Interesting predictions last weekend. Newcastle Falcons tore up the form book. Poor old Freddy Burns was the key player for the Bath vs. Toulouse contest but I don’t think no-one could envisage how that game would unfold. More predictions lined up for tomorrow for round two.
The news had leaked out yesterday on print media but it was finally confirmed by all vested parties (IRFU, Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby) today. Nick McCarthy moves to Munster Rugby on a two year deal starting from next season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the news.
Munster Scrum Half Depth Chart Full?
Nick McCarthy’s arrival means that there will be five scrum-halves in the Munster Rugby first team squad next season. Conor Murray will be on Ireland duty for a significant period next season so for the likes of James Hart, Neil Cronin (who signed a contract extension), Duncan Williams and now Nick McCarthy, it is an opportunity to stake the claim for the backup slot next season.
It does seem to be a bit excessive for a potential fifth scrum half in the first team squad but given the injury issues of Hart and Cronin early doors this season, McCarthy’s name presumably was mentioned given his need to play more regularly next season.
The Ann Arbor, MN native comes with a solid resume. The scrum-half played his schools rugby with St.Michael’s who are a massive conveyor belt of provincial talent. McCarthy represented Ireland at U20 level in 2015 and this coincided with the player joining Leinster Rugby in 2015 playing three times for the province (cameo roles).
2016 was a similar story given the stacked squad depth at the club and another three brief cameos followed. 2017-2018 season saw the player gain more game time, starting three times during this campaign. McCarthy scored three tries and played a total of 462 minutes.
The 2018-2019 season has seen two appearances from the bench and with Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park vying for the scrum half starting berth, the decision to leave Leinster Rugby for playing reasons was an easy decision to make.
Player Skill Set
It has being really hard to see consistent video footage of the player this season given the sufficient game minutes given (26 minutes). What we do know is that McCarthy has a solid skill set, fast distribution from the ruck a key trait. A solid kicking game to complement the passing game.
It was hard to scrutinize the player given the stop / start nature of his Leinster Rugby career. Munster Rugby have taken the punt on the player, it is up to the player to hit the ground running during preseason next summer to impress the coaches to give him the game time that he craves.
Another ex-Leinster Rugby alumni joins the rank, whether this player will make an impression is debatable given the number of first team scrum halves at the club.
The reaction of Leinster Rugby is of disappointment but the talent pool at the club is stacked and no doubt more scrum half prospects will replace McCarthy in the depth chart and look to stake their claim for action. Time will tell on how shrewd this signing will be from both the player and Munster Rugby.
It might be only in October but this performance and scoreline at the RDS will be keenly noted by all. This was a performance which showed patience, defensive nous and explosive attacking lines. This was a performance of a champion at the top of their play. This performance belongs to Leinster Rugby.
You have to feel for the Wasps management and players on duty tonight. They valiantly went through the tackle count in the opening period despite playing with a strong breeze at their backs. Work rate was never an issue but the incessant waves of attack and minimal time with ball in hand was going to be punished and so it proved in the second half.
Wasps will have felt good about the fixture heading into the last ten minutes of the opening period. Leinster Rugby despite their complete domination of territory and possession were only 7-3 up, a trademark lung bursting score from Sean Cronin. However, this game was opened wide open by the key call of the contest.
Leinster Rugby yet again looking to create and the ball found its way to opening try scorer Cronin whose pass to James Lowe looked forward. Wasps fly-half Sopoaga attempted to intercept, missed and was sin binned. What about the forward pass? Wasps were down to fourteen players and the impact of the sin bin was two quick fire tries either side of half-time courtesy of Luke McGrath and James Lowe. The Wasps tackle count looked on the high side and the second half was a procession.
James Lowe in particular was magical tonight. He is playing at a superlative level. His game management, defensive work and kicking game were on point but it is his ability with ball in hand that gives opposition nightmares and allows his colleagues the time and space to create around him. His running line for Leinster Rugby’s third try was sensational and his ability to finish off the move was of top quality.
How does an opponent look to upset Leinster Rugby? Wasps approach to the breakdown yielded good results in the opening period (passive, picking their moments to compete) but then Leinster Rugby made the adjustments and negated Tom Young from this facet of play. Quicker ruck ball ensued with devastating results.
