Guinness Pro 14: Conference B Reflections

In this article, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Conference B standings so far which has seen the usual suspects well positioned for the rest of the season and encouraging signs for Benetton Rugby in recent weeks.

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100% record for Ulster. Perfect start to the season and the side have shown massive potential in their expansive play in these early rounds. The appointment of Jono Gibbes to the backroom staff has had an impact; the pack are a more cohesive unit setting the platform for the half-backs and back line to create havoc for opposition. 140 points. 19 tries scored. Those two statistics speak volumes. Pienaar may have reluctantly left Belfast but Christian Leali’ifano has being on point early doors, given an early opportunity to impress due to Paddy Jackson’s on-going court case. A criticism leveled from this blog was the lack of consistency from the side last season considering the squad depth assembled. The lapses of concentration have being few and far between and the gritty win over the Scarlets in round three showed the potential in the ranks. Jean Deysel acquisition will be priceless for Ulster as the season progresses with the likes of Rory Best, Iain Henderson in international duty. Deysel is abrasive, human wrecking ball who can fulfill multiple back row and second row positions. The next couple of fixtures are key for the Kingspan Stadium outfit. The next four fixtures are Zebre Rugby (A), Connacht Rugby (H), Leinster Rugby (H) and Southern Kings (A); potentially three wins at least from this fixture listing and that would setup the Irish province with an immense platform to secure a top three playoff berth. Good times ahead for Ulster.

The reigning league champions have started this campaign in relatively confident mood. 19 tries and 146 points scored. The campaign started with emphatic victories over Southern Kings and Zebre Rugby but a 27-20 loss away to Ulster Rugby has focused minds. The contest was probably the best game so far in the tournament. The game ebbed and flowed. Leigh Halfpenny has seamlessly integrated into the side with minimum fuss; the departure of Liam Williams to Saracens offset by this sensational capture. No radical overhaul of the squad last season; continuity the key. James Davies started the season well until injury struck, will be interesting to see how the side copes without the talisman seven who was a key factor in Scarlets’ late surge to the league crown last season. His breakdown work was sublime and his support running for the ball carrier was exemplary. Scarlets next four fixtures are Connacht Rugby (H), Ospreys (A), Cardiff Blues (H) and Benetton Rugby (H). Intriguing local derby fixtures in the middle of this four game set as Ospreys and Cardiff Blues are in must win territory already. Expansive style of play will create bonus point try performances; the key will be consistency with Scarlets in the pack to create the platform. Solid team, expect Scarlets to be in the top two of the conference come the end of the regular season and will improve as the weather improves next March and April.

Leinster Rugby have started the season with confidence. If I wrote this blog this time last week, 100% record would have being duly noted. The 38-19 reversal to the Cheetahs last weekend is a timely reality check for the squad as Cheetahs picked their moments to unlock Leinster defensively in the high altitude of Bloemfontein. The squad depth that Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster is superb. Daly has being in superb form for Leinster; a hat-trick last weekend, a player of note for the upcoming season. When you consider that the majority of the Lions contingent have yet to feature so far, the side will continue to improve in cohesion, set piece and attacking play. The opening three fixtures highlighted Leinster’s attacking play with emphatic victories over Dragons and Southern Kings away from the RDS. Cardiff Blues provided resistance in round two but Leinster turned the screw in the final quarter to secure the BP win. Squad depth is no issue and the next four fixtures look likely to set the Leinster province up well for the rest of the season. Home games against an inconsistent Edinburgh Rugby and a Munster Rugby outfit who have not fared well in Dublin. The road trips see Leinster travel to conference rival Ulster Rugby and also a key contest away to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun, superb fixtures loom large. Top three is a certainty; intriguing three way fight between Ulster and Scarlets to secure top spot. Can Leinster’s second row provide the physicality and set piece execution required in the line-out come the business end of the season to elevate the team for honors? The second rows were exposed in the playoffs last season; acquisitions secured so it will be interesting to see how this unit fares.

