Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 (Friday Night Fixture Review)

Two contrasting fixtures last night. Glasgow Warriors continued their good start to the season with a comfortable 25-10 over Munster Rugby while John Cooney was again the hero for Ulster Rugby as they defeated Edinburgh with a late gasp penalty for a 30-29 win. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Glasgow punish sloppy Munster

I feared for Munster Rugby ahead of this fixture, not because of the personnel on show but because of distinct lack of competitive hit out in the opening round fixture against a massively poor Cheetahs outfit. The lack of intensity in those exchanges was going to do Munster Rugby little favors ahead of this opening road trip to Scotstoun, a ground where Munster Rugby were battered last season.

Glasgow Warriors were the sharper team from minute one in this contest. They preyed on Munster Rugby indiscipline and accuracy in the opening period to build a 22-0 lead at the interval with the aid of a strong breeze. The half saw one side dominate all facets of play with the hosts dominating the breakdown exchanges (some borderline clear outs) allowing Horne and Hastings at half-back the time and space to launch their back line out wide. 

Hastings loop pass for the opening try was a thing of beauty setting up Gibbins for a simple score on the sideline. This was the sign of things to come for Munster Rugby; more tackle reps and more gain line exchanges lost. Two additional tries were leaked before the interval. Hogg scoring after a deft drubber kick and then Ashe reacted to a JJ Hanrahan lapse in concentration to score which signaled the end of the contest. 

Munster Rugby were made to pay for a slow start and then were unable to establish any platform. The opening period could not get any worse as Neil Cronin and Billy Holland departed the scene in this period. Carbery, Marshall, Beirne and the rest of the bench were summoned well before the end of the third period, an indication of the woes experienced by the visitors.

Glasgow Warriors defended with depth and physicality in the second half as Munster Rugby to their credit improved significantly but the scoreboard gap was never going to be pulled back. Several line breaks from Munster Rugby courtesy of Carbery playmaking and Beirne’s direct running but skill set issues surfaced in decision making and offloading on the final pass. 

The five meter line-out towards the end of the contest summed up Munster’s evening. A miserable set piece execution mopped up by the hosts and the hosts looked for the bonus point try that they deserved, nothing doing and a four point vs. zero point outcome was written in the stars.

Glasgow Warriors look the part at the moment but we have said that before last season; the acid test for this side is in European Cup action. The side’s inability to mix in the pool stages last season was the disappointment of the European Champions Cup last term, time to address and hit out in this competition. An exciting back line and with a flourishing half back partnership in Horne and Hastings, the pack need to make additional improvements to give the side that extra edge to win silverware this season. 

Munster Rugby fans went into a frenzy last night but the warning signs were there ahead of this result. The lack of quality opposition last weekend did little to battle harden the side for a tussle like this. As a result, the physicality and sharpness required to set the platform was not at the standard required. 

What is of most concern is the skill set progression. Glasgow Warriors creativity, offloading and basic skill set execution were so superior to Munster’s and the Irish province need to take a long hard look at their basic skill set in the weeks to come to be a viable contender in all fronts. Munster fringe squad members did themselves little favors last night and expect the front line brigade to be summoned in the coming weeks. 

Ulster home game, yet another John Cooney party piece to win another close contest down the stretch. I plumbed for Edinburgh Rugby on the fixture (Ulster fans should want me to predict against them for the rest of the year). 

A couple of pleasing aspects to the Ulster Rugby performance. The resiliency of the side to come back from a difficult opening period where Edinburgh Rugby went 0-13 down. Hickey looked the part for the visitors, orchestrating attacking moves on the back of a dominant pack. 

Ulster Rugby regrouped superbly though and with John Cooney and Billy Burns at half-back, there is outstanding potential for creating line breaks. The gap was seventeen points going into the early exchanges of the second half when the comeback started. 

Addison went over for his first Ulster try, with Cooney slotting the conversion but another Hickey penalty gave Edinburgh more of a cushion at 26-13.

Addison made a half-break before laying off a perfect pass to Cooney, who went in under the posts and converted his own try to narrow the deficit to six points.

Cue the try of the night. Ulster stole Edinburgh ball deep in their own half and  Henry Speight offloaded to Cooney, who released the Gilroy to run in a fabulous try from 60 meters out. Cooney hit the extras to make it 27-26 but Hickey looked to secure the win for Edinburgh with a superb kick just before the eighty minutes. 

Ulster Rugby though refused to drop the heads; a great restart steal setting up multiple phases. The penalty award will be hotly contested; 50/50 call but Ulster Rugby got it and Cooney slotted over from 40 meters, amazing scenes at full time. Ulster Rugby are 2/2; set the platform for the rest of the season and defeating a playoff contender to boot in Edinburgh who are under pressure to win next weekend. 

Ulster Rugby’s attacking play is a joy to watch at the moment; creativity from Burns launching McCloskey and Cave. Speight, Gilroy and Addison are potent runners; the concern is the squad depth if injuries surface. A solid start for McFarland’s men but improvement is required in the defensive side of the ball. Edinburgh Rugby had opportunities to put this game to bed, other teams will not be as charitable. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 (Friday Night Fixtures)

An interesting opening round of Guinness Pro 14 fixtures, at least no head coach got sacked this week unlike in Premiership Rugby where Leicester Tigers pulled the trigger on Matt O’Connor.

Two interesting fixtures up for decision this weekend; a chance for Munster Rugby to redeem themselves at Scotstoun and can Ulster Rugby continue their good start to the season against an Edinburgh outfit eager to improve their performance after last weekend’s road trip loss to the Ospreys. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Warriors eager to start with a home win

Glasgow Warriors open their home stand this season with a visit from Munster Rugby. Munster Rugby will not have to be reminded of their last visit to Scotstoun; a miserable 37-10 reversal where the hosts outgunned Munster Rugby in all facets of play.