What was most eye catching? The sight of Sexton passing between his legs to a colleague or Tadhg Furlong executing a perfect running line and pass to James Lowe. The skill set of this Leinster Rugby is remarkable. All players so comfortable with ball in hand; the players have no issue passing the ball from a ruck.
The fact that Wasps did not make one single line break tonight was emphatic. The hosts continued to be unrelenting as the bench looked sharp in particular O’Brien who had an excellent breakdown steal. When you decide to only put on Scott Fardy with fifteen minutes left, enough said. This side is stacked.
Wasps will be disappointed in the final quarter; their attacking threat was non-existent and their defensive shape and maul defense disintegrated before our eyes. Eight tries in total with back and pack players getting in on the act.
A forty-nine point thumping, does nothing for the scoring differential but Wasps can rest assured that Toulouse and Bath Rugby will also endure miserable trips to Dublin this season. Leinster Rugby are evolving to an even greater juggernaut. Europe beware!
If you have read this blog, I have a love / hate relationship with the European Rugby Challenge Cup tournament. The concept is noble but there are glaring issues with how the format has played out in recent seasons; mismatched opposition thumped on the road, French sides for the most part not particularly interested instead focusing on domestic league affairs. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the good, the bad and downright miserable aspects of this tournament.
Obviously, it is because of the arrival of several marquee European Rugby teams. The presence of Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys, Harlequins, Northampton Saints, La Rochelle to the competition this season will see some serious playoff fixtures come next April. For now, these teams will look to go through the motions, give squad players sufficient minutes and secure their playoff berth with the minimum of fuss. When you add the likes of Connacht Rugby, Pau and Stade Francais to the mix, the business end of this competition should be superb. I am hoping also that a progressive Benetton Rugby can continue on the upward curve and look to secure playoff rugby too.
The sheer indifference of some French Pro 14 sides to the competition. Who am I referring to? I am referring to the sides who are looking at a relegation scrap and decide that this competition is not a priority sending out representational sides particularly on the road. Agen last season were a case study point. Perpignan and Grenoble may go in the same direction depending how their November league form fares. It is a serious issue for the tournament organizers.
I applaud the efforts of Ensei STM, Timisoara Saracens but unless there are some serious upsets, both these sides look primed for epic hammerings. What is the point and lesson for these sides having to endure heavy loss after heavy loss? I am struggling for answers. There should be a third tier competition for teams such as this and potential tournament organizer ingenuity to have developmental teams setup in Berlin, Bonn, Moscow, Madrid, Lisbon, Helsinki, Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm. These teams could be formed using players who are out of contract or representing countries playing in Tier Two competition. Ensei STM host La Rochelle in the early hours of Saturday morning, hopefully not a hammering but the return leg could be a 100+ point concession.
Pool 1 Preview:
Northampton Saints entertain ASM Clermont with Nigel Owens officiating. It sounds like a Heineken Cup fixture but it isn’t. Clermont made to pay for an injury plagued second half of last season finishing just far enough away from the relegation spots. Northampton Saints also had a wretched season costing Jim Mallinder his job. The performances thereafter did not improve much and the off season has seen several keynote departures. Both sides will fancy their chances of rebuilding form and confidence in this pool with Dragons and Timisoara Saracens for company. Dragons at home will rise for the visits of Northampton and ASM Clermont but squad depth issues will be ruthlessly exposed. Timisoara Saracens are cannon fodder unfortunately. ASM Clermont and Northampton to advance from this pool.
Pool 2 Preview:
A genuinely solid pool here. Pau were a side who embraced the competition and got to the last four losing away to Cardiff Blues. I have a soft spot for the team given the Munster Rugby association (i.e. Butler, Mannix). Pau will be up against it with Ospreys and Stade Francais who both look re-energized after poor seasons last year. Ospreys and Pau clash looks like a tasty pack battle. Stade Francais play Worcester Warriors and it will be interesting to gauge team lineups for each side. Warriors have had a couple of keynote domestic results but is relegation concerns going to determine team selection? Potentially one team getting out of this pool with plenty of twists and turns. Ospreys get the edge based on the fact that the French sides may cancel each other out in their home fixtures.
