This is an immense rugby weekend in European professional club rugby circles. This weekend marks the business end of the season where teams will come to the party and seize the opportunity while others will wilt and run out of gas. Several fascinating fixtures on tap in this much maligned competition this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick takes his crystal ball out and tries to predict the winners (not many road wins beckon!).
Highly impressed with Newcastle Falcons this season. Shrewd player recruitment last season has reaped the rewards. Toby Flood has provided experience, game management, leadership and excellent kicking game to complement a youthful Newcastle squad who are challenging for a top six Aviva Premiership finish.
Newcastle Falcons bring in wingers Alex Tait and Zach Kibirige to replace Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti among six starting changes. Sam Stuart comes into the halves, while hooker Scott Lawson, prop Scott Wilson and Ryan Burrows also start.
An interesting lineup but one that Dean Richards trusts to do the job. You are always looking at the French club mindset in this competition. The mindset has being indifferent to this competition at times, not sure where this competition ranks with Brive who have looked vulnerable on the road this season.
If Newcastle Falcons can start on the front foot and players such as Matavesi start to dominate from three quarters, Brive could cave in at a rate of knots. This would be a shock if Newcastle did not win this fixture with something to spare; the reward is a home semi-final as well. Added motivation for the side here and expect them to win going away.
Pau have being the surprise package of this tournament so far. They went 6/6 in their pool phase, beating Gloucester Rugby emphatically home and away. Simon Mannix’s charges will fancy their chances of advancing to the last four; a raucous home crowd support and a Stade Francais side who have being woefully inconsistent on the road this season.
Pau’s pack selection looks pretty decisive in this fixture. Solid operators in the ranks such as Armitage, Domingo and then you add the ex-Munster contingent to the mix who know how to win playoff rugby (Dave Foley, Paudie Butler, Sean McDougall), you get the sense that the side have the nous, game management to win this fixture.
Stade Francais have massive threats as well, expansive back field with Steyn at full back who will happily join the line and create line breaks. Pilsson has great range but yet again can be inconsistent in execution particularly on the road. There are question marks on the pack, questioning the back row ability to win the breakdown. Sergio Parisse on the bench but may be too late for him to make a game winning impression.
Pau have being a breathe of fresh air in this competition this season, would be a shame that they depart the tournament now after taking the pool stages so seriously. Pau for me at home look a solid bet to win over a Stade Francais who will produce a performance of frustration showing the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
The history books are certainly not on Connacht Rugby’s side this weekend. 0/5 against their opposition this weekend. Last weekend’s performance was a mixed bag and the locals around the province will look for a response this weekend.
Gloucester Rugby come in on the back of a bonus point try win over relegation doomed London Irish last weekend. Gloucester’s opening quarter and final quarter performance were poor and gives Connacht Rugby hope of victory. In between, the West Country side were on point in the pack exchanges and produced some excellent line breaks to score several tries. Trinder and Marshall were standouts in the back line. Afoa in the front row solid as always.
How do Connacht Rugby win this contest? Can the front five disrupt Gloucester set piece ball sufficiently? The line out at times for Gloucester has misfired spectacularly. The Pau home loss evidence of this in January; an ambitious line out call to the back of the line towards the end of the opening half when on their five meter line was a knucklehead play. It got the treatment it deserved; Armitage crashed over for a Pau try as the set piece was overthrown.
Connacht Rugby’s expansive style will gel well with Gloucester’s style of play, expect plenty of line breaks. Connacht Rugby need to bring in their defensive line speed and first time tackles to the party. Their exit strategy was poor last weekend. The performance needs to be on point this week. Accuracy is the keyword in all facets of play.
Gloucester Rugby have undeniable quality across the park. The game management at times can be an issue, attempt to run the ball from their own posts. Billy Burns is a work in progress, exciting half-back but inclined to become one dimensional in his attacking play with very little kicking game in open play. Billy Twelvetrees provides the game management closer tag, looks to close out victories for the side off the bench.
It will be interesting to see how the bookies view this contest. Both sides have performance consistency issues; both sides will have defensive lapses. It is about who wins the set piece battle with Romain Poite officiating. The scrum set piece could be the decisive factor here; penalty concessions either side here could be the difference.
Connacht Rugby have the backs against the wall mentality here this weekend. A defeat here and the season is over. Gloucester Rugby can be exposed but it will require an accurate Connacht Rugby effort to execute the game plan to do so.
Training has gone well this week in the camp, lessons of last weekend learned and with a pacy back three too, going for a home win (heart ruling head here).
Gloucester’s back three also poses a serious threat. Good weather conditions, expect line breaks and tries galore provided Poite lets the game flow. The Clan terrace will be buzzing.
Fascinating contest here. The breakdown battle for me is the key factor to this fixture. Both teams with progressive form entering this contest. Hardie vs. Navidi battle looks epic. Enough said, both are seven specialists and it will be fascinating to see how both negate the other at the breakdown.
Edinburgh Rugby are one of the stories of the Guinness Pro 14 season. Their form in recent months under the guidance of Richard Cockerill has being excellent. Home win against Glasgow Warriors with fourteen players, putting Ulster Rugby to the sword at Kingspan Stadium, a good South African tour. Third place in Conference B consolidated in recent weeks so can focus on this tournament with interest.
Solid squad assembled by Edinburgh Rugby. The front five has experience galore. Nel and Gilchrist are massive standouts in the side, set the tone. Hardie is a superb seven. The half back partnership is excellent and then you have Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to come into the fray to close out the contest. Exciting back line with Kinghorn, Fife, Duhan van der Merwe.
They are a team which has an excellent trait; they find a way to win at the death. They refuse to give up on a result and their performances in recent weeks have borne this out. Ulster Rugby road trip was a key victory; the composure to win the contest with the drop goal shows composure, maturity and leadership. A team with massive aspirations this season and going forward!
Cardiff Blues have increased their performance in recent months so much so that they are now in the Conference A playoff hunt putting pressure on the Toyota Cheetahs. An experienced front five with the likes of Rees and Jenkins in the ranks. The eight channel is covered by Nick Williams. Allen in the second row and Navidi in the seven position, pack is solid.
Blues have progressed well in their expansive play. Anscombe is a key cog in terms of game management and with the likes of Lane and Evans playing at a high level, they will travel to Edinburgh with no fear. All the pundits will point to a home victory.
This to me is the closest game of the weekend. Blues pose mobility and breakdown issues for Edinburgh Rugby to address. This game could conceivably go to extra time as I do not think either side will give an inch. Edinburgh to potentially shade it at the death but this will be a game where the fine margins will be minute.