The decisive round four of the Heineken Champions Cup; a round where several teams will fall by the wayside with a key loss. Other sides will take advantage of sides who are already out the back door due to results last weekend.
The wannabes will be whittled down by the end of this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick provides his verdict on the fixtures scheduled. Gloucester Rugby and a bonus point try win (15 point spread) against a massively under-strength Exeter Chiefs outfit looks to too good to refuse.
A blog series on the Irish schools and local rugby grass root clubs which are nurturing and developing the current provincial academy and senior squad members. The numbers produced were based on current academy and senior squad players who have gone through the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland educational systems. The statistics generated may surprise some. This blog post collates the articles which focused on this topic:
With the November international series out of the way for another year, it was back to the brass tax of Guinness Pro 14 action; a round of fixtures which exposed team priorities, squad depth issues and worrying form for teams as they face into the second tranche of European games. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.
Performance of the week: Glasgow Warriors
There were a couple of standout teams in this round. Munster Rugby’s opening half performance against an under strength Edinburgh Rugby caught the eye. The Leinster Rugby juggernaut containing numerous academy and fringe squad players continued their ruthless try scoring exploits on the road to the Dragons. Connacht Rugby’s road trip at Bloemfontein has to be called out too but it is Glasgow Warriors win over Scarlets that is the defining display this weekend. When the hosts were reduced to fourteen players after Alex Allan’s red card early, it looked like a long day at the office for the Warriors but instead of contain, they produced a quite scintillating second and third quarter performance with two eye catching tries. Thomson lights out with the boot against a Scarlets which was loaded with first team players. A massive statement of intent.
Player of the week: Keith Earls / Chris Farrell
The Moyross native helped himself to a eight minute hat-trick. The opposition may not have being up to much but take nothing away from the running lines and try scoring execution on show for those tries. Earls oozed class every time he picked up the ball. Munster Rugby’s running lines and offload game was a joy to watch and this has to be the template for the side going forward. Chris Farrell was incredible with his ball carrying duties and what a boost it is for Munster Rugby to have the Tyrone native back in the squad again.
Walking the plank this week: Bernard Jackman
A couple of weeks, I hated to point out that Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman was under pressure after an abject road trip loss to Connacht Rugby. A timely win last time out against Edinburgh Rugby looked to have eased those concerns but the manner of their home loss to Leinster Rugby has seen massive negative reaction from Dragons supporters.
Dragons were second best on all facets of play; their defensive line speed and organization was labored and the young Leinster Rugby players on show were only too grateful to exploit the space. 50+ points again and the pressure is back on Jackman.
Dragons is a project in progress but the manner of these defeats is a massive concern. The board will need to be strong here but Jackman could be increasingly isolated from the fan base which could spell doom.
Disappointment of the week: Team Selections
There was big disparity in certain team selections this weekend. Leinster Rugby’s side was without numerous first team personnel but it did not matter as they trounced Dragons showing their incredible squad depth.
However, other team’s squad depth is not as strong and for Edinburgh Rugby, it was a chastening experience in Cork on Friday night. Munster Rugby were rampant throughout and the three quarter and ten channel was isolated throughout.
The tournament has seen quite a few representational team selections in preference for bigger fixtures in recent rounds. Sad to see as it devalues the league completely.
The end of the November test match series sees all sides this weekend having to go long and hard into their squad depth charts. The first three fixtures with full strength sides at their disposal would be marquee fixtures but there is something a little underwhelming about this round with so many marquee players away on international duty. The organizers need to rethink their strategy on this part of the season; devaluing the tournament and for the South African sides, they have had to bide their time for more game time action.
Glasgow Warriors look primed for another home win
Cardiff Blues come into this fixture minus several the services of their Welsh international contingent. Yes, Jarrod Evans and Seb Davies are back after being released by the Welsh international side but this is not the fixture to throw youngsters into the mix which is what the Blues have done here. Glasgow will look for open field and with a devastating back line on paper named, it looks and feels like a bonus point try win for the Warriors to secure further distance from the rest of the Conference A chasing pack. Glasgow’s side looks solid despite the international break.