New head coach Richard Cockerill has learned plenty about his charges in the past four fixtures. A promising start has evaporated in recent weeks with reversals to Benetton Rugby at home and an emphatic loss away to Scarlets. Performance consistency was highlighted in round three; a fixture which many felt was a home win all day long but Benetton Rugby were superior in all facets of play. Nine tries so far scored this season and the majority scored in the first two fixtures. The back line have struggled to receive quick ruck ball given the struggles of the pack. Edinburgh’s next four fixtures will make or break their league season; they face a daunting trip to the RDS to face a Leinster who will be keen to produce a good performance ahead of their local derby game against Munster the following week. Two Italian fixtures then beckon and Benetton (A) looks banana skin written all over it. The home fixture to the Ospreys could be a key result for either side. A defeat here and the gap to the top three could have opened up to such an extent that the top three could be out of sight. The usual squad leaders will need to come to the fore. Bradbury, Hidalgo-Clyne, Ford, Tovey, Toolis and Hardie will look to create the platform to win upcoming fixtures. Top three looks beyond them at this stage but Cockerill will look for his side to play with physicality and competitiveness. An interesting side to monitor as the season progresses.

Encouraging signs from Benetton Rugby in recent games. Round three and four wins over Edinburgh on the road and a fantastic victory over Ospreys at home bodes well for the side. The league needs Benetton Rugby to flourish and provide the Italian fans with something to shout about. The last two fixtures have seen solid defensive performances, minimal missed first time tackles which plighted their performance against Munster. The Ulster loss was a good performance and showed the signs seen in round three and four. Banks and McKinley have the kicking game to provide territorial platform supremacy. Sperandio has being sublime in recent weeks; great solo effort to setup Minto against Ospreys. The next four fixtures will be crucial indicators on whether the Italians upsurge in form will remain or is just a flash in the pan. Confidence may be high but Glasgow buoyed by their demolition of Munster Rugby will look to secure a bonus point try win. The middle fixtures in this four game stretch could be where further wins are possible. Southern Kings (H) and Edinburgh (H) are winnable fixtures and to conclude a tricky tie to Scarlets on the road. Two wins from these four fixtures would be considered progress. A season where the league organizers will look for Benetton Rugby to improve; Italian Rugby Union are looking to Benetton Rugby to provide professional club success with the decision to use Zebre Rugby as a developmental side. Top three is out of reach but the key theme is to produce consistent performances and secure wins at regular intervals where possible.

Bernard Jackman now knows the magnitude of the task that faces him at Rodney Parade. The re-branded Welsh region have enjoyed one win so far this season, a round three victory over Connacht Rugby where they dominated for long periods; the bonus point eluded them. The other three fixtures have being chastening experiences for a young squad. Leinster’s emphatic opening day victory exposed Dragons’ inexperience in key positions. The road trip to Edinburgh was a mixed bag; poor officiating did little for Dragons’ cause and were in it until the last quarter. Ulster’s expansive rugby play was too much for the Dragons last week. Tough start to the season for the Dragons with Ulster and Leinster early doors, the hope is that confidence and form can improve in the next four fixtures. Southern Kings arrive to Rodney Parade this week. Two Welsh derbies then beckon and conclude with a trip to Cork to face Munster Rugby. This weekend is a key fixture; they need to beat Southern Kings, otherwise confidence will dip. A season in transition for Jackman; key is for the young squad members to get game time and improve per each passing game. Jackman will also look for Gavin Henson to provide experience and leadership if the side are in position to close out games. Top three unlikely even at this early stage.

Massive disappointment to the league. Southern Kings’ squad look ill-equipped in the opening four fixtures of the league. They will try to execute a fast tempo game but the skill set does not seem to be at this level; unforced error count, set piece woes and defensive gaps have being hallmarks of the season so far. Not much to shout about. The home attendance for the Leinster game was embarrassing to the side, players, management and the league. Whipping boys. I do not see how this side can improve to the extent where they are in top three contention this season. Dragons fixture this weekend and perhaps the road trip to Benetton Rugby offer the side with an opportunity to get in the winners circle but a road trip to the Glasgow Warriors is a damage limitation exercise while the visit of Ulster Rugby who are playing with confidence is another daunting task. Let us hope that the South African powers that be strengthen this outfit for the league come the turn of 2018. The league needs Southern Kings to turn up; it is not happening at the moment.

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