Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 5

French duo favorites to advance

The final pool of the Heineken Champions Cup has the financial and squad depth power of Montpellier and Toulon facing off against Heineken Champions Cup debutantes Newcastle Falcons and Edinburgh Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool more in hope than expectation. 

French teams hold the aces 

When this draw was announced, it looked like Toulon would be firm favorites to advance to the last eight but how things have changed? Toulon have struggled in Top 14 action only winning two league games so far, a side devoid of cohesion between the pack, half backs and back line. Don’t get me wrong, Toulon have a superb squad with the likes of Messam,  Pietersen, Belleau and Trinh-Duc but things have not gelled this season and represents hope for the others in the pool.

Montpellier come into this pool as favorites; solid start to the domestic action winning four league games out of seven. The backbone of this side is fronted by experienced South Africans starting with hooker Du Plessis, scrum half Ruan Pienaar, Serfontein and Steyn in the three quarters. The side also boasts the likes of Picamoles and Fall as well. Their 29-17 victory over Toulon at home last weekend is a good indicator; a performance built on solid pack work and where marauding Nagusa with ball in hand caused massive headaches. If Vern Cotter’s side can improve their road trip form, they should advance to the last eight of this competition.

Edinburgh Rugby come into top tier European tournament play in relatively good form. Solid home form seen in recent Guinness Pro 14 action; an abrasive pack with the likes of Gilchrist and Toolis providing assured line out. Mata at eight has the potential to dominate games from the base of the scrum. The back line has quality in abundance with the likes of Kinghorn, van der Merwe providing pace and power. The issue for Edinburgh will be their road trip form; has being poor this season so far. The other issue that comes to mind is Edinburgh’s inability to kill off teams effectively. Apart from the Toyota Cheetahs game, the home game victories have being very much down the stretch. 

Newcastle Falcons are a welcome addition to the tournament. They were immense last season with their expansive game plan but only one win this season has seen the side prop up the Premiership Rugby table. There have being several close losses in this set of results. Toby Flood will need to provide leadership aplenty with astute game management to keep the side in these contests. The opposition is high caliber and I fear that Newcastle may well open themselves up defensively and concede scores at a rate of knots. The sight of Goneva with ball in hand will be a joy to see though. 

Verdict:

Montpellier are a team which need to make a serious European Cup run this season. Their squad depth is stacked with talent and with Toulon struggling for form, they should do enough on the road to secure a last eight berth. There could be a potential second team coming out of this pool. I fear for Newcastle Falcons on their travels and the fixtures between Edinburgh Rugby and Toulon will be key. Toulon are a team on the brink, owner media outbursts, team discipline and I think Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh could secure a playoff berth.

European Champions Cup Reflections: Munster vs. Toulon

I blog on Easter Monday, a couple of days after Munster Rugby’s epic 20-19 win over Toulon at Thomond Park. The occasion and fixture failed to disappoint, a couple of thoughts on the encounter follow. Munster Rugby. Stand Up and Fight. 

Statistic Of The Day

Munster won against Toulon with 39% possession, 40% territory, 82 carries compared to 166 carries, 1 line break to Toulon’s 4 & 12 defenders beaten compared to 23.

Toulon Rugby

This was no ordinary French outfit coming to Limerick last weekend; the squad depth spoke volumes. There would be no capitulation from this side and so it proved as Toulon produced their most cohesive road trip performance in Europe this season. They dominated possession and territory. Only for an exceptional Andrew Conway solo effort at the death, the Toulon team would be looking forward to a semi-final tussle against Racing 92.

Accuracy

Munster’s opening quarter defensive display was incredibly accurate and on point. The defensive line speed, the accuracy in first time tackles on point from Munster. Conway’s fourth minute try saving tackle was exceptional and cannot be forgotten in the final scoreline. All credit to Munster, they tackled, got up and tackled again. Tackling was unerring throughout and to only concede one try to Toulon was a sublime defensive effort.

Neat

The ability of Munster front five to steady the ship after a shaky opening quarter showed neat game management. Archer after an early penalty slip in the opening exchanges did not waver thereafter. The front five gradually asserted dominance and with O’Mahony causing massive headaches in the Toulon line out, the platform and territory were finally established.

Determination

This Munster Rugby side is a team where honesty, integrity and determination to work for their colleague alongside them are the core beliefs. In a weekend where we witnessed certain sides gave way due to the sheer burden of defensive pressure, Munster Rugby to a man continued to execute the game plan, continue to assist their colleague in difficulty and provide sheer bloody minded resistance against a star studded Toulon. Incredible stuff to watch!

Unparalleled Atmosphere

The videos emerging from the game at Thomond Park are spine tingling. The Fields of Athenry and Stand Up and Fight songs were rocking the very core of this hallowed sports arena. I have being to some of the world’s best sporting arenas in the USA / Europe and Canada but they do not compare to Thomond Park on a crunch Munster European Cup tie.

