As the Natwest 6 Nations tournament teams take a well earned bye week this weekend, the spotlight firmly is placed back on the Guinness Pro 14 where several standout fixtures are on the bill in both conferences. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the fixtures.
Round 15 kicks off at the Sportsground where Connacht will look to continue their recent good run of form with another win against Zebre Rugby who welcome back several Italian international players into the mix. Quite frankly, they needed the likes of Canna, Meyer, Mbanda back to the fold given their performance against Munster last weekend which was a chastening experience particularly in the second half. The inclusion of the Italian internationals will add physicality and much needed game management.
Connacht will enter this contest looking to exact revenge for a miserable 24-10 reversal to Zebre Rugby last December, a distinct low point of the season for Kieran Keane’s charges. Nothing went right on the day as the pack struggled to create the platform, fly-half issues apparent and a back line going backwards at a rate of knots.
The Irish province have steadily improved since the road trip debacle and their victory last weekend against Ospreys was a keynote performance. Tom Farrell in the three quarters impressing again with his ability to break the game line and involve supporting runners at different intervals. The manner in which Connacht closed out the contest last week bodes well for this weekend.
Zebre Rugby have plenty to prove in this contest and the likes of Gaffney and Parata will look to impress back in Ireland. Ronaldson continues at ten for Connacht while Leader deputizes for the hamstrung Tiernan O’Halloran which squashes any hopes the full back had of featuring for the national side. Given the Zebre Rugby lineup, Connacht’s bench impact will be key in the final quarter to secure a home win but a bonus point try win may be pushing it.
An intriguing clash at Scotstoun as Glasgow Warriors play host to conference playoff rivals Toyota Cheetahs. Glasgow Warriors were left to rue missed second half opportunities to secure a road trip over Dragons last weekend. A 15-15 draw which exposed cohesion issues in the side early in the opening period but the side grew into the contest.
Toyota Cheetahs come into the contest fresh off a 25-20 road trip loss to Cardiff Blues. A game which Cheetahs started well saw the South African side then struggle in the pack exchanges allowing Cardiff Blues pack to setup the platform to win the contest. The lack of game time at times showed with the Cheetahs and they will hope that their skill set is vastly improved this weekend.
It is a daunting challenge for the Toyota Cheetahs this weekend. Glasgow are unbeaten at home in the league this season. The style of play should be compelling viewing given the expansive game plans of both sides which could suit the Cheetahs. Expect plenty of tries in this one and do not surprised if the Toyota Cheetahs come away with at least a bonus try point at least.
Glasgow Warriors have named a solid side for this fixture. Jackson at full back complemented well with the likes of Jones and Matawalu on the wings looking for line breaks. George Horne will look to control at nine on the back of a pack containing Fagerson, Fusaro, Harley and Swinson.
Cheetahs have standout talents in Francois Venter and Craig Barry out wide who will punish any defensive lapses. The back row have a massive role in this contest to upset and nullify Glasgow Warrior’s quick ruck ball distribution. Expect fireworks in this fixture. Warriors to win this contest late with Toyota Cheetahs securing at least two points from the tie.
After a road trip loss to Connacht Rugby last time out, Ospreys will be happy to get back to the Liberty Stadium and the visit of the Southern Kings this weekend. Ospreys for long periods last weekend were competitive against Connacht Rugby but failed to convert territory into points on the board. Connacht’s bench made the necessary impact in the last quarter to secure the victory.
Southern Kings were exposed against Ulster Rugby last weekend, a performance which highlighted some good attacking play but saw issues in the pack and defensive setup of the side where Gilroy secured a hat-trick of tries. The manner of the performance last weekend is a huge concern ahead of this weekend’s fixture.
Ospreys welcome back Justin Tipuric into the first team and there is an exciting look to the back line with the likes of Evans, Fonotia and Watkin featuring. Sam Davies will be eager to impress at ten. The pack looks solid to secure the platform required. Southern Kings have minimal changes for this fixture and provided that Ospreys execute at a high level, a bonus point try win is on the cards.
A standout contest in the context of securing a playoff berth come the end of the regular season. Ulster Rugby started life without Les Kiss with a fifty plus point thrashing of the Southern Kings but face a progressively improving Edinburgh Rugby outfit. The result this weekend could be a decisive factor in who from the two sides are advancing to the playoffs.