Pool 3 Preview:
My pet peeve on understrength team selections could rear their head in this pool. Perpignan who are propped at the bottom of Top 14 may use this competition to rest front line players for a November league push. Bordeaux Begles are infamous for sending over less than stellar match day squad so it is a straight fight between Connacht Rugby and Sale Sharks to secure top spot. Connacht Rugby have shown promise under Andy Friend and Sale Sharks have impressed this season with some key cameos particularly AJ McGinty. Connacht Rugby potentially get the edge to advance and potentially Sale Sharks as well if the French sides in this pool give up on the competition come round three.
Pool 4 Preview:
Ensei STM will be a daunting road trip for Bristol Bears, Zebre Rugby and this weekend’s opponents La Rochelle from a linguistics perspective but the playing side should straightforward. Yes, Stade Francais were upset there last season but it was an one off. Ensei STM are five points fodder for all other pool opponents. La Rochelle look the class act in this pool with Bristol Bears potentially advancing to the last eight of the competition on the basis of the fact that they secure ten points from Ensei STM.
Pool 5 Preview:
This is a huge opportunity for Benetton Rugby to impress. The Italians are a live threat based on their Guinness Pro 14 performances. Grenoble’s ambitions in this competition are unclear and I fancy Benetton Rugby to win their opener. Harlequins and Agen face off at the Stoop and I would be shocked if Quins do not hammer Agen given the French side’s history in this competition. Harlequins to top the pool with Benetton Rugby potentially securing a playoff berth if other results go their way in January. It would be great news for Italian rugby if that happened.
The final pool of the Heineken Champions Cup has the financial and squad depth power of Montpellier and Toulon facing off against Heineken Champions Cup debutantes Newcastle Falcons and Edinburgh Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool more in hope than expectation.
French teams hold the aces
When this draw was announced, it looked like Toulon would be firm favorites to advance to the last eight but how things have changed? Toulon have struggled in Top 14 action only winning two league games so far, a side devoid of cohesion between the pack, half backs and back line. Don’t get me wrong, Toulon have a superb squad with the likes of Messam, Pietersen, Belleau and Trinh-Duc but things have not gelled this season and represents hope for the others in the pool.
Montpellier come into this pool as favorites; solid start to the domestic action winning four league games out of seven. The backbone of this side is fronted by experienced South Africans starting with hooker Du Plessis, scrum half Ruan Pienaar, Serfontein and Steyn in the three quarters. The side also boasts the likes of Picamoles and Fall as well. Their 29-17 victory over Toulon at home last weekend is a good indicator; a performance built on solid pack work and where marauding Nagusa with ball in hand caused massive headaches. If Vern Cotter’s side can improve their road trip form, they should advance to the last eight of this competition.
Edinburgh Rugby come into top tier European tournament play in relatively good form. Solid home form seen in recent Guinness Pro 14 action; an abrasive pack with the likes of Gilchrist and Toolis providing assured line out. Mata at eight has the potential to dominate games from the base of the scrum. The back line has quality in abundance with the likes of Kinghorn, van der Merwe providing pace and power. The issue for Edinburgh will be their road trip form; has being poor this season so far. The other issue that comes to mind is Edinburgh’s inability to kill off teams effectively. Apart from the Toyota Cheetahs game, the home game victories have being very much down the stretch.
Newcastle Falcons are a welcome addition to the tournament. They were immense last season with their expansive game plan but only one win this season has seen the side prop up the Premiership Rugby table. There have being several close losses in this set of results. Toby Flood will need to provide leadership aplenty with astute game management to keep the side in these contests. The opposition is high caliber and I fear that Newcastle may well open themselves up defensively and concede scores at a rate of knots. The sight of Goneva with ball in hand will be a joy to see though.
Montpellier are a team which need to make a serious European Cup run this season. Their squad depth is stacked with talent and with Toulon struggling for form, they should do enough on the road to secure a last eight berth. There could be a potential second team coming out of this pool. I fear for Newcastle Falcons on their travels and the fixtures between Edinburgh Rugby and Toulon will be key. Toulon are a team on the brink, owner media outbursts, team discipline and I think Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh could secure a playoff berth.
