Guinness Pro 14: Round 7 Fixtures (Friday)

Squad depth the key this weekend

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. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 4 (Saturday Fixtures Preview)

Home wins the order of the day

Isuzu Southern Kings vs. Glasgow Warriors

A successful 100% win South African tour for Glasgow Warriors should be secured with a bonus point try win over the hosts who have shown resiliency but ultimately have being outgunned in the pack and skill set department. Glasgow Warriors have rotated their squad around for this fixture, still look strong enough to win this contest. Seymour set to have a keynote game. 

Connacht Rugby vs. Scarlets

A fixture which I am looking forward to. It is a must win for Connacht Rugby after a road loss to Edinburgh Rugby last weekend; discipline and pack platform must improve for the hosts to upset Scarlets who will look to consolidate their solid start to the season. Connacht Rugby welcome Robin Copeland into the pack and with several Scarlets first team regulars out of this fixture, is this a potential game which Connacht Rugby can win? Connacht to win only if they produce a smart, disciplined game plan performance; otherwise Scarlets could run riot out wide. Slight edge to Connacht Rugby as the weather improves here on the Irish West Coast. 

Dragons vs. Zebre Rugby

A key game for the Dragons and the long term managerial tenure ambitions of Bernard Jackman. Dragons have looked well exposed this season; their loss to Leinster Rugby was tough to watch as Leinster Rugby systematically broke Dragons defensive system to shreds. Zebre Rugby will arrive to Rodney Parade in good confidence; a superb late win over Cardiff Blues last weekend at home the standout performance last week. Zebre Rugby will realize that their discipline and fundamental set piece execution have to be on point and provided that they are not far behind at the interval should win this contest in a close, tense affair. Dragons to win need to drastically improve and I do not see the improvement required for this game in just seven days!

Leinster Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby

The standout fixture this weekend until I saw the Edinburgh Rugby team lineup; several pack first team regulars missing and with a strong Leinster Rugby team announced, can only see one winner. Edinburgh will look to restrict quick Leinster Rugby ruck ball but to be honest, Leinster Rugby are so good in changing the focus of attack that the pack may score a couple of tries from mauls. Leinster Rugby with a late bonus point try win. 

Ospreys vs. Benetton Rugby

A tricky fixture for Ospreys to negotiate today as Benetton Rugby with fourteen players scored four tries on the road to the Scarlets last weekend. Ospreys must be careful when they look to become expansive. Ospreys should have their first team regulars back and that could be decisive in the final outcome. Benetton Rugby will show well again but I think Wyn Jones, Tipuric, North and Williams’ cameos if selected will steer the hosts home.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 2 Reflections (Saturday)

Round Two. This is not the time for any teams to panic but there are grounds for concern particularly for the Cheetahs who shipped yet another heavy loss; hopefully they can bounce back in the upcoming rounds. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Benetton Rugby Renaissance

You have to start with the story of the weekend. Benetton are top of Conference B and what a dramatic way for the Italian side to do so. It looked like so near, yet so far hitting eighty minutes. Cardiff Blues down to thirteen players with Benetton Rugby deep in the visitors half; the composure shown to setup the scrum and timing the pass out wide to perfection for Ioane to score the try is a sign of the progression in the ranks, last year they would have botched the chance. Allan’s conversion was sweetly struck; the crowd roar was enough. An incredible result for Benetton Rugby and Cardiff Blues are left to rue more woe in the final quarter. 

Ospreys impress but big concerns for Cheetahs

Ospreys needed a hit out this weekend and Cheetahs were the perfect opposition to increase confidence in their creativity and line breaking ability. The performance was professional and this game was done well before half-time. Jones and Tipuric were the standouts with George North continuing to impress with ball in hand (another try for the winger). 

The pace of the Ospreys was all too much for Cheetahs in the third and fourth quarters with points leaked at an alarming rate. All facets of play looked sharp (despite the opposition) but Aled Davies at nine is a key squad addition.

