Guinness Pro14: Round 16 Reflections

Playoff picture becomes somewhat clearer

On a weekend where the Guinness Six Nations took the spotlight, key results in the Guinness Pro14 round sixteen fixture list has seen gaps form in the standings and for some, it is now must win territory to even get back into the playoff race. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Conference A: Top two stride further ahead

Contrasting fixtures for Munster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors in round sixteen. While Glasgow Warriors were putting Connacht Rugby (43-17) to the sword with a sparkling display of running rugby, Munster Rugby were in the trenches securing a victory at the Liberty Stadium thanks in no small part to the performance of Tadhg Beirne who was outstanding.

Mike Haley was the hero for Munster Rugby as thirty plus phase effort saw the impressive full back cross over for the game winning touchdown. Ospreys had a chance to win late but that man Beirne was on hand to secure a vital breakdown win. A key victory for Munster Rugby.

With the top two extending the gap from their conference foes, it was an opportunity for Cardiff Blues to close right up and slot into third place with a final quarter surge to beat Edinburgh 17-19 on the road. The result looked beyond the Welsh side heading into the third quarter as Edinburgh were ten points up heading into the final quarter but Jason Harries played inspired and setup the victory. Cardiff Blues back in the playoff hunt and with a home against beleaguered Isuzu Southern Kings next, they could potentially consolidate their playoff position.

A week to forget for Toyota Cheetahs. Nico Lee’s grovelling apology for ‘Snotgate’ was bad for PR but then there was a potentially devastating loss on the road to Scarlets today. Scarlets reveled in the dry track conditions and Toyota Cheetahs were down and out by the end of the opening quarter. Cheetahs need results to go for them in the next couple of rounds to get into this playoff race. It looks unlikely right now and this road trip could be the beginning of the end for their season.

Zebre Rugby. The squad depth issues were wholly exposed at Kingspan Stadium as predicted here in the preview round sixteen blog. Ulster Rugby ran riot and a fifty points plus scoreline was indicative of how easy the fixture was for the Irish province. Zebre Rugby unfortunately have rampaging Glasgow Warriors next at home; best of luck there!

If you are looking for the marquee fixture next weekend, then Connacht Rugby vs. Ospreys is it. Two sides who need the win for their playoff ambitions. Ospreys’ run of form has been poor but they showed signs with Keelan Giles that their attacking play is improving. Connacht Rugby need to regroup after that trouncing in Glasgow. The vanquished could be facing post season playoff anguish.

Conference B: Landslide results

The Conference B playoff contenders all won except for Edinburgh Rugby. Leinster Rugby flirted with Isuzu Southern Kings in the opening quarter but then put on the after burners in the second and third quarters to cut loose and inflict another forty point loss on the South Africans. A miserable Irish leg for the Kings.

Benetton Rugby were the standout performer on this round. A game which looked like a banana skin was put to be bed early and to score fifty-seven points to a Dragons side who do not know where the abyss is was a true standout. Benetton Rugby will refocus and prepare for a crunch clash against Edinburgh Rugby next weekend; this looks a standout Conference B clash. It is great to see Benetton Rugby so competitive this season and the confidence in the club is starting to be seen in the national side.

Ulster Rugby as mentioned above were easy winners against Zebre Rugby. A road trip to Rodney Parade and Dragons is next for the Irish province. Will Dragons react after their miserable outing against Benetton Rugby? Ulster Rugby will need to be on their guard but it is hard to see how Dragons bounce back next weekend. Bernard Jackman was axed but no bounce in results. The club are lacking direction and leadership on and off the park, worrying times.

Isuzu Southern Kings are done and dusted this season, the side never got going in truth. Cardiff Blues fresh from their Edinburgh Rugby road trip win will be in full confidence and attacking flow next weekend. The pain does not stop for the Kings!

Scarlets were very impressive against Toyota Cheetahs today; a superb response after the road trip loss to Benetton Rugby last weekend. The free flowing running lines were in full view in that opening period. A key fixture at home to Munster Rugby next weekend could be decisive for their Guinness Pro14 playoff hopes.

Guinness Pro14: Round 16 (Friday Night Fixtures)

Intriguing fixtures on tap

A weekend where the Guinness Six Nations resumes, there is the matter of round sixteen in the Guinness Pro14. The Friday night fixtures look very interesting with Glasgow Warriors entertaining Connacht Rugby, Leinster Rugby looking to inflict further road trip woe on the Isuzu Southern Kings and Ospreys effectively in a must win home game fixture over Munster Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Glasgow Warriors looking for improvement 

The victory last weekend against Cardiff Blues on the road was mission accomplished for Glasgow Warriors looking as a neutral; bonus point try win but there were massive defensive lapses during the contest which on another hand could have cost the Scottish side dear.

