dispatched Russia with the minimum of fuss and one wonders how Lyn Jones and Mark McDermott can resurrect this tournament before a ball is kicked. Expect some really heavy losses, enthusiasm in abundance but the lack of experience in international test match rugby will be ruthlessly exposed.

Vasily Artemyev

The key player for Russia is Vasily Artemyev. He has the unenviable job of trying to organize the back three. His experience will be crucial for Russia and his wing and full back versatility should be a positive in what could be potentially an arduous tournament.

With Russia out of the picture, we will look at the other pool teams.

Ireland: Confidence slowly restored

Ireland come into the tournament with confidence somewhat restored after a shaky 6 Nations campaign and horrendous preseason loss to England at Twickenham.

The subsequent performances against Wales in Cardiff and Dublin this past weekend has restored confidence among the fans, confidence in the side with Murray and Sexton showing positive signs in the 19-10 win over Wales.

The Ireland squad selection was not without several soundbites. The omission of Kieran Marmion at scrum half was particularly harsh and the fact that Joe Schmidt has decided to go with only two scrum halves is a calculated risk.

The other key omissions were Jordi Murphy, Will Addison and Devin Toner whose omission has riled up the Irish press rat pack. How dare Devin Toner be omitted for Jean Kleyn?

The selection process has been ruthless. The question is whether the Ireland line out has been undermined by the Toner omission who has managed the set piece for such a long time. Time will tell.

The opening fixture against Scotland will define how Ireland perform in this tournament. Ireland squad on paper is excellent, the form guide in this World Cup cycle has been outstanding. The enigma of a Rugby World Cup and getting past the quarter final is the issue?

Scotland: Pack needs to be deliver

The Scottish squad selection has thrown up several surprises. The initial omission of Bradbury is a key mistake. The Edinburgh Rugby forward leads by example and his set piece execution is outstanding. He is currently on standby with Jamie Ritchie injury concerns.

The key question for me is how the front five of Scotland perform? They have deliberately picked Georgia for preseason games to test their pack unit. There are key questions still to be answered in the set piece and their defensive maul. Teams can bully Scotland’s pack and that could spell trouble for Townsend and management.

The key strengths is their open play, their ability to create scoring opportunities from deep. Hogg at full back along with Graham look to have pace and danger with ball in hand. The omission of the likes of Huw Jones could be another omission that could come to haunt Scotland in this tournament.

Finn Russell

The key player is Finn Russell again for Scotland. His game management, play making from ten will be crucial. If his back row unit can deliver quick ruck ball to the Racing 92 player, expect fireworks. Laidlaw at scrum half will also play a crucial role; his goal kicking and box kicking will be required in key fixtures against Ireland and Japan.

Japan: Host nation the dark horse

The 2015 Rugby World Cup saw Japan produce standout performances against South Africa and Samoa. Their attacking front foot offloading play was sensational and they were unfortunate not to advance to the quarter final phase of the competition.

Fast forward four years. Japan are primed to host this Rugby World Cup and with an opening fixture against a vulnerable Russia, confidence should be established quickly.

The key strengths from Japan is their pace and speed. Their ability to offload and beat the first tackle will be standouts. Their conditioning will be immense and teams will need to play for the full eighty minutes.

Michael Leitch

The unfortunate weak points could be the pack set piece. The pack boosts the mercurial Michael Leitch in the back row and could easily slot into the second row if the need arises. The line out and their defensive maul shape at times can be exposed.

If Ireland and Scotland are not on their game, expect Japan with their passionate home support to cause a shock. Whether it will be good enough to get out of this pool is an entirely different story.

Samoa: Consistency key

The lead up to this tournament has being shrouded in disarray. Players not getting released for training camps, the disconnect between the association and the player group.

Samoa needed to get through the playoff process to advance to this tournament. An efficient playoff victory over Germany was mission accomplished but the real work starts now.

Rey Lee-Lo

What to expect from Samoa? Physicality and creativity with off the cuff attacking moves. There are dangerous players in the side and watch out for the Cardiff Blues centre Rey Lee-Ho; his explosive speed off the line is sensational and will cause issues for opposition.

The weak points unfortunately is a lack of consistency in set piece execution and when that goes, the discipline is not far behind. The lack of composure could see disciplinary issues for Samoa with yellow and red cards.

Their fixture against Japan will define their tournament. Japan will enter this fixture with confidence and whether Samoa have the collective structured game to defeat Japan is a difficult question to answer. This could be potentially an arduous tournament for Samoa.

Verdict:

Ireland provided that their pack platform is established early can beat Scotland and Japan to secure top spot in the pool. Who they play in the last eight will be a difficult task (New Zealand or South Africa) regardless of the opponent.

The second place is the one that intrigues me. Samoa will try hard but look set to finish fourth in this pool. It is up to Japan and Scotland for the second spot and I just wonder if Japan can sneak the second spot in this pool?

Scotland have had a mixed preseason. A heavy loss to France focused the squad and management to then deliver victories over France at home (albeit struggled in the opening period) and then a double against a tough but limited Georgia side.

Japan for me is the dark horse. Their front five is going to determine their progression and I think they match up well against Scotland. I am going to go with the host nation to upset Scotland and get into the quarter final phase.

