First off, I would like to wish everyone who has visited the blog a superb Christmas and prosperous 2018 full of joy, love and sporting success. As the calendar year concludes, the Guinness Pro 14 has provided a couple of local derby contests to whet the appetite this holiday season, a chance for sides to continue momentum from successful December European performances or to rebuild confidence after disappointing cameos. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
Two teams in need of a big hug this Christmas period. The December European fixtures yielded precious little to cheer about for the Italian teams. Yes, Benetton Rugby did manage a losing bonus point on the road to the Scarlets with fourteen men but they were very much second class last weekend when Scarlets produced a far more cohesive performance to win and secure a much needed bonus point win.
Zebre Rugby after some encouraging moments in recent weeks were slammed by Gloucester Rugby. Last weekend was the season’s low point, shipping seventy plus points in the process.
It was tough viewing as Zebre Rugby were unable to contain the breakdown, quick ruck ball allowing Gloucester’s pacy back line to make line break after line break.
This weekend will focus minds for the Italian sides. With home advantage, Benetton Rugby should have the edge. It is imperative that the pack asserts early dominance and for the likes of Ian McKinley to provide the correct game management to continue pressure on Michael Bradley’s men.
Zebre Rugby’s aim this weekend is to be competitive and hope to be in with a chance of victory in the final quarter but the manner of the loss last weekend will do little to build confidence for this encounter. Benetton win.
The 1872 Cup is up for grabs as Scotland’s Pro 14 representative lock horns for this local derby encounter at Murrayfield. This is probably the game of the round, both teams fielding strong outfits and keen to impress national team management in attendance.
Edinburgh Rugby have being progressively on the upward curve, good South African leg of the Pro 14 competition coupled with emphatic wins over Krasny Yar home and away in Europe has set Richard Cockerill’s men in good stead for this encounter.
The team are hitting good form and with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne playing with confidence, this is going to be a tough ask for Glasgow Warriors to maintain their 100% record.
Glasgow Warriors have being sublime in Pro 14 but their European Cup form has being truly shocking. Lack of game management and discipline exposed by the likes of Leinster, Exeter and Montpelier in their pool.
European Rugby is over quite quickly with Dave Rennie’s charges looking to maintain their Pro 14 title push. The pack battle looks key here. Can Edinburgh create problems in the front five where Glasgow have struggled in European action?
This is delicately poised, edging for the home side as I believe Edinburgh can cause Glasgow sufficient problems in the pack to slow down ball. Dougie Fife and Duhan van der Merwe against Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones will be fascinating to watch. Superb match beckons.
The first of the Irish province derbies over the festive period takes place at the Sportsgrounds where Connacht will look to build momentum once more in Pro 14 action. European Challlenge Cup form has being on point with a superb win over Brive last weekend evidence that Kieran Keane’s men on their day can produce top class performances. This Connacht win was a performance full of creativity, work rate and high tempo throughout. Matt Healy was the standout with his four try haul.
Connacht face an Ulster side who had an excellent December European campaign. The side beat Harlequins, collected nine points and set themselves up for a critical January push to qualify for the ERC quarter finals. Ulster Rugby in the last two weeks have shown massive upside in cohesion and ability to create line breaks.
Cooney at scrum-half is in a rich vain of form, his points cameo fully merited and his sharp incisive line breaks off the fringes caused Quins no end of issues. His battle with Marmion will be a good indicator as to national team prospects for either this season.
Ian Henderson was monstrous in recent weeks, his work rate and leadership to the fore. This will be a compelling fixture. Ulster Rugby have enjoyed their trips down to Galway and I sense that this may continue as Connacht Rugby will look to spread the ball wide, potential inaccuracies may crept in allowing the likes of Piatau to pounce. Ulster Rugby for me to win this contest by a narrow margin.
Connacht to have any chance must disrupt and dominate in the front five but the team selection to me looks like this will not happen so nodding the cap to the visitors.
Welsh region bragging rights up for grabs as Dragons fresh from announcing the signings of Moriarty and Hibbert will look to end the calendar year with renewed confidence with a win over Cardiff Blues whose form in European Challenge Cup competition has being patchy to say the least.