The departure of Rhys Webb was a big position to fill but Aled Davies has provided speed in distribution around the ruck area. Ospreys will enter the fixture with Munster Rugby with good confidence. North’s threat out wide is providing a x-factor for the Welsh region; great to see the player back in the Pro 14 league. 

Connacht Rugby off the mark

32-13. Andy Friend and management enjoyed their first win in the league with a convincing victory over an ill-disciplined Zebre Rugby outfit. Played in slippery conditions, Connacht Rugby started on the front foot and after an early Carty penalty started to vary their attacking game plan. 

Blade was particularly impressive; sharp in passing distribution but his ability to pop up out wide to pick up attacking breaks was prominent in the early try scores. Paul Boyle continues his early season promise with two good tries, a player who has emerged well in preseason.

Zebre Rugby’s discipline was at times erratic at best; four quick penalties in the first thirteen minutes of this contest told the tale and it was no surprise that two of their team were sent to the sin early in the second half when the referee finally lost patience. 

Connacht Rugby won the sin bin period (15 vs. 13) by only 7-3; another moment where the hosts let their opposition off the hook but Zebre Rugby fatigue from this period was seen in the tries scored by Griffin and Adelokun. 

The set piece at times was a mixed bag in the opening period; a couple of poorly executed line outs in good attacking positions will be reviewed by the hosts but this fixture was to get a win on the board; mission accomplished and next up is a road trip to Edinburgh Rugby who are under the gun to get their first win of the season next weekend. 

Dragons but only just

The good, the bad and the ugly was seen with the Dragons in their 27-22 win over Isuzu Southern Kings at Rodney Parade. A great opening period saw two good tries scored and all looked good; the back three pace and speed causing Southern Kings massive issues. Griffiths and Moriarty looking the part in the back row. 

There is a good young talent in this side but the lack of composure in this side is never too far away. Rhodri Williams’ yellow card saw the visitors score two quick fire tries as Dragons defensive organization went to pieces; the half-time whistle could not come quick enough. From a position of dominance, the hosts were only 17-10 up and was quickly chalked in the third quarter. 

The contest in the balance saw the experienced squad players come to the fore thankfully for Bernard Jackman and management and Lewis’ cameo in the third quarter was instrumental to victory; a good try and conversion giving the breathing room required as the Southern Kings again probed at the death. 

An opening season win for Dragons but there are plenty of improvement areas to address. Southern Kings were resilient but better teams will rip through their pack and ten channel as the season progresses. A match which exposed both sides’ weak points. 

Scarlets win but Leinster Rugby close

It was a close call for Scarlets as the Leinster Rugby juggernaut started to gain momentum in the last quarter. Scarlets had to summon all their defensive and breakdown nous to secure their opening league win. 

Ken Owens was inspired for Scarlets; the early try should have set the platform but McFadden / Lowe responded with excellent tries. The game ebbed and flowed throughout but Gareth Davies try looked to open game for the hosts but back came Leinster Rugby with Ruddock crashing over for Leinster’s third try. Cue frantic closing exchanges. 

No disaster for Leinster Rugby; a loss yes but the fight and spirit of the team again spoke volumes. The Irish international players who were in the team got quality game minutes; the only issue is the second row options. Toner, Ryan, Fardy and then you are looking at the options. Nagle, Kearney, Molony need to push on this season for Leinster Rugby. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round 1 (Friday Fixture Preview)

Roll on the new season!

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

Can Cardiff Blues upset Leinster Rugby? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Cardiff Blues

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

Quality match-up at the Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Zebre Rugby look a solid bet

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Zebre Rugby

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

Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Pro 14: Round 21 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guinness Pro 14 Round 20: Preview (Saturday Games)

Ulster Rugby’s win against Ospreys tonight (8-0) puts a little bit of pressure on Edinburgh Rugby ahead of their tussle against Scarlets but this fixture has being diluted given the selection of the visitors. With a huge European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster Rugby next weekend, the priorities are self-evident.

