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 Sixteen (Saturday Fixtures)

Three home wins looks the solid bet

The Guinness Pro14 fixtures set for Saturday are interesting in terms of the playoff ramifications come the end of the season. The hosts of these fixtures look solid favorites but for Cardiff Blues in particular, it is a game where a win is paramount. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the form guide.

Benetton Rugby need to keep momentum going 

A defining round fifteen victory for Benetton Rugby in their victory over Scarlets at home. The result was impressive for a number of reasons. The ability of Benetton Rugby to get off the canvas multiple times to keep to the game plan was admirable; the ability of Ian McKinley to link attacking play was impressive and the ability of the pack to stave off Scarlets advances late incredible.

After such an euphoric victory last weekend, it will mean nothing if they cannot back up this performance and beat a Dragons side who are out of playoff contention with little to play for. This is a potential banana skin fixture for the progressive Italian club if they do not execute to the levels required.

The team selections have yet to be announced but suffice to say that Benetton Rugby will be missing a couple of marquee players from last weekend. Ian McKinley will miss out as he is on Italian national team duty on Sunday but the side has sufficient talent in the pack to set the platform to win this contest.

Dragons will be without the likes of Dee and Wainwright for this fixture. They showed good attacking play last weekend against Edinburgh but their defensive line speed and first time tackling were at times a shambles. Their last quarter display was poor and the failure of the side to produce a cohesive eighty minute performance this season is mystifying considering the experience of Hibbard and Henson in the ranks.

This is a fixture where Dragons’ pack could struggle as Benetton Rugby impressed in the set piece exchanges. Benetton Rugby are aware of the mission this weekend; a victory is paramount and if they can achieve a bonus point try then great but this is a fixture that could be a struggle for the Italians more than pundits would expect. Benetton to win but no bonus point as Dragons will look to hang on as much as they can in this contest.

Edinburgh Rugby building momentum 

This is probably the marquee Guinness Pro14 game on Saturday. Edinburgh Rugby showed the good and the bad in their bonus point try victory over Dragons. The good was undoubtedly their tries scored; some inventive running plays with Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe prominent. The bad was the defensive lapses particularly in the opening period, massive gaps that Dragons exploited to score tries.

Cardiff Blues come into this game desperately looking for a victory to keep in the Conference A playoff race. A home loss last time out against Glasgow Warriors; a mixed bag like their hosts last weekend with a poor opening period ultimately undoing all the good work of the Blues late. Their ball carrying and attacking threat is up there with the best in the league but their defensive side of play can be inconsistent and teams have exposed this in recent rounds.

The smart money would be on an Edinburgh Rugby win but if Cardiff Blues can compete and stay in touch until the third quarter, they have a serious chance of securing that coveted road trip win that could transform their Guinness Pro14 season. However, I have question marks on how they counteract the threats of Edinburgh Rugby out wide. Duhan van der Merwe is playing at a higher level to last season; looks the key man for Edinburgh Rugby to secure a win.

Ulster Rugby should have too much for Zebre Rugby

The Ulster Rugby Guinness Pro14 campaign has reached a pivotal point. After a morale boosting shutout win over Ospreys last weekend, it is now time to consolidate their playoff position in Conference B with Scarlets potentially facing a stiff challenge to the Toyota Cheetahs on Sunday.

Zebre Rugby arrive at Kingspan Stadium after a home loss to Leinster Rugby. The resiliency was to the fore as they battled gamely after going 0-21 down early to Leinster Rugby as they fought back to make it a 19-21 score at the break. Shrewd game management to take points instead of going for the line in the third quarter proved costly as Leinster Rugby regained composure to take the game away from the Italians.

This weekend will see both sides undermanned due to Guinness Six Nations commitments. Ulster Rugby for me look the solid bet to claim a bonus point try. O’Sullivan, Moore and Balacoune look the key players for Ulster Rugby provided that McPhilips / Burns can execute the attacking game plan to a high level.

Zebre Rugby will look to compete but in effect, they are out of playoff contention. It is a time to evaluate the squad depth for Michael Bradley and I think they will look to prove a point after a traumatic South African road trip recently. They do not want an embarrassing scoreline inflicted again. Ulster Rugby to win with a bonus point try though as squad depth issues on the Zebre Rugby will rear their head in the third quarter off the bench.