Leinster Rugby look to youth against Ospreys
Youth is the keyword coming from this Leinster Rugby team sheet. Penny makes his debut in the back row containing Doris and the much vaunted Josh Murphy. Scott Fardy captains the side and will look to Noel Reid and James Lowe in the back line to provide leadership and experience to a young back line featuring O’Brien and Keenan. This is a fixture where Ospreys must stand up and be counted. Their performance against Munstera Rugby was a low point and a repeat display will see a Leinster Rugby rout. Giles on the wing will be interesting to watch. I am expecting Ospreys to produce a performance this time around but whether they are good enough to beat the home side loaded with potential and talent off the bench is a tough question to ask. Leinster Rugby by three points.
Scarlets get the nod against Ulster Rugby
A keynote game in Conference B. Both sides depleted by international test matches. Ulster Rugby’s team side is loaded with youth and talent out wide so it is imperative that Cave and Ludik are included to keep the young charges composed on this road trip. The pack for Ulster Rugby looks solid and will test the Scarlets pack missing several keynote players such as Davies, Thomson and Macleod. The back line though is where this result may be decided. McNicholl from full back oozes pace and power coming into the line and think Scarlets will just nick this result; conscious of the fact that a victory will see Scarlets open a gap on Ulster Rugby. Ulster to come away with a loser point but their road trip woes are set to continue.
A weekend where the November test match series kicked into action with several sides looking at their squad depth to ensure vital victories. It was a weekend where Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby extended their leads in both Conference A and B respectively. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.
Irish provincial success in South Africa
The Twitter reaction to the Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby road trip successes in South Africa has me cracking up this evening while writing this blog article. Look at the sides named by both Irish provinces today, the potential in the side undoubted but there was always going to be passages of play when the cohesion with or without the ball was missing. Cue fan reactions (knickers in the proverbial figure eight). Bonus point try wins secured. Mission accomplished.
Leinster Rugby accuracy may not have being to the armchair fan’s liking but the 31-38 road trip win provides the Irish province with such a healthy lead at the top of Conference B. Nine points clear of Ulster Rugby and ten points clear of Scarlets in third with both sides facing the daunting task of having to secure results at fortress RDS. It is a time position to be in at this early stage of the season. The squad depth of the province shown when you see the likes of James Tracy, Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy on the pitch. They are the form side of the league at this moment in time.
Munster Rugby secured their first road win of the league with a hard earned 26-30 road trip win to the Cheetahs. The good and the bad seen to full effect as Munster Rugby secured a bonus point try win; some great attacking play and the cameos of the back three was a real positive. The bad was the defensive meltdown in the third quarter where Cheetahs exploited big defensive gaps. The altitude was a factor but the parting of the Munster Rugby defense was seen in the previous round at home to Glasgow Warriors so something for management to look at in the coming weeks.
Kevin O’Byrne was a standout today, put the hand up for more game time with an all action performance. The youngsters in the side did not let the side down and was delighted to see Liam Coombes cross over for a well earned try.
Mike Haley continues to settle nicely in the full back position and his running line for the game winning try was well executed. Munster Rugby secure a vital win on the road; move up to second place in the Conference A where Glasgow Warriors are well out in front and debatable whether they can be caught at this stage. Their demolition of Ospreys (albeit understrength) was a Matawalu showcase of skill and pace to score a hat-trick of tries.
Bernard Jackman is a man under pressure
After a red eye flight back from Boston in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I headed to the Sportsgrounds in the hope of a thrilling encounter. This was an encounter which Connacht Rugby needed to come out fighting after a horrendous road trip performances to an Ospreys selection missing numerous first team stars at Bridgend last time out. The fixture was competitive for the first quarter but as soon as Connacht Rugby hit the front, Dragons’ heads dropped and a 26-0 lead at half-time to the hosts spelled the end of the contest.
Connacht Rugby admittedly increased the tempo in that second quarter, better clear out work in the ruck exchanges with Marmion and Horowitz starting to create more line breaks as the game wore on. Horowitz produced an interesting cameo; he plays off the cuff evident in the Colby Fainga’a’s try where the Australian ten spotted a gap and created the line break opportunity. His kicking to the corners impressed me and thankfully for Connacht Rugby, there is a player who can push Jack Carty to the next level.