December in Europe was a struggle for Cardiff Blues after setting good groundwork in November. The performances against Sale Sharks were hit and miss but a key victory was secured at home to keep them in front.
Key player for Cardiff Blues on Boxing Day will be Anscombe who has being in good form in recent weeks, his kicking off the tee providing Blues with points and providing key game management at times.
The breakdown contest will be fascinating. Navidi vs. Griffiths will be a superb personal duet, both players are standouts in the flanker positions. Griffiths ball carrying and work around the breakdown area versus Navidi’s ability to cut down ball carriers, effective breakdown with low body position as well as providing key support for ball carriers looks the standout duel here.
Dragons this season are a work in progress. Flashes of good amid some heavy losses. Henson’s experience has being key to Bernard Jackman’s side and more will be expected from the former Welsh International in this fixture.
A tough fixture to call. Dragons home loss to Falcons last weekend was most disappointing, a poor opening period cost them the game amid a brave second half fightback. Blues may have just enough out wide to win this contest, expect Lane and James to have a key role in this fixture. Blues to win.
A sold out Thomond Park sees Leinster travel to Munster looking to complete the league double this season. This fixture particularly has being beset by accusations of second string selections from the visitors last season.
Leinster Rugby though have named a decent looking squad for this encounter. They are without a couple of key players. O’Brien, Sexton miss out due to injury and rejuvenated Cian Healy misses out due to suspension which provides a perfect opportunity for Lions player Jack McGrath to stake a claim for the starting prop jersey.
With the likes of Furlong on the bench, the second string comment is wide off the mark this season. Yes, Luke McGrath is missing too but Gibson Park is an able replacement. Leinster Rugby will look to produce a far better performance than the one which managed to beat Exeter Chiefs last weekend so Munster Rugby must be on their guard in this fixture.
Johann van Graan has named a strong Munster lineup. Conway and Earls return to the starting fold in the back line. Murray and Keatley continue their half-back partnership. Rhys Marshall returns to the hooker position. A key road win against Leicester Tigers last weekend sees Munster in a position to secure a last eight berth and the new head coach will look for his side to continue to their disciplined performance against Leinster Rugby.
The back row encounter looks interesting. Stander, O’Mahoney and O’Donnell (welcome boost) up against a mobile Leinster Rugby back row of Murphy, Leavy and Conan. If Leinster Rugby can get sufficient success in the breakdown, they have a serious chance of completing the league double.
However, I sense that Munster Rugby need this performance and win more. Nacewa’s exclusion along with Sexton will be telling in this encounter and I think home field advantage will be enough to secure a Munster Rugby win. Hoping it is an excellent game but this specific fixture at Thomond Park has failed to light the derby juices. A sold out Thomond Park but there is something a miss with this fixture compared to fixtures of the past. I hope I am proved wrong on this occasion.
The proverbial firecracker to complete this round of fixtures. A couple of weeks ago, if you had asked me to call a winner, no doubts, would have said Scarlets given the wretched run of form that Ospreys were on. However, fast forward to now and Ospreys have started to build momentum and performances. Their ten point haul against Northampton Saints is a key indicator that the Ospreys have turned a corner and have started to execute a far more direct, running style of play compared to the overly cautious kicking game in the early part of the season.
Ospreys looked superb in recent weeks. Dan Evans at full back oozed class coming into the line, several keynote line breaks and with Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb receiving quick ruck ball from the Ospreys pack, line breaks and tries came at regular intervals. A key January beckons for the Ospreys with a home visit from an under pressure Saracens team. This derby win would be massive to increase confidence ahead of this contest.
Scarlets themselves have had a successful December European campaign. Ten point haul over Benetton Rugby with last weekend’s road trip a very cohesive performance. The pack played with control and aggression when required. The pace out wide was explosive and the breakdown battle between Davies and Tipuric will be worth the gate admission fee alone.
Scarlets have a chance to complete the league double over their close rivals. Local bragging rights for the fans and this will be keenly contested. A hard fixture to call, there will be little in this encounter, slight edge perhaps to Scarlets given home field advantage but with Biggar and Webb in fine form, a visitor upset will not be a surprise. The tie of the round, cannot wait!