Scarlets have made wholesale changes for this fixture and the side comprises of squad players. It is a golden opportunity for Edinburgh Rugby to get back on the win column after a disappointing two weeks where Cardiff Blues and Ulster Rugby have come to Murrayfield and come away with deserved victory.

The Edinburgh Rugby pack surely will build the platform tomorrow and expect solid performances from Berghan, Toolis, Gilchrist to lead from the front. Hidalgo-Clyne at nine has the skill set to unleash his pacy back line where Fife and van der Merwe should have excellent gain line statistics coming from this game.

Scarlets’ selection is understandable given the looming European Cup fixture and this will be the opportunity for Edinburgh to secure a bonus point try win; securing third place in Conference B. Scarlets will make do with second in the Conference B,  a dangerous side to come up against in the playoffs given the drying track conditions.

A fixture which will yield a morale boosting victory for either Zebre Rugby or Dragons. Both sides will look to right a few wrongs from round nineteen. Zebre Rugby showed some good moments in the opening half against Leinster Rugby but failed to put points on the board. Leinster Rugby massacred Zebre Rugby in the second half when cohesion was established.

Dragons had a topsy turvy loss to Benetton Rugby last weekend. Bernard Jackman’s charges looked out of it in the opening period; leaking four tries to Benetton Rugby but they fought back incredibly well to lead the contest deep into the contest only for discipline to rear its head to give Benetton Rugby the decisive penalty kick to win the contest.

Dragons have based themselves in Italy this week; a chance to increase morale and improve team continuity. Bernard Jackman and management have made three changes for this side. Charlie Davies replaces Owain Leonard at scrum-half, whilst Luke Garrett comes into the front row and Joe Davies comes into the second row.

Zebre Rugby make five changes for the fixture. Castello suffered a knee injury during the Six Nations Championship, but has been passed fit to return. Venditti starts on the left wing, so Mattia Bellini switches to the right.  Luus and Bello come into the front row with Johan Meyer set to start at open side. The inclusions add quality to the side.

50/50 contest. Dragons have plenty to prove in terms of closing out games; they had a superb chance to win last week. They need the win desperately to end a horrific league streak. Zebre Rugby though for me if their pack can assert dominance and with Canna and Venditti on hand to game manage the back line. Zebre Rugby win narrowly.

Leinster entertain Benetton Rugby at the RDS with some keynote inclusions. Jordan Larmour returns to the side at full back, his ball carrying hitting the line should be sharp and will cause the visitors massive headaches. Pack changes aplenty. McGrath, Strauss, Porter form the front row. Molony and Nagle are the second row combo and there is a welcome return to action for Sean O’Brien. Carbery starts at ten; interesting to see how he performs. Given the squad being rested this weekend, Leinster Rugby’s team is still strong. Daly on the wing poised for further tries.

Jayden Hayward,  Andrea Bronzini and Monty Ioane feature in the Benetton Rugby back line. Iannone and captain Alberto Sgarbi occupy the centre positions while the half-backs are Tito Tebaldi at scrum half and Tommaso Allan at fly-half. The front row is made up by Federico Zani, Luca Bigi and Simone Ferrari and need to set the platform for Benetton Rugby to impress. They have fifty points in the league so far and still harbor hopes of catching Ulster Rugby for fourth place. Benetton Rugby will bring a huge effort to the game.

Leinster Rugby though for me are the firm favorites to win this contest. A couple of players on show will need to produce excellent performances to be part of the plans for the European Cup fixture next weekend. Massive motivation for the likes of O’Brien, Larmour, McGrath to impress. Carbery at ten potentially the standout performer. Leinster Rugby victory; hard earned given Benetton Rugby’s defensive shape has improved considerably this season. No bonus point but sufficient to secure top spot in Conference A for the playoffs.

Intriguing fixture to end round twenty. Cardiff Blues will be buoyed by Munster Rugby’s road trip win at Bloemfontein which opens the door for the Blues to close the gap in the battle for third in the conference. When you add to the fact that Ospreys lost as well tonight, then it could be a significant weekend for anyone involved with the Blues.