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: Round 14 Preview

Tournament resumes with renewed swag!

End of January. It is the end of the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup pool phase campaigns which means that the Guinness 6 Nations tournament is not far off. It also means that the Guinness Pro14 sides will need to look long and hard at their depth chart to tackle this latest block of fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixtures scheduled for round fourteen.

Glasgow Warriors should secure home victory 

Ospreys travel to Glasgow Warriors on the back of a couple indifferent European Challenge Cup losses. The focus is now to secure playoff rugby but the injuries, international call ups mean that squad depth for the Welsh region looks vulnerable. Glasgow Warriors have stuttered in recent Guinness Pro14 fixtures but this is a glorious opportunity for Dave Rennie’s charges to get back on the win column. Glasgow Warriors look primed for a bonus point try. Ospreys worrying form of late is set to continue.

Leinster fringe players to flex their muscles 

Scarlets injury list is slowly improving but they were no match for Racing 92 last weekend. Their marquee players are summons for Welsh test match rugby and the depth chart in the back row will be duly observed. Leinster Rugby have had an excellent couple of weeks since their loss at Thomond Park. The squad depth is awesome and expecting the likes of Doris, Deegan, O’Brien to impress here. Unless Scarlets pack can set a platform, this looks like a routine home win for the hosts with a late bonus point try in the offing. Scarlets are in limbo until Pivac and Jones depart for Wales at the end of the current season.

Benetton Rugby look for road win at Ulster Rugby

This is one of the intriguing fixtures this weekend. In any other season, you would easily dismiss this fixture and call it a home win but Benetton Rugby have progressively improved this season. They are currently third in Conference B. Ulster Rugby are under pressure to win this fixture but given the injury list and international call ups, this fixture suddenly looks like a complete and utter banana skin. Benetton Rugby will be missing numerous Italian squad members for this clash but the system deployed this season will mean that they will be competitive until the final quarter. Tight encounter beckons with the hosts just edging this. A loss for Ulster Rugby and it could be a nervy end of the season run in to clinch a playoff berth.

Dragons entertain Munster Rugby 

Dragons squad impact due to the international call ups is minimal. Munster Rugby on the other hand are missing numerous first line players but it provides an opportunity for young players Daly, O’Connor to impress. Dragons exited the European Challenge Cup with a chastening home loss to ASM Clermont. Munster Rugby cohesion issues early mean that this fixture is in the melting pot. Inclement weather adds further intrigue. Slight vote to Munster Rugby but this is going to be closer than many expect. Dragons will react to the heavy home loss from last weekend.

Cheetahs primed for Zebre Rugby

Toyota Cheetahs are on a two game winning streak. Zebre Rugby will be missing some key players such as Cana for the fixture which is decisive. I fear for Zebre Rugby in this fixture; the squad depth has been exposed in recent weeks and with the altitude of Bloemfontein, the team selected could flag in the second half. Cheetahs expansive style of game with this current squad is slowly gelling together and there is a bonus point try here for the South Africans.

Cardiff Blues look to rebound against Connacht Rugby 

A potentially exciting contest may be tempered by the wet weather promised for Saturday. Let us hope that the rain promised clears for this fixture as both sides will look to throw the ball around. Cardiff Blues need is more in this fixture; five points behind fourth placed Connacht Rugby ahead of this tussle. A win is required. A loss will mean an uphill task to get back into the playoff race. Connacht Rugby have had an indifferent record here and suspect that this will continue due to key personnel absentees. Cardiff Blues if on form should win this encounter, expecting the New Zealand contingent in the side to setup the platform for victory. Close encounter. Connacht Rugby to come away with a loser point.

Edinburgh travel to Southern Kings 

A nice reward for Richard Cockerill’s side after a very pleasing European Cup campaign. Nice weather in South Africa to recharge battered bodies and a chance for fringe squad players to impress. Kings have been indifferent again in recent weeks and if Edinburgh Rugby can establish continuity and cohesion sufficiently should win this fixture in the fourth quarter. Kings will have their moments but the player pool in the side still is not at the level required for this competition. Private investment is secured for the side going forward and it needs to be used to identify talent within the Super Rugby club fraternity looking for game time to make an impact for this club. Edinburgh Rugby win.

Heineken Champions Cup: Pool Phase Review

The cream has come to the top!

