Guinness Pro14: Where we stand in Conference B?

Leinster away and clear at the top of the conference

Conference B has seen one team head and shoulders ahead of their conference counterparts. Leinster Rugby have being superb and unplayable at times so far in the season with their squad depth in full effect. The league organizers will be happy to see that the two other remaining playoff berths have several teams with vested interests including Benetton Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on the conference and what to expect in this conference when the league resumes at the end of January.

Conference B Standings:

Leinster Rugby the standard bearer

The league form from the reigning tournament champions has being nothing short of sensational. Their ability to pick teams apart from any facet of play to the fore. The academy and squad players have deputized with ultra efficiency in their skill set, work rate and physicality. The top spot in the conference is pretty much secured; the key now will be to ensure that the performance levels do not dip as the side head into the playoffs.

Edinburgh Rugby are well in the playoff mix

After a slow start to the season, Edinburgh Rugby are in second place in the conference standings. Their festive period league triumphs have built serious momentum; their wins over Glasgow Warriors were noteworthy. They dismantled the Warriors pack threat. The key will be to improve their road trip performances down the homestretch. European Cup focus may have swayed team selection in previous rounds but every round from here on out needs to be given due priority. Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn are having superb seasons and their back line play has complemented the abrasive, solid pack performances this year. Mata continues to be a ball carrying machine.

Benetton Rugby; most improved side in the league

Benetton Rugby’s home win over Glasgow Warriors though surprising should not have being viewed as an earth shattering shock result. Benetton Rugby have already put Harlequins to the sword at home this season. Their performances this season have being well organized and their attacking play has evolved. The key point for Benetton Rugby is the RBS 6 Nations league block; how is the depth chart in the side? If they can be in the mix after this block of games, then Benetton Rugby could be a top three conference contender. Great to see the Italian side in the playoff mix; good news for the league, good news for the league organizers.

Scarlets injury crisis crippling

The injury list at the Scarlets this season has being cruel to watch. The lack of back row options in recent weeks even more so when Ken Owens was thrust into the eight jersey against the Dragons last weekend. Thomson absence is a big loss along with Cubby Davies whose breakdown work and guile has being sorely missed. The news that Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones are gone to the Welsh national side managerial setup is a further blow. If the injury list can subside, then the side have the serious threats out wide to cause any team in this league issues. The health issues of Leigh Halfpenny also is a concern. The side are under pressure currently and if they can get a top three berth in the conference this season, it will be a superb effort given the issues at the club.

Ulster Rugby squad depth waning?

Ulster Rugby’s season is at a pivotal point. Their squad depth chart issues surfaced again in round thirteen as Leinster Rugby took Dan McFarland’s men to the cleaners in a facile win. It had the attributes of their heavy loss to Munster Rugby at Thomond Park. The first team squad when available for selection is up there with anyone but when they are unavailable, gaps are seen despite the undoubted youth and academy talent on the books. Injury list is mounting. Can IRFU assist Ulster Rugby with astute loan signings to keep momentum? Otherwise, Ulster Rugby could be in danger of falling off the Conference B playoff race picture. Interesting times ahead for all concerned at the club.

Dragons project reset

It has being a wretched season for Dragons. Bernard Jackman has paid the price for inconsistent, poor performances on the pitch with his departure from the club before Christmas. The club are in limbo until a successor and definitive club vision and recruitment policy is implemented. The season is a right off; time to evaluate the current squad. Any new prospective recruits will be playing the wait and see game until a new successor to Bernard Jackman is identified. This is an unmitigated disaster for the club right now as it ponderously drifts towards the end of the current season. Their home win to Ospreys over the festive period will be the sole highlight of the season.