This time of the season sees Guinness Pro14 sides look deep into their squad depth no more so than Glasgow Warriors who have umpteen players away on international duty or injury so is there an opportunity for Connacht Rugby to perhaps create an upset on the road?

Connacht Rugby beat Toyota Cheetahs with a determined final quarter push last weekend. Jack Carty provided the leadership and game management to steer the side through a tricky third quarter spell where Connacht Rugby play was far too open against a team who revel in unstructured play.

The squad selections will be interesting. Connacht Rugby have a poor record at Scotstoun. The edge here goes to Glasgow Warriors but Connacht Rugby should be good enough to secure a loser bonus point at least. Glasgow Warriors for their defensive lapses last weekend were sensational with ball in hand particularly in that opening period and for that, they get my vote.

Leinster Rugby should have an easy night 

I am sorry if you are an Isuzu Southern Kings fan but this could be the low point of low points for the franchise in this tournament and could call into question their participation in this tournament going forward. Their performance (take out the opening quarter) was pretty poor and against a well drilled Leinster Rugby outfit, this looks like a horrendous task for the South Africans.

To make matters worse for the Isuzu Southern Kings, Leinster Rugby’s performance against Zebre Rugby may have yielded forty points scored but there were significant defensive meltdowns during the contest, a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

Leinster Rugby should provide a better cohesive defensive display this weekend in front of their home fans and with a vulnerable opposition whose defensive line disintegrated in the second half along with their discipline, this looks like a massacre. This looks like a cricket score.

Ospreys in must win territory 

It is fair to say that the start of 2019 has been a disappointment for Ospreys. A poor end to their European campaign as well as inconsistent results in the Guinness Pro14 mean that the Ospreys are backed into a corner; they need to respond and Munster Rugby coming to the Liberty Stadium, it is a perfect opportunity to right a few wrongs.

This fixture personally is one to whet the appetite always; no inch given when these two sides meet. The fixture earlier in the season was misleading to say the least; Ospreys’ decision to leave all their marquee players saw a facile home victory for Munster Rugby. This fixture sees key personnel missing from both sides but the fixture to me looks evenly poised.

Ospreys work rate was not in question last weekend but what was in their shutout loss to Ulster Rugby at home was their blunt attacking play. Gain line running lines were minimal, poor passing at vital phases did not help matters. The fact that the side did not even get a losing bonus point will have hurt this week in the lead up to this fixture. There has to be a reaction.

Munster Rugby are currently top of Conference A. Their form is solid. You could not read much into their display last weekend as they made the necessary adjustments at the break to smash the contest wide open in a 43-0 win over a hapless Isuzu Southern Kings.

For me, there is still cohesion issues in attack for the Irish province. Lack of composure in the red zone at times was seen last weekend early and if Ospreys can apply defensive line speed pressure on Munster Rugby, it will be interesting to see if Munster Rugby have an alternative backup plan to counteract this.

50/50 fixture beckons here and is the closest one to call on the fixtures scheduled for Friday evening. Ospreys effectively are in must win home game territory in this round. A loss here and it will be a devastating blow for the side’s ability to secure a top three berth. I sense Ospreys with the frustration of last week fresh in their heads will win this encounter. Munster Rugby should secure a loser bonus point.

Guinness Pro14: Munster 43 – 0 Isuzu Southern Kings

Munster Rugby secure bonus point try victory

Munster Rugby remain top of Conference A after an emphatic bonus point try victory over a Isuzu Southern Kings who after a strong opening quarter were exposed in set piece and discipline. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Wet conditions poses early issues 

The conditions at Irish Independent Park were challenging to say the least. The incessant blustery rainy conditions causing issues for both sides in the opening period. Munster Rugby had the elements at their backs in the first half but it was the Isuzu Southern Kings who started the better, ball carries on point and making good progress deep into Munster Rugby territory.

Munster Rugby though defensively were well organized and forced turnover ball at regular intervals which setup good territorial gains with the boot of Bleyendaal and Scannell. The opening try came on fourteen minutes, good phase play from Holland and Farrell setting the platform for Neil Cronin to crash over from close range.

Chris Farrell worryingly went down for medical treatment after the try and albeit the medics tried to strap up the thigh and knee areas, the decision was made to call the center ashore for an early bath. A big concern for province and national team ahead of some crucial games for both sides in the coming weeks. Johann van Graan stated that Farrell experienced pain to the inside of his knee; more to follow in the coming days.

Munster Rugby were struggling to quell the aggressive Kings defensive line speed and abrasive breakdown work in that opening period. Kings enjoying a couple of excellent moments dispossessing Munster players with the ball but the approach was borderline and after a number of infringements, Lerm was sin binned for a no arm tackle at the breakdown. It was a key call as Munster Rugby used the man advantage to build pressure and more points.