So that is the end of the pool phase of the Heineken Champions Cup for another year. A competition phase which on the final weekend did not create that excitement that we typically expect. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool phases and casts his eye further down the track (foolish or not) to end of March and the quarter final pairings.

Who impressed?

You cannot look past the top three seeds in the quarter finals. I thought they were the standout teams. Saracens look in the mood to go deep in this tourney and their performance last weekend minus Owen Farrell was a timely reminder to all opposition of their potency and squad depth. The pack is formidable. Itoje is running the show in the second row and his discipline is vastly improved in this campaign. They have put Glasgow Warriors to the sword twice in the pool and with another meeting at the end of March; the smart money is for a Saracens home win. Their balance and game management has been on point this season.

Racing 92 has been throwing the ball a bit this season? Their home form performance have been nothing short of sensational. Their ability to create such a high tempo game has exposed their pool opposition so far. Scarlets last weekend tried to stand toe to toe but were destroyed in a rampant third quarter cameo. Simon Zebo, Finn Russell have settled so well into the club and with a hardworking pack at the core; their fixture against Toulouse has fireworks writing all over it.

Leinster Rugby continue to rumble on in this tournament. Their opening night demolition of Wasps was incredible; their supporting running, offloading and set piece prowess with James Ryan at the heart of everything good in the engine room was the platform for what that has followed. Yes, there has been a loss on the road to Toulouse but that was an incredible contest. Leinster Rugby entertaining Ulster Rugby in the last eight of the competition. Player injuries coming out of the RBS 6 Nations could be a key factor here. Their squad depth was flexed in the last two rounds. Ross Byrne seamlessly stepped into fill Johnny Sexton’s shoes. Adam Byrne has been a revelation in the back three this season. Sean Cronin has become a marauding try scoring machine, equal on tries with Jacob Stockdale! The champions are not going away you know!

Progressing Nicely

I have to say that the progression in Edinburgh Rugby these last two seasons has been nothing short of superb. The job that Richard Cockerill and management have done with this team has been sensational. The manner in which Hardie was given his marching orders last season was a serious statement on how the management wanted their players to represent themselves and the club. There is a performance etiquette that needs to be delivered by the players who put on the jersey week in week out. Their pool performances looked on the outside to be daunting but they handled the threat posed by the juggernaut Montpellier and RC Toulon with ease. The front row performance last weekend in particular was excellent. Nel played with a freedom that I have not seen in the player before. His behind the legs past to Mata indicative of the confident that the prop is playing with at the moment. His front row colleagues destroyed Montpellier. Pierre Schoeman is a man mountain wrecking ball at scrum time. Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham coupled with the continued emergence of Blair Longhorn means that this is a side which deserves respect and have an excellent chance of semi-final progression.

Scope for improvement:

For Edinburgh Rugby to make to the last four, they will need to get past a Munster Rugby side who gutted their way through to the last eight of the competition yet again. An extremely tough pool for Munster Rugby starting from day one on that hurricane style day at Sandy Park. Munster Rugby critically took care of Gloucester Rugby and then had to deal with officiating incompetence in Castres. The team are battle hardened. The desire and determination to win is beyond reproach. The attacking side of the game continues to be inconsistent and exposed when teams pressure the side with their defensive line speed and flooding the breakdown area. The good news for Munster Rugby has been the performances of Joey Carbery who has bounced back well from that Castres road trip display. Tadhg Beirne continues to be a beast in the open and breakdown exchanges. Mike Haley solid under the high ball and Chris Farrell provided he remains injury free can provide go forward ball at the end of March. 50/50 game with Edinburgh. The scrum battle even right now looks a key battle and the battle of Mata vs. Stander will be worth the gate admission fee. A team who have scope to improve which is always good this time of the year.

Ulster Rugby must be applauded for the manner in which they came back to win at Welford Road last weekend. They were under the cosh for long periods of the contest but they hung in and with excellent back line talent in Baloucoune, Stockdale and Addison they got back into the game and never looked back. The pool phase was a good learning curve for Dan McFarland; his charges had to show resiliency after a heavy loss to Racing 92 but their reaction to beat Scarlets (home and away) was emphatic. A road trip to Dublin beckons but the attitude should be clear for Ulster Rugby. They should enter the fixture with minimal pressure; pundits will write them off and the side are well capable with their back line to pose Leinster Rugby issues. The forward pack will need to step up to a different level and the news of the injury to Iain Henderson is a worry. The emergence of Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore is a welcome boost for a side which struggled in the front row unit exchanges last season.