It may be only mid-September but you got the sense at full time here in the Sportsgrounds that this was a massively significant result not just for the Connacht Rugby team and management but also for the fan base who can look with renewed optimism for the rest of the season.
Connacht Rugby have being competitive in their opening three league fixtures, a win over Zebre Rugby at home in round two was a solid display but this fixture against Scarlets was one where Connacht Rugby fans had highlighted early doors, hoping that a victory would ensue against one of the ‘big’ teams in this competition.
The tone was set within the opening exchanges. Robin Copeland barreling into Scarlets defensive cover early doors with such velocity that second row Cummins (not in a low position to tackle) had to retire due to concussion. His withdrawal prompted a pause in play much to the annoyance of the locals as Connacht Rugby were looking threatening with ball in hand but player welfare is paramount and Cummins safely got off the pitch for much needed medical attention.
Connacht Rugby’s early start was excellent; solid clear out work allowing Marmion and Carty to orchestrate their back line. Bundee Aki was a constant menace for the hosts as Scarlets defensively could not handle the Irish international with his marauding ball carries. Aki’s line break early doors breaking the Scarlets defensive line and good work from Tom Farrell with an intelligent supporting run to receive the offload for an easy try on four minutes.
7-0. Connacht failed to deal with the subsequent restart and a quick penalty concession was duly slotted over by Leigh Halfpenny. Connacht Rugby responded with a Carty penalty after fine work from the pack where Quinn Roux and Finlay Bealham were leading by example. Halfpenny then slotted over a long range penalty to narrow the gap to four points. 10-6.
Scarlets were struggling to contain the ball carries and clear out work of the hosts as Butler, Copeland and O’Brien were doing a splendid job. Further inventive play from Connacht Rugby seen with Jack Carty executing a superb pass to Cian Kelleher to gallop clear for an emphatic second try.
Carty’s game management to the fore on the try, duping two Scarlets defensive players into misreads. Kelleher was never going to be caught; another keynote cameo from the wing.
The Achilles heel of Connacht Rugby last season was their inability to protect leads after scoring themselves and so it proved again as Scarlets took advantage of hesitant exit strategy to expose the hosts stretched cover defense for Johnny McNicholl to smartly step inside to score unopposed. Scarlets back in the game as Halfpenny added the extras. 17-13.
The closing exchanges of the half saw Connacht Rugby presented with an additional penalty opportunity as Scarlets were pinged by Mitrea. Carty hitting a superb kick from the touch line to open the gap to seven points. An exciting half of rugby that the hosts will have felt should have yielded a bigger score margin.
The third quarter of this contest was tit for tat. Both sides enjoyed initially forays but it was the hosts who yet again were forcing the issue without little reward in the scoreboard stakes. Ultan Dillane was unlucky to cough up ball just on the Scarlets line after several impressive phases of Connacht Rugby play. The lack of points on the board looked for the locals all the world of the third quarter against Glasgow Warriors.
However, the start of the fourth quarter yielded points. Carty was lights out off the tee. 7/7 during the contest and he slotted home a sixty-second minute penalty as Scarlets high tackle count was starting to yield penalties. 23-13 suddenly went to 26-13 as Connacht Rugby won another penalty from the scrum.
This score sparked Scarlets into life and Tom Prydie touched down after Connacht Rugby were yet again caught out in their cover defense. Patchell slotted over the conversion and the game was back in the melting pot. 26-20 with eight minutes left. Cue home fan nerves to see if their side could close out the contest.
By this stage, Blade had come on for the industrious Marmion. Blade’s cameo was brief but significant as his tigerish breakdown work won the ball back for the hosts in midfield. Sean O’Brien was on hand to produce another significant ball carry and his awareness of Niyi Adeolokun saw a superb offload for the substitute wing to run in for the game winning score.
The roar from the Clan Terrace spoke volumes; the game was secured and a keynote win over Scarlets who despite missing a couple of first team starters were a serious outfit to defeat.
Connacht Rugby desperately needed a performance like this to ignite their season properly. Yes, there was the fine preseason but this specific home league win against one of the teams that will be challenging for Guinness Pro 14 honors will do wonders for the morale and confidence of the playing group and management of the team.