Munster Rugby: 2018 / 19 Season Review

Thomond Park: Munster unbeaten at home but issues to address

It is a couple of days since Munster Rugby bowed out of the Guinness Pro14, a semi-final playoff loss to Leinster Rugby, a loss where the attacking side of the ball saw only one line break, a loss where Leinster Rugby’s front row engineered an opening try that settled the contest. It has been a tough end to the season for the men in red. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the season and ponders how the side can improve and progress next season.

The Good:

Folks have dwelt enough on the doom and gloom at the province but let us review the season as a whole. Munster Rugby were yet again at the business end of European and Domestic competition.

The European Cup pool was a tricky one to negotiate for various reasons. Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester Rugby provided physicality and skill set while Castres were uncompromisingly cynical in their approach against the Irish province.

There are sides in the off season right now who would love to be in Munster Rugby’s position. It is the sheer high expectations at the club that there is a sense of disappointment in the semi-final playoff losses. A good place to be, everyone looking to improve and get to the next level which is win silverware.

Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park were fortresses this season. Munster Rugby went unbeaten in both venues; the atmosphere in the Cork venue was exhilarating on those Friday night games. Thomond Park came alive at crucial stages; think back to the Glasgow Warriors home fixture where it looked like Munster Rugby were on the ropes only for Rory Scannell to rescue the fixture with that superb long range penalty.

The Munster Rugby side saw several promising youth prospects get their opportunity to impress. It was great to see the likes of Calvin Nash, Dan Goggins and Fineen Wycherley get their opportunities. Several other underage players impressed on the road trip to Benetton Rugby at the back end of the regular season; the underage talent pool in the province is producing talent and it will be interesting to see how these players coupled with the emergence of players such as Craig Casey fare next season.

The scrum and defensive structures were plus points personally this season. The scrummaging more often than not provided a good platform for the team to attack opposition. The defensive line speed and structure was quite impressive this season for long periods and the ability to not concede penalties at the death against Edinburgh Rugby and Benetton Rugby was commendable.

The Bad:

The business end of the season. The playoffs continues to be a source of great frustration and concern for management, players and supporters. The playoffs this season in both European Cup and Guinness Pro14 action saw prevailing themes.

The line out was exposed at key intervals by Saracens and Leinster Rugby. The consistency of the set piece is a key improvement area for the side; surprising given the line out options in the side with the likes of Kleyn, Beirne, Holland, O’Mahony.

The side struggled in these playoffs to bring a clear attacking game plan to the table. One out runners was the predominant attacking methodology, look to smash their way through opposition but minimal momentum generated in ruck ball distribution and ball carrier line speed, this threat was quickly gobbled up by opposition.

The lack of game time collectively this season for Murray and Carbery. Both players had injury plagued seasons and unfortunately when it came to the business end of the season, the lack of game time was exposed. The kicking game was nullified by opposition and it was used against Munster Rugby particularly against Saracens.

Murray and Carbery if fully fit next season will provide more continuity in attacking play for the province but for this to succeed, the side need to review their ruck ball delivery and clear out work as at times, opposition were able to quickly stifle any momentum that Munster Rugby tried to build in the attacking sense from the breakdown area.

When you consider the back line unit throughout the season, the word that comes to mind is ‘change’, change in terms of personnel changes either in the three quarters or back three. You can get away with it for so long until you face an opponent who are so well drilled (Saracens / Glasgow / Leinster) that the level of cohesion and continuity is exposed.

Wondering also about whether the team peaked too soon again this season? Their best rugby in past seasons has been left in the start of the calendar year and the side have looked to be out of ideas and legs for the playoff push. I am not sure how this can be addressed; the side looked jaded particularly in those playoff games against Saracens, Benetton Rugby and Leinster Rugby down the stretch.

It is not like management have not used squad rotation this side but the side’s attacking lines lacked any significant bite down the stretch; the running lines and distinct lack of ball carrying support runners were standout moments from this year’s playoff run. Players’ confidence was dented on the attacking side of the ball.

Going Forward:

The media hounds have seen the failure of Munster Rugby not to reach the summit this season and they have been unapologetic in their assessment. The coaching departures of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones represents a chance for Munster Rugby to evaluate what their game plan will be next season. Great players and coaching tenures from both men.

Does this team go back to a Rob Penney style of rugby (people have short memories on how the Rob Penney era ended?). Does the team look to make subtle changes to the attacking and defensive setups to get to the next level? The coaching selections that Munster Rugby and Johann van Graan are faced with are critical. I detect that it could be the latter.

The rumors of Graham Rowntree as a potential defensive coach is positive news; his experience with club, county and British & Irish Lions is vast and his set piece knowledge could prove an invaluable tool for the side long term if appointed.

The backs coach is an intriguing appointment. Does van Graan look to his native country to recruit or does the IRFU / Munster Rugby have someone in mind?

Mike Ruddock personally is a guy that should be getting an interview at least. A vastly experienced, well respected head coach. His ethos on the attacking side of the ball seen with Lansdowne in recent seasons; they have been a joy to watch with their endless ball carrying support lines along with excellent ball carrier line speed and quick ruck ball distribution.

The appointments have to be considered; the quick buck option will not do. The frustration is building among the squad members who have been with the club for a long period. They see their window of opportunity to win silverware slowly disappear and the sights of Saracens and Leinster Rugby winning with a bit to spare makes these coaching appointments all the more significant.