Toulouse were sneaky out yesterday. They realized that another try scored against Bath Rugby would mean a return trip to Dublin. You saw the mindset of the club management and players in yesterday’s second half display to Bath Rugby. They wanted no part in a Leinster Rugby rematch. They will take their chances to beat Racing 92 on the road; not an impossible task as the style of play adopted by Racing 92 will suit Toulouse and their off the cuff attacking approach to the game. It is great to see Toulouse back to the forefront of European Club Rugby. Their performance against Leinster Rugby at home was a timely reminder of how superb they can be with ball in hand. Medard continues to inspire those around them. The Leinster Rugby road trip loss exposed pack and defensive issues; needs to improve to realistically beat Racing 92 in the quarter finals.

Glasgow Warriors. Eighth seed. They have thank Edinburgh Rugby for their place in the playoffs. The Saracens losses exposed issues yet again in the pack set piece amid the typical attacking flair out wide. Adam Hastings has developed well in the half back position but their pack problems are a huge concern and I do not see much joy for them on the road again to Saracens. A team who for me have under achieved in this competition and with the likes of Stuart Hogg gone to Exeter Chiefs next season, the window for the Warriors to get into a semi-final / final of this competition looks more remote with each passing season.

Disappointments of the competition:

RC Toulon were a massive disappointment in this tournament this season. A team with vastly acquired talent but unable to string together cohesion anywhere on the park. The team ethos was missing in this tournament as soon as Newcastle Falcons beat them in the opening round. The white flag was raised against Edinburgh Rugby. Time RC Toulon started to focus on their homegrown talent and less on glamorous import acquisitions. RC Toulon need to look long and hard on their long term plans. Legacy built with Johnny Wilkinson is been eroded at a rate of knots.

Scarlets were one game away from making the European Cup final last season but they were nowhere near it this season. Injury crisis for sure played a part but the departures of the likes of Beirne, Barclay were more massive than first anticipated. Pivac and Jones leave for Wales at the end of the season; unsure on the talent recruitment policy at the club with managerial setup in limbo. Scarlets have a lovely style of play but they were put to sword far too often this season in this competition. A year of transition next season beckons for the club. Sad to see!

Leicester Tigers are descending into absolute anarchy. Their performance against Ulster Rugby last weekend typified their predicament. Dominant for long periods, unable to put opposition away and then defensive frailties exposed in quick time in the third quarter. The club need stability; make a decision and if Geordan Murphy is their man, stand by him for the long term. Matt O’Connor dismissal after one game this season is not a move typically seen by a club like Leicester Tigers. Things are not right at the club and I am not convinced that they will be getting back into this competition next season. Rebuild is the keyword!

Officiating inconsistency. The sheer inconsistent in officiating the breakdown and incidents where players are taken out in the air was further magnified in the last couple of rounds. The Castres vs. Munster Rugby fixture was deplorable; dark arts in full view but the officiating crew failed to impose their authority or the laws of the game. Other games fell foul of inconsistent officiating also. Breakdown is a joke at the moment. Players not staying on their feet. Players coming in from the side. Players sealing off the ball. Where is the fair contest? For a player to win a turnover at the breakdown these days, you need to be hit at least five times from different angles to get anything and still stay on your feet.

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 13 Preview (Irish Provincial Fixtures)

Last round of Irish Provincial derbies up for decision

A hectic festive period sees teams juggle squad rotation to the max ahead of crunch European Cup fixtures next weekend. Munster Rugby travel to the Sportsground with a strong looking squad on paper against a Connacht Rugby side missing a couple of first team regulars. Leinster Rugby will be keen to get on winning ways as they entertain an Ulster Rugby side who have left off the majority of the marquee starters. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

All points to a Leinster Rugby bonus point win 

The team selections for this RDS fixture left me quite underwhelmed. Ulster Rugby have decided to rest their first team stars with a key fixture against Racing 92 looming on the horizon next weekend. Leinster Rugby have juggled the team selection after an ill-disciplined performance against Munster Rugby on the road. The fixture looks like a cohesive mess.