Cardiff Blues were devastated to lose so late to Toyota Cheetahs last weekend. Spirited fightback and then to lose to a penalty try award deep into injury time was hard to take. Blues have made a couple of pack personnel changes. Andrews starting in the front-row. Turnbull comes into the second row. Nick Williams starts at the back of the pack and Ellis Jenkins captains the side at openside flanker. Anscombe switches to full back to accommodate Evans at ten. Solid team.

Southern Kings come into the fixture on the back of a mixed performance against Munster Rugby. A good opening thirty minutes had Munster Rugby under pressure but then discipline and defensive lapses in the third quarter key to Munster Rugby pulling away for the bonus point win. Southern Kings have made a couple of changes as well; Vulindlu returns to the back line and provides attacking threat. Several personnel pack changes as well.

Port Elizabeth should see plenty of quality tries in this encounter. The Cardiff Blues back line has the potential to cut loose here with their pace ad power. For me, their pack is more cohesive and Evans will control game management at ten. Cardiff Blues to win here after a topsy turvy opening period. Navidi at six the game changer; his grappling ability at the breakdown a key positive for the visitors.

 

 

Guinness Pro 14 Round 19: Irish Provinces Review

Round 19 in the books. Several standout results to digest and review. A weekend where Ulster Rugby produced a road trip performance that showed the ability and potential of this side when their precision and work rate is on point. It was all too much for Connacht Rugby at the Liberty Stadium as Ospreys continued their recent upturn in form in emphatic fashion. Leinster Rugby were too strong in the second half for a gallant Zebre Rugby while Munster Rugby recovered from a slow start to win at George, an emotional return for CJ Stander. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

It has being a turbulent couple of weeks for everyone connected with Ulster Rugby. The much documented court case, the decision of Jono Gibbes to leave at the end of the season, the performances on the pitch not at the level required have left plenty of doom and gloom around the Kingspan Stadium but this 20-32 win at Murrayfield (even though it is probably too little too late in terms of the playoffs) provided evidence if needed this side’s ability and potential.

This was a cohesive, efficient performance from Ulster Rugby. Yes, there were lapses in concentration but the quality of their work with ball in hand was too much for Edinburgh Rugby who must be getting worried as they drop to a second consecutive loss in as many weeks.

The Irish international contingent with Ulster came to the party with gusto. Best was his dynamic best in the loose, his set piece on point. Henderson was sublime in work rate and his late try in the second half secured this much deserved road win. Stockdale’s try scoring assist with the side’s first try; a superb effort which involved quick offloading from Piutau to Stockdale who then passed to Cave to score.

The first thirty minutes of this contest was on point from Ulster Rugby. Their pack was dynamic, particularly impressed with O’Toole in the front row, a player who looks to have a good future in the game. The back line were exciting and sharp with ball in hand. Cooney game managed superbly in this period.

Edinburgh Rugby did respond well. Their pack improved in the second half and forced Ulster Rugby to concede a penalty try just before the end of the third quarter. With recent league form, many would have presumed that the hosts would have gone on and won the contest but Ulster Rugby were not to be denied. Excellent tackling and opportunistic attacking the keys to secure victory.

This is a morale boosting win for Ulster Rugby, hopefully this is a result that is the springboard for better performances down the home stretch. They are still a long shot to get into the playoff picture but if Edinburgh Rugby continue to show vulnerability in their defense, it could be evenly poised for an exciting playoff race in Conference B for that final playoff spot.

Where do you start with this performance? If you had seen my blog and podcast last week, the loss to Gloucester Rugby signaled the end realistically of the Connacht Rugby season. There was a faint hope of making the Guinness Pro 14 playoffs but that was completely extinguished by an Ospreys side who yet again produced an excellent performance at home to win 35-10.

Connacht Rugby probably knew it was not going to be their day when playing with a man advantage, they are primed to score an opening try to get back into the contest. However, Hassler picked off Eoin Griffin’s pass outside to run eighty meters and score. 6-0 now turned 13-0. Long way back.