Glasgow opened the season with a dramatic 27-26 road trip over Connacht Rugby. A bonus point try effort exposing Connacht Rugby’s fragile defensive structures and lapses was deserved; the drop goal from Hogg to win the contest was sublime.

Yes, there were defensive issues around the fringes but Glasgow Warriors will be content with the level of performance and their ability to retain composure when down to fourteen players in the third quarter of the encounter so much so that they scored an unanswered try during this period. The maul, scrum were particularly dominant.

Glasgow Warriors name a strong side for this encounter. Hogg, Seymour, Grigg, Horne, DTH are all named in an exciting back line which will look to Pete Horne and Adam Hastings for quick ball and game management. The pack is imposing with the likes of Brown, Gray and Wilson in the ranks. The bench looks potent coming into the third quarter with the likes of Matawalu looking for his opportunity to impress as the game opens up. 

Munster Rugby had a free hit last weekend. The opposition unfortunately was poor and it is incredibly tough to evaluate Munster Rugby’s opening season salvo. The new players to the squad acquitted themselves well, impressed with Daly on the wing with his defensive nous. Sweetnam was the back line standout, rampaging through Cheetahs defensive line. Arno Botha looks imposing on both sides of the ball. There were inaccuracies with the offload game but the bonus point win and not to leak a score will have pleased van Graan and management. 

Let us be frank. Munster Rugby’s season effectively starts now and it will be interesting to see how the side fare this weekend. I will be particularly interested in how the half back pairing fare. Neil Cronin had an excellent cameo last weekend but the pressure will be increased on the road; can he deliver quick ball for his half back partner JJ Hanrahan to launch the likes of Arnold and Scannell? 

The Munster Rugby is decent; still a few absentees to the side. Murray’s absence and the length of his layoff yet to be disclosed has being commented on within the province. Stander, O’Mahony, Earls and Conway yet to feature but we will see a cameo from Tadhg Beirne off the bench this weekend. Where will he slot in? Second row or back row. Versatility but needs to bed down in a particular position. 

The back line unit is quite new and their defensive organization will be tested by a Glasgow Warriors side who will look to launch the ball out wide at every opportunity. Daly and Sweetnam will get plenty of defensive tackle reps tomorrow night. Mike Haley slots into the full back position, decent home debut and hope to see the player progress in the weeks to come. 

Verdict: Glasgow Warriors

The lack of a quality opening fixture for Munster Rugby could be exposed in round two. Glasgow Warriors are battle hardened more given their fixture last weekend and for that, the home side edge this encounter. Munster Rugby’s bench welcomes back Jaco Taute, a nice squad inclusion after his injury layoff.

A pivotal second home game for Ulster Rugby this weekend. I feared for Ulster Rugby last weekend against Scarlets but the work rate and potent back line play of McCloskey and Speight was decisive in a narrow victory. John Cooney continued to show massive leadership and was ably assisted by Billy Burns who had an excellent debut for the province. 

Personnel switches for the hosts in this encounter as we see the debut of Jordi Murphy in a potentially explosive back row. Murphy, Timoney and Coetzee has mobility, physicality and ability to effect the breakdown battle. There are changes in the front row as Herring, Kane come in and Treadwell partners Henderson in the second row. 

Edinburgh Rugby come into this game with pressure applied. Their loser point effort to Ospreys was disappointing; exposed some poor ball handling and game management during the contest which no doubt have being worked on the team in training this week. 

Richard Cockerill is forced to rejig the back line as Duhan van der Merwe is injured with centurion Tom Brown coming into the fray. Nel and Ritchie come into the pack; the battle in the back row looks a key match-up. Can Mata get sufficient pack platform to create line breaks tomorrow night? 

Verdict: Edinburgh Rugby

Ulster Rugby to win this contest need impact off the bench and I do not see it particularly in the half back and back line combinations. Edinburgh Rugby know that a second successive defeat to the league campaign will see the side well behind the pace in Conference B and when their opposition is potent playoff contender, the pressure is heightened even more. I expect a far better performance from Edinburgh Rugby this week and despite good exchanges from Ulster Rugby, the visitors front five should provide enough platform to allow Hickey to win this contest by a narrow margin. 

Guinness Pro 14 Round 1 Irish Provincial Reflections

An interesting opening round of the Guinness Pro 14 competition for the Irish provinces who had three wins and one loss, a loss which will hurt the Connacht Rugby management and playing staff. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects. 

Munster win in a canter

38-0. Munster opened their account with an emphatic victory over a Cheetahs side who looked like a side which had their playing squad ripped away in the off-season. 

Twenty players left the Cheetahs since their playoff loss to the Scarlets with numerous key players from last season leading the exodus. Venter, Marais, Cassiem and Blommetjies have gone to pastures new this season and unfortunately you cannot replace players of this caliber overnight. Cheetahs were primed for the taking and Munster Rugby were not going to be asked twice.

The game was a preseason friendly for all intensive purposes. Munster Rugby having to defend their line on a couple of occasions but it was an exercise for the side in ball handling, line break creation and getting minutes in the legs of the players. Mission accomplished.

The Munster Rugby player to the fore this preseason has being Darren Sweetnam. The Cork native produced more quality numbers during this contest. Eight carries for 134 meters gained; his line break for Rory Scannell’s try was excellent as he identified the defensive misread from the Cheetahs; his burst of pace was devastating and his offload to Scannell on point. 

The good news for Munster Rugby was that no injuries were sustained and newcomers to the squad this season showed well. Haley from full back showed his ability hitting the line albeit his passing will need to sharpen up. Neil Cronin provided an excellent cameo from nine; quick distribution to Hanrahan who also had a keynote performance with seventy-seven meters gained.

Joey Carbery even got his debut and the potential from his second half cameo from ten was there for all to see; quick decision making, looking to orchestrate and launch runners with fast distribution. His game management and line break creation will be a key asset for Munster this season. 

Arno Botha has already become a cult hero with the Thomond Park faithful. Physicality with and without the ball. His sixteen tackles and ninety-three meters gained from fifteen carries was an excellent cameo and provided Botha remains fit will be an invaluable asset to the province during the international breaks. 