Ulster Rugby have looked at the fixture; weighed their options and decided that this fixture is beyond them. A bit harsh but when you decide to blood four academy players in the cauldron of the RDS after Leinster Rugby have just been beaten last time out, enough said. Lambs to the slaughter?

The youngsters in the side will try hard but there is a feeling here of their Thomond Park performance on this one. It will be important for the likes of Herbst, O’Connor, Timoney, Shanahan and McPhilips to try and set the tone early for others to follow.

The performance against Connacht Rugby last weekend was well off the standard required; pack struggled for set piece dominance and the back three defensively at times were caught more than once by Farrell, Aki and Godwin in ball carrying.

Leinster Rugby’s video analysis of their Thomond Park first half performance would have been a sight to behold. Discipline went out the window in that opening period and cost them the game. Lowe’s red card capped off a horrendous half and it could have been worse.

The only crumb of comfort for Cullen and Lancaster was the second half performance. With fourteen players, they defended with gusto and organization scoring two tries of their own. An intercept try from Earls deep in Munster Rugby territory was the only blotch to the copybook.

The team selection from Leinster Rugby blends fringe players with players who need game time ahead of the crunch Toulouse fixture next weekend. Rob Kearney returns to the full back slot and his experience will be vital in organizing a talented but still raw back three. Adam Byrne and Barry Daly need game time and this will be a good hit out.

I am particularly interested in how Ciaran Frawley bounces back from last weekend. His sub cameo unfortunately saw an errand pass which Earls intercepted and scored for the game winning try. Frawley’s response this weekend will be interesting, see if the player can dust himself down and perform to the high levels that he has produced so far this season.

The pack looks abrasive despite key personnel absentees. Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter look a potent front row. Molony and Kearney are solid set piece operators and then there is massive youth, pace and power in Murphy, Penny and Deegan in the back row.

Verdict: Leinster Rugby (BP Win)

The hope here is that Ulster Rugby start well with gusto and get an early lead. Anything else and this will be a long, arduous, horrendous experience for a talented yet inexperienced Ulster Rugby outfit. Leinster Rugby’s bench looks stacked as well if required. No rest for Ulster Rugby in this fixture I fear.

Munster Rugby looking for attacking display 

The team selection from van Graan and Munster Rugby team selection speaks volumes; they have identified that the attacking side of the ball in the back line needs to tighten up and more game time this weekend ahead of a crucial European Cup fixture schedule is what is required.

The big news is the return of Chris Farrell in the three quarters. If you are to believe some fan forums, Farrell’s absence has been the key reason for a stagnant back line performance. I think there is more than one player for the struggles but the Tyrone native’s return is much welcomed given his physicality on both sides of the ball. Dan Goggin switches to twelve and needs to impress this week to realistically be a genuine starter for the rest of the season.

Conway, Earls and Wootton form the back three and it will be interesting (weather permitting) how Munster Rugby’s back line play will fare tomorrow in Galway. With Carbery and Mathewson at the half-back berths, quick ruck ball is paramount to launch the back line. The ruck ball in recent weeks has been very slow, poor setup on the ruck too (additional player or two over committing to the ruck). Interesting to see how this facet of play goes from the team in red.

A strong pack is named. Peter O’Mahony, Arno Botha and Tommy O’Donnell form an abrasive back row unit with Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn in the second row. John Ryan, Jeremy Loughman and Niall Scannell in the front row. The cohesion issues in the line out should improve from tomorrow’s outing. The scrum set piece has been good, a good opportunity to run the rule over Loughman in a starting role.

Andy Friend has wielded the changes for this encounter; an excellent home win against Ulster Rugby last weekend has seen the side infused with fresh legs. Inspirational captain Jarrad Butler misses out for the hosts due to injury but the back row is loaded mobility, pace and breakdown nous with Colby Fainga’a, Eoghan Masterson and Gorey native Paul Boyle in the ranks.

The half back partnership of Blade and Carty continues; the partnership has excelled in recent weeks and why break continuity? The big news is that Tom Daly makes his Connacht Rugby debut alongside Tom Farrell. A potential abrasive, exciting three quarter partnership and will be tested by Goggin and Farrell on the other side of the ball.

Matt Healy returns to the back three with Cian Kelleher continuing on the other wing. The lineup is complete by Darragh Leader who has looked a different player this season with his confident aerial and ball carrying ability.