The supporters will look on with interest; the supporters will always support the side. Munster Rugby yet again delivered quality standout moments throughout the season but the failures in the post season this year has to be the catalyst for the province to reflect and make the prudent steps to improve the side and organization to get to the next level.

Heineken Champions Cup Final Preview

Five key questions ahead of this final encounter

The semi-final fixtures spoke volumes. Despite Toulouse and Munster Rugby’s best efforts, it was futile as the the two best teams in the competition secured their places in the final with convincing victories. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key question where this eagerly anticipated fixture will be won or lost.

Question 1: Back Row Battle

The back row battle will be intense and the opening moments of this contest from the officiating crew will determine how this game will be played. Garces in the semi-final did not officiate the breakdown area and Saracens took full advantage by swarming the ruck area and causing massive issues for Conor Murray and Munster Rugby to create anything worthwhile.

Wray and Rhodes were immense in these exchanges and Leinster Rugby have been duly warned. Billy Vunipola was his marauding best creating quality ball for Owen Farrell to orchestrate and game management with excellent efficiency.

The loss of Dan Leavy for Leinster Rugby is a massive blow but can the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan stifle the breakdown counter rucking of Saracens. This is a huge facet to this fixture.

Question 2: Kicking Game

Saracens were clinically ruthless in their kicking game against Munster Rugby. From minute one, Owen Farrell peppered Munster Rugby’s back three with challenging aerial bombs. Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam were isolated more than once and this created key early territorial gains for Saracens which worked the Munster Rugby tackle count to exhaustion.

A similar tactic will be expected this weekend but the Leinster Rugby back three potentially of Lowe, Kearney and Byrne should have the street smarts to deal with the threat and potentially launch solid counter attacks if space arises. Leinster Rugby must be incredibly strong under the high ball in these opening exchanges.

Question 3: Lineout Battle

The two best line out set piece operators are in the final. Jamie George has been outstanding for Saracens this season in this competition; the assurance in his throwing coupled with the decisive set piece calls of George Kruis and Maro Itoje have provided the Gallagher Premiership with guaranteed quality ball to work with.

Leinster Rugby have question marks on the hooker position. Will Leinster Rugby look to recall Sean Cronin or go with James Tracy who impressed against Toulouse last time out? Cronin’s line out execution has being under the spotlight this season and Saracens will look to target Leinster Rugby early albeit the reigning champions have James Ryan, Scott Fardy options. The quality of throwing and the precision in the line out calls is going to be huge.

Question 4: Barritt fitness

The fitness of Brad Barritt will be a key talking point prior and during this final contest. Barritt is so uber consistent in his performance on both sides of the ball but his defensive abilities and organization set the tone for his colleagues to follow. Barritt left it all on the line against Munster Rugby last time out as the Irish province failed to get anything going in the wide channels.

Barritt departed at the break but his impact was immense. His ankle injury will be duly noted and can Leinster Rugby’s three quarters expose any injury impact here? Ringrose’s mobility could be huge in potentially securing go forward ball.

Question 5: Sexton vs. Farrell

It is the key match for the media hoards this weekend. Johnny Sexton vs. Owen Farrell. Sexton was outstanding in the Toulouse semi-final win as his pack provided the platform to impress with ball in hand. Owen Farrell similarly was outstanding for Saracens against Munster Rugby. His tenacity and work rate was of a leader in the side; his tackle on Haley to secure a vital opening half penalty was evidence of this.

Both players will be eager to launch their back lines early doors but the game management and kicking game from both needs to be there to keep their opponent off balance. An intriguing match up; both will look to bring game to the gain line, expect fireworks.

Verdict:

For me this final comes down to the pack battle. I have been so impressed by both sides this season in this competition. The front five battle in the scrum will be epic. Both possess game winners in this set piece alone. Both sides will look to be defensively solid and how both sides play Garces will be key.

The nod for me goes with Leinster Rugby still. They are the reigning champions in this competition and until someone knocks them off their perch, they are favorites. Saracens overall game plan has massively evolved but if Leinster Rugby pack can stifle the platform of Saracens early, then there are potent weapons for the reigning champions to win this.

I am expecting fireworks early doors, will predict Garces loses control of this encounter in the opening quarter and a flashpoint will not be far away if both sides attack the breakdown as ferocious as I expect. It is a final for composure and cool heads at critical times and I suspect Leinster Rugby will prevail if only just.

Guinness Pro14: Munster Rugby 15 – 13 Benetton Rugby

Munster Rugby escape with victory

May Bank Holiday weekend and Limerick is in festival mode. The annual Riverfest is on and the city center is a hive of activity, people enjoying the weather, the music, the food, the hospitality.

The same vibe was in short supply for the locals who attended this playoff fixture against Benetton Rugby at Thomond Park.

A game where Munster Rugby were exposed for long periods but persevered to secure a hard fought if fortunate result. Hawkeye Sidekick was in attendance and reflects on the action.

Possession but no end product

Munster Rugby started with typical work rate and determination. Possession was secured and forced Benetton Rugby into the tackle count early in the opening quarter. However, accuracy issues in attacking running lines were exposed as ball was conceded to the Italians at a frequent rate.

