Guinness Pro 14: Conference A Reflections

Four games into the Guinness Pro 14 and some interesting subplots have emerged in Conference A. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action so far and wonders if the South African and Italian challenge can continue to keep the neutral interested.

League Table Standings:

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Glasgow Warriors have sent a massive statement of intent to the rest of the conference early doors. Their emphatic bonus point demolition of Munster last weekend oozed confidence and the expansive style of play so early into the Dave Rennie era can only spell trouble for the rest of the league as the season progresses. This start has being achieved with the likes of Hogg, Gray and Wilson only came to the lineup in round four. Rennie has being quick to dampen the promising start, stating that he is expecting more improvement in accuracy. The New Zealander is spot on in this assessment as their performance against Cardiff Blues did throw up some set piece consistency issues. A team who will dismantle the majority of opposition who come to Scotstoun this season. Squad injuries and international breaks killed the side last season and November will be an acid test of the side but given how the team have coped without several marquee front line players, this is the form side of the conference so far. I would be shocked if Glasgow Warriors do not secure either of the first two places in the conference standings come the end of the regular season.

Difficult realistically to assess Munster at this point of the season. I thought the victories to Benetton Rugby and Cheetahs at home were too easy but these two sides have impressed in recent weeks. The Ospreys game was viewed as a tough road trip but then you see the Ospreys fall away again to the Benetton Rugby, one asks on the merits of this contest. The Glasgow game has provided management, players and fans with food for thought in the province. Second best in the contact area, defensive lapses out wide were ruthlessly exposed. Munster have shown potential in attacking play. Conway, Wootton, Farrell and Taute have provided moments of quality in the league so far. Bleyendaal’s kicking has being inconsistent and it provides hope for the likes of Keatley and Hanrahan to stake a claim for the jersey. The loss last weekend will focus minds, a reality check in the context of the season with tough fixtures ahead against Cardiff Blues (H) and a trip to Dublin to face Leinster. With the front line players near a return, Munster’s management will look for performance improvement in the weeks ahead. Second spot in the conference, a solid start but there is scope for improvement as last weekend showed. How Munster combats pacy, expansive minded teams is the key question this term? With Erasmus out the door at the end of the year, the rest of the coaching staff intact come January may need to provide their own take. Intriguing second half to the season potentially beckons.

The standout result along with Glasgow’s demolition of Munster last weekend was the superb victory for the Cheetahs against Leinster. 38-19 scoreline will provide impetus and momentum for the Bloemfontein outfit to excel in the league. Cheetahs start to the season was predictably a mixed bag; a tough road trip to start the tournament but the side have regrouped superbly in the last two weeks. They signaled their intent with a fifty plus scores put on Zebre Rugby and then they continued their good attacking form with an excellent attacking display over a Leinster Rugby side who came into the contest full of confidence. The altitude factor is a massive plus for the South Africans and Leinster Rugby struggled to cope with this element last weekend; the one week acclimatization period was insufficient for the team and the hosts took full advantage. Cheetahs picked their moments superbly. Ten points from the first four games is a good return and with squad members coming back from international break and Currie Cup duty, one suspects that this is the South African side who will compete most this season. Cheetahs will benefit from the RBS 6N tournament international window and do not be surprised if the Bloemfontein outfit secure a top two conference spot. Their expansive style of play at home has being to the fore in recent weeks. Venter is outstanding and Pro 14 fans are now seeing the talents of Small-Smith, Nche. Expect more excitement from this outfit as the season evolves.

A mixed bag from Connacht Rugby. The Pat Lam era has concluded and the Kieran Keane era has started with mixed results. A bonus point win over the Southern Kings is the only win so far this season. Connacht have shown work rate, tempo and expansive style at times but they have being left to rue late lapses at home particularly against Glasgow Warriors and last weekend Cardiff Blues conceding a Halaholo late try. Lapses in defensive line speed and organization have being punished in recent weeks. Dragons registered their win against the men from the West in round three. Connacht should improve as the season progresses but there are question marks on the ten jersey squad depth. Carty again looks the de-facto fly-half and what happens when Aki is injured for a significant period of time. Keane will look to draft SH players at the end of the year along with looking to other provinces for players who need game time. There has being several good additions to the squad, like the signing of Rory Scholes who can play multiple wing positions. Every much a transitional season for Connacht this year. Galway locals need to remain patient; key recruitment in the coming months to strengthen in the pack and half back areas. Intriguing squad decisions to be made.

Credit to Michael Bradley and Zebre Club Rugby. A shortened preseason due to the ongoing Italian RFU decisions on the team. Their win on the road to the Southern Kings last weekend was comprehensive and their performance against the Cheetahs must now be viewed more favorably given that they scored thirty-nine points during that contest. Canna looks a player of note for both club and national team. Bradley has rotated the squad in recent weeks, giving squad members their opportunity and they have responded. The upcoming fixtures against Ulster (H) and Edinburgh (A) will determine how competitive the Italians will be this season. I am hoping for the league’s sake that Zebre show well in these contests. We need the Italian teams to compete in the league this term. Bradley and management will look to identify further players in the coming months; a decent start but tougher tests lie ahead.

Ospreys with their squad roster should be better than what they have delivered in these opening four round of games. The last three fixtures are an accurate assessment of where the Welsh region are and to be frank, their attacking side of play has failed to fire with an over-emphasis in a kicking game which has not being accurate enough to put pressure on the opposition. Glasgow Warriors loss away was no disgrace given the manner in which the Scottish region has started the season. The Munster loss at home was one that the hosts failed to assert dominance after James Hook’s try. Ospreys’ back line looks explosive with the likes of Allen, Giles in the ranks but ball has being slow and as mentioned, a tendency to kick when trying to launch their three quarters has being common sense. The pressure on Steve Tandy intensifies if the twittter chat is anything to go by; the accusation that strong squad recruitment is being hindered by ineffective, poor management. Jones, Biggar, Webb will provide quality and impetus but the style of play needs to evolve with more emphasis on ball carrying and creating quick ruck ball for a talented back line to flourish. Ospreys will improve but they cannot fall any further behind the likes of Glasgow and Munster particularly when an international window looming large.

A season so far which has not reflected Cardiff Blues competitiveness so far in the competition. On another night, Cardiff Blues could have beaten Glasgow Warriors in round three. A point loss was tough to take considering the late penalty miss. The Welsh region competed well against Leinster for long periods but succumbed in the final quarter. Edinburgh Rugby loss in the opening game was disappointing but the team have improved since then. Their resiliency seen in their late win against Connacht Rugby in round four with a late try to win the fixture. It was a determined effort and they will not fear Munster Rugby in round five, a team which they have run close last season (won deservedly in Cork and lost narrowly at home). Sam Warburton’s absence is a blow but Navidi again has provided leadership. Cardiff Blues need to pick up wins and the next two fixtures (Munster (A) and Dragons (H) are pivotal to how competitive they are in the league. If Cardiff Blues can take points in both games, they will remain in the chasing pack. Otherwise, the side will languish and the league could be over before it starts.

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