Verdict: Munster Rugby (close win)

A strong Munster Rugby outfit; if the starting lineup fails to fire with ball in hand tomorrow, then massive questions in confidence will be raised in the camp ahead of a crunch European Cup pool finale. The bench looks strong with the likes of Murray, Bleyendaal and Stander in the ranks. The team need to deliver.

Connacht Rugby have greatly impressed me this season. The absence of Aki is a blow and cohesive issues with Daly / Farrell will happen. The bench impact looks strong in the pack but the back line options look stretched and because of that, it is Munster Rugby who will edge this contest. The performance of Chris Farrell will be duly observed.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 12 Preview (Irish Provinces)

Local derby bragging rights on the line

The first blog posting after Christmas, hoping one and all had a good festive period and ate all round you. Best wishes for 2019! The Irish provinces cheer will be in short supply over the next couple of days as Connacht Rugby entertain Ulster Rugby at Sportsground. Munster Rugby who are under pressure to produce a vastly improved performance with ball in hand face down the current standard bearer Leinster Rugby. Expect fireworks!

What impact has the Leinster Rugby loss had on Connacht Rugby?

The key question going into this fixture. After such an excellent performance for three quarters in the RDS last weekend, it was a devastating last ten minutes for Connacht Rugby. Their much coveted victory in the RDS evaporated as Leinster Rugby’s attacking play coupled with passive game management and kicking from Connacht Rugby saw the game turn on its head.

The morale of the Connacht Rugby squad has to have taken a hit. The manner of the result was a bitter pill to swallow so Andy Friend and management team will have had their work cut out to get the side in the right mindset to win this contest.

Connacht Rugby named yet another strong team selection for this derby fixture. Four personnel changes sees Conor Carey and Shane Delahunt come into the front row. Quinn Roux partners the impressive Gavin Thornbury in the second row. Sean O’Brien comes into the back row.

The subs bench looks strong and with the Stephen Fitzgerald (on loan from Munster Rugby) expected to make a debut from the bench, there are options for Andy Friend to call upon if the need arises.

Ulster Rugby are coming to the Sportsground with revenge on their mind. It is an opportunity to right the wrongs after a disappointing home performance to the same opposition earlier in the season. Connacht Rugby dominated all facets of play and only for a Nick Timoney try at the death to make the 22-15 look closer than it was.

Dan McFarland comes back to his former club and names a good squad for the fixture. Alternations in the back line as Robert Baloucoune is suspended which means that McPhilips, Cave and Kernohan come in to freshen the side up. Timoney comes into an abrasive back row containing Coetzee and Murphy.

Verdict: Connacht Rugby

The Ulster Rugby starting lineup looks strong but question marks on the bench impact is prevalent here. Connacht Rugby’s performance depends on their mindset after that traumatic Leinster Rugby loss. If they are on point, expecting a good performance with Blade and Carty at half-back and with a strong bench should go home.

Ulster Rugby’s performance against an under-strength Munster Rugby last time out produced good moments with ball in hand but still were unable to pull clear. Addison vs. Aki looks the individual match-up to look out for; a national team trial selection.

Munster Rugby: Backs against the wall

The last few weeks have been a mixed bag for all associated with Munster Rugby. After the battle of Castres and then a loser point against Ulster Rugby, it has exposed massive issues with ball in hand. It is time to find form and confidence ahead of key European Cup action but with Leinster Rugby coming to Limerick, it will be difficult.

It will be interesting to see how Munster Rugby’s game plan with ball in hand evolves for this fixture. If Munster Rugby execute at the levels they have been in recent weeks, this could be a humiliation. There needs to be more variety in attacking lines. Ball carrier needs support runner options, something absent in recent weeks. Game management needs to improve; better kicking game required this week.

Munster Rugby make several changes to the side who lost to Ulster Rugby last time out. The cavalry is called upon as Stander, Murray, Beirne, Conway and Earls come into the ranks. Goggin and Scannell form yet another three quarter partnership; a troublesome area for the side given the state of flux. No Peter O’Mahony so Fineen Wycherley continues in the back row.

Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster wield the changes too. Key marquee names get game time in this local derby. Healy, Ryan, Furlong, Conan, van der Flier, Sexton, McGrath, Lowe, Ringrose, Larmour will look to impress. Larmour from full back could have a proverbial field day if Munster Rugby defensively are not at from minute one. Larmour was the marquee performer in this corresponding fixture last season.