The best opportunity from Munster Rugby to score the opening try in the opening period was when Tadhg Beirne barreled over from close range only to knock the ball on. It typified the performance from the hosts and the Benetton Rugby side grew in confidence as the game’s opening quarter concluded. Darren Sweetnam had another opportunity but a fumble also put paid to putting points on the board.

Even though Munster Rugby would take the lead from Tyler Bleyendaal, the deficit was quickly erased as Nigel Owens pinged Peter O’Mahony at ruck time to present an easy three points for Tommaso Allan to level the scores. After the sustained period of pressure from Munster Rugby to start the contest, Benetton Rugby would have been delighted with the start.

Benetton Rugby hit the front

Allan from the ten jersey than started to exert his influence on the game. His game management in the second quarter on point and his execution of deft kicks in behind the Munster Rugby defensive line coupled with quality passing to his three quarters suddenly had the hosts on the back foot. Ratuva Tavuyara dived over in the corner for a try, which was converted by Allan and the visitors had a 10-3 lead.  Munster Rugby were behind and needed to regroup in a hurry at the break.

Benetton Rugby squander game winning position

The words in the Munster Rugby dressing room had the desired effect as good phase play setup a penalty for Bleyendaal to cut the arrears to four points but Benetton Rugby were a constant threat in their ball carrying and offloading game.

Two big opportunities were spurned by the Italians in a vital third quarter period. Steyn knocked on when presented with a glorious opportunity to score under the posts.

The move preceding to the knock on saw Benetton Rugby expose Munster Rugby’s outside defense and the supporting running lines from the Italians had Munster Rugby’s cover defense in all sorts of trouble. Soon after, yet another spill from Benetton in a promising position was to take place. Huge moments in the context of the result.

Munster Rugby respond

The response from Munster Rugby from these near misses were admirable considering the circumstances. The side were extremely flat throughout, their attacking play was non-existent, one off runners throughout and there was a distinct nervy look to any attack games past the ten channel. The confidence to provide support lines for ball carriers was a mixed bag.

The usual suspects stepped up for Munster Rugby. The back row in particular were industrious in the breakdown exchanges. Cloete had prominent steals. O’Mahony work rate was infectious and Stander became a huge influence in the breakdown, winning a couple of key turnovers in the final quarter.

During this period, Munster Rugby had cleared the bench and all players contributed massively. Botha’s ball carries and tackle count was excellent. JJ Hanrahan and Alby Mathewson looking to create and game manage. The Munster Rugby pack phase work started to improve, tempo and quicker ruck ball resulting in a couple of penalty opportunities which Hanrahan slotted over.

Frantic final ten minutes

Playoffs. Tiny margins affect the outcome of results and indiscipline from Benetton Rugby player Dewaldt Duvenage kicking the ball away in frustration, which brought a penalty up to the halfway line was pivotal. Credit to JJ Hanrahan. It was a kick right on his distance capability. The kick was superbly struck and somehow Munster Rugby were ahead.

Benetton Rugby will point to a couple of officiating calls even before this. Stander’s breakdown work and whether he was supporting himself perhaps questionable. The clear out of the ruck from John Ryan which saw Benetton Rugby lose ball only two meters from the Munster Rugby saw Benetton Rugby question Nigel Owens who looked to be running out of his patience with the Italian’s side exuberance in celebrating every decision that went their way.

Benetton Rugby have been the most progressive side in the Guinness Pro14 tournament this season and their pack’s ability to engineer two drop goal opportunities in the dying minutes of the game was evidence of their composure and ability to execute the game management. The two drop goals were poor executed, the first drop goal was ideally setup. Small margins and Benetton Rugby will know that this game was theirs.

Munster Rugby must regroup fast

The performance in yet another playoff game was a disappointment. The platform was secured in that opening period but no bite or guile in attacking play given the enormous territorial advantage was abject. The coaching game plan was unclear today. The players looked like a group who produced their best work on the training paddock during the week; over trained perhaps as there was zero zip in the Munster Rugby play today.

The defensive line was at times caught repeatedly. The ten and twelve channel was a source of quality gain line breaks for Benetton Rugby. The pack at times were loose in their set piece execution. Plenty to ponder and address ahead of a now daunting trip to Leinster Rugby in two weeks time. A week to recuperate, the bodies looked exhausted on full time.

The Thomond Park faithful breathed a huge sigh of relief on full time but no one is kidding themselves after this performance; a similar cameo in two weeks time and it will be a humiliation and question marks will be cast over the coaching and playing staff. Critical times for all concerned with Munster Rugby; playoff rugby and the side have struggled yet again. There needs to be a response in two weeks time.

Munster Rugby moment of truth has arrived

Can Munster Rugby get over the European Cup semi-final hurdle of recent past?

The scene is set. Spectacular Easter weekend weather and hopefully rugby to match starting with the clash of Munster Rugby and Saracens at the Ricoh Arena. Can Munster Rugby exercise the ghosts of recent European Cup semi-final defeats to defeat an outstanding Saracens outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key areas which Munster Rugby must look to exploit.

Mental Approach

The last two seasons has seen Munster Rugby enter into the semi-final with initial hope only to be dashed quite early in the contest. Two conflicting losses as Saracens pack platform and Racing 92’s back line play exposed massive chinks in the Munster Rugby armory.