The more important the game is for Munster Rugby, the more dog that comes out in the atmosphere at the Limerick venue. The television shot of the young Munster fan at the end encapsulated everything you need to know about what it is like to be at one of these games. Elation mixed with trepidation conscious that the result is very much in the balance, fantastic image.

Ashton

Love him or hate him, I have to mention Chris Ashton. He was the player who took the fight to Munster Rugby from minute one until the final phase where he was pinged by Nigel Owens. Ashton’s performance was superb; on another day, his first cameo of the day could have seen a penalty try awarded to Toulon.

The English winger was a constant menace with ball in hand his supporting running was sensational for the try that looked to break the game in favor of Toulon. Incredible performance; assured under the high ball. Ashton was the standout from a Toulon perspective.

Negotiating Adversity

When Chris Ashton crossed over for Toulon’s try in the third quarter, the Thomond Park faithful was stunned into silence. Some in the crowd heckled and booed (sad to see) but there was a sense in the crowd that Munster Rugby were in trouble.

How would Munster Rugby manage to gain field position to come from behind with only ten minutes left? Credit to the side for having the composure to not throw in the towel. The five meter scrum at the death was superbly defended by Toulon but then came Conway’s masterclass. Munster Rugby refused to give up, players ball carried with determination and precision as well as manfully fulfilling their defensive duties.

Driven

The front row of Ryan, Scannell and Cronin had a point to prove. Their starting front row comrades had provided the platform and they needed to produce an immediate impact. The opening scrum from the unit was nothing short of world class.

The Toulon front row driven back at a rate of knots. Owens had the simplest penalty award to make. A penalty awarded. Keatley slotted over and a 13-6 advantage to Munster. When you consider the margin of victory, how crucial was this cameo to the overall result?

Fans

When I left for Boston in November 2001, one of the things I missed most in my six and a half years over in the USA was Thomond Park and the Munster Rugby fans. The banter, the unwavering support to the side when more illustrious opposition arrived to town.

I think of Gloucester Rugby, Sale Sharks, Wasps, Northampton Saints who came and were beaten. The atmosphere of the fans and the connection between the fans and the players was back to the glory days of Munster Rugby last weekend. Incredible sight. Incredible sound. Sixteenth man.

Ingenuity

There is a debate currently on-going on who is the best scrum-half in rugby? The criteria is vast but for sheer ingenuity and ability to create opportunities from nothing, the ability to game read a move that the mere mortal cannot see dictates that Conor Murray has to be on the top of the list.

Murray’s opportunistic try in the opening period was a game changer. After a defensive bombardment, Munster Rugby needed points on the board. Toulon were 0-6 up and on the ascendancy. Murray’s interpretation of the ruck laws incredible; the ingenuity to apply the rules in the blood and thrust of a playoff match.

His quick thinking and communication to the touch judge to call out what happened, his ability to touch down incredible. The TMO review took a while but it was clear that this was a try. A key turning point in the contest. Murray yet again delivered. When you consider his cameo for Stockdale’s try against England a couple of weeks ago, Murray’s ability to see an opportunity is unparalleled at this time.

Genius

13-19. The clock was now the enemy for Munster Rugby. After a five meter scrum was superbly defended by Toulon, some may have felt that was Munster’s golden opportunity missed so when Trinh-Duc executed a kick to exit from the Toulon twenty-two, there appeared no danger. A kick right on the sideline.

Conway collected the ball right on the sideline and then what happened, I am still finding hard to quantify still. The sheer ability of Conway (who let us remember was coming back from injury) to tinkle toe his way past several Toulon defender in field was sensational. The Toulon rearguard had no response and Conway crashed over next to the posts.

Everyone was shocked. Munster fans celebrating in disbelief. Toulon players looking at each other, wondering how this could happen? This was a try that will be remembered for years to come in this competition. Genius move to win this epic tussle.

Halfway Line Battleground

Keatley’s conversion made the score 20-19. Four minutes left. Personally, my nerves were absolutely shot. I could not look anymore. My voice was done and dusted as Toulon started to recycle phase after phase. Munster players continuing to be disciplined in their tackling, continuing to get back on their feet and keep concentration.

Toulon slowly got to Munster’s ten meter line and the ball was with the dangerous Ashton. Toulon support for the ball carrier not quite there; Munster saw their opportunity and Owens sided with Munster on the breakdown as the home fans roared with approval. Game over. The halfway battle in those last four minutes were epic by both sides. Both sides refusing to relinquish the game. Classic European Cup Rugby.

The Aftermath

Limerick City was a hive of activity. Fans who I spoke to were buoyant but drained; the events of the day catching up. The Toulon supporters in the city were extremely generous in their words of congratulations. Limerick City after a successful community initiative led by Paul O’Connell on Good Friday to clean up the county and city looked the part.