The Ospreys back line statistics makes for sorry reading for Connacht Rugby. Evans: one try and 85 meters gained. Hassler:  one try and 181 meters gained. Beck: one try and 46 meters gained. Dirksen: one try and 33 meters gained. It was at times all too easy for the hosts as Biggar was able to pick out his back line runners with unerring accuracy as Connacht’s defensive line speed deteriorated at a rate of knots.

Ospreys’ form in recent weeks has being on point. Watkins at thirteen was excellent when introduced and the front five controlled exchanges throughout. This is a good end to the season and wonder if Clarke has done enough to secure a permanent head coaching role next season.

For Connacht Rugby, the season is over; time to review the season, give fringe players game time and look to identify better defensive organization before season’s end. Daunting task when you consider Leinster Rugby are coming to Galway before the end of the season. Kieran Keane and management have work to do! The less we say about that Connacht penalty kick attempt the better

A sluggish opening period but Leinster Rugby overpowered a gallant Zebre Rugby outfit 41-6. The weather conditions were monsoon like for good portions of the opening period but the Italians fronted up well and created a couple of key try scoring opportunities. The opportunity right on the Leinster Rugby posts was unlucky but other chances went a begging due to inaccuracy and they were made to pay.

James Lowe continues to impress; sublime ball carrier and try scoring on point again with a clinical brace (one in either half). The big players in this Leinster Rugby for me were Max Deegan at eight and Barry Daly deployed at full-back. Deegan’s two try haul was an excellent return for a display full of creativity and work rate. One of the tries was akin to Conor Murray’s Munster try against Toulon Rugby. Good game management from the back rower.

Barry Daly at times showed sublime moments when hitting the line. His speed and ability to break the gain line a prominent feature for Leinster Rugby. His line break in the opening period securing a Leinster Rugby try. The player could be a surprise option to go on the Ireland tour of Australia in the summer. Good form being shown but will he get an opportunity to impress with Leinster Rugby in European or Pro 14 playoff games? 50/50.

A game where Leinster Rugby will acknowledge was a performance that failed to fire in the opening period but the second half performance was very much on point. No significant injuries of note and a couple of squad players produced good cameos to increase management’s thoughts on the European Cup semi-final squad. Top of Conference B. All looks rosy for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s charges.

Munster Rugby’s first foray to South Africa in a Guinness Pro 14 league fixture yielded a 22-39 road trip win in George, the hometown of CJ Stander. It was a fantastic game with the venue packed for the return of Stander to his hometown. The Munster Rugby supporters were in good voice throughout.

A fixture where the defensive coaches will need to look away at the missed tackle count. The Southern Kings missed a whopping 35 tackles while Munster Rugby missed 16 themselves, quite a few tackles missed in that opening period when the Southern Kings were the dominant side.

15-3 down. Credit to Ian Keatley to game manage and get the Munster Rugby team back into the contest. His passing was on point and his gain line break setup the Stander try. Munster produced some excellent expansive moments in this contest. Scannell’s pass to Goggin was a round nineteen league video moment of the round.

Munster’s pack were now in the ascendancy in the second half and Marshall crashed over in the final quarter along with Dave Kilcoyne who capped off an excellent performance with another try nine minutes from time. The prop was destructive with ball in hand throughout and the Southern Kings struggled to stifle the influence of the UL Bohemians club man.

Five points on the road. A key result for Munster Rugby given the result at Bloemfontein as Cheetahs left it late to beat Cardiff Blues. A six point gap between Munster Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs ahead of their Friday night match-up. It will be an interesting contest in the altitude. Toyota Cheetahs will relish an open contest but sense Munster Rugby will look to produce a far more structured performance; an intriguing clash of styles awaits!