These losses came about due to extremely nervy, lethargic Munster Rugby opening cameos as they looked for opposition mistakes rather than look to create a platform of their own to win the contest. Munster Rugby to win tomorrow must be brave, brave in their ability to take setbacks, brave in their ability to believe in the game plan, brave in their ability to make things happen at any stage during the contest.

These losses should be a motivational and not mental impediment to Munster Rugby. This group of players and management need to deliver a big performance at the business end of the season and this is the perfect platform and audience to do just that. Another loss without a punch being seriously landed will have devastating effects on the side long term. 

Pack Platform

A generalized word but the Munster Rugby pack to a man have to provide early tempo and momentum tomorrow. Saracens have a superb set piece and Munster Rugby will need to be clever when they attempt to pinch ball in line out as Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje will look to execute quick line out to potentially unsettle Tyler Bleyendaal in the ten channel.

The areas where Munster Rugby must focus in on the scrum and breakdown. The scrum this season has seen progressively improvement but tomorrow is an ultimate test facing up against the likes of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Titi Lamositele who have looked awesome in this competition this season. John Ryan personally has a huge role to play and his scrummaging performance will be an indicator as to how Munster Rugby do in the contest.

The breakdown battle is an area that Munster Rugby must identify and seize upon. Several live threats for the Irish province with O’Mahony, Stander and O’Donoghue. With Jackson Wray looking to nullify O’Mahony, it could be down to the likes of Tadhg Beirne to provide the starring role in the breakdown exchanges. Early breakdown success for Munster Rugby and this result is very much on.

Prepare for abrasive opening period

There should be no surprise in that the Munster Rugby back three will subjected to physical and abrasive aerial threat in the opening quarter. I am expecting Owen Farrell to pepper the likes of Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam early with testing kicks and the back three need to be strong under the dropping ball. There could be a potential late hit for good measure just to test the resolve of the Munster Rugby side.

Keith Earls’ withdrawal is a blow but provided that colleagues support Darren Sweetnam like they did against Edinburgh Rugby, the Cork native will produce a solid performance and provide a quality attacking outlet for the Irish province if given the opportunity. Haley must be all conquering tomorrow, he needs to up his game to the next level in the aerial and ball in hand stakes.

Half Back Game Management

Saracens are a quality side but Munster Rugby’s kicking game and trying to exploit space behind Maitland in particular could reap rewards. Maitland is a player of serious pace and attacking ability but at times can be exposed in defensive areas. The kick game exchanges need to focus on Maitland and it is up to Murray and Bleyendaal to execute the game plan at the right time to potentially identify the space behind Maitland to prosper. It is going to be a tough task but the rewards are there for Munster Rugby if they trust their kicking game at different stages.

Farrell needs to get involved early

Munster Rugby need to set the tone early, look to eek out an early lead and involve Chris Farrell early. The three quarter has the potential to create gain line breaks and allow colleagues space and time to impress.
Lozowski at thirteen is a quality ball player, his kicking game and game making will pose Munster Rugby problems but defensively can Munster Rugby turn the tables on the player? Chris Farrell becomes a huge weapon for Munster Rugby tomorrow. He could potentially create the gain line breaks required to setup the platform for good things to follow.

Conclusion

It is a game where Saracens will enter the contest as warm favorites. Munster Rugby must focus on themselves, focus on their strengths and trust their defensive setup which has got them to this point in the season. The management and players are fully aware of the performance level but I sense that this group have a massive performance in them. A dry track, a chance for redemption and passage to the final. Saracens have massive weapons of their own but Munster Rugby have progressed. The elements must combine tomorrow and I expect a huge performance from the men in red. All the best Munster! Leave it out on the pitch, no regrets tomorrow, play for each other and stand up and fight!

Guinness Pro14: Conference A – Round 20 Preview

Playoff rugby for some has arrived!

April. The business end of the rugby union calendar. A time of year when teams hope that they have saved their best performances of the season to now to secure the silverware. This weekend promises to be exciting penultimate round with several playoff questions still unanswered.

In this blog post, Hawkeye Sidekick will look at Conference A and the fixtures on tap for this weekend. All eyes on the Sportsground as well as the top two fixtures in Benetton and RDS respectively.

Conference A:

Conference A Regular Season Run-In

Top Spot still up for grabs!

The Conference A top two are away from the chasing conference pack but the small matter of that playoff bye week hangs in the balance. Both Glasgow Warriors and Munster Rugby have tough road trip fixtures this weekend.

Munster Rugby potentially could build serious pressure on Glasgow Warriors if they can secure a victory to the progressive Benetton Rugby who will be buoyed by that 22-22 draw against Leinster Rugby in the RDS last weekend.

The Italian job for Munster Rugby is a tricky balancing act. What does Johann van Graan and management do? The news that several marquee players were given this week off to freshen up for next week’s bruiing encounter to Saracens in European Cup fare is a good indicator of the priority right now.

Munster Rugby’s squad will be predominantly squad players and players who need precious game time ahead of that Saracens game. It is a chance for players on the outside to stake a claim for a squad berth for the European Cup fixture so for Benetton Rugby, this fixture is tricky in terms of the unknown quantity that Munster Rugby could provide.

Glasgow Warriors head to Dublin to face Leinster Rugby whose run of form in recent weeks has been a mixed bag. The 22-22 draw against Benetton Rugby will grate management in terms of how the lead was lost so late on in the contest. Benetton’s patience to build the phases rewarded with defensive gaps finally opening in the Leinster Rugby rearguard.