The aftermath of this contest was hard to fathom. Munster Rugby had won. How they won given how the game ensued will be dissected for a while to come but let us be sure of one thing. David slayed Goliath here. Munster had stood up and fought and won! Munster Rugby. Stand Up and Fight. 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Quarter Final Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Munster Rugby vs. Toulon Preview

Easter Weekend. It is decision day for Munster Rugby and Toulon in their quest to secure an European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final berth. Sold out Thomond Park. Limerick is a buzz with excitement for this fixture given the personnel that Toulon have in their squad. Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints a couple of major talking points ahead of this game.

Emotion needs to be kept in check by Munster

The early week news conference given by Johann van Graan was interesting to say the least. The typical sound bites of respecting the opposition were uttered but not before van Graan proclaimed ”You want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning’. His eyes welling up when he uttered those words.

Emotion is something that needs to be held on tap during game week; preparation needs to be on point, tactics and personnel responsibilities assigned and executed well on the training paddock. Munster Rugby have being guilty of leaving performances in the locker room last season when emotive talk was uttered.

I am thinking in terms of the Saracens European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final and the Guinness Pro 12 final with Scarlets last season where Munster Rugby where the performance was flat and one dimensional. Talks of emotive speeches before hand was a trend.

The head coach needs to lead by example, clinical and meticulous in preparation. It is a huge game for van Graan; his first playoff contest as Munster Rugby head coach. The press conference during the week emphasized as much and emotion needs to be used at the right time when appropriate.

Toulon Confidence

Many people have pointed to their performance last weekend against ASM Clermont. Toulon to their credit were excellent, a 49-0 shutout win over a Clermont side whose tackle completion statistic of 67% spoke volumes. Toulon benefited from a visiting side whose pack failed to assert any platform and the team who were second best throughout.

Clermont’s defensive display bordered on embarrassing at times and one would hope that Munster Rugby will produce a better performance without the ball with excellent defensive line speed, competitive breakdown work as well as hitting first time tackles.

Toulon Threats

There are threats throughout this Toulon side. The front five pack a massive punch and their attacking line outs and mauls will look to test their Munster Rugby’s counterparts and exploits gaps in the fringes. Bastareaud is the attacking fulcrum where all good things come. The center was prominent in last weekend’s blowout win, offloading at regular intervals, assists for Ashton and Fekitoa tries.

Fekitoa with ball in hand is an explosive ball carrier and Munster Rugby’s defensive shape and organization will need to be on point this weekend. Massive threats all over the park and I have not even mentioned the likes of Isa and Lobbe in the engine room of the pack. Nonu could also feature in the three quarters. The squad assembled is immense. Belleau or Trinh Duc for the ten jersey. Intriguing selections beckon for Fabien Galthie.

Munster injury concerns

Ireland’s success in the Natwest 6 Nations tournament has come at a price for Munster Rugby. The back line squad depth is being tested to its limits. Chris Farrell and Keith Earls are unavailable due to injury. There are doubts on the fitness of Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway ahead of this contest along with Rory Scannell who is following return to play protocol.

Munster Rugby potentially may need to summon several young players to get over the line this weekend. Alex Wooton has had an excellent breakout season, prominent in the Scarlets Pro 14 home win last weekend. His performances in European Cup games this season when featured has being on point. Sam Arnold at thirteen has a massive task this weekend; attempt to nullify Bastareaud while providing pace and mobility to create line breaks. Arnold’s pace on the outside potentially could cause Toulon massive issues. The players who will feature will not let the side down.

Rory Scannell

It is imperative that Rory Scannell features in this contest. His versatility and kicking game in open play will provide an added dimension to Munster’s attacking play. Scannell has the potential to keep Toulon’s midfield off balance with his game management and kicking game to unleash Sam Arnold at thirteen.

Munster Seven Jersey Conundrum

The pack will be along familiar lines with the big question is who will fill the seven jersey. Chris Cloete and Tommy O’Donnell are sidelined with injury and it opens the door for the likes of Robin Copeland, Dave O’Callaghan or Conor Oliver to contribute from the start.

Copeland is in terrific form at present; his man of the match performance against Scarlets  last weekendmust have the Wexford man in a strong position to start. Oliver could be the dark horse selection, grapples well at the breakdown and his mobility to support the ball carrier a huge plus. Dave O’Callaghan brings utter physicality on both sides of the ball.

Effective Kicking Game

This is going to be so crucial to decide who wins this contest. Munster Rugby’s kicking game last weekend was incredibly poor in the opening period, a repeat and Toulon could do serious damage. Conor Murray will be a significant upside to this facet of play for Munster Rugby, his kicking game will allow Munster to test the Toulon back three.

Chris Ashton at full back could be exposed at precise times by Murray and Keatley during this contest. The Toulon back three on paper are sensational with ball in hand but questions defensively are there to be exploited. Toulon’s game plan will be interesting. Will they look to execute a kicking game or attempt to run the ball using their pack? Munster Rugby to win need to dominate this facet of play. A clash of styles beckon!