Southern Kings future is secured

The Southern Kings continue to struggle in the league; news that private investment has being secured to the team over the festive period must be seen as a positive but their performances right now on the playing side continue to be a mixed bag. A heavy road loss to Edinburgh Rugby last time out another reminder of the struggles that the side face particularly on the road. Kings next season is make or break; if they continue in this same vain, the private investment will be quickly withdrawn so it is imperative for the league organizers to get the required assurances from the club hierarchy that recruitment on the pitch is on point. The season is finished for the club; time to strategically review and identify where improvements are required.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 9 (Friday Night Fixtures)

November squad depth chart key

The end of the November test match series sees all sides this weekend having to go long and hard into their squad depth charts. The first three fixtures with full strength sides at their disposal would be marquee fixtures but there is something a little underwhelming about this round with so many marquee players away on international duty. The organizers need to rethink their strategy on this part of the season; devaluing the tournament and for the South African sides, they have had to bide their time for more game time action. 

Glasgow Warriors look primed for another home win

Cardiff Blues come into this fixture minus several the services of their Welsh international contingent. Yes, Jarrod Evans and Seb Davies are back after being released by the Welsh international side but this is not the fixture to throw youngsters into the mix which is what the Blues have done here. Glasgow will look for open field and with a devastating back line on paper named, it looks and feels like a bonus point try win for the Warriors to secure further distance from the rest of the Conference A chasing pack. Glasgow’s side looks solid despite the international break. 

Leinster Rugby look to youth against Ospreys

Youth is the keyword coming from this Leinster Rugby team sheet. Penny makes his debut in the back row containing Doris and the much vaunted Josh Murphy. Scott Fardy captains the side and will look to Noel Reid and James Lowe in the back line to provide leadership and experience to a young back line featuring O’Brien and Keenan. This is a fixture where Ospreys must stand up and be counted. Their performance against Munstera Rugby was a low point and a repeat display will see a Leinster Rugby rout. Giles on the wing will be interesting to watch. I am expecting Ospreys to produce a performance this time around but whether they are good enough to beat the home side loaded with potential and talent off the bench is a tough question to ask. Leinster Rugby by three points. 

Scarlets get the nod against Ulster Rugby

A keynote game in Conference B. Both sides depleted by international test matches. Ulster Rugby’s team side is loaded with youth and talent out wide so it is imperative that Cave and Ludik are included to keep the young charges composed on this road trip. The pack for Ulster Rugby looks solid and will test the Scarlets pack missing several keynote players such as Davies, Thomson and Macleod. The back line though is where this result may be decided. McNicholl from full back oozes pace and power coming into the line and think Scarlets will just nick this result; conscious of the fact that a victory will see Scarlets open a gap on Ulster Rugby. Ulster to come away with a loser point but their road trip woes are set to continue. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 7 Fixtures (Friday)

Squad depth the key this weekend

After the excitement of European Cup action, it is back to the Guinness Pro 14 league action. This period will see squad depth charts tested to the maximum as the November test match series looms large. This weekend will see depleted first team lineups for the Welsh and Scottish sides in particular. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Friday night fixtures. 

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Scarlets 

A depleted Scarlets squad travel to South Africa to face the Southern Kings who after two weeks without match action will be eager to get off the blocks quickly. The side selected by Scarlets is good but there is potential for the Kings to expose their visitors particularly in the front five. The hosts name an unchanged line from round six, continuity retained and it is a fixture which the South African side could pull a surprising win here. Kings by less than seven points provided that their basic fundamentals are on point.

Ulster Rugby vs. Dragons 

A strong Ulster Rugby lineup has being announced for this league fixture. Dragons have no less than ten changes to the side that played in round six. The quality of the Ulster Rugby back line has the potential to cause absolute havoc for Dragons. Speight returns with Addison and McCloskey also featuring. A big day for Robert Baloucoune who makes his debut, the winger is an absolute speed merchant and could be in line for a couple of try scoring opportunities. I am fearing for Dragons here. Ulster Rugby look well placed to secure a bonus point try win ahead of the November test series. 

Zebre Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby 

Intriguing fixture awaits here. Edinburgh Rugby fresh from their comprehensive beat down of Toulon last weekend in Europe must refocus and get their away form sorted in the Guinness Pro 14. Zebre Rugby have had a good of their own; beating Bristol Bears at home last weekend. Squad depth in the closing quarter will be key and I think the visitors have the edge. Edinburgh Rugby to shade this by less than seven points. Mata is the key player for Edinburgh; his ball carrying providing the required platform. 