Like Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby are facing with a dilemma. They need the likes of Sean O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw to get serious game minutes under their belt before that massive European Cup fixture with Toulouse on Easter Sunday but does management risk these players against a Warriors side who will be gunning all out for a win?

I am expecting Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster to take a pragmatic approach to team selection; expect to see O’Brien and Henshaw feature in some capacity but the side will be by and large the side that featured last weekend. Glasgow Warriors record at the RDS is poor but this is a superb opportunity for them to secure a long overdue road trip here.

The results this weekend will drive the approach of both Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors for the final round of the regular season. Both have local derby games to finish out the season at home against sides who potentially will need points to secure the playoff berth.

Munster Rugby squad this weekend will do well to secure a win against Benetton Rugby who are improving with each round. Glasgow Warriors have to be mindful of the fact that Leinster Rugby’s squad is still superb and there will be a reaction to last weekend’s draw at home to Benetton Rugby. I think that both Conference A sides will lose this weekend which will setup the final round of regular games to be a fascinating watch for top spot.

The West is awake!

The third Conference A playoff spot is very much up for grabs. Ospreys are still not out of the playoff hunt but they require a big favor from Cardiff Blues at Connacht Rugby this weekend to stay in the hunt. The conference game of the round is in Galway as Connacht Rugby play host to the Cardiff Blues.

Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest several marquee players last weekend in Zebre was justified but only just. The performance with ball in hand was patchy, nervy and indecisive. The defensive line structure and organization was the highlight but Andy Friend and coaching staff will be the first to acknowledge that a repeat performance this weekend will mean a home loss.

The Irish province will bring back the big guns for this fixture. The news that Bundee Aki is back in the first team squad for the weekend is a massive boost as is the news that Tom Farrell is able to play after sustaining an eye injury in the victory over Zebre Rugby.

Cardiff Blues went toe to toe with Munster Rugby last weekend. Their performance with ball in hand was pacy, inventive and oozed class on the outside where they exposed Munster Rugby with several keynote breaks. The three try haul was not enough for victory as Munster Rugby’s big pack players made the impact in the third quarter to blow the game wide open.

The scoreline from the Irish Independent Park was very harsh on Cardiff Blues as for sixty minutes in the contest, they were in the contest. Their attacking play is a key strength and with Anscombe pulling the strings along with Williams in the half backs, creativity was in abundance.

The worry for Cardiff Blues was in the set piece; there was a couple of line out throw miscues and the scrum faltered at various times. The maul defense in the third quarter was exposed and allowed Munster Rugby easy yards and penalty opportunities. This needs to improve for Cardiff Blues this weekend.

The weather conditions in Galway right now are pleasant and sunny but the long range forecast for the region on Saturday is for a breezy, wet day which will mean that the two sides who like to create an expansive game plan are negated and forced to implement a more rigid pack platform orientated game.

The battle of the fly-halfs will be fascinating on the day. Does Jarrod Evans resume his ten duties or does Gareth Anscombe continue to impress? It is cup final footie for both sides so management need to get this decision spot on.

Jack Carty has been Connacht’s go to player this season and the same is expected this weekend. Marmion and Carty vs. Williams and Anscombe / Evans in terms of performance and game management is going to have a huge bearing on the game.

50/50 call on this fixture. Connacht Rugby have issued the rallying cry for their fans to come out and support the side this weekend. The biggest game in three years is the sales pitch; they are not far wrong as victory this weekend secures Heineken Champions Cup rugby next season.

The weather conditions are going to make this game difficult. What side uses the elements best? Cardiff Blues are extremely dangerous when given good quick ruck ball so Butler, Faing’aa and McKeon to negate this threat.

Slight edge for Connacht Rugby based on the fact that their side perhaps are a little bit fresher but in all honesty, Connacht Rugby may have to go to Thomond Park and try to get a result in Munster Rugby at the end of the month.

Ospreys hoping for one more opportunity!

Ospreys are in South Africa and face the Southern Kings in a bonus point try must win fixture. The playoff picture is out of their hands this weekend; do the business in South Africa and hope that the Cardiff Blues can produce the road trip win which would give Ospreys a chance for that playoff berth in the final round of the regular season against the Cardiff Blues.

The form of Ospreys at the start of this calendar year has placed the side in a difficult situation but their play and performances have improved in recent rounds; if they get the result required, they could be primed to launch one last salvo against Cardiff Blues at the end of the month. No pressure on them and the performance should see significant upside.

Random Rugby Thoughts

Apologies one and all for the lack of blog activity in recent days, the day job (which is not this) has been a bit oh, a bit ah feck in recent days but fear not a couple of thoughts in this blog on the weekend action and stories from this week.

Edinburgh Rugby blew their golden opportunity

The bottom line from Murrayfield is that Edinburgh Rugby blew a massive golden opportunity to advance to the last four of the Heineken Champions Cup. For a side to dominate play as much as Edinburgh Rugby did in this encounter and still come up four points short, it must be hugely disappointing for the management, players and backroom staff of the club.