I am struggling on how Munster Rugby can win this encounter. The defensive line speed and tackling have been solid but line out and attacking play has been inconsistent, two facets of play which Leinster Rugby excel in and with a quality back row, quick ruck ball from the hosts will be difficult to acheive.

A big game for Joey Carbery who needs to produce a measured performance. These are the games which Carbery was brought into the side for and after an indifferent performance against Castres on the road, he needs to stand up and deliver here.

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Folks will argue that Munster Rugby have been on the end of some poor officiating crew decisions but the general game plan and execution in the side have been poor as well. Munster Rugby need to show a measured improvement and they will but Leinster Rugby hold all the aces here. Strong throughout the pitch and with impact from the bench with ball in hand, they will secure another victory on the road.

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Reflections (Irish Interpros)

Drama and excitement aplenty

The eleventh round of the Guinness Pro 14 saw closely fought contests throughout the fixture list. Cardiff Blues edged an unlucky Dragons outfit. Ospreys beat Scarlets at home to provide a timely morale boost. Edinburgh Rugby’s pack set the platform for a rousing victory over Glasgow Warriors while Benetton Rugby edged past Zebre Rugby today. This blog posting will focus on the Irish inter-provincials where excitement was reserved for the RDS.

Leinster Rugby show why they are champions 

Seventeen points down with seventeen minutes to go. A fixture which Connacht Rugby provided several superb attacking moves with Jack Carty the conductor of all that he surveyed. Any other side would have been resigned to their fate but this Leinster Rugby showed massive fortitude, attitude, determination and skill to pull this game out of the fire.

What sets this side apart is how Leinster Rugby refused to panic, kept believing in their systems knowing that they should get their just rewards. Connacht Rugby visibly tired with each passing phase in that last ten minutes and from been in a position of strength, they were akin to a boxer on the ropes waiting to be put out of their misery.

Connacht Rugby game management in that final ten minutes was also quite key; a couple of occasions where the side had chances to slow the tempo and with more assured kicking from hand into touch could have still secured the win but Leinster Rugby were given the field position required and they made Connacht Rugby pay.

The cameo of Ross Byrne in the closing minutes were nothing short of sensational. His game management to keep Connacht Rugby off balance defensively to the core and with the ever willing support running of Adam Byrne (148 meters off 18 carries), it was decisive. When you add his unerring conversions at the death, it was a display which showed composure in abundance.

Leinster Rugby management will be keen to run the rule over the video analysis as Connacht Rugby exposed big gaps defensively in their cover defense throughout. Carty for sixty minutes was outstanding; constantly testing the host defensive line, his deft kicks in behind working a treat.

Blade at scrum half varied his game superbly and chipped in with a try. Squad depth in the front row was a decisive blow and it came back to haunt Connacht Rugby in the last quarter as scrum after scrum went against them and allowing Leinster Rugby to setup field position and pressure. Yet another tough road loss in the RDS for Connacht Rugby who must ensure that this loss does not spiral their season out of control.

A sensational contest. A sensational advert for the league. Leinster Rugby management will have learned plenty about their up and coming talent. Munster Rugby beware; the defensive lapses from Leinster Rugby should not be seen in Thomond Park on December 29th.

Ulster Rugby victorious

Seven point win for Ulster Rugby at Kingspan against a Munster Rugby side who will feel that officiating decisions went against them. Robert Baloucoune looking to impress should have seen red for his hit on Darren Sweetnam after eleven seconds. The yellow card was a joke call and Ulster Rugby after easily absorbing Munster Rugby attacking advances for the opening ten minutes set about winning this contest. They did so aided by executing a cohesive attacking game plan.

Munster Rugby fans will be worried heading into the Leinster Rugby contest next weekend. Defensively and tackling is on point, line speed was good from the players on duty but the distinct lack of attacking nous with ball in hand is a massive issue. A third consecutive week where Munster Rugby have struggled to make any significant gain line breaks, a third consecutive week where support runners were non-existent. 140 meters in this fixture falls well short of what is required to win a fixture. The botched try opportunity in the second half summed up the clueless decision making at the moment in the side with ball in hand. Felix Jones has work to do.