Ospreys vs. Connacht Rugby 

This is a key fixture for Connacht Rugby this season in the context of the Guinness Pro 14 season. The side selected by Andy Friend is strong with Aki, Marmion and Roux in the starting lineup. Ospreys are without numerous Welsh internationals and the squad depth will be tested in this fixture. The starting lineups would favor the visitors but their road trip form despite the Ulster Rugby win last time round have being a mixed bag. A difficult game to call. Connacht Rugby have had a wretched time at the Liberty Stadium but given the side named, pressure aplenty to get a result here. Connacht Rugby to secure a rare win in Swansea. If not, then questions will be asked of the side and the progress made this season. 

Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 4

Pool of Death

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

Scarlets must strike early

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

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

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

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

Verdict: 

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

Guinness Pro 14: Connacht Rugby 33 – 20 Scarlets

Connacht Rugby produce keynote performance

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!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 4 (Saturday Fixtures Preview)

Home wins the order of the day

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Glasgow Warriors

A successful 100% win South African tour for Glasgow Warriors should be secured with a bonus point try win over the hosts who have shown resiliency but ultimately have being outgunned in the pack and skill set department. Glasgow Warriors have rotated their squad around for this fixture, still look strong enough to win this contest. Seymour set to have a keynote game. 

Connacht Rugby vs. Scarlets

A fixture which I am looking forward to. It is a must win for Connacht Rugby after a road loss to Edinburgh Rugby last weekend; discipline and pack platform must improve for the hosts to upset Scarlets who will look to consolidate their solid start to the season. Connacht Rugby welcome Robin Copeland into the pack and with several Scarlets first team regulars out of this fixture, is this a potential game which Connacht Rugby can win? Connacht to win only if they produce a smart, disciplined game plan performance; otherwise Scarlets could run riot out wide. Slight edge to Connacht Rugby as the weather improves here on the Irish West Coast. 

Dragons vs. Zebre Rugby

A key game for the Dragons and the long term managerial tenure ambitions of Bernard Jackman. Dragons have looked well exposed this season; their loss to Leinster Rugby was tough to watch as Leinster Rugby systematically broke Dragons defensive system to shreds. Zebre Rugby will arrive to Rodney Parade in good confidence; a superb late win over Cardiff Blues last weekend at home the standout performance last week. Zebre Rugby will realize that their discipline and fundamental set piece execution have to be on point and provided that they are not far behind at the interval should win this contest in a close, tense affair. Dragons to win need to drastically improve and I do not see the improvement required for this game in just seven days!

Leinster Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby

The standout fixture this weekend until I saw the Edinburgh Rugby team lineup; several pack first team regulars missing and with a strong Leinster Rugby team announced, can only see one winner. Edinburgh will look to restrict quick Leinster Rugby ruck ball but to be honest, Leinster Rugby are so good in changing the focus of attack that the pack may score a couple of tries from mauls. Leinster Rugby with a late bonus point try win. 

Ospreys vs. Benetton Rugby

A tricky fixture for Ospreys to negotiate today as Benetton Rugby with fourteen players scored four tries on the road to the Scarlets last weekend. Ospreys must be careful when they look to become expansive. Ospreys should have their first team regulars back and that could be decisive in the final outcome. Benetton Rugby will show well again but I think Wyn Jones, Tipuric, North and Williams’ cameos if selected will steer the hosts home.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 Reflections (Saturday)

Round Two. This is not the time for any teams to panic but there are grounds for concern particularly for the Cheetahs who shipped yet another heavy loss; hopefully they can bounce back in the upcoming rounds. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Benetton Rugby Renaissance

You have to start with the story of the weekend. Benetton are top of Conference B and what a dramatic way for the Italian side to do so. It looked like so near, yet so far hitting eighty minutes. Cardiff Blues down to thirteen players with Benetton Rugby deep in the visitors half; the composure shown to setup the scrum and timing the pass out wide to perfection for Ioane to score the try is a sign of the progression in the ranks, last year they would have botched the chance. Allan’s conversion was sweetly struck; the crowd roar was enough. An incredible result for Benetton Rugby and Cardiff Blues are left to rue more woe in the final quarter. 