A solid win. Yes, there were blotched passes to hand, blotched try scoring opportunities but the expectation is that the skill set will improve with each passing week. The game in effect was a free hit; the season starts this weekend with a trip to the Glasgow Warriors where a stern test awaits. 

I feel like a broken record with regards to Connacht Rugby. I have read many respected fans blogs on the narrow 27-26 loss to Glasgow Warriors; positive sentiments on the attacking side of the ball but the Achilles heel from last season made its trademark arrival. 

Disastrous start to the contest with an early try concession to the dangerous Tommy Seymour, Connacht Rugby climbed off the floor to launch their response; a ten point salvo showcasing fast uptempo possession, excellent game management from Carty to setup Kelleher’s try.

10-5 in front, time to consolidate but the side’s sheer inability to execute their restarts saw a second Glasgow try conceded soon after. The try from Turner was a defensive coaches nightmare, misreads aplenty as Turner ran untouched.

This game was in Connacht’s hands in the third quarter but when they had Glasgow Warriors by the throat, they lacked the clinical conviction to get the job. The period when Adam Hastings was sin binned was the opportunity to close the fixture out but instead Connacht Rugby surrendered territory and allowed their visitors to score a bonus point fourth try.

For Connacht Rugby to be considered a serious Pro 14 contender again, the game management and leadership on the pitch during these key game moment situations has to improve. Blade was energetic but at times played his side into trouble with quick tap and goes once too often. Carty was on point with the tee but faded in the third quarter to be replaced by Ronaldson who despite being solid was on the max of his skill set limits when he attempted the last minute conversion. Horowitz is required to step up the competition at ten pronto. 

The preceding drop goal attempt as well from Connacht Rugby was ambitious at best. Andy Friend has learned more in this eighty minutes than the whole preseason fixture schedule. The old failings of last season were in full effect and need to be addressed as soon as possible but with home games against Scarlets and Leinster Rugby, there is a fear of Connacht Rugby being cast adrift early doors in conference play.

I still remain hopeful for Connacht Rugby this season. Andy Friend is an ambitious head coach, his playing ethos fits well with the side and with the likes of Kelleher continuing to produce big numbers (one try, 131 meters from thirteen carries), the attacking side of the ball is going to take care of itself. The defensive and restart sides of the game are a different story.

I feared for Ulster Rugby ahead of this fixture but the side and the fan base produced a stirring performance to defeat Guinness Pro 14 finalists Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium. 

The work rate, the application, the ability to absorb Scarlets attacking threat was exceptional from Ulster Rugby. Nick Timoney’s tackle count emphasized this point; thirteen tackles throughout the eighty minutes, one of which was a timely contribution at the death when Scarlets looked destined to score.

The half back partnership of Cooney and Burns has the potential to gel into an effective duo. Burns looking to play off the cuff and the unit’s kicking game was on point. Cooney has continued from last season, his leadership in the final quarter when the game was in the balance was superb and has to be a serious contender for November series game time for Ireland. McPhilips is also a viable option, good headache for McFarland to have!

The back line looked exciting. Speight’s movement and ability to win the gain line battle was on point. Craig Gilroy’s stealth and speed was to the fore in an eyecatching performance with a 100+ meters gained performance. Will Addison’s cameo at full back suggests a nice option for Ulster Rugby hitting the line. 

After the nightmare of last season, Ulster Rugby needed to start the league in positive fashion. This result will work wonders for the morale of the squad and fan base ahead of another home fixture to Edinburgh Rugby, a key fixture in the context of conference play already. 

I questioned Leinster’s leadership and nous during a recent podcast. I got my answer last Friday with a superb come from behind victory over a Cardiff Blues side who will be struggling to come up with an explanation as to how they blew a fifteen point lead. 

This was a rip roaring contest from minute one and Cardiff Blues’ performance is a warning for league opponents of their potency with ball in hand. Evans at ten is such a talent and with an exceptionally pacy back three, opposition will struggle to contain the threat. Harries in particular caught the eye on his league debut for Cardiff Blues. 

What makes this Leinster Rugby side so special? Their ability to develop players, constantly improving their basic skill set fundamentals coupled with exceptional endurance levels. This game got away from Cardiff Blues in the last quarter when fitness started to come to the fore.

Leinster Rugby’s bench made a massive impact to the outcome of this game. The front row replacements were excellent. Andrew Porters started to torment in the set piece and Byran Byrne / Ed Byrne provided work rate and try scoring prowess to proceedings. Gibson-Park at nine provided fresh impetus with good distribution. Ross Byrne’s conversion at death was ice cool clinical. 

Leinster Rugby are well primed for another successful season; Nacewa / Heaslip / Murphy and Strauss et al. may have departed but the new kids in the squad are ready to step up, provide leadership. Exciting times for the reigning European Champions Cup kingpins!

Guinness Pro 14: Irish Province Squad Preseason Review

The preseason drills have started weeks ago and playing squads (for the most part) are thick in the middle of preseason preparations. For Connacht and Ulster, it is an opportunity for players to impress new head coaching appointments to secure sufficient game time this season. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on the squads.

Irish Province Squad Transfers: 

Guinness Pro 14: Ireland Provinces Transfers (2018 – 2019)

The standard bearers last season in European Club Rugby have lost several legendary players in the off-season. Given the talent in the academy ranks which have graduated to the senior contract ranks, it would be remiss to say that the side will not miss the presence and stature of players such as Jamie Heaslip, Richardt Strauss and the legend that is Isa Nacewa.

Nacewa’s leadership at the business end of the season was incredible; he took over the kicking tee responsibility in the European Rugby Champions Cup final. Three guys whose presence, work ethos and professionalism is beyond reproach.

The other transfer departures saw notable exits for Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery to Ulster and Munster respectively; with a RWC 2019 fast approaching, players will need sufficient game time and this was a key factor for their departures from the club. Yet again, two players whose talent will be missed in the squad depth of the side which will be tested again given the international contingent at the club.