Bernard Jackman stated post-game that he can see progress and improvement from his charges but the performance after the first quarter was a horror show; three deplorably blotched line breaks in the opening period which exhibited a distinct of composure on the final pass or handling is a coaching issue.
The number of tries conceded this season is sky rocketing out of control (33) and unless Dragons can secure a much needed morale boosting win next time out, there will be questions on his tenure. Dragons progression this season was expected given the high profile Hibbert and Moriarty signings but it has being anything but. Hope Jackman pulls the situation around but the skill set in his side on this weekend’s showing lacks the quality required to unlock opposition defenses at regular intervals.
Connacht Rugby win but they will rarely have an easier home contest all season. The back three looked a threat all game and the pack carries exposed massive defensive holes in the Dragons’ first line of defense. Buckley and Dillane for me stood out in the ball carrying stakes. Colby Fainga’a along with Jarrod Butler provided mobility and pace off the back of the scrum.
Horowitz has being duly mentioned and Godwin provided a timely reminder of his potency with ball in hand from three quarters. Connacht Rugby need to kick on now until the festive period; key games to get well and truly into the playoff mix now as it looks like a four way battle for the second and third spot in Conference A.
Ulster secured road trip win to Benetton Rugby
A significant result for Ulster Rugby on the road. Benetton Rugby have being progressing nicely this season and leading 7-0 at the break, the Italians would have fancied finishing off the job in the second half due to Ulster Rugby’s recent road trip woes.
Credit though to Ulster Rugby, thought it was a very professional and efficient display in the second half. Speight’s creativity to the fore with ball in hand and the pack finally created a platform for Shanahan and Burns to launch their runners in the third quarter with tries from the impressive Reidy and Herring.
The result was key here; the situation that Ulster Rugby found themselves in and the resiliency to get a result on the road in Italy has to be applauded. The fans made have a different perspective but this could be a key result for Ulster Rugby in the context of the playoff picture come next April.
After the excitement of European Cup action, it is back to the Guinness Pro 14 league action. This period will see squad depth charts tested to the maximum as the November test match series looms large. This weekend will see depleted first team lineups for the Welsh and Scottish sides in particular. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Friday night fixtures.
Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Scarlets
A depleted Scarlets squad travel to South Africa to face the Southern Kings who after two weeks without match action will be eager to get off the blocks quickly. The side selected by Scarlets is good but there is potential for the Kings to expose their visitors particularly in the front five. The hosts name an unchanged line from round six, continuity retained and it is a fixture which the South African side could pull a surprising win here. Kings by less than seven points provided that their basic fundamentals are on point.
Ulster Rugby vs. Dragons
A strong Ulster Rugby lineup has being announced for this league fixture. Dragons have no less than ten changes to the side that played in round six. The quality of the Ulster Rugby back line has the potential to cause absolute havoc for Dragons. Speight returns with Addison and McCloskey also featuring. A big day for Robert Baloucoune who makes his debut, the winger is an absolute speed merchant and could be in line for a couple of try scoring opportunities. I am fearing for Dragons here. Ulster Rugby look well placed to secure a bonus point try win ahead of the November test series.
Zebre Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby
Intriguing fixture awaits here. Edinburgh Rugby fresh from their comprehensive beat down of Toulon last weekend in Europe must refocus and get their away form sorted in the Guinness Pro 14. Zebre Rugby have had a good of their own; beating Bristol Bears at home last weekend. Squad depth in the closing quarter will be key and I think the visitors have the edge. Edinburgh Rugby to shade this by less than seven points. Mata is the key player for Edinburgh; his ball carrying providing the required platform.
Ospreys vs. Connacht Rugby
This is a key fixture for Connacht Rugby this season in the context of the Guinness Pro 14 season. The side selected by Andy Friend is strong with Aki, Marmion and Roux in the starting lineup. Ospreys are without numerous Welsh internationals and the squad depth will be tested in this fixture. The starting lineups would favor the visitors but their road trip form despite the Ulster Rugby win last time round have being a mixed bag. A difficult game to call. Connacht Rugby have had a wretched time at the Liberty Stadium but given the side named, pressure aplenty to get a result here. Connacht Rugby to secure a rare win in Swansea. If not, then questions will be asked of the side and the progress made this season.