Ulster Rugby provided more evidence of their potency with ball in hand. Addison continues to be the find of the season. His running lines and passing from thirteen caused Munster Rugby endless issues. Rory Best impact off the bench was superb; his offload in the second half setting up an Ulster Rugby try. Baloucoune after his reprieve scored a smart try along with David Shanahan who was sharp around the fringes. Herring was pumped with his effort. Ulster Rugby perhaps disappointed that they did not secure a bonus point try win.

The game saw Henry Speight play his game for the Ulster Rugby side. An excellent signing this season, his presence and experience will be missed heading into the finale of the European Cup pool phases. Dan McFarland is building a nice side. Their attacking play is a joy to watch at times; how Munster Rugby fans would love the invention and creativity injected into their side?

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)

Festive derbies the order of the day

December 21st. Christmas is fast approaching and that means that it is the matter of local bragging rights as local rivals do battle. Friday night sees Ulster Rugby entertain a much changed Munster Rugby outfit at the Kingspan Stadium while Cardiff Blues will look to pile on the misery against Dragons. Hawkeye Sidekick predicts the likely outcomes.

Ulster Rugby bench impact to settle local derby 

The two team selections announced today were quite contrasting. Ulster Rugby have made just the three changes from the side that beat Scarlets last weekend in European action.

With Iain Henderson out for an extended period, it presents a massive opportunity for Ian Nagle to stake a claim for first team inclusion. Rob Herring deputizes at hooker for Rory Best who is on the bench while the exciting winger Robert Baloucoune slots into the back three for the try scoring Jacob Stockdale.

Munster Rugby have named thirteen changes from the side which narrowly lost in the Battle of Castres last weekend. The most significant team news is the return of Jean Kleyn in the second row, a player whose power and physicality would have been ideal for the uncompromising Castres pack last week.

Sammy Arnold gets another opportunity to impress his home province; hoping to right a few wrongs from last year’s corresponding fixture when the center was given a red card in the fixture. JJ Hanrahan takes over at ten and will look to impress further management.

The exchanges here will be abrasive and feisty but Ulster Rugby have the edge in the scrum this week. Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore should have the measure of Stephen Archer and Jeremy Loughman. The depth chart off the bench looks to favor the home side as well given that Rory Best will make a cameo in the third quarter.

Munster Rugby will look to stay in this contest for as long as possible, look to Hanrahan to provide field position in order for the line out to establish a platform, something not achieved in previous European Cup weekends.

Verdict: Ulster Rugby

Ulster Rugby to prevail with Will Addison and Henry Speight key with ball in hand. Munster Rugby will do well to get a loser bonus point from this contest; the side travels to Ulster more in hope than expectation as van Graan looks to target the crunch Leinster Rugby clash at Thomond Park on December 29th.

Cardiff Blues to inflict further misery on Dragons 

It has been an extremely turbulent season at the Dragons. The season has taken more dives than Tom Daley on a springboard. Bernard Jackman has come and gone as the side travels to Cardiff Blues who will look to regain confidence after two morale sapping losses to Saracens which have eliminated them from European Cup Rugby this season.

The team news is interesting. Cardiff Blues make three personnel changes for the visit of the Dragons. Two pack changes as Olly Robinson and Dillon Lewis come in. The third change is the welcome return of Tomos Williams at scrum-half. With Ellis Jenkins sidelines, Kristian Dacey resumes team captaincy duties until the end of the season.

Dragons makes five changes from the side which lost to ASM Clermont Auvergne last weekend. Ross Moriarty significantly misses the game due to injury so more onus on Cory Hill to set the tone for the pack. Keddie and Fairbrother come into the pack while there is further changes to a back line row who have struggled for cohesion on both sides of the ball all season.

Rosser and Sage come into the back line while Rhodri Williams secures the nine berth for the local derby fixture. The side still has experienced with Hill, Kirchner, Dee in the ranks but the team still looks well exposed in the back line unit where Cardiff Blues with Scully in the ranks could have proverbial field days.

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

Dragons are saying the right things ahead of this derby fixture but cannot help but feel that cohesion issues will plight this performance. Cardiff Blues on their fast surface will look to Anscombe and Williams to provide quick ball for the likes of Halaholo to launch a pacy back three. Only one result coming here. Blues with a bonus point try win. Dragons need to stand up here but given their defensive record, it is hard to state a case for them.