The breakdown work from the hosts improved in the closing stages of the half with Lerm in the bin and better recycling ball from the hosts saw Bleyendaal deliver a superb pass to Andrew Conway whose running line exposed the cover defense of the Kings. 12-0 at the break. Kings still in the contest but disciplinary issues were rearing their head with the visitors.

One way traffic in second half 

The second half should have seen the Isuzu Southern Kings look to create with the elements at their back but Munster Rugby tightened up their breakdown and attacking play in the third quarter and put this fixture to bed.

The third try arrived on fifty-nine minutes. Conway was the class act in the back line exchanges tonight and his deft chip in behind caused massive Kings’ defensive issues. Mathewson was taken out but Sweetnam was supporting to touchdown. It signaled the end of the contest.

The bonus point try was not long in coming as Kings’ defensive line speed started to wane at an alarming rate of knots. Mathewson with his speed of pass from the ruck allowing Bleyendaal the time and space to unleash his runners. Scannell at center produced a key gain line break with additional ball carries from the Munster Rugby pack to setup Billy Holland to score.

All goes a bit Pete Tong for the Kings 

With this score, the Kings discipline completely went out the window. Late hits and dangerous tackles the order of the day. The fifth try arriving on 67 minutes where more penalty concessions leading to the five meter scrum. Munster Rugby pack did the rest with the line out and maul.

The rest of the game was pretty exhibition stuff. Kings were restricted in their attacking play and they switched off in their defensive duties. Jean Kleyn scoring as Kings switched off at a line out. Rory Scannell completed the rout with a smart drive. 43-0.

Reflections 

The positives for Munster Rugby were the performance of the back three. Mike Haley at full back reveled with ball in hand from deep; made endless yards for the side and his cohesion with colleagues around him was much better. Andrew Conway’s ability to create and dominate in the air was to the fore. Darren Sweetnam was sharp in his defensive duties and provided an attacking outlet out wide. A good cameo for all three players.

The adjustments from Munster Rugby in the second half saw very eye catching. They negated the Kings’ threat in the breakdown, quickened ruck ball with the introduction of Mathewson. Cloete was industrious as well and got his trademark breakdown steal. Wycherley is such a prospect; thunderous display from the West Cork native. Botha’s work rate was infectious.

The set piece dominated Kings pack. The scrum was a destructive means of creating field position. John Ryan is scrummaging superbly well this year and his domination tonight should provide more food for thought for Joe Schmidt and the national team. The line out at times misfired (understandable given the weather conditions) but when required, the usual suspects delivered.

Kings continue to struggle on the road. Their back three have serious potential but they are let down massively by their discipline. The penalty count was off the charts tonight and setup easy attacking opportunities for Munster Rugby. The opening quarter was decent but it means nothing if the side cannot be consistent for the entire game. Kings need to step up in this tournament; their second half performance was rubbish and not one for the league organizers to watch. Kings need to increase their squad depth and talent, otherwise the Port Elizabeth side are wasting their time in this competition.

Guinness Pro14: Round 15 (Friday Night Preview)

Guinness Pro14 – How I have missed you so?

After a couple of weeks to rest battered bodies, the Guinness Pro14 league resumes with some key fixtures which could go a long way in determining who makes the playoffs or not. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action on tap for Friday night.

Edinburgh Rugby hold all the aces against Dragons

Murrayfield. Fortress Edinburgh Rugby. This stage of the season is where Edinburgh Rugby need to create momentum ahead of their crunch European Cup quarter final against Munster Rugby on March 30th. If you wanted a fixture to set the springboard for resurgence, the Dragons as opposition would probably fit the bill.

Dragons come into this contest on the back of a narrow home loss to Munster Rugby. The weather conditions made the fixture into a non-spectacle and with a little more composure, Dragons could have and perhaps should have secured the win. The discipline issues which has been a sore point this season reared its head yet again during this loss.

Their team selection sees Jarryd Sage (centre) and James Benjamin (Eight) get first team call ups. Ollie Griffiths moves to the seven jersey to accommodate the arrival of Benjamin to the back row. Gavin Henson is named on the replacements as the Dragons must make do without six players who are away on international duty.

Edinburgh Rugby team news sees the timely return of Magnus Bradbury back from a four month injury spell on the sidelines. Richard Cockerill can also welcome back Scottish squad players Ben Toolis, Darcy Graham, Chris Dean and Luke Crosbie for this encounter. Try scoring machine Duhan van der Merwe also returns to the back three.

The odds are stacked for Dragons with a strong Edinburgh Rugby side named. Can the front five gain parity? I have seriously doubts and with Mata marauding with ball in hand setting up endless excellent attacking platform, it is not conceivable to think that Edinburgh Rugby could win this with a bonus point for good measure.

Munster Rugby face Southern Kings challenge 

A debut visit for the Isuzu Southern Kings to Munster Rugby and the surroundings of Irish Independent Park, Cork. A fixture if dry should produce some excellent try scoring opportunities.