After a superb opening weekend for the Irish provinces last week (three wins and one draw), things went tougher in round two where all teams except for Munster Rugby are on their opening European Cup road trip. A weekend which should indicate plenty on how the season in Europe should pan out. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
Leinster Rugby good form to continue?
No disrespect to Wasps but Leinster Rugby’s first real test in Europe will be this weekend. A trip to Toulouse is always a challenge but given how Leinster Rugby are playing currently, it is a trip which the Irish province will look with confidence.
Leinster Rugby team news is minimal to say the least. Rob Kearney misses out due to injury so Joe Tomane slots onto the wing while Jordan Larmour if provided sufficient time and space could destroy Toulouse from full back. It is as you were for the rest of the side which comprehensively routed Wasps 52-3 last weekend.
Toulouse won at Bath Rugby last weekend on the road. Yes, they were let off the hook by Freddy Burns’ late horror show and Toulouse will be the first to admit that they got out of jail. The weather in the South-West of France in recent weeks has being horrendous; rain aplenty which should slow the pitch down significantly.
The pack platform is going to be vital and Toulouse’s disciplinary issues after last weekend could come back to haunt them. Kaino is such a big loss, imposing back row whose tackle count and ball carrying are sensational. If Leinster Rugby are patient here, they will see joy in the third quarter particularly as Toulouse start to tire and give away penalties.
Leinster Rugby will be asked questions out wide with the likes of Medard in the ranks but Leinster Rugby have the ability to beat you in the loose, set piece or out wide. Leinster Rugby to go away here by ten points after an opening period arm wrestle.
Verdict: Leinster Rugby
Munster Rugby look to kick on
Saturday lunchtime kickoff at Thomond Park. An opening European Cup rugby home fixture in Limerick and the venue will be buzzing. After a good draw on the road to Exeter Chiefs last weekend in stormy Sandy Park, Munster Rugby need to kick on and get their campaign fully up and running with a full eighty minute performance against Gloucester Rugby.
The team news is interesting. Munster Rugby have made four personnel changes for the clash. A brand new front row is a shrewd move and reward for the likes of James Cronin and John Ryan on their cameos last week. Tommy O’Donnell as well gets the nod in the back row, his ball carrying was on point last week and setup Stander’s try.
Gloucester Rugby make two changes to the side that beat Castres at home last weekend. Grobler must make do with a place on the bench and is replaced by Ed Slater. Matt Banahan replaces Charlie Sharples. The side showed good attacking cameos last weekend with Tom Marshall prominent.
The key point here is the pack and who creates the platform. Munster Rugby have to start at a high tempo to allow Carbery to orchestrate his three quarters. A big game is required from Dan Goggin who needs to unleash his wide men at regular intervals. Gloucester Rugby were vulnerable on the flanks defensively against Castres last weekend at times.
A fixture which Munster Rugby know that a win is required; a bonus point is attainable provided that the home side’s basic skill set is up to standard. Gloucester Rugby will look to bed in and try to stay in the contest until the third quarter; hoping that Danny Ciprani produces moments of brilliance.
Verdict: Munster Rugby (BP Win)
Ulster Rugby face daunting challenge
A trip to Racing 92 and the Arena beckons for Ulster Rugby this weekend. It was a good morale boosting win over Leicester Tigers last weekend but the level of competition this weekend is a significant upgrade.
Racing 92 will look to impose their will on Ulster Rugby in the pack battle; the set piece battle has prompted Marty Moore’s introduction to the side. Kieran Treadwell comes into the lineup at the expense of Alan O’Connor.
The worry is the absence of John Cooney at nine. The scrum-half has being outstanding again this season. No disrespect to David Shanahan but he will put under the cosh from the first whistle, struggling to see where Ulster Rugby create in the half-back channels and Racing 92 will look to create gain line breaks at will too.
Racing 92 back line arsenal is vast. Finn Russell should see game time and then you have the likes of Simon Zebo lurking with intent. Ulster Rugby have to be completely switched on here from minute one; tempo will be sky high and the game will be uptempo given the closed roof and pitch.