The game plan is still a work in progress but let us be quite clear; there were subtle areas of note. Carty’s attacking option execution has progressively improved even in this early part of the season. The decision to deploy the back three to the restarts has improved (if not fully) addressed this facet of play. The running lines of Dave Heffernan, Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell, Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy were deliberate and well coached.
Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell in the three quarters were majestic on the day. Aki’s physicality in attack and on defense is such a threat for opposition and Farrell’s ability to pick running lines to create line breaks is so encouraging to see. Farrell for me is a center that should be looking to push late for Ireland RWC 2019 inclusion; he has all the attributes for the test match arena. His progression this season is immense.
It would be remiss if we did not applaud the efforts of the front five on duty and the back row for Connacht Rugby. Finlay Bealham and Denis Buckley were superb in the scrum exchanges; were the dominant unit throughout. Dave Heffernan at hooker continues to grow into the role and his mobility and ball carrying were on point.
The early withdrawal of Gavin Thornbury was a blow but credit Ultan Dillane for his cameo; did not shirk his responsibilities and ably assisted Quinn Roux who was a monster throughout. His tackle count was strong (11) and was always looking to upset Scarlets attacking play.
Robin Copeland is going to be such a good signing for Connacht Rugby this season; his experience and nous there for all to see yesterday. His nuisance factor at ruck time, his decision making to leave a ruck gave Connacht Rugby defense that extra second to regroup. O’Brien and Butler cameos were accurate throughout; negated the Scarlets back row threat and their defensive was rock solid.
A serious win for Connacht Rugby. The month of champions has ignited around the Sportsgrounds just in time for Leinster Rugby to arrive into town next weekend in a fixture which has all the hallmarks to be a classic. I cannot wait!
On my preview of this fixture this week, (http://hawkeyesidekick.com/2018/09/guinness-pro-14-round-four-friday-night-fixtures) I had commented that Cardiff Blues were not a 0/3 team heading into the fixture. They would have felt that all three games slipped away due to discipline and defensive lapses. Cardiff Blues were in a back against the wall scenario; a loss here and the Guinness Pro 14 playoff ambitions would be seriously undermined. Munster Rugby were warned but quite frankly were blown away a side whose work rate at the breakdown, sparkling running game were to the fore.
Dominant Cardiff Blues
The scoreline rather flatters Munster Rugby if truth be told. Cardiff Blues winger Lane thought he was over in the opening period only to be pinged back for a block leading up to the score, a tough harsh.
The hosts were the dominant side in the set piece; the line out was an unmitigated nightmare for Munster Rugby; over throws, throws not straight, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong which then saw issues at scrum time as Arhip started to impose his presence on proceedings.
The breakdown was crisp in its execution from Cardiff Blues; quick ruck ball to allow the half backs to launch their exciting back line. Munster Rugby tried to stem the quick ball but it was a forlorn effort as the likes of Turnbull, Williams and Navidi had the edge all night.
Munster Rugby had moments of brilliance from Carbery and Conway to score two quality team tries in the opening period to keep the Irish province in touch but the second half was a no contest as Cardiff Blues exposed more defensive decision making and yet more unforced errors in set piece and open play.
Munster Rugby – Skill Set Issue?
The result is concerning for Munster Rugby but what is of more concern is that the skill set across the side looks well short when faced against a decent starting lineup. Let us forget the Toyota Cheetahs and Ospreys (B team selection), two non-event fixtures. When it has being put up to Munster Rugby against Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues on the road, the side have being lacking in execution, creating a pack platform and general one dimensional attacking play.
The Cardiff Blues tries will be horror viewing for Munster Rugby; too many easy meters gained on first phase possession. Halaholo will rarely have a better night all season; his statistics when published are going to be huge. Mike Sherry struggled all night long as he was grasping into thin air on Halaholo in midfield which led to an easy forty meter gain. The quick ball that followed saw Nick Williams crash over, exposing Sherry in the defensive line to score the opening try.
Munster Rugby did respond with two standout moments. Cloete steal in the breakdown on the touch line allowing Conway to advance with ball in hand, a deft kick in behind to negate Anscombe saw the Irish winger score in the corner.