The Munster Rugby team news sees a number of Irish international squad players rejoin for this fixture. Chris Farrell, Dave Kilcoyne, Billy Holland, Andrew Conway, John Ryan, Niall Scannell all get valuable game time tonight with Tyler Bleyendaal and Neil Cronin forming the half back pairing.

The Isuzu Southern Kings buoyed by their recent fixture home win to Edinburgh Rugby give a start to out-half Bader Pretorius while Berton Klaasen (centre) and loose-forward Stephan de Wit come into the starting lineup.

The Isuzu Southern Kings have had an indifferent fixture series with two losses to to the Toyota Cheetahs on the form guide prior to the Edinburgh Rugby win.

This is an interesting fixture. The hope is that the Isuzu Southern Kings will look to run the ball from all angles, pose questions of Munster Rugby defensively. The expectation is that Munster Rugby’s front five should be sufficiently cohesive to create try scoring opportunities. Munster Rugby to prey on the South Africans poor away form to win this fixture with a potential bonus point opportunity late on.

50/50 contest at Liberty Stadium 

This is the standout fixture of the round potentially. Both sides have slipped off the playoff race pace in recent rounds and a victory for either would be potentially huge in the context of the playoff picture come the end of the regular season.

Ospreys are impacted massively for this fixture as they are missing at least seven first team marquee players due to international duty. Jordan Lay, a recent acquisition comes into the front row.

Ulster Rugby are boosted by the return of Iain Henderson to the pack, good news for both province and Ireland ahead of the remaining Guinness Six Nation fixtures. Ireland squad players John Cooney and Jordi Murphy also feature to get valuable game time.

A massive fixture for both sides. Playoff momentum is the buzz keywords for the victor. A cagey contest beckons here, potential edge to Ulster Rugby given the players back into the starting lineup but it is a very close fixture to call.

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 been 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 been 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 been 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 been 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 been 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 been 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 been 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 been 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 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: Round 1 (Friday Fixture Preview)

Roll on the new season!

The wait is finally over. The eve of the second Guinness Pro 14 tournament is upon us; an intriguing off season with several clubs acquiring potentially astute signings. The season kicks off on Friday night with three fixtures up for decision. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict the opening night winners and losers. 

Can Cardiff Blues upset Leinster Rugby? 

A tricky opening night road trip fixture for Leinster Rugby to negotiate. The reigning Guinness Pro 14 champions will be without numerous first team starters who played for Ireland in the Australian summer tour. It is an opportunity yet again for the squad to impress.

Leinster Rugby’s team sheet sees a debut for the physically imposing Joe Tomane in the three quarters where he will be partnered by Rory O’Loughlin who will look to kick on after an excellent season with the Irish province last term. 

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have named the promising Caelan Doris at eight. It will be interesting to see how the Ireland U20 star fares in this opening fixture with the likes of Max Deegan eager to get back into the first team fold. 

Huge onus will be on Scott Fardy to provide the experience and leadership in a front five which will sees Tracy, Bent, Molony in the ranks. Rhys Ruddock captains the side in Johnny Sexton’s absence. The back three have a point to prove and Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne and leading try scorer in the league last season Barry Daly will look to get their season off to a solid start. 

Cardiff Blues will look to kick on after an incredibly positive second half of last season culminating in the European Challenge Cup final win. This final win should increase confidence within the camp and head coach John Mulvihill will look for the likes of Ellis Jenkins to provide key leadership this season with the shock retirement of Sam Warburton.

The hosts name a solid side for this opening fixture. Arhip and Thornton with debuts for the club after their moves from rivals Ospreys. Arhip in particular looks a shrewd signing; the Moldovan is an efficient scrum operator. The workhorse Nick Williams will be asked to setup primary platform ball, looking to smash Ross Byrne in the ten channel. 

Cardiff Blues half back pairing looks quality. Williams and Evans forged a successful partnership last season and if they can establish quick ruck ball, their back line has the ability to put Leinster Rugby under massive pressure. Halaholo and Lee-Lo have the perfect mix of creativity and physicality and this can only be good news for Harries (on debut), Lane and Morgan to impress with ball in hand. 

Verdict: Cardiff Blues

Tough encounter beckons, expect tries from both sides given the personnel in the ranks but Cardiff Blues know that they need to start this season much better than last year and I edge this encounter to the hosts as Leinster Rugby cohesion issues will surface in the back and pack units. Leinster Rugby to secure at least a loser bonus point. Pressure is on Cardiff Blues to win this fixture. 

Quality match-up at the Liberty

A potential standout fixture with several standout players on both team sheets and the victor tomorrow night will look with confidence going into the early season fixture list. 