The Parisian side for me are one of the sides which could seriously put it up to Leinster Rugby this season in Europe. A statement of intent unfortunately may be issued at home and Ulster Rugby could feel the full force despite a positive opening period. Squad depth issues will be exposed for the Irish province.
Verdict: Racing 92 (potential BP win)
Youth and Experience from Connacht Rugby
An interesting team lineup from Connacht Rugby. The term ‘youth and experience’ abound from this team sheet. A momentous day for Fitzgerald (ten) and De Buitlear (wing) who make their starting debuts for the province. Buckley, O’Halloran and Farrell return to the side to provide experience as well.
This is such a key fixture in the context of Sale and Connacht’s aspirations for European Challenge Cup glory. With the French sides in this pool not genuinely interested in the competition, it is a two horse race to secure top spot in the pool.
Sale Sharks have shown their intention loud and clear with a very strong team selection. McGuigan, O’Connor, Ashton and De Klerk will provide massive attacking threat. Rob Webber and Josh Beaumont will lead by example in the pack.
Hopefully, the rookies in the Connacht Rugby side have good afternoons but this is a tough assignment given the selection of Sale Sharks. If Connacht Rugby can get a loser bonus point, then would be a good outcome.
Pool 4 is loaded with talent and formidable home fortresses. Welford Road, Kingspan Stadium, Parc y Scarlets and Paris La Defense Arena. A pool which has different dynamics since the start of this season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.
Scarlets must strike early
The opening home fixture for Scarlets conceivably could determine how the Welsh region will fare in this competition. Racing 92 are the visitors and this has the potential to be an epic encounter. Scarlets still are a formidable side but when you consider the likes of John Barclay, Scott Williams and Tadhg Beirne are no longer at the club and the loss to injury of Cubby Davies, it is an arduous task this weekend.
Racing 92 come into this fixture loaded with squad talent. No doubt, Donnacha Ryan will be thrust into competition to disrupt Scarlets set piece. Finn Russell, Simon Zebo will look to continue their good starts with the Parisian club. This pool battle looks likely to go down to the final game of the pool in January.
Leicester Tigers. A club in crisis after sacking Matt O’Connor after one game this season (yes, it was mauling against Exeter Chiefs) but surely insufficient time to pull the trigger. Geordan Murphy has taken on the interim role with mixed results. A couple of keynote wins in recent weeks has also seen reversals to Worcester (H) and Wasps (A). The style of rugby is every much a work in progress with Tuilagi and May the main threats out wide provided an over worked pack provide a platform.
Ulster Rugby come into this competition with a lengthy injury list and a sudden reversal of form. Interpro losses to Munster Rugby (A) and Connacht Rugby (H) has checked early season optimism where front row issues have surfaced and the squad depth looking stretched to breaking point. Rory Best and Iain Henderson in the pack will need to lead by example and hope that Cooney and Burns get sufficient ball to launch McCloskey in open exchanges. Cooney’s performances will also be key.
This is a pool which looks like a two horse race unless Leicester Tigers or Ulster Rugby can upset the other two teams early doors. Round two fixtures will be noteworthy. Ulster travel to Scarlets while Racing 92 entertain Leicester Tigers (familiarity breeding contempt) and a true pattern could emerge after this round. Racing 92 squad depth means that they should top this pool with Scarlets securing a runners up berth.
This is an important fixture for both Ulster Rugby and Connacht Rugby respectively with European games looming large on the horizon; momentum is required for both sides after disappointing results in round five. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the fixture.
Connacht Rugby have not won on the road in Guinness Pro 14 action since February 2018, a win on the road against Benetton Rugby. The last road trip win before this triumph was in April 2017 which is simply not good enough for a side who harbor ambitions of competing for a conference playoff spot.
The Western province had good moments against Leinster Rugby last weekend but ultimately had to succumb as Garry Ringrose exposed more defensive line woe and Sean Cronin crashed over after dominant work from the Leinster Rugby front five. Connacht Rugby tried hard but their attacking game plan was stifled and without alternate game plan in the offing, Leinster Rugby absorbed the tackle count and when the opportunity arose, won penalties when Connacht Rugby players advanced without the proper support. A reality check for Andy Friend and management on the level required to compete at the top table.