Guinness Pro 14: Round 19 Preview

After the excitement of European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup last weekend, it is time to get back to the brass tax of Guinness Pro 14. A weekend which could see several teams come tantalizingly close to securing their place in the playoffs. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

This is the pivotal contest in Conference B. A win for Edinburgh Rugby in this encounter will see Richard Cockerill’s charges almost secure their place in the playoffs. The team news makes for interesting reading. Edinburgh make six changes to the side that were humbled by Cardiff Blues in European Challenge cup action last weekend. Hidalgo-Clyne, Weir, Burleigh and Berghan all come into the starting lineup. All solid selections.

Ulster Rugby have given opportunities to a couple of promising academy players. Tom O’Toole (prop), Matthew Dalton (second row) come into the side and are joined by Matthew Rea and Nick Timoney. An explosive looking back line is named with Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Louis Ludik and Charles Piutau named at full back.

Third plays fourth in this encounter. It is a game that Ulster Rugby have to win to have any realistic chance of extending their regular league season. Ulster Rugby on the road this season have being inconsistent at best so it will be interesting to see how Ulster Rugby perform with the likes of Rory Best and Iain Henderson in the ranks.

Slight edge to Edinburgh Rugby who look to have more cohesion in their ranks. The half-back pairing selected is vastly experienced and with the likes of Gilchrist, Toolis and Berghan all coming back to the pack; they look to edge the pack battle. Playoff ticket almost stamped after this result for Edinburgh. A win to compound another miserable week for Ulster Rugby off the pitch.

This Conference A fixture is a dead rubber with both sides realistically out of the playoff hunt. Ospreys name a strong selection for this fixture with the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Dan Biggar in the ranks. Their performance against Leinster Rugby in round eighteen was excellent; physicality with superb expansive line breaks. Dan Evans was sublime on the night and will be looking to add to his try scoring tally.

Connacht Rugby ring the changes from the side who exited European competition last weekend at home to Gloucester Rugby. A chance for Kieran Keane and management to give game time to squad players. Delahunt, Carey, Cannon come into the pack as Ultan Dillane starts which is good to see. A brand new three quarter unit as Robb and Griffin replace Aki and Farrell.

A game which should produce tries considering the two back lines named, the hosts look well primed in the pack to create the platform to secure another morale boosting home victory to conclude the season. Ospreys win with a late bonus point try in this one as Connacht Rugby’s defensive breakdowns in recent weeks will be exposed yet again.

A fixture which has home win written all over it. The big question as I publish this blog (April 5th) is the Leinster Rugby team selection that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will name for this encounter. The assumption is that the players who excelled last weekend in European action will get the weekend off so it could be a squad selection of squad players as well as a chance for Sean O’Brien to impress potentially.

The Leinster Rugby squad depth is excellent and it is dread that Zebre Rugby travel to the RDS for this encounter particularly when you see the game tape from their last road trip; an embarrassing loss to Glasgow Warriors who scored sixty plus points.

The hope is that Zebre Rugby are competitive and do not get hammered but if the weather conditions are good, expect the Leinster Rugby squad assembled to produce a cohesive performance which could heap more road trip agony for Michael Bradley’s charges. Bonus point try win for Leinster Rugby beckons hopefully in the second half and not in the opening period. Zebre’s pack needs to produce a performance but I cannot see it.

A Conference A fixture which could have huge ramifications in the direction of the playoff race. If Toyota Cheetahs can win this contest, they will open up a significant end of season points gap to Cardiff Blues who are improving with each passing round. A victory for Cardiff Blues and we are setup for an interesting Conference A playoff race for third place.

Cardiff Blues will be buoyant after their 6-20 road trip over well fancied Edinburgh Rugby last weekend in European Challenge Cup action. An accurate, clinical opening period setting the platform for victory. The Cardiff Blues pack were excellent during the game and the cohesion between the pack and back line was impressive at times.

Toyota Cheetahs enter this fixture after another couple of weeks of inactivity. Their last fixture was a convincing bonus point try win to the Dragons; absorbing early pressure from the hosts to close out the contest in emphatic fashion. The home confines of Bloemfontein will be most welcome.

