Guinness Pro 14: Round 17 Reflections

A weekend where the South African Guinness Pro 14 sides enjoyed quite contrasting victories. The Southern Kings securing their first league win of the campaign with a powerful, dominant second half over a haplessly limited Dragons outfit. The Toyota Cheetahs snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a last gasp penalty to beat a gallant Connacht side. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

The review must start off with sending on huge congratulations to the Southern Kings. This blog has not being shy to critique the side’s misfortunes this season but it is good this week to focus on the positives. The side answered several key questions during this contest.

The first question was their resiliency after their trouncing to Leinster Rugby in round sixteen. Dragons started the contest on the front foot and were ten points up after twenty-six minutes. 0-10. It backed the Southern Kings into a corner. Would they fight or surrender meekly? The answer was emphatically fightback and the performance thereafter was excellent.

Southern Kings needed leaders to set the example, the man who stepped up was Luzuko Vulindlu whose two tries either side of half time set the foundation for victory. Credit also goes to the Southern Kings pack who decided to take the game by the scruff of the neck and started to dominate the close exchanges.

The opening Luzuko Vulindlu try inspired the side and the second half was emphatic. Vulindlu’s second try was the decisive score. It rocked Dragons back on their heels and the Southern Kings players on duty sensed that the elusive opening league win was within their grasp.

The team produced some excellent passages of play in the second half. The cohesion between pack and back line on point, creating line breaks against an over worked and now visibly tiring Dragons outfit. Banda was a constant menace with ball in hand from full back. Kurt Coleman was managing the game with confidence from ten. His contribution for Vulindlu’s second try cannot be understated; superb work.

A six try haul, five in the second half. This is a result well overdue and hopefully provides confidence and momentum for the franchise. It is imperative that the Southern Kings win a couple of more games before season’s end to attract additional talent in the off-season. Well done to management who stuck with pretty much the same squad who were demolished by Leinster Rugby last week. An excellent turnaround in fortunes!

As the Van Morrison song goes ‘there will be days like this’. Bernard Jackman was at pains to emphasize to the Welsh rugby public last summer that this season was a season of transition for the Dragons, evaluating the current squad and look to build for subsequent seasons. After this 45-13 trouncing on the road,, those words are ringing out loud and clear.

This has to be considered the low point for the Dragons season. A contest which had started so well for the Welsh region. Apart from the opening half performance of Dorian Jones who scored all the Dragons points, there is precious little positives for Bernard Jackman and the coaching staff to focus on in video analysis of this contest this week.

The opening period defensive structure was on point for the first thirty minutes of this contest but it all collapsed like a deck of cards as soon as the Southern Kings scored their opening try. Doubts started to creep through the players, first time tackles were being missed, players visibly looking forlorn and tired not able to assist their colleague in defensive duties.

The second half was a horror show. The first minute of the second half set the tone for the rest of the half. Kurt Coleman evaded several Dragons tackles deep in his own half. His line break setup Vulindlu to crash over. From being deep in Southern Kings territory, the ease at which the hosts created massive line breaks was apparent with each passing minute.

The Dragons squad is predominantly young and inexperienced at this level of competition. The work rate and effort cannot be faulted but for some, this game should spell the end of their Dragons careers. For far too long, individual defensive lapses have being punished. The lack of conditioning in a couple of Dragons forwards in the second half was a serious concern.

Bernard Jackman and management have identified recruits for next season. Moriarty and Hibbert are quality signings, provide experience and much needed leadership to the ranks but more recruits are required to increase quality. The back line division have massive potential but again are being let down by sloppy game management.

Jackman may not be under severe pressure now but given the recruitment so far for next season, you can envisage another problematic season next year for the Dragons. The pressure will then surely come on even though the franchise needs a couple more years to bed in, develop the youth in the squad who have shown promised.

The coming weeks are critical for Dragons long term future. The management need to review and cull players who are not hitting the mark. Opportunities have being provided this season for the current squad to impress given the big injury list, some have taken their chance, others have taken stage fright.

Never say die attitude was in full abundance from the Toyota Cheetahs in this round. Connacht Rugby never died and played for the full eighty minutes. Toyota Cheetahs were made to work hard for this victory. An one point victory at home compared to a one point reversal in round sixteen. It shows the fine margins in this league at times.

What worked? Dynamic offloading was seen to good effect at various parts of this contest. Francois Venter again to the fore. His eighty-five meters coming from incisive line breaks, excellent speed and game management. Venter surely must be in Rassie Erasmus’ plans for the national side this year. Venter was ably assisted by the ever dangerous full back Clayton Blommetjies who was constantly probing for line breaks.

Niel Marais was on point with his kicking off the tee and was constantly probing on the gain line looking to launch Venter. His penalty at the death showed massive composure to win this contest. A key win for the Toyota Cheetahs in their pursuit of playoff rugby.

What did not work? Defensive issues were exposed by Connacht Rugby who provided their own expansive style to this contest which was most enjoyable. Nineteen missed tackles testament to this fact. The Irish provinces ability to create and bring recalled Tiernan O’Halloran into the line was key. Matt Healy consistently posing issues for the hosts defensively with ball in hand.

The penalty count for the Toyota Cheetahs was only seven but I have mixed feelings on the officiating on duty. A crucial win which sets up the South African franchise for the rest of the season. The Toyota Cheetahs are a seriously formidable outfit in Bloemfontein and their battle with Munster Rugby for the second place in the conference will be intriguing in the weeks to come.

27-26 loss, utter devastation as Niel Marais’ penalty with the last play of the game secured the victory for the hosts. In this day and age, when you see a penalty count of 7-13 in favor of the hosts; you look to see whether the official crew looked to sanction with yellow cards. No yellow cards in this contest.

A couple of penalty calls at the end on another day looked harsh. The penalty to win the contest, not releasing on the floor was incredibly harsh. The penalty at scrum time. The penalty count in the final quarter was a decisive factor in who won this contest. It would be interesting to see how a NH officiating crew would have interpreted those scenarios.

What worked? Three tries scored, all tries created with incisive passing and movement. Matt Healy had a superb outing, his two tries were well taken but his overall work rate and ball carries caused the Toyota Cheetahs endless issues. Eoin Griffin as well had an excellent outing, a superb try scored after the break which looked to have edged Connacht into a decisive match advantage.

Many teams who have come to Bloemfontein have struggled with their performance in the final quarter of games. Connacht’s work rate was still on point until the last minute. Some will argue that the culminating penalty count was an indicator of Connacht Rugby fatigue and lapses in decision making but I disagree.

The loss is disappointing but the performance was very good. They were a couple of defensive line break lapses but Toyota Cheetahs with their offloading game will never be quiet for long periods. Their tries were well worked but did expose mismatches in the Connacht Rugby defensive line.

The set piece at times was a little inconsistent. The line out had a number of malfunctions. The restarts again were a source of concern. Venter was unlucky to knock on when Dillane and lifters misjudged horribly a restart late in the opening period. The altitude a potential factor but it has being a facet of play under the microscope this season. Video analysis required to address these issues ahead of their crunch Gloucester Rugby clash.

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