Carbery was integral to the second try; a good aerial take and the fly-half was off on an excellent run. Tadhg Beirne’s role in the try cannot be underestimated; his effort to get in with play key when the ball was held short of Cardiff Blues’ line. The ball finally got back to Carbery and good work from Cloete to create a defensive misread inside for Conway to score in the corner again. Two tricky conversions missed but Munster Rugby were showing intent at last.
Halaholo right foot step again exposing Munster defensively (where was the tactical preparation on the player) to provide more easy gain line meters three minutes. Halaholo’s awareness to see the ever alert Tomos Williams to score with ease; great support running from the scrum half who with a dominant pack was the superior nine on the night.
The second half presumably would have seen Munster Rugby making the necessary adjustments but a key stop by the hosts in the third quarter on their line signaled the end of the Munster Rugby fightback. Halaholo scoring a well deserved try; lead up to the try saw Jaco Taute caught defensively outside and with non-existent Munster Rugby defensive support out wide, the try was a procession.
Munster Rugby huffed and puffed but it was getting all very one dimensional; one out ball carries and then forcing passes which went forward more times than not. The composure from Munster Rugby was surprisingly lacking considering the personnel on show; a reality check for all concerned.
Cardiff Blues deserved their bonus point and it came at the death with Tomos Williams benefiting from more good work from the hosts pack, making easy yards down the middle. The quick ruck ball exposing Munster Rugby defensively and Williams crashed over. Cue the home celebrations!
Munster Rugby Not In Crisis Yet
Munster Rugby crisis, probably not yet but the warning signs from yet another below par road trip performance has to be a concern for Munster Rugby management.
The set piece will be pinpointed by opposition in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, Mike Sherry is going to have to front up on the video analysis on Monday; a game to forget and with Rhys Marshall and Niall Scannell chipping at the bit to get game time, game time for Sherry looks quite limited.
The lack of skill set and unforced errors across the side will be horrific viewing; hopefully this performance will be a watershed for Munster Rugby, otherwise with two Irish provincial derbies coming up, morale may take a pounding ahead of the Heineken Cup competition next month.
Well done Cardiff Blues; thoroughly deserved victory and this is the platform hopefully for them to launch their season back on track. Turnbull was outstanding throughout and with an exciting back line (Harries impressive), a lot to be positive about if you are a Cardiff Blues fan today!
The Irish provinces apart from Connacht Rugby had big blowout wins last weekend in Guinness Pro 14 action; spotlight this week is on the starting player statistics for Connacht Rugby who lost 17-10 away to Edinburgh Rugby.
A game where indiscipline surfaced (16 penalties leaked, 11 of which in the opening period) and a yellow card for Jarrad Butler. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews some of the key number for the starting lineup which tell the tale on the game.
This statistic out of the rest shows how under the cosh Connacht Rugby were particularly in this contest. All starting lineup players put in a massive effort defensively and the tackle count (121) really does show in spades in this statistic.
Paul Boyle led the way with a whooping fifteen tackles during the contest; his work rate and performance levels have being a key positive for the province this season.
Connacht Rugby were on the back foot until the final quarter when field position started to improve due to improved discipline around the breakdown thus not coughing up needless penalties. As a result, the danger runners for Connacht Rugby got in on the action but it was too little too late in terms of salvaging the result.
Matt Healy topped the chart with sixty meters coming off only five carries; impressive stats. Paul Boyle again prominent in this statistic along with players you would expect to be up in this category such as Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adelokun and Eoin Griffin.
This is a compelling statistic as it shows from a team dynamic how expansive the side were, whether the side struggled to create the platform required to execute a fluid, efficient passing game throughout the team. The half backs numbers are low; indication of the dominance that Edinburgh Rugby enjoyed in the first hour of this contest. The back line emergence in the last quarter seen with the numbers of O’Halloran, Godwin and Griffin to make things happen for the outside backs late on.
If Connacht Rugby lose the territory battle like they did against Edinburgh Rugby last week, it is going to be a tough afternoon tomorrow against the Scarlets. Solid discipline, pack cohesion on the set piece are required. Defensive improvements certainly with only the concession of seventeen points last week in the midst of waves of Edinburgh Rugby attacks but there are areas that need to be worked on and hopefully Connacht Rugby will deliver a far more accurate performance in the Sportsgrounds tomorrow.