In their first fixture this season, Cardiff Blues emerged 25-20 victors. A game which ebbed and flowed throughout as Toyota Cheetahs were made to pay for accuracy issues at both sides of the ball. Cardiff Blues will pose serious problems in the back row and back line areas but Toyota Cheetahs with home advantage and altitude advantage sees them just pip Cardiff Blues in an entertaining match-up.

This looks like the fixture of the round if solid squad selections are announced. However, Scarlets may rest key personnel after last weekend’s win at home to La Rochelle. Does Wayne Pivac decide to rest players now or next weekend ahead of their Leinster European Rugby Champions Cup showdown in two weeks? Intriguing selection beckons for the hosts.

Glasgow Warriors have already secured playoff and home field advantage so it will be interesting to see the team selection from Dave Rennie. A game where they can produce a performance with zero pressure, expect an open expansive game from the top team in Conference A.

This fixture is dependent on the Scarlets squad; if it is a solid team selection, expect an epic encounter but I sense that the squad named will be predominantly squad players with some players needing additional game time. Edge to Glasgow Warriors at this time.

A fixture of little consequence, only pride. Dragons probably have more reasons to win this contest, a long awaited first league win of the year. A season which has seen Bernard Jackman’s charges exposed due to inexperience and squad depth, it is imperative that the Welsh region win a game before season end to rid this wretched league loss record.

Benetton Rugby though will look to consolidate a solid season in Conference B. Their performances this season have being on point, secured a mid-table league position and their level of performance has impressed me with some superb victories to more illustrious opposition on paper throughout the season.

Slight edge to Benetton Rugby; their squad looks better on paper to Dragons who will continue to struggle to put points on the board despite having exciting talent out wide where Hewitt has the potential to become an excellent winger. Marty Banks game management pivotal for me down the stretch.

Munster Rugby travel to Kimberley. A timely tour of South Africa to recharge the batteries this week after that bruising win over Toulon last weekend. An emotional trip for the likes of Stander, Kleyn, Grobler and van Graan to their native homeland. Munster Rugby enter this fixture with both Simon Zebo and Darren Sweetnam unavailable for selection due to injuries sustained last weekend.

Johan van Graan will look to change up the side this weekend so the likes of James Hart and JJ Hanrahan potentially could be given game time at half-back. Stephen Fitzgerald could conceivably come into the line up at full back. Conor Oliver looks a solid bet to feature in the back row.

Southern Kings will look to produce a positive start against Munster Rugby; the game conditions indicate a match full of entertaining open expansive phases and tries. Provided Munster Rugby can execute in the set piece efficiently, then the advantage in this encounter goes to the visitors. Hopefully, there will be a good crowd in attendance to see the fixture.

Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 Review (Part 2)

As promised, the second part of the Guinness Pro 14 Round 17 review. It was a mixed bag for the Italian and South African sides while Glasgow Warriors moved one win away from securing a home playoff semi-final berth. For the Dragons, it was a case of same again with yet another loss in the league.

Glasgow Warriors were at their devastating best with a 68-7 trouncing of a shell shocked Zebre Rugby. In my blog preview of round seventeen, I was concerned for Zebre Rugby; how expansive would they go before being opened up by the Warriors.

The simple answer was that Zebre Rugby did not have to go expansive to get thumped, the hosts did the needful themselves with an excellent cohesive pack and back unit performance which left the Italians at times chasing shadows.

The scoreline speaks volumes. 40-0 up at the break only a try from Canna early in the second half prevented the whitewash. The passing game at times was sublime with DTH van der Merwe prominent throughout and a brace of tries for his efforts.

If that was not enough, Zebre Rugby gifted an intercept try as well as a penalty try as their pack were going backwards at a rate of knots. Glasgow Warriors have being the form side of the Conference A from the very first game.

Warriors thoroughly deserve their home semi-final berth which should be clinched in the coming weeks. The key will be how the side keep their performances at a high level while also looking at the playoffs and resting key personnel along the way.

 

Zebre Rugby were taught a massive lesson in road trip performance; they failed to deliver a performance from minute one relinquishing territory and points thereafter at a worryingly rate. Two steps back in this fixture for the side.