Munster Rugby were there for the taking particularly in that opening period. No genuine advantage for Edinburgh when Tadhg Beirne was sin binned early doors; lack of composure and patience to work the phases to create the pivotal gap. The lack of discipline and concentration encompassed with Keith Earl’s quick thinking and tap which led to the opening Munster Rugby try.

The pivotal Tadhg Beirne penalty at the death was controversial but the manner in which Edinburgh Rugby defensively managed the subsequent play was pivotal ultimately; the misalignment of forward players allowing the overlap for Earls to touchdown. Individual and collective lapses contributed to this Edinburgh Rugby loss; blame the officials all they want, it was down to team errors on the pitch.

Munster Rugby got out of jail. A similar performance against Saracens and it could be a long arduous afternoon. The lack of platform in the opening period was stark and the concession of territory in that half should have seen a bigger deficit in the opening period. To get in at the break only three points was an escape of Alcatraz proportions.

Richard Cockerill is doing a superb job in Edinburgh Rugby but his comments on the game were disappointing at best; his side showed indecision at vital times in the contest, similar to their playoff loss to Munster Rugby last season at Thomond Park. Time to reflect, time to stay quiet and correct the wrongs from last weekend for Edinburgh Rugby in the coming weeks; otherwise European Challenge Cup is the destination next season and a potential trip to Ensei STM! 

Toulouse gamble pays off

Incredible contest between Toulouse and Racing 92. I just love Toulouse when they play off the cuff like they did in the opening period last weekend; it was sensational. The precision in their passing was out of this world. Medard’s running lines from full back a joy to watch. Their resiliency to get going despite down to fourteen players for so long was a testament to the team’s refusal not to be denied. Dupont and Ntamack were top class in the key moments. Racing 92 exposed for their ultra expansive game plan; reap what you sow. The side offer points to opposition and no better side than Toulouse to secure the road trip win — was my tip of the weekend by the way if you were on my Facebook site!

Leinster Rugby get the job done (just)

Credit to Ulster Rugby, the side performs to a level not seen in many a season. When you consider their performances this time last year, it has been a massive transformation under Dan McFarland. The Ulster Rugby line speed defensively was superb and they matched Leinster Rugby for long periods. Jacob Stockdale’s try blooper was crucial but even more so was the conversion miss from John Cooney when the game was tied at eighteen. A pivotal miss and it let Leinster Rugby off the hook completely. To go in front at this stage would have cranked up the pressure on Leinster Rugby at the death; no ease feat to secure a score in those conditions.

Leinster Rugby have received their reality call. The opening period was a touch off and Ulster Rugby grew into the contest with each passing minute. Dan Leavy’s injury is devastating; a key Ireland back row resource gone for RWC 2019 and Joe Schmidt will need to look at the depth chart to make an impact with both sides of the ball that Leavy provides for club and country. Ross Byrne’s character and leadership came to the fore; his decision to go for the posts despite suffering cramps showed massive balls and his kick was outstanding. It was fitting to win any contest. Toulouse in a couple of weeks but Leinster Rugby will be pleased with the resiliency, determination and composure to seal the win late; incredible set of phases to close out the contest.

Saracens rampage through the Warriors!

No surprise to be honest, thought Saracens pack had too much beef, physicality and skill set for Glasgow Warriors counterparts and so it proved. Glasgow Warriors showed their uptempo, open play but Saracens exposed Glasgow Warriors repeatedly with their indecisive line speed and breakdown work. Quick ball for Goode to launch his back line and Liam Williams had the proverbial field day.

It was an eye-catching performance from Saracens. The performance oozed quality but despite Warriors struggles, they managed to put 20+ points on the board which is a source of optimism for Munster Rugby. Can Munster Rugby address the issues that plagued their performance against Saracens two years ago? Can the pack and front eight provide the platform to work the scoreboard? If it goes the other way early, the result is up for the Irish province.

Saracens are playing with confidence. Saracens are looking solid in the squad depth chart. Saracens will be favorites in the semi-final but Munster Rugby will relish the underdog tag. Munster Rugby have to turn up on a semi-final fixture and perform to their full potential. It has not happened in recent seasons; this group of players have to deliver at this stage of the competition. I am expecting fireworks aplenty in the Ricoh!

Jack McGrath moves to Ulster Rugby

A key personnel signing for Ulster Rugby next season. They are getting a player who is keen to prove a point, a player who wants to secure quality first team minutes, a proven British & Irish Lions player. Jack McGrath if he can stay injury free is a superb asset for Ulster Rugby next season and more evidence that the province continues to impress in their squad depth chart particularly in the troublesome front row.

Cara Cup (snooze)

I am sorry but I am not seeing the lure of this Cara Cup; a disjointed tournament as Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby arrive to Boston, MA. Given the domestic club game and pivotal fixtures in the UBL, feeling for clubs who are missing key players in their relegation and promotion key fixtures. What is the benefit of this tournament? I am not seeing it and if someone can enlighten me, please do. Munster Rugby’s squad was noteworthy with the inclusion of James Hart and Duncan Williams. Does this mean that both players are entering the final stages of their Munster Rugby career? 

Darren Cave announces retirement

The announcement this morning from Darren Cave of his retirement at the end of the season spoke volumes; an open letter to the Ulster Rugby supporters to break the news is indicative of the relationship that Cave has with the support base. Tight knit relationship. A solid three quarters who has served his province so well for so many seasons. A player who could have gone elsewhere but showed loyalty to his home province throughout. He owes nothing to Ulster Rugby. Best wishes Darren on your retirement!