It is not all doom and gloom from a Leinster Rugby perspective. The academy talent has being immense and it is rewarded with several keynote contracts to the senior team. Jordan Larmour had a superb debut season in the first team; capped at international level and his try scoring exploits had rugby writers in euphoric tone.

Doris and Murphy signings are incredibly exciting for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster; two players who will play senior international test matches soon and when you consider the likes of Max Deegan with another preseason under his belt, the talent pool still remains strong.

Joe Tomane is the marquee signing for the province; a powerhouse back line option to have. If Tomane is half as good as Nacewa, Leinster Rugby are in a good place. Interesting start to the season given the international players unavailability at different parts of next season but if Leinster Rugby can negotiate the opening Welsh road trip fixtures, they are well set for another good season.

A coaching era has arrived in Galway. Andy Friend has being appointed the new head coach of Connacht Rugby, a coach with an excellent resume, experience aplenty in SH / NH rugby as well as spending times in the Sevens game. His mantra will be for the players to express themselves with ball in hand, promote creativity while providing teamwork and defensive organization without the ball.

Andy Friend replaces Kieran Keane who was dismissed after only a season in June; seven Pro 14 wins from twenty-one fixtures last season is the baseline for Friend to surpass for the upcoming season and the personnel brought into the club should help get past this miserable mark given the existing talent pool in the squad.

The recruitment had already commenced by the time Kieran Keane walked the Lough Atalia plank. Connacht Rugby had already secured the services of versatile centre Godwin and a potential astute move for Horowitz from Australian rugby.

The back line has being boosted by the signing of Reece who is a speed merchant with ball in hand. Robin Copeland comes from Munster looking to prove a point; personally thought that Munster Rugby did not see the most of the player. Copeland was versatile in filling second row and back row positions but it is at eight where the player excels; look at his performances when with Cardiff Blues is enough.

The academy continues to deliver aplenty and no surprise that a couple of players move to the senior contract ranks. Claffey if he continues his progression looks an excellent lock in the making. Gallagher and O’Donnell will need to mature and work hard this season to secure any significant game minutes.

The side saw numerous departures with several players released from their contracts while also paying an emotional farewell to Galway native John Muldoon who retired from the game to join Pat Lam at Bristol Bears as a coach. Huge void left in the dressing room but it is up to the senior players and Copeland to provide the experience and leadership in the ranks.

The fixture sees a colossal opening five game stand; four of which are at home. Connacht Rugby will need to be on point for the visits of Leinster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors. If they can secure a couple of early home wins, confidence should soar and the Connacht fan base will look forward to the season; otherwise, it may be a season of attrition with European Challenge Cup Pool of Death to look forward to. Friend will demand high standards from minute one this season, an interesting team to watch this season given the dynamic style of play that the Westerners execute.

After a season of near misses at the business end of the season, it is fair to say that Munster Rugby are a side that need to get over the hump and win a competition. The squad personnel has seen several keynote departures and arrivals.

The arrivals are spearheaded by the acquisition of Joey Carbery for this season; a player who has the potential but needs the game time to develop at the ten channel. The prospect of Carbery and Murray in the half back pairing is something to whet the appetite at Munster. Carbery is not a lock for ten though as the likes of Keatley, Bleyendaal and Hanrahan will look to impress Johann van Graan in early preseason to secure vital preseason friendly game minutes.

The scrum-half position has being bolstered by the signing of Neil Cronin. Cronin was an UBL standout in recent seasons with Garryowen and the Limerick native gets another opportunity to stake a claim at the professional ranks. Cronin has an excellent all round game, excellent pass, good kicking game as well and should complement the competition in the squad depth charts. Murray is number one but the battle for the backup will intensify with Hart, Williams and now Cronin vying for this spot. Training ground competition should see improvement off the bench in this position on game day.

Mike Haley comes to Munster Rugby with an excellent reputation from Sale Sharks; versatile player whose line break skills are a key facet will be a good replacement for the departed Simon Zebo who moves to Racing 92. Zebo’s talent cannot be replicated but what Haley will bring is an overall solid game who will contribute to attack when hitting the line. Stephen Fitzgerald and Andrew Conway look like viable full back options too so the depth chart yet again is bolstered in this position.

Arno Botha for me is the dark horse signing for Munster this season. The player is a specimen; his mobility allows the player to play in either second row or back row. Botha will be required particularly when the likes of O’Mahony and Stander are away on international duty. Botha’s ball carrying is abrasive and I think the Munster Rugby fan base will love his style of play. His discipline though at times can be an issue but something to watch out for.

Academy players such as Calvin Nash and Liam O’Connor are rewarded with encouraging cameos last season with senior contracts. O’Connor if he is fully recovered from injury is a key prop asset. Nash is a player with tremendous upside; pace, power and ability to spot a line break. Two exciting homegrown talents for Munster Rugby to nurture further this season along with Fineen Wycherley, a player who has being part of the senior squad for a couple of seasons now, amazing that he is now only getting a senior contract!

A season of expectation but the keyword will be patience for the Munster Rugby fans. The new signings will take time to bed in but when they do, it will be an interesting season. The business end of the season is where Munster need to prove themselves so judgement on the squad will ultimately take place there.

If any side were happy to see the back of 2017-2018 season, it was Ulster Rugby. Turmoil off the pitch with legal proceedings of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, a head coach who jumped ship midway through the season and incumbent who did not want to take on the position long term. Turmoil on the playing side with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have to move to France to resurrect their careers and then a plethora of retirements. The names who bide farewell to Kingspan Stadium are massive; Bowe, Payne, Trimble and then you throw other players who departed like Piatau, Diack and Black and it has being a tough off season of departures.