Ospreys’ were made to pay for a poor start to last season; the departure of Steve Tandy who was replaced by Allen Clarke sparked a revival in the second half of the season but defeat to Ulster Rugby in the end of season playoff means European Challenge Cup this season. 

Ospreys have made several astute signings. The key marquee signings were Scott Williams (Scarlets), George North (Northampton Saints) and Aled Davies (Scarlets). Tom Botha (Cheetahs) has the potential to be a dark horse signing this season. All players make their debut for the club. 

The hosts have named a strong pack. Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies provide experience, leadership and set piece efficiency. The back row is stacked with talent as Tipuric, King and Lydiate will look to disrupt Edinburgh Rugby quick ruck ball. 

The key area of interest is the half-back partnership for the Ospreys. Webb and Biggar have departed. Aled Davies and Luke Price start the post Webb / Biggar era and it will be interesting to see how the new half back partnership fare. Sam Davies on the bench will look to make an impact if this unit does not fire early doors. 

Edinburgh Rugby were the most progressive side of the tournament last season (close call with the Cheetahs). Richard Cockerill and backroom staff have really impressed; there is a winning culture at the club and they have not being afraid of cutting players who fell below the standards expected of a professional rugby player, not looking at anyone in particular John Hardie. 

The Scottish side name a strong side for this opener as well which makes this fixture so mouthwatering. Debut cameos for Scott, Hickey, Pygros, Schoeman and Luke Hamilton. Hickey in particular has the potential to provide that extra creativity required to get Edinburgh over the line in key playoff fixtures. Duhan van der Merwe will look to push on after a superb debut season in the league.

The pack looks experience with quality performers throughout. McInally, Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist and Mata will be tested to the maximum by the Ospreys pack unit; the breakdown battle has all the ingredients to be explosive. Luke Hamilton will be a player to watch this season for Edinburgh; abrasive work rate and ability around the fringes. 

Verdict:

A very close fixture to call. There are going to be some exceptional back and pack battles on show. The key duel is the half back contest and siding with the experienced Edinburgh combination. Cohesion issues will be apparent early but there should be some excellent passages of play. Both teams have the ability to secure bonus point tries such is their threat out wide. Nip and tuck but Hickey looks the key man here for the visitors. 

Zebre Rugby look a solid bet

The transfer in and outs for each side is usually not that remarkable in the Guinness Pro 14 league typically but the rate of turnover in the Cheetahs and Southern Kings is astounding. Just the twenty-two departures for the Southern Kings who floundered badly in their debut season last year. 

I am looking at the starting lineup and the word cohesion and game time leaps out. Thirteen new faces in the squad and six of those will be in the squad with full-back Michael Botha, lock Schalk Oelofse and flanker Henry Brown in the starting XV as JC Astle, Ulrich Beyers and Luphumlo Mguca are named amongst the replacements.

Zebre Rugby have invested in their squad for the new season. Eleven signings to the squad and four of those look to make an impact off the bench. Francois Brummer, Massimo Ceciliani, Giosue Zilocchi and Apisai Tauyavuca are all primed to make their debuts in a Zebre jersey.

Michael Bradley given the circumstances last season has done an excellent job as head coach; last season was to provide structures and foundations to build on this season. The hope is that Zebre Rugby can compete well in the majority of the league fixtures but easier said than done! 

Verdict: Zebre Rugby

This is a game where Isuzu Southern Kings personnel changes and lack of playing time together will be exposed. Zebre Rugby have a more solid squad and starting lineup and I expect Canna at ten to control tempo and game management to allow their back line to secure a bonus point win. Kings hopefully compete here but the signs look grave even at this early stage. 

Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review

No genuine drama from the last round of league fixtures. After Ulster Rugby failed to beat Munster Rugby at Thomond Park, Edinburgh’s ticket to the playoffs was confirmed. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action in Wales, Scotland and South Africa.

Congratulations to the Toyota Cheetahs on securing their playoff spot with a 20-29 road trip win over Southern Kings who scored early with a Dukisa try. Banda then increased the lead for the hosts with two penalties until the Toyota Cheetahs hit a quick three try salvo in the second quarter. Marais , Schoeman and Cassiem all crossed over with excellent offloading and support running which the Southern Kings struggled to stifle. The game was well and truly up despite the Klaasen try straight after the break. Cheetahs were able to control the game in the final quarter to close out with comfort.

This is an superb achievement for the Toyota Cheetahs and great news for this tournament. The Cheetahs were off the pace in the first few weeks of the season but they have built a formidable fortress in Bloemfontein and their expansive brand of rugby has won many admirers this season. With fast track conditions, they will travel to Scarlets in confident form. The missed tackle count will have to improve (23) but they will relish the dry conditions and Scarlets need to be careful on how expansive they go against a team who have the skill set to beat you from anywhere on the pitch. Superb coaching work from Rory Duncan and staff!