Ospreys impress but big concerns for Cheetahs

Ospreys needed a hit out this weekend and Cheetahs were the perfect opposition to increase confidence in their creativity and line breaking ability. The performance was professional and this game was done well before half-time. Jones and Tipuric were the standouts with George North continuing to impress with ball in hand (another try for the winger). 

The pace of the Ospreys was all too much for Cheetahs in the third and fourth quarters with points leaked at an alarming rate. All facets of play looked sharp (despite the opposition) but Aled Davies at nine is a key squad addition.

The departure of Rhys Webb was a big position to fill but Aled Davies has provided speed in distribution around the ruck area. Ospreys will enter the fixture with Munster Rugby with good confidence. North’s threat out wide is providing a x-factor for the Welsh region; great to see the player back in the Pro 14 league. 

Connacht Rugby off the mark

32-13. Andy Friend and management enjoyed their first win in the league with a convincing victory over an ill-disciplined Zebre Rugby outfit. Played in slippery conditions, Connacht Rugby started on the front foot and after an early Carty penalty started to vary their attacking game plan. 

Blade was particularly impressive; sharp in passing distribution but his ability to pop up out wide to pick up attacking breaks was prominent in the early try scores. Paul Boyle continues his early season promise with two good tries, a player who has emerged well in preseason.

Zebre Rugby’s discipline was at times erratic at best; four quick penalties in the first thirteen minutes of this contest told the tale and it was no surprise that two of their team were sent to the sin early in the second half when the referee finally lost patience. 

Connacht Rugby won the sin bin period (15 vs. 13) by only 7-3; another moment where the hosts let their opposition off the hook but Zebre Rugby fatigue from this period was seen in the tries scored by Griffin and Adelokun. 

The set piece at times was a mixed bag in the opening period; a couple of poorly executed line outs in good attacking positions will be reviewed by the hosts but this fixture was to get a win on the board; mission accomplished and next up is a road trip to Edinburgh Rugby who are under the gun to get their first win of the season next weekend. 

Dragons but only just

The good, the bad and the ugly was seen with the Dragons in their 27-22 win over Isuzu Southern Kings at Rodney Parade. A great opening period saw two good tries scored and all looked good; the back three pace and speed causing Southern Kings massive issues. Griffiths and Moriarty looking the part in the back row. 

There is a good young talent in this side but the lack of composure in this side is never too far away. Rhodri Williams’ yellow card saw the visitors score two quick fire tries as Dragons defensive organization went to pieces; the half-time whistle could not come quick enough. From a position of dominance, the hosts were only 17-10 up and was quickly chalked in the third quarter. 

The contest in the balance saw the experienced squad players come to the fore thankfully for Bernard Jackman and management and Lewis’ cameo in the third quarter was instrumental to victory; a good try and conversion giving the breathing room required as the Southern Kings again probed at the death. 

An opening season win for Dragons but there are plenty of improvement areas to address. Southern Kings were resilient but better teams will rip through their pack and ten channel as the season progresses. A match which exposed both sides’ weak points. 

Scarlets win but Leinster Rugby close

It was a close call for Scarlets as the Leinster Rugby juggernaut started to gain momentum in the last quarter. Scarlets had to summon all their defensive and breakdown nous to secure their opening league win. 

Ken Owens was inspired for Scarlets; the early try should have set the platform but McFadden / Lowe responded with excellent tries. The game ebbed and flowed throughout but Gareth Davies try looked to open game for the hosts but back came Leinster Rugby with Ruddock crashing over for Leinster’s third try. Cue frantic closing exchanges. 

No disaster for Leinster Rugby; a loss yes but the fight and spirit of the team again spoke volumes. The Irish international players who were in the team got quality game minutes; the only issue is the second row options. Toner, Ryan, Fardy and then you are looking at the options. Nagle, Kearney, Molony need to push on this season for Leinster Rugby. 

Guinness Pro 14 Semi-Final Qualifier Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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