Hope springs eternal. Dan McFarland takes over the head coaching role and several signings look interesting early doors. Jordi Murphy’s arrival will boost the physicality and work rate of the back row. Murphy was an unsung hero for Leinster Rugby and Ireland last season; his tackle count was high consistently and his breakdown support work while continuing to be a threat with ball in hand set the foundation for all that was good in both sides Murphy represented last season.

Marty Moore arrives back to Ireland with a point to prove after an indifferent playing spell with Wasps; some good cameos but some frustrating times sidelined with injury. Moore if on form should get game minutes to increase his profile back with Joe Schmidt and the national side. A nice signing for Ulster if the coaching team can get the best out of Moore.

Billy Burns is an interesting fly-half signing. The Gloucester Rugby arrival is a player with plenty of skill set to offer the side; good kicking game, astute game management to launch his runners. The key issue with Burns is performance consistency at times. The ten jersey needed competition given the departure of Jackson and with McPhilips starting to emerge late last season, the battle for the ten jersey can only benefit the side long term.

Several academy players make the jump to the senior contract ranks. The key guy to look out for if given game time is Johnny Stewart. The scrum-half is being tipped even at this early stage as a player of promise, words comparing the player to Ruan Pienaar have being bandied around. It will remain to be seen how the player will evolve this season with Cooney the incumbent first choice at the position. If Stewart were to impress, could Cooney’s versatility see a switch to ten?

A season which Ulster Rugby will need everyone rowing in the same direction. Last season was a disaster for the club both on and off the pitch, this season has to be the platform for better things to come. The back line and half back options have being depleted but it is down to the senior players in the squad to lead by example. The core talent in the squad and academy is impressive; the question is whether the pack and half back recruits can provide the extra impetus to get the team over the line in key match-ups this season. A question to be answered in due course.

Guinness Pro 14: Ireland Provinces Transfers (2018 – 2019)

Guinness Pro 14 Irish Rugby preseason is well underway for the players not involved in the June international series. As like any off season, there has being comings and goings within the four provincial sides. This blog posting looks at the arrivals and departures for the upcoming season for Connacht Rugby, Leinster Rugby, Munster Rugby and Ulster Rugby.

End of Season Term Report: Irish Provinces

Grade: A+

High Point:

Quite obvious really with winning both the European Rugby Champions Cup and Guinness Pro 14 crowns this month. The triumphs are just rewards for a side whose squad depth and game management were to the fore this season. The European Cup triumph emphasized why Leinster Rugby are the kingpins of European Club rugby.

Racing 92 tried to win this encounter with their pack; close exchanges with precious little opportunity for back lines to shine. Leinster Rugby’s composure to adapt their game plan and keep their nerve in the last quarter was to the fore while Racing 92 lose theirs. A true hallmark of an exceptional side is their ability to win matches in different ways. Leinster Rugby ticked all the boxes in this regard.

Low Point:

Nothing significant of note on the pitch. If you want to be critical, then the Guinness Pro 14 end of regular season run-in which saw a couple of noteworthy losses to Ospreys (A), Benetton Rugby (H) and Connacht Rugby (A) to conclude the regular season was disappointing.

The fringe squad members who performed so well struggled for form and cohesion in those encounters and there was a hint of end of season exertions in those performances. These squad players played significant minutes in the league while their first team colleagues were on international duty, understandable that performances waned at the end of the regular season.

The other low point was the injury problems experienced by Sean O’Brien this season. The Carlow native endured a frustrating season with shoulder and leg injuries to the fore. It is hoped that O’Brien is fit and raring to go for preseason in order to provide both province and national team with more squad depth options in the back row next season.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

With the departures of legendary Isa Nacewa and Richard Strauss from the playing setup as well as the departure of the excellent Jordi Murphy to Ulster Rugby next term, Leinster Rugby have a couple of personnel issues to contend with this close season. Nacewa’s departure cannot be underestimated.

The New Zealander was an inspirational leader in the playing group, he set the tone and work ethic for which other followed and evaluated their game as a result. No doubt, Leinster Rugby will already have identified their replacement to fill the big shoes of Nacewa but his presence and high level of performance will be missed.

Strauss was a player whose ability to create gain line breaks, his assured set piece execution was to the fore. Jordi Murphy will be a big loss to the group as well. His performances this season for province and country have being excellent. The Murphy departure is a loss but look at the back row options in the Leinster Rugby squad. O’Brien,  Josh van der Flier, Max Deegan chomping at the bit to make an impact.

The drama of where Joey Carbery will be plying his trade next season has loomed large in recent weeks. Carbery is a tricky situation. Leinster Rugby is an exceptional club and will get the opportunity to secure silverware. However, his game time at ten has being low given the cameos of Ross Byrne as well as Johnny Sexton. Does Carbery take the decision to move away from the RDS to improve his RWC 2019 chances or does he stay patient and hope to make a move up the depth chart at Leinster? Intriguing subplot.

Player of the Season:

Several standout candidates come to mind. Furlong was immense this season for province and national side. His scrummaging and work rate with / without ball was outstanding. Sean Cronin had an excellent season, rid of injury and his performances provided stability in set piece. Healy was his abrasive best in all areas of play. James Ryan was incredible and his game evaluated Devin Toner to new performance levels.

The back line unit had massive cameo moments as well with Lowe, Ringrose, Henshaw and Kearney having keynote seasons. Joint award winners for me. Dan Leavy and Scott Fardy were simply sensational this season. Leavy’s ability to control the breakdown area, his ability with ball in hand was outstanding all year, the proverbial tackling machine.

Fardy was such an astute signing from Leinster Rugby. Fardy’s versatility to fill multiple back row positions along with his ability to slot into the second row provided massive flexibility in Leinster Rugby’s squad selection. Fardy was one of the first names on the team sheet and to say that in such a star studded team speaks volumes. If you were twisting my arm, it would be Scott Fardy for the consistency in performance and appearances with the province this season.

Grade: B

High Point:

The ability of the team to continue to produce winning performances despite the departure of Erasmus, Niebaner and Aled Walters midway through the season. The Erasmus departure was poorly managed but the players and backroom staff which remained have to be applauded for keeping focused and providing van Graan with a seamless transition.