The 1872 Cup was won by Edinburgh Rugby on a special night for anyone associated with the club. The night where they were confirmed as the third team in Conference B to participate in the playoffs, confirmation of their participation in the European Rugby Champions Cup next season. A magnificent coaching performance from Richard Cockerill and coaching staff to turn the fortunes of the side. Edinburgh Rugby have always had the talent and potential but consistency was a core issue.  The side have produced consistently high performances this season to deservedly clinch their place in the playoffs.

This local derby was abrasive and physical with several eye catching moments. Edinburgh’s composure was tested early with the early Glasgow Warriors try from DTH van der Merwe but their response was emphatic as Johnstone crashed over evading two Glasgow Warrior players enroute. Further questions were asked when Gibbins crossed over but again the hosts leveled with a robust Lay finish from close range and then not to be out done Duhan van der Merwe powerfully scored on the stroke of half-time to give the side 21-14.

Glasgow Warriors did look to get back into this encounter with another DTH van der Merwe effort on the sideline and Edinburgh Rugby were forced to defend for long periods in the last ten minutes. Each player to a man tackling on point and disrupting Glasgow ball from the ruck. Several key breakdown wins in the last five wins sealed victory. A huge morale booster for the side and the fact that they reclaimed the 1872 Cup is a perfect tonic heading into the playoffs. The most improved side of the league this season come to Thomond Park next weekend with no fears and will look to prey on Munster Rugby’s playoff failures.

A late gasp drop goal from Dan Biggar secured victory for the ever improving Ospreys side against Cardiff Blues. A game which ebbed and flowed throughout; several standout moments of creativity. Jones’ try was a perfect case study of this point with an excellent line break from Jeff Hassler before the ball made its way to Alun Wyn Jones who touched down out wide.

Cardiff Blues produced a stunning response when Anscombe scored the try of the day. His ability to evade Ospreys defenders sublime as he ran from halfway to score a sensational score. The Blues then suddenly had their second try as Smith collecting a good grubber kick from Steve Shingler to dive over.

Ospreys determination to get back into the game was seen in the second half. Biggar scored a superb effort; quality finish from close range when Cardiff Blues defensively looked to have the situation well in hand. Biggar added the conversion to make it 20-20 to setup an exciting finish.

It suddenly was becoming the battle of the tens from the kicking tee. Anscombe slotted over a tricky penalty to gave Cardiff Blues the lead again only for Biggar to level again with another penalty. Cue the end of the game, good composure from Ospreys to create the phases to put Biggar into position and the drop goal was on point. Ospreys held out for another morale boosting win.

Cardiff Blues enter European Rugby Champions Cup next season but no playoff rugby this season. Their focus turns to the European Challenge Cup final against Gloucester Rugby in Bilbao. Ospreys’ form in the second half of the season has being excellent; they will enter their key playoff tussle with Ulster Rugby with confidence. A place in the European Rugby Champions Cup is on offer. Massive reward if victory is earned!

Scarlets shook off the European Cup blues with an emphatic bonus point win against Dragons who were out gunned in all facets of play. As soon as Elias emerged with the ball for the opening try, things looked ominous for Bernard Jackman’s charges but the Dragons stayed in touch until half-time. The second half was a different story entirely.

A penalty try was awarded to the Scarlets as Dragons scrum was struggling; several scrum resets eventually causing the match official to lose patience with the Dragons. A quick brace of tries from the marauding Tadhg Beirne spelled the end of the contest and the bonus point try. Evans put further gloss on the scoreboard with a late try.

Scarlets enter the playoffs next weekend and face a dangerous home fixture against Toyota Cheetahs. Dragons’ season is now over. A season of transition and the second half of the season had plenty of setbacks. Recruiting needs to continue to supplement the talent at the club. Dee, Landman, Wainwright, Amos, Hewitt and Kirchner.

However, the discipline and defensive lapses have plighted their season. Missed tackle count was high (24) and this has being a really sore statistic this season. The pack have had positive moments but this reward was not seen on the scoreboard, allowing opposition to get back into contests.

Zebre Rugby have earned Italian derby bragging rights with a deserved road trip win over Benetton Rugby. A closely fought encounter as Benetton Rugby scored first with a good cohesive move involving Tebaldi and Allan to unleash Sgarbi to score.

Zebre Rugby absorbed the pressure from the hosts and then built their attacking platform in the second quarter. Violi (34) slotted over a penalty after concerted attacking phases and then Zebre Rugby went into the dressing rooms ahead with Sisi crashing with the pack once again prominent in the maul.

A quick try after the break from the impressive Canna (44) was a well worked score. Zebre Rugby sucking in Benetton Rugby defenders to allow space to be created for Canna out on the sideline. The pivotal score of the game as Benetton Rugby were now forced to chase the game; credit to the hosts after Sgarbi scored another well worked try and Allan slotted over.

