In this second part, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on Conference B standings which has seen some notable performances from the chief protagonists as well as expected indifferent form of others.
The reigning league champions are top of the conference after eight games. Five points from bonus try performances speaks volumes. Steff Evans has continued his form using his pace to score several tries and a constant source of gain line meters for the team. Tadgh Beirne’s exit at the end of the season is a loss and his turnover wins statistic is a key point. Halfpenny at full back has come into the club, his kicking off the tee solid as always. The issues have manifested themselves in ERC action. The pack has struggled to assert a platform for the back line. The Ulster loss saw issues in the set piece as well. Top of the table but with Leinster Rugby fixtures looming large, a key end of year beckons. Scarlets will be in the top two of the conference. Their skill set and expansive play will come to the fore after March. The key is for the pack to improve and gain parity. Grade A
Excitement reigned in South Africa as Ulster Rugby produced a late surge to beat the Southern Kings in a twelve try drama filled encounter. The fixture encapsulated the good and the bad of Ulster Rugby this season. The sheer lack of consistency and discipline at times in the opening period was terrible. Poor decision making with ball in hand, non-existent defensive cover for Kings kicks in behind. The front five struggled at set-piece in the opening quarter but then like the rest of the side improved. Charles Piatau is a such a key player for the team this term. His loss next season will be huge; ball carrying and offloading ability to the fore in the closing quarter. The legal issues surrounding Jackson and Olding have not helped with respect to game management and their exile has being noteworthy. There is an increasing sense of despair from the Ulster Rugby fan base; the style of play is not catching the eye and the ever recurring words like consistency, set piece issues have not being addressed. A good start has being tapered by reality check losses particularly against Leinster Rugby. Les Kiss is under pressure. Gibbes needs to work overtime to arrest the slide of a front five which despite the likes of Henderson and Best in the ranks have struggled for parity. La Rochelle loss saw serious issues defensively out wide as well with numerous missed first time tackles. Grade B- (weak and regressing)
A positive start to the season for Leinster Rugby. The loss to Glasgow Warriors had positive aspects; the fact that the debutantes manfully continued to execute the game plan. Max Deegan in the back row is a massive development for the province. The squad depth at Leinster Rugby is a source of great encouragement which are driving the established stars to high levels of performance in ERC action. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will look to nurture and improve the defensive skill set of the likes of Adam Byrne who has unquestioned talent offensively but his defensive decisions sometimes are exposed as Munster Rugby showed at the Aviva Stadium. A side who will continue to churn out the wins despite key front line players playing for the national side. Leinster Rugby realize that the Scarlets fixture is a key one to consolidate the playoff position already attained. Gary Ringrose’s fitness will be a source of concern if the star three quarter is still sidelined after this league hiatus. Leinster are progressing nicely and are ahead of Ulster Rugby in the squad depth and form rankings despite their reversal to Glasgow which was the game of the season so far. Grade B+
Kudos to Richard Cockerill and Edinburgh playing staff as a couple of weeks ago, the season looked like it was spiraling out of control. Bradbury stripped of the captaincy due to disciplinary issues and then the thunderbolt of Jon Hardie required cool heads in the Edinburgh camp. They have responded superbly and their 37-10 win over Ospreys showed improvement on both sides of the ball. Kinghorn and Tovey were to the fore in the performance, more required in the weeks to come to continue to pressurize the teams above them. Fife has being prominent too. Solid season start but player disciplinary issues need to stop now. Grade C+ (Progressive)
Benetton Rugby are no longer the soft touch that sides knew and loved from last season. Their abrasive effort in preventing Scarlets securing a bonus point last weekend was evidence of this fact. Resilience is a key word for the side this year and they have secured three deserved victories in the league thus far. Playoffs look remote at this early stage but I foresee improvement for the Italians as the season continues with some keynote performances and scalps. Italian Rugby is finally going in the right direction but plenty still depends on the likes of McKinley and Banks to provide the game management and creativity to create try scoring opportunities. Grade C-
This is a season of transition in the Gwent Region. Bernard Jackman is looking to identify the players that will lead the Welsh region for many years to come. With this process, will come the inevitable truth that certain players will not make the cut. An injury crisis saw Dragons head to Munster and the result was inevitably stark. JJ Hanrahan ran the show at ten and numerous line breaks ensued. 49-6 was a chastening result but one that Jackman will hope will be used as motivation for the squad to bounce back after the league hiatus. Numerous issues in the performance. Next season is when you can start to judge this side, the hope is that the team improve per each game and if they can get wins in the process then a bonus. Grade D (middling)
While the Toyota Cheetahs have embraced the tournament, the Southern Kings have floundered from one week to the next. Yes, there was a resurgence against Ulster Rugby but some of that can be accounted for terrible Ulster play. Five tries. Two points registered on the board but this is a contest which at times exposed Southern Kings skill set. The back line has being a mess all year; ball handling, attacking lines and game management have being in short supply. Moments of brilliance but there have being abject moments too. The pack has being the only crumb of comfort. Solid set piece and the tackle count from the unit is not for argument. South Africa RFU need to make an early call; do they recruit better players for the side or do they pull the plug on the franchise? The BBC Ulster report before last weekend’s fixture showed a community who have no affinity to the club, school kids’ ambition is not to play for the side. All worrying signs. A soft touch for opposition. Grade F