The backs to the wall performance against Toulon in Thomond Park. The French outfit dominated the ball and how Munster Rugby won this contest will be the stuff of folklore for years to come. Two superb individual efforts from Conor Murray and Andrew Conway secured the victory. Incredible performance.

The emergence of young talent in the squad to offset injuries to key personnel during the season. Sam Arnold was excellent at thirteen, a position which looked problematic when Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute had gone down with season ending injuries. Alex Wootton in the back line came to the fore; excellent try scoring and will learn massively from the season just gone.

Low Point:

Playoff woe continues for this pool of players. Another frustrating European Rugby Cup semi-final loss, a defeat to Racing 92 where Munster Rugby failed to deliver a telling blow. Racing 92 exposed a passive Munster Rugby opening quarter and three tries followed to seal the contest. Playoff mentality questions abound.

The Guinness Pro 14 semi-final playoff performance against Leinster Rugby was encouraging but when you consider the Leinster Rugby first team players who did not feature, to lose this contest was a disappointment. A slow start to the contest again punished by Leinster Rugby and when Munster Rugby did score, they let Leinster Rugby off the hook with some miserable penalty concessions.

The team has progressed from last season but the scope of improvement is there for all to see. The ability of the side to execute at the business end of the season was exposed yet again; the ability of players to execute the basics at a high level was inconsistent at the business end of the season.

Grobler saga. The media attention on the player and the decision to bring the player into the setup knowing that this was only for a season was a mistake in hindsight, surely there was a homegrown talent which could have filled the squad berth. The Erasmus saga was embarrassing. Enough said.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

A couple of positions are up for grabs. With Simon Zebo departing for Racing 92, the full back slot is up for grabs. Haley, Fitzgerald and Conway come into the equation to fill this position. Zebo’s ability to play off the cuff and create try scoring opportunities from nothing was seen to full effect in the Edinburgh Rugby playoff win.

There is speculation on the ten jersey. Bleyendaal endured another torrid season with injury and his absence provided the opportunity for Keatley to impress. Keatley was excellent until the playoffs and then his form and confidence fell apart. Hanrahan attempted to fill the jersey in the Guinness Pro 14 playoff and it was a mixed bag. Johnston needs to be given game time in the preseason to see if the undoubted potential of the player can flourish next season. Joey Carbery’s name has being bandied around in the media circles. If Carbery arrives, then it means that at least one fly-half will need to leave to make squad depth space.

The prop position as well was exposed in the last couple of weeks of the season. Archer played through the pain barrier to give valuable game time minutes down the stretch. Loughman and O’Connor should come back into the fray next season but both players still are inexperienced at this level.

Player of the Season:

Three standout performers this season. Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony. All were colossal figures in Munster’s most prominent moments this season. Murray for me was the standout player for Munster Rugby this season. His game management, defensive nous and ability to score tries from nothing were to the fore. Earls and O’Mahony provided massive leadership and inspirational moments for the side too but I cannot look past Murray this season. He was superb.

Grade: C-

High Point:

Gain line breaks aplenty for the province this season and the back line when supplied with fast ball were dangerous. Piutau was a menace with ball in hand. McCloskey and Ludik also prominent in the attacking side of the game.

The emergence of John Cooney at the nine position was the highlight; an unenviable scenario to fill the boots of Ruan Pienaar but Cooney’s performance were of high quality throughout. His kicking game to the fore and his ability to score tries impressive to earn a call up to the Ireland national side tour to Australia.

Securing European Rugby Champions Cup rugby next season. Their defeat of Ospreys with a depleted side was a standout moment. The side were vulnerable, backs against the wall but each player on duty performed excellently. There is massive potential in this Ulster Rugby club, the fan base is superb. The new head coach with a couple of shrewd signings can have an immediate positive impact.

Low Point: 

Jackson and Olding trial dominated news reels for months. The trial regardless of what was said by the province had to have had a negative morale impact. The trial verdict did not stifle opposition to the retention of Jackson and Olding and both players were forced out due to sponsors reservations. A sorry saga for everyone involved and the decision of Les Kiss to jump ship during the trial did little to stem the negative morale in the camp.

Inconsistent performances. Jekyll and Hyde cameos were the norm this season. A half of quality and then a half of poor mediocrity allowing opposition to get back into contests. The change in head coach did not stem this trend. Several fixtures stand out to me. The road trip draw to Dragons where Ulster Rugby combusted at a rate of knots. The Munster Rugby away performance where they controlled the opening period but then failed to show in the second half. Two games where wins were possible.

The retirements of Payne, Trimble and Bowe will reduce squad back line depth chart. The departure of Piutau is a blow too, it will be interesting to see how Ulster Rugby look to replace the void left by these departures from the squad. The decision on when Dan McFarland takes over at Kingspan needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

Paddy Jackson’s departure has left a void at ten. McPhilips has undoubted talent in the position but there needs to be an experienced player also in the position as well. Carbery and Byrne were touted but this link has cooled in recent weeks. Does Steenson come into the equation? Ten channel reinforcements as well as back line recruits are paramount. The pack are boosted by the signings of Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy but more front five depth is required.

Player of the Season:

Difficult season but for sheer consistency this season, it has to be John Cooney. No brainer.

Grade: D

High Point:

When Connacht Rugby produced a cohesive performance, they were a match for any side. Their derby wins against Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby in the Sportgrounds emphasized this point. Their pack was abrasive and mobile while the half-backs launched their back line with fast ball where Aki and Farrell created gain line breaks. The European Challenge Cup campaign saw Connacht Rugby top their pool, several keynote wins on the road.

The emergence of Tom Farrell to the side; the twelve was a standout. His ability to find the soft shoulder was on point, creating gain line breaks. Delahunt is a player with incredible upside; impressed me massively at the end of the season with his ball carrying and set piece execution. McKeon and Butler were standouts in the back row.