However, Zebre Rugby were not to be denied. A composed pack performance from Michael Bradley’s side setting up several penalty opportunities. Violi slotting over three penalties to make the game safe. A quality win from Zebre Rugby and one that should be a blueprint to winning further games in the league next season. A season of transition; a season where Zebre Rugby have provided good moments and identified players capable of representing the Italian team. Biagi, Bellini to name but a few.

Eighteenth league win for an Italian side in the tournament is a new record. Additional progress and improvement is required from both Italian teams and hope springs eternal here. Good fundamental structures are being built in Italy via underage and at professional club rugby structures. Whether Michael Bradley is around to see the progress next season is another story; a man who may be subject to speculation on a couple of head coaching roles over to Ireland. Time will tell!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 21 Preview

Round 21. The final round of the regular league season has arrived. The organizers perhaps have missed a weekend on scheduling but more to that later in this blog. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

The South African sides start the final round on Saturday afternoon. It is a fixture which the Toyota Cheetahs have a vested interest in. A win against the Southern Kings will secure playoff rugby and a road trip to either Leinster Rugby or Scarlets depending on which side finishes second in Conference B.

Toyota Cheetahs will be disappointed with their second half performance against Munster Rugby. Team indiscipline providing Munster Rugby with penalty opportunities which were slotted over in the second half. It was a disappointing result considering the opening period performance where the Toyota Cheetahs scored two well worked tries. Tian Meyer very prominent in game management and passing game.

Southern Kings have had a season to forget; the crowd attendances coupled with some heavy losses this season has provided a massive reality check for the franchise. They need to recruit well in the off season which starts next week. Their win against Dragons is their video reel moment of the season. It needs to be more next season.

Local bragging rights but one side has all the motivation to win this contest. Toyota Cheetahs to take this win with a bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. The back line of the Cheetahs with the likes of Venter, Small could have standout days in the statistics front. Kings to compete need their front eight to come to the party; difficult to see this happening.

This derby is about one person and one person only. This is the last Connacht Rugby playing appearance for the legendary John Muldoon. The Portumna native signs off from the Sportsground after 327 games with the province. Muldoon has being at the club through thick and thin. He has experienced the highs and lows. Define commitment, honor and leadership, look no further than John Muldoon who joins Bristol Rugby (Bears)  next season!

An intriguing subplot to this game is how Leinster Rugby will approach the game. After their emphatic win against Scarlets last weekend, will Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster decide to rest front line players? I am expecting a mixed team selection from the Conference A leaders. They need to top their conference and would expect a couple of marquee players to feature. Lowe, Larmour, Daly come into the reckoning. Ruddock, Deegan, Molony perhaps coming into the pack. it will be a side with intent and Connacht Rugby need to produce a top performance to sigh off Muldoon’s playing career with Connacht Rugby with a win.

Connacht Rugby team selection should be along familiar lines to recent weeks. O’Halloran, Healy and Adelokun should provide pace and threat in the back three. Aki surely starts at twelve, questions abound on who will partner the Irish international. Robb, Farrell or Griffin (if fit) could come in. Marmion and Carty form the half-back partnership which will play behind a pack whose mobility and passing threat will be a threat. Dillane needs to produce a stellar game here for Connacht Rugby and for the Irish rugby neutral. The Kerry man has had a difficult season and needs a good performance here to show Irish management of his worth.

Interesting game. I thought before round twenty that Connacht Rugby could potentially win this contest but due to Benetton Rugby’s win against Leinster Rugby, the stakes have being raised. Leinster Rugby will look to continue their impressive form and for a couple of fringe players, a chance for redemption after some indifferent performances. Connacht Rugby to provide entertainment but their defensive shape will be exposed more than once this weekend. Leinster Rugby to win this game narrowly.

Scarlets travel to Rodney Parade to face a Dragons side who need a win desperately. No league win in this calendar year; several near misses which have exposed squad depth and game management issues at key junctures. Bernard Jackman and team have endured a miserable second half to the season and need a win here to sign-off with some optimism heading into the off-season.

Scarlets were given a lesson last weekend; their pack were negated from the breakdown as Leinster Rugby’s clear out work was sublime. Scarlets team selection will be interesting; expect several personnel changes but with a chance of top spot in Conference B, Wayne Pivac may decide to play the likes of Evans, Parkes, Williams to provide the go forward ball required.

Dragons to start this contest with gusto but a lack of attacking nous not to put points on the board will be exposed. Scarlets will eventually wear the Dragons pack down and it is a road win for the Scarlets. I am not sure if this will be enough to secure conference top spot but a good performance will do wonders for the side after last weekend’s performance at the Aviva Stadium.

Bernard Jackman and club player recruitment needs to be deep for next season; otherwise he is under pressure to keep his job next season!