Ulster Rugby were professional in their rout over the Southern Kings. The back line play at times on point and the pack also enjoyed prominent moments of dominance and were defensively solid with good line speed throughout. Gibbes will look for similar performance levels this weekend but this has being the Achilles heel for the side in recent seasons, stringing two quality performances back to back.
Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill have gradually improved their performance levels this season. Their late win against Leinster Rugby last weekend was another key indicator of their progression; refusing to concede the result late on and got their rewards with the late Mark Bennett try. A solid side who have back line threats in Bennett, Fife and van der Merwe while van der Walt’s confidence has grown with each passing game. Hidalgo-Clyne has being a standout in some of his cameos this season.
An evenly matched contest beckons. The pack battle looks key here. Can Edinburgh Rugby put pressure on the Ulster Rugby scrum? The breakdown battle looks intriguing also and huge onus on Jean Deysel to provide the platform with his ball carrying ability. It is a game evenly poised. Slight edge to the hosts but Edinburgh Rugby cannot be discounted here. Interesting battle awaits.
It is weekend’s like this that the tournament organizers do not do themselves any favors. Can you imagine the quality on show if Leinster Rugby and Scarlets had full squads to chose from? The game would be spectacular and a sublime advertisement for the league but the fixture is scheduled slap bang in the Natwest 6 Nations tournament. What might have being?
Leinster Rugby will reflect with mixed emotions on last weekend’s road trip loss to Edinburgh Rugby; several standout performances where Max Deegan again showed extremely well in the back row. Barry Daly was prominent with ball in hand and scored a try which looked a match winner with fourteen minutes left. Edinburgh had other ideas and the late defensive lapse will be duly noted.
Scarlets enter this contest as well on the back of a road loss to Benetton Rugby who played superbly throughout, giving Scarlets precious little to secure an attacking platform. Scarlets were minus plenty of first team players but still had the likes of Beirne and Davies in their squad. A performance to focus the minds ahead of a trip to the RDS.
The breakdown battle will be absolutely key this weekend. James Davies at seven has the potential to win this contest on his own given his form and ability. Leinster’s back row will need to be on top of their game to minimize the influence of the flanker during this contest. Beirne as well in the second row will look to wreck havoc against Leinster Rugby in set piece and open play.
The squad depth of Leinster Rugby looks better than Scarlets for me. The back line has experience with McFadden and Dave Kearney in the ranks. The pack will contain the likes of Fardy, Strauss and Bent. A game which should see some good moments of play for me is diluted. Scarlets will compete well but the squad depth off the bench will be the difference. Leinster win on the cards here.
Cardiff Blues enter this contest fresh from a superb 25-20 win over the Toyota Cheetahs. A contest where several superb attacking line breaks were created with Williams in the back line. The pack was solid and secured a good platform for long periods. A team who will look to exact revenge of last season’s home reversal to Munster Rugby, a game which Cardiff Blues did not close out and were punished for in the last quarter.
Munster Rugby realistically will have a better outlook on their squad depth after this encounter. Zebre Rugby rarely threatened last weekend from an attacking sense with the opening period marred by a high penalty count. It is a facet of play that Munster Rugby need to reflect on going into the business end of the season. They have to their credit adapted well to officiating in the second quarter but you sense that the early penalty count will prove decisive against them in time.
Team news will be interesting for Munster Rugby. Who plays in the half-back positions? Will Tyler Bleyendaal get game minutes? Will Grobler continue to make an impression off the bench? It is a close contest to call but I think Cardiff Blues could have sufficient threat out wide coupled with an abrasive, mobile pack to win narrowly. Lane on the wing is a player of massive upside.
It remains to be seen if Benetton Rugby will have any of their international players available but suffice to say that their performance last weekend at home to Scarlets (22-12 win) should provide the squad with plenty of confidence. Ioane was the main man for Benetton with his try scoring haul but Marty Banks played superbly well controlling the game when required. An astute signing from Benetton. The question is whether Dragons will be as defensively loose as Scarlets last weekend. I have my doubts.
Dragons competed well against Glasgow Warriors. 15-15 draw which showed massive determination in the second half to not lose the contest late on. The opening period saw some excellent passages of play as well from Bernard Jackman’s side. It is a contest where pack platform will be key and Dragons in front of their home support have a slight edge with an exciting back line to be launched with Kirchner a key component.