Edinburgh Rugby vs. Munster Rugby – Five areas which will decide the game

Quarter Final drama beckons!

The waiting is almost over. A place in the last four of the Heineken Champions Cup is the prize for Edinburgh Rugby and Munster Rugby tomorrow at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick identifies the five areas which could be potentially decisive in the outcome of this contest.

Scrum Dominance

The early scrum exchanges tomorrow are going to be immense; an early platform for either side could be the difference between victory or defeat. Edinburgh Rugby’s front row at scrum time in the pool stages looked incredibly strong. Schoeman and Nel in particular providing their side with excellent attacking platform with penalty winning cameos in this set piece. Their performance against Montpellier in the final round of the pool was nothing short of fantastic; set the platform with scrum dominance and their all round play was sensational so much so that Nel was trying trick shot passes to Bill Mata.

Munster Rugby to have any chance in this contest must be strong and organized in the scrum particularly in the opening period. The scrum to be fair for the Irish province has been a key asset this season but this Edinburgh Rugby front row represent a significant challenge. A challenge that John Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne should relish. Pascal Gauzere tends not to wait too long before making a decision at scrum time so both sides will be keen to get an early foothold early.

Back Row Unit Explosion

The back row units tomorrow for this contest could be the story of the game. In a game of high octane intensity, the breakdown and ball carrying from either unit will be vital.

Both sides possess match winners in abundance. Edinburgh Rugby welcome back the experience and guile of John Barclay to complement the likes of Bill Mata and Hamish Watson who are destructive with ball in hand. Barclay will look to slow down Munster Rugby ball, get in the face of Conor Murray at ruck time and look to unsettle.

Bill Mata has been a revelation this season with ball in hand. His ball carrying / meters gained statistics are through the roof. Munster Rugby’s back row will be fully aware of Mata’s potency with ball in hand, will look to protect Joey Carbery in the ten channel. The intriguing part tomorrow is whether Munster Rugby isolate Mata in defensive situations; Edinburgh Rugby allow Mata to drift off and reserve energy for ball carrying. You will see him at times out on the wing when opposition is building the phases. Munster Rugby need to identify the mismatch on Mata to create the ultimate dividend.

Munster Rugby’s back row unit looks to have mobility, abrasiveness and breakdown nous to compete in this fixture. The emergence of Jack O’Donoghue is a huge boost; his high octane performance last week will be required again this week in the tackle count and breakdown battle to allow Peter O’Mahony the time to pinch ball at regular intervals. CJ Stander at eight needs to impose his authority on the game early; look to ask probing question of Mata in his tackling / defensive work which at times can be wild.

Munster Rugby Cohesion Issues

Heading into this fixture, I am a bit worried on the attacking cohesion of Munster Rugby. The face that Joey Carbery has not played since playing a key cameo in Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations victory over Scotland in February is a concern. The cohesion between colleagues and half back partner Conor Murray will be exposed if it is off.

The attacking lines from Munster Rugby at times this season have been at times one dimensional. Exeter Chiefs kicking and high press game stifled Munster Rugby creativity in their final pool game decider at Thomond Park so it will be interesting if Edinburgh look to deploy the same tactic this weekend.

If Carbery and Murray have a platform to create then Munster Rugby have a serious chance of progression tomorrow.

Back Three Aerial Battle

This is an intriguing part of the fixture. Haley, Conway and Earls vs. Graham, Hoyland and van der Merwe. The aerial exchanges against both sides back three units is going to be intense in the opening period. Will Edinburgh Rugby be unsettled by the absence of Blair Kinghorn in the ranks?

Graham is a superb, elusive winger but a serious test awaits the player against Munster Rugby in the full back position. Any hesitancy will be exploited again and again building platform for the Irish province. The attacking ability of the Edinburgh back three is excellent with Duhan van der Merwe a potential match winner with his lightning pace and physicality with ball in hand.

Munster Rugby have experience in the back three unit. Haley is proving to be an astute piece of business for the province with his cameos this season. His role tomorrow will be to remain solid under the dropping ball and look to hit the line at speed to link up with Earls or Conway who have shown their skill set at regular intervals this season.

The attacking threat from both back threes is beyond question but the ability to provide defensive assurance under the high dropping ball tomorrow will be the money shot tomorrow. 

Closers

Both subs benches in the third quarter could play pivotal roles. There is experience aplenty in Edinburgh’s reserves with the likes of Ford, Hickey, Dell, Berghan waiting to make a vital game winning cameo. Munster Rugby have experience in the ranks with Billy Holland, Stephen Archer, Alby Mathewson and Tyler Bleyendaal all capable of providing key contributions.

Unless someone strikes the front early with a devastating opening salvo, this game for me looks like it will go down to the wire. Game management, composure and experience will be asked and answers will be required from the bench. Both sides are evenly matched on the bench.

Verdict

50/50 game for me and it is the toughest one of the quarter finals to call. Slight edge to Munster Rugby based on the Edinburgh Rugby back three reshuffle; exposed potentially in defensive situations tomorrow but the Irish province will have to be to deliver their best performance of the season to get this result. Any sloppy, cohesion issues from Munster Rugby and they will be eliminated.