This is an intriguing fixture. Cardiff Blues fresh from their Pau win last weekend have an outside chance of securing a top three playoff berth. Ospreys have secured fourth place in the conference and face a playoff match in the coming weeks.

Clarke has being rewarded for a good interim period as Ospreys head coach and takes the reins full time from next season. Ospreys have played with energy, work rate and creativity during his tenure. Dan Evans a standout from full back. The pack have improved their cohesion where Wyn-Jones and Davies have provided stellar second row play.

Cardiff Blues were immense in their breakdown work last weekend. Navidi and colleagues did a proper job on Pau. Evans at ten game managed well. The side were disciplined in their defensive play and they were a threat in the back three. Eighty minutes from European Challenge Cup glory; players fighting for squad berth places. Nice problem for Blues management to have.

A game which has the potential for tries. Edging this encounter to Ospreys as Cardiff Blues may not be as fresh with their efforts from last weekend. Blues have secured their European Rugby Champions Cup berth, a great season for the side after a shaky start. Ospreys will look to build momentum ahead of their playoff tussle to secure European Rugby Champions Cup as well.

The tournament organizers have missed a trick on the scheduling of this encounter. Ulster Rugby still have a chance of securing a top three Conference B finish. The game kicks off at 17:35 PM GMT. Edinburgh Rugby kick off their fixture at 19:45 PM GMT. Edinburgh Rugby will know exactly what need to do before kick off, a shame that the organizers could not put both fixtures on at the same time and see if any drama could be created.

Munster Rugby look vulnerable in this fixture. Another disappointing European Cup semi-final loss, a loss where the game was taken out of reach before the Irish province could hit a decisive blow. It is going to take time to reflect, repair the bodies and the mental scars after this outing so the Munster Rugby side will comprise mostly of squad players; a fixture where Munster have already secured a second place in Conference A.

Ulster Rugby come into the game knowing that they need realistically a bonus point try performance. Their side will be pretty much full strength. Best and Henderson looking to lead from the pack while Cooney, Piutau will look to provide the game management and threat out wide to secure this fixture objective.

Munster Rugby’s side should be exciting, expect the likes of Dan Goggin, Stephen Fitzgerald, Mike Sherry to get game time. Grobler will come into the equation along with Wycherley in the second row. The back row should see personnel changes too with Oliver set to get game time along with Copeland. Ulster Rugby need this win more; they will win this game but top three looks remote given the fixture scheduling.

Benetton Rugby finish off a promising season with a local bragging rights fixture against a Zebre Rugby side whose have shown good promise at various parts of this season. Benetton’s confidence will be sky high after their road trip win against Leinster Rugby. A win which was truly merited. A win where both pack and back line units contributed. Allan’s try to win the game was fitting to win any contest.

Michael Bradley’s side edged past Dragons but had an emphatic win over Ospreys last time out. Their spirit and work rate are not in question and Bradley has identified a couple of promising Italian players who could step up to the international side. Biagi, Bellini look like genuine finds this season and credit to the management for given these players the confidence to express themselves.

Benetton Rugby have had the edge on these derby games. It would be good for Benetton Rugby to consolidate their end of season performance with another solid performance. The side were on point against Leinster Rugby and their composure in dealing with Tebaldi’s yellow card in the final quarter was superb.

50/50 game until the third quarter when the benches are sprung and Benetton Rugby look to have the better weapons to make an impact with the likes of Budd and McKinley in the ranks. Benetton Rugby to win this contest in a season which should be the springboard for both sides to go to higher heights next season.

As mentioned, it was a shame that tournament organizers did not schedule this game at the same time as the Munster / Ulster clash. 19:45 PM GMT kickoffs would have provided a nice contrast, teams scoring tries, league table permutations, maybe next year hey!

Edinburgh Rugby are the progressive team of the league this season. Their performances from late October have being excellent; their win against Glasgow over the festive period was a real marker of their intent to make progress in this competition.

Cockerill and management have done a stellar job and identifying cohesion in the pack and back units. Berghan, Gllchrist, Toolis have being standouts. Hidalgo-Clyne experience at nine. Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn have shown massive upside in their back line play. Dougie Fife as well has shown well.

The key question here is Glasgow Warrior’s mindset on this fixture. They are top team of Conference A. Will they rest key players for the playoffs? Their first team charges faced Ulster Rugby last weekend and their performance fell well short of the standards set in this competition this season. Defensive line speed inconsistencies plagued their performance last weekend and Ulster Rugby took full advantage.

Motivation is with the hosts here and I think they will edge this encounter. A loss here without a loser point and Ulster Rugby get a top three berth in most dramatic fashion but I don’t see this happening. Edinburgh Rugby will be focused on what is required; no external pressures, just go out and perform. Glasgow to provide good moments but Edinburgh to secure the win here.