Low Point:

Inconsistency performances. The ability of Connacht Rugby to contrive to lose narrow games due to self inflicted mistakes. The restart after a Connacht Rugby score was a problematic area in the first half of the season. The defensive line and speed was at times exposed by better sides. The losses to Zebre Rugby particularly hurt in terms of the performance levels and the sheer inability of Connacht Rugby to setup a platform.

Kieran Keane’s departure was massively mismanaged. The canines around the Sportsground knew that the New Zealander was surplus to requirements before Connacht Rugby then decided to issue a press statement release. It showed the board in a poor light and raises questions on the board’s convictions in backing their own appointment. Andy Friend needs 100% support from the board.

The form of Ultan Dillane. The second row’s form dipped this season and the Kerry man needs to come back with gusto next season. Keane preferred other alternatives to Dillane and his form has resulted in missing out on Ireland national team squad selection.

The end of an era. John Muldoon exits Connacht Rugby as a player. An emotional last home game against Leinster Rugby. The Portumna native was quite simply legendary for the province. His unerring loyalty to the club in the hard times is an example to anyone. Andrew Browne also left the club, a player who contributed massively to the development of the province in recent years.

Off Season Rumor Mill:

Andy Friend’s appointment by Connacht Rugby last week is a welcome step. Friend will be present for the start of preseason, something that Keane did not have. A preseason to evaluate the players and coaching staff and look to implement his expansive game plan ethos to the club.

Several key signings this off-season. The signing of Copeland, Horowitz and Goodwin are quality additions which will boost squad depth competition. The capture of the Fijian Sevu Reece has the ability to be one of the signings of the season provided the player can sharpen up his defensive side of play.

An off-season where everyone associated with Connacht Rugby need to knuckle down and work harder to get back to competing in Guinness Pro 14 and European Challenge Cup action.

Player of the Season:

Difficult season. Tom Farrell impressed. Bundee Aki cameos in European and Guinness Pro 14 were excellent. Tiernan O’Halloran had several eye-catching displays but I think Kieran Marmion was probably the player of the season. His game management was solid throughout the year, his ability to support the ball carrier seen with several tries at the back end of the season. A summer tour to Australia has the potential for Marmion to establish himself as the backup to Conor Murray.

Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review: Irish Provincial Derbies

The regular Guinness Pro 14 season is over with minimal surprises in the final playoff shakeup. In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick will review the Irish provincial derbies where Connacht Rugby gave John Muldoon and Andrew Browne a resounding send off with a a seven try demolition of Leinster Rugby. In the other fixture, Munster Rugby assembled squad fought back to secure a 24-24 draw with Ulster Rugby who were eliminated from the Guinness Pro 14 playoff race.

A resounding Connacht Rugby performance fitting for the day that was in it. An emotionally charged Sportsground crowd paid tribute to the service and commitment of John Muldoon and Andrew Browne who are hanging up the boots.

For Muldoon, it was an incredible send off in the week leading up to this fixture. The social media videos of appreciation and gratitude to the Portumna native were on point. It was setup for Connacht Rugby to produce a performance for their departing players and what a performance!

This performance should  be the blueprint for Connacht Rugby next season. The intensity, work rate and organization were on point. The defensive line speed exposed in recent weeks was a different animal yesterday. Connacht’s defensive line speed gave Leinster Rugby no opportunity to set a platform.

The breakdown work by the hosts also caught the eye; a couple of marquee breakdown wins on Leinster possession creating momentum. The ability of Connacht Rugby to slow Leinster Rugby ball down at ruck time also a key facet of the win yesterday.

The seven try haul yesterday illustrated what Connacht Rugby are capable of when they are accurate in all facets of play. Delahunt had a stellar game; the hooker sniping around the fringes with ball in hand and was pivotal in the opening try. Leinster Rugby switching off around the fringes and Delahunt had made thirty meters.

Jack Carty at ten was excellent and his game management along with Marmion gave the side composure throughout and they picked their cue to unleash Niyi Adeolokun out wide to score the opening try of the afternoon and it was not going to stop there.

Tiernan O’Halloran (132 meters gained) who was prominent coming into the line scored a try borne of good game reading as he was able to identify James Lowe pass to Noel Reid. The finish was routine but the manner in how the player identified the opposition play, executed it was a highlight reel moment. Delahunt was again a key cog for the third try; another gain line break around the fringes for Marmion to touch down. 21-3 at the break. No time to ease the intensity and so it proved.

The second half was a procession as Leinster Rugby were becoming increasingly stretched out wide. The fourth try was a superb score; a sweeping move from one end of the pitch to the other. Farrell who has had a standout season for Connacht Rugby this season with a thirty meter gain line break. The quick ruck ball and passing out wide to that man Delahunt again who had the skill set to flick a pass to Niyi Adeolokun on the sideline to run unopposed for the bonus point try.

Connacht Rugby were now rampant and another try highlight good tactical nous and execution. Carty identifying space behind a now passive Leinster Rugby defense. O’Halloran’s run was made to perfection; good pass to the supporting runner Marmion to score. 33-3. Take a photo of that scoreboard; not many teams put a score on Leinster Rugby and this was what it was; a rout. The Blade try was more of the same; gain line breaks created from quick ruck ball. The conversion was taken by John Muldoon, the ball is still in orbit, the conversion was good. Perhaps another coaching role for Muldoon to fulfill for Pat Lam at Bristol next season?

An incredible send off for the players leaving the club. An end of an era at the club with the likes of Muldoon and Browne leaving the club. The coaching staff, players (existing and new) will regroup and this performance needs to be referenced as the level that the side need to aspire to. Their physicality, work rate, game management were outstanding yesterday and Kieran Keane knows that his charges can execute a high octane expansive rugby game plan. Interesting times at Connacht Rugby next season!