Round four of the Guinness Pro 14 has two Friday night fixtures on the books. Ulster Rugby conclude their South African tour with a fixture against the Toyota Cheetahs while Munster Rugby must negotiate a tricky banana skin road trip fixture at Cardiff Blues. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on both games.
Ulster Rugby look to continue their winning ways
Ulster Rugby will look to build on the good second half performance against Isuzu Southern Kings and secure another win in the competition. They face a Toyota Cheetahs side devastated by key personnel departures in the off-season as well as key injuries to the current squad. Mohoje long term knee injury is a massive loss and the hosts here look incredibly vulnerable.
Yet another crushing defeat for the Toyota Cheetahs last weekend as Glasgow Warriors skill set and attacking lines were too much for the hosts who have now leaked a worrying 136 points from three games. One could argue that Munster Rugby, Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors are going to be at the business end of the season but defensive gaps and lapses have being alarming so far particularly in the third and fourth quarter of games so far; no quick fix.
Ulster Rugby have made a couple of personnel changes for this fixture. Shanahan gets a chance to impress at scrum-half due to the absence of John Cooney. Will Addison returns to the full back slot. Herbst, O’Sullivan, Rea and Kernohan all get valuable game time.
The key battle in this contest will be the front five battle. Can Toyota Cheetahs bully Ulster Rugby in the set piece? If they can, the hosts could have a chance but Ulster Rugby should win provided that they remain patient in their execution and phases with an exciting back line on hand to expose a fragile Cheetahs defensive confidence.
Verdict: Ulster Rugby
After a competitive opening half, expect Ulster Rugby to stride out to another win. The altitude factor will mean that Ulster Rugby win but without the bonus point try but if they can win at Bloemfontein, a minimum eight points return from their South African tour will be a fantastic return and start to the season. Addison to have a proverbial day.
Cardiff Blues in must win territory
It has being one strange start to the season for Cardiff Blues; three opening games where Cardiff Blues had the game in their grasp only to surrender the result in the closing exchanges as Leinster Rugby, Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby have all prospered from Cardiff Blues discipline and defensive lapses.
This is a side which are better than the 0/3 start to the season; several standout players in the ranks. The back line is stacked with physicality, pace and try scoring prowess. Anscombe slots into the full back spot, will look to use his kicking game to setup a platform.
Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo are an explosive three quarter combination. Scully and Harries provide the after burners and Harries try count has being a standout positive for the side this season so far.
The pack is stacked with talent with the likes of Arhip, Dacey, Turnbull, Navidi, Williams all featuring; a side well capable of turning a miserable start of the season around.
Munster Rugby come into this contest after an emphatic win over a massively under-strength Ospreys last week. A game which saw the talent of Carbery and Beirne to the maximum but both players will realize that a road trip assignment to Cardiff Blues is a different proposition entirely.
The Munster Rugby side has an exciting feel; an opening look at CJ Stander who slots into the eight channel. He links up with Cleote and O’Mahony in the back row which should see some keynote exchanges with Navidi, Jenkins and the marauding Nick Williams.
The half back partnership will be interesting to see. Evans at ten is a standout; great ball player whose ability to create with ball in hand and solid kick game makes him a standout threat for the Irish province. Duncan Williams needs to speed up his distribution from set piece and ruck ball to allow Joey Carbery to shine with ball in hand.
Pleasing to see Jaco Taute back in the three quarters; an intense welcome from Lee-Lo beckons and JJ Hanrahan comes into the full back position looking to prove a point after a miserable Glasgow Warriors outing in round two. The wing play of Sweetnam and Conway should be prominent provided Munster Rugby pack enjoy good periods of dominance.
Verdict: Munster Rugby
Like the look of this Munster Rugby side and this will be a serious test against a Cardiff Blues side who will provide seriously tricky moments. Cardiff Blues performance lapse deep into games could be exposed yet again in this round and I think Munster Rugby have the sufficient talent to get over the line by three points. Cardiff Blues left to rue more good moments in a game with minimal return.