Zebre Rugby will know that they will not face a side like Glasgow Warriors every day of the week but given the lack of fundamentals in their play last Friday night, plenty of sides would fancy running a score against the Italians which is a shame considering the progress that Michael Bradley’s side has made. The team and squad depth looked jaded here and perhaps the fatigue element is beginning to show as we approach the final quarter of the season given the inexperience in the playing group.

Toyota Cheetahs are my guilty pleasure of this tournament. They do not deviate from their game plan; it is a fast paced, expansive contest regardless of the conditions. Their third quarter performance blew a youthful Dragons outfit out of the water inspired by Sibahle Maxwane and Fred Zeilinga who crossed over for three tries collectively in that period.

The pace, power and passing selection were all superb for these tries and it opened the contest up. A vital fourth try was scored before the end to keep the pressure on Munster Rugby as well as keeping Cardiff Blues at arms length. Conference A is a race for the the second and third spots. Glasgow Warriors are over the horizon and it is now a tossup between Munster Rugby, Cheetahs and Cardiff Blues to see who fills the other two playoff berths.

I would love to see the Cheetahs in the playoffs, their brand of rugby in drying track conditions mean that they are a serious threat for anyone in this conference come May. Blommetjies at full back is sensational joining the line; his pace was a key factor in this victory for the South Africans. An exciting playoff run in beckons with Munster Rugby yet to travel to Bleomfontein.

This was always a season of transition for Dragons. The new franchise tag. A new head coach arriving at Rodney Parade needing to run the rule over a youthful squad. The last couple of months in the league has being incredibly hard; no wins in the league in 2018. There are glimpses of potential in the side; a good opening quarter failed to put the required scores on the board. Hewitt on the wing is an emerging talent, pace and tidy finisher and was again on the scoresheet.

The issue for Dragons is when they do go under the cosh, their defensive lapses and penalty count soar due to the inexperience in the squad. Cheetahs exploited Dragons defensively with their expansive ball carrying game plan. Blommetjies in particular had a field day coming into the line. Dragons had no answer in the second half even though Dee scored with ten minutes to go to make the contest interesting at the death. Experience is key and Dragons do not have it in many areas.

The recruitment process needs to identify further experienced, solid performers in the pack, center and half-back positions. Otherwise, Bernard Jackman will be walking the tightrope this time next year. It is a key period for Dragons management right now; they need to heed the players who are not hitting the standard required. Jackman gets the pass this season but this side needs to evolve next season, otherwise the fans will make their feelings known by not attending home games at Rodney Parade. Critical preparation for next season has already begun!

This was an excellent road trip win for Benetton Rugby, a defining one in that they needed to close out a contest late and they duly did so. Marty Banks provided leadership and game management to steer the side to this win. Five tries scored in total against the Southern Kings. An excellent opening half offensively from Benetton Rugby but defensively struggled particularly in that final quarter. One point in the difference but Benetton Rugby were disciplined to win the contest.

A progressive season for the Italian side and games like this should create momentum and confidence heading into next season. The pack is progressing, still not the finished article but set the platform in this victory with the opening period try burst to start the contest. The back line assisted by Marty Banks continues to evolve with ball in hand but defensively cannot lapse as badly again particularly on the Makase line break, no try but the defensive lapse would be punished by a better side.

So close yet so far again, the Southern Kings were made paid for a slow start and it cost them this fixture. A one point loss at home hurts badly and particularly when they had a man advantage in the third quarter, they failed to put points on the board. In actual fact, Benetton Rugby scored a penalty during this period to win this ten minute period 0-3 which was vital to the final outcome.

The word consistency comes into the equation with the Southern Kings. When they are accurate with ball in hand, they are an effective side. They scored five tries during this contest but the defensive side of the ball is way off the standard required.

The lack of discipline at crucial stages in the second half evident; hopefully there will be solid recruitment in this franchise next season across all units. It is required to give Southern Kings a chance to compete in this league; otherwise would suggest to the South African RFU to disband the team immediately.