Let us not beat around the bush here. The Leinster Rugby squad depth has being lauded this season; their attempts to win Guinness Pro 14 and European Cup is still on course but in recent weeks, it has become increasingly apparent that some of the fringe players are now running on empty entering the playoffs.

47-10. Connacht Rugby lauded this fixture with their superior work rate, attacking threat and ability to punish several defensive lapses throughout the contest. A lack of cohesion between the pack and back line was prevalent throughout and Ross Byrne struggled to contribute in any meaningful fashion. Carbery at fifteen tried to make things happen along with James Lowe but it was a forlorn task.

The second row performance was a major issue. Thornbury was the standout performer and Molony and Kearney were overwhelmed by the performances of their opponent. Roux was abrasive in his tackling, work rate around the fringes. Thornbury was immense; his ability to defend the maul and breakdown work to the fore. A potential Ireland summer tour newcomer?

One of those days in the office. Three Guinness Pro 14 losses in their last four league fixtures. Leinster Rugby still managed to top the conference B standings on points difference to the Scarlets but the manner of the performance for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will not be put under the carpet; accountability is required from the players who played this fixture. The defensive lapses were frequent and often and when an opposition hooker is making sixty meters in gain line breaks, something has to be said!

The only shining light for Leinster Rugby was the return of Tom Daly in the three quarters. There was a couple of misreads but Daly’s work rate was good and his threat with ball in hand (limited) showed plenty of upside. Barry Daly scored an excellent try to take his tally to twelve tries this season in the league. The positives from yesterday are in short supply. Move on and hope that the European Cup squad are not inflicted by the end of season lethargic disease sweeping through the fringe squad players right now.

24-24. Thomond Park. This scoreline on any other season would have being viewed as a decent result but Ulster Rugby were up against a Munster Rugby squad consisting mainly of prospects and players around the fringes of the European Cup squad.

The performance summed up the season for Ulster Rugby. The pack led superbly well by Rory Best, Iain Henderson took control of the game in the opening period. Three well worked tries scored. Stockdale line break setting up McCloskey was a perfect response to Munster Rugby’s early try. Best scored a brace as the Ulster Rugby front five with territorial advantage started to push the Munster Rugby pack backwards at a rate of knots. McPhilips from ten was excellent.

The second half was a different story. As soon as Robin Copeland came back from his sin bin cameo, Ulster Rugby started to lose their discipline. Luke Marshall sent to the sin bin for deliberate kill the ball in a ruck with Munster Rugby primed to score from close range. Copeland did not have to be asked twice to touchdown from close range on forty-eight minutes and from leading 24-14 and looking comfortable, it was now backs to the wall.

Another contest whereby Ulster Rugby gave away the initiative to their opposition. All too familiar. The second half also saw an increasingly malfunctioning Ulster Rugby set piece. Munster Rugby were now in the ascendancy as Cronin and Archer were on top in their duels. The line out was losing primary possession; several steals as Grobler and O’Shea were becoming more prominent as the game wore on.

On another day, Ulster Rugby could have won this fixture with late penalty awarded to the visitors but given their predicament, they needed the elusive fourth try but another malfunctioning line out caught by Grobler who then advanced forty meters down the pitch signaled the end of Ulster’s hopes of winning the game and also securing a top three Conference B berth.

A new head coach is apparently locked in. Rumors of Jim Mallinder joining have intensified in recent weeks but no official announcement for another couple of weeks. The need to recruit for the side needs to happen now. The nine position needs to be examined. Cooney and Shanahan are the nine options now. The ten position needs coverage with Paddy Jackson’s departure. The front row should be boosted by the arrival of Marty Moore. The back row boosted by the arrival of Jordi Murphy and of course there is a three quarter slot to be filled with the departure of Stuart Holding.

A key fixture against the Ospreys now beckons for Ulster Rugby. A loss here and it is European Challenge Cup Rugby next season, not a tournament which will entice prospective players to join. A critical few weeks ahead for everyone connected with Ulster Rugby!

A honorable draw for Munster Rugby given the personnel changes for this fixture. The opening period was a mixed bag; two good pack led tries from Williams and Scott in the opening period but Ulster Rugby were dominant for long periods and had built a ten point lead at the break.

The performance in the second half was much improved; the work rate around the park increased significantly. Good pack platform created for the Copeland try. The set piece was advantage Munster in the final quarter and Ulster’s line out was malfunctioning at a rate of knots.

Several standout performers from Munster Rugby. Grobler departing the club at the end of the season was immense; his work rate and physicality to the fore. His ability to disrupt Ulster Rugby in the second half was outstanding; his maul defense and line out steals complementing Darren O’Shea’s performance in the second row.

Oliver’s mobility on point at seven; good breakdown work. The half back partnership improved as the game wore on. Williams / Hart improve their ruck ball distribution to Hanrahan who was then able to unleash Arnold and Goggin. Nash, Fitzgerald and Sweetnam were all dangerous with ball in hand.

Stephen Fitzgerald was the shining light and offers huge potential upside for Munster Rugby next season. His electric pace and ability to find the soft defensive shoulder resulting in several gain line breaks. Eight carries for eighty-two meters speaks volumes.

The youngsters in the side really stepped up to the plate. Nash had nine carries for forty-six meters. Arnold had fifty-three meters from ten carries. Sweetnam enjoyed fifty-nine meters from five ball carries. Plenty of positives.

The first team charges come back into the team selection fold next weekend for the visit of Edinburgh Rugby but the squad players and prospects have put their hand up for selection. A nice selection headache for van Graan and management to mull over this week.

Clan Terrace View Podcast: Tribute to John Muldoon

The latest Clan Terrace View podcast is now up for your viewing pleasure. Philip Smith and Hawkeye Sidekick pay tribute to Connacht Rugby legend John Muldoon and Andrew Browne. The podcast discusses how the Guinness Pro 14 organizers have missed a trick in the scheduling for this final round of fixtures. A preview of the Irish provincial derby fixtures as well as the AIL 1A playoff semi-finals. Enjoy!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 21 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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