Connacht Rugby’s team news sees the return of captain Jarrad Butler, Paul Boyle and Sean O’Brien to the back row. Tom McCartney comes in at hooker with Dave Heffernan injured and Matt Healy returns to the back three. A solid outfit for this local derby fixture.
The loss at Thomond Park last weekend looked a likely result when the team selection was submitted but the scoreline (64-7 loss) is a reality check for Dan McFarland, backroom staff and playing group ahead of this fixture. A record club loss and a response is required.
There were some positive passing phases but the defensive line was exposed at will out wide so video analysis was tough going at the start of this week. The withdrawals of John Cooney and Iain Henderson from the action was a decisive point in proceedings as squad depth limitations surfaced at a rate of knots.
The team news sees several personnel changes. Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale make their long awaited club debuts this season; a timely boost for the province. Stuart McCloskey replaces injured Darren Cave in the three quarters and there are more pack changes as Tom O’Toole (prop) and Marcell Coetzee (back row) come into the starting lineup.
Verdict: Ulster Rugby
Connacht Rugby’s away form is horrendous and the loss to Edinburgh Rugby saw similar traits; high penalty count, losing the territorial battle and having to work long and hard in the tackle count. For Connacht Rugby to win this contest, Marmion and Carty need their front five to create the platform in the set piece to launch their exciting back line. A mixed bag last weekend from the pack unit and I think more of the same this weekend.
Ulster Rugby team have to respond after that embarrassing defeat to Munster Rugby. The home fans at Kingspan Stadium will demand a good performance ahead of the start of the European campaign and with the personnel changes to the team, this looks like a home win banker.
If you listened to the Clan Terrace View podcast before this contest, I was concerned for Ulster Rugby. The lengthy injury list, the players not making the trip to Thomond Park and then you add Iain Henderson and John Cooney to that injury list after the first quarter of this contest, it was a case of how many Munster Rugby would win by.
A game which does little for either side ahead of upcoming pressing fixtures. Munster Rugby still have yet to face an opponent at home with the strength in depth to seriously test them for the full eighty minutes. Ulster Rugby after a great start to the season lose and by a record defeat to boot. Morale took a serious knock last weekend; management and players need to regroup fast.
What can Munster Rugby take from the game? The side played with extremely high tempo and their opening quarter salvo was too much for their visitors; O’Donnell and Goggin scored a brace of tries in that opening half with some fragile Ulster cover defense on show but both players were lively throughout.
The scrum half position for Munster Rugby has being a problematic equation to solve in recent weeks. Cronin looked good in the opening home fixture win but then got injured. Hart out as well and suddenly without Murray, the position looked weak in the depth chart. Cue Alby Mathewson to arrive to the squad at the most opportune time. Mathewson’s cameo was refreshing; his vision and quick delivery from the ruck to Carbery gave Munster Rugby’s attack an added dimension not seen so far this year.
Carbery at ten was given an arm chair ride throughout but his passing and kicking range was to the fore. His try showed his pace and ball handling skills superbly. The only negative was the Darren Cave try; missed the tackle on Cave for the try; his defensive cover will be fully tested with a swift return to Leinster Rugby next weekend.
The second half performance saw Ulster Rugby had some genuinely good passing phases; they passed more (230 vs. 202), they had more turnover (18 vs. 13) and made less tackles (147 vs. 189) but Munster Rugby were clinical when given opportunities in the red zone. The missed tackle count from both sides would not be good enough to win most games (25 from Ulster, 20 from Munster).
A win is a win for Munster Rugby but yet another daunting road trip awaits in Leinster Rugby at the Aviva Stadium. Munster Rugby need to turn up and produce a cohesive performance. If it gets the win, great but the pack and back line cohesion on both sides of the ball is what I am looking for next weekend ahead of a trek to Exeter Chiefs in Europe.
Ulster Rugby. A side who will regroup. A key tussle against Connacht Rugby next weekend should see several first team players return but the defensive organization and question marks on the front row set piece could be exposed in the weeks to come. Ulster Rugby need to respond, otherwise the positive start to the season could